Understanding the NT From the OT Part 2 – A Look at the Jewish Symbols

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

The 3 main beliefs i.e. “creational monotheism”, “election” and “eschatology” as discussed in Part 1, led to certain symbolic activities and attachments. In the New Testament, these symbols are renewed and reapplied in Jesus Christ and his church, both in the Gospels and in the epistles. Today, we’ll look at some of these symbols and their exposition in the New Testament.

The Land

It is not very obvious from the NT how important the people of Yisrael took their nation and the land on which it was situated, but it’s impact cannot be underestimated. The land which formerly belonged to Canaan was now theirs through God’s fulfillment of his promises to their Fathers. The blessings that God intended to give them (see Deut 28) was to be experienced in and through that land. In addition, it was the land from which YHWH intended to rule the rest of the world. Of course that meant that Jerusalem would be the administrative center of God’s world wide rule in the age to come aka “the kingdom of God”, but YHWH was expected to cleanse the whole nation to make it fit to be a place to rule from. This hope in the blessedness of the land as a means of drawing the nations’ attention as well is expressed in many of the Psalms and Prophets, such as Ps 67

May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. The land yield it’s harvest; God our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him” (Ps 67:5-6).

We see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) had given his own people (election) the land of Canaan as he promised to their father to be their place of blessing. The 3rd belief (eschatology) is also at work here, but we’ll talk more about that in Part 3.

The Temple

The NT undoubtedly has many references to the temple and rightly so, for it is a central symbol of Jewish nationality. The land as a symbol is further strengthened by fact of the temple of Jerusalem being situated in that Land. The temple was the place where YHWH dwelled, and where he poured his mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration on his people if and when they had sinned. Of cleansing from sin, NT scholar NT Wright has this to say in his book whose title is incidentally also abbreviated NTPG

Defilement, of course, was not a matter of individual piety alone, but of communal life; uncleanness … meant disassociation from the people of the covenant god.” (New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

More critically he goes on to say

But the Temple was not simply the ‘religious’ center of Yisrael … [it] combined in itself the functions of religion, national figurehead and government. The high priest, who was in charge of the temple, was as important a political figure as he was a religious one. When we study the city-plan of ancient Jerusalem, the significance of the Temple stands out at once, since it occupies a phenomenally large proportion (about 25%) of the entire city. Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there … [it was more] like a temple with a small city round it”.(New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

Note that Solomon’s temple was built based on YHWH’s own design mediated to men, and YHWH’s glory had descended to fill it when the building was consecrated. All this therefore strengthened Yisrael’s belief that YHWH truly dwelt there in the Holy of Holies, between the 2 cherubim that stood on top of the ark of the covenant placed in there.

It was built on a mountain called Zion and hence the Psalms speak of God ruling from Zion, God dwelling in Zion etc. Just like we today say “The White House has decided to …” to refer to decisions taken by the US government and therefore the nation of USA , so was “Zion” a codeword not just for the Temple that sat on the mountain, but the nation Yisrael and it’s leadership. The Psalms are therefore littered with such “zionic” references – Ps 48;15:1-2; 24:3-5; 76; 96:7-9; 97:6-9; 99:1-2.

Again we see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) chooses to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem and not any other temple (election). We’ll look at the third belief that the temple evokes later.

The Law

Torah (The Law) was the temple’s inseparable partner. It was the constitution of the people of Yisrael, but not only did it cover just their political lives as modern constitutions are wont to do, it covered their religious and economic lives. The Torah and its observance necessarily led to Temple activities (mostly sacrifices), and also lead to regulations on the Land (fallow periods, return of land to owners during Jubilee, right to inherit land, leaving a portion of food grown on the land for the poor etc.) As I mentioned in the previous post, keeping the 613 laws of the Torah was not just a question of “personal/individual relationship with God” or “personal righteousness to go to heaven”. The Torah dictated how the people were to live together on that Land (and beyond) and to relate to YHWH (through the temple) so that God’s blessings might be on the nation. . And as a result, it was meant and targeted at a very specific people – the people of Yisrael. Therefore Torah observance was not just a personal religious choice, it was a choice that made even a Gentile now become a Jew (not just a follower of a religion called “Judaism”). Obeying the Torah then, was an issue of national identity.

To the modern Christian to whom separation between nationality and religion is a moot point, it has been very difficult to grasp this role of the Torah. This is further aggravated by how Protestant Christianity has unfortunately painted a warped picture of the Torah around only personal sinfulness and “justification”, leaving out its corporate dimensions.

Here again, we see how monotheism and election are at work through the Torah. The eschatology angle will be addressed later.

The Impact of the Babylonian Exile

The attachment to these symbols was dramatically changed when Babylon descended on Judah and carried off the people into exile. The nation seemed to have forgotten that YHWH’s presence with them depended on their faithful observance of the Torah, and drifted off after their own desires and after other gods. The prophets began calling them to attention, from Elijah, to Elisha, to Jeremiah, without much long term success. Their confidence was in their election as a special people of YHWH, and they felt secure in the fact of YHWH dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH actually sends Jeremiah to the Temple, to declare it’s destruction (along with the nation as well).

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all of you people of Judah who come to these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Yisrael, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly … then I will let you live in this place … Will you steal and murder … burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house … and say ‘We are safe’?’” (Jer 7:1-11).

Of course, the rest as they say, is history. Babylon led by Nebuchadnezer descended on them, destroyed the temple and the city, and carried off the people of Judah to Babylon where they lived in captivity for about 70 years. The events of the book of Daniel reflect this period. This event seriously challenged their faith and understanding of YHWH’s relationship with them and raised a lot of questions. Was YHWH dead? If not, why had he abandoned his temple for it to be destroyed by his enemies? Was it because they had sinned? What must they do to make YHWH look favorably on them again? If YHWH was going to restore them as mentioned in Deut 30, what form and shape should will this restoration take? The books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, need to be read with this background of exile and restoration in our minds then.

To cope with the loss of 2 central symbols (Land and Temple), the whole focus of Jewish identity shifted to Torah observation. Not only was observing the Torah a mark of Jewish identity as discussed above, it also became a means by which salvation will come to them from the grips of their captors. These are the beginnings of the usage of the words we so love today – “salvation” and “forgiveness of sins”. To the Jew therefore, not only was “forgiveness of sins” about their personal sins, but it was about God forgiving his nation and returning to look favorably upon them. Compare the prayer of Daniel 9 with Deuteronomy 28-30, and the picture is clear what he meant in his prayer, pleading for “forgiveness of sins” for his people.

In consonance with this urge toward greater Torah observation as a means of salvation, groups of Jews in exile began forming who took the observance of Torah quite seriously, and debated how this could be done, especially in exile where they had lost the 2 other symbols. This was the beginning of the group called “the Pharisees”, much misunderstood and maligned by modern Christianity. As is natural even in Christianity, too much emphasis on obeying a set of laws always leads to legalism of sorts, but for Pharisaim, it wasn’t only about personal righteousness but also about corporate righteousness – in order for YHWH to look favorably on his elect people. In addition, being in exile in another land meant they were faced with new challenges that they hadn’t faced before when they were in their own land. The debates (mostly by Pharisees) as to what to do with these difficulties lead to the accumulation gradually of an oral law being added to the written law, which today are referred to as the Mishnah and the Talmud. This oral law is what Jesus referred to as “the traditions of men”, since they sometimes overrode what the Torah, commanded by YHWH had said on some issues.

Regarding how YHWH could abandon his temple for his enemies to destroy, they consoled themselves with what Solomon himself said when he consecrated the Temple (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6) as well as what the other prophets said (Is 66:1) – YHWH does not dwell in a building made by the hands of men – he dwells within and amongst the righteous. And this is exactly the accusation that got Steven stoned in Acts 7 – he was insinuating that YHWH did not dwell in the new 2nd Temple as well. And who were the righteous? The children of YHWH who observed the Torah. It can be seen very clearly then where Paul obtains his theology about the Spirit of God dwelling within and amongst Christians in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19. As uncomfortable as it sounds to some Christians, Paul’s own training as a Pharisee had a lot to do with his theology. Paying more attention to Pharisaism might actually be very helpful to understanding the apostle.

Because of the loss of the Temple, which was so central to their lives, the concept of synagogues gained currency as small meeting places where Jews could still meet to peruse the Torah and maintain communal purity even whiles in exile.

Return From Exile

When King Darius the Mede finally allowed them to go back, they returned to meet some of their fellow Jews who remained and were not carried off in the exile, living in Samaria. They had also built their own temple and were claiming that was where YHWH lived. The returnees went back to the 2 remaining regions i.e. the southern region of Judea, where Jerusalem was and northern region of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his life. Samaria was now in the middle of the 2 regions, and one had to cross from one to the other through Samaria (reference Lk 10:25-37 aka the good samaritan story)

The project to rebuild the 2nd Temple began earnestly, the foundation of which was laid by Zerubabel. Again, it attempted to follow the 1st Temple’s design and reach it’s prominence, but that aim was better achieved through the work of King Herod, leading to it being also referred to as “Herod’s Temple”, alongside “Zerubabel’s Temple” as well. This period of return from exile is what is typically referred to as the 2nd Temple period, and is the time when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene. The continuous existence of the Samaritan temple was an affront to the returnees who claimed the Temple ought to be sited in Jerusalem, and led to one of the Maccabean leaders (John Hyrcanus) entering Samaria with his followers and destroying their temple in 110 BC. This is the background for the hatred between the Judaeans/Galileeans on the one hand and their Samaritan brethren on the other, which Jesus addressed in the story of the Samaritan woman.

Note also that it was this same 2nd Temple and its mountain, which occupied the same 25% of Jerusalem like the 1st Temple, that Jesus was addressing when he said “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23), a point which I addressed further in this post.

Pharisaism however, remained a very active force even after the return from exile, and their confrontations with Jesus are well recorded in the Gospels. The obvious clue to Pharisaism’s nonexistence before the exile is the absence of any mention of it in the OT. The same can be said of synagogues.

Conclusion

We can see how the 3 main beliefs of Yisrael informed their attachment to their symbols. Monotheism (YHWH is the one and only God) and election (we are his covenant people) run through every symbol of theirs.

However, the events of the exile and its return put the focus squarely on the third belief – eschatology. We will look at that angle in the next post, and we will begin to see more clearly Jesus’s mission and how it is all driven by the eschatological expectations of the Jews, albeit in a changed way which was very uncomfortable to the Jews themselves.

Let us remember, Jesus was a Jew not a Gentile. Reading him without putting on the glasses of Jewish worldview is probably one of the greatest misfortunes that the church has brought on itself. Because when we do understand and apply that worldview, we begin to see clearer the worldwide implications of the beliefs of a very small nation called Yisrael and their God called YHWH. For the story of Yisrael was never about them alone – it was about them and the rest of the world, but you need to understand Yisrael’s story first, before you get the worldwide impact of their story correct.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding the NT From the OT Part 2 – A Look at the Jewish Symbols

  1. So thankful for this, bro. i felt like a student with you giving me a lecture in theology… You seem to be really versed in theology. I wonder whether you’ve been to any seminary. Certainly worth the time. YWWH Bless you!

    1. Hmm brother, I wish I did have both the time and money to get such a degree from a good place. This tech entrepreneur phase of my life will not allow me to. Lol. Thanks bro.

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