Sermon – Jesus Was a First Century Jew

Matthew 1: 1-17; Luke 4:14-22

Farmville Presbyterian Church

May 26, 2024

– The Jewishness of Jesus then and now


Do you have any idea where you are from?  I do not.  My birth certificate says I was born in Lakewood, OH, a suburb of Cleveland.  My father was finishing up an Engineering degree from Cleveland State, and I was born just before he finished the 5-year program.  I have absolutely no memory of living in Ohio as we moved to South Carolina before my first birthday.  I could not tell you the first thing about Lakewood other than the hospital no longer births babies.  I think I must have broken their labor and delivery department.

So in that sense, I do not know where I am from.  You may know where you are from if you lived there following your birth.  My wife was born here in Farmville but lived her whole life in Crewe until her meanie husband dragged her off to seminary in Louisville.  She knows where she is from.  Living anywhere long is not my experience.  I do not know what is like to be from a place and time like that.  Jesus did, though.  He was like my wife and any one of you who grew up in a community for most of their life.  While he was born in Bethlehem, but he grew up in Nazareth as a first century Jew.  He lived in that place and in that time for most of his life, and that is a pretty important fact.  In fact, this one of the most interesting and overlooked things about Jesus.

Jesus was not American, white, or successful in any financial sense.  It is strikingly easy for cultures to make Jesus look and seem like them.  Everyone wants a Savior with whom they can identify.  Who here has an easy time identifying with a first century Jew.  He was raised Jewish, lived out his Jewish faith, saw the world as a Jew, and kept Jewish Law in so much as it reflected God’s Law.  His Bible (so-to-speak) was the Old Testament and the Old Testament alone.  The writings that we associate with the New Testament would have been missing for at least a couple of decades after his death.

Jesus would have been an odd duck in that he would have been expected to marry and have a family.  He did neither.  He was also a rabbi which also made him unusual as someone learned enough to teach others about God.

Jesus was not even his name but Yeshua which a version of the name Joshua which means God is Salvation.  His name got changed to fit the Greek language.  He was of the tribes of Israel, a son of Abraham, and was an insider to this culture and family.  He went to synagogue and learned his father’s trade which was closer to stonemasonry rather than dealing with wood.

Matthew and Luke both very much want you to know how Jewish Jesus was.  They both make a very blatant case for Jesus’ place in this people.  Matthew and Luke both give his genealogy.  We did not read Luke’s, but you can see Jesus’ place in the Jewish family tree.  There is a lot going on in Matthew’s genealogy which I am not getting into, but he needs for us to place Jesus among his people, the Jews.  Luke gives a little more of a personal glimpse into Jesus’ Jewishness.  By attending synagogue and reading the scroll AS WAS HIS CUSTOM, we learn that Jesus was a regular in this leadership of worship duties.  I suppose the times he did that before did not do anything too earth shattering as we have no record of any other time for him in leading worship in this way.  In Luke 4, however, Jesus spoke in such a way to force the people into action.  What they heard was sacrilegious and needed to be confronted.  Thankfully, Jesus was unharmed.

Being a first century Jew meant that Jesus spoke Aramaic in his everyday speech.  He would have had a working knowledge of Hebrew, but we do not now how proficient he would have been.  He would also have known some Greek since that was the language of his world thanks to Alexander the Great.  He would have know the words Messiah and Christ which both mean “the anointed one” in different languages, but his grasp of those words would have been different from ours.  Certainly, Christ was not his last name.  He saw the world in which he was alive and experiencing; we see his world in light of his death and resurrection.  He lived in a world hungry for someone to free them from Rome; we live in a world that is not even sure what it is hungry for.

Rome was very obvious in Jesus’ world and framed his life.  He was born as the Prince of Peace in direct conflict with Caesar Augustus and the Roman Peace.  Jesus’ family fled political powers created by Rome, lived in a world controlled by Rome, and worshipped in a faith allowed by Rome.  Roman soldiers could abuse citizens easily and were known for brutal hostility if people dared to resist them.  The first cross he saw was not the one he was given.  A Roman vassal killed his cousin, and it was Rome who mocked him, tortured him, and executed him.  It was against Rome that the Jewish leaders claimed was Jesus’ crime worthy of death.  That is why the sign identifying Jesus’ crime on the cross was that he was King of the Jews in flagrant offense to Caesar.  His whole life was seen as a conflict to Roman rule.

Every group in Israel had to reconcile with the Roman juggernaut.  Some groups acquiesced and gave in to Roman power like some of the religious leaders.   They were allowed to be there if they kept the peace for Rome.  Herod and his people came to power because of Rome and were not even Jewish. Other groups like the zealots harbored insurrection in their hearts and were looking for ways to hurt Rome and undermine their power.  Pharisees and Sadducees were influential, but Jesus grew up in the outskirts of Israel and would have been less involved with them until later.  He would have been very familiar with Roman and Greek life, however, as that is where his work would have taken him in construction.

Being a first century Jew put Jesus at the middle of a great deal of the world’s business.  Israel was at a crossroads of many major world powers in ancient world.  Traveling between Egypt or Assyria or Persia would have meant going through Israel.  Major highways went through Israel.  Without this, Israel would not have mattered much, but with its geographic importance, Israel was a prize for all of the other powers because where commerce went so could the tolls.  God’s purpose was for Israel to impact the nations of the world just as it was expressed to Abraham and as Isaiah later prophesied – the world was supposed to be blessed through Israel.  They were not supposed to be isolationist but evangelical in that sense of sharing their love of God with all people.  This was the hope that Jesus grew up with as a first century Jew.

But he also knew tremendous hardship.  They were sorely oppressed by taxes, disease, and poverty.  Jesus lost his father at an early age, before his adulthood.  He was also poor.  The middle class did not exist as a thing until just a couple hundred years ago.  People were either very rich or very poor.  He was supposed to take care of his family which made it tough for him to run off on the road, and his family even came for him to bring him home.  This was a people maintained by community, and he knew the importance of building community.  There was abject poverty all around him.  So many depended on begging to survive.  This is a world of leper colonies with people everyone was afraid to even touch.  Imagine having to wear a bell to alert others you were passing through.  A Jewish culture is always afraid of being clean in an unclean world.  Shepherds were despised because they stunk.  Jesus shot right through some of these assumptions.  He welcomed the unclean and even became the good shepherd.  In some ways, he fit very well into the day, and in other ways, he really challenged the world, but he was a product of that world, that culture, and that time.

We tend to forget that Jesus was a regular guy like any one of us.  He made mistakes and was very much human.  The Bible even records some of this.  He hurt, he cried, he laughed, and he had fun.  As much as he was God, he was also a man.  He was just as much human as divine.

Jesus can sometimes come off as more of a story than a living, breathing person, like a myth or legendary figure.  We cannot relate to his world, and we struggle to place him there.  None of us would trade today for back then, but that is his home.  For me, Jesus being real in a real place and a real time changes how I read scripture and how I understand his life.  The things he said and did have far more meaning than my 21st century brain can see.  It is important to learn more about all of this and not just assume we know everything we need to.  We also all bring different aspects to the conversation, and our understanding is greater when we are willing to sit at our Lord’s feet together.  Finally, as he was real, a living and breathing person, the children of God, our sisters and brothers in Christ, are also real and living and breathing.  This family in Jesus is real enough to touch, to know, and to love.  To God be the glory.  Amen.