Starting Again

Please read Matthew 4:13-25, Mark 1:14-34
& Luke 4:31 – 5:11

There are many new starts throughout the scriptures and throughout life.  God does not change, nor does His word, but everything on this earth is constantly changing.  With each change comes an ending of what was and a beginning of something new.  Yochanan the Immerser’s ministry had come to an abrupt end with his imprisonment.  The baton of reform which he had been assigned to carry in preparation for the coming of Messiah had now been totally handed over to that Messiah, the Lamb of God.  

Some of Yochanan’s most astute talmidim had responded to his exhortation and left him to follow the Messiah during the in-between time when they were both ministering to the people.   To mark the end of Yochanan’s ministry, and in honour of all that he had done, Yeshua had sent these talmidim back to their homes and families who were no doubt worried about them after what had been done to Yochanan

Now it was time for a new beginning.   A beginning in this next season of Yeshua’s ministry.  He had left Nazareth before, to seek out Yochanan and the immersion that would mark the beginning of His ministry.  Now He was moving out of Nazareth to enter the next phase of that ministry, during which He would choose twelve of His Jewish talmidim for the foundation of this reformation.   His leaving Nazareth was via Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) for the celebration of the one day pilgrimage festival of Shavu‘ot (Feast of Weeks) in fulfilment of Torah, but now he came back north to Capernaum to establish a new home.

Matthew, continuing in his theme of Yeshua’s life fulfilling the words of the Jewish prophets, records:

And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles:  The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.

From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”     Matthew 4:13-17 NKJV

Map showing the "Way of the Sea" travelling through Capernaum

We are all familiar with Isaiah’s prophesy in verse six of chapter nine, and how this is fulfilled in Christ:

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder; and His name will be called Wonderful, Councillor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Isaiah 9:6 NKJV

Now Matthew is taking us just a few verses back in the same chapter:

The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali… By the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.    Isaiah 9:1b-2 NKJV

Isaiah wrote this prophesy over 700 years before, and gave a description that enabled Matthew, and others who studied the Jewish prophets, to locate where he was talking about all these centuries later when the locations and names of towns had changed. 

The light (John 1:4-5,9) shone first in Nazareth (in the land of Zebulun) where Yeshua grew up, and then moved to Capernaum (in the land of Naphtali) on that ancient road and major trading route called the ‘Way of the Sea’ which ran from the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt all the way through Capernaum to Damascus in Syria.    

Luke continues:

Then He went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbaths.  And they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority.       Luke 4:31-32 NKJV 

Yeshua now came and dwelt (κατῴκησεν), set up house, in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13a).  κατῴκησεν (katōkēsen) comes from the Greek kata (meaning down as in permanent) and oikeo (to live in a home); so literally means to house permanently.  It is translated as: to dwell in, settle down as a permanent resident, be established in (permanently), in a permanent dwelling place as one’s personal residence.  The change of abode seems to have included Yeshua’s whole family, except His sisters who were now married and living with their husbands in Nazareth, as in Matthew 13:56 the people in Nazareth say: “And aren’t all his sisters here with us?” (1)


The meaning of ‘Capernaum’ is “city of Nahum”, or “village of consolation”.  When Yeshua moved there He brought hope to a part of God’s Land that was in desperate need of it. The dark basalt stones around the Sea of Galilee that were typically used in building were a tangible expression of the darkness felt by this region under constant threat of invasion. (2)    This land had been the first to suffer in the beginning of those wars which finally resulted in the captivity of the ten northern tribes of Israel. The people of this district were smitten by Benhadad (1 Kings 15:20), and afterwards by Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 15:29 ; 1 Chronicles 5:26), until the total invasion of the Northern Kingdom and capture of their capitol city Samaria by King Shalmaneser of Assyria in 722 BC.  The region is called Galilee of the Gentiles because it was inhabited by Egyptians, Arabians, and Phoenicians, as well as by Hebrews. (3)  Yeshua – the son of David – was beginning His restoration of the Davidic kingdom (and His transformation of it into the kingdom of heaven) at ground zero where God’s covenant judgment had first fallen seven centuries before. (4)

Yeshua taught in the Capernaum synagogue every Shabbat

“…and was teaching them on the Sabbaths. And they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority.” Luke 4:31b – 32.

Each Shabbat (Saturday morning) Yeshua participated in the synagogue service with the rest of the Jewish community in Capernaum.  His reading of the Hebrew Scriptures was confident and accurate, He spoke both scripture and His teaching on it with an authority they had not heard before. 

David N. Bivin writes of the task of reading the Hebrew Scriptures in a synagogue during this time:

In Jesus’ day reading Hebrew was not an easy task—the language did not include vowel signs. These signs were only invented beginning in the sixth century A.D. A Hebrew word could often be vocalized in more than one way, allowing it to have more than one meaning. The way one vocalized a word affected the meaning of the text. To read correctly, one had to know which vowels to combine with the consonants of each word.

To read Scripture publicly was even more difficult. No errors, no matter how minor, were permitted. If a reader made a mistake, he had to back up and repeat the text correctly. There were myriad ancient traditions concerning how to vocalize the words of the sacred text, and no one dared read publicly without careful preparation. (6)

…on Shabbat Yeshua went into the synagogue and began teaching. They were amazed at the way he taught, for he did not instruct them like the Torah-teachers but as one who had authority himself.  Mark 1:21b-22 CJB

The Torah-teachers based their authority on the words of others.   “The great sage …. has said this…… but then another sage ….. countered with this……, so we can conclude that…..”   Yeshua had authority in Himself.  He had no need to quote others to try to prove his point, He simply declared the Word of God with the authority of one who has the meaning and intent of that word within Himself.

Calling Simon Peter and Andrew,
then James and John

Having sent all His talmidim back to their homes after news came of Yochanan’s imprisonment by Herod Antipas, it was now time for Yeshua to start building His team again.  There would be many who would follow Him, and twelve whom He specifically called to be part of the foundation of His reformation of Judaism in establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth. Judaism had been built on the foundation of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel), who had become twelve tribes, even so this reformation of Judaism would be built on a foundation of twelve men. These Jews understood the significance of the number 12.   As Yeshua now chooses his Talmidim we notice a departure from the norm of the time.  Instead of waiting for them to come to him, he goes to them. Instead of intensive questioning to test their intellectual rigour, a simple invitation to come:

As Yeshua walked by Lake Kinneret, he saw two brothers who were fishermen — Shim‘on, known as Kefa (Simon Peter), and his brother Andrew — throwing their net into the lake. Yeshua said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men!” 
At once they left their nets and went with him.    Matthew 4:18-20 CJB

As he walked beside Lake Kinneret, he saw Shim‘on and Andrew, Shim‘on’s brother, casting a net into the lake; for they were fishermen. Yeshua said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you into fishers for men!” 
At once they left their nets and followed him.   Mark 1:16-28 CJB

Andrew had been one of the two disciples of Yochanan the Immerser who were the first followers of Yeshua.  He had been quick to find his brother Shim’on and take him to Yeshua. They had already been with Yeshua at His immersion, then the wedding in Cana where His first miracle was performed, then down to Jerusalem where He cleansed the temple in preparation for Passover, then immersing multitudes in Judea, then the surprise journey to Jacob’s Well in the heart of Samaria, then back up to Cana where He had healed the official’s son with just a word and they had returned with that official to Capernaum to see for themselves the miracle which had taken place. Now they had heard Yeshua preaching and teaching in their synagogue every Shabbat and seen the respect He commanded there as He spoke with an authority none here had seen before. So, theirs was not a rash, impulsive decision. Every conversation they’d had during the long hours of fishing through the night had been about this man, this teacher, this messiah.

Now it was Yeshua who sort them out and specifically called them to be His talmidim. Something new was taking place, and a greater level of commitment would be required. 

During His weeks dwelling in Capernaum and teaching them in the synagogue on their Sabbaths, Yeshua had also noticed another set of brothers.  There is no record of these two having ever followed Yochanan the Immerser, nor been with Yeshua to see His miracles before now. 

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers — Ya’akov Ben-Zavdai (James, son of Zebedee) and Yochanan (John) his brother — in the boat with their father Zavdai (Zebedee), repairing their nets; and he called them.  At once they left the boat and their father and went with Yeshua.      Matthew 4:21-22 CJB

Going on a little farther, he saw Ya‘akov Ben-Zavdai and Yochanan, his brother, in their boat, repairing their nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zavdai in the boat with the hired men and went after Yeshua.  Mark 1:19-20 CJB

From the gospel accounts of the women at the cross, it has been suggested by some that Yeshua’s mother was a sister of their mother, offering the intriguing possibility that these two young men, Ya‘akov Ben-Zavdai and Yochanan, were cousins of the Messiah. We soon learn that they were fishing partners with Andrew and Shim‘on, so these four young men were used to working with one another.

It has been suggested that Zavdai (Zebedee) was wealthy because he could afford to have hired men working for his fishing business, but any small business owner knows that having employees does not necessarily make one wealthy.   Anyway, Zavdai did have the skills to employ others to work with him and keep his fishing business going when these two sons left to follow Yeshua.   In Jewish society it was considered a great honour to have a respected rabbi ask your son to follow him, and to have two sons called upon by a rabbi was a double blessing, even if it made running the family business more difficult.

Preaching with authority & deliverance power

The next Shabbat Yeshua had four eager talmidim with Him when he entered the synagogue in Capernaum.   This time not only did Yeshua read the Torah and teach with authority, He exercised that authority in setting a man free:

They entered K’far-Nachum (Capernaum), and on Shabbat Yeshua went into the synagogue and began teaching. They were amazed at the way he taught, for he did not instruct them like the Torah-teachers but as one who had authority Himself.
In their synagogue just then was a man with an unclean spirit in him, who shouted, “What do you want with us, Yeshua from Natzeret? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!” 
 But Yeshua rebuked the unclean spirit, “Be quiet and come out of him!” 
Throwing the man into a convulsion, it gave a loud shriek and came out of him. 
They were all so astounded that they began asking each other, “What is this? A new teaching, one with authority behind it! He gives orders even to the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” 
And the news about him spread quickly through the whole region of the Galil (Galilee).             Mark 1:21-28 CJB

In the synagogue there was a man who had an unclean demonic spirit, who shouted in a loud voice,  “Yaah! What do you want with us, Yeshua from Natzeret? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!” 
But Yeshua rebuked it: “Be quiet, and come out of him!”
The demonic spirit threw the man down in the middle of the crowd and came out of him, having done him no harm. 
They were all astounded and said to one another, “What kind of teaching is this? Why, He gives orders with power and authority to the unclean spirits, and they come out!” 
And reports about Him went out through the whole surrounding district.  Luke 4:33-37 CJB

Yeshua healed all brought to Him…

Everything was now in order for this fresh and powerful re-start of Yeshua’s ministry.   One miraculous deliverance and the word went out.  Soon He would be inundated with those needing healing.

First, Yeshua returned to the home of one of his disciples, Shim‘on Kefa (Simon Peter), because Shim‘on’s mother-in-law had been too unwell to come to synagogue. Shim‘on was the only one of the twelve whom Yeshua would choose who is recorded as being old enough to already be married and old enough to have to pay the temple tax of one-half shekel per year for every Jew over 20yo.

They left the synagogue and went with Ya‘akov (James) and Yochanan (John) to the home of Shim‘on and Andrew. Shim‘on’s mother-in-law was lying sick with a fever, and they told Yeshua about her. He came, took her by the hand and lifted her onto her feet. The fever left her, and she began helping them. Mark 1:29-31 CJB

And having risen out of the synagogue, he entered into the house of Simon, and the mother-in-law of Simon was pressed with a great fever, and they did ask him about her, and having stood over her, he rebuked the fever, and it left her, and presently, having risen, she was ministering to them.  Luke 4:38-39 YLT

The moment the Sabbath had come to an end that evening, and they were free to travel and to carry those too afflicted to walk, the people of Capernaum brought to Yeshua everyone who needed healing.

That evening after sundown, they brought to Yeshua all who were ill or held in the power of demons, and the whole town came crowding around the door. He healed many who were ill with various diseases and expelled many demons, but he did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew who he was.   Mark 1:32-34 CJB

After sunset, all those who had people sick with various diseases brought them to Yeshua, and he put his hands on each one of them and healed them; also demons came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But, rebuking them, he did not permit them to say that they knew he was the Messiah.  Luke 4:40-41 CJB

Mark writes that Yeshua healed many who were ill and expelled many demons.  Luke is more emphatic, stating that everyone whom they brought to Yeshua this evening was healed.  There were no exceptions.  Not everyone who was sick was also afflicted by demons, but many of them were and Yeshua delivered every one of those as part of His healing of them.  Whereas Yeshua had quite openly spoken of being the Messiah before, now He was avoiding any explicit reference to such and would not even let the demons make it known.  He had no need for other’s testimony about Him, the testimony of His Father sufficed.

On the road in the Father’s will…

The people of Capernaum, like most peoples, loved seeing miracles and having their needs met.  It was wonderful and exciting.  It was healing and liberating.  It was encouraging and affirming.  They wanted Yeshua to stay and keep doing miracles for them, to stay and keep meeting their needs.  While He was moved with compassion for people, He refused to be bound by their expectations – it was His Father’s business that Yeshua was about, and to keep in touch with what that was He kept going off to lonely places to pray.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Yeshua got up, left, went away to a lonely spot and stayed there praying. But Shim‘on and those with him went after him; and when they found him, they said, “Everybody is looking for you.” 
He answered, “Let’s go somewhere else — to the other villages around here. I have to proclaim the message there too — in fact this is why I came out.” 
So he travelled all through the Galil, preaching in their synagogues and expelling demons.     Mark 1:35-39 CJB

When day had come, he left and went away to a lonely spot. The people looked for him, came to him and would have kept him from leaving them. But he said to them,
“I must announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God to the other towns too — this is why I was sent.” 
He also spent time preaching in the synagogues of Y’hudah (Judah – some versions say Galilee).   Luke 4:42-44 CJB

It was summer, the dry season, as Yeshua left Capernaum with His Talmidim to teach and preach in the surrounding areas.   The wheat harvest had been brought in and now the vines were being tended.


1. Alford, Henry. Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary Luke 4. Study Light. [Online] [Cited: 1st December 2019.]
2. Ritmeyer, Leen. The Synagogue of Capernaum in which Jesus taught – was it black or white? Ritmeyer Archaeological Design. [Online] 15 March 2018. [Cited: 7th November 2019.]
3. Pendleton, J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Jesus’ Temporary Residence at Capernaum. Bible Study Tools. [Online] [Cited: 7th November 2019.]
4. Shea, Mark. Land of Zebulun, Land of Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles. Patheos. [Online] 27th January 2014. [Cited: 7th November 2019.]
5. France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids : Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. 978-0-8028-2501-8.
6. Bivin, David N. One Torah Reader, Not Seven. Jerusalem Perspective. [Online] 25th August 2012. [Cited: 7th November 2019.]
7. Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Grand Rapids, Ml: : Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1886.

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and some of the following questions…

* What are some of the prophesies you have noticed being fulfilled in Jesus’ life already?
* What do you think Jesus would have been doing on the other six days of each week when He was not teaching in the Capernaum synagogue? Give reasons for your answer from what the scriptures have taught us about Him thus far.
* What amazed the people in the Capernaum synagogue about Jesus’ teaching?
* What would it take for our teaching to be like Jesus’?
* What was the attitude in Jewish society towards sons being called to follow a rabbi, and how does that compare with the attitude in your society towards young men leaving the family business to study for the ministry?
* What was Jesus’ first miracle in the Capernaum synagogue, and what was the people’s response?
* Peter and his wife lived in the same house with his brother Andrew and his mother-in-law. What sorts of living arrangements are common in your culture?
* How did Jesus respond to the multitude who came seeking healing?
* What was Jesus’ response to his sudden surge in popularity in Capernaum?

Healing at the Pool of Bethesda

Please Read John 5

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. John 5:1 NIV

Yeshua attended the Jewish Pilgrimage Festivals

A major category of Jewish holidays is the pilgrimage festival.  Described in the Hebrew Bible as celebrating both agricultural festivals and events in the history of the Jewish people, these three holidays were set aside in biblical times for all the Jewish men to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship God by bringing an animal sacrifice for the priest to offer on the pilgrim’s behalf. (1)

Three times a year all your men are to appear in the presence of Adonai your God in the place which he will choose — at the festival of Matzah (unleavened bread), at the festival of Shavu‘ot (Weeks – we know it as Pentecost) and at the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles). They are not to show up before Adonai empty-handed, but every man is to give what he can, in accordance with the blessing Adonai your God has given you.   Deuteronomy 16:16-17 CJB

Yeshua obeyed and fulfilled the Torah, including travelling to Jerusalem for these three pilgrimage festivals.  We saw in John 2 that He travelled to Jerusalem with His first disciples for Pesach (Passover) and cleansed the temple in preparation for Chag haMatzah (Feast of Unleavened Bread), did many miracles during that week and had a long nocturnal discussion with the religious leader and “teacher of Israel”,  Nicodemus.  

8 Day Long First Pilgrimage Festival

The First Pilgrimage Festival was Matzah (Unleavened Bread). To avoid confusion, it is worth noting that the whole 8 day festival – one day of Passover followed by seven days of Unleavened Bread – is sometimes all referred to as Pesach (Passover), and sometimes as Chag haMatzah (Feast of Unleavened Bread).  Leviticus 23 specifies that the Jewish festival year begins with Pesach (Passover).

The LORD’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. Leviticus 23:5 NIV

In the Jewish calendar, that is 14th Nisan. So Passover falls on different days of the week in different years. Leviticus 23:6 puts the second feast of this Pilgrimage Festival, on the next night (remembering that Jewish days begin in the evening):

On the fifteenth day of that month the LORD’s Feast of Unleavened Bread begins; seven days ye must eat bread made without yeast.  Leviticus 23:6 NIV 

Leaven, or yeast, is symbolic of sin – so cleansing all leaven from the house and eating bread without leaven for the whole week symbolised being cleansed from sin and walking in holiness with God. 

Also during this pilgrimage festival, on the day after Shabbat (so, always on the Sunday, regardless of which day of the week the 8 day Festival began), the Feast of First Fruits is celebrated with the very first of the harvest reaped and presented to God in the temple. 

… bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest.  He is to wave the sheaf before the LORD so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath.    Leviticus 23:10b-11 NIV

Since they were not to eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until after this wave offering (Vs 14) it became custom to pick the sheaf and wave it before the LORD early in the morning.  Whenever the people were commanded to bring a grain offering to the LORD, they were also commanded to sacrifice an animal(s) without defect. 

These three feasts, Passover, Unleavened Bread and First Fruits, were all part of the First Pilgrimage Festival each year, which lasted eight days in total. 

1 Day Long Second Pilgrimage Festival

The Second Pilgrimage FestivalShavu‘ot – was to take place seven weeks after the first.  Whereas the first began on 14th Nisan each year, and so on different days of the week, the second was always on the day after the Sabbath (ie, on the Sunday) – and so could be on slightly different dates.

From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.  Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and present an offering of new grain to the LORD… bring two loaves… baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the LORD. Leviticus 23:16-17 NIV

Because they were to count off the weeks to determine the date of this festival it was called the Feast of Weeks (Shavu‘ot).   In Greek it was called Pentecost because it was 50 days after the feast of First Fruits.  Two loaves were to be presented to God in the temple, both of them containing yeast.   Some have seen this as representing the two different groups of peoples – Jews and Gentiles – both permeated with sin but both brought before God for His redemption.   Jewish tradition also held that it was on this day God had given the Torah (Law) to Moses on Mount Sinai in the wilderness.

Shavu‘ot was a one day festival in Jerusalem.  For many in outlying areas such as Galilee it was a long way to come for just one day, and most Jews outside of Judea did not get to all the festivals – but the crowds were still huge for each one. Even those scattered throughout the nations were determined to make it to Jerusalem for at least one festival in their lifetime.  Historical texts and archaeological evidence indicate that during the Second Temple years of the Roman era, the pilgrimage festivals were a profoundly significant social and religious institution, bringing Jews from all over the ancient world of the Mediterranean to Jerusalem. Thousands upon thousands of Jews made these festival pilgrimages, and supported a vast commercial enterprise including the raising of animals for sacrifices, a lively animal market and a complex banking community to enable pilgrims to exchange currencies. (2) (1) 

Shavu‘ot was the Feast of the Jews that Yeshua had now come to Jerusalem for.      Whereas the author of the fourth gospel mentions several times that Yeshua’s disciples were with Him during His previous visit to Jerusalem for the eight day Pesach (Passover) festival, there is no mention of them being with Him on this pilgrimage.  The author of the fourth Gospel, like the others, had been sent back to his home when Yeshua was returning to Nazareth after news of Yochanan the Immerser’s imprisonment reached them, but unlike the others this man lived in or near Jerusalem and was there for all the Jewish feasts.

7 Day Long Third Pilgrimage Festival

The Third Pilgrimage Festival was Sukkot (Tabernacles).  It celebrates the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years, when they had to rely only upon God for food and protection. It also celebrates the last harvest before the onset of the winter rains in the land of Israel. It falls five days after Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), usually in mid-autumn.

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the LORD’s Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days.   Leviticus 23:34 NIV

Yeshua fulfilled Torah by going up to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) with the multitudes for Shavu‘ot.  Having come to Jerusalem He connected with the author of the fourth Gospel, who now travelled again with his rabbi and recorded His actions and words during this time away from His other talmidimYeshua gave different lessons to different groups of His disciples, according to where they were at in their life’s journey.  This next lesson was for the religious leaders and those connected to the priesthood in Jerusalem. 

Preparing to enter the Temple

As Yeshua entered the city, with the author of the fourth Gospel, to worship on Shabbat, the day before the festival of Shavu‘ot, He walked to the northern wall of the Temple to enter by the Sheep Gate.  This was where they brought the sheep into the temple for sacrifices.  (3) (4) Nehemiah 3:1 records Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests rebuilding the Sheep Gate and dedicating it as part of the first construct of this second Temple. 

Before going into the Temple Yeshua, like multitudes of other pilgrims, took a detour through the Pool of Beit-Zata (Bethesda – which means “House of Mercy”).  Archaeological evidence shows a large pool shaped like a trapezoid, varying from 50 to 60 meters wide and 96 meters long, divided into two pools by a central partition.   As way typical in the construction of many Mikvah of that time, the northern pool was a large water storage to ensure a flow of fresh, clean water into the Mikvah.  The southern pool (that closest to the temple and lowest down) had broad steps with landings, indicating that it was a Mikvah for ritual purification.    

In Yeshua’s day the Oral Law required every Jew to engage in ritual immersion in a Mikvah to become ceremonially pure before entering the holy Temple. (5) (6) (7) With his expansions of the Temple, Herod had also built several large public Mikvah in Jerusalem for the pilgrims to use in their preparation for entering the Temple. The Pool of Beit-Zata was one of the public mikvah in Jerusalem used for this purpose.  Yeshua was not in rebellion against the Oral Law, and fulfilled the requirements of His community until, and unless, they were in contradiction to His Father’s direction.

Yeshua noticed one who was ignored…

After this, there was a Judean festival; and Yeshua went up to Yerushalayim.  In Yerushalayim, by the Sheep Gate, is a pool called in Aramaic, Beit-Zata, in which lay a crowd of invalids — blind, lame, crippled. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 
Yeshua, seeing this man and knowing that he had been there a long time, said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” John 5:1-6 CJB

Of all the multitude going through the waters of this Mikvah for purification, and all the crowd of invalids hoping for healing in this “House of Mercy”, one man caught Yeshua’s attention.   No explanation is given for why God chose to touch this man alone, except that he had been there a long time.   He had been there for longer than Yeshua had been incarnate on the earth.   As a Torah fulfilling Jew, Yeshua had likely immersed there, or in one of the other public mikvah’s in Jerusalem, every time He entered the Temple for each of the pilgrimage festivals every year, from the time of that first Passover as a ‘spiritual adult man’ when he was twelve years old.   Each year Yeshua would immerse in the Mikvah then enter the Temple through the sheep gate to offer the prescribed sacrifices, knowing that the day would come when He would be the sacrifice.  Festival after festival, year after year, He had seen this man lying near the edge of this mikvah hoping for a miracle but convinced that he was unable to receive such. Yeshua had noticed him.  He notices the ones that everyone else just walks past.

This man that no one seemed to care about or notice, this man who was convinced that he had no one to help him, all those years Yeshua had noticed him.  He knew this man had been there a long time because He had taken note of him, festival after festival, year after year.   Just as God was not blind to Israel’s suffering under Egyptian slavery all through the years that Moses was a child and young man, so Yeshua was not blind to this man’s suffering all those years until He was endowed with power and at last heard His Father say “now”.  His compassion had been stirred and now that He was walking in the power of the Holy Spirit, now that His time had come, He did something about it.     A powerful lesson for those connected to the priesthood who were being discipled by Him.

The place would have been abuzz with religious leaders declaring the prescribed blessing on each one of the thousands who came to be immersed so they could be considered pure enough to enter the holy Temple.  But this man had no one to help him.   None of them considered assisting this invalid to be part of their religious duty.  He had been left in helplessness, until Yeshua arrived. 

Healing that challenged their laws…

The sick man answered, “I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is disturbed; and while I’m trying to get there, someone goes in ahead of me.” 
Yeshua said to him, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk!” 
Immediately the man was healed, and he picked up his mat and walked.   John 5:7-9a CJB

Suddenly all that changed.   Yeshua spoke.  His words carried an authority the man had never heard before.  They carried life and health and strength.  Immediately, unexpectedly, he was healed – so he obeyed Messiah’s command, picked up his mat and walked.

Yeshua knew how to stir up trouble.  He knew how to set things up so that the religious facade would be peeled away, and men’s hearts would be exposed.  He had just done so in His conservative religious hometown of Nazareth, and now He was going to do it in the religious capital of His people, Jerusalem.  If He had simply healed the man no one would have noticed or cared, the multitudes were all too busy getting themselves ready to enter the holy temple and fulfil their religious duty.  So He gave the man an instruction that would capture the attention and stir up the ire of those who exercised religious authority in this place.  It was Shabbat and Yeshua had told him to “pick up your mat and walk.”    

Now that day was Shabbat, so the Judeans said to the man who had been healed, “It’s Shabbat! It’s against Torah for you to carry your mat!” 
But he answered them, “The man who healed me — he’s the one who told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” 
They asked him, “Who is the man who told you to pick it up and walk?” 
But the man who had been healed didn’t know who it was, because Yeshua had slipped away into the crowd.    John 5:9b-13 CJB

It is interesting that Yeshua had noticed this man all these years but the man had not noticed the Son of God until he was healed by Him. Even then, he had been too self-focused to notice who it was, or to ask. It took the religious leader’s accusations to motivate him to wonder who it was that had healed him.

Again, we have the Jewish religious authorities equating their rules with Torah. Like people now who equate their doctrines with the Word of God.  As far as they were concerned, anyone who did not agree with their interpretations and their laws was a heretic and a law breaker.  

There were many different Judaisms at this time, different schools of thought or ‘denominations’, just as there are many different Christian denominations now, each of which was convinced that they were the only ones who had the true knowledge and practice of the Torah. There were Sadducees whose focus was on the temple worship. There were Essenes who were so disgusted with the political manoeuvring and wealth seeking of the High Priests and ruling class that they refused to have anything to do with the temple worship. There were several different schools of Pharisees each of which was building their own particular set of rules to be a fence around the Torah to keep the people obedient to God.    

As we have seen, the dominant group of Pharisees at that time had designated thirty-nine categories of work that were forbidden on Shabbat.   In addition, they prohibited even coming into contact with any implement that could be used for any of those purposes (for example, one may not even touch a hammer or writing implement on Shabbat). The thirty-ninth category of forbidden activity was: Transferring Between Domains / Carrying (Hebrew: הוצאה Hotza’ah).  This law of theirs forbids transferring (carrying) something from one domain type to another domain type, or transferring within a public thoroughfare.  Carrying a mat in the public domain of the Pool of Beit-Zata was therefore illegal according to their man-made law, and there were plenty of pharisaic religious leaders down at that pool to pronounce judgment on such.  To their mind, any man who would tell a Jew to carry a mat in a public domain in Shabbat was a heretic and lawbreaker. 

For the last 38 years they had failed to notice this man fading away, a lone invalid losing any hope.  Now they noticed him carrying his mat and pounced to condemn him.  In this “House of Mercy” they showed no mercy or empathy.  No rejoicing in the wonderful miracle of God that had just taken place in their midst.  They cared not that an invalid had been healed, only that some ‘heretic’ had told him to carry his mat on Shabbat.  

Yeshua had not stayed around for this nonsense.   He had continued on with the freshly immersed crowd pulsing out of the Beit-Zata (House of Mercy) pool and into the Temple through the Sheep Gate.

Persuaded of the need to leave his mat behind, the healed man now walked into the waters of the Mikvah and immersed himself to prepare for entering the Temple that he had been waiting just outside of for all these decades. 

Afterwards Yeshua found him in the Temple court and said to him,
“See, you are well! Now stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you!” 

The man went off and told the Judeans it was Yeshua who had healed him; and on account of this, the Judeans began harassing (Gk: diōkō) Yeshua because he did these things on Shabbat.      John 5:14-16 CJB

Greek: diōkō = aggressively chase, like a hunter pursues a catch.  It means “to run swiftly in order to catch some person or thing, to run after, pursue,” and refers to molesting (harassing) someone – “wanting to overtake,” “hunt them down“, ie to oppress and zealously persecute.  This is what the religious leaders began doing to Yeshua.  They were more sophisticated, and so did it more subtly than their Nazarene counterparts who had tried forcing him over the cliffs, but their intent was the same.

Teaching that challenged their doctrines…

Here, in the very Temple precincts, the place set aside to be holy unto God, set aside for worship, these men were more concerned that their rules had been breached than honouring God who had just performed a wondrous miracle in showing mercy to a man lying in the place they had called the “House of Mercy”.   Instead of praising God they were harassing Him for operating outside their box and threatening their theology.   Yeshua went on to threaten it some more as He engaged in the Jewish worship of teaching them the truth of God and His Torah

But he answered them, “My Father has been working until now, and I too am working.”  John 5:17 CJB

Yeshua lived at a time when sectarianism was rife, with major tensions among Jews over how to interpret Torah.   He did not shy away from stepping right into the thick of this debate.  Shabbat was one of those hotly contested areas.   Not only in the practical living of it, which prominent religious leaders were codifying in the forbidding of those 39 categories of ‘creative work’, but also in the theology behind it.   The apparent contradiction between God resting on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2, Exodus 20:11 & 31:17) and His continual work sustaining creation, caring for His people (Psalm 68:19, Psalm 121:2-8, Isaiah 56:24) and directing history, ignited all sorts of heated discussions.   Some Jewish theology focused on God resting on Shabbat, while others focused on His permanent nature as creator.

For the religious leaders who were seeking to hunt Yeshua down there was a profound concept of imitation dei – the imitation of God – in association with the keeping of Shabbat according to their rules.  For them, God needed a rest on the seventh day and totally ceased from all creative works on this day.  Therefor, to be like God we must likewise totally cease from all the works they have forbidden on this day.   Yeshua  challenged this head on, associating His work of healing the crippled man on Shabbat with the never ceasing work of the Father – this was His imitation dei, doing good to others and delivering them on every day.   While this was contrary to the theology of those attacking Him, it was not outside the theology of many Jews of His day.  

There was a current of Jewish thought that empathized God’s unceasing work.  The Jewish philosopher Philo, who was about 20yrs older than Yeshua, had written: “that God never ceases to create, nor takes a holiday from His works”, and again: “as it is the property of fire to burn, and of snow to chill, so also it is the property of God to be creating.”    Some argued that God’s providence remained active on Shabbat, for otherwise the universe would cease to exist.  God ceased from His work of creating the world, but not from His work of moral judgment.    Others contended that God both endows children with human souls and brings them into covenant relationship with Himself on Shabbat, as children are born on Shabbat and the Torah commands them to be circumcised on the eighth day even when it is Shabbat.    Also strongly woven into the concept of Shabbat was the theme of God’s deliverance from bondage and slavery (Deuteronomy 5:14–15), yet they could not rejoice in this lame man’s deliverance.

It is good to keep the commandments of God. It is good to study God’s word and to seek to gain a greater understanding of what He desires of us. It is good to search out what it means to live in accordance with God’s word. All these things the Jewish religious leaders had been doing for generations. But they had taken it one step further, and that step put them in conflict with God Himself. They had concluded that their understanding, their opinions, their practices and traditions, were God’s law and therefor had to be embraced and obeyed by all. So, when the Son of God came and lived out the fullness of God’s law in God’s way, they accused Him of being a law breaker. When the Son of God came and spoke the truth of the nature and will of God to them, they accused Him of being a heretic and blasphemer.

Yeshua as Son of God

In His one simple sentence, ““My Father has been working until now, and I too am working,” Yeshua not only stated His theological position on Shabbat, He asserted His credentials for being the One to establish theological positions “My Father…” 

This answer made the Judeans all the more intent on killing Him — not only was He breaking Shabbat; … John 5:18a CJB

How seriously wrong we can get it when we start making up doctrines for everything, devising our own set of rules for what others must believe and do. The one man who walked this earth without sin, perfectly fulfilling all God’s law, being accused of breaking the fourth commandment because He didn’t keep it the way they thought it should be kept. God Himself being rejected because they had made His law into something that He never intended it to be.

…but also, by saying that God was His own Father, He was claiming equality with God.    John 5:18b CJB

It was not that referring to God as their Father was foreign to Judaism.  In speaking to the religious leaders Yeshua used their own language, and concepts that would have been very familiar to them from the scriptures, but He endowed these concepts with new meanings.   Last time He was in Jerusalem, Yeshua had spoken to Nicodemus at length on the Jewish religious concept of being ‘born again’.  This time His long discourse was on being the Son of God.     

Israel is referred to as God’s son in the Tanakh (Jewish Scriptures):

Then you are to tell Pharaoh: ‘Adonai says, “Isra’el is my firstborn son. I have told you to let my son go in order to worship me… Exodus 4:22-23a CJB

There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son…     Deuteronomy 1:31 NIV

Think deeply about it: Adonai was disciplining you, just as a man disciplines his child. So obey the mitzvot (law) of Adonai your God, living as He directs and fearing Him.       Deuteronomy 8:5-6 CJB

You are the children of the LORD your God…     Deuteronomy 14:1a NIV

For You are our father, for Abraham did not know us, neither did Israel recognize us; You, O [YHWH], are our father; our redeemer of old is your name. Isaiah 63:16 JP

…In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, they will be called “sons of the living God.”     Hosea 1:10 NIV

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.  But the more I called Israel, the further they went from Me…   Hosea 11:1-2 NIV

…the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. Proverbs 3:12 NIV

… because I am Israel’s Father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son. … Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight?  Though I often speak against him, I still remember him.  Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,” declares the LORD.    Jeremiah 31:9, 20 NIV

“A son honours his father, and a servant his master.  If I am a father, where is the honour due me?   If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty.  “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name…” Malachi 1:6 NIV

God of armies, please come back!  Look from heaven, see, and tend this vine! Protect what your right hand planted, the son you made strong for yourself.   Psalm 80:14-15 CJB

The Jewish sages understood corporate, collective sonship.  They could relate to the metaphor of God choosing to be a father to their nation, and of their moral responsibility in return, of honouring and obeying Him as a son is to honour and obey his father. (13) (14) (15)   What they would not abide was Yeshua’s claim of a personal sonship that identified Him as one with His Father, as one with God Himself, and as reflecting the moral nature of God in perfect fulfilment of all the Torah.

Yet, in these times when Messianic hope was strong, the sages had seen the Psalms as portraying a Messiah who would be the Son of God, one who had focused within Himself Israel’s moral relationship to God.   The Targum on Psalm 80:16 “the son that though madest strong for thyself” interprets the son as “the king Messiah”.   There was already an understanding in Jewish expectations of their Messiah, from Psalms 2 and 89, that He would be a chosen Son of God, king and anointed one.

“I will proclaim the decree: Adonai said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I became your father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance; the whole wide world will be your possession.    
Psalm 2:7-8 CJB

He will call to me, ‘You are my father, my God, the Rock of my salvation.’  I will give him the position of firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. I will keep my grace for him forever, and in my covenant be faithful with him.  I will establish his dynasty forever, and his throne as long as the heavens last.    Psalm 89:26-29 CJB

The coming of the Son of God, the King messiah, was the hope so many in Israel had been clinging to. This was the hope many of the Pharisees had taught them. But they were so caught up in their own rules and regulations, in their own teachings and doctrines, that they could not recognise Him when He came.

Relationship between the Father and the Son

There was so much that Yeshua wanted to explain to these religious leaders.  There was so much that He thought they should already know with all their study of scripture and all that Yochanan the Immerser had proclaimed.  He was not just uniquely the only begotten Son of God, He was also the embodiment of what God had been calling Israel to be as His son.  For these “teachers of the Torah” in the Temple Yeshua had long and detailed explanations:

Therefore, Yeshua said this to them:
“Yes, indeed! I tell you that the Son cannot do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing; whatever the Father does, the Son does too. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him everything He does; and He will show Him even greater things than these, so that you will be amazed. Just as the Father raises the dead and makes them alive, so too the Son makes alive anyone He wants. The Father does not judge anyone but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, so that all may honour the Son as they honour the Father.  Whoever fails to honour the Son is not honouring the Father who sent Him. 

Yes, indeed! I tell you that whoever hears what I am saying and trusts the One who sent me has eternal life — that is, he will not come up for judgment but has already crossed over from death to life! 

Yes, indeed! I tell you that there is coming a time — in fact, it’s already here — when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who listen will come to life. For just as the Father has life in Himself, so He has given the Son life to have in Himself. Also He has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Don’t be surprised at this; because the time is coming when all who are in the grave will hear his voice and come out — those who have done good to a resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to a resurrection of judgment. 

I can’t do a thing on My own. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is right; because I don’t seek My own desire, but the desire of the One who sent Me.

“If I testify on My own behalf, My testimony is not valid. But there is Someone else testifying on My behalf, and I know that the testimony He is making is valid — you have sent to Yochanan, and he has testified to the truth. Not that I collect human testimony; rather, I say these things so that you might be saved. He was a lamp burning and shining, and for a little while you were willing to bask in his light.  But I have a testimony that is greater than Yochanan’s. For the things the Father has given Me to do, the very things I am doing now, testify on My behalf that the Father has sent Me.

In addition, the Father who sent Me has Himself testified on My behalf. But you have never heard His voice or seen His shape; moreover, His word does not stay in you, because you don’t trust the One He sent. You keep examining the Tanakh (Old Testament) because you think that in it you have eternal life. Those very Scriptures bear witness to Me, but you won’t come to Me in order to have life!

“I don’t collect praise from men, but I do know you people — I know that you have no love for God in you! I have come in My Father’s name, and you don’t accept Me; if someone else comes in his own name, him you will accept. How can you trust? You’re busy collecting praise from each other, instead of seeking praise from God only.

But don’t think that it is I who will be your accuser before the Father. Do you know who will accuse you? Moshe (Moses), the very one you have counted on! For if you really believed Moshe, you would believe Me; because it was about Me that he wrote. But if you don’t believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”    John 5:19-47 CJB

The whole focus and purpose of Moshe’s writings…

Shavu‘ot (Feast of Weeks) was the pilgrimage festival at which the giving of the Torah to Moshe (Law of Moses) was celebrated.  It was at this festival that Yeshua stated “if you really believed Moshe, you would believe Me; because it was about Me that he wrote” to the religious leaders policing “obedience to Moshe.  

Back in John 1:45, we saw Philip exclaime to Nathanael: “We’ve found the one that Moshe wrote about in the Torah, and about whom the prophets also wrote…”  Now Yeshua was trying to teach these very learned men what the young Philip had instinctively grasped. 

The Jewish leaders saw the Torah as being about their nation, but Yeshua stated that it was about Him that Moses wrote.  This is not just a proof scripture here or there, although there are plenty of these, this is concerning the whole focus of the first five books of the Bible, the writings that these religious leaders claimed to honour above all else, and to be the experts on.   Messiah, God manifesting Himself in a form that human eyes could see and coming as deliverer, was not just an extra thought added on to the stories of Israel, He was the story, the whole focus and purpose of Moshe’s writings.   This was so much bigger than what most were focused on, deliverance from Roman oppression.  This was God’s whole purpose since creation.  This is what all the Jewish laws and feasts were pointing to.  YeshuaEmmanuel / God with us – God who is Spirit, who is invisible, whom no man can see and live, had made us in His image. As the coming Son of Man, descendant of Eve, He would bruise the serpent’s head even as His heal was bruised. He took on a form that could appear to men throughout the ages until the time came for Him to come as “a prophet like Moses“. Yeshua is He whom everything that Moshe wrote in Torah was pointing to.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in the likeness of ourselves…”     Genesis 1:26a CJB

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden… Genesis 3:8

 I will put animosity between you and the woman, and between your descendant and her descendant; he will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel. Genesis 3:15 CJB

Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” And there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. Genesis 12:7

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless.    Genesis 17:1

Then the Lord appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you.     Genesis 26:2

And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you and multiply your descendants for My servant Abraham’s sake.”     Genesis 26:24

And he built an altar there and called the place El Bethel, because there God appeared to him when he fled from the face of his brother.   Genesis 35:7

Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me, saying, “I have surely visited you and seen what is done to you in Egypt;”        Exodus 3:16

God spoke to Moshe; he said to him, “I am Adonai. I appeared to Avraham (Abraham), Yitz’chak (Isaac) and Ya‘akov (Jacob) as El Shaddai, although I did not make myself known to them by my name, Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh [Adonai] Exodus 6:2-3 CJB

“Adonai will raise up for you a prophet like me from among yourselves, from your own kinsmen. You are to pay attention to him, just as when you were assembled at Horev (Horeb / also called Mount Sinai) and requested Adonai your God,  ‘Don’t let me hear the voice of Adonai my God any more, or let me see this great fire ever again; if I do, I will die!’ 
On that occasion Adonai said to me, ‘They are right in what they are saying. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I order him. Whoever doesn’t listen to my words, which he will speak in my name, will have to account for himself to me.    Deuteronomy 18:15-19 CJB

The Jews had long understood that this prophecy in Deuteronomy would one day be fulfilled in a literal way by the coming of a “the Prophet” who would either:
A) come just before Messiah or B) would, in fact, be the Messiah.

That expectation helps explain the dialogue between the Priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem, and Yochanan the Immerser in John 1:19-21.  When they asked who he was, he said, “I am not the Messiah.”
“Who are you, then? Are you Elijah?”
“Well, then, are you the Prophet.”
When they said, “the Prophet,” both the delegates from Jerusalem and Yochanan the Immerser understood the reference to be Moshe’s prophecy of Deuteronomy 18. (16)

In describing how “the Prophet” would be like himself, Moshe recalls an experience of his nation that has been memorialized and burned into the Jewish consciousness:

On the morning of the third day, there was thunder, lightning and a thick cloud on the mountain. Then a shofar blast sounded so loudly that all the people in the camp trembled.   Moshe brought the people out of the camp to meet God; they stood near the base of the mountain. Mount Sinai was enveloped in smoke, because Adonai descended onto it in fire — its smoke went up like the smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently.  As the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moshe spoke; and God answered him with a voice. …  All the people experienced the thunder, the lightning, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled. Standing at a distance, they said to Moshe, “You, speak with us; and we will listen. But don’t let God speak with us, or we will die.    Exodus 19:16-19, 20:18-19 CJB

Just as Moshe was a mediator between God and the Jewish people, the Messiah would be a mediator between God and man.

For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…   1 Timothy 2:5-6a BSB       

Verse 6 in 1 Timothy highlights another way in which Messiah was like Moshe, only more so:  “who gave himself as a ransom for all.”  While God was giving Moshe the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets Israel was busy breaking all those commandments in their idol worship. 

Adonai said to Moshe, “Go down! Hurry! Your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have become corrupt! So quickly they have turned aside from the way I ordered them to follow! … “I have been watching these people; and you can see how stiffnecked they are. Now leave Me alone, so that My anger can blaze against them, and I can put an end to them! I will make a great nation out of you instead.”      Exodus 32:7-10 CJB

First, Moshe interceded for the people:

Moshe pleaded with Adonai his God. He said, “Adonai, why must your anger blaze against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong … … Turn from your fierce anger! Relent! Don’t bring such disaster on your people! Remember Avraham, Yitz’chak and Isra’el, your servants, to whom you swore by your very self. You promised them… Adonai then changed his mind about the disaster he had planned for his people.  Exodus 32:11-14 CJB

Hebrews 7:25 tells us that Yeshua:

“is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

After seeing the horror of what the people had been doing when he was up the mountain with God, Moshe offered his own life—to take the punishment of the people’s sins on himself if God could find no other way to forgive them. He asked God that his life be an expiation for the sins of the people. As a priest he could have made grandiose offerings—thousands of lambs or bulls—but instead he simply offered his own life.   Greater love has no man.  

Moshe saw that the people had gotten out of control — because Aharon had allowed them to get out of control, to the derision of their enemies — … … The next day Moshe said to the people, “You have committed a terrible sin. Now I will go up to Adonai ; maybe I will be able to atone for your sin.”   Moshe went back to Adonai and said, “Please! These people have committed a terrible sin: they have made themselves a god out of gold. Now, if you will just forgive their sin! But if you won’t, then, I beg you, blot me out of your book which you have written!”   Exodus 32:25, 30-32 CJB

God did not accept Moshe’s offer.   It could not suffice because he was not spotless.  Like Moshe, the Messiah would offer His own life – to take the people’s sins on Himself – and His offer for the Jewish people and all mankind was accepted.   Moshe led the people to the promised land but was not allowed to enter himself.   Messiah is building us a dwelling in the promised land – He is both the pathway to it and the gate of entry.  All that Moshe was the shadow of, Messiah would be the fulfilment of. (17)

Although much of contemporary Jewish thought sees this Prophet not as Messiah  but only as Joshua who succeeded Moses in leading Israel, in more ancient times when messianic expectations were high, this passage was understood by the Jews to be referring to their coming Messiah.  Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon identified the Prophet as Messiah:

“A Prophet from the midst of thee.’ In fact, the Messiah is such a Prophet as it is stated in the Midrash of the verse, ‘Behold my Servant shall prosper’ (Isaiah 52:13).…Moses, by the miracles which he wrought, brought a single nation to the worship of God, but the Messiah will draw all peoples to the worship of God.

The Midrashic passage that Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon cites, referring to Messiah as Prophet, states:

“It is written, Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, He shall be exalted, and extolled, and be very high (Isaiah 52:13). It means, He shall be more exalted than Abraham of whom it is written, ‘I lift up my hand’ (Genesis 14:22). He shall be more extolled than Moses of whom it is said, ‘As a nursing father beareth the nursing child’ (Numbers 11:12). ‘And shall be very high’—that is, Messiah shall be higher than the ministering angels.

Moshe wrote God’s word: “I will put My words in His mouth, and He will tell them everything I order Him.” (Vs18)  Yeshua was doing this and they were not wanting to listen, even though Moshe had written God’s instructions: “You must listen to Him” (Vs15).  This Prophet Messiah would speak God’s words in God’s name. “ I have come in My Father’s name and you don’t accept Me;(John 5:43).  Moshe had given the people this warning from God:Whoever doesn’t listen to My words, which He will speak in My name, will have to account for himself to Me.”  So Yeshua said to them:

“But don’t think that it is I who will be your accuser before the Father. Do you know who will accuse you? Moshe, the very one you have counted on! For if you really believed Moshe, you would believe Me; because it was about Me that he wrote. But if you don’t believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”    John 5:45-47 CJB

These religious leaders who were condemning the act of mercy of healing a crippled man were claiming to be defending Torah, but Yeshua knew them better than they knew themselves and here exposed them so they could see the true nature of their hearts, repent and be saved.  What a sad indictment on those who claimed to be showing others the way to God: “I know that you have no love for God in you!” (Vs42)

Having fulfilled Torah in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), Yeshua left them to contemplate His words and returned to the Galilee region, but not to His hometown of Nazareth.  Their rejection of Him became someone else’s blessing.  Yeshua was moving to the town of His disciples, from whence He would establish the next phase of His ministry.   It appears that the author of the fourth Gospel remained in or around Yerushalayim, maybe serving in the temple, for he tells us nothing of this important next phase of Yeshua’s kingdom reformation.

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9. MJL. The Significance of Shabbat. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 24th November 2019.]
10. Young. The Works of Philo. Early Christian Writings. [Online] [Cited: 28th November 2019.]
11. Sadananda, Daniel Rathnakara. The Johannine Exegesis of God: An Exploration into the Johannine Understanding of God. New York : Walter de Gruyter, 2014.
12. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Eliyahu. The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel. s.l. : Jewish New Testament, 2015.
13. Thompson, Marianne Meye. The Promis of the Father: Jesus and God in the New Testament. 2000.
14. Huntress, Erminie. “Son of God” in Jewish Writings Prior to the Christian Era. 2, s.l. : The Society of Biblical Literature, June 1935, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 54, pp. Pp. 117-123. 10.2307/3259680.
15. Goshen-Gottstein, Alon. God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity: Transformed Background or Common Ground? Jewish Christian Relations | Articles | Scholarly Contributions. [Online] 30th September 2003. [Cited: 29th November 2019.]
16. Pritchard, Ray. A Prophet Like Moses. Keep Believing Ministries. [Online] 8th December 2008. [Cited: 30th November 2019.]
17. Rosen, Moishe. A Prophet Like Unto Moses. Jews for Jesus. [Online] [Cited: 2nd December 2019.]

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* Compare the Jewish pilgrimage festivals with the festivals in your culture.
* Compare the preparations undertaken to enter the temple with any preparations undertaken to enter your church.
* How do we become clean and pure before God?
* What laws has your church or denomination made out of what scripture teaches?
* What traditions and customs have been established in your community, church or denomination?
* If Jesus was walking in your community today how do you think He would respond to your religious laws and customs?
* The crippled man appears to have been totally focused on himself, yet Jesus healed him anyway. Did he do anything to earn his healing or to attract Jesus to him to heal him?
* How would you describe God’s mercy?

Confronting Power and Expectation

Read Mark 1:14-15, 6:14-29, Luke 3:19-38, 4:14-30
& John 4:43-54

The climate is cooler in the Galilee region than down in the Jordan Valley, so the crops mature for harvest later in the year.  The barley harvest was now underway up here and the wheat crop was beginning to ripen. (1)

After the two days He left for Galilee. (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honour in his own country). John 4:43-4 NIV

Interestingly, the Jewish priest author of the fourth gospel thinks of Judea, where Yeshua was born and where his ancestral land as a descendant of king David lay, as being “his own country“, whereas the gentile Luke refers to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, as “his own country“. The author of the fourth gospel often contrasts the rejection that Yeshua received in Jerusalem and surrounds (the likely hometown of this author) with the eagerness of the people of Galilee to receive Him. The Galileans may have been looked down upon by those in Judea as unsophisticated and spiritually inferior, but they were faithful in travelling the long distance to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals commanded by God and they were open to receiving the Son of God.

When He arrived in Galilee the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that He had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they had been there. Once more He visited Cana in Galilee where He had turned the water into wine.   John 4:45-46a NIV

Significant numbers of these pious Galileans had made the long journey to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival in obedience to Torah. There, like Nicodemus, they had witnessed Yeshua do many miracles and knew that the power of God rested upon Him. As Yeshua travelled around the Galilee region, teaching in their synagogues, He came again to Cana where He and His early talmidim had attended the wedding and His first miracle had been performed.  

Yochanan the Immerser Imprisoned…

Map of John the baptiser's travels

Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist) was arrested by Herod Antipas, who ruled over Peraea and Galilee.  Speaking truth to power is rarely welcomed by those in power, and Herodias, Herod Antipas’ wife who had been married to his brother Philip when her affair with Herod began, was so angry she wanted Yochanan killed.  Herod tried to appease her by imprisoning Yochanan, but was drawn to his words like a moth to a candle:

But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things which Herod had done, added this also to them all, that he shut up Yochanan in prison.  Luke 3:19-20 HNV

For Herod himself had sent out and arrested Yochanan, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for he had married her. For Yochanan said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias set herself against him, and desired to kill him, but she couldn’t, for Herod feared Yochanan, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he did many things, and he heard him gladly.   Mark 6:17-20 HNV

Like the prophets before him, Yochanan (John the Baptist) now suffered for his message, imprisoned and threatened with death. Yochanan’s imprisonment effectively ended his public ministry.  The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus stated that Yochanan the Immerser was imprisoned in Herod’s palace of Macherus (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, V, 2), which was located in the furthermost corner of his realm, about 24 km southeast of where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea (see the map above). (2)

None of Yochanan’s remaining talmidim had his gifting or calling, and they were rather at a loss for what to do when he was imprisoned.  It was the task of every talmid (disciple) to become just like his rabbi, but these young men had not yet spent enough time with Yochanan to be like him, and now the best they could do was occasionally visit him and talk with him for whatever little time they were allowed.  They were not able to continue on his ministry without him.  The crowds did not come to them as they had come to Yochanan, none of them carried the presence that Yochanan carried, nor could they ‘nail it’ with their preaching as he did.  Yochanan had been imprisoned before he had been able to invest enough in his disciples to pass his baton on to them. He had been ministering for less than a year.

Yochanan‘s Success…

Contrary to the usual practice of that time, Yochanan’s call had not been to raise up disciples to follow in his footsteps, but to prepare the way for the people to come to Yeshua so they could be raised up to follow in His footsteps.  Yochanan’s baton had been successfully passed on, not to his talmidim as was traditional, but to the One to whom he had been attesting. What Yochanan could no longer do now that he was imprisoned, Yeshua continued and this reformation gained momentum:

From that time, Yeshua began to proclaim, and to say, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”   Matthew 4:17 HNV

After Yochanan had been arrested, Yeshua came into the Galil proclaiming the Good News from God: “The time has come, God’s Kingdom is near! Turn to God from your sins and believe the Good News!”    Mark 1:14-15 CJB

Healing, but not according to expectation…

When an officer of Herod Antipas’ court heard that Yeshua had returned to Cana he came across from Capernaum where he had been nursing his dying son and:

“…went to Him and implored Him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.”             John 4:47 NKJV  

Word had just spread through the area that Herod had arrested Yochanan, and this officer of Herod’s court comes and asks Yeshua to go with him.  What would you think?

Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.”   John 4:48 NKJV

Yeshua’s response initially appears harsh towards a man anguishing over his son’s impending death, but its purpose was not so much to rebuke as to challenge to a deeper level of faith so that even greater could be done for him:

The nobleman said to Him, “Sir, come down before my child dies!”     John 4:49 NKJV

This man was used to walking in power and authority.  He expected to be obeyed, and had become accustomed to exercising control over others. But he had no control over the terrible sickness ravaging his poor son’s body, and no control over this man who was his only hope for the life of his son.  All his wealth and power were suddenly meaningless, it could not provide what he most desperately needed – healing for his son.  

Yeshua paid no more respect to the wealthy and powerful than to the lowliest servant.  He was not after their influence in high places or generous donations to help his ministry flourish. His only concern was the Father’s will, and it was the Father’s will to set things right in this nobleman’s heart and challenge the Galileans to step up to the level of faith shown by the Samaritans in the city of Sychar, who had been willing to believe on Him simply on the basis of a woman’s testimony, and then having heard Him themselves boldly declared that He was “indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.” 

Desperation filled the nobleman’s voice as he pleaded for the Son of God to obey him and come immediately before it was too late and his son was dead.  The kingdom of God manifested on earth is not limited to how we think things need to be done in order to get a good result.  We do not get to order God to do things our way anymore than this nobleman was able to successfully order the Son of God to follow his instructions for healing his son.  God is good and He does good and His ways are perfect, but they are so often different to how we imagine they need to be.

Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your son lives.”
So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way.  John 4:50 NKJV

The tables were turned, and things set in right order.  Yeshua did not obey this officer of the Tetrarch’s court, but rather answered his heart’s cry by speaking a word for him to obey: “Go your way; your son lives.”   It was a word that required the faith to obey.  It was an interaction that engendered such faith.  It was the promise of a miracle greater than the nobleman had imagined, a simple word from Christ penetrating his son so far away, dispelling the terrible sickness threatening his life and bringing health and wholeness to the boy.

 And as he was now going down, his servants met him and told him, saying, “Your son lives!”
Then he inquired of them the hour when he got better. And they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” 
So the father knew that it was at the same hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives.” And he himself believed, and his whole household. John 4:51-53 NKJV

The news of Yochanan the Immerser’s arrest had shaken all of Israel, and especially Yeshua’s talmidim, who had first been Yochanan’s talmidim.   Often such news is accompanied by rumour and speculation – ‘who is going to be next?’  ‘Had Herod imprisoned his talmidim as well?’  It appears that Yeshua sent his young talmidim back to Capernaum with this nobleman so they could witness the miracle with him and be encouraged by this display of God’s power and the need that even the mightiest have of Him, and encouraged them to go from there back to their homes to spend some time with their families, even as He was going to spend some time in His own hometown.   The account in the fourth gospel suggests first-hand knowledge of the conversation between the nobleman and his servants, and Luke’s account of Yeshua’s travels from there to His hometown of Nazareth suggests that He made this journey alone.

The indications in the text are that the author of the fourth gospel returned home to Jerusalem after this, even as Yeshua’s other disciples were returning to their homes in Capernaum and Bethsaida, for we hear no more from this author until Yeshua next goes to Jerusalem for a religious feast (John 5:1).

Yeshua rejected in Nazareth…

From Cana Yeshua walked to Nazareth, where He had grown up, where he had learnt to memorise the Torah and all the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures), where he had played with the village boys and where he had learned Yosef’s carpentry/craftsman’s trade.    By this time almost all the boys he had played with would be married with families of their own, as young men were expected to marry between the ages of sixteen and twenty four in order to fulfil the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, although some sages at this time delayed marriage in order to focus on Torah study and teaching. (3)  (4)

The evidence of the gospels suggests that on this occasion Yeshua travelled to Nazareth alone.     It is interesting that the following account is only found in Luke’s gospel, as the historian sort to piece all the parts of Yeshua’s life together, it was not part of Yeshua’s training of his talmidim at this time.  It is likely that His mother and brothers were still living in Nazareth, and present in the synagogue on this Shabbat – from them Luke would later learn of these details and record them for us.  Yeshua’s talmidim were not yet ready for this lesson, so they had been released back to their families and their trades for a season. Such was not unusual, as both Rabbi and talmidim had to support themselves.

So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.   Luke 4:16 NKJV

Since His earliest childhood Yeshua had spent every Sabbath in the synagogue, partaking in His community’s worship of God and discussions on the meanings of the scriptures.  For years the people in His hometown had heard Him reading the Torah and the Prophets, and expounding on their meaning.  That wisdom which had been evident in the Temple in Jerusalem when Yeshua was just twelve years old had joined with the other voices teaching the people of Nazareth each Sabbath since that time.  These people had received years of preparation for the revealing of Messiah through true and accurate teaching right there in their own synagogue.   They enjoyed hearing Yeshua read the scriptures and preach – but there was something different about Him now, the first time He had been back home since His baptism by Yochanan.

On this day in Nazareth Yeshua was appointed to read the Haphtarah (a short reading from the Prophets which follows the reading from the Torah in a Jewish synagogue) and the reading scheduled was a messianic passage from Isaiah 61: 

And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor (those bent over like a beggar, deeply destitute, completely lacking resources); He has sent (apostéllō) Me to heal the broken-hearted to proclaim liberty (remission / forgiveness, releasing someone from obligation or debt) to the captives (those who have been conquered and taken captive) and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty (send forth in a state of forgiveness and with purpose) those who are oppressed (bruised, broken down emotionally, psychologically shattered, suffering the ongoing effects of past sins); to proclaim the acceptable (received favourably because it is pleasing) year of the Lord.”
Then He closed the book (ie rolled up the scroll), and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him.                                               Luke 4:17-20 NKJV

It was customary in the synagogue to stand when reading the scriptures, then sit to preach on them.  Everyone listened eagerly to hear what this home-town boy, who had done such miracles during Passover in Jerusalem, would say now.  What derashah (sermon) would He bring from this passage that elicited such hopes and longings in the people?   Yeshua’s words were sweet to His hearers as He expounded on the literal and prophetic meanings in this passage.   Hungry hearts longed for such Good News to be proclaimed to them, to know that they could be the recipients of God’s favour and that their past failures did not have to determine their future.  His words brought reassurance that God had not forgotten them, nor been blind to their sufferings.  Indeed the favourable year of the Lord was at hand.

And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:21 NKJV

How would the people respond to so bold a claim?   The woman at the well had readily believed Him.  The whole Samaritan city of Sychar had been so quick to confidently declare: “we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.”   His home-town people’s first reaction was positive, as had been everyone else’s in Galilee.   These pious Nazarenes were hungry for the word of God, and eagerly awaiting their Messiah with much anticipation that surely the time was ripe for his coming.   Yeshua’s words penetrated their hearts with such grace and hope.

So all bore witness to Him, and marvelled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”   Luke 4:22 NKJV

A positive response indeed to Yeshua’s declaration of being the Messiah, the fulfilment of Isaiah 61.  These people had been taught well, and they had seen and heard of the miracles that Yeshua had been doing, both in Jerusalem and around Galilee, which confirmed this claim.  

But He knew their hearts.  It is one thing to accept, even rejoice in, a declaration about the Kingdom, but quite another to live as citizens of that Kingdom.   These people knew all the theology, were strong and passionate in their doctrine, but their hearts were not open to the very nature of the Kingdom of God.  All the truth they had heard and believed had been filtered through a lens of spiritual pride and racist nationalism.  Yeshua was about to confront this. He went on to begin to hint at how He would be treated by them when He did.

He said to them, “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in  Capernaum, do also here in Your country.’ ”  
Then He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.”  Luke 4:23 NKJV

Yeshua knew the barriers they had formed in their hearts against living the truth, and so now started exposing these.   It seemed that He could not just leave people in their nice, comfortable feel-good religion.   Like Yochanan the Immerser, He had to rock the boat, to expose those things hiding in their hearts.   Yeshua was not satisfied with a lukewarm complacent acceptance of His words, and kept pushing until He had pressed all their buttons and elicited a strong reaction that exposed the real condition of their hearts.

 “But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region  of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.   And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  Luke 4:25-27 NKJV

This struck deep into their national and religious pride, exposing the bitter anger, fears and hatred that lay below the surface of their initial ‘bearing witness’ to Him:

So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff.  Luke 4:28-29 NKJV

It was not Yeshua’s messianic claim in Vs 21 which stirred such vitriol, they had born witness to Him in response to that.  He was their Messiah, their deliverer, and they expected to be the chief beneficiaries of His ministry.  Here was one of their own who had surely been anointed by God to throw off the shackles of their heathen oppressors and restore their national pride.  Nazareth would see the birthing of the re-establishment of the glory of Israel.  All their pious religious observance had earnt them this right. This was the “favourable Year of the Lord” for them.

Yeshua’s next words had undermined and threatened all that.   He paralleled His ministry with that of Elijah and Elisha, both of whom heralded judgment on Israel for their unfaithfulness to God, and performed miracles for foreigners.  Yeshua went so far as to highlight that God sent each of them to minister miraculously to a foreigner instead of anyone in Israel who was suffering with the very same need (Vs 25-27).  And these were not deserving foreigners, if there could be such a thing, Elisha had healed the captain of the enemies’ army who had inflicted terrible losses on Israel.  Yeshua was presenting himself as a Messiah who would do likewise, take what they thought rightly belonged to them as God’s chosen people, and give it to despised foreigners and enemies.  Had He not just restored the son of an officer of Herod’s court, right after Herod had imprisoned Yochanan the Immerser?   That nobleman was not the only one who had wanted God to do things his way. As far as the members of this pious, nationalistic synagogue were concerned, such was NOT the task of the Messiah! His task was to redeem Israel and raise them up above all other nations and peoples. His task was to destroy their enemies, not do miraculous healing for their enemies.  Every racist sentiment cloaked in national pride, and fuelled by religious fervour, was stirred up and all those in the synagogue became filled with murderous wrath. 

Such nationalistic pride and despising of others as inferior to themselves was common in their neighbours as well, and taken for granted in their Roman overlords. The devaluing of “those who are different to us” is deeply rooted in the heart of man, but totally unacceptable in the kingdom of God.

Regardless of how much murderous rage Satan could insight in the good people of Nazareth, it was not Yeshua’s time to die.  Nor was this the means by which He would take our sins, being pushed over a cliff on an ordinary day of the year.   God’s prophetic word would be fulfilled, nothing could hinder that.

Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.      Luke 4:30 NKJV 

Reference List

1. Morrison, Michael. Harvest Seasons of Ancient Israel. Grace Communion International. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Dec. 2016.]
2. John the Baptist’s Doubts. Never Thirsty. [Online] [Cited: 11th Oct. 2016.]
3. McArthur, Harvey. Celibacy in Judaism at the Time of Christian Beginnings. Andrews University. [Online] 1987. [Cited: 3rd Dec. 2016.]
4. Bivin, David N. Was Jesus a Confirmed Bachelor? Jerusalem Perspective. [Online] 19th September 2012. [Cited: 5th November 2019.]

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* Why do you think Jesus was accepted as a teacher in Synagogues throughout Galilee?
* What impact do you think it had on the disciples to hear that John the baptist had been imprisoned?
* The officer of Herod Antipas’ court had come to Jesus with expectations of what He had to do to meet his need. What sort of expectations do we come to God with? Can you think of a time when God did not do what you were asking, but did something better that you had not even imagined before?
* How did the people whom Jesus grew up with in Nazareth respond to His messianic claim “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”?
* What was it that changed their response from bearing “witness to Him, and marvelling at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth” to thrusting him out of town and trying to throw him off a cliff? Do your people have anything that they react to with such anger?
* If Jesus was to come to your church now, what do you think He would say to expose the hidden hatreds in your people’s hearts?

Yeshua Taught in their Synagogues

Luke 4:14-15

After their two days staying with, and teaching the Samaritans, Yeshua and his talmidim then continued on to Galilee.

Now after the two days He departed from there and went to Galilee. John 4:43 NKJV

So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they also had gone to the feast. John 4:45 NKJV

Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.      Luke 4:14-15 NKJV

The word “synagogue” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew ‘Beit Knesset’, meaning ‘House of Assembly‘.  Other Hebrew terms, less frequently used, describe the synagogue as a ‘House of Study‘, or a ‘House of Prayer‘.  Whereas the structure and function of the priesthood and tabernacle (later replaced by the temple) were commanded by God through Moses, synagogues grew organically out of the Jew’s desire to maintain their identity as a community of God regardless of who ruled over them.  Since the synagogue belonged to the local community that built and maintained it; there never was a higher authority that determined its policy, namely how it should be built, decorated, administered, or what sort of liturgy was to be used in it.  Thus, the diversity among synagogues so evident in the first century (1).   It was, therefore, not until well after the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD that the structure and governance of the synagogues was standardised.  

Synagogue – the centre of Jewish community life

During Yeshua’s day each was structured according to the needs of the local community and functioned according to the teachings accepted by the local community, hence there was variety in architecture and how they operated.  They were multi-functional institutions answering the many needs of the entire Jewish community in each location: schools (Josephus, Antiquities  16.43), hostels, courts (Acts 22:19), a place to collect and distribute charity (Matt 6:2), for political meetings (Josephus, Life 276-289), for communal meals (Josephus, Antiquities 14.214-216), and for worship which focused on prayer, reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures.

The synagogue was the social, intellectual, spiritual, political and legal centre of the Jewish community’s life in that village. (2) (3) Worship and study, friendship and community celebration, schooling, collection and distribution of charity, governing of the community and court proceedings were all done in the synagogue and by the synagogue rulers.  The synagogue was thus the heart of every Jewish community and being a member in good standing was essential to being accepted in the Jewish community. (4) (5) (6) 

Synagogue architecture…

Architecturally, synagogues were public buildings constructed, where possible, near a body of water for a mikveh and for the Tashlikh ceremony on Rosh HaShanah, or on the highest point in town, or on a raised platform.  They had a large hall for Shabbat services and many also had smaller rooms for study. 

They generally had a Mikveh (ritual bath / baptismal pool) for ritual washings, and this had to contain enough water for a person to walk down into it, squat and be completely submersed with water.  The Mikveh had one set of steps for people to walk down into it as ceremonially ‘unclean’ and another set of steps for them to walk up out of the water ceremonially ‘clean’.  Synagogues also had kitchen facilities for community feasts, and accommodation for visitors.  

In some cases, the front façade of the main hall had three doors.  Inside there were benches, made of wood or stone, along three or sometimes four sides of the room, with a break for the door of course. (7) 

Within Jewish tradition one stood to read from the Torah and Prophets (t. Sukkah 2.10), so the centre of the room would have a small platform for the readers to stand on, and it is possible that a small menorah (seven-branched candlestick), like the one in the Temple, also stood on that platform.  The floor was usually dirt or flagstones, and common people probably sat on mats on the floor, while the important people sat on the stone benches (Matt. 23:6).  There was a seat for the reader of the Torah called the Moses Seat (or the Seat of Honour), because the Torah recorded the words of Moses so the reader was taking Moses’ place (Matt. 23:2). The Torah scrolls and the writings of the prophets were either kept in a portable chest and brought to the synagogue for worship or were kept in the Synagogue itself in a permanent Torah cabinet. (8) (9)

A Greek inscription dating to the first century dedicating a synagogue gives us some insight into their architecture and functions, as well as the importance that the people placed on lineage:

Theodotos, son of Vettenus, priest and ruler of the synagogue, son of a ruler of the synagogue, grandson of a ruler of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and the teaching of the commandments, and also the guest chamber and the upper rooms and the ritual pools of water for lodging for those needing them from abroad, which his fathers, the elders and Simonides founded.

Three sacred spaces in Judaism

In Yeshua’s day there were three sacred spaces in Judaism, each of which had its own ordered rituals: Temple, Synagogue and Home (10).   Yeshua attended and ministered in each of these spaces.   For the Jews the Temple was the place of the presence of the transcendent God on earth and so the daily Temple worship involved sacrifice accompanied by worship in music and song.  It was patterned after 1 Chronicles 16:4-6 where David appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD with lyres, harps, cymbals and trumpets, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD.  Twelve was the absolute minimum number of musicians the Mishnah deemed appropriate for the daily psalm, and there was no maximum number. (11) Whereas the temple was governed by priests and its functions undertaken by priests, the synagogue was governed by local elders of the community and all but one optional function was undertaken by the laity.  Priests and Levites were welcome to participate in synagogue life but they had no special role except that only priests could offer the blessing of Aaron from the Torah (Num. 6:23-27) at the end of the service. (8)

Synagogue as centre of community justice…

The Synagogue provided the structure whereby a qahal (community) became rooted in God.  Its primary purpose was the dispensation of justice, which was defined as the study, teaching and application of the Tanakh (Torah (Law of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and K’tuvim (Writings) – ie what we refer to as the Old Testament) and the Oral Law.  Jewish tradition placed the roots of the synagogue in Jethro’s advice to Moses (Exodus 18) to select able men who feared God as rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens to judge the people.  In light of that and Boaz’ gathering of ten elders of Bethlehem to witness the legal transaction that gave him possession of the land that belonged to Naomi, and Ruth as his wife (Ruth 4:2-12) Jewish tradition demanded a minimum of ten persons for any public or official religious gathering.   Less than ten persons was not a community and did not qualify for a communal gathering.  The Mishnah preserves the ruling concerning this required minimum number:

If there are less that ten present, the congregation may not recite the Shema with its benedictions, nor may one go before the ark [to lead the prescribed congregational prayers], nor may priests lift up their hands [in pronouncing the blessing], nor may one read the portion of the Torah or the Prophets, nor may one observe the stations [when burying the dead] or say the mourners’ benediction or the mourners’ consolation, or the benediction over newlyweds, nor may one mention the name of God in the invitation to recite the blessing after the meal. Also [the redemption value of dedicated] immovable property [is assessed] by nine and a priest, and similarly, [the valuation vow] of a person. (Megillah 4:3)

The importance of this religious quorum cannot be overestimated. Rabbi Eliezer, a member of the generation that witnessed the destruction of the Temple, freed one of his slaves so that there would be a quorum of ten for the “Eighteen Benedictions,” the central prayer of the synagogue service. (12)

First Century Jewish society was communal, not individual, and that community was defined as being more than ten people.  At this time women could be counted among the ten for a quorum to enable a Shabbat Synagogue Service to go ahead.   The wellbeing of the individual, the family and the community were intimately tied to the proper functioning of the Synagogue and its officers.  

Synagogue Officials

Rulers of the Synagogue, הכנסת ראש ro’sh ha-keneseth, governed the community.  They formed the בית דין Bet Din, bench of three judges, who dispensed justice to the community.  They were also empowered to collect taxes, buy and sell public property such as Torah scrolls, pay for the construction and maintenance of the synagogue, and pay the salaries of town officials – agronomos (market inspectors), Chazzan (synagogue officers), city guards and teachers.  Ro’sh ha-keneseth had to be tsadiqim (righteous men), that is men who knew Torah and Halakha (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from both the “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah”) and followed these as the pattern of their lives.  These synagogue rulers were also responsible for the conduct of the synagogue services.  When the congregation had assembled it was the ruler’s duty to select the various persons to take the leading parts in the service on that day and send the Cḥazzān to notify them what part they were to perform – prayer, reading from the Scriptures, preaching or translating.   

חזן Cḥazzān (attendant) was the other regular official of the Synagogue.  They were generally provided with a salary for their service.  Their primary role was to keep the synagogue clean and appropriately lit and to care for its sacred scrolls.  At the proper stage of the service the attendant would take the appointed scroll out from the ‘ark’ where they were kept, unwrap it and give it to the person chosen to read, then return it to its rightful place when they were finished reading.   He also blew the shofar at sunset of Friday to announce the arrival of Shabbat.  All work would cease and the people gather in their homes to eat the Sabbath meal which had been prepared that afternoon. The same word, Cḥazzān, was used for the synagogue police who would bring those accused of Law breaking to be judged by the Bet Din and were responsible for whipping synagogue members found guilty.   This scourging was carried out in front of the Bet Din who proclaimed during the scourging “If do not carefully observe all the words of this Law…” (Deut. 28:58). 

Except in an occasional large synagogue the following positions were not permanent appointments and did not attract any salary, but were just filled on the day by those chosen by the Synagogue ruler from the congregation gathered once a quorum had been reached.

מתרגמן Meturgeman (interpreter or translator) would be appointed for each service. This man was skilled in languages and stood by those that read, to translate the Hebrew reading into the vernacular language of the synagogue so everyone could understand the message.

שליח צבור Sheliach Tzibbur (angel – or messenger – of the assembly) were required to be humble, be knowledgeable of the rules of prayer and the proper pronunciation of the Hebrew text, have an agreeable voice, proper dress and a beard.  They would recite the prayers on behalf of the congregation, often with musical intonation – representing the community before God in prayer.  They could also be called upon to be messengers of the Bet Din and under their authority transmit Halakhah (Jewish community law), supervise the conversion procedure and lay hands. 

פרנסים Parnassim (administrative officers) were responsible for the care of the poor, and often included at least one woman.   They were in charge of the Mikveh, collection of alms for the poor administration of these funds, visiting the sick, attending to the orphans and widows.  According to Pe’ah 8,7, the collecting was to be done by at least two persons and distributed by three. 

דרשן Darshan (expounder) was the preacher who expounded the Torah in a sermon, delivered after the reading from the Prophets.  This office was also in charge of helping anyone plead their case before the Bet Din.  Some would be travelling preachers, visiting many different communities with their messages.

בעל מסרה  Ba’al Masorah (master of the tradition) was responsible for teaching proselytes in their process of conversion and integration into the Jewish community.  He would also help defend against any deviation from the accepted doctrines and practices of the community as defined by the Bet Din.  (13)  (14)

A Shabbat Service

On Saturday morning the community gathered in the synagogue, then the Ro’sh ha-keneseth (there could be one or more of these synagogue rulers) appointed members of the congregation to various roles in the service.  There was no uniform set order of service that synagogues followed, but most often their pattern was similar to the following:

  • Their service began with blessings offered to God, prayers read with musical intonation by the Sheliach Tzibbur appointed for that day and possibly responses by the congregation. 
  • The whole congregation recited the Shema:  “Sh’ma, Yisra’el! ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI echad [Hear, Isra’el! ADONAI our God, ADONAI is one];(Deut. 6:4) 
  • More structured prayers read by the Sheliach Tzibbur and there may also be responses by the congregation or some spontanious prayers.
  • The Torah scrolls would be brought out by the Chazzan and would be read by the one(s) appointed that day.  In some synagogues one person would be appointed to read while others might have as many as seven readers of different portions.  If Hebrew was not understood by the congregation then a Methurgeman would be appointed to targum (translate) after each verse of the Torah and every three verses of the Nevi’im. 
  • Following the Torah portion, a selection from the Nevi’im (prophets) would be read by the same or another reader. 
  • After all the readings, the one appointed Darshan for that day would teach on what had been read.  The teaching incorporated open responses by those assembled (questions and answers) rather than being a strict monologue. 
  • The service ended with a benediction using the Aaronic blessing found in the Torah (Num. 6:24-26), if a priest was present to offer it. (8) (15) (16)

Music in Jewish Worship

The Tanakh (Jewish Scriptures) clearly exhorts, and gives honoured examples of, praising and worshipping God with musical instruments, song and dance:

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: “Sing to the Lord, For He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider, He has thrown into the sea. Exodus 15:20-21 NKJV

Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land.     Leviticus 25:9 NKJV

After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying. Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man.   1 Samuel 10:5-6 NKJV

Then David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet. 2 Samuel 6:14-15 NKJV

Then Zadok the priest took a horn of oil from the tabernacle and anointed Solomon. And they blew the horn, and all the people said,  “Long live King Solomon!” 
And all the people went up after him; and the people played the flutes and rejoiced with great joy, so that the earth seemed to split with their sound. 1 Kings 1:39-40 NKJV

Then David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets.       1 Chronicles 13:8 NKJV

Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren,  Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of their brethren, the sons of Merari,  Ethan the son of Kushaiah;  and with them their brethren of the second  rank: Zechariah, Ben, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattithiah, Elipheleh, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, and Jeiel, the gatekeepers; the singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were to sound the cymbals of bronze;  Zechariah, Aziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah, and Benaiah, with strings according to  Alamoth;  Mattithiah, Elipheleh, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, Jeiel, and Azaziah, to direct with harps on the Sheminith; Chenaniah, leader of the Levites, was instructor in charge of the music, because he  was  skilful;  Berechiah and Elkanah were doorkeepers for the ark; Shebaniah, Joshaphat, Nethanel, Amasai, Zechariah, Benaiah, and Eliezer, the priests, were to blow the trumpets before the ark of God; and Obed-Edom and Jehiah, doorkeepers for the ark. 1 Chronicles 15:16-24 NKJV

David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who bore the ark, the singers, and Chenaniah the music master with the singers. David also wore a linen ephod. Thus all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn, with trumpets and with cymbals, making music with stringed instruments and harps. 1 Chronicles 15:27-28 NKJV

And he appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to commemorate, to thank, and to praise the Lord God of Israel: Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, and Obed-Edom: Jeiel with stringed instruments and harps, but Asaph made music with cymbals; Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests regularly blew the trumpets before the ark of the covenant of God. 1 Chronicles 16:4-6 NKJV

…and with them Heman and Jeduthun, to sound aloud with trumpets and cymbals and the musical instruments of God. Now the sons of Jeduthun were gatekeepers.    1 Chronicles 16:42 NKJV

Moreover David and the captains of the army separated for the service  some of the sons of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should  prophesy with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals. And the number of the skilled men performing their service was: Of the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah; the sons of Asaph were under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied according to the order of the king. Of Jeduthun, the sons of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with a harp to give thanks and to praise the Lord. Of Heman, the sons of Heman: … … All these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer in the words of God, to exalt his horn. For God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. All these were under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, stringed instruments, and harps, for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the authority of the king. So the number of them, with their brethren who were instructed in the songs of the Lord, all who were skilful, was two hundred and eighty-eight.                  1 Chronicles 25:1-7 NKJV

 …and the Levites who were the singers, all those of Asaph and Heman and Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, stood at the east end of the altar, clothed in white linen, having cymbals, stringed instruments and harps, and with them one hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets—  indeed it came to pass, when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying:
“For He is good,  For His mercy endures forever,”
that the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.   2 Chronicles 5:12-14 NKJV

And he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the Lord by His prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord also began, with the trumpets and with the instruments of David king of Israel. So all the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. And when they had finished offering, the king and all who were present with him bowed and worshiped. Moreover King Hezekiah and the leaders commanded the Levites to sing praise to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshiped.

Then Hezekiah answered and said, “Now that you have consecrated yourselves to the Lord, come near, and bring sacrifices and thank offerings into the house of the Lord.” So the assembly brought in sacrifices and thank offerings, and as many as were of a willing heart brought burnt offerings.  2 Chronicles 29:25-31 NKJV

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord:
“For He is good,   For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.    Ezra 3:10-11 NKJV

 Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings and singing, with cymbals and stringed instruments and harps.                                               Nehemiah 12:27 NKJV

Praise the Lord with the harp; Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.  Sing to Him a new song; Play skilfully with a shout of joy. Psalm 33:2-3 NKJV

Then I will go to the altar of God, To God my exceeding joy;    
And on the harp I will praise You, O God, my God.     
Psalm 43:4 NKJV

They have seen Your procession, O God,
The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary.
The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after;
Among them were the maidens playing timbrels.
Bless God in the congregations, The Lord, from the fountain of Israel. Psalm 68:24-26 NKJV

Also with the lute I will praise You — And Your faithfulness, O my God!
To You I will sing with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.        
Psalm 71:22 NKJV

Sing aloud to God our strength; Make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song and strike the timbrel, The pleasant harp with the lute.
Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, At the full moon, on our solemn feast day.        Psalm 81:1-3 NKJV

Sing to the Lord with the harp, With the harp and the sound of a psalm,
With trumpets and the sound of a horn;
Shout joyfully before the Lord, the King.                         Psalm 98:5-6 NKJV

Awake, lute and harp! I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise You, O Lord, among the peoples,
And I will sing praises to You among the nations.      
Psalm 108:2-3 NKJV

I will sing a new song to You, O God;
On a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You,       
Psalm 144:9 NKJV

Let them praise His name with the dance;
Let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes pleasure in His people;
He will beautify the humble with salvation.             
Psalm 149:3-4 NKJV

Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
                         Psalm 150:3-5 NKJV

And in every place where the staff of punishment passes,
Which the Lord lays on him,
It will be with tambourines and harps;
And in battles of brandishing He will fight with it.
    Isaiah 30:32 NKJV

Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel!
You shall again be adorned with your tambourines,
And shall go forth in the dances of those who rejoice.
  Jeremiah 31:4 NKJV  

Since the beginning of the nation, back in Exodus, music had been an integral part of Jewish worship of God.  Something happened during the second temple period which would change all that, and it had nothing to do with what was thought proper for worship.  Rather it was the laws that they built around Shabbat which brought an end to playing musical instruments in Jewish worship.   Influential Pharisees feared that a musician might be tempted to replace a string or otherwise repair or tune his instrument when playing on the Sabbath, and they classed such an act as falling into the forbidden category of work called “repairing a utensil”, and so prohibited the playing of any musical instrument on the Sabbath. This ruling of the Sanhedrin affected the synagogue services, rendering their worship devoid of music.    Only in the temple did the prescribed instruments for worship continue to be played, on Shabbat, and every day.

Shabbat Laws

Keeping Shabbat (the Sabbath) was the fourth of the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses.  Here is what God said about it:

By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.       Genesis 2:3

“Remember the day, Shabbat, to set it apart for God. You have six days to labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Shabbat for ADONAI your God. On it, you are not to do any kind of work – not you, your son or your daughter, not your male or female slave, not your livestock, and not the foreigner staying with you inside the gates to your property.  For in six days, ADONAI made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. This is why ADONAI blessed the day, Shabbat, and separated it for himself.            Exodus 20:8-11 CJB

“On six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is to be a holy day for you, a Shabbat of complete rest in honour of ADONAI. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.  You are not to kindle a fire in any of your homes on Shabbat.”        Exodus 35:2-3 CJB

“You are to take fine flour and use it to bake twelve loaves, one gallon per loaf.  Arrange them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure table before ADONAI. Put frankincense with each row to be an offering made by fire to ADONAI in place of the bread and as a reminder of it. Regularly, every Shabbat, he is to arrange them before ADONAI; they are from the people of Isra’el, as a covenant forever.     Leviticus 24:5-8 CJB

“On Shabbat offer two male lambs in their first year and without defect, with one gallon of fine flour as a grain offering, mixed with olive oil, and its drink offering. This is the burnt offering for every Shabbat, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.”         Numbers 28:9-10 CJB

Happy is the person who does this, anyone who grasps it firmly, who keeps Shabbat and does not profane it, and keeps himself from doing any evil.  Isaiah 56:2 CJB

“If you hold back your foot on Shabbat from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call Shabbat a delight, ADONAI’s holy day, worth honouring; then honour it by not doing your usual things or pursuing your interests or speaking about them.  If you do, you will find delight in ADONAI – I will make you ride on the heights of the land and feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Ya’akov, for the mouth of ADONAI has spoken.”  Isaiah 58:13-14 CJB

Thus says the LORD, “Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the Sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem.”   Jeremiah 17:21

In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.  So I admonished them on the day they sold food. Also men of Tyre were living there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the Sabbath, even in Jerusalem. Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the Sabbath day?
“Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”   
Nehemiah 13:15-18

In order to enforce regulations against work on Shabbat, the Jewish religious leaders created a legal definition of what work was prohibited.  They concluded that what God ceased from in Genesis 2:1-3 was creating, and saw a connection between this and construction of the tabernacle. From that, they defined thirty-nine categories of activity needed for the construction and use of the Tabernacle, which were thus designated as ‘creating’ and therefor forbidden on Shabbat (and could receive the death penalty from the Sanhedrin).  The thirty-nine categories of forbidden activities, based on the Oral Torah which was being developed and debated in Yeshua’s day are:

  1. Planting (Hebrew: זורע Zorea) Not only planting is included in this category; other activities that promote plant growth are also prohibited. This includes watering, fertilizing, planting seeds, or planting grown plants.
  2. Ploughing (Hebrew: חורש Ḥoresh) Included in this prohibition is any preparation or improvement of land for agricultural use. This includes activities whose purpose is not agricultural such as dragging chair legs in soft soil thereby unintentionally making furrows, or pouring water on the ground or making a hole in the soil.
  3. Reaping (Hebrew: קוצר Koṣer) Removing all or part of a plant from its source of growth is considered reaping. Climbing a tree is forbidden, for fear this may lead to one tearing off a branch. Riding an animal is also forbidden, as one may unthinkingly detach a stick with which to hit the animal.  (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28)
  4. Gathering (Hebrew: מעמר Me’amer) Initial gathering of earth-borne material in its original place. E.g. After picking strawberries, forming a pile or collecting them into one’s pockets, or a basket. Collecting rock salt or any mineral (from a mine or from the Earth) and making a pile of the produce. However, a bowl of apples that falls in a house can be gathered as 1) they do not grow in that environment and 2) they were already initially gathered in the orchard.
  5. Threshing/Extraction (Hebrew: דש Dosh) It refers to any productive extraction and includes juicing fruits and vegetables and wringing (desirable fluids) out of cloths, as the juice or water inside the fruit is considered ‘desirable’ for these purposes, while the pulp of the fruit would be the ‘undesirable.’ As such, squeezing (S’ḥita) is forbidden unless certain rules are applied. 
  6. Winnowing (Hebrew: זורה Zoreh) Sorting undesirable from desirable. The separation of chaff from grain, or any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible.  Rubbing a couple of grains in your hand to remove the husks before eating them would be considered “winnowing” and therefore forbidden.  (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28)
  7. Sorting/Purification (Hebrew: בורר Borer) Any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible or desirable that which was inedible or undesirable. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. Or, if there is a bowl of mixed peanuts and raisins, and one desires the raisins and dislikes the peanuts: Removing (effectively sorting) the peanuts from the bowl, leaving a ‘purified’ pile of raisins free from unwanted peanuts, would be Sorting/Purification as the peanuts are removed and therefor considered a serious transgression. However, removing the desirable raisins from the peanuts does not purify the mixture, as one is left with undesirable peanuts (hence unrefined), not a refined component as before, and is thus permissible.
  8. Dissection Hebrew: טוחן (Toḥen) Dissection can arise in simply cutting into pieces fruits or vegetables for a salad. Very small pieces would involve ‘Dissection’, therefore cutting into slightly larger than usual pieces would be permitted, thus avoiding cutting the pieces into their final, most usable, state.
  9. Sifting (Hebrew: מרקד Meraked) This is essentially the same as Sorting / Purification (see above), but performed with a utensil specifically designed for the purpose of sorting, such as a sieve, strainer, or the like.
  10. Kneading/Amalgamation (Hebrew: לש Losh) this prohibited activity is the combining of solid and liquid together to form a paste or dough-like substance.
  11. Cooking/Baking (Hebrew: אופה/בישול Bishul/Ofeh)  Any method of heating food to prepare for eating is included in this prohibition.
  12. Shearing (Hebrew: גוזז Gozez) Severing/uprooting any body-part of a creature.
  13. Scouring/Laundering (Hebrew: מלבן Melaben) Cleansing absorbent materials of absorbed /ingrained impurities.
  14. Carding/Combing Wool (Hebrew: מנפץ Menafeṣ) Separating/disentangling fibres.
  15. Dyeing (Hebrew: צובע Ṣovea) Colouring or enriching the colour of any material or substance.
  16. Spinning (Hebrew: טווה Toveh) Twisting fibres into a thread or twining strands into a yarn.
  17. Warping (Hebrew: מיסך Meseḥ) Creating the first form for the purpose of weaving.
  18. Making Two Loops/Threading Heddles (Hebrew: עושה שתי בתי נירין Oseh Sh’tei Batei Nirin) Forming loops for the purpose of weaving or the making of net like materials.
  19. Weaving (Hebrew: אורג שני חוטין Oreg) Forming fabric (or a fabric item) by interlacing long threads passing in one direction with others at a right angle to them.
  20. Separating Two Threads (Hebrew: פוצע שני חוטין Poṣe’a) Removing/cutting fibres from their frame, loom or place.
  21. Tying (Hebrew: קושר Kosher) Binding two pliant objects skilfully or permanently via twisting.
  22. Untying (Hebrew: מתיר Matir) The undoing of any tied (see Tying) or spun (see Spinning) binding
  23. Sewing (Hebrew: תופר Tofer) Combining separate objects into a single entity, whether through sewing, gluing, stapling, welding, dry mounting, etc.
  24. Tearing (Hebrew: קורע Kore’a) Ripping an object in two or undoing any sewn connection.
  25. Trapping (Hebrew: צד Ṣad) Forcible confinement of a living creature, the confining of a creature to make it easier to capture in one’s hand.
  26. Killing (Hebrew: שוחט Shoḥet) Ending a creature’s life, whether through slaughter or any other method.
  27. Flaying/Skinning (Hebrew:מפשט Mepashet) Removing the hide from the body of a dead animal.
  28. Curing/Preservation (Hebrew: מעבד Me’aved); sometimes referred to as “Salting” ( מולח Mole’aḥ). Preserving any item to prevent spoiling for a long period of time.
  29. Smoothing (Hebrew: ממחק Memaḥek) Scraping/sanding a surface to achieve smoothness.
  30. Scoring (Hebrew: משרטט Mesartet) Scoring/drawing a cutting guideline.
  31. Measured Cutting (Hebrew: מחתך Meḥateḥ) Cutting any object to a specific size.
  32. Writing (Hebrew: כותב Kotev) Writing/forming a meaningful character or design.
  33. Erasing (Hebrew: מוחק על מנת לכתוב שתי אותיות Moḥek [al menat lichtov shtei otiyot]) Cleaning/preparing a surface to render it suitable for writing.
  34. Construction (Hebrew: בונה Boneh) Contributing to the forming of any lasting structure. The action of joining different pieces together, e.g. inserting the handle of an axe into the socket is a derived form of this activity.  Also, making a protective covering (or a ‘tent’) is forbidden.
  35. Demolition (Hebrew: סותר Soter) Demolishing for any constructive purpose. For example, knocking down a wall in order to extend or repair the wall would be demolition for a constructive purpose. Combing a wig to set it correctly and pulling out hairs during the procedure with a metal toothed brush or comb would be constructive ‘demolition’, as each hair that is removed in the process of the wig (a utensil) is progressing its state towards a desired completion.
  36. Extinguishing a Fire (Hebrew: מכבה Meḥaveh) Extinguishing a fire/flame, or diminishing its intensity. While extinguishing a fire is forbidden even when great property damage will result; in the event of any life-threatening fire, the flames must be extinguished, by the principle of pikuaḥ nefesh.
  37. Ignition (Hebrew: מבעיר Mav’ir) Igniting, fuelling or spreading a fire/flame. This includes making, transferring or adding fuel to a fire. This is one of the few Sabbath prohibitions mentioned explicitly in the Torah (Exodus 35:3). Judaism requires Sabbath candles to be lit before the Sabbath; it is forbidden to light them on the Sabbath. They are intended to take the place of candles which cannot be lit on the Sabbath.
  38. Fine-tuning / Repairing a Utensil (Hebrew: מכה בפטיש Makeh Bapetish). This activity refers to completing an object and bringing it into its final useful form.  This is the prohibition by which instruments cannot be tuned nor a string replaced which lead to the prohibition on any playing of a musical instrument on Shabbat and thus barred instruments from the synagogue.
  39. Transferring Between Domains / Carrying (Hebrew: הוצאה Hotza’ah) Transferring something from one domain type to another domain type, or transferring within a public thoroughfare. All areas are divided into four categories: a private domain, a public thoroughfare, an open area and an exempt area.  Transferring an object from a private domain to a public thoroughfare, or the reverse, is forbidden. Transferring an object between an open area to a private domain or public thoroughfare is prohibited. Transferring an object between an exempt area and any other domain is permissible. In addition, transferring an object for a distance of four cubits (or more) in a public thoroughfare or open area is forbidden.

In Yeshua’s day, some of this had been handed down through the generations as “traditions of the elders”, and some was still being newly formed and debated.  Yeshua joined in such debates and even called into question traditions of the elders when these brought forth actions which were contrary to the intent of Scripture.  In 1st Century Jewish society, the job of protecting Shabbat, and defining the other laws of the community,was ascribed to the members of the Sanhedrin – hence all the political intrigues engaged in to get a majority representation on the Sanhedrin.  For each of these thirty-nine prohibitions they made rulings as to what the Jewish people were commanded or forbidden to do in keeping with the prohibition – and such rulings were the “Law”, sometimes even referred to as the “Torah” of the Jewish people.  Breaching these rulings was considered to be breaking God’s law, even when the ruling had little relationship to what God had written for us in Scripture.  

Thus, despite all the exhortations in Scripture for the Jewish people to praise and worship God with instruments, they were forbidden to be played as part of the Shabbat Service in the Synagogue.  In another context Yeshua said of the religious leaders: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commandments of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9)   Music did, however, remain an essential part of services in the Holy Temple. This kind of rabbinical enactment—a prohibition designed to prevent desecration of Shabbat—is called a shvut.  In general, a shvut was deemed not to apply in the Holy Temple.  Music accompanied even those Temple rituals that were deemed not to essentially require musical accompaniment in order to be obedient to Torah.  However, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, this left the Jewish people totally devoid of music in their worship as they had enculturated the prohibition against such in their Synagogues on Shabbat. (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (23)

Reference List

1. Levine, Lee I. The First Centurary Synagogue: New Perspectives. Arg. 77 : Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift, 2001.
2. Lacey, Ian. Synagogue Services. Israel & Judaism Studies. [Online] NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, 2007. [Cited: 3rd Dec. 2016.]
3. Spigel, Chad. First Centurary Synagogues. Bible Odyssey. [Online] [Cited: 3rd April 2019.]
4. The First-Centurary Synagogue – New Perspectives. Levine, Lee I. Jerusalem : Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift. Arg., 2001, Vol. 77.
5. Laan, Ray Vander. He Went To Synagogue. That The World May Know. [Online] [Cited: 25th July 2019.]
6. —. He Went To Synagogue. That the World May Know. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Dec. 2016.]
7. Spigel, Chad. First Century Synagogues. Bible Odessey. [Online] [Cited: 2nd April 2019.] Chad Spigel, “First Century Syn
8. Turnage, Marc. Exploring the Practices and Customs of the First Century Synagogue. [Online] 9th August 2016. [Cited: 19th April 2019.]
9. Synagogues – Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Hachlili, Rachel. May/June, s.l. : Biblical Archaeology Society, 2015.
10. Matthews, Doc. History of Christianity: Early Christian Worship. Youtube. [Online] [Cited: 17th April 2019.]
11. The Exclusion of Musical Instruments from the Ancient Synagogue. McKinnon, James W. s.l. : Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 1979, Vol. 106, pp. 77–87.
12. Sauter, Megan. Ancient Synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora. Biblical Archiology. [Online] 3rd September 2016. [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
13. Killian, Greg. The Synagogue – Bet HaKnesset. Bete Munah. [Online] [Cited: 9th November 2019.]
14. Gafni, Professor Isaiah. Jewish Life in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 29th July 2019.]
15. The Ancient Synagogue Service. Burton, Ernest De Witt. The Biblical World, Vol. 8, pp. 143-148. 01903578.
16. Hegg, Tim. The Public Reading of the Scriptures in the 1st Century Synagogue. s.l. : Torah Resource, 2007.
17. Shurpin, Yehuda. Why can’t we connect to G-d through music on Shabbat? Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 9th November 2019.]
18. Activities Prohibited on Sabbath. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
19. EISENBERG, RONALD L. Shabbat’s Work Prohibition. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
20. Palatnik, Lori. Laws of Shabbat for Beginners. Aish He Torah. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
21. OU Staff. The 39 Categories of Sabbath Work Prohibited by Law. OU. [Online] 17th July 2006. [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
22. Melamed, Rabbi Eliezer. Laws of Shabbat – Volume 1. s.l. : Yeshivat Har Bracha Maggid Books.
23. Lizorkin, Ilya. Aspects of the Sabbath in the Second Temple Period. 2006.

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* In what ways was worship in the Synagogue like worship in your church, and in what ways was it different?
* What were the functions that the synagogue fulfilled in Jesus’ time, and what functions does your church fulfil now?
* Compare the rolls of the synagogue officials with the roles of leaders within your church.
* What do you think of the 39 laws that the Jews made to ensure their people kept the Sabbath as God had commanded? Can you think of any instances when Jesus commented on any of their Sabbath rules?
* What are your thoughts on their reasons for excluding the playing of musical instruments in their synagogue worship and the ultimate result of such being that after the destruction of the second temple in 70AD, all Jewish worship has been without musical instruments? Is this practice of excluding instruments from worship in agreement with the scriptures?