Point of Reference
by Fred Price
Jesus’ teachings are packed with allusions to the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. His three favorite books, based on the number of times he referenced them, being Deuteronomy – from the Torah , Isaiah – from the Prophets, and Psalm – from the Writings. These books representing the “Bible” Jesus and his followers read and were reared on, our Old Testament.
Many times though, these passages were quoted in part or connected to other scripture; a common practice among Jewish rabbis – including Jesus. This technique, characterized as “stringing pearls”,1was used to bring together passages from different parts of scripture to corroborate an ideal or to expand its truth. At other times, they would merely quote a phrase in part, allowing the listener to complete the thought as a means of encouraging an interactive form of discussion and study that fostered a sense of unity between the scriptures and those hearing it. (A strategy still practiced today by advertisers when they produce a commercial several minutes long which is then – over time – reduced to several shorter commercials, relying on our memories to recite the whole thing to us even when we see it only in part.)
The Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12is a classic example of stringing scriptural pearls together to enhance the significance of a particular teaching or “hinting” of one thing while saying another; which then appears new and even radical. In the Beatitudes, each “new” statement by Jesus was grounded in passages familiar to his followers – in this case from Isaiah and the Psalm – providing background for understanding or creating a fuller meaning and application. (See Is. 61:2,3; Psalm 37:11; Is. 55:1,2; Psalm 24:1-6; 73:1& 17:14) Stringing together these various scriptures made the point that God is faithful, even when life is confusing and painful.
Jesus, characterizing himself as the “good shepherd,” follows this same mode of teaching. His claim that, “I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:14,15; called to remembrance another favorite image found in Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,… He guides me in paths of righteousness… your rod and your staff, they comfort me. – He restores my soul.”
But beyond creating a comforting image of himself, he was actually developing an image of power; as shepherding a “flock” was often used to describe – in part – the function of kings. Isaiah 44:28 referring to King Cyrus of Persia as a shepherd while Psalm 78:70-72relates how God chose David to be King, taking him from the sheep pens of his father to be overseer of the people of Jacob/Israel; shepherding them with skillful hands and integrity of heart. On the other hand, Ezekiel 34:1-6 describes God as being angry with Jerusalem’s leaders for being “bad shepherds”; promising to step into the gap for them, being a good shepherd by leading them back to safety and “good pastures.” (See also Micah 5:2 & Matthew 2:6)
Another “hint” or indirect reference to Old Testament imagery can be found in Christ’s teaching on judgment found in Matthew 25:31,32 “When the Son of man comes in his glory … he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Again alluding to Ezekiel 34:12, which pictures God addressing the flock he has just promised to rescue and lead back to safety in their home pasture; yet warning them that the unappreciative and unrepentant will not avoid their just “reward”. Saying “As for you, my flock, this is what the sovereign Lord says; I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.” Ezekiel 34:17
The phrase “Son of man” used in Mat. 25 and elsewhere (upwards of 80 times in the Gospels alone), was occasionally used in an ordinary way. But much of the time Jesus used it to convey something special, someone out of the ordinary; Jesus’ contemporaries recognizing a mysterious reference in Daniel to a “son of man” as being a key messianic prophecy. In a vivid dream, Daniel saw “…one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Daniel 7:13,14
The Book of Daniel predicted the rise and fall of many great nations and kingdoms, all of which eventually being replaced and ruled over by one supreme King who would rule forever. The difference between a son of man and the Son of man – or even the “one like a son of man” being his obvious acceptance by God – the Ancient of Days – as divine. A characterization Jesus made of himself when he described himself as the Son of man in Matthew 8:20; Mark 13:26 & 14:62; Luke 17:20-36. Clearly “hinting” of his future role as our Lord, Savior and King. ( Revelation 1:13 & 14:14)
1From Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg’s Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus – How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith , Zondervan Publishing
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Fred Price - married (50 years), father of two grown children, grandfather of six.
Fred retired earlier this year after 42 years as a factory worker. He has always had a heart for young people and the challenges they face today. Over the years Fred has taught Discipleship Groups for High School and college students.
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