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Isaiah and Jesus: where the Pharisees and Sadducees Missed the Boat

There are two points I’ve learned about how to read the New Testament that give me a greater understanding of the text. The first, I learned from Pastor Arnold Jurchen in Bible study at Holy Cross Lutheran church in Goehner, Nebraska. The second I recently read in the Lutheran Study Bible’s introduction to the prophets, and will be a key point in the upcoming study I’m preparing for the book of Isaiah.

In that Bible study, Pastor Jurchen addressed the issue of why the Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t believe that he was the Messiah. He said that Jews in the Old Testament laid out two Messiahs: one was the suffering servant, the other was the eternal heir of David. From that, it’s pretty easy to determine who the Jews wanted to believe in. The point from the Lutheran study Bible heightened that point: the Sadducees, Pharisees and other religious leader held the Books of Moses as authoritative over the prophets, or at least as more important than the prophets. That shocked me when I read it, but in a way that made sense.

At the time of Jesus, the Jews, after generations of struggle, had gotten a temple, and some measure of control in Jerusalem. With their nose up to the Romans, the teachers of the law said to themselves, “Listen, the previous generations really screwed up. We’d better observe the law of Moses to the hilt. Our fathers didn’t, and they themselves shipped hundreds of miles away from God’s promised land. If we return in repentance and keep the temple law, eventually, we’ll get the Rambo Messiah who’ll kick out the Romans.”

But they forgot a couple of things: one, God works in spite of our failings. In Isaiah 1:12-17, God bemoans the sacrifices that Israel was offering up, and tells them to concern themselves with social justice. Even though Isaiah and the other prophets proclaimed God’s judgment, they proclaimed his forgiveness for those who repent (even in exile). When you go to the New Testament, you see Jesus healing the widows’ son and feeding large crowds, caring for the needs of lesser people. When you read John 7-8 (Jesus at the Feast of Booths) and see the dialogue, it’s clear that the Jews want to use their allegiance to Moses (“we are Abraham’s children”), but if you read Isaiah, you see that claiming Abraham isn’t valid if you are persisting in sin. The answer wasn’t to reestablish the temple which could be destroyed again (and was); the answer was to look to the hope that, in repentance and faith, God would send His Messiah.

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