Yes, it was what I hoped. For 3 days I received a heavy dose of the Jewish background to the Biblical text. This type of learning has marked my most exciting encounters with the Word of God in the last 15 years. Here’s the back story.
Some years ago I heard a recommendation for a book by Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. It explored the Jewish traditions that lay at the heart of scripture. It was a great book, insightful and readable. It explored Jewish family life, wedding ceremonies, and world and life view, rabbinical teaching, education in Jewish villages, etc. . . . I began to use Wilson’s stuff as background in my sermons. The messages were well received. That set me to thinking, “I want to go to Israel for more land and Jewish practices background to the Bible. If simply this book does so much for my preaching, how much more a holy land visit?”
Fast-forward 15 years: I was tired and discouraged in my work and pleaded with the Lord, “Please either take me from here to a new charge, or encourage my spirit so I can carry on.” God delivered an answer in 2 weeks. A couple came to me and pledged to send Michele and me to the holy land, if we’d accept. I knew this was God’s answer. “Yes, you are the answer to my prayer,” I shared with them. They sent us with Brad Gray, a young guide from Western Michigan who was a protégé of Ray Vander Laan, famous holy land guide. That trip reinvigorated my preaching and renewed my soul. The Bible was written in a Jewish context, but by 150 AD, most Christians knew very little about the Jews. The church became increasingly Greco Roman and lost touch with Judaism. Yet the Bible is packed with Jewish history, sayings, stories, hyperbole, and codes that make it come alive in a whole new way when explored in its original context.
Which took me to Zeeland, MI this past Monday through Wednesday for “the Bible in Its Jewish Context Conference.” Brad, our holy land guide, and other presenters taught the first Bible in Jewish context conference. Most of the presenters are holy land nuts who shared a common thread of guiding people in the holy land and attending Jerusalem University College (JUC). As guides, they are an independent explorers. As JUC attendees they shared a heart for the land of Israel and Jewish history, and studied there. However, it was the first ever conference led by such a group who largely do solo tours in the land rather than locking down in a conference setting in North America. What a rare opportunity to learn from holy land zealots. Over 300 people converged from over 20 states, knowing they were coming to a rare event. Many attendees had been holy land travelers with the conference teaching staff. Most conferences celebrate the church, center on programming, or teach the value of leadership. This conference was a college level teaching extravaganza on the Jewish roots of the Bible. We listened to 10-12 teachings per day on various Bible passages aimed at geography and Jewish culture back stories to the Bible text. All teachings brought new insights to widely known scriptures.
Here's one tiny example from the parable of the great banquet. In small village life in ancient Israel there were 2 invites to a party. The first invite was a “save the date” invite. The response to this invite let the host know that there were no other conflicting events in villagers’ social schedules. Villages functioned as a unit, so it was a social disaster to have overlapping parties. First you checked to make sure all were available. All were, so the Luke 14 party could proceed. While none of that is found in the Biblical text, it’s the assumptions between the lines based on studies of Jewish village life. However, when the second invite goes out in Luke 14: 15-24, villagers begin to make excuses why they can’t come. I’ve got to “test drive new oxen,” “just got married,” “new field visit” were reasons given for not coming. To western society, these may sound like valid reasons to not attend. However, all had agreed to the date earlier, so the party host is rightfully angry. He had been dissed. These are nothing but sorry excuses. So, the host turns to others, so that the banquet hall can be filled. And so it is with the Father in heaven. The Jews broke covenant. They agreed to be His people, then don’t accept the visit from the Messiah. The “others” invited to the party are the Gentiles. The Jews listening to Jesus would have clearly understood the Jewish village context and the embarrassment to the host in receiving foolish excuses after all had cleared the date.
That’s a simple example. I heard 30 or 40 more in 3 days, and learned methods for discovering these on my own. Another tool I intend to use is to take another trip to the land where the church was birthed. Next February, 2018, Lord willing, Michele and I will go to Turkey on a “ministers and spouses only” trip and visit the 7 churches of Asia Minor. Those early churches shared much in context with us in western society. I look forward to having my tank topped off for the next several years of preaching. Monday through Wednesday whet my appetite.