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How Much Did the Jews Know?

The question arose in Bible study last night about how much the ancient Jews knew about a messiah who would suffer for their sins.  By “ancient,” I mean during the time of Jesus, just less than two thousand years ago.  When John the Baptist came preaching to the Jews, he pointed to Jesus and said “Behold!  The Lamb of God!”  (John 1:29-31).  Even beginning Bible students recognize this is a reference to a bloody sacrifice, for lambs were sacrificed as an atonement for sin.  Therefore, was John’s proclamation gibberish to them, or did they understand what he was saying?

Before I get to Old Testament scripture that talks about the “suffering servant,” let me point out in our own society how we treat scripture. This will help us understand how the ancient Jews treated scripture. It’s easy to say, “The Jews knew this,” talking about an entire society as if they were one person or had a collective knowledge.  But the fact is, not everybody in a society has the same level of knowledge.  For example, how many Baptist Americans understand or can fluently discuss Presbyterian doctrines?  How many Baptists understand or can fluently discuss Baptist doctrine?  And then, how many Americans can understand or fluently discuss any religious doctrine at all?  When we know that all levels of understanding exist in a society, then it makes sense to us that in a Jewish society, only a few people (relatively speaking) would expect a messiah who would suffer for sins.

Let me use yet another illustration.  Our society knows how to make cars.  I’m a member of our society, yet I don’t know how to make cars.  Only a few people in our society can actually make cars, yet we all know that “we” make cars, although I don’t.

Which is the Greatest Law?

If you remember, in the Old Testament (Tanach), God gave Israel the Ten Commandments.  I suppose it was likely that most Jewish children could recite the Ten Commandments, just as our children today can recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the alphabet.  But what about something more esoteric than that?

Luke 10:25-28 says

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered: ”‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

A Jewish lawyer, one trained in the Torah, which is the Jewish Law, asked Jesus a question.  Jesus turned it back on him and said, “What do you think?”  Immediately, the lawyer gave the correct answer.  You see, the lawyer wasn’t asking Jesus a question to find out the answer; instead he was testing Jesus to see if Jesus knew as much as he did.

Every Jewish school child probably could recite the Ten Commandments, but how many knew what Jesus and the lawyer knew?  How many knew there was actually another law that was greater than the Ten Commands, and upon which the Ten Commandments were based?  That law, by the way, is found in Deuteronomy 6:5. 

The point I want to make in the story about Jesus and the lawyer is that Jewish society knew the greatest law in the Bible, although it was obscure and not part of the Ten Commandments.

Does God Hold Us Accountable?

Does God hold us accountable for what is in the Bible?  Suppose a typical American stands before God and says, “How was I supposed to know that was in the Bible and that you wanted me to obey the Bible?”  Is that a legitimate question?

Already in our society we have a proverb, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”  Even our own society holds us accountable to obey the laws whether we know them or not.  It’s our responsibility as a person to know what the laws are.  But does God operate in the same way?

Leviticus 4:27-28

27 If a member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, he is guilty.  28 When he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring [an] offering for the sin he committed...

This law is very explicit and repeated in several ways.  In the example I gave, it says, “If a member of the community sins…”  Using the same formula, throughout Leviticus 4 it says the same thing for the anointed priests, for the whole Israelite community, and for the leaders.  That means it applies to the preachers, to government officials, to the nation as a whole and to each individual person.  If anyone sins in ignorance, God holds him responsible for it; and when that person finds out he has sinned, he must make atonement for it.

God gave us the Bible to study, to use and to learn.  It is our guide in life.  God told Israel,

Deuteronomy 6:6-9

6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Our responsibility is to learn God’s laws and obey them, in the same way that it is our responsibility to learn our own nation’s laws and obey them.

How Difficult Is It to Understand Prophecy?

Many ancient Jewish scholars diligently studied the scriptures and knew what to expect, although sometimes these studies may be difficult.  In studying prophesy, the Jews of then and the scholars of now face similar challenges. 

Combined Prophesy

Sometimes one sentence or statement refers to two prophetic events, such as Isaiah 9:6,

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.

In this case, Jesus was born, but the government was not on his shoulders and it will not be on his shoulders until he returns to earth as King.  This one sentences talks about two events that are thousands of years apart as if it were one and the same.

Symbolic Prophesy

Sometimes prophesy has so much symbolism we need to be told what the key is before we can understand what it means, such as in Daniel 7.

Daniel 7:2-3, 16-17

2 Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and…  3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.

“So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things:  17 ‘The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth.

In this prophesy, found in Daniel 7, we see that “great beasts” is symbolic for “kingdoms,” and “the sea” is symbolic for “the earth.” 

Obscure Prophesy

Sometimes prophecy may be given that does not appear prophetic in nature, such as in
Hosea 11:1

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

Matthew 2:14-15

14 So [Joseph] got up, took the child (Jesus) and his mother (Mary) during the night and left for Egypt,  15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Implied Prophesy

Daniel 9:27 says,

And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation

This “abomination of desolation” is also talked about in other places: Daniel 11:31 and Daniel 12:11. 

Jesus said in Matthew 24:15,

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel...

We see then, that in Daniel 9 an event called “an abomination that causes desolation” will happen in a wing of the temple.  In Matthew 24, we learn that the prophesied “abomination of desolation” had not yet occurred.  However, in AD 70, the temple was destroyed.  So, how can the abomination of desolation ever happen?

The implied prophesy is this: the temple will be rebuilt again.  And that is the hope of Israel today.

Conclusion of Prophesy

Study of prophesies is a daunting task.  It is huge; it is complex; it requires diligence and clear thinking.  That is one of the reasons I try to steer clear of discussing prophesy during our Bible studies.  The topic is so fascinating and engulfing that we could easily be beguiled into abandoning the current topic of Bible study to investigate something titillating.

Did the Jews Know About a Messiah Who Would Die for Our Sins?

So now we come to the reason of this essay.  Did the Jews understand what John the Baptist meant when he proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”?  Did the Jews know the Messiah would suffer and die? 

On one hand, it’s possible that that’s what John had been preaching all along.  John came preaching and baptizing.  In his preaching he may have taught the people that the messiah is going to suffer and die for their sins.  It’s possible, although it’s not necessary because the Jews already had that information in their scriptures.

Understanding of the messiah was kind of fuzzy.  How could it happen?  In one case, the messiah would be a born a child, as in Isaiah 9:6.  But the messiah would also come in a chariot in the clouds, as in Isaiah 9:1 and Jeremiah 4:13.  It’s easy to see how a born baby could die, but how can a great God coming in the clouds ever die?  Besides, which way is he coming, as a baby or as a god?  And how can both be true?  We find out later, by hindsight, that both are true because they refer to different events.  In one case Jesus came as a baby.  In another case, Jesus will come as a great god and king.

Did the Jews really expect their king to come as a human child?  What does the Bible say? 

Matthew 2:1-6

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?

4 When [King Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.  5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 ”‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

So, the Jews were expecting their King, their messiah, to be born as a human child in Bethlehem.  But the king didn’t know that; he had to ask the scholars.

Now a person knows a human child is prone to die.  It may not be possible for a god riding in the clouds to die, but it is certainly possible for a human child to die.

Therefore the question is, did the Jews know their Messiah was going to suffer and die?  The answer is Yes, because of the following scriptures.

Isaiah 52:14-15

Scripture My Commentary
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—

his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness – Thus the messiah was to be tortured
15 so will he sprinkle many nations, Like a sacrificial lamb, his blood was to atone for all the sins of the world
and kings will shut their mouths because of him. The kings of the world will (one day) all acknowledge the Jewish messiah as their king

Isaiah 53:

Scripture My Commentary
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. Thus the messiah would look like an ordinary man, not like a great king-god coming in the clouds.

Yes, a king-god would come in the clouds, but the son of God would be a human, suffer and die.
3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  When we humans, both Jews and gentiles, saw Jesus, we saw a man who was despised, rejected, sorrowful and had seen suffering.  And we didn’t care (we didn’t esteem him)
4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,

Jesus endured this in order to bear our weaknesses and sorrows, like a scapegoat does.
yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But in our pride, we thought God hated him as much as we ourselves did.  We thought it was God who had smitten and afflicted him.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. But it was for us, the humans of the world, that the Sacrifice of God would be given for our sins.  Therefore by this sacrifice we would be healed of our sins and forgiven.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  Every one of us needs this sacrifice; no one is innocent.  And God has put onto Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, all of our sins
7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. Just like a lamb going to slaughter, Jesus did not resist.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. Jesus as a human was cut off on our behalf.  It is he who did without wife, children and heirs, instead of us who deserved it.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, Jesus was crucified, just as criminal.  Left to himself, he was assigned to have the burial of a criminal, but a rich man stepped in (Joseph of Arimathea) and gave Jesus his own grave.
though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.   
10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, This is God’s doing.  It is God’s plan.  It is God’s justice.  God figured it out and God brought it about for his own reason, which we may or may not understand some day.
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. And although Jesus did die without descendents or honor, nevertheless God will not allow that to be the final chapter.  Jesus will yet be given worldly honor, and we believers are all his family.
11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.


For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.  Jesus died as a sacrificial lamb for our sins, and today he lives, making intercession for us

The conclusion then is that the Jews indeed did know and understand what John the Baptist meant when John proclaimed about Jesus,