This is Part 7 in our series on “Athens or Jerusalem? Establishing the Spiritual Heritage of Jesus’ Followers”
The concept of salvation in Christianity has mostly been concerned with the world to come. As though taken right out of a chapter from Plato’s Hellenistic philosophy, the true pleasures of life are in the spirit realm, reserved for the afterlife where we are no longer bound by our bodies and a corrupt physical world. For much of Christianity, salvation is reserved for after death when we are redeemed from this present world.
Salvation for the Hebrews is different. Salvation is not primarily a way of getting away from this world, but the power and presence of God that is needed to transform one’s personal life and society here in this life. Unlike Greek Platonism, the Hebrews did not separate between the body and spirit of man, and so they experienced salvation in the here and now for the whole person. Salvation is not just an invisible spirit finally freed from the physical body and lifted up to heaven.
As we have learned previously, God is the creator of the entire universe and is involved in every aspect of our lives, body, soul and spirit. These cannot be divided and so life is to be lived to the fullest. Escape from this life may sound attractive but will not solve anyone’s problems and is completely foreign to Hebrew thinking. The Hebrews did not view the earth as an alien place to avoid, but as part of God’s “good” creation, a place to live our lives robustly and in a way that glorifies the Creator.
Salvation in Hebrew
The Hebrew verb for salvation is yasha which means to “save” or “deliver,” and the noun is yeshua, “salvation.” In the Hebrew Bible the verb yasha is never used in the sense of “escape to heaven or paradise.” The main idea of salvation is simply to “deliver from evil,” or “set free from oppression.”
This can be seen numerous times in the Hebrew Bible where God frequently “saves” his people from enemy nations and evil (eg. Dt. 20:4, Judges 3:9). It is also interesting to note that “salvation” often comes through other people (eg. I Sam. 11:9). If you bother to look up these verses, you will find that different English versions use words like “help,” “victory” or “deliverance” to translate the Hebrew word for salvation (yeshua). That is because its meaning is very broad and goes far beyond the kind of “salvation” after death taught by much of the Church today.
The Hebrew meaning of salvation as help or deliverance here in this life is also found in the New Testament. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesies that the salvation Jesus will bring includes rescuing Israel from the hands of her enemies (Luke 1:71, 74). This kind of physical deliverance or victory is the same idea conveyed in the Exodus story where God delivered Israel from the hands of the Egyptians and their “salvation” included their physical as well as their spiritual well-being (Psalm 106:9-11).
So biblical salvation brings deliverance and help in this life, and the full work of salvation will come at the resurrection when both humanity and the world are transformed into a “new heaven and earth.” Salvation in the Hebrew mind speaks of total restoration of the person, body, soul and spirit, not just a bodiless spirit hovering in space, as some imagine. Indeed, in heaven we will recognize each other because we will have a body, even as the disciples recognized Jesus after he resurrected from the dead, showed them his pierced hands, ate, and spoke with them.
There is a telling illustration of how the Hebrews understand salvation in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus speaks of the final hour when the King will “separate between the sheep and goats” (Mt. 25:31-36). Who are those among the nations that will be resurrected and enter eternal life? Jesus makes it very clear that the work of salvation here on earth has to do with getting involved in the lives of the needy and helping them in their everyday lives. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me” (vs. 35-36). I copied these verses here because reading them makes me shudder to think just how far we have strayed from God’s ways of salvation.
To repeat, salvation has to do with the entirety of life, not just after we die, and means getting our hands dirty and getting involved in the lives of people, particularly the needy and oppressed, something the Hebrews were always keen to do, and so should we.
Yeshua, Hebrew for Salvation
Names were important to the Hebrews. A name represented the character, destiny and reputation of the one to whom it was given. That is why Moses forbade defaming another’s name by false witness (Ex. 20:16). Indeed, “A good name (reputation) is more valuable that great riches” (Prov. 22:1).
Jesus was given the Hebrew name Yeshua meaning “salvation.” In his teaching and healing ministry here on earth, especially among the outcasts of society, Jesus demonstrated the power of his salvation. Salvation through Jesus broke the chains off the oppressed, healed the sick and restored blessings to the people who were cursed. If we remove the “Jewishness” from Jesus and his name, as much of the Church through the centuries has done, we also lose the true meaning of Yeshua’s salvation.
We might say that the life of Jesus was a commentary on his name, and he did not come to help people escape their lives on earth. He came to set people free from sin, sickness and oppression. By his example he teaches us to get involved in the lives of others, and not to look the other way even if it is towards heaven (or towards Jerusalem, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan where the religious just walked right past the person in need).
This is the work of Yeshua, and this should be the work of his followers – to bring salvation to the people down here on earth.
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