In a fascinating study, Larry Hurtado examines the ways people in Yeshua’s lifetime exhibited worshipful behavior toward him (How On Earth Did Jesus Become God? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, pgs. 134-151). To be clear, people would fall on their knees before a king or general or even a landlord to implore their favor. Just because someone in the Gospel accounts knelt before Yeshua or “worshipped” him does not mean they realized he was divine or even that he was the one and only king. They viewed him as a person able to give them something they greatly desired, such as healing or freedom from guilt.
But it is true that after the Gospels were written people would show reverence to Yeshua that was truly worship in the divine sense. It is also true that the Gospel writers, between four and six decades after the events they wrote about, were using stories to comment on issues relevant for their time. It is not surprising, then, that in some cases, they hint in many scenes that kneeling or falling on your face is the truest way to relate to the king that is Yeshua.
Hurtado notes differences in the ways the Gospel writers handle this particular issue. Luke avoids the verb “worship” (“prostrated,” “knelt down”) with reference to people’s posture toward Yeshua until after the resurrection (22:52). In other words, it seems Luke was careful to distinguish between attitudes toward him in the periods before and after his glory was revealed.
Mark has a different approach, one which fits well his ironic Gospel (as Hurtado wryly observes). Those who do obeisance to Yeshua in Mark are the demons (the only ones who correctly grasp Yeshua’s transcendent identity, 5:6) and mocking soldiers pretending he is Caesar for a day (15:19). Mark’s point is indirect, but powerful: people easily miss who Yeshua is and few can see it correctly.
This article is an excerpt from a book I am writing, a discipleship guide for Messianic Jews and Gentiles.It is one of several book projects I have underway right now (a Paul book, a short commentary on Genesis, a short commentary on Matthew). For news and more free excerpts of my work sign up for the MJ Musings Weekly email list here. And for daily notes on readings from Torah and the Gospels sign up for the Daily D’var here.
Yeshua received obeisance or worship only once (some might think surprisingly) in John. It is the blind man in 9:38, returning to thank Yeshua after having caused some notable controversy over him among the elite in Jerusalem. He said, “Lord, I believe,” and then worshipped him — meaning he prostrated himself in front of Yeshua. Hurtado’s comment is that John and Luke are both depicting acts of characters to Yeshua as role models for their audience. Those who have “seen” through faith that Yeshua is the risen Lord should pay homage to his glory and we who have been cured of our blindness should worship him.
Matthew’s use of the verb for worship may be the most interesting of all. Being the first Gospel after Mark, and clearly using Mark as a source, nonetheless Matthew edits the worship verb out of both the demoniac scene and the incident about mocking soldiers. In Matthew 8:28 the two demoniacs “met him” rather than the “worshipped before him” of Mark 5:6. Instead of saying the soldiers “knelt down in worship” as in Mark 15:19, Matthew says “they knelt down and mocked him” (27:29). Matthew’s Gospel is known for having a focus on teaching virtue, scripture, and doctrine.
There are ten scenes in which characters offer reverence toward Yeshua in Matthew (2:2, 8; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 17:6, 14; 28:9, 17). Hurtado singles out the story of Yeshua walking on water as the greatest example of Matthew diverging from the other Gospels to depict worship of the earthly Yeshua. The disciples are bewildered in Mark 6:52 (of course, if you know Mark’s literary style). They were frightened in John 6:16-21 until Yeshua said, “it is I,” in a typical Johannine allusion to Yeshua as the divine “I am.” But in Matthew 14:33 they “worshipped him” and said “Truly you are the Son of God!” (ESV). Of course, in that historical moment the disciples did not truly understand Yeshua’s transcendent identity. They did not actually grasp that Yeshua was Lord of wind and wave or that he shared God’s unique identity. But Matthew’s readers would see the story that way and so what was probably just amazement and awe from the disciples about Yeshua’s miracle is projected into Matthew’s time and context as the appropriate response to Messiah’s greatness.
All four Gospels, then, depict Yeshua as Lord and worthy of worship in their own way.