This week in my Tuesday night class, The Jewish Context of the Bible, we continued to look at famous rabbis. This week was Akiva (45 AD – 132 AD), perhaps my favorite rabbi of all time right under Jesus and Paul (though Akiva gives Paul a run for his money – not kidding!). You can find the audio on the website of Prestoncrest Church of Christ, or on my Audio Lessons page.
One reason I like Akiva so much is that his teachings were brilliant on their own. The other rabbis we have studied so far have been brilliant, but Jesus seems to have a similar saying to match all of theirs. Akiva, on the other hand, has several that sound like they could have been right from Jesus’ mouth, but I could not find a comparable saying. So in this post I’m going to go over two of them that go together.
One of Akiva’s greatest teachings was on free will. This rabbi was insistent on free will because both Jews and Christians were beginning to believe in concepts that would eventually lead to the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. The idea that Akiva fought so hard against is thus: all men are born depraved sinners and so when you sin, it’s because you were born that way. Akiva said that was not the case, and that if you sinned, it’s your fault. Of course he, like other Jews, believed in Satan (the great accuser), but he did not let even that dissuade him from his beliefs. Simply put, if Satan tempted you to sin, you still chose to sin. But Akiva’s ideas on free will continued to develop further along into how God deals with Humanity.
A giant misconception about Judaism that most Christians have is that the Jews think they need to work their way to heaven. That is not at all true. Judaism has always been a “saved by God’s grace” religion. For them, keeping the law doesn’t earn them a spot in Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come), but rather the covenant God made with Abraham does. It’s always been because of God and his grace.
“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7, NIV)
However, just because God promised something to Abraham doesn’t mean that a Jew is off the hook. According to their own theology, their response to God should be to keep all of his commands in the Torah. That attitude is (should be) the exact same as Christians. God’s grace through Jesus has set me free from sin, and now in response I will live my life for Him. I have the free will to give my life (my time and actions) to God. On the final Judgment Day, when you look back on your life, you will look back on what you chose to do. And thus, we come to this saying of Akiva’s:
“The world is judged by grace, yet all is according to the excess of works that be good or evil.” (Mishnah, Avot 3:16)
There’s not really anything I can say better than Akiva on this matter. But I found a saying in the very next verse of the Mishnah that expounds on it (in my opinion). Akiva says:
“The store is open, the storekeeper gives credit, the account book is open, and the hand is writing. Whoever wants to borrow may come and borrow. But the collectors go around every day and exact payment from man with their consent or without their consent. And they have grounds for what they do. And the judgment is a true judgment.” (Avot 3:17)
Every thing you do is written down in the books, Akiva says, and when you sin it’s like borrowing from God. Most Christians are familiar with this concept, we call it “debt”. We sing songs like “He Paid a Debt” and we thank God for forgiving us of our debts as we forgive our debtors. But praise be to God that when the collectors come, the Messiah has already paid our debts, even though we willfully chose to “borrow” that “credit” (aka: sin)!
If you are a Christian, then I have this question for you: now that the Messiah has paid your debts, what will be your response? Will you slack off and sink into mediocrity? Or will you become consumed by a passion for the Living God? The store is open, and the hand is writing. What will the storekeeper write down about you?
Peace to you,