Sunday, December 24, 2006

TorahBytes: Facing Reality (Va-Yiggash)

Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph! Is my father still living?" But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:3).

Last week we looked at how Joseph's brothers didn't recognize him when they went to Egypt in hope of buying food during a severe famine. Not realizing who he really was had nothing to do with the fact that he was the one that held their wellbeing in his hands. I drew a parallel between their experience and how we, as Jewish people, when we look at Yeshua today, do not see him for who he is - the Jewish Messiah. While it may be tragic that, like Joseph, he looks like a foreigner, he is still our only true hope. In order to truly know God and experience his blessings in and through our lives, we must come to Yeshua even though he seems to be anything but Jewish.

In this week's portion Joseph, after more than one interaction with his brothers, finally reveals himself to them. At first, they are terrified. It would take some time - if ever - before they would become fully comfortable in his presence. But in order for them to receive his help, which would include provision of food as well as a place to live and prosper for the next few hundred years, they had to come to grips with a reality that they most likely would have wished had been very different from what they were facing.

Years earlier Joseph had told his brothers and father about his dreams, which suggested that he would rise to some sort of place of superiority over them. His brothers had already been jealous of him due to his special place in their father's heart. His dreams at the time only made matters worse. Their hatred boiled to the point that some of them wanted to kill him, but in the end he was sold into slavery. The brothers deceived their father by claiming Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph in the meantime was taken to Egypt where he at first served as a slave until he was falsely accused of taking advantage of his master's wife. He spent the following several years in prison before the king of Egypt learned that he could interpret dreams. After he interpreted the king's own dreams about a coming famine and made a suggestion of how to prepare for it, the king not only released him from prison, but gave him a high ranking position with the responsibility of managing the nation’s provisions. It was during this famine that his brothers came to him in need of food not knowing who he really was.

I am sure that his brothers would not have written the story of their lives this way. Think how they must have felt standing before their brother whom they had mistreated, but now was in such a position of power over them. It was hard enough for them to hear his dreams many years before, but to actually be in that very situation must have been extremely humiliating.

Regardless of how humiliated and terrified they may have been, in order to get the help they needed, they had to accept their situation. They had to accept their brother's current place and position, humble themselves before him, and do things his way.

No matter how difficult this may have been for them, it was still God's way of taking care of them in their great need. No matter how uncomfortable they were at this point, they were encountering their solution, not further problems. What was now left for them to do was to accept what God was seeking to do in their lives.

And so the parallel for Jewish people continues. Even though we have centuries of negative feelings towards Yeshua and that the way he appears to us today is so foreign to us, he is our solution for our deepest needs. He is the only one who can satisfy our spiritual hunger. It is only through him that we can find lasting peace and security.

I wish the story of Yeshua and the Jewish people over the past two thousand years would be different from what it has been. But at the same time, we cannot change history. How the circumstances of life got to the present day is something we have no control over. To hear Yeshua say to us today that he is really one of us - our true Messiah - may be hard to take, but that doesn't change who he is. The sooner we can accept this, the better it will be for us.

I find that accepting things how they really are can be difficult for all of us. It isn't easy to face reality. We can be offended by how the world is and how our lives have turned out. We might have a hard time getting on with life, because it hasn't turned out the way we have expected. But instead of being offended by our failed expectations, we would do much better to face life and God as they really are.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

TorahBytes: Appearances Can Be Deceiving (Mi-Kez & Hanukkah 8)

Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (Bereshit / Genesis 42:8).
As a Jewish believer in Yeshua, this time of year is one of mixed emotions. The way the calendar has turned this year, we are in the midst of Hanukkah, which will end just a couple of days before Christmas. To me the most meaningful Hanukkah theme is that of no compromise. This is when we remember how the Maccabees stood against the pressure to conform to the ungodly ways of their Greco-Syrian oppressors. Even though many of their fellow Jewish countrymen were being swept away by Greek culture, they were the ones who led Israel back to faithfulness to the one true God.

For Jewish people, the Christmas season can seem reminiscent of the days of the Maccabees. All around us are the trappings of a foreign culture - more concerned with crass materialism than with the ways of God.

For the Jewish Believer Christmas time can be confusing. While the true meaning of Christmas has deep Jewish roots in that it is really about the coming of the Messiah, the way his birth is commemorated seems to be anything but Jewish. It is difficult for Jewish Believers to engage in Christmas while claiming to be true to our Jewish heritage. This is due to the abundance of non-Jewish cultural trappings that have become associated with this holiday.

Christmas is one of many examples of how faith in Yeshua as Messiah has been associated with not being Jewish. For many Jewish people resisting Yeshua and the various customs that have emerged among his followers is similar to the Maccabees' refusal to submit to the Greco-Syrian oppressors of their day.

That Yeshua has become so associated with things not Jewish is tragic. It is tragic for two reasons. First, the un-Jewishness of Yeshua has distracted many from understanding that he is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. When we fail to understand the Old Testament roots of the New Testament, we miss out on so much of what God has for us. Second, Yeshua's overly Gentile association gives the impression that he is irrelevant to Jewish people. It is for these two reasons that many of us have worked very hard at trying to restore Yeshua's fundamental Jewishness.

Still, for many Jewish people Yeshua is far more like a Gentile god than a Jewish Messiah. The current situation is similar to the experience of Joseph's brothers that we read about in this week's Torah portion. When they arrived in Egypt hoping to buy food during the famine, they would not have expected to see him, since they sold him into slavery so many years earlier. As he stood before them looking and sounding like an Egyptian, there was no way that they would have realized that he was their own flesh and blood.

That they didn't recognize him was understandable, but that didn't change the fact that he was the one that held their salvation in his hands. The day would come when he would reveal himself to them as their brother, but at first they had to relate to him as if he really was a foreigner.

This is similar to our current situation with Yeshua. We look forward to the day when the confusion regarding Yeshua's true Jewish identity will be removed - and what a day that will be! But until then, even though he doesn't look very Jewish, he is still our salvation. To be offended by the abundance of his non-Jewish cultural associations will only prevent us from benefiting from God's blessings through him - blessings that we and our people so desperately need.

No matter how much we try to present a very Jewish Yeshua to our people, for the time being he will continue to appear somewhat Gentile. Let that not stop us from introducing our people to him. For whatever he might look like, he still is the Jewish Messiah.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

TorahBytes: Enough Is Enough! (Va-Yeshev & Hanukkah 1)

How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? (Bereshit / Genesis 39:9)
One of the central themes of Hanukkah (this year from December 16 -23, 2006) is the resisting of society's pressure to turn from God's ways. Hanukkah retells the story of the Jewish revolt against Greco-Syrian control that occurred around 165 years before the coming of Yeshua. The emperor sought to consolidate his rule by forcing his subjects, including his Jewish ones, to adopt Greek customs. Many in Israel submitted themselves to these pagan practices, until a priest by the name of Matitiyahu refused. A small Jewish army led by Matitiyahu's son Judah eventually defeated the large and heavily armed Greco-Syrian force.

People who have sought to please God have often faced pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Hanukkah is an example of when those who desire to stay true to God and his ways need to say "Enough is enough!" and take a stand against the culture. We are in those times again.

It is interesting that the beginning of Hanukkah this year coincides with the Torah portion containing the story of Joseph. Joseph also stood against the pressure of ungodly influence. In his case it was not a cultural thing, but rather a personal situation, where he was tempted to commit adultery with his master's wife. He knew she created a no-win situation for him. To do what she wanted may have provided temporary relief from his circumstances, but would have most likely cost him his life. But to resist her advances, besides being a difficult thing to do, would eventually cause him great trouble, which is in fact what happened. As it turned out she falsely accused him of the very thing she was tempting him to do. What made the difference for Joseph was that to give in to her would have displeased God - something that he was in no way willing to do.

Joseph's predicament illustrates for us what it means to stand against the pressure of a culture that constantly nags us into submission. But I believe we need to be like Joseph and say "Could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"

I fear that for many it is too late. Just like in the days of Hanukkah, many who claim to be part of the people of God have already given in to the prevailing culture. Having cast off the peculiarities of being people of faith, we have chosen to go after the customs of our day.

Here are a few examples of how we have been taken over by today's ungodly culture:

A growing number of so-called believers are ashamed of the exclusive nature of biblical faith. According to the Bible there is only one God and there is only one way to that God, the Messiah Yeshua. Yet there are those who have invented notions, claiming that there may be exceptions to this rule.

Less and less people regard the Bible's view of family, and children in particular, as God's model for living. Instead we go along with how the culture regards family, thinking that after two thousand years human beings have improved upon the teaching of the Scriptures.

North American affluence has become our preferred standard of living. How very different from the One who had no place to lay his head, who calls us to give up everything to follow him.

What does our obsession with entertainment say about our understanding of the stewardship of our time and money? We prefer to drown ourselves in diversions instead of spending our time in truly productive endeavors. Then, at the same time, we refuse to partake of rest and refreshment God's way.

We have exchanged God's version of love and sexuality for that of the world's. We disregard the sacredness of the marriage covenant, while pursuing relationships with selfish motives.

Perhaps one of the main driving forces behind these and other examples is today's value of being accepted by others. What kept Joseph was his primary commitment to God and his ways. When the temptation came to conduct himself inappropriately, his loyalty to God was the strong foundation from which he could not be moved. What a contrast to our own day where we tend to so easily go along with whatever is perceived as popular, so that we would not be viewed as weird.

Until we can stand up and like Matitiyahu say, "Enough is enough!" we will continue to be swept away by the pull of culture's powerful tide.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

TorahBytes: Facing the Impossible (Va-yishlah)

In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. (Bereshit / Genesis 32:7)

This week's Torah portion contains Jacob's prayer of distress. Taking a close look at this prayer will help us to better express our needs to God. The passage begins with a description of Jacob's emotional state:

In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, "If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape." (7,8).

Jacob was very scared. Here is a man who has always been able to take care of himself, but now he was in great distress. It is too bad that, for some, it takes being in an apparently impossible situation before we call out to God. Still, some lessons are worth learning no matter how we learn them.

The first thing Jacob does is attempt to do whatever he can to minimize his losses in case his worst fears are realized, and his brother attacks him and his entourage. Doing what we can to help ourselves is not a bad thing necessarily. But note, Jacob's plan does nothing to alleviate his fears.

So he prays.

Then Jacob prayed, "O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, (9)
That he prays at all is an important first step. For many to express a need like this is a big deal, since it is so difficult to admit weakness. While praying should be the easiest thing in the world to do, doing so for the first time for some of us may be one of the hardest things we may ever do.

Jacob prayed. He didn't wish. He didn't think. He prayed. Praying is not something done with the mind and heart only. It includes the mouth. Jacob was talking to God.

When he prays he doesn't address God as "my God," but rather as the God of his father and grandfather. This shows us where he was at in his relationship to God. No hypocrisy here. He knew he was not in right relationship with God, but that didn't stop him from asking God for help. You don't need to wait to get right with God before praying.

Jacob then recounts that it was God who led him into this situation:
who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper (9)
By mentioning God's prior communication, he is both acknowledging the reality of God in his life and expressing that God is the initiator of his circumstances. This is not blame as much as it is putting things in proper perspective. God is involved in our lives whether we acknowledge it or not. It would do us well to acknowledge his presence sooner than later.

Then Jacob expresses humility:
I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. (10)
While this may appear to be simply a form of address to a kingly figure, he means it. He realizes that the blessings that he received had actually come from God and that he doesn't deserve them. He realizes that even though he strove so hard to be successful, it was actually God who provided for him.

Then he comes to his request, admitting his fear and asking God to save him. Being honest with God is key to effectively communicating with him.
Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. (11)
His prayer ends with a most important statement:
But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.' " (12)
God had promised Jacob that he would bring him back safely to the land of his birth, yet by doing what God wanted, he found himself in a most dangerous situation. The situation appeared to contradict what God had promised him years before. But instead of neglecting what God had promised, it spurs him on to confront God with God's own words.

Yeshua taught his followers to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). Knowing that God's will is not always done on earth, we need to confront the way things are, so that they will be what they should be. This begins with prayer. This is what Jacob did, whether he realized the process or not.

We should not be surprised by the impossible situations we find ourselves in. For it is God who leads us into these things, so that we would seek him in order that his will would be accomplished. These impossible things might be in our hearts or in our circumstances or both, which seems to be the case with Jacob. But whatever is going on, don't be surprised when God brings you to the end of yourself just so that you will truly seek him.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

TorahBytes: Follow Your Dreams? (Va-yeze)

[Jacob] had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying." (Bereshit / Genesis 28:12,13)

A couple of weeks ago I heard Bruce Wilkenson, author of the book "Dream Giver" - a book I read a couple of years ago. His talk was a powerful reminder of some of the principles he explains in his book. Wilkinson's premise is that every single person has a dream or dreams in their heart. These dreams come to us from God. In order to live the life we were meant to live, we need to follow those dreams.

Before examining the Bible's perspective on this, we need to make clear that Wilkenson doesn’t mean "dream" in the technical sense. He is using it in the popular sense of heart desire. This is most likely what Martin Luther King Jr. meant in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He wasn't saying that he had a literal dream in which he saw the breaking down of racial barriers. He meant that he had a burning desire to bring racial equality into reality.

While this popular use of the term, "dream" is both common and clear, it does confuse the issue, since the Bible doesn't use these terms in this way. When the Bible refers to dreams, it means them literally, as is the case with Jacob in this week's Torah portion. This distinction between the popular use of these terms and how the Bible uses them is very important, especially if we are going to bring the God of the Bible into the discussion.

So does the Bible support the idea that everyone has a "dream" or heart desire from God? Are we responsible to discover that thing (whatever we call it) in order to live our lives the way God intends?

First, with regard to literal dreams, not all people ever receive them. While there are several examples of such things in the Scriptures, not everyone in the Bible has this kind of experience and nowhere are we told that dreams are a necessary aspect of a true life of faith. I do think that such things are more common than we might care to admit and that those of us who have been brought up within secular framework tend to filter out such phenomena, but that's a topic for another time. However, as common as such things may be, not everyone has them.

As for the dreams recorded in the Bible, they do not all have the sense of creating something hoped for in the individual, which is how we use "dream" in the popular sense. Therefore we should be careful when trying to apply the Bible's use of "dream" when referring to its popular use.

What then about the popular use of "dream," meaning desire? We read in the Psalms:

Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

It is possible that what David is saying is that when we delight in God, then the desires of our hearts are the very things God himself desires. And when we have God's desires in our hearts, then we can expect him to accomplish them. But this doesn't imply that every desire we have is necessarily from God and automatically becomes that which we were meant to pursue.

This is what is missing from what I have observed from Wilkinson's teaching. While his book is helpful to understand the dynamics of living out our God-given dreams (more correctly "desires"), we need to find out how to discern those things in our hearts that are actually from him.

There are two key things that will help us in this: First, we need to realize that the communication of God's plans and purposes in our lives are primarily his responsibility. We are not required to climb mountains or swim oceans in our attempt to figure out God's will for our lives. The Bible illustrates that when God wants to communicate to people, he does, as he did in Jacob's case.

The second thing is something we can do and that is to get to know him better. The better we know him, the better prepared we will be to receive special assignments as they come, whether they come through dreams or not.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

TorahBytes: Real Life (Toledot)

The LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger." (Bereshit / Genesis 25:23)

This week's Torah portion begins the story of Jacob. For the past little while I have been struck with how very far the writings of Scripture are from most of our religious experiences. I am not referring to the contrast of the Scriptures to any particular teaching or ceremony, but what amounts to a whole way of thinking. As I study the Bible, I get the impression that we seek to both know and communicate God in ways very different from how God did so through his written Word.

In the Bible God often time revealed himself through the real-life experiences of everyday people. These people struggled with many of the same things that you and I struggle with. Yes, we read of remarkable happenings, but those remarkable happenings happened to ordinary people living otherwise normal lives.

The reason why it is important to understand this is because I believe God wants to do the same remarkable things today that he did in the Scriptures. God wants us to know him in the midst of everything we do. He is not committed to meeting us only in the context of congregational and religious life. He desires to come to us and work through us in every area of life.

The life of Jacob is but one of a great many examples of someone who is just like we are - if we are honest about ourselves. Many people have had a hard time with him, sometimes doubting his place as a Bible hero, because of how he deals with life. However I suggest that if we have problems with Jacob, then perhaps we are not honest enough about ourselves and our own flaws. Then there are those of us who are that honest, but then we may think that as a result we are beyond God's help and grace. The story of Jacob demonstrates what God wants to do in and through real people like Jacob - real people like you and me.

Jacob was a man of destiny. From before he was born, God had determined that he would be given a special place (25:23). Yet he believed, as did his mother, that he needed to strive after that place. To believe that God could and would act on his behalf to accomplish things that were contrary to his current circumstances was very difficult for him. He really believed that if he didn't protect his own interests and do whatever it took to succeed, then even those things that God himself promised to him would not happen.

Interestingly Jacob's mismanagement of his life did not disqualify him from those things that God destined him for. This does not in any way excuse his bad behavior. His manipulation of others would come back to haunt him time and time again. But God still had plans for him - good plans, including dealing with the very core of his being. The day would come when he would come to the end of his own resources and face God head on.

Jacob was real. He possessed none of the kind of fake spirituality that gives religion a bad name. While he tried to manipulate his circumstances for his benefit, when God brought him to the end of his own resources, he clung to God for dear life, which ended up being the thing that changed his life forever.

For us to grapple with the life of Jacob in order to understand the reality of God through him is no academic exercise. Nor is it a mystical experience detached from understanding. It is a journey into the real. Through Jacob we have the opportunity to also face our own limited resources and learn that real life is found in encountering God.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

TorahBytes: Giving Up our Isaacs (Va-yera)

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:12)

For many, the Binding of Isaac is one of the most troubling of all stories in the Scriptures. That God would ask anyone to sacrifice his offspring is indeed troubling. However, I believe that Abraham knew that God would intervene. We have a hint of that when he informs his servants that both he and Isaac would return from worshipping God (see 22:5).

Whatever we think about the troubling aspect of this story, we need to be careful not to miss what is really going on here. Abraham's dreams were wrapped up in the life of this child. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had been childless into old age. Yet God told Abraham that he would make him a great nation - a promise that Abraham accepted. Finally the child of promise was born, but then several years later, God called Abraham to give him up as a sacrifice, which created a most serious dilemma. How could Isaac be fully given over to God and at the same time be the channel of God's promises to Abraham and eventually to the entire world (See Bereshit / Genesis 12:1-3; 17:19)?

Abraham’s understanding of God was such that he was able to face this dilemma head on. He knew that he could trust God to do what he said he would do through Isaac, even if it meant bringing him back from the dead (see Hebrews 11:19). As it turned out, God stopped Abraham at the last minute, providing a lamb in Isaac's place.

What we see about Abraham is that he was able to completely entrust God with what God promised him. He knew that if the promises he received years before were really true, nothing could prevent them from coming to pass. This demonstrated that God was truly first in Abraham's life. Nothing, not even his beloved son, would ever be an idol to him.

This story illustrates our need to keep our dreams in perspective. God may give us an Isaac - a hope, a dream, or an expectation. When such things fill our hearts it is easy to lose perspective. We can begin to focus on them instead upon God who gave them to us. Unless we offer our Isaacs back to God, the dreams he gives us will eventually hurt us and others instead of being the blessings they are intended to be. It is not until we can demonstrate an Abraham-like heart that we are able to effectively steward those things that God has entrusted to us.

While we may not all be tested in this way, Abraham's experience should prepare us for when it does happen. Facing the loss of our dreams is not the end when it is God who is asking us to give them over to him. We can trust him just as Abraham did.

Of course our lives may be filled with dreams that are not from God. Just because we have an aspiration or a hope does not necessarily mean that they have been given to us by God. Whether or not you have a God-given dream is something that you yourself need to discern. Others may be able help you with this. But in the end it is you yourself who will need to know from God what is truly from him. If we are seeking to follow and please him, we shouldn't be surprised when he removes things, even good things from us. That is not the same as Abraham's experience. Giving anything up to God can be a challenge and requires faith, but this is not what we are talking about here.

But regarding those true Isaacs in our lives, note that once God saw Abraham's willingness to offer up his son, that was the end of it. I get the impression that some people think, even after we have fully given over our God-given dreams to him, we have to do it again and again. While it is necessary to be careful not to allow our Isaacs to become idols in our lives, God doesn't expect us to keep trying to kill them, as if they should never become reality. It's okay if your God-given dreams are important to you. It's good if your God-given dreams make you excited. It's godly to find pleasure in your God-given dreams. Handle your Isaacs with care, but don't keep trying to kill them, when God himself is keeping them alive.

Finally, when God calls you to give your Isaacs over to him, be assured that you can do it with confidence. You can have faith like Abraham that if God gives you a promise, he will bring it to pass, even when it looks as if it is about to die.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

TorahBytes: Avram (Lekh Lekha)

The LORD had said to Avram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you" (Bereshit / Genesis 12:3).

I am so intrigued by Avraham (English: Abraham), who was originally called Avram (English: Abram). I don't know if it is because of his foundational place in the Scriptures as well in the history of the people of Israel and of all true followers of Israel's God, or because of how God has worked in my own life. There's also the fact that my true given name is Avram, named after my father's father.

When I was born, it was customary to name children after a deceased relative, then take the first sound of that name and give the child an English name based on that sound, which would then become the child's legal name. The Yiddish or Hebrew name would be referred to as the child's Jewish name. In more recent years I have thought of legally changing my name to my Jewish name. I consider it to be my actual name, while "Alan" is simply a tag of convenience given to me to help me survive in a non-Jewish environment.

The significance of my Jewish name didn't mean much to me until many years after coming to know God through the Messiah. It took me a while to understand why Jewish people had non-Jewish names, but it was much more than that. It would take years of walking with God to see how much I related to the father of our people. I am not saying that I am like Avram, except having gotten to know his God, I can relate to his life. The aspects of Avram's life that have become precious to me are aspects of godliness that I think all people of true faith should esteem.

When God called Avram, even though he was an old man, he was willing to venture into the unknown, the uncertain. He was willing to spend the rest of his life in an environment that was potentially hostile to him and his family. He was willing to trust God for things contrary to his life experience and natural occurrences. He was able to receive promises that seemed impossible. It was his willingness to be led into an alien land to live out his days as a stranger, which made him the foundation of great blessing for the entire world for eternity.

Avram was a man who, in response to God's call in his life, was willing to let go of the world he knew in order to embrace a life that God himself would give him. This is the essence of faith. This is the essence of godliness. It is the willingness to trade off the natural things in which we normally find security, for the supernatural unseen things of God. It is to live in this world, yet to be led in life by God's Word and not the standards of the societies in which we live. It is to accept that we are not of this world, but are actually ambassadors of heaven. We live in this world as representatives of our heavenly father. This is how Avram lived. This is how we are all called to live.

I suspect that in some way, each and every day, every follower of the Messiah hears God's voice to live like Avram. Each and every day we are called to make decisions based not on our natural perceptions, but upon the reality of God and his Word. Everyday we are called to be like Avram.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Image of God - Part 3

A misused biblical concept that has caused confusion is something the New Covenant writings call "the flesh." Depending on the context "flesh" can refer to one of several things. It could mean our physical bodies. It could refer to living creatures, both humans and animals. It could refer to human or animal soft tissue. The spiritual usage of the word refers to our human nature, but specifically that part of our nature that is prone to sin.

The Bible understands that human beings have a natural disposition that is contrary to God's character. We also come into the world under God's wrath. This is our inheritance from our first parents, Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God's directives in the Garden of Eden. Since then we have not been able to make ourselves right with God. Our lifestyles are the outcome of our state of alienation from God.

When God gave his commandments to the people of Israel, he was revealing his standards to us. One of the reasons for this revelation was to show us that we fall short of those standards and thus need his provision of salvation in order to be restored to a right relationship with him. There is nothing we can do of our own efforts that can bridge the gap between ourselves and God.

Where confusion arises is when we think of our personalities, abilities, and gifts as the flesh. While everything about us has been effected by sin, this should not be confused by our simple humanness. Our being human and much of what goes with that is not sinful in itself. Being a man or being a woman is not in itself sinful. The ability to sing or build things is not sinful. Appreciating a kindness or loving a child is not sinful. All these things are not what they should be due to the reality of sin, but the things themselves are not sinful.

The reality of sin in our lives does not fully negate the preeminence of the image of God. Every human being continues to reflect God is so many ways. It may be necessary to repeat that the our continuing to bear God's image does not make us right with God. Still, our not being right with God doesn't eradicate God's image.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

TorahBytes: A Positive Perspective (No'ah)

To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. (Isaiah 54:9)

My wife and I are two very different people. That should be obvious, but it actually took me many years to realize that. I guess I was fooled by our great many similarities. We are both Ashkenazi Jews (our grandparents were from Eastern Europe), we grew up just a few blocks from one another. We frequented the same candy store (we love to reminisce over that one). We both came to know Yeshua as our Messiah in our late teens. We went to the same public school and Yiddish school after regular school three times a weeks for a couple of years. We weren't actually friends during that time, but got to know each other only after we both became believers.

So due to our similar background and experiences, we have more in common than many couples we know. She and I have also worked through many life issues together and are united on most, if not all, major life issues. That said, there are significant differences between us.

Perhaps the greatest difference has to do with how we look at life, which is a pretty big difference. One might say that she is a "glass is half full" kind of person, while I am a "glass is half empty" person. Please understand that I am generalizing. There are times when I am the one to see things in a more positive light (though I admit, that's a rare occurrence), but most often she tends to see things more positively than I.

Those of you who are more like me appreciate how I think I am the realist while she is simply naïve. At the same time, she thinks I am too quick to jump to negative conclusions. As it has turned out, sometimes she is more right, other times, it's me, sometimes it's a combination of both, and other times, we have both completely misread what's really going on.

Before I relate this to this week's Haftarah, I want to add that I believe that God has given the two of us unique gifts, which enables us to see things differently. Due to our human nature, we misuse those gifts, causing our perspectives to blind us to the reality of a situation. What we need to continue to do is learn how our differences complement each other, so that we can see things more accurately.

The downside of the way I tend to see things is illustrated by what happened when I first read this week's Haftarah. As I read the passage, the phrase, "the days of Noah" caught my attention. While I did notice that the point of the passage was positive (God was promising the people that the day would come when he would no longer be angry with them), I took the Noah reference as negative. I realize that I read the passage too quickly at first, but my assumption regarding the Noah reference led me to think of God's destruction through the Flood. I thought God was saying that just like he poured out his wrath upon the people of Noah's time, so he would pour out his love upon the people of Israel. Nice thought, but that's not what the passage actually says. The phrase "days of Noah" automatically made me think of the bad part of the story.

By the way, I tested my wife by having her read the passage and then asking her what "days of Noah" meant. Are you surprised that she knew that it had to do with the good, not the bad, aspect of the Noah story?

For me any mention of the Noah story immediately brings to mind the sinful nature of the human race, God's anger and his judgment. But the Isaiah passage showed me that I failed to catch the positive aspect of the story, which is God's commitment not to destroy the world by flood again. This experience made me see how I can miss the whole picture due to my tendency to think negatively.

God wanted the people of Isaiah's time to think about the "days of Noah" in a positive light. He wanted them to know that just as he had been angry for a time, but then committed himself to not judge the Earth in that way again, so he would be angry with Israel for only a time, but then would never be angry with them again. Through Isaiah, God was calling the people to see from a positive perspective.

God's desire for all people is not judgment, but salvation. His goal for all of us is positive, not negative. That doesn't mean that there is no negative aspects to how he deals with people. If we choose to ignore him, we will face judgment, but that's not God's heart's intent. His intent is positive. For me that's sometimes difficult to remember, but I am learning that my wife often does see things as they really are.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Image of God - Part 2

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man (Bereshit / Genesis 9:6).

This is one of the things that God said to Noah after Noah, his family, and the animals left the ark. It is the basis for what is called "capital punishment." It is noteworthy that our responsibility to take the life of murderers is not based on vengeance toward them. It is not focused on the need of punishment, but rather upon the sacredness of life.

I suspect this sounds contradictory to some, who may wonder if life is so sacred, why would God direct us to execute murderers. But such is the seriousness of the offense. If someone would dare destroy the life of an image bearer, their own life must be required of them.

I didn’t really want to get into a discussion of capital punishment, but I wonder if our one of the reasons why certain societies have outlawed it is not because of valuing life more, but rather due to our losing sight of who we really are. Failing to sufficiently deal with murderers says more about how we view the value of the victims than it does about our concern for the perpetrators.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Image of God - Part 1

You were dead in your transgressions and sins… (Ephesians 2:1)

Three years ago in a different context I wrote a couple of articles entitled, "You Are Basically Good" which challenged the notion that human beings are devoid of any intrinsic goodness. Some more theologically minded people had trouble with this. In Christian theology there is a teaching called, "total depravity". Many proponents of this teaching would say that we are "basically evil," but I think that is a misapplication of what the "total depravity" idea is seeking to convey.

The biblical concepts that lead to "total depravity" have to do with our inability to establish a right relationship with God on our own. The predicament caused by Adam and Eve's sin is one where we all come into the world alienated from God. We ourselves cannot resolve that predicament. It is only God's power that can rescue us from this spiritual death.

It may be logical to think that our spiritual plight means that we have lost the image of God entirely. How can we be spiritually dead, as Paul teaches in Ephesians, but still bear God's image?

I understand the logic, but there is more to understanding this than some may think. Over the next little while we will explore this in more detail.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

TorahBytes: Image Bearers (Bereshit)

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." (Bereshit / Genesis 1:26)

I am so grateful for the Scriptures, for they are God's revelation to us. In the over thirty years in which I have been studying God's written Word, again and again I am confronted by its life-changing insight as it challenges my own way of thinking about life, about God, about others, and about myself.

It is so important to have a right understanding about ourselves. If we don't know who we are and what our God-given place in the universe is, all the correct thinking about other things, including God himself, will never be effectively applied in our lives. It's like a pitcher of water and a glass. We could know everything about the pitcher and the water. We can ensure that the pitcher is sound and the water is pure, but ignorance of the purpose of the glass will prevent it from receiving the water, which would then prevent it from ever providing refreshment to anyone. In the same way, if we only focus on knowing God without also understanding our place and purpose in life, we will never live effective lives.

I am aware of the other extreme of focusing solely on ourselves, but to do so actually demonstrates how little we know about who we truly are. We will not discover who we are apart from also knowing the One who created us. Yet at the same time, to know God requires our having a right understanding of ourselves, which is something the Scriptures do reveal.

In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we learn that we are made in God's image. This is in contrast to the other creatures who were made in their own likeness. Men and women possess the imprint of God unlike anything else in God's creation. We are not the result of a natural, meaningless process. The animal world is not our family. Apes are not our cousins. We are the special creation of God. We have been fashioned by him to reflect his person and character.

Bearing God's image makes all people sacred. Whether or not we acknowledge God's existence, whether or not we live godly lives, each and every human being is in some way a reflection of our Creator.

It is through people that God is made known on Earth. It is through people that God's will is done on Earth. It is through people that God's power, his wisdom, his truth, and his goodness are revealed and experienced.

As the early chapters of the Bible unfold, we read how the introduction of sin into the human story perverts who we really are. From that point on, we become like royalty living lives of abject poverty. The image of God, though never eradicated is marred. While still reflecting God and his glory, that reflection is warped. Due to our first parents'
disobedience, we come into the world groping about as if stricken with spiritual amnesia, having lost any sense of our true identity and place in the universe.

This is why the Messiah came into the world. While our rebellion against God rightfully leads to his rejecting us, his love for his special creatures could not be constrained. His love, greater than his anger, led him to send the Deliverer.

It is in keeping with God's original purpose for the human race that the Deliverer became a human being - One who would truly reflect God in the way we were designed to do. By becoming a man, Yeshua restores God's image in us, so that we can fulfill God's purpose through us.

Our worth, our perspective on life, the way we look at others, how we treat ourselves, the basis for anything we do begin with knowing that none of us came into the world by accident. Every human being is of great value, is essential, and should be treated with the utmost care and respect, because we bear the image of God.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Complete

The series I have working on, "Is the Torah for Today," deserves a fuller treatment than what I was able to give it over the past few weeks, but I hope that it encourages people to examine the Scriptures to understand this issue better. Perhaps some time in the future I will provide a more in depth study, but I will leave it for now.

Since it is cumbersome to try to read an already posted blog series from the beginning, I have compiled all 16 parts into one PDF file. To read the entire series, go to (opens new window):

Sunday, October 08, 2006

TorahBytes: Many Holidays (Shemini Atzeret)

On the eighth day hold an assembly and do no regular work. (Bemidbar / Numbers 29:35)

The current month in the Jewish calendar is special due to the amount of holy days observed. The first day of the month, which this year began the evening of September 23, is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, or as it's called in the Bible, the Festival of the Sounding of the Shofar (ram's horn). Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a time of spiritual introspection and community reconciliation culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which began the evening of October 1. Five days afterwards is the seven-day long, Sukkot (Festival of Tabernacles). This year Sukkot began the evening of October 6. Immediately following the seventh day of Sukkot is another holy day, called in Hebrew Shemini Atzeret, which simply means the "Assembly of the eight (day)."

Shemini Atzeret coincides with the completion and recommencing of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah (Books of Moses). A special celebration, called "Simchat Torah" (Joy of the Torah) is observed. In the Land of Israel Simchat Torah is observed on Shemini Atzeret. Outside of the Land of Israel where certain holy days are doubled, Simchat Torah is observed on the second day of Shemini Atzeret.

I wonder if all these special days seems like a lot to you. Basically one half of this whole Jewish month is given over to a special focus on God. Fulfilling all these observances would mean major changes to our normal schedule. In Bible times, celebrating Sukkot meant taking your whole family to Jerusalem for the week. But I think God knows that our normal schedules need upsetting.

In our fast paced society, it seems that we have a lot of difficulty breaking our normal routine to give God this kind of attention, but I don't think we need it any less than the Jewish people of ancient times.

Those of us who do take time for God, often approach him as we do many other things we do. We slot him in somewhere. We spend time with God just like any other meeting, rarely taking time to linger in his presence, not to mention setting apart several days just to focus on him.

When God provided the people of Israel with our yearly calendar, he directed us to give over to him large amounts of time. Besides the weekly Sabbath, there were festivals throughout the year. Once a year there would be these two weeks, which includes even more intense time with him.

Those who know Yeshua and understand that we are no longer under the Sinai Covenant, may think that we are free from such observances. Technically this is true, but if the people before Messiah needed this kind of time with God, how much more should we want to have intense and prolonged times with him? If we know the love of God in Yeshua should we not want to spend more time with him, not less?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 16

To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Messiah's law), so as to win those not having the law. (1 Corinthians 9:21)

This reference is very helpful in gaining a New Covenant perspective on Torah. The context in which Paul is writing has do to with his going out of his way to relate to different groups in different ways. In other words Paul learned to be culturally sensitive. Here he is referring to how he relates to non-Jews. We know from his other writings he knew God did not want Jewish Believers to impose the dictates of the Sinai Covenant on Gentiles. Paul's understanding of his relationship to God in Yeshua enabled him to relate to non-Jews without needed to uphold the strict barriers erected by the Sinai Covenant. This is similar to what Peter experienced in Acts 10, which I discussed in my previous post.

Note Paul's different uses of "law" (Torah). "To those not having the Torah I became like one not having the Torah." Here is referring to Torah as the Sinai Covenant also called the Law of Moses. Gentiles were not given the Torah by God and as a code of law were never obliged to keep it. Paul was free to relate to them outside of a strict Torah-observant framework. Yet he also says, "though I am not free from God's law but am under Messiah's law." While being free from the Torah as stipulated within the Sinai Covenant, this was not a license to live any way he pleased. He was still subject to the eternal Torah of God in the Messiah.

The distinction between Torah as expressed through the Sinai Covenant and Torah as the eternal ways of God is crucial. The former was designed to set the Jewish people apart until the time of Messiah, while the latter is God's eternal principles to which we all must subject ourselves.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 15

Peter's understanding of Torah was challenged when God began to prepare him for his initial venture into non-Jewish territory. In Acts chapter 10 we read of his seeing a vision of a collection of unclean animals along with a voice, which he understood to be God, saying "Kill and eat" (Act 10:9ff). Peter's response was "Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

Peter believed that the food laws of the Sinai Covenant were still in force. But the Lord told him, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." This happened three times.

While Peter was wondering what the vision meant, some messengers of a non-Jewish military leader named Cornelius were looking for him. Cornelius had been instructed by God to send for Peter. When Peter heard of these messengers, the Spirit of God directed him to go with them.

As it turned out Peter went to Cornelius' house. As he spoke to them about Yeshua, to the astonishment of the Jewish Believers who had accompanied Peter, Cornelius's household believed, received the Holy Spirit, and were immersed in the name of Yeshua the Messiah.

It appears that the main application of Peter's vision of the unclean animals made clean had to do with people, not food. God was opening the way to bring the good news of Yeshua to non-Jews. However note the response of the Jewish Believers in Jerusalem upon Peter's return: "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them" (Acts 11:3).

Peter's contact with non-Jews was immediately associated with food. It seems that in order to truly engage non-Jews, table fellowship would naturally be involved.

Some may think that since Cornelius was known as a "God-fearer" – a non-Jew who was attracted to the God of Israel and his ways, but not willing to convert to Judaism – he may have already embrace biblical food laws. But if that was the case, then why didn't Peter say so? Also why was the vision about unclean animals, if food really wasn't an issue.

The Jewish people of that day (as well as many today) followed a stricter standard regarding food than what the Sinai Covenant prescribed. Some may think that this is what was being confronted by God through Peter, but again, this doesn't seem to go along with what we encounter in the text.

The New Covenant writings nowhere encourage non-Jews to follow the Sinai food regulations. That being the case, the Jewish Believers would have great difficulty associating with non-Jews unless they recognized that God – just like in the vision – had made all foods clean.

Monday, October 02, 2006

TorahBytes: Facing the Future (Sukkot)

Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles). (Zechariah 14:16)

I was having an interesting conversation with two men the other day. They both worked for companies that were part of the high-tech upsurge of several years ago. Both men were looking forward to the possibility of being able to retire very wealthy at a relatively early age. Then the high-tech bubble burst and, with that, their dreams.

These two men both felt that the real issue for most people regarding financial security is a sense of being able to control their future. While I think that most of us can see that no amount of money can ensure such a thing, we would still feel a lot better about the days to come if we had a million dollars in the bank.

The future - whether it be the immediate future: such as will I still have a job tomorrow? or the distant future: such as how long will I get to live? - is perhaps the single greatest cause of anxiety for most people. Having a sense of control of the future somehow alleviates that anxiety. Financial success is only one of the means by which we try to take control of our future. Others do it through power. They think that political position or military might will provide them with what they need to protect themselves and provide prosperity for them in the days ahead. Others do it though gaining knowledge. They think that understanding how life really works will enable them to not be caught off guard by changing trends. The popularity of horoscopes and fortune tellers of all kinds reveal the desire so many have to know the future. They think that knowing the future will give them a sense of security.

Some use the Bible in this way. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Covenant writings refer to future events. There is no lack of material available by those who would give us their interpretations of these predictive passages. But I wonder how many of us have taken the time to ask the question: why are those passages there? Listening to some people discuss biblical prophecy sounds similar to me to what the two men I referred to were saying as they discussed their financial experiences.

I get the impression that for some people being able to recite their biblical understanding of how the world will end, provides them with a sense of control. I don't know what those people will do when their interpretations don't come to pass, but I guess they will have to deal with that if and when it happens.

Back to my question: why does the Bible include predictive portions? To adequately answer this important question, we would have to look at the context of each passage to see if we could ascertain God's motive in revealing a future event. But might I say that there is no sense whatsoever that he ever intended to give us a sense of control. Far from it. Biblical prophesy declares that only God is in control of the future.

Is this not the lesson of the Festival of Sukkot, which begins this year on Friday evening, October 6? This was the time when the people of Israel were to live in temporary shelters for a week to remember how God took care of us during our wilderness wanderings for forty years after leaving Egypt. The prophet Zechariah predicted that one day all nations of the world will observe this festival.

God through Zechariah was saying that no matter what the nations might do to the people of Israel, they will eventually acknowledge God as the only true Protector and Provider. Therefore God's people were not to fear what might happen to them, but rather they should keep trusting in God, who will work everything out in the end.

This is just one example of the consistent message contained in biblical predictive prophesy. As we face the future, our only assurance of security is in trusting God.

Perhaps this is too simplistic for some people, but learning to trust God today, to do his will amidst the many challenges we face, is not easy. The forces of evil relentlessly attempt to get us to think that we will not be able to make it. They want us to believe that failure is our only option. Buckling under these pressures, it is tempting to turn to something that will give us a sense of false security, rather than trusting in he who holds the future in his hands.

Anything but God himself, including many of our interpretations of biblical prophecy, is just like the high-tech bubble that burst in the faces of so many who put their trust in it. We cannot control the future, but we can be secure in the one who does.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 14

Under the New Covenant, the Torah (the directives of God) dwell in our hearts. That is because the God of the Torah himself dwells there. Obeying God is not something we strive after, but rather something we live out. At the same time, living out a life of obedience is not automatic. We need to learn to cooperate with the reality of God in our hearts. We do this by getting to know God through prayer, the Scriptures, and the fellowship of other believers.

If God truly dwells in us it may seem illogical that we would need to learn to obey him. We may be tempted to think that we need to do such things as turn off our minds so that God can flow through us. The less we get involved in the process, the better, so to speak. But this conclusion disregards that God's desire is that we become more like him as his children. This includes a learning and decision-making process. We are not designed to be machines, but sons and daughters of God who need to mature in godliness.

Having the Torah in our hearts is a major step in our maturing process with God, but it's still only the beginning of the overall process of conforming us to his likeness. Our own desires, our thinking, our decision making, and so on all need to actively become one with his. God calls us to participate in this. He wants it to be genuinely us.

So as we get to know God, we discover what godliness really is. As we do, if the Spirit of God truly dwells in us, then we long to be godly, doing everything he wants us to do.

This includes discerning how to apply his directives in our own day. Next time (after this week's TorahByte message) we are going to look at a biblical example of this.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 13

Unlike the Sinai Covenant, the New Covenant is not a collection of rules that we are called upon to strive after. Under the New Covenant we do not live under the ongoing threat of condemnation. Rather, under the New Covenant we live a life based on acceptance by God, having been forgiven though what Yeshua has done on our behalf.

Under the New Covenant the ways of God are the expression of this acceptance. Having been given a new heart that desires to please God, we long to live according to his ways.

While the standard of the two covenants are similar and some of the practical outcomes the same, their approaches to living are radically different. The case can be made that the righteous standards of the New Covenant are greater than that of Sinai. The level of holiness is deeper and our consecration more intimate. Yet the two systems are altogether different from one another. The Sinai Covenant was designed to reveal our sins, so that we would understand our need for the New. The New enables us to live the life that Sinai sought to impose.

Under the New we want to learn God's ways and obey him, but we can do so without the fear of failure. The consequences of failure have been assumed by the Messiah. There is no penalty left for us to pay.

One of the greatest differences between the Sinai and the New is that the New is not a system. It is not under the control of a earthly priesthood. It decentralizes how we are to relate to God. Under the New Covenant there is no physical Temple. We are the temple of God - both individually and corporately. As we gather we bring God and his reality to each other.

Under the New Covenant we no longer have a set code of rules to be accountable to. Instead we have the presence of God's Spirit living inside us bringing us understanding and conviction as to his ways. This comes to us in concert with the Scriptures, which is the written revelation of the reality which now lives in our hearts.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 12

The Sinai Covenant includes many references that give the impression that it will be in force forever. For example concerning keeping the Temple lampstand lit, we read, "This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come" (Exodus 20:21). As I have already pointed out directives such as this one – apart from any other reason – cannot be done today since there is no temple. This is an example therefore that when God speaks of "forever" or "for the generations" to come, he means that as long as the covenant is in force, these things are to be followed. It is similar to the marriage vow, "Till death do we part." When my wife and I were married, we promised to be faithful to one another forever, but this "forever" is limited to each of us being alive. Should one of us pass away before the other, the vow we made to each other is no longer in force.

As a people we broke the Sinai Covenant. God's response to our unfaithfulness was to establish the New Covenant as described in Jeremiah 31. While the Sinai Covenant was in force, the people of Israel we obliged to keep its directive throughout our generations. But now we are under a New Covenant, not like the older one (Jeremiah 31:32).

Sunday, September 24, 2006

TorahBytes: Turning from Idols (Ha'azinu)

We will never again say "Our gods" to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion. (Hosea 14:4; English 14:3)

The book of the prophet Hosea concludes with a challenge to the people to return to God. Through Hosea God provides the people with the details of what returning involves. This includes a commitment to never again worship idols along with an acknowledgement that our deepest needs are only truly met in God.

The history of the nation of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures is designed as an example of what any nation would be like when called into relationship with the God of the Universe. Through the centuries Israel was continually drawn to idol worship or , according to Hosea's terminology, the work of our hands. Idol worship was common in the days of ancient Israel as it continues to be in much of the world today. When God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, he began to teach them his ways. As the rest of the world remained in spiritual darkness, God instructed his people in the way of truth and life.

But since the hearts of the people were not yet transformed, the work of their hands continued to draw them. On one hand it might sound strange to think that anyone could reckon something that we ourselves have made as a god. But think about it. God is the source of life, and as the source of life, he is also the source of meaning, of comfort, of healing, and of hope, but do we not often tend to look to material things (that which our hands have made) to be all this for us?

We may not literally bow down to money and what money buys in the same way that some bow down to idols, but do not our hearts bow down just as much? If we would examine what in our lives chiefly determines our decisions, would we not find that it is usually some human-made thing?

When we give our hearts to things, we become servants to them. It may be difficult to accept that inanimate objects have the power to make us do their bidding, but is this not what happens? And material things are ruthless taskmasters. They will hold us in their clutches and show no concern whatsoever for our well being. They will use us until death, all the while making us think that we were the ones in control.

Understanding this helps us to see why God contrasts idols with the acknowledgement that it is only in him that the fatherless find compassion. The reason for our being easily drawn into the worship of things, is that we long for something to satisfy the deep longings of our hearts. Being fatherless is one of the most profound negative foundational experiences people can have. So many of our problems have been traced back to our relationships to our fathers. But whatever our relationship might be with our earthly fathers, all people share some level of spiritual fatherlessness, due to our separation from God.

Our fatherlessness drives us to find satisfaction in the things of our own making. God's desire through the nation of Israel was to teach all nations that only he could satisfy the longings in our hearts.

Even when we accept Micah's admonishment, turning away from idols and acknowledging God as our only true Father, we still have a tendency to not always look to him to meets our deepest needs. It takes a lifetime to be fully free from idolatry. We shouldn't be surprised when we find ourselves still giving ourselves to the works of our own hands, whether they be material objects, our relationships, our traditions, our jobs, and so on.

Yet the verse that follows gives us hope:

I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:5; English 14:4)

When we turn away from idols and turn to God, he is involved. He will heal us of our waywardness and pour out his love upon us. God's involvement becomes our motivation to continue to put away our remaining idols and look to him more and more for everything.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 11

I have always been struck by hearing non-Jewish followers of Yeshua say things like, "We (referring to themselves) don't need to make sacrifices any more." The fact is Gentiles were never obliged to do the sacrifices in the first place. This was something specifically given to the people of Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai.

From what I can tell this kind of thinking arises out of a wrong theological notion that believers comprise "The people of God" in the following technical sense. It is assumed that just as the people of Israel were the people of God in under the Old Covenant, so believers in Yeshua comprise the people of God under the New. While there is truth in this and there are many areas of commonality in the people of God concepts found under both covenants, the Church (which the term to describe the gathering of believers of all nations in Yeshua) is not the New Covenant version of Israel.

The choosing of Israel has everything to do with the Church in that God chose Abraham's physical descendants in order to draw people from all nations (including Israel) to himself through the Messiah. Israel as God's people were chosen for a particular purpose – a purpose which has been fulfilled to some extent through Yeshua, but has not yet come to its fullness. The Church is a trans-national spiritual community of believers. Both Israel and the Church co-exist. They are intertwined in some way be are not equivalent. Not is the Church the replacement of Israel.

I didn't want to get into the whole issue of Israel and the Church here. I just wanted to point out that Jews and Gentiles come into the New Covenant from very different backgrounds. The issue of the continuance of Old Covenant practices is one for Jewish Believers only. As I have explained previously, while there are many directives that were given to Moses that are for all people, the Sinai Covenant as a Covenant was given only to the people of Israel. The reason why Jewish people don't need to sacrifice anymore is because of what Yeshua has done. Non-Jews don't have to sacrifice because they never had to in the first place.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 10

I want to summarize and elaborate a bit before we move on.

The term "Torah" is used in several ways in the Scriptures, as well as in traditional and contemporary usage. The term means "direction" or "teaching" and is commonly translated as "law". While the five books of Moses and the Sinai Covenant in particular are called "Torah", because they contain God's directives it is more correct to say that they contain Torah than they are the Torah.

Judaism actually has a broader view of Torah than that which is found in the books of Moses and the Sinai Covenant. The Orthodox understanding is that Moses was not only given that which he wrote down, but along with it, he also received revelation from God that was passed down orally through the centuries. The oral revelation is called the Mishnah. Since the Mishnah provides help in interpreting what was written down, it too is understood as Torah. While I don't believe that the oral traditions are from God, but rather a justification of rabbinical interpretation of the Scriptures, there is something in the rabbis approach to Torah that is correct. What they assert is that whatever God has revealed is actually Torah.

Torah is something we encounter whenever we encounter God's genuine revelation. Remember Torah is God's direction for our lives. Whether we read "Do not murder", or we read God's response to King David's mismanagement of his life, we encounter Torah.

That why it is not wrong to call the books of Moses, the Sinai Covenant or the whole body of Scripture, Torah. It is all Torah in the sense it is through these writings that we learn God ways. We learn God's ways through direct commandments and by the stories of people, both the bad and good examples.

Where we need to be careful is when we assume that each and every directive is for all people for all time. This is not being sensitive to what God is saying to whom and when.

Under the New Covenant we relate to God's commandments differently than how the people of Israel did under the Sinai Covenant. Under the New Covenant we seek to do God's will as those who are already forgiven. Our standing with God is already established because of what the Messiah has done on our behalf. Our acceptance with God is not based on our performance, but on our relationship with him through Yeshua by faith. Our keeping of his directives is not derived from a striving after godliness, but rather as a response to our being acceptance by him because of what he has done for us.

The New Covenant is different from the Sinai Covenant. It is not based on the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial ceremonies of the Temple. Instead it is based on Yeshua's priesthood. The older covenant was to shadow what the newer one has accomplished. There is no sense in seeking to reestablish the older forms since they no longer exist and they detract from the fullness of what the Messiah has done.

To embrace the Torah of God is to discern how God is directing his people to live under the New Covenant today. To do so we need to emerge ourselves in the whole Bible and be true to how it teaches believers in the Messiah to live.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 9

I would like now to follow up on what I was saying in Part 7. One of the major differences between the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant has to do with our standing before God. Under the New Covenant our relationship to God begins with our sins forgiven. We start off with an acceptance that is not dependant on our actions, but upon God's accomplishments through the Messiah. On the other hand the Sinai Covenant demonstrated that while we were called to a right relationship with God, our sins were an obstacle to that relationship.

The Sinai Covenant gives us an understanding of the holiness of God. God's holiness is a way to describe his otherliness – his God-ness, so to speak. We needed to learn how great the chasm was between humankind and our Creator. The idols of the nations were images created in the image of man and beast. Our tendency through time has been to fashion our concepts of God after our own finite and earthly imaginations. Through the giving of the Torah to Israel, God painstakingly provided us with the only accurate picture of himself. It was necessary for us to understand and accept how far we were from the kind of relationship with him that we needed. The purpose of the Sinai Covenant, therefore, was to prepare us for God's salvation in Yeshua.

While much of the intent of these two convents are similar in that they show us how to live godly lives through stated norms of behavior, the approach to God's directives are completely different. The standards set by Sinai demonstrate our separation from God, while those of the New Covenant are the fruit of our being accepted by him. The Torah as revealed through the Sinai commandments was a set of principles to strive after, while the Torah of the New Covenant is the fitting expression of the hearts of those who have been made right with God.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

TorahBytes: Isaac and Ishmael (Rosh HaShanah)

But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." (Bereshit / Genesis 21:1-34)

This week's Torah portion is special for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, also called the Festival of Trumpets, referring to the blowing of the shofar or ram's horn. It is a time to remember who God is and who we are before him. In ancient times, outside of the Land of Israel, it became customary to observe the major festival days twice due to the uncertainty over the accuracy of the calendar. This tradition continues in many Jewish communities today. Each Jewish holiday is allocated its own special Torah reading.

The reading from Bereshit (Genesis) for the first day of Rosh Hashanah includes the birth of Isaac. The reason why this was chosen appears to be due to its continuation that is read on the second day of the holiday. The story of Isaac is connected to Rosh Hashanah because of the reference to the horns of the ram that were caught in a thicket. The ram was the substitute for Isaac, when God stopped Abraham from sacrificing him. The symbol of the ram's horn in the Isaac story became associated with the blowing of the ram's horn at Rosh Hashanah.

Getting back to the earlier part of Isaac's life, we encounter a situation that is relevant to one of the hot topics of today's political scene - the relationship between Jews and Arabs. I understand that the Islamic version of this story is different from that of the Torah. But for the sake of what I would like to discuss today, I will focus on the Torah's version only.

Abraham and his wife Sarah knew that God was going to give Abraham his own son one day through whom God would bless the nations of the world. As they grew older and Sarah still did not get pregnant, she devised a scheme that Abraham agreed to. It seems that this was in keeping with a custom of their day, right or wrong. They decided that they would attempt to have a child through Sarah's servant Hagar. Thus Ishmael was born.

It would be years before God would speak to Abraham to let him know that this was not his plan. God had determined that the child through whom his promises would be fulfilled would be born through Sarah after all. Thus Isaac was born.

The coexistence of these two boys caused conflict in Abraham's household. Much to Abraham's distress, Sarah demanded that both Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, because, in her words, "that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac."

God instructed Abraham to do what Sarah demanded. And so Hagar and Ishmael were sent away. As it turned out God took care of them and blessed Ishmael and his descendents.

One might want to try to understand the current Arab/Israeli conflict via this story. Perhaps there is some merit in doing so, but I think that there is a more important lesson to be learned here. God loved and blessed Isaac. God loved and blessed Ishmael. God loves each one's descendants. God didn't direct Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away because he preferred one over the other. In fact he consoled Abraham in his distress over his son Ishmael (Bereshit / Genesis 21:11-13).

The real issue here has to do with Abraham's inheritance - an inheritance from God through which he would bless all people one day: the blessing in which people's alienation from God would be resolved; the blessing of salvation which would be offered to all people through the Messiah.

The difference between Isaac and Ishmael reveals to us how to receive Abraham's inheritance. Ishmael is the natural son born out of human wisdom and strategies. Isaac is the miraculous son of promise. He is received into the world by faith in God - a God who does the impossible - a God who calls us to rely on his directions and not on our own devices.

Similar to what Sarah said, that which is born out of our own efforts will never share in the inheritance of that which is born out of God's promises. Whatever is God's will concerning the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael - all of us need to learn this lesson. In order to truly participate in the blessings and inheritance of Abraham, we must live our lives relying on God and his word and not upon ourselves, our own plans and schemes.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 8

One of the crucial issues regarding how to apply the Torah to our lives today has to do with whether or not it was intended exclusively for the people of Israel or for all peoples.

This issue is partly resolved by understanding that the Torah and the Sinai covenant are not one in the same, but rather that the Sinai Covenant contains the Torah. The Torah predates the Sinai Covenant as well as continues beyond it.

The discussion of what aspects of the Sinai Covenant are the eternal Torah that are applicable to all people is helped by understanding that the non-Jewish people were never directed to keep the Torah as given the Jewish people. This was made clear through the decision made by the leaders at the Jerusalem council:
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood (Acts 15:19,20).

Some people try to surmise that the intent of this decision was to ease non-Jews into Moses-style Torah observance, by referring to this statement which immediately follows the above:
For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath (Acts 15:19,20).

These people assert that as the Gentiles hear the Scriptures read, in particular the five books of Moses, they will follow God's directives therein even though that is contradictory to the discussion and decision made by the council. That James who worded the decision did not intend for the Gentiles to embrace the Sinai Covenant is clarified by his comment to Paul years later:
You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality (Acts 21:20-25).

James is clear that there was a distinction between how the Torah (at least as expressed through the Sinai Covenant) was to be applied to Jews and to Gentiles.

This is all to say that God didn't intend for all people to follow his directive as contained in the Sinai Covenant.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 7

For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)

One of the key elements of the New Covenant as described through Jeremiah is the forgiveness of sins. It appears that it is this that is the basis of all the other elements, which are the internalization of the Torah, a right relationship with God, and that the nation will all truly know God.

While forgiveness of sins was a feature of the Sinai Covenant, there is a finality in Jeremiah's words that we do not find in the older covenant. We do not get a full understanding of this until after Yeshua's arrival. What he accomplished doesn't simply give us a better spirituality, but a transformed one, due to his satisfying of God's demands and taking on himself the consequences of our sins.

By assuming our sins and their consequences, there is no longer any penalty for us to face. That is why Paul can write, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in the Messiah Yeshua" (Romans 8:1). Our relationship to God in Yeshua is one were there is no basis of condemnation at all. The Torah can no longer accuse us of wrongdoing, since the penalty for those wrongs has been completely satisfied.

Because we are off the hook, so to speak, there is no longer any barrier between us and God, which in turn ensures that we can enjoy the benefits of the New Covenant that Jeremiah lists.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

TorahBytes: The Basis of Restoration (Nizzavim & Va-yelekh)

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you (Devarim / Deuteronomy 30:1-3).

God through Moses anticipated that the people of Israel would be unfaithful to their covenant with God. The day would come when the nation would be dispersed to the four corners of the earth. But this was not to be the end of the story, for God also anticipated another day, further in the future - when we (I speak as a member of the Jewish community) would be restored to the Promised Land.

Moses speaks of that day as one when we would take to heart the words of God and return to him, resulting in our restoration to the Land.

Yet there are those who insist that this works the other way around. They say that it is necessary that we must return to the Land first before we experience a spiritual renewal. In other words we won't know the Messiah until we are back in the Land of Israel. Passages such as Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones (see Ezekiel 37) and Zechariah's prophecy of seeing the Pierced One (Zechariah 12:10-14) suggest that the revelation of the Messiah will come to the whole nation in the Land at a particular moment of time.

Do these predictions contradict what Moses said? Not necessarily. It does seem to be clear that a great spiritual awakening will happen to the people of Israel in the Land. Yet Moses tells us that God will restore us to the Land as we return to him. It seems to me that both are true. Whatever things may happen in the future, Moses provides us with the basis of restoration, which is turning to God. If you accept the whole Bible, both Old and New Covenant writings, then you know that truly turning to God is only experienced through the Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth. It was a Jewish follower of Yeshua who said to leaders of his own people, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

If this is true, then how is it that the modern state of Israel came to be? You may or may not be aware that for the most part modern Israel was founded as a secular state. In fact many religious Jews protested its establishment believing that only the Messiah could bring about the return to the Land. They saw modern Israel as the presumptuous efforts of apostates.

Still, modern Israel was born, and against all odds it has not only survived, but has thrived. Does this then mean that God has been restoring the people to the Land in spite of Moses' words requiring a return to God first? Not necessarily.

You may not be aware that the interest in returning to the Land of Israel after 2000 years coincided with a great turn of Jewish people to Yeshua. There were thousands of Jewish people in Europe during the 1800's who believed in Yeshua. Could it be that God, in keeping his word through Moses, responded by opening the way to return to our homeland? It is also noteworthy that when ancient Jerusalem came into Jewish hands as a result of the Six Day War in 1967, it was during another significant turning of Jewish people to Yeshua, this time primarily in North America.

Is it possible then that God’s favor has come to his ancient covenant people because we have been turning back to him? While the percentage might seem small, God has often blessed the whole nation as a result of the faithfulness of a few. That most of those who have returned to the Land are not the same ones who have turned to God through Yeshua is not an issue when we understand that God deals with Israel as a nation. Also, whatever we have experienced so far, both in our return to God and our restoration to the Land, is only a foretaste of greater things to come.

God has blessed the whole people of Israel because of the faithfulness of a small remnant among us. As we have begun to return to him through the Messiah, so he has begun to shine his favor upon us as a nation again.

Yet the state of Israel and the Jewish community worldwide is in peril. As a people we are hurting and confused. What is our solution, if it is not in God? Where is our salvation, if it is not in Yeshua the Messiah? Sadly many of those who know the truth of God's salvation in Yeshua are keeping that salvation from us in the name of biblical prophecy, when the fulfillment of those prophecies will only come about as we take God's word to heart and turn to him in Yeshua the Messiah.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 6

I don't want to give the impression that our approach to the Scriptures and the Torah in particular is one where we are free to pick and choose according to our personal preferences. While it would be seem simpler to either accept or reject the books of Moses and the Sinai covenant, that really isn't an option. As I have already explained, we cannot keep the Sinai Covenant is due to the destruction of the Temple and the termination of the sacrificial system. This alone forces us to discern what is applicable to our own day.

The destruction of the Temple does not mean that we are left with remnants of the Torah, since Torah is actually more than what we find contained in Moses' writings.

One of the passages that has helped see that there is more to Torah than the commandments of the books of Moses is Vayikra / Leviticus 18. Here we see a list of illicit intimate relationships, including, but not limited to incestuous ones. After the list is given we read, "Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled" (18:24). This means that God was holding the non-Jewish nations to a particular standard apart from them knowing the details of God's revelation to Moses. We don't know if they knew these details or not. Either way, their engagement in such practices resulted in harsh judgment. Their being called to account was not due to the establishment of the Sinai covenant, but rather according to eternal principles of God.

Israel on the other hand was given a much broader standard to live by on the basis of the promises to the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. These things were not shared by the other nations.

So we see that God has always had a standard for all peoples even though there may be differences in those standards depending on his dealings with that particular nation.

Therefore as we look into this further, we need to discern what are the eternal principles that God continues to set for us.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 5

It is difficult to break free of the concept that the Torah is equivalent to the books of Moses and/or the Sinai Covenant, since this understanding is so common in both Jewish and Christian circles. But once we can accept that Torah is contained in the writings of Moses and contained within the Sinai Covenant, then we are free to explore what Torah really is. Once we do that we can better understand what it means to internalize it as part of the New Covenant as prophesied by Jeremiah.

Torah is God's direction. It is his understanding of how we humans should live life. In one sense then all of his revelation is Torah. This might sound contradictory to what I have just written regarding Moses and Sinai, but it isn't really. God has revealed his ways to us not just by statutes and regulations such as what we find in the books of Moses. He has revealed these ways also through the narratives and poetry of the rest of Scripture. Even the specific regulations of the Sinai covenant are to be understood, not isolated from the rest of the Bible, but how we see them lived out in the historic passages, as interpreted by the prophets and elaborated upon by the Messiah and his followers. God's ways are best discerned through the careful study of the whole Bible. That is how we learn to walk in his ways. That is how we learn Torah.

The rabbinical view that Torah is a set of 613 commandments confuses the biblical perspective on this. By turning Torah into a legal code we find ourselves quibbling over its details rather than interacting with God and his directions for living as we seek to apply them in our day.

In Yeshua's "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5 – 7), we see how the religious leaders of his day had failed to properly understand God's intent in several of his directives. He never contradicts God's actual commands, but instead the interpretations of the Torah teachers of that day. That is why he says several times, "You heard it was said, but I say to you" rather than "You know it was written, but I say to you." Throughout the New Covenant writings we read how Torah was being misunderstood and misapplied by the Jewish leaders of that day. Yeshua and his followers, as those through whom God was establishing the New Covenant, were providing God's perspective on Torah, which would result in its internalization just as Jeremiah prophesied.

To be continued…

Monday, September 04, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 4

As we begin to look what is meant by the internalized Torah as prophesied by Jeremiah, it is important to understand what Torah is or rather what it is not. Many people associate the term "Torah" with the Law of Moses, meaning those regulations given by Moses. They would include what we call "The Ten Commandments", the other regulations given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, plus all other directives given by Moses while he lived. This would also include various directives gleaned from the Book of Genesis, which traditionally was authored by Moses. The five books of Moses, from Bereshit (Genesis) through Devarim (Deuteronomy), are referred to as "The Torah."

While the books of Moses are called "The Torah", it is not entirely correct to say that they are equivalent. Torah is actually contained in these books, rather than being one and the same. Certainly Jeremiah was not saying that the books of Moses would be internalized.

Some also equate Torah with the covenant given at Mt. Sinai. To them the giving of the Torah and the Sinai covenant are one and the same, but this too cannot be the case. There is an interesting reference to God's laws centuries before Moses came on the scene. It was when God was confirming his promises to Isaac, Abraham's son. It is a reference to Abraham's obedience to God:
I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws. (Bereshit / Genesis 26:4,5)
According to this, Abraham kept God's requirements, commands, decrees, and laws. This language sounds very post-Moses. We don't read of God giving Abraham a list of directives to follow. We do read of some examples of his obeying God, but not too much of his overall lifestyle. At least not until this comment. I understand that for the rabbis this is proof that Abraham was Torah observant even before it was revealed to Moses. This is to them a proof text for Orthodox Judaism.

I don't think that is what is going on here. This reference simply tells us that Abraham was a godly man, following in God's ways as he understood them. It is likely that an understanding of how to follow God was well known on the earth from Adam to Noah to Abraham. This would explain how Noah could be called righteous and blameless (Bereshit / Genesis 6:9). There was always a standard of righteousness known, which Noah and later Abraham followed.

This understanding of God's ways was separate from his covenant with the people of Israel given at Mt. Sinai. While the Sinai covenant included what God calls " my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws" that Abraham followed, they are not one and the same.

So when Jeremiah later on predicts a time when a New Covenant would be made that is not like the Sinai one and that this New Covenant would include the internalization of God's Torah, he is not necessarily referring to a spiritualized Law of Moses or Sinai covenant. He is speaking of a new way that would internalize God's directives which existed as external regulations within the Sinai covenant.

Understanding that neither Sinai nor the Books of Moses equal Torah, but instead contain it prevents us from trying to apply the details of the Sinai covenant to our lives under the New Covenant. What we need to determine therefore is what are those things that God has internalized, so that we can truly obey him in our day.

To be continued…