Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Sunday, June 25, 2006
The people of Israel had asked for a king just like the nations around them. Up until that time they relied on their tribal elders and upon specially inspired leaders, called Shoftim (English: Judges). During the time of the Shoftim the nation was in a cycle of drifting from God until a new leader came on the scene. The people would then repent (turn back to God), but would remain faithful only as long as that leader lived. After his or her death, the people would drift again. After many years of this, the people grew weary and thought that by establishing a monarchy they would have the stability they desired. They made this request to Samuel, who was judge at the time.
Even though it appears that it was in God's plan to eventually establish a monarchy in Israel, this request was born out of the people's lack of trust in God. They didn't want to rely on God's provision for leadership, but wanted instead the same kind of human organization as that of the other nations.
Although this amounted to the rejection of God as king, God decided to grant them their request anyway. It's really something how God puts up with how we mismanage our lives, but that is not the issue I want to address.
After Saul was established as Israel's first king, Samuel confronted the people regarding the nature of their request. They finally realized how bad it was - something they couldn't or wouldn't see until this point. Once they realized what they had done, they greatly feared God's judgment on their lives. So Samuel comforted them with the words I quoted at the beginning:
"Do not be afraid," Samuel replied. "You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart." (1 Samuel 12:20)
These words underscore an important aspect of how God relates to us. While he is very strict with his people, he is also very accepting. But his acceptance does not negate the reality of his strictness. The assurance Samuel gave the people arose out of their realization of their wickedness. I don't think these same words would have been given to them had they continued in their rebellious attitude.
That God forgives us whatever our wrongs have been, is beyond our comprehension. There are so many examples of people in the Bible whom God accepted even after they had done terrible things. But in those cases his acceptance was dependant on their turning from their evil ways.
Samuel's assurance to the people was given along with his urging them to remain faithful to God. This reminds me of the story of Yeshua and the woman who was accused of adultery (see John 8:1-11). The religious leaders were so harsh towards her. All they cared about was that justice be done. Yeshua confronted the leaders with their own sinfulness. Once all her accusers had left, Yeshua and the woman had this interaction:
For many this illustrates the absolute nature of God's acceptance of us. No matter what we have done, we are accepted by God. But this is not the end of the story. Yeshua then said, "Go now and leave your life of sin" (John 8:11b).
Yeshua straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Yeshua declared. (John 8:10,11a)
As in the case of Israel and Samuel, God accepts the repentant, but it is the repentant that he accepts. And a truly repentant person seeks to live aright. That we regularly fail in our attempt to live godly lives is one of the reasons why we needed the Messiah's sacrifice. It is because of God's loving acceptance that we can and should live for him. To do otherwise is to reject his acceptance.
Friday, June 23, 2006
I believe Paul's main objective in Romans was do deal with growing animosity between Gentile and Jewish believers, but that is another story.
Paul's explanation of the effectiveness God's salvation is so extreme that, in chapter 6, he deals with two rhetorical questions: The first, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" (6:1) And the second, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" (6:15)
It is necessary for him to deal with these questions because they are each possible logical conclusions to God's salvation. Yeshua's death on our behalf has truly freed us from condemnation. Since he died for our sins, we no longer face God's judgment. The penalty for our wrongs have been paid in full. It might be that there were people in Rome who, having accepted this truth, concluded that we can therefore live any way we please. It is important to understand that the logic is reasonable, because there is no longer any legal claim against us.
However the proposed conclusions are still wrong. Paul's answers to both questions are the same: "By no mean!", which in the original is the strongest of negative statements. These so-called logical conclusions are about as off base as could be. The only fitting response to God's grace is to live godly lives. To squander our freedom by living for ourselves is to reject the freedom we claim to have.
The vastness of God's grace is the foundation of living the kind of life that could not be lived without it. The cloud of condemnation had to be broken in order for us to live godly lives. Even in our current imperfection, all guilt is removed. We have nothing to prove, since God has forgiven us completely. We can now celebrate our freedom by living freely, which is the same as living godly lives.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
The supposed dichotomy between faith and works has been a problem for many Bible believers through the centuries. While many accept that these two things work together, it remains a struggle to truly live it out.
This, of course, is a topic worthy of a lengthy discussion, but I will try to deal with it briefly.
In Yeshua's day it was thought that a person's religious service and morality could merit them salvation and favor with God. This notion was wrong. It was always wrong, since acceptance by God was always on the basis of faith. This is applies to both initial and ongoing acceptance. Once we know God through faith in his Son, continued forgiveness is based on what Yeshua has done for us, not on our performance.
But that we are accepted by God through faith and not by our works does not mean that it is permissible to live any way we choose. Those who are accepted by God will demonstrate that acceptance by living a godly life. To do otherwise is a contradiction of the reality of life we claim to have.
Good works do not cause salvation, they are its outcome. Its important not to get these two things confused. Since we are not yet perfected, we will continue to struggle with sin. Understanding that our acceptance by God is on the basis of faith and not works keeps us from discouragement and despair. Because our acceptance is based completely on what he has done on our behalf, we now have the freedom and the obligation to live life according to his ways.
Monday, June 19, 2006
As this was debated, the issue I am mainly addressing – that we tend to think in very strict categories – was in the forefront. A common suggestion was that science should remain in the science class, while issues of origins and creation should be limited to the religion or philosophy class. I was struck by the lack of understanding of the fact that, whether we are aware of it or not, our approach to science will be determined by our philosophical and spiritual convictions.
That a secularist would want to remove spiritual discussions from the science class is logical, since they don't believe in the supernatural. For them to include anything that even approaches the concept of God, is to introduce fantasy into the laboratory.
What I don't understand is how a person who claims biblical faith could accept this position. To analyze the creation apart from the Creator is an insult to the one we claim to love. To the secularist scientist, the creation is an impersonal collection of chance relationships. To the believer it is the expression of the Great Artist, the design of a loving Architect, a gift of our Heavenly Father. The Earth itself is not just a giant laboratory that we can dissect any way we choose. It is our home in which we serve our Lord and Master, the Creator of that home.
As in everything else, believers need to proclaim this truth everywhere, including in the science class. To do that we must first allow the categories of science and religion to be truly integrated in our minds, hearts, and lives.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
God's deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt was just the beginning. God's desire was to develop in them a people fully dedicated to him in every way. His purpose in this was to reveal himself through them to the other nations of the world. One necessary aspect of this process was to insulate them from ungodly nations among whom they lived. He didn't do this by physically sending them far away from these nations or by having them build impenetrable fortresses. In fact not only would they live surrounded by these peoples, our history has been one of regular interaction with them.
The kind of insulation that God chose to use was cultural. Through Moses he provided Israel with a new way of life - one very different from that of the neighboring nations. As we read the Torah we see warnings against following many common pagan customs.
At the same time the development of Israel as a godly people would take more than cultural insulation. Evil is also an internal reality. Contrary to what some people think, evil is not simply learned from others. It lies within us. In order to live godly lives we need to keep our evil inclinations in check.
As a reminder to live according to God's ways, God gave us a visual aid in the form of tassels (Hebrew: tzitzit) that we were to attach to the corners of our garments. Today many Jewish people wear them attached to a special undergarment. Some people wear them so that the tassels are visible; while others tuck them inside their clothes. The decision to wear one's tassels inside or outside depends on one's understanding of the kind of reminder God intended, whether it was only for the person wearing them or to serve as a reminder to others as well.
We all need this kind of reminder, whether it is in the form of these tassels or some other means. Tzitzit were only one of many reminders God gave the people of Israel. We need reminders, because we so easily forget.
Under the New Covenant as prophesied by Jeremiah and realized through Yeshua the Messiah, the Torah becomes an internal reality. That which was at one time external to us has been internalized through Yeshua's sacrificial ministry and the forgiveness of sins.
God now wants you and me to be tassels on the garments of our lives. Truly godly people have this effect. They are like signposts, reminding us to keep on the path of truth and righteousness. At the same time we should also be tassels unto ourselves. If God is real in our lives, as we remember who we are in him, we challenge ourselves to stay true to him.
While we should not show off our spirituality, the godly quality of our lives should remind others to remember all the commands of the Lord, that we may obey them and not prostitute ourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.
Friday, June 16, 2006
I imagine we could say that Paul was not living up to his own principles, but I don't think that is in keeping with his overall experience and teaching as well as the rest of the Scriptures.
The majority of the Psalms, for example, are what scholars call laments. It's like singing the Blues. For the most part these Psalms do include a positive perspective, but at the same time the writers are being honest about how they feel about their situations. It is as they truly grabble with great difficulties they discover the power and presence of God.
Life is complex. At any given time our hearts contain varying amounts of joy and sorrow. In the same world where tragedy regularly rears its ugly head, we are also surrounded by beauty and wonder. It is tragic that some of us have been taught to distance ourselves from our emotions instead of allowing ourselves to engage the vast complexity of life. While we should not be driven by our feelings, they are part of us. Instead of denying them, we need to learn how to manage them well. Part of that management is learning how to offer how we feel to God. As we do we will find ourselves more able to express them in our relationships.
Paul had no problem with the fact that he carried a great pain in his heart over the welfare of his people. He saw no contradiction between that and his joy over the reality of God in his own life. Perhaps the joy was the reason why he experienced the depths of grief for his people that he did, knowing how much they were missing out on.
I suspect that most of us right now, like Paul, carry in our hearts apparently conflicting emotions. In order to truly live, we need to get more in touch with the life we are actually living instead of cutting ourselves off from its reality.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
This is actually a big subject. Perhaps I will work though it bit by bit over the next little while.
I remember many years ago I was having breakfast with a friend. It was in that conversation that I first heard someone refer to "Word" congregations and "Spirit" congregations. He was saying that for the most part a congregation was usually one or the other. Either they emphasized the Scriptures or experience in the Holy Spirit. At the time I hadn't had that much exposure to a broad range of congregations, but biblically this sounded strange to me. If we are true believers, then don't we (1) have the Bible as our point of reference and standard for faith and life, and (2) have the reality of the living God in our lives through the Ruach Hakodesh (English: Holy Spirit).
It would take some time before I would learn for myself that this distinction did (and still does) exist. Some recognize it and seek to integrate the two, but my impression is that most believers do fall into one of these two groupings. Either our faith is objectively oriented, meaning our faith is based on the unchanging facts of what God has done in history and how I feel about it makes no difference, or our sense of God's reality is derived on some sort of spiritual experience or experiences. Without those experiences God seems distant.
I think the Bible affirms both of these. In fact the reality of God is known by these two things working together in our lives. God is God whether we experience him or not, but the Bible also reveals that he is actively involved in the lives of his people. If the truth about God is true then his reality will be evident in our lives.
Word and Spirit is but one of the many aspects of life that many of us have had difficulty integrating. Over the next while I hope to be able to discuss several other areas, and hopefully also look at why we have trouble living truly integrated lives.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6).I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the social implications of biblical faith. In a book I have been reading the author referred to these words of Yeshua in a way that never occurred to me.
Up until now I thought Yeshua was only speaking of personal righteousness – the desire to be right with God, but this author's view is that this has to do with righteousness in society – that Yeshua is speaking of those who grieve over societal wrongs.
I have been also reading Jeremiah. He might agree with this perspective. According to Jeremiah, It appears God's understanding of godliness includes our relationship to the broader society. Here is but one example:
If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. (Jeremiah 7:5-8)
I don’t why I have been slow to fully accept the social implications of following Yeshua, but I look forward to learning more about his heart for the world around us.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense," declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 3:10)
If you read the Prophets quickly, you may get the impression that it just repeats the same thing over and over again. Years ago I heard someone summarize the message of these books as "Shape up or ship out!", but a careful read reveals that the Prophets address a wide variety of situations. As we study how they confronted and console the people of Israel in ancient times, there is much for us to glean for our own day.
Jeremiah lived in a terrible time in Israel's history (the southern kingdom of Judah in particular) as he anticipated the beginnings of the exile to Babylon and the destruction of first temple in Jerusalem. In the opening chapters of his book, he harshly criticizes Judah's spirituality. It seems that at this particular time, the people were using the right kind of spiritual language, but their lives demonstrated their absolute unfaithfulness. In the verse quoted about, this is called pretense.
This helps us to see that spiritual enthusiasm is not the same as spiritual reality. Saying the right words does not make us right with God. Many people confuse faith with mental and even emotional assent. Claiming we believe in Yeshua (along with other forms of spiritual expression and emotion) without a changed life is nothing short of a mockery of the faith we claim to possess.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
I am a Levite. At least that is what my parents told me. I don't have a certificate to prove it and the Temple records are long gone. But that is how it is done in the Jewish community. My father was a Levite and so I am a Levite. That means my children are Levites and their children will be Levites.
The tribe of Levi was given the special role as representatives of all the firstborn of Israel. Because God struck down every firstborn of the Egyptians in order to deliver Israel from slavery, all the firstborn of Israel belonged to him. Then in place of every firstborn, God took unto himself the whole tribe of Levi.
In ancient Israel, the Levites were not given territory like the other tribes, who were able to pass down their God-given land to their descendants. Instead, the Levites' inheritance was God himself (Devarim / Deuteronomy 10:9). They were to serve God primarily through caring for the sacred articles of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple, and by assisting the priests with the sacrifices. They were also teachers and judges of the people. Under King David they became Temple musicians as well.
I often wondered what this all should mean to me and my family today. The practical role of the Levites and priests ended with the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70. In synagogue life the Levites and priests have a small, but honored, ceremonial role. For those of us who adhere to the New Covenant, it appears that we no longer have special responsibilities. For in Yeshua we are under a new priesthood (Hebrews 7:12).
Still, many years ago, I was struck by these words in the prophet Malachi:
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Malachi 3:2-4)
These words have suggested to me that perhaps God desires a special role for my tribe even in these days or the days to come. Whatever their current application, these words have encouraged me in times of hardship. Though not a pleasant thing, I welcome God's work of purification in my life.
Whether or not God has a continued role for the tribe of Levi today is of somewhat secondary importance. For the existence and calling of the tribe of Levi should speak to all of us. For Israel, Levi reminds us that our very existence is due to the special intervention of God. We are not like the other nations of the world. We will never realize the fullness of our destiny apart from our relationship to him and his call on our lives.
For all believers in Yeshua, the Levites illustrate the lives we are all called to live. We no longer belong to ourselves as if we could live any way we please (1 Corinthian 6:19). Because of Yeshua's sacrifice on our behalf, we all have been given over to God as his possession and for his service.
Friday, June 09, 2006
My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jeremiah 2:13)
In the second chapter of Jeremiah, God confronts Israel for forsaking him in favor of false gods. In verse five, God says:
What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.
It is clear that even though the people's relationship with God brought them so much benefit, they turned to false gods.
Do you find it strange that it appears their turning away from the God who loved them and cared for them seems to have come about for no apparent reason? One might assume that their unfaithfulness must have been due to a catastrophe of some kind. But that doesn't seem to be what is going on here. The first verse I quoted above (2:13) tells us that they rejected what was of significant benefit for something else that was, in fact, useless. They just did it.
Why did they do that? I don't know. I also don't know why we do the same thing. I think that most often this happens over a period of time. And when we do, we may not even be aware of it. And then when confronted, we quickly deny it (2:23).
It is easier than we think to get caught up in the culture in which we live. Unless we allow ourselves to come under the regular scrutiny of God's Word (and make the necessary adjustments), we will become molded by the society around us (see Romans 12:2).
Thursday, June 08, 2006
I have the impression that most of us understand the reference to "love" in this verse has to do with the manner in which we should speak truth to others. That is a good corrective to me, since I am aware that when I do speak, I can tend to do so too harshly.
But I wonder if speaking in a loving manner might be only one part of what is intended here. Perhaps this is also an encouragement to be motivated by love, which itself has at least two aspects. The first is that speaking truth into people's lives should arise out of love for them. Our motive for speaking should not be selfish, in that our goal should not be to make our lives better, but the other person's.
The other aspect regarding love being our motivator is that love should compel us to speak the truth to others. If I really love people, why would I keep the truth from them? Either I don't really love them or I don't think there is significant value in the truth itself. But if I do love and do know the truth, then speaking that truth to the one I love is the only option I have.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
I have to admit as I have done more than once in TorahBytes that there are several passages in the Bible that bother me. But so what? There are lots of things in life that bother me. Take gravity for example. Do you know how much suffering we have had to endure because of gravity's insistence of puling us down to Earth? Then there's the weather. I don't know where you live, but there are all kinds of days that I really don't like. Have you ever experienced high heat and high humidity at the same time? Where I live hot, sticky weather has existing long before the invention of global warming. And how about mosquitoes? I don't have time to get into that, but let it suffice to say that they really bother me. I wish, like the person I met, I could deny the existence of these things, but I can't due to the simple reason that they are real.
It's the same with the Scriptures. I don't believe they are true and without error because I like them (which for the most part I do), but because they are true no matter what I think about them. In order to live life effectively, we need to discover what really is, and not simply based on our personal preferences.
Monday, June 05, 2006
I am come to the conclusion that Brown's writings are dangerous and need to be countered. I think that they are dangerous for unbelievers, because additionally obstacles to their experiencing salvation. Also, there are various views of spirituality expressed by Brown that in and of themselves are harmful for people.
But perhaps the greatest danger is for believers themselves. While I don't think they will all of a sudden embrace Brown's view of Yeshua and history, what he does do is cast doubt on the authenticity and inerrancy of the Bible. Since most Bible believers have not taken the time to understand how the Bible came to be and why it can be trusted, Brown's statement about other Gospels and how the books of the Bible came to be accepted might cause people to be a little less confident in God's Book.
Does that mean people are going to automatically reject the Holy Scriptures? I don't think so. But a little bit of doubt may be just enough to render our faith ineffective.
Please note that I think questioning some of our preconceived notions about the Bible is a good thing. But that should lead to an honest and thorough examination of the facts. What Brown does is simply cast doubt on the Bible as we know it. If the Bible is the product of conspiracy and cover up, then how can we ever know the truth? The fact that his assertions have no historical basis, may make no difference to those who don’t know better.
Last week I quoted the verse from Hebrews 4:12 that refers to God's Word as being sharper than a two-edged sword. Doubt dulls the blade of God's Word. Doubt will prevent it from cutting through to our own hearts. Doubt will prevent us from using it effectively in the lives of others.
In order to withstand this attack on God's Truth, we must be secure in what we believe and why we believe it. We must not let doubt take hold. Therefore if you have not already done so, I suggest reading one of those Da Vinci Code critiques.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
One of our favorite children's book is Phoebe Gilman's Something from Nothing (by the way, Ms. Gilman and yours truly are not related as far as I know). In Something from Nothing the grandfather of newborn Joseph makes him a blanket. Years later, when his blanket is worn out, Joseph's mother wants Joseph to throw it out. But Joseph replies that his grandfather can fix it. Out of the old and tattered blanket, Joseph's grandfather makes a jacket. When the jacket wears out, Joseph's grandfather makes it into a vest. The story continues in this way with Joseph always being confident that his grandfather can do something. Eventually there is only enough material left to make one small button. When Joseph loses that button, he still believes that his grandfather can do something about it, to which his mother replies, "Even your grandfather can't make something from nothing." That's not the end of the story, however. But if you want to know the rest, you'll have to read it for yourself.
Unlike Joseph's grandfather, God can make something from nothing. He did it when he created the universe and he continues to make things from nothing until this day. When God makes something from nothing, we call that a miracle. As a believer in God, I believe that God does indeed do miracles today, but to be honest I have an easier time trusting him for miracles that are similar to what Joseph's grandfather did with his worn out things. I find it easier to believe that God will make something out of something, than make something out of nothing. It is easier for me to believe that God will do difficult things, than to do something that deep down I believe is impossible.
But God is able to make something from nothing. This is what we read in this week's Haftarah. Before Samson was conceived his mother was not able to have children. When the angel of the Lord appeared to her, he acknowledged that fact, but proclaimed that she would have a child anyway.
This is not the first time that God told people they would have a child when in the natural they could not. This is the story of Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people. In her case, not only was she sterile her whole life, she was past the age of child bearing. But that did not stop God. He said she would have a baby, and she did. Many years later another one of Sarah's descendents would experience an even greater miracle by conceiving a child without normal human intervention. Do you find that too hard to believe? But if God can make a sterile woman conceive, can he not also do the other? Something from nothing.
I wonder how many times God speaks to us, saying that he wants to do the impossible in and through our lives, but we just shrug him off, because we don't really believe he can make something from nothing. I also wonder how many times we face impossible situations, but fail to go to God, since we don't believe he can or will do anything about it.
We need to remember that God is the God of the impossible. He doesn't depend on anything to do what he does. Unlike Joseph's grandfather, God can make something from nothing.
Friday, June 02, 2006
What I mean by absolute tolerance is the viewpoint that all faiths are equally valid, which can be and should be celebrated together.
What was striking was how this understanding was being asserted, in fact it was preached by those claiming to be Christian. They even used the Bible as their basis for this, including Yeshua's directive that we "Love one another" (John 13:34) and Paul's words, "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:13).
It is grievous how people could so twist what both Yeshua and Paul said. I won't take the time here to list the abundance of references that establish the uniqueness of Yeshua and his exclusive claim upon all people. To use his words to justify what amounts to a spirituality completely foreign and opposed to the spirituality of the Bible is disgraceful.
Yes we are to be tolerant and respectful of all people. That we engage those who differ from ourselves in a loving and peaceful manner is one of the New Covenant's gifts to all humanity. How different from the spirituality of most of the religions that these people want to integrate.
Proponents of absolute tolerance fail to see that they are digging a pit into which they will eventually fall. A wishy washy Jesus who accepts everyone and everything no matter what is not Jesus at all. The Messiah of the Bible is one who calls us exclusively to himself at the very cost of our lives. To transform him into a messiah of absolute tolerance is one of the greatest disservice we could ever do to ourselves and to those whom we are claiming to love and accept.