Sunday, February 25, 2007

TorahBytes: Mordecai (Tezavveh & Zakhor)

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahashverosh, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews. (Esther 10:3)

This coming Saturday evening (March 3, 2007) begins the Jewish festival of Purim. Purim commemorates the dramatic events recorded in the book of Esther, when the Jews were facing extermination at the hands of the wicked Haman. One of the features of the book of Esther is that it never once explicitly mentions God. Yet the hand of God is so clearly evident in this story.

While this book of the Bible is traditionally known as "Esther", and while Esther certainly plays a most crucial role in the outcome of the story, it is actually Mordecai who is the true protagonist, for it is he who moves the story along. Please don't get me wrong. Esther, at the risk of her own life, was used by God to save the day. But as we shall see, the story is more about Mordecai than anyone else.

To begin with, Mordecai adopted Esther when her parents died. The quality of his care is underscored by the fact that she was one of the girls selected as a potential successor to the deposed queen. Even while she was in the palace he never stopped being concerned for her.

Interestingly, it is because he placed himself where he could most readily keep tabs on Esther, that he foils a plot against the king. Obviously he is a person who not only cares, but is willing to do something when necessary.

Mordecai is the one who precipitates the main events of this story. When Mordecai infuriates Haman, the king's top noble, by refusing to pay homage to him, Haman devises a plot to destroy, not only Mordecai, but all of Mordecai's people, the Jews. Mordecai was simply being a faithful follower of God by not showing respect to this enemy of the Jews (Haman was a descendant of Agag the Amalekite).

When the decree is issued to destroy the Jews, it is Mordecai's public display of grief that attracts Esther's attention, which in turn leads to her being informed of the situation. Mordecai then urges Esther to plead with the king for mercy, having discerned that her being made queen at this very time was no coincidence.

Mordecai's presence in the story is felt again when the king realizes that he never rewarded him for his uncovering of the plot against him. The timing of the king's reward emphasizes the absolute foolishness of Haman's plans through the mouths of his own wife and friends, who said to him, "Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him - you will surely come to ruin!" (Esther 6:13).

Once Esther accuses Haman in front of the king, Haman is executed upon the very gallows he had specially prepared for Mordecai. Mordecai provides the edict for the Jews' self defense. He also records the events and proclaims to the Jewish world the annual celebration we call "Purim," which refers to the lots that Haman drew to determine the date of his planned destruction of the Jews.

In the end Mordecai is made second in rank to the king. The book closes with what I read at the start:

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahashverosh, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews. (Esther 10:3)
On one hand it may seem that it was Mordecai's personal convictions that created the trouble in the first place. But on the other hand, what actually happened was that Mordecai was used by God to expose great evil influence in the government of his day. In the end much good was accomplished.

While not everyone will have the same amount of influence as Mordecai, he illustrates the lives of all truly godly people. Should not our presence make a difference wherever we may be? As people called by the Messiah to be salt and light (see Matthew 5:13-16), our lives should confront darkness and evil everywhere. We should not be surprised when we stir up trouble among those who plan evil, as we work for the good of others and speak for their welfare.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

TorahBytes: Mind the Detail (Terumah)

Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain. (Shemot / Exodus 28:30)

One of the features of the instructions God gave Moses concerning the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) is the amount of details. Details of what was to be made, the materials to be used for the items, precise measurements, quantities, the purpose of each item, and on and on. In the midst of these instructions God reminds Moses, "Set up the Mishkan according to the plan shown you on the mountain" (Shemot / Exodus 28:30). This seems to suggest that God not only gave him the directions which he recorded, but also showed him additional details to ensure that everything would be done exactly the way God intended.

Later on when we read about the actual building of the Mishkan and everything associated with it, we encounter these words several times: " the Lord commanded Moses." Clearly Moses and those assisting him were very careful to follow God's directions. I don't think we would expect anything but their attention to every detail. After all, if God is giving the instructions, they should be followed precisely.

Just as the Mishkan was designed to be God's dwelling, so under the New Covenant, it is we, his people, who are his dwelling (1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:21; Hebrews 3:6; 1 Peter 2:5). Do you think we can assume that just as God was concerned for precise detail regarding the Mishkan - a literal dwelling, so he is just as concerned for detail regarding his spiritual dwelling, which is us, both individually and corporately?

We don't need to assume anything, since the Bible is very clear on this. God is very particular as to the details of his spiritual dwelling. Every aspect of life that we can imagine is covered somehow by his Word. I am aware that it is not always easy to apply what God says to us in the Bible, but that should not stop us from being just as diligent as Moses was to make sure that we design our lives according to God's revealed plan.

We should therefore be careful to compare our own ideas of how to do life with what God has actually said in the Bible. Many teachers today are imposing their own ideas, that sometimes refer to Scripture, but contain elements that are nowhere to be found within its pages. Some people take certain aspects of biblical teaching, such as God's forgiveness, and create extreme notions very different from what God intended. Verses are often taken out of context in order to prove a teacher's own ideas, while few, it seems dare to compare these conclusions with what God actually says. Some people are experts at stringing verses together in a most impressive way, but only cloud God's truth.

The Bible is God's written Word to us. Through it we encounter God's intended design for us, his dwelling place. It is only as we are careful to mind every detail that we truly become the house he desires.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

TorahBytes: Legalism (Mishpatim & Shekalim)

These are the laws you are to set before them. (Shemot / Exodus 21:1).

Legalism and legalist are terms I often hear among Bible believers, but I am not sure if they are always used correctly. Legalism is a system of thought whereby our spiritual state is judged on the basis of how well we abide by a set of rules. This was the approach of the Pharisees during the days of the New Testament. They filtered the Hebrew Scriptures though a legalistic grid. Their obsession with God's commandments was such that they tended to miss the heart of what God was actually saying through his Word. Because they viewed all of life as dependant on observing the commandments, it was necessary to determine what constituted valid observance. This led them to create a vast and complex system of interpretations. The legalism of the Pharisees was inherited by later Jewish scholars and became the foundation of rabbinical Judaism.

This system of thought is confronted by the New Covenant writers. They rightly understood that true spirituality is not based on observance, but rather upon trusting in God and his provision of salvation through the Messiah. This approach to spirituality is in keeping with that of the Hebrew Scriptures. Right relationship with God has always been on the basis of faith, not observance. The New Covenant writers confronted the bad spirituality of the Pharisees, not the legitimate faith of centuries of godly people.

Legalism is not simply about following rules. It is about the establishment of spiritual standards based upon rules. We should not equate keeping God's commandments with legalism. God gave us rules to follow. While we might discuss which of his rules are applicable today, he is a God of rules. He is not a God of rules only, but he does expect us to obey his commands.

I have often heard legalism contrasted to grace. I think what is being communicated by this is the difference between a rule-oriented life and a grace-based life. Using the concept of grace this way, sounds as if it has nothing to do with righteousness or obedience to God. It seems many people think of grace as freedom from rules as if the grace of the New Covenant has to do with our free ticket of acceptance in the Messiah. Some proponents of this way of thinking give the impression that if we believe in Yeshua, God accepts us no matter how we live.

This is not the New Covenant concept of grace. Rather grace is God's empowerment to live the kind of life he desires and to do the things that he wants us to do. When we say we are saved by grace, we are not referring to God's mercy. While including his mercy, grace refers to our being made right with God based on what he has accomplished on our behalf rather than anything based on our own spirituality. This is how grace is in contrast to legalism.

Having received God's grace, we now can live godly lives. This same grace enables us to remain in right relationship with God even though we continually fail to fully live up to his righteous standards.

Where the Pharisees went wrong was that they thought that they could attain God's standard though their obsession with and adherence to his commandments. God had intended that the burden of his commandments lead his people to turn to him for salvation. But instead they formulated a system of righteousness based on the commandments, a system which became an additional barrier between them and God.

So let's not confuse legalism with genuine godly adherence to God's Word. As we rely on Yeshua for our right standing with God, we are enabled by God's grace to live godly lives.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

TorahBytes: God Is Calling (Yitro)

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8)

Many people claim to have heard the call of God. This may be a foreign concept to you, or maybe not. Bible believers differ over whether or not this is a valid experience in our day. As for the Bible itself, it contains many examples of people who have been commissioned by God for this or that purpose. The majority of these examples are those where God spoke directly to individuals, telling them to do certain things. This would include Abraham (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1-3), Moses (Shemot / Exodus 3 & 4), Gideon (Shoftim / Judges 6:11-23), and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10) among others.

This week's Haftarah contains the account of the prophet Isaiah's commissioning by God, but the interaction is quite different from those previously mentioned. In Isaiah's case we don't read of God calling his name and giving him directives. He does have a vision of God, but he stands in God's presence like an observer, witnessing heavenly worship. As he sees what is going on, he experiences a great sense of his own unworthiness, which he then confesses. In response to that, one of the heavenly beings cleanses Isaiah’s mouth, thus removing his sin.

After this Isaiah hears God speak, but God is not addressing Isaiah. What he hears is an open question - God calling for someone he can send. The details of this sending are not given, just the request to which Isaiah responds with, "Here am I. Send me!"

Could it be that God is still speaking this way today? Is not God's heart crying out for those whom he can send to do his will in a confused and hurting world? I wonder how many are waiting around for something to compel them to do something of significance in the world. We might be waiting for permission from someone. We might be waiting until we feel competent. We are waiting, but are we listening?

Many are deaf to the voice of God calling out in this way. It might be that Isaiah couldn't hear until he confessed and was cleansed from his sin. Our disobedience and neglect of God renders ourselves deaf to the voice of God. Others of us, due to disappointment and/or failure, refuse to hear God speak, stopping up our ears, not willing to risk for God again.

But he is calling out. He is asking the same question that he asked in Isaiah's day, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"

This is not to say that we should start doing all sorts of things in God's name. History is too full of this kind of presumption. When Isaiah heard God's request, he didn't just run off, concocting all sorts of elaborate schemes in hope of accomplishing his own version of God's will. Like the other Bible personalities mentioned earlier, God did personally commission Isaiah. But the details did not come until after Isaiah unreservedly offered his services.

God speaks to us in different ways. As in the days of Isaiah, he is still looking for people to send. If we, like Isaiah, could get honest before God about our life's condition, we just might find ourselves in a place where we will be able to hear and respond to his call.