Sunday, March 25, 2007

TorahBytes: Fearing God (Zav)

Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name. (Malachi 3:16)

According to the Scriptures God has special regard for those who fear him. The concept of fearing God has been a confusing one for many people. I remember many years ago, a good friend of mine who was just beginning to read the Bible encountered this concept. He told me that upon reading about the need to fear God, he closed the Bible. His desire was to love God (good desire), but his understanding of love did not allow for the inclusion of his understanding of fear.

I say "his understanding," because I don't think he was able to grasp the biblical meaning of fearing God. He confused a common use of the word "fear," which is the emotion of being afraid, with the kind of fear that is referred to in the verse I quoted above.

I don't know if you have the same difficulty with this concept that my friend had, but I have the impression that there is quite a bit of confusion over it.

Whatever we may think of the term, the Scriptures see the fear of God as a foundational part of life:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)

So shutting the Bible is no way to properly deal with this important concept.

There are two ways I often hear this kind of fear explained by teachers of the Scriptures. The first is "reverence." I don't know if too many people understand the word reverence to start with, but I have the impression that it is thought of as thinking of someone or something in terms of great honor. It is associated with the emotion we may feel in the presence of a very famous or important person. This may result in our speaking to or acting towards this person with a great deal of deference. The problem with this term is that it lacks the kind of ongoing life response that is included in the concept of fearing God.

The second term frequently used to try to explain this kind of fear is "respect." As with "reverence," we behave in a special way towards someone we respect, but there is an emotional intensity lacking that the word "fear" conveys.

It may be difficult to find one word to use instead of fear to adequately convey an accurate understanding of what it means to fear God. I will try to illustrate what this concept is all about. Healthy societies have authority structures in place to protect the well being of their people. Good governments pass laws for the benefit of its citizens. These governments appoint officials to enforce these laws. Breaking laws have consequences. These consequences are designed as deterrents to keep people from disregarding those laws.

When we stay within the boundaries of the laws of our society, we need not be concerned about the consequences of breaking them. In other words, we need not fear the authorities when we abide by the law. It is only those who consciously break the law that have something to fear. Yet it is the law breakers who are the ones who don't really fear the authorities. It's the law keepers who actually fear the authorities.

To fear governing authorities doesn't mean that we live our lives being afraid of them. Far from it. Our fear keeps us from being afraid because we take their power over our lives seriously. Note too, how law abiding citizens react when they think they may have broken a law. That's when they get afraid.

And so it is with God. To fear him does not mean to be scared of him, unless we live in such a way that will bring his displeasure upon us. To fear the Lord means living in right relationship to him. When we fear him we consider who he really is and all he requires of us. Strange as it may sound, when we truly fear God, not only do we need not be afraid of him, we discover we need not be afraid of anything else either.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

TorahBytes: I Have Redeemed You (Vayikra)

I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)

I was very struck recently by the personal story of Charlene Cothran, the publisher of Venus Magazine ( - Note: I don't know if this is a permanent link.) Cothran writes of her decision to leave her long-time unbiblical lifestyle. If I understand her correctly it appears that throughout much of her life she had an awareness of God and his Truth, yet had decided to go her own way. Her recent turn to the Messiah was a reckoning with what in her heart she already knew.

When God began to tug at her heart, she was already well aware of who he was and of his mercy toward her. The day came when she knew that she had to return to him or risk being lost forever. Thankfully she cooperated with God and is now willing to serve him in helping others discover him too.

Cothran is an example of many, many people, who have a godly heritage, but who have purposely ignored that heritage in favor of going their own way. While there are those in the world who know little to nothing about the God of the Bible, there are also countless others, like Cothran, for whom the true God has played a significant part in their lives. Many of these people have encountered God either personally or within their families. I don't fully understand how someone who has been exposed to the reality of God could drift as far away as Cothran had, but the fact is many have.

It is to these people that, I believe, we can apply the words of the prophet Isaiah that I quoted at the start:

I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)

Isaiah’s original audience was the people of Israel of his day. Israel had what is referred to as a covenant relationship with God. By virtue of God's promises to the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; their deliverance from bondage in Egypt; and God's word to them at Mt. Sinai, God obligated himself to them as a nation. His obligations included the Land of Israel, their continual existence as a people, and various relational aspects between himself and them. The full benefits of God's commitment toward them depended on their faithfulness to God.

If and when the people neglected God, they were in danger of losing his benefits. But no matter how persistently rebellious they would become, his commitment to them provided them with the ongoing opportunity to return to him. This is what God, through Isaiah, sought to remind them of. He had already provided the means of their restoration for them. It was then up to them to respond by returning to him.

While non-Jews, like Cothran, cannot make a claim on God in exactly the same way as the people of Israel can, this principle still applies to cases such as hers. While I don't know Cothran personally, I suspect that she comes from a family that at some point committed themselves to the God of Israel through the Messiah. Perhaps Cothran herself had made such a commitment. When a person or a community comes into a true relationship with God, God takes them at their word. Should such people then renege on their commitment, God doesn't immediately turn his back on them. Instead he says to them:

I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)
To neglect God for too long, just as Cothran understood, may place the person beyond God's help forever. When that point is reached is not something we may readily know.

What God still longs for the Jewish people, if you are like Cothran, he also longs for you. He has already done everything necessary for you to return to him. Please don't wait any longer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Building community - the need for informality

I was recently asked about the formality of what is commonly known as "communion" and whether it should simply be a part of our regular meals when believers gather. Here are my thoughts on the subject. Note that what I wrote was off the top of my head (and heart) and is not to be considered a formal treatise on the subject.


First, while bread was common at Jewish meals, I don't think wine was.

Second, the meal in which what has become known as communion was instituted was Passover, hence the (unleavened) bread and the wine.

Third, in Acts, where we read of the believers meeting from house to house and "breaking bread", scholars don't really know whether the breaking of bread was "communion" (however they did that) or simply eating together. I lean towards the latter.

Fourth, apart from Paul's teaching in Corinthians regarding their abuse of communion, which in their case included a meal, we don't have much to go on as far as explicit details regarding how to do it.

Some conclusions: I think meals and more informality should be regular parts of our gatherings. I think this is essential in building the kind of community the New Testament calls for. This doesn't mean that our gatherings should be devoid of all formalities, but we could do a lot better than the current models, which are either just religious ceremonies or performance/audience oriented.

So I agree with your friend that the New Testament models something more akin to extended family gatherings than ultra-religious temple ceremonies or entertainment-style performances.

This is all besides the particular communion issue. Remembering the Lord though the consumption of matza (unleavened bread) and wine (I think grape juice [very new wine] will do) should occur within our community gatherings. If we do not address the overall nature of how we gather, as we create a homey atmosphere just for communion, then communion again takes on a very otherly nature, rather than something well integrated into our community lives.

That said, I would emphasize that what we call communion is taken from the Passover Seder (celebratory symbolic meal), not from everyday meals. It is important to preserve the intended biblical link of the original exodus of the people of Israel through Moses and the greater spiritual exodus of all people through the Jewish Messiah.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

TorahBytes: An Ancient Book (Va-Yakhel)

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot / Exodus 40:34)

This week's parsha (English: Torah portion) details the construction of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and associated items. For the most part this section repeats what God had told Moses to do, except this time we have the description of it all being done. It is common for people, when they begin to read the Bible, to get bogged down at this point. It is difficult to keep attentive when reading something so foreign to our own culture and experience.

Interestingly this is not the only part of the Bible that is foreign to us. In our attempt to make Scripture relevant to our day and age, we sometimes forget that the Bible is an ancient book, written in, what is to most of us, foreign languages in a foreign cultural context. This is not to say that the spiritual truths we discover within its pages are not timeless. It is just that these timeless truths are to be discovered within a foreign context.

In God's providence and wisdom he determined to reveal himself through the Scriptures that were written during a particular time period and in a particular part of the world. These were days of tribal peoples, of kings and prophets, of fighting with spears, swords, and chariots. This was a time when religion and life were intertwined, and each people group had its own god or gods. Affluence was rare; most people worked the land. It was a time before hospitals and modern medicine, pesticides and genetically modified foods, motors and telecommunications. Yet it was a time when the God of the universe entered the lives of certain people and situations. For God's own reasons it was those people and those situations which were recorded to provide subsequent generations, including our own, with an understanding of God's reality and truth.

The Mishkan, upon its completion, was filled with God's glory. The very presence of God filled this elaborate, tent-like structure. Yet due to its foreign nature we find reading about it boring. I wonder what we are missing just because we tend to shy away from reading about it.

The Mishkan is but one example of how the Bible's foreign nature presents a challenge to the modern reader. That is why many have attempted to modernize the language of the Bible. Scholars try to bridge the multi-millennial gap between the Scriptures and our own day. But no matter how modernized we try to make these ancient writings, there is no way to completely transform them into contemporary writings and still convey the things that God has revealed.

I do not want to give any impression that I think the Bible is not relevant for our day and age, nor that it cannot be understood by our contemporary culture. The teachings of the Bible are timeless. But at the same time, let us remember that we are dealing with an ancient book that does require significant work to fully understand it. Therefore, when we encounter hard-to-understand sections, it may be necessary to work a little harder to discover the riches God has for us there.

Friday, March 02, 2007

TorahBytes: Nothing Like an Idol (Ki Tissa & Parah)

Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." (Shemot / Exodus 32:2-4)

Idolatry comes in two forms. The first is a false god. From the days of the ancient world until now, people have worshiped innumerable gods. Each of these gods has a name and is ascribed particular characteristics, is usually understood to have rule over some aspect of life, and calls for specific types of service from its followers. The second type of idol is of the kind we encounter in this week's parsha (Torah portion). In this case Aaron fashioned an image to represent the god or gods who delivered them from Egypt. He ascribed the words and power of the one true God to the idol he made.

As in the case of all idolatry, the result for the people was devastating. God commands us not to make images of himself, because he loves us and fully understands the destructive nature of idolatry.

It's hard to believe that the same people who witnessed God's amazing reality through Moses would so quickly give themselves to such a ridiculous misrepresentation. Not only were the people so quick to engage in phony spirituality, they also were encouraged and led by Moses' own brother, Aaron, who was also Moses' God-appointed partner in representing God before the people and Pharaoh and was to be the first chief priest of Israel. How could the people engage in such error after all they had experienced?

Actually this quick turn to idolatry is not as strange as it might seem, for it is something we are all prone to do. While we may not literally fashion statues and bow down to them, claiming that they are representing the God of the Bible, it is a regular occurrence to image God in ways of our own making. We claim to be worshiping the one true God. yet we misrepresent him by fashioning him according to our own ideas and calling for behaviors that fit these images. In most cases the falseness of these images are mixed with some of God's true attributes. Instead of allowing God to define himself to us in his own way, we determine what he is really like according to our own preferences.

Here are some of the golden calves of our day:

The chicken soup for the soul god. This god says he loves us, but only in a very sentimental sense. He has our picture on his fridge, giggles when we mess up, and never corrects our behavior. His goal is to give us warm fuzzies to help us learn to always feel good about ourselves.

The vending machine god. This god suits our push-button, fast-food society. He only exists to fulfill our desires. He makes no demands of us, except to encourage us to ask him for whatever goodies we may want. Any lack of response on his part is usually due to our not learning how to get him to perform according to our wishes. He has many representatives dedicated to help us get the most out of him.

The fantasy god. This god lives in a realm detached from human reality. He loves it when we view our lives based on grandiose statements whether or not they have any basis in reality. This god gives us the power to say we are healed when we are sick, rich when we are poor, and wise when we are foolish. He is nice most of the time, until we ask too many questions.

How very different these attempts of imaging the true God are from the God whom Moses encounters later in the parsha, when he asks to see his glory. God personally revealed himself to Moses by saying,

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus / Shemot 34:6,7)
The true God is nothing like an idol. Moses knew that. Unlike those who were easily satisfied with a perverted, false version of truth and reality, Moses yearned to know his God, not according to his own perceptions, but according to who he really is. May we not settle for anything else.