Friday, November 30, 2007

TorahBytes: A Violent Struggle (Mi-Kez/ Hanukkah)

Then he said to me, "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts." (Zechariah 4:6; ESV)

Hanukkah, which begins this year on the evening of Tuesday, December 4, is a time to celebrate the God-inspired victory of the Maccabees over the powers of oppression (for more information about the festival itself, see the TorahBytes Hanukkah section). This event, which occurred in the second century B.C., is in keeping with so much of Jewish history. Throughout Jewish history we have been caught in a violent struggle. From the sword to the gas chamber, we have known great violence.

It is interesting that the Bible, which provides us with our understanding of God and his ways, is full of violent struggles between his people and other nations. While the Bible is more than just war stories, there is certainly a great deal of armed conflict found in its pages.

In the New Covenant section, we see a greater emphasis on issues of personal and communal morality and spirituality. The conflict continues, but it is a conflict of ideas and lifestyle, not of territorial conquest and expansion. This shift in emphasis in no way negates the significance of the violent episodes we encounter in the older writings and in the story of Hanukkah.

The violence we encounter in the Bible is a vivid picture of the nature of the conflict godly people face in every generation. Human nature and its relationship to the forces of evil are at war with God and his loyal subjects. While they did not always live up to their calling, the purpose of the people of Israel living the Land of Israel was to establish godliness amidst a world in rebellion against its Creator. The resulting conflict was ugly, creating a bloody picture of violence.

Thus is the nature of the struggle we face today. We should not be fooled by the glitz and glamour of our age. The forces against God and those who align themselves with him are just as vile as ever. To stand against them requires the same amount of courage and strength as those who engaged enemy armies long ago.

That is why we need the same reminder given by the prophet Zechariah and read at Hanukkah time. Even though our battle is not a physical one, we need to know that victory is won not through human ingenuity and capability, but rather through dependence upon God's Spirit.

Based upon the Maccabees' reading of Scripture, they knew that it was only by their reliance on God that they would be able to stand against an army so much greater than their own. So we too, against forces so much stronger than ourselves, can expect victory, but only as we truly rely on God. As we do, let us remember that the conflict at hand is a violent one, one which may cost us our lives. Yet in the end God will be victorious and we with him, if we remain true to him in this violent struggle.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

TorahBytes: True Spirituality - Part 2 (Va-eshev)

Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. (Bereshit / Genesis 39:1)

Last week we looked at an episode from the life of Jacob to demonstrate that true spirituality is not necessarily what most people think, even among those who claim to believe the Bible. The Scriptures give us understanding as to what life is really all about, but too often the words of the Bible are manipulated to create a false spirituality. It doesn't take great scholars to realize this. While we can benefit from good, careful scholarship, the essence of the Bible's spirituality is easily found within its pages.

Much of the Bible is straightforward, yet one of the reasons we fail to catch its message is that we are not always willing to allow it to correct our misconceptions. For example, we often prefer to stick to age-old traditions just because they are traditions. Or perhaps we may have at one time been significantly impacted by concepts wrapped in Biblical guise, but are now too scared to face what the Bible actually says about those concepts. Sometimes we don't want to accept the true teaching of Scripture because of how it might affect our relationships with others. Whatever the reason, our hearts and minds are not always as open to God's Word as we claim.

I have been finding that the kind of life esteemed by many Bible believers does not match the lifestyles of godly people in the Bible. This is what I sought to address last week with Jacob. In the midst of his blessed encounter with God, God crippled him. This dramatic spiritual encounter demonstrates how truly godly people are often broken by God at some point in their lives. It is in that brokenness that the reality of God and of life is at times found.

This was Joseph's experience as well. Joseph was set aside by God for a grand purpose, but his life's journey was anything but pleasant. He was hated by his brothers, most of whom wanted to kill him. In the end they sold him into slavery. While serving as a slave, he was falsely accused of making advances towards his master's wife and sent to prison as a result. It was only after a significant amount of time that he was released.

It is true that God's favor was upon him and God's presence was with him all that time. This is evident by how his father regarded him and by the dreams God entrusted to him. We see this in the level of responsibility given him in his master's house and then later in prison. It is most evident in his interpreting of Pharaoh's dreams and his administration of food before and during the famine.

I don't know if we are quick to accept that both the negative and positive aspects of Joseph's life are part of one package. The blessing and the suffering go hand in hand. The Bible has example after example of this. Abraham leaving familiar surroundings to live as a foreigner in his old age, yet being the father of faith. Moses left to die in the Nile, but saved by the daughter of the very one who wanted him dead; chosen by God as our Deliverer, but living 40 years in the wilderness before reluctantly returning to Egypt to lead us out of bondage; then spending another 40 years in the same wilderness leading a stubborn and unbelieving people, yet receiving the Torah from God. David, called the man after God's own heart, chosen to be king, finds himself first favored by the existing king, but eventually running for his life from that same king and living in the desert until God established his rule. Then there is the Messiah himself, whom Joseph so wonderfully foreshadows, living a godly life unequalled by anyone before or since, yet misunderstood by all, forsaken by his closest friends, given over to Roman execution by the leaders of his own people due to fear and jealousy, doing this all in order to conquer sin and death on our behalf.

The Bible is clear that godly living is lonely, difficult, and painful. It is a life lived contrary to the values of the world around us, and that world is cruel to those who do not cooperate with it. Yet it is those who live this life who really know the God of the Universe, who really make a difference, and are the ones who really live.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

TorahBytes: True Spirituality (Va-yishlah)

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Bereshit / Genesis 32:31,32; English: 32:30,31; ESV)

As I study the Scriptures I am on the look-out for what we might call true spirituality. I am not alone in this trek. From pagans to animists, from the major religions to New Age philosophies, people have spent a great deal of time, energy, and money trying to find true spirituality. Even among those who deny the existence of any actual spiritual dimension in life, there has been a desire to find life's meaning. This also is a type of spirituality in that it assumes some kind of relationship between people and/or between people and nature that is more than just physical.

I believe that true spirituality is found in the Bible. The overriding theme in the Scriptures is one of how we human beings have been alienated from God, our Creator, and how God has sought to restore us to right relationship with him. What I am calling true spirituality refers to both our initial reconciliation to God through the Messiah and the living out of that reconciliation on a daily basis.

The Bible's view of true spirituality stands in contrast to the multitude of counterfeit spiritualities that have existed throughout time until now. Interestingly, the Bible's view of true spirituality also stands in contrast to the false spirituality of many who claim to be Bible believers. While there is room among those committed to the truth of Scripture to differ on various details of spirituality, if we would take the time to compare various so-called biblical spiritualities to the Bible itself, we would soon discover whether or not what we are embracing is truly valid.

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob has an encounter with God that forever changed his personal life and established the name of the nation that would arise from him. Jacob's encounter with God gives us one of the many glimpses we have in the Bible of the essence of true spirituality.

There is one aspect of this encounter that I would like to point out. Understanding this one thing makes all the difference to our overall understanding of what true biblical spirituality really is. What I am referring to is that as a result of Jacob's encounter with God that day, Jacob limped. The Torah tells us that in the midst of this unusual interchange, God injured Jacob. It is true that God also blessed him at that time, but one of the reminders of the blessing would be the pain. Jacob would spend the rest of his life with a physical challenge. Certainly this impediment is nothing compared to the significance of the change of heart he received that day. But still, what does this tell us about true sprituality?

An overall reading of the Bible surely reveals that true sprirituality is rich and meaningful. Yeshua promises his followers what he calls "abundant life" (John 10:10), but it is also includes a life of difficulty and pain (see Philippians 3:10). Difficulties from a variety of sources come to those who know God. In Jacob's case the pain was the result of a direct encounter with God.

There is so much that can be discussed regading this, but I would like to share this one thing here. I suspect that there are many people who, like Jacob, are in pain because of a real encounter with God or as a direct result of truly following him, and yet have not come out of that experence changed for the better in the way Jacob was. The reason for this may well be because of not understanding that the difficulty or pain suffered is part and parcel of true spirituality. God, in his love, knows that we need to be broken before him and others. This is not to say that we have to accept all difficulty and pain in our lives as if from God, but it might be that the very thing that has become a barrier between you and God is actually that which he is seeking to use to both restore you to him and through which he most desires to use you.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

TorahBytes: Spiritual Encounters (Va-yeze)

Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, "This is God’s camp!" So he called the name of that place Mahanaim. (Bereshit / Genesis 32: 2,3 [English: 32:1,2]; ESV)

After Jacob's brother, Esau, threatened to kill him, Jacob fled his homeland and lived in Mesopotamia for 21 years. During that time he established a sizable household and became wealthy. Upon his return home he had one of his significant spiritual encounters. We are not given that much detail of this particular encounter, but it is still significant. I will quote it again: "Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, 'This is God’s camp!' So he called the name of that place Mahanaim."

This encounter occurs in between two of Jacob's major crises. He had just before resolved a very difficult situation with his father-in-law, Laban. Had not God intervened by speaking to Laban, Jacob most likely would have suffered greatly by Laban's hand (31:24,29). Following the encounter was Jacob's greatest challenge - seeing Esau after all those years. This story is described in next week's portion, but suffice it to say that he was terrified of what might happen.

The spiritual encounter that we are looking at this week is described as "the angels of God met him." Jacob encountered angels. It is interesting that he would meet angels upon his return to the Promised Land, for his first such encounter was in a dream as he was leaving home for Mesopotamia (Bereshit / Genesis 28:10-17). It is possible that God provided the latter experience to encourage him. Seeing the angels would have reminded him of God's promise of protection and provision when he first left home. It would encourage him that he was on the right track returning home at this time in spite of the near disastrous situation with Laban. It would encourage him for his impending meeting with Esau.

What a wonderful experience for Jacob to have! Who wouldn't want to see angels - to have the privilege of witnessing the unveiling of the spiritual realm. So many find it a challenge to believe in God's unseen reality. As we struggle through life's challenges, the world as we know it doesn't always witness to the things of God. How many of us think that if we could have but a brief glimpse of the heavenly world, then our hearts would ever stand secure in God?

Jacob's life demonstrates that it doesn't work that way. The heavenly dream he had when leaving home didn't revolutionize him spiritually. Knowing God is realized by faith and not sight nor dramatic experiences. Visions, dreams, and other spiritual experiences serve their purpose, but they don't automatically make a difference in our lives.

There is something of Jacob's perspective that is expressed in his encounter that is most instructive. Note what he said after meeting the angels. His focus was not on the angels themselves, but on God, when he said, "This is God’s camp!" He realized that he was in a place where God's power was established. That angels are God's heavenly messengers to do his bidding is about God being in charge. The presence of the angels was a reminder to Jacob of God's presence. The sighting of the angels was not about the angels. It was about God.

It is far too common to focus on spiritual experiences instead of on God himself. It is too common that when heavenly reality breaks into our lives, whether it is in angel sightings or anything else, we become hooked to those things rather than to the God they are serving.

We would do far better to be like Jacob, who understood that true spiritual encounters are about God and not about the encounters themselves.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

TorahBytes: What Is a Man? (Toledot)

When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis / Bereshit 25:27,28)

Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. (Malachi 1:2,3)

I have encountered two popular notions regarding masculinity these days. The first stems from egalitarianism. Egalitarianism views the sexes as essentially equivalent in every way, with the exception of a few relatively insignificant (according to them) biological differences. For egalitarians, whether they claim adherence to biblical truth or not, the question of "what is a man?" is of little relevance and interest. They would understand that whatever it would mean to be human is the same for both males and females.

The other popular notion today sees males and females as fundamentally different. This is the thinking behind such books as "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" by John Gray.

However popular egalitarianism may be, denying the differences between males and females is philosophical nonsense completely removed from reality. To diminish the fundamental differences between the sexes denies God's purposeful design for the human family and robs us of the primary aspects of our identity.

Once we accept that males and females are different, we may ask ourselves what are the essential aspects of that difference? There is a tendency among some when trying to describe the unique aspects of masculinity to do so in ways that don't apply to all males. Not every man is into power tools and adventure sports. Some men don't like sports of any kind. Some dislike competition altogether. While men are generally more muscular than women, not all men are muscular. Some are physically weak for one reason or another. Men are often referred to as bad communicators, but some of the best communicators are men. I can go on with examples of the masculine stereotype, but even if we could establish that there are tendencies for men to be one way or another, do those attributes define masculinity? If they did, then some people are more male than others.

This is not the Bible's view of manhood. According to the Bible a man is a male. Nowhere in the Scriptures are men defined by personal qualities or attributes apart from their God-given anatomy.

It is noteworthy how God esteemed Jacob over Esau. Esau was far more of a stereo-typical male, while Jacob was not. I don't have any reason to believe that their different personalities influenced how God regarded them. God made men to have all sorts of physiques and dispositions - any of which are legitimate expressions of masculinity, since it is men that have these physiques and dispositions. For those of us that take seriously the differences between the sexes, it helps no one to focus on stereotypes. If we surveyed the men and women in the Bible we find all kinds of physiques and dispositions.

According to the Bible "What is a man?" - apart from anatomy - has to do with function and role, not such things as what jokes we prefer and how we like to resolve problems. But before we can address the implications of the uniqueness of masculinity, we need first to accept the Bible's perspective that we are men simply on the basis that God made us that way. Whatever our physiques, our personalities, our desires, our interests, our inclinations, our abilities may be, a man is a man.