Sunday, January 27, 2008

TorahBytes: Is the Torah for Today? - Part 1 (Mishpatim)

Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. (Shemot / Exodus 21:1; ESV)

As I read this week's Torah portion I am so struck by the wisdom of God found in this list of rules. There are regulations for the prevention of abuse of slaves, how children should relate to parents, the protection of persons and property, issues of safety, making restitution, the loaning of money, and the treatment of foreigners. These directives, if followed, would make a positive difference in any society.

I find that among many Christians today there is a growing interest in the Torah, but also a lot of confusion. I am going to attempt to clarify what I believe to be an accurate New Covenant perspective on the Torah.

First, what is Torah? "Torah," traditionally translated "law," is more accurately "direction" or "teaching". It is God pointing us in the direction of life and steering us away from death. God's directives are his Torah. Therefore in its broadest sense, Torah is the entire body of God's revelation.

A more narrow definition is that Torah is the revelation of God given at Mt. Sinai through Moses. Because the revelation at Sinai makes up most of the first five books of the Bible, they are collectively called "The Torah."

In Judaism Torah also includes the oral traditions that apparently accompanied what is written in the books of Moses. This body of oral tradition is called the Mishnah and is referred to as the Oral Torah. But if we hold to the authority of the Scriptures (both the Hebrew and New Covenant writings), we have no reason to accept the Mishnah as Torah.

In the early days of the New Covenant era, there arose a controversy over whether or not the Torah in the narrow sense of the Sinai Covenant was obligatory for non-Jewish followers of Yeshua. After careful deliberation the leaders came to the conclusion that the Torah as a body of regulations contained in the Sinai Covenant was not to be imposed upon Gentile believers (see Acts 15:1-35).

This decision was made for two reasons. First, the Sinai Covenant was given to the people of Israel in particular. While it is true that, up until that time, non-Jews who became part of the community of Israel were obliged to keep this Covenant, the early messianic leaders understood that through the Messiah the reality of God was now moving out from Israel to the nations, and so they were no longer required to take upon themselves the Jewish traditions.

Second, the older system under the Sinai Covenant was coming to an end. Due to Israel's failure to live up to the Sinai Covenant's standards, God determined to provide a New Covenant; one that was not like the Sinai Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). The New Covenant book of Hebrews as well as some of the letters explain the contrast between these two covenants. Under the Messiah, the Sinai Covenant is no longer in effect. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem which occurred some years later, made the Sinai Covenant impossible and impractical. This didn't prevent Judaism from attempting to uphold a covenant which was already irreparably broken. Instead of accepting God's New Covenant through the Messiah, they chose a religion of their own making.

But that doesn't mean we no longer keep Torah. God's Torah is his directives whatever era we find ourselves in. The real question is not whether or not we are to keep Torah, but what is the Torah we keep? The New Covenant writings clearly emphasize our obligation to keep the commandments (Hebrew: mitzvot) of God. Yeshua said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14;15; ESV). It is not that there are no rules to follow; it's a question of what rules to follow - a question we will look at more closely next time.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

TorahBytes: God's Government (Yitro)

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:5,6 [English 9:6,7]; ESV)

We are in the month of January in a U.S. election year. This is the time when potential presidential candidates are vying for a chance to be chosen as their parties' nominee. Even in Canada, where I live, there is a great deal of interest in this process and its outcome. I don't know if this interest is due to the media coverage or if it is because of the significant effect American politics has on our country and elsewhere. I am pretty sure it is due to the latter, though the media certainly has a part to play.

Governments affect our lives. However one thinks about politics and politicians, governments affect us all. Governments set the rules whereby people within a society relate to one another socially and commercially. Governments have the responsibility to provide security and justice for those whom they govern and are called to protect the weak and the powerless.

Throughout history and around the world, there have been and are many different styles of government. Whatever one's political leanings, I am sure we would agree that few if any governments have ever pleased everyone under their rule.

While it seems some people follow the American nomination process just because it is interesting or entertaining, many do so in the hope that the coming election will produce a government more in keeping with their dreams of a better life.

Isaiah foretold of such a government. But his hopes and dreams were not based on his personal preferences or political opinions. He foretold God's vision of a better government.

Through Isaiah God provides us with a vision of a government of unending peace, justice, and righteousness. A King - a descendant of the great King David - would come and rule in such a way never before seen on earth - a way most people probably still don't think is possible.

Note the identity of this King. While coming into the world like a normal human being ("for to us a child is born"), he is actually God himself ("Mighty God," "Everlasting Father").

In the development of Judaism, this King, known also as the Messiah, was not thought to be God come to earth in human form as this prophecy claims. Yet the Scriptures speak for themselves.

That this prophecy has been fulfilled in Yeshua of Nazareth is significant as we anticipate the U.S. election or any election of any existing government. While elections and politics deserve our attention, we need to look at these things from God's perspective. Whatever human governments may do, God's government has already been established through Yeshua. Before he ascended to heaven to take his place at God's right hand, he said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18).

Whatever human governments may do, King Yeshua the Messiah is in charge. That at the same time the establishment of his reign is still in process is alluded to in Isaiah's words, "Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end." His government, while established, is on the increase.

For those who know him now as their King, it is his government under which we primarily live. God is at work through Yeshua to establish everlasting peace, justice, and righteousness. As we live under his rule, careful to follow his lead, we will see that it is his influence that is most dominant in our lives and in life in general. Human governments will come and go, but God's government will stand forever.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

TorahBytes: Unconditional Obedience (Be-shallah)

Barak said to her, "If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go." (Shoftim / Judges 4:8; ESV)

The biblical book of Shoftim (English: Judges) records a time of difficulty and confusion for the people of Israel that lasted over 300 years up until the time the monarchy was established. The condition of the nation during this period is summed up by the book's closing words: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (21:25; ESV). This doesn't mean, however, that it was all bad all the time. Whenever the people would return to God and humbly confess their sins, God would rescue them through a specially chosen leader.

This week's Haftarah tells us the story of the prophetess, Devorah, and military leader, Barak. This passage was most likely chosen to accompany this week's Torah portion because both passages include songs of deliverance (see 5:1-31 & Shemot / Exodus 14:1-18).

The outworking of God's deliverance through Devorah and Barak includes a noteworthy interchange between these two. Devorah speaks the word of the Lord to Barak that as he led the people into battle God would give him victory. He replied with the words I quoted at the start: "If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go" (4:8; ESV).

What kind of response is that? God tells him to do something and Barak says, "Yes if"? That he may have felt insecure is understandable. Devorah as a prophetess could possibly provide necessary guidance from God as needed. Requesting her company and assistance is reasonable. But saying he would only go if she came along, but if not, then he wouldn't do what God commanded him...?

God didn't give him options. He just told him what to do. That is what God does. Sometimes I hear people say that God asked them do to this or that, but I didn't know that God asked people to do things. The God of the Bible commands, he does not ask. This ultra-polite god that some people have may be more of a figment of their imagination than the God who commanded Barak to lead that day.

Some people think that the way God is depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures is in contrast to the way he is depicted in the New Covenant writings. They claim the older writings speak of God as angry and demanding, while the newer writings speak of him as loving and kind. I don't know where they get this from, for the whole Bible reveals God as a complex being. He is angry with our stubborn rebellion against him, but yearning in love to restore us to him. That is a message found through the entire Scriptures.

Similarly, his way of relating to his chosen ones is the same. He commands; he doesn't ask. The only fitting response to his directives is absolute obedience. He is God, after all!

Barak did go. And Devorah did go with him just as he wanted. The victory was won that day, but for Barak the victory was not all it could have been. It wasn't as if he didn't do what God commanded. It was that he put a condition upon it. This reveals a significant lack in Barak's understanding of God and of what God desired to do through him.

It is the same for us. It is possible to know God to some extent without trusting him as we should. We can know his reality in our lives, yet still live at a lower standard than what God intends for us. But it needn't be that way. Understanding that God is calling for unconditional obedience is the first step to obeying him unconditionally.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

TorahBytes: Complex Truth (Bo)

Fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the LORD, for I am with you. I will make a full end of all the nations to which I have driven you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished. (Jeremiah 46:28; ESV).

The Bible clearly states that God has an eternal plan and purpose for the physical descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In spite of the people of Israel's failure to fully live up to God's standards, God is determined to establish them as a nation before him forever. Throughout history, even though claiming to accept the validity of the Scriptures, Christians have often denied this. While many Jewish people have failed to understand God's desire to extend his love to all nations, Christians have tended to overly spiritualize the Bible's promises to the Jewish people.

In the Hebrew Scriptures we see how God reveals himself primarily to the people of Israel. This revelation of himself was not just for them. God was using his interactions with this one nation to prepare the rest of the world to get to know him. The failure of Israel to obey God's Torah was to show the world that no one can live up to God's standards. In the midst of God's judgment of our disobedience, he promised us that he would deliver us, not just from our enemies, but from our spiritual dilemma. God's promises of salvation eventually centered on a person, the Messiah, whose mission would be to both rescue us from our oppressors and effect everlasting spiritual transformation.

These promises also hinted that God's transformation of the people of Israel would have world-wide ramifications. As God would change the hearts of his covenant people, so he would establish his rule over all the earth, and all nations would submit to him.

In the New Testament we read how Yeshua fulfills the prophesies of the Hebrew Scriptures. His prime mission was to his own people as the Messiah, but the spiritual restoration that he sought to bring to us was not just for us, but for all who would trust in him.

It is through Yeshua that we understand that the restoration of Israel is primarily a spiritual one. God's rule is something that first and foremost occurs in our hearts. Non-Jewish Christians, having grasped this, as well as the fact that God's desire for restoration with himself was not exclusively a Jewish matter, began to assert that the words of hope originally given to the Jewish people were not to be taken literally, but rather spiritualized. They failed to grasp this complex truth.

What they failed to understand is that the essential spiritual nature of God's promises to the people of Israel, along with God's plan to include all who put their trust in the Messiah, in no way negates the original intentions of his promises. An emphasis that undermines God's original intentions in his promises, is a denial of the Scriptures.

We read in this week's Haftarah of God's ongoing commitment to the Jewish people. In the midst of severe judgment, God makes a clear distinction between them and their oppressors. Even though God used Israel's enemies as instruments of judgment, he will make a complete end of them. But as for Israel, while they will be disciplined, unlike their enemies, they will not be destroyed.

God's plans and purposes in and through the Jewish people are complex. The Scriptures record his dealings with them over the centuries, yet all the while his concern is not for them alone, but for all people. As for the Jewish people themselves, there is another layer of complexity as expressed through these words of Jeremiah. God can be so strict with us yet at the same time be committed to our eternal well being. When we fail to grasp the complexity of God's truth, we fail to grasp his truth at all.