Saturday, March 29, 2008

TorahBytes: Some Things Are Just No Big Deal (Tazri'a)

If a man’s hair falls out from his head, he is bald; he is clean. (Vayikra / Leviticus 13:40)

This week's Torah portion contains a statement which at first may seem a little out of place. Yet it actually helps us gain some understanding of God's perspective of life. The context in which this statement is found is one which addresses the issue of leprosy and leprosy-type diseases. Here we are given very specific details regarding how a priest was to determine whether or not a person was infected with a leprous disease, which would result in that person being quarantined for as long as they had it.

To avoid false diagnoses the passage includes a few skin conditions that could have been taken to be serious, but were to be of no concern. Their similarity to the serious ailments clearly justifies their inclusion. Thankfully having a condition similar to the real thing did not result in the same course of action as having the real thing.

The statement about baldness was likely included since losing one's hair could be a symptom of a leprous condition. But the statement tells us in no uncertain terms that simply going bald with no other symptoms, is no big deal.

Maybe baldness is a big deal to you. I know it is for some - at least from a vanity point of view. But regarding personal health, spiritual matters, or the welfare of the community, it is nothing to be concerned about.

Like baldness, many things that happen to us in life are no big deal. Yet some people think that everything that happens to us is for a reason. They try to look behind every circumstance and figure out its significance. Certainly many thing do happen for a reason. I myself have experienced many unusual situations that appeared to be due to the activity of God. Sometimes the reasons for these things were obvious, other times not. But unless God makes those reasons clear, who am I to guess what is going on behind the scenes of my life? And perhaps there isn't a reason for everything after all.

There are certain things that happen to us, like going bald, that are for no reason. You might be going through some normal body changes that are really bothering you, but are simply due to getting older. Maybe you aren't looking for some grandiose meaning behind this. Maybe you just don't like it and it has become a much bigger deal than it needs to be.

This is not to say that there are not things in life that should not be taken seriously, whether they be certain medical conditions that require attention or circumstances through which God is seeking to speak to you. But at the same time, there are a great many other things that are no big deal. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will be able to focus on the things of life that are truly important.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

TorahBytes: Risk (Shemini / Parah)

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Vayikra / Leviticus 10:1,2; ESV)

I recently read a biography of David Livingstone, the great explorer and missionary to Africa of the 19th century. Livingstone was an extreme risk taker. He was the original "to go where no man has gone before" kind of guy. The fascinating thing about Livingstone was his natural (or supernatural) survival skills. He was truly made for risk. Though it might be more correct to say, "made for adventure." His ability, however derived, to courageously face danger effectively equipped him for his calling to open up Africa to the bringing of the Good News.

It seems to me that there are many people that possess within themselves something similar to Livingstone that allows them not to be intimidated by danger. So they freely and often take risks. These risks might be for some great cause like that which motivated Livingstone or people who do search and rescue operations. But this same thing that enables these people to engage in important, essential risky tasks also allows them to take foolish risks that may result in disaster for themselves and others.

Take Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, for example. For some reason they had no hesitation in approaching the God of the Universe in an unauthorized way, which cost them their lives. It is important to note that these two men had already experienced the reality of God, so their actions did not stem from complete ignorance. They had seen what God had done in sending the plagues to deliver the people of Israel from Egypt as well as his other mighty acts. They were even part of the group that fellowshipped with God on Mt. Sinai (Shemot / Exodus 24:9-11). Perhaps it was that experience that contributed to the lack of caution which led to their deaths. Regardless of the reason, they were not reasonably cautious in making sure to approach God in a prescribed way and, as a result, they died.

I may be wrong, but I get the impression that risk taking is on the rise. I am not necessarily referring to people who are true adventurers in the vein of David Livingstone, but simply risk taking. The emergence of extreme sports, survival camping, and street racing, are signs of this. In addition there is also a rise in risky moral behavior. More and more people are taking risks with death.

This is also evident among Bible believers. By this I don't mean that followers of Yeshua are engaged in extreme sports more than ever. That might be, but more and more people who claim to be followers of God in Yeshua are taking risks similar to Nadab and Abihu. Referring to God as a buddy, being ignorant of the Scriptures, and acting morally irresponsible are like Nadab and Abihu's offering: - unauthorized! No matter how much you worship, no matter how spiritual you might seem, conducting yourself in ways that have not been authorized by God may cost you your life.

That's a risk you can't afford to take.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

TorahBytes: Taking a Lesson from Purim (Zav)

And Mordecai recorded these things and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, obliging them to keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same, year by year, as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:20-22; ESV)

The festival of Purim, also called "the festival of Esther," begins the evening of Thursday, March 20. Purim commemorates the remarkable "turning of the tables" on the enemies of the Jewish people while living in Persia over five hundred years prior to the coming of the Messiah. A chief official named Haman held a grudge against the Jews due to his hatred of one Jewish man named Mordecai, because Mordecai refused to bow to him. Haman devised a law to allow the Persian people to annihilate the Jews on a particular day. That day was selected through the casting of lots. The word for lots in Hebrew is "purim," from which the name of the festival is derived.

While this was brewing, God had been working behind the scenes for his people's protection. Mordecai’s close relative, Hadassah (also called, Esther) was chosen to be the King of Persia's new queen. When the news about the day of destruction was announced, Mordecai sent word to Esther to speak to the king on their people's behalf. Esther agreed even though to approach the king without an invitation could result in death, even for a queen. As it turned out, the king treated her favorably, and when he heard of Haman's evil plot, he had him executed.

As for revoking the law concerning the destruction of the Jews, that was another matter. The Persians had an established custom that laws could not be revoked. Instead, an additional law was established giving the Jews the right to defend themselves on the dreaded day. There is a big difference between being helpless victims facing government-sanctioned genocide and being given the right to defend oneself. Needless to say the Jews overcame their enemies yet again, resulting in what has become one of the most joyful celebrations of the year.

Do you see the parallel for us today? Those of us who belong to God through faith in Yeshua and truly seek to follow him face adversity. More than ever Bible believers are hated by the society at large. There are forces at work to silence the Bible's message. These forces don't just function in the society, but also in our faith communities. Those who speak against the pressure for believers to conform to the spirit of the age are ignored or silenced.

Years ago I heard a sermon on the topic of "Judging". Yeshua's words, "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1), were used to silence detractors in the congregation. The reasoning went something like this: If you judge others, then God will judge you. To criticize someone else's opinion is judging them. Therefore don't criticize others, which means don't disagree with what you are told by the leaders, because if you do, God will judge you. This kind of teaching effectively muzzles anyone who would have an opinion other than the one being dictated by the leaders. I would go so far as to call this spiritual abuse.

As I have looked at some of what is going on among Bible believers today, this message is common. It may or may not be taught so explicitly, but interacting with the teaching of God's Word is not encouraged. Everyone is simply expected to conform to whatever is being taught, even though the Bible encourages us to discern truth and even judge public messages (Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 14:2).

I have the impression that there are people sitting listening to bad teaching who know better, yet don't say anything about it, buying into the lie that this is what Yeshua would have them do. They simply accept the way things are. That's what it would have been like for the Jews of Esther's day if the law to defend themselves was not established. They would have been slaughtered by their enemies with no opportunity to defend themselves.

Those of us who allow ourselves, our families, and our friends to be oppressed by evil and foolishness in the name of Bible teaching are like the Jews of Esther's day who may not have known about the law to defend themselves. We think we are not allowed to speak up to defend our spiritual well being out of a wrong notion of what judging really is.

I am not calling for physical violence against heresy. There is a way to speak up in keeping with godliness. But we no longer need to be victimized by false teaching.

What a day of celebration it will be when those who know their God again stand up for his Truth!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

TorahBytes: The Essence of Man-Made Religion (Vayikra & Zakhor)

Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice." (1 Shmuel / 1 Samuel 15:24; ESV)

While it is not popular today to believe in Truth, I do. Not only do I believe that Truth exists and can be known, I believe that God's only revealed and authoritative Truth is found in the Bible (Old and New Covenant Scriptures). I am aware that I don't understand everthing there is to know about God's Truth, yet, by his enabling grace he has led me to a significant understanding of his Truth, which includes an approach to the Bible that allows me to grow in his Truth effectively.

Logically therefore, according to my understanding, all other religions, spiritualities and philosophies are man made. You might think that all religions, spiritualities and philosophies including mine are man made. Or you might think they are all God made. Or you might think that your viewpoint is the right one while all others, including mine, are man made. Or you might think that Truth is some sort of mixture of a variety of things.

Whatever you think, this week's Haftarah portion gives us some insight as to the essence of man-made religion. King Saul had been told by God to completely obliterate the Amalekite nation - people and animals. As it turned out he decided to preserve the lives of the Amalekite king and the best of the livestock. When confronted by the prophet Samuel as to why he did not fully comply with God's directive, he at first tried to make it sound as if he did. Instead of destroying the animals as God commanded, he said that they were preserved in order to make sacrifices. It wasn't until after Samuel pronounced judgment on Saul that Saul confessed that his real motivation for preserving the animals was because he feared the people.

Saul put a spin on the whole affair because he feared the people. Instead of doing what God said, he did what the people wanted. He had more respect for the people's wishes, than for God's directive.

This is the essence of man-made religion. Man-made religions, spiritualities, and philosophies are derived out of a fear of other people.

The fear I am referring to may not feel like fear. When we do things that are derived from the fear of others, we may not feel afraid. In fact when we fear people, we keep ourselves from feeling afraid by making sure we do what they want. As long as we please the people that matter to us, we have nothing to be afraid of. When we fear people in this way, we are not fearing God. That's what was going on with Saul.

God's ways in the Scriptures often put us at odds with people and their agendas for our lives. There is so much pressure to go along with the crowd, whatever crowd we might be part of. For some it is about being respectable, for others, it's about being cool, for others, it's about the clothes we wear, or the music we listen to. But the God of the Bible calls us away from the pressure of pleasing others to a place of submission to his will, whatever that may mean with regard to our relationships. Interestingly it is only as we are able to be free from this kind of pressure that we can be a true blessing to the very ones we care so much about.

This doesn't mean that in order to have an authentic relationship to God we should do our own thing no matter what anyone else thinks. Biblical faith is one that is humble and is open to the input of others. But those who earnestly desire to submit to God point people to God and not to themselves, just as Samuel sought to do for Saul - which is also what I am trying to do for you right now.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

TorahBytes: Kevod (Pekudei)

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot / Exodus 40:34,35; ESV)

In this, the final portion of the second book of Moses, we read of the completion of the construction of the Mishkan (English: tabernacle) The Mishkan was the elaborate tent-like structure which God directed his people to build as the center of worship for the nation. When the Mishkan was completed, we are told that the special cloud that had been guiding and protecting the people during their wilderness travels, covered it and God's glory filled it. This was not simply a fog or a mist, since we are also told that Moses could not enter because of it.

Glory or, in Hebrew, kevod is a term that expresses the outward manifestation of a person's inner reality. The demonstration of what a person is really like is what is called their glory.

So when we read of God's kevod filling the Mishkan, the normally unseen reality of God was being demonstrated within the special cloud. While God is invisible, he never intended to be completely hidden from his people. He desired to make his presence truly known. The God of the Torah is not simply a concept of higher thinking or consciousness through which the Jewish people could rise above the surrounding cultures. The legacy of Israel was not to be one of philosophy or sophistication, but rather of the reality and presence of the one true God.

Through the revelation of God's kevod, he established that his presence was with his people. This occurred again centuries later when Solomon completed the temple, which was a permanent version of the Mishkan.

And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. (1 Melachim / 1 Kings 8:10,11)

In a most tangible way God made clear that he was in the midst of his people.

But where is God's kevod today?

The prophet Ezekiel saw God's kevod leave Solomon's temple in the days of the Babylonian captivity (see Ezekiel 10). He did see it return, but to where? It was to a temple that has never been built (See Ezekiel 43). This temple that Ezekiel describes could very well be a spiritual rather than literal temple, which would be a reasonable explanation for some of its details.

The spiritual nature of Ezekiel's temple is underscored by the New Covenant's references to the community of believers as the temple of God in which his Spirit dwells (see 1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:21). It is in and through the lives of the Messiah's followers that God's kevod is to be manifested.

The kevod of God as seen in the Messiah was to be just as real in the lives of his followers. This is what Yeshua referred to in a prayer he prayed shortly before his arrest:

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:22,23)

God's kevod, his inner reality, was to be demonstrated in and through the lives of the Messiah's followers. The same kevod which guided and protected Israel in the wilderness, the same kevod which dwelt in the Mishkan and the temple, the same kevod which was seen in the Messiah is now present in his followers.

As we trust in the Messiah and humbly submit to his ways, the reality of God - his kevod - will be made manifest.