Sunday, August 24, 2008

TorahBytes: Secure in Threatening Times (Re'eh)

No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD. (Isaiah 54:17; ESV)

The last major section of the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, focuses primarily on God's spiritual and physical restoration of Israel. It is here that we are given glimpses of a future return to the Land and of spiritual revitalization. We have hints of the coming Deliverer, also known as the Messiah, who is central to this revitalization. According to Isaiah God's work among his covenant people will also mean great blessing for the whole world. That which was promised to Abraham in the early chapters of Bereshit (English: Genesis) are thus fulfilled.

The blessings of God through the Messiah have both corporate and individual implications as we see in the verse I quoted at the beginning. Interestingly this is not speaking about the time when the world is completely set to rights, when evil and death are vanquished, but rather sometime before that when Israel as a nation rests secure in God. Weapons of potential destruction and opposition continue to exist, but the servants of the Lord are confident in the face of them.

This prediction is in keeping with the blessings promised by God through Moses to Israel on the condition of their keeping his directives. What we see in the Book of Isaiah, especially the earlier chapters, are the consequences as warned by Moses for failing to do that. The promise of restoration and the resultant sense of security comes about, not on the basis of adherence to God's commands, which the people failed to keep, but rather due to God's deliverance through the Messiah.

The predictive elements of the biblical prophets are similar to looking at a far-off mountain range. Looking from afar we have a semblance of the complexity of the mountains, including some of its various peaks. Perhaps we can vaguely make out some vegetation and other aspects. It is only as we get closer to the mountain range that we begin to discover its detail, including its valleys, canyons, rivers, inhabitants, and so on. The discovery of the detail doesn't contradict the original view, it only clarifies it. The result of this clarification may give impressions very different from the original long-range view, but the difference in impression has more to do with our assumptions than the actual reality of the scene.

For example, the descriptions of God's restoration of Israel as spoken by Isaiah and the other prophets appear to refer to a particular single time period, but as history has unfolded we see that the actual details are more complex than originally anticipated. Specifically, it was assumed that when the Messiah would come, all the predicted blessings would happen in their fullness at that time. But instead the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel has been working out over a very long period of time.

What has occurred is that the promised reality has significantly, though partially, come about through Yeshua the Messiah. His resurrection is the foretaste of all the good things prophesied. While we still await the day when Isaiah's words will be completely fulfilled and Israel as a nation will rest secure in the midst of great opposition, we can know this kind of confidence right now through faith in Yeshua. While part of God's plan may be eventually to bring about the fullness of this reality for the entire nation in a very brief time, he offers this reality to us now.

The world appears to be more and more of a threatening place. Not that long ago if I would have told you that the day would come when you would not be allowed to bring a regular size of tube of toothpaste with you onto an airplane, you would have thought I was crazy. But that day is now here. Also, we are regularly told about the increasing possibility of the next great global epidemic. But by and large most people are oblivious to these emerging threats. We cope by ignoring these dangers and by distracting ourselves with work and the pursuit of pleasure. The day will come when we will no longer be able to ignore them. Our coping mechanisms will fail us.

But this is not "the heritage of the Lord" that Isaiah speaks of. There is a confidence and security available right now to those who welcome the power and presence of the Messiah into their lives. If we truly trust Yeshua, living life according to God's ways as laid out in his Word, we have nothing to fear.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

TorahBytes: Real Living (Ekev)

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3; ESV)

I think this is one of the most important verses in the entire Bible. The principle expressed here is fundamental to the kind of life God calls us to live. God purposely allowed the Israelites to experience great hunger in the wilderness in order for them to learn this lesson. Having gone days without eating, God began to provide a miraculous food called "manna." For the next forty years manna would appear on the ground every day of the week, except on Shabbat (English: Sabbath). The people were only to take as much as they needed, but no more, lest it go bad. It was also miraculous that on the sixth day they were able to take twice as much to provide for Shabbat. Once the people entered the Promised Land, the provision of manna stopped.

Food is one of our most basic needs. Without it we die. Those who have little of it, know what it means to be obsessed with eating. What is interesting, though, is how much those of us who live in affluent societies think about eating. It would be instructive to realize how much of our life motivation is driven by our stomachs. My guess is that it is much more than we might be willing to admit.

In order for the people of Israel to be the people God wanted them to be, this issue had to be addressed. This lesson had to be learned.

What is the lesson? "Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD."

In order for the Chosen People to live like the Chosen People they required a perspective shift. They (as do we) needed to learn that even though the human drive for food is so strong, that it was not to be the thing which drove their lives. Instead God's Word was to lead them.

The real shift that God was calling for was a shift from a self focus to a God focus. Instead of arranging our lives based on our personal needs and desires, whether they be legitimate or not, life should be based on God's directives.

What may be difficult to grasp is that this is the way we were all designed to live. Adam and Eve should have lived that way, but didn't. Now that we are on this side of Eden, it is much more difficult, but still, as human beings we were designed to live on earth as children of our Heavenly Father. We are not animals who were designed to live life based on their drives. We were intended to be children of the King of the Universe, children who trust their Father's care and are attentive to his words of guidance and direction.

But due to the chasm that exists between us and God, we think we are alone in this world. We think we need to care for our own needs. We live as if are abandoned children, as if we don't have a caring Father at all.

The Hebrew Bible tells us that this is how the ancient people of Israel actually lived. They never learned this basic lesson. It would take another kind of miracle to learn it - a miracle of a changed heart.

When we come to know Yeshua the Messiah, God begins to teach us this lesson from the inside out. Because of what Yeshua has done for us, our sin - the cause of our separation from God - is forgiven and through his Spirit he heals our sense of abandonment. Still, we don't learn this lesson automatically. We need to stop imitating those around us who live life based on their desires and, instead, learn to trust God. As we learn to live by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD, we will discover what living really is.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

TorahBytes: God's Highway (Va-ethannan)

A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Isaiah paints a vivid picture of a lone voice in the midst of hostile uncharted territory crying out: "Prepare the way of the Lord". God, having been absent from his people for a long time, is coming back to be among his people again. The ancient paths have become rough and overgrown. But get ready! Smooth out the terrain! Level the mountains! Raise the valleys! Build the passage way! God is coming! The glory of God will be seen by all. Who God is, his character and his power, will be displayed for everyone to see. But first, prepare! Do what it takes to remove the obstacles to his coming. It'll be hard work, but it's worth it! "Prepare the way of the Lord!"

Isaiah spoke these words well over 2600 years ago. Much has gone on since then. You may not be aware that these words have been essentially fulfilled. Another prophet arose about 600 years after Isaiah. His job was to prepare the way for God to return to his people. God was to be revealed in a way never before seen: the sick healed, the blind seeing, the dead rising, the afflicted and oppressed filled with joy and gladness, ungodly religious and political structures confronted - the Messiah had come, God returning to his people.

Since then the Messiah's work has continued. As in the days he walked the earth, even though it has not worked out as expected, the glory of God has been revealed throughout the world. Maybe you haven't seen it, but that's another story. There's something else I want to address.

We are two thousand years since the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah's words were fulfilled by Yeshua. Yet it seems to me that his presence has become obscured. The level paths have become unusable again. Did we not realize that the highway through the wilderness upon which God travels, needs to be maintained?

In fact those entrusted with maintaining God's highway have focused on other roads. Instead of investing in the infrastructure of God, we have been spending our energies on the values of the surrounding culture: self, success, money, pleasure, and so on. Dressing up the world's ways with spiritual talk and God's name doesn't make them anything but what they really are: distractions, emptiness, and sin.

If we stopped to take a look at the actual state of things, we would see that we are in the wilderness again. Unless we take the time to do the hard work of clearing the way again, we will miss out on the power and presence of God.

I am aware that there is much fuss being made about "what God is doing today." While it is not my place to determine the validity of various claims of marvelous happenings, I ask only that whatever may be happening be compared with the Bible rather than with people's opinions.

How do we prepare the highway for God? By practicing truth, holiness, godliness, righteousness, and honesty. All these must be rooted in faith in the Messiah, but a faith that is not expressed in these things is illegitimate. Prepare the way of the Lord!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

TorahBytes: Commandments (Devarim)

Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 1:26; ESV)

There are two types of commandments in the Bible. These two types could be broken down into sub-types, but at a certain level, there are only two. The first are what we might call general commands. These are directives by God that apply beyond a certain place, time, and circumstance. "Do not murder" is an example of that, but so are the regulations concerning the sacrificial system. While the former applies to all people for all time and the latter only to the people of Israel during the time of the tabernacle and temple, both were intended to be followed by more than just the original hearers of the command.

The second type we might call specific commands. These are commands that apply only to those to whom they were spoken. This is what Moses is referring to in the verse I read. The book of Devarim (English: Deuteronomy) includes a retelling of some of the key incidences in the story of the people of Israel up until that time. This includes how they failed to trust God to enter the Promised Land. Twelve scouts had searched out the land and brought back a report to the people. The twelve spies were in agreement that the land was good. But only two of the twelve believed that God would enable them to successfully possess it. The people were influenced by the ten and refused to enter the land. In fact they wanted to return to Egypt.

While they faced a great challenge, naturally speaking, the real issue for the people was that God had commanded them to go and possess the land. He didn't offer it to them as a good idea. He told them to do it. That they were scared, we can sympathize with. But their decision to not do so was an act of rebellion against God's command.

While there are differences between general commands and specific commands, they are still commands. When we read specific commands in the Bible, we are not obliged to do them. They only apply to those to whom they applied at the time in which the command was given. Therefore whether or not to obey the commands of Scripture is not a matter of whether or not they should be obeyed as much as which commands should be obeyed.

God directs our lives through his commands. The way of life he provides for us is not just a nice offer that we can take or leave. God commands. He doesn't ask us to do things; he tells us to.

This is as true in the New Covenant writings as it is in the Tenach (Old Testament). The Messiah said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). To claim that his commandments are limited to loving God and loving our neighbor without understanding these as broad generalities intended to summarize and include everything else God dictates to his people is to totally miss his point. While Yeshua corrected all sorts of false notions about God and life that were popular in his day, he called his disciples, just as he calls us, to obey his commands.

The Bible gives directives, not suggestions; commandments, not requests.

We need to understand that neglecting to obey the commands of God which do apply to us is no different from what that meant for the people of Israel when they refused to go into the Promised Land. God doesn't take rebellion lightly. We may not always immediately see the consequences of rebellion, but it won't get by God.

If you think that God speaks to us in polite requests and that we have no obligation to obey him, read the Bible again.