Sunday, March 29, 2009

TorahBytes: Preparation (Zav)

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Malachi 3:24 [English 4:5]; ESV)

According to the synagogue calendar, the Sabbath before Passover (Passover this year begins the evening of April 8) is a special Sabbath called "Shabbat Hagadol" (the Great Sabbath). Shabbat Hagadol commemorates God's command four days before the first Passover in which all Israelite households were to take into their homes the lamb they would slaughter.

Effectively fulfilling a task often requires significant preparation. Whether it be a meal, a trip, a test, or a meeting, neglecting sufficient preparation almost certainly guarantees failure. Good preparation, on the other hand, is basic to success. Note that preparation is not just about being aware of the future task. Worry requires awareness, but produces nothing of value. Similarly just busying oneself in the name of preparation doesn't do any good. Effective preparation requires appropriate and thorough attention to whatever might be required in advance of the future task.

The chapter in which this week's special Haftarah reading for Shabbat Hagadol is found speaks of preparation. It tells of how God would send a messenger, Elijah, who will prepare the way before him. This is like when a dignitary or celebrity sends an advance team prior to his arrival to ensure that everything is ready before he arrives, so that when he does arrive he is able to most effectively accomplish the desired outcome.

Effective preparation puts us in a state of readiness. In this passage, God whose way was to be prepared before him, would arrive suddenly. This suggests that even though preparations would be made, God's arrival would still be somewhat unexpected. This makes the preparations that much more important. In order to receive God's coming properly the people would need to be prepared and remain prepared. A picture that comes to mind is of getting a fancy dinner ready for very important guests and then having to wait for their arrival. We know they are coming, but we don't know exactly when. As the minutes go by, we wonder if something may have gone wrong. At that point we have the choice to either keep everything prepared as is, so that everything will be as it should be when they arrive, or we can go on with the dinner without them and risk the embarrassment of their arrival, no longer prepared as we should be. Worse than that, we may give up on waiting altogether and miss their arrival.

Celebrating Passover is the reminder of God's provision of a lamb so that his people could escape his judgment and be set free to journey to the Promised Land. Sufficient preparation was absolutely necessary to ensure the people's participation in their deliverance. Passover is also the reminder of God's provision of another Lamb - the Messiah - whose preparation was spoken of by the prophet. Sadly many were not prepared for his sudden arrival. Now we prepare for his return. The words of the prophet remain relevant, but how long before he returns, we don't know. Yeshua is coming again, let's be prepared.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

TorahBytes: Idolatry (Vayikra)

Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, "Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!" And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, "Deliver me, for you are my god!" (Isaiah 44:16,17; ESV)

In this passage, God through the prophet is mocking the practice of idolatry. The picture is of a person taking a piece of wood, using some of it to meet his personal needs (cooking and heating) and constructing a god from what's left over. It is possible that people in Isaiah's day wouldn't really use the exact same piece of wood for idols, cooking and heating, but rather this may be a humorous way to challenge people to realize that wood is just wood. How could anyone consider worshipping something made with their own hands? That the same material out of which idols are made is also used to meet basic human needs just makes the whole idea appear that much more ridiculous.

I would assume that even people who would consider themselves atheist or agnostic would agree with Bible believers on this one. Bowing before a statue and asking it for help is truly ridiculous. For sophisticated thinkers, we look at such religious practices from an enlightened perspective. Unlike people of old who believed that they had to perform all sorts of rituals to appease the gods in order to prevent disaster and ensure prosperity, we think that we possess the correct understanding of the forces of nature and have learned to effectively manipulate them to our advantage.

The scientifically minded person, especially of the agnostic or atheistic sort, looks at the natural universe and says, "That's all there is!" For these people living life is about interacting with the natural forces and that's all.

Bible believers disagree, since the Bible clearly teaches that there is more to the universe than what can be perceived by our senses. Besides God himself, the Bible speaks of such creatures as angels and demons. Supernatural spiritual forces affect life on earth. The Bible also teaches us how to properly relate to these spiritual forces, not in the manner common in many counterfeit religions, but through the humble service of the God of Israel in the name of the Messiah.

If we accept the Bible's view of life, then the natural universe is not "all there is". In fact, the natural universe is just one part - although a highly significant part - of something of great purpose and meaning. For the atheistic or agnostic naturalist on the other hand, meaning is completely arbitrary based on personal preferences, which is the same as saying there is no meaning at all. Instead of meaning and purpose, material things are all there is.

Since the Bible teaches that material things are only one part of God's plans and purposes in the universe, stuff should be kept in balance with other areas of life and should be regarded as tools in the service of God. Material things should never be our focus.

While we don't literally bow down to material things, once we grasp the reality of God and the true meaning of life, then our obsession with things begins to look as ridiculous as the idol worshipper Isaiah describes. The idol worshipper uses some of his stuff for his basic needs of cooking and heat and then he pleads to the stuff left over for help. Is that so very different from us? Even if we don't actually plead with our stuff to deliver us, in what do we find our security and well being? Are they based on our relationship to God or on material things?

What would Isaiah say to us today? Perhaps something like this: "With some of his income he buys food for himself and his family and pays the heating bill. With the rest he fills his home with all sorts of things to which he gives his heart and soul, saying, 'Thank you for delivering me.'"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

TorahBytes: The Manifest Presence of God (Va-Yakhel & Pekudei)

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot / Exodus 40:34,35; ESV)

An important teaching of the Scriptures is the omnipresence of God, which is another way to say that the God of Israel is everywhere. As King David wrote, "Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!" (Psalm 139:7,8; ESV)

Even though God is everywhere, that doesn't mean that he makes himself known everywhere in the exact same way. This is what we see at the completion of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). The cloud was a visible and powerful expression or manifestation of God. The overwhelming nature of God's presence in the cloud was such that Moses could not enter the Mishkan while the cloud was there. This didn't mean that the Creator of the Universe was exclusively contained within this cloud. It is that this was a special and tangible way in which God revealed himself. This type of expression of God's presence is often called "the manifest presence of God."

Some Bible believers deny that God still manifests himself in this way today. They think that legitimate, biblical spirituality is exclusively conceptual, something of thought and faith only. While it is good to celebrate God's tangible reality among people in ancient times, they think we should be satisfied with the Bible stories alone. When we do this we may not realize that we are denying the very stories we claim to hold dear. The Bible attests that God makes his presence known in various tangible ways. To claim that his manifest presence was a reality in Bible times only is to set an arbitrary limit on what God is free to do.

Other people confuse God's manifest presence with his omnipresence. While we should acknowledge that God is everywhere, his manifest presence is special. Yet for some it seems that their awareness of God must always be highly dramatic, emotional and tangible. But since God's manifest presence is not actually evident to the extent they claim, they unknowingly belittle the very reality they seek to affirm.

Having said that, it appears that God does want to make himself known in very tangible ways far more than most of us realize. Just as the cloud filled the Mishkan, so he fills people individually and corporately today. Yeshua said, referring to both his followers of his day and all who would believe in him later, "The glory that you have given me I have given to them..." (John 17:22). The manifest presence of God that was revealed through the Messiah has been given to his people. Note that he didn't say "The glory that you have given me I will give to them", but rather, "The glory that you have given me I have given to them." Just as the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan, so the glory of the Lord has filled Yeshua's followers. Therefore the manifest presence of God is to be found in and through Yeshua's followers.

God is indeed everywhere, but he wants to makes himself known through his people in very special ways. The more we realize that his manifest presence lives in us, the more his presence will be manifested through us.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

TorahBytes: Free Will (Ki Tissa)

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, "Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:13,14; ESV)

Some of you may understand this sort of thing better than I, but I was really surprised recently when I heard an atheistic scientist claim that his rejection of God or any other supernatural forces led him to conclude that there was no such thing as human free will. I had thought that if someone didn't believe in God, then objective morality didn't exist, thus giving people freedom to do whatever they liked. But if I understand the scientist correctly, he was saying that since we live in an exclusively naturalistic universe, everything is the product of physical forces. Human activity on Earth may appear to be self determining, but that is only an illusion. The whole universe is like a highly complex arrangement of dominos where the falling of one domino causes another one to fall. The patterns and beauty of life are simply the result of absolute randomization.

Until I heard this I had thought that determinism, that is the concept that all of life's outcomes are preset, required the belief in a supernatural force, who asserts sovereign control of the universe. But now I see with the help of this scientist's statement that the existence of human free will is due to God.

There is a lot of confusion among Bible believers over the issue of free will. For some free will is regarded as absolute as if God never takes the upper hand in human affairs. For others free will is made to be nonsense similar to the way atheists understand it. For these people it only looks as if we have free will, when in fact God is working behind the scenes like a puppeteer controlling our every word and action.

One of the problems with all this is the word, "free". It is obvious that humans don't have free will in an absolute sense. We cannot will to do absolutely anything we want. We are limited by all sorts of factors. While most of us can learn to perform well beyond our perceived limitations, on our own we cannot do anything beyond our actual limitations.

The question that remains is if God has given free will to people, how free are we? I don't know if we can say for sure, but the Bible provides us with significant insight.

Purim (the Festival of Esther; see the Book of Esther for details) is a one-day festival that begins this Monday evening (March 9). Purim commemorates the turning of the tables on the Jewish people's enemies in the face of destruction. The story of Esther is a wonderful weaving together of the sovereign work of God and human free will.

As the story goes, the Jewish people were in trouble yet again. The resolution to their predicament came about by a fascinating set of events and the purposeful actions of Mordecai and Esther. One of the unique features of the book of Esther is that it is the only book of the Bible to not have a single explicit reference to God. God's supposed silence is often legitimately interpreted as an emphasis on how God often works on his people's behalf behind the scenes, so to speak.

The effective, yet hidden, working of God doesn't mean that the people involved had no actual part to play. Mordecai's encouragement to Esther to speak on behalf of their people well expresses the interweaving of God's sovereignty and human free will. Mordecai was certain that God would take care of his people. Esther's refusal to be involved would not prevent God's plan for the Jewish people from succeeding. But her refusal would have dire consequences for her and her own family.

There is no sense in this story that every aspect of the outcome of the situation was preset by God and thus could not be affected by people's decisions. At the same time the overall outcome was not dependant on Esther or any other human being. While Esther was God's chosen instrument to save her people, she was free to decide to accept or refuse the challenge.

To think that the outcome of history is dependent on human decisions is ridiculous. Yet God in his sovereignty created human beings whom he calls to freely respond to his will. While we can never force his hand, let us not expect him to twist our arms before we do what's right.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

TorahBytes: Putting It On (Tezavveh & Zakhor)

For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him. (Shemot / Exodus 28:40-43; ESV)

My wife and I were recently treated to a two-night getaway at a lovely manor in the country. The high-quality restaurant had a dress code for the evening meal. It has always struck me how the putting on of nicer clothes makes such a difference in how we feel about ourselves and our surroundings, as well as on how others relate to us.

Years ago I had a friend who was a taxi driver. The company he worked for didn't impose a particular standard of dress, but when he started wearing suits; his customers began to treat him differently, calling him "Sir" for example.

I don't think that the wearing of nice clothes made my wife and I or my friend different people. Wearing nice clothes or a uniform doesn't transform a person into something he or she is not. At the same time how we present ourselves does communicate something about ourselves. It could be anything from our economic situation, the people group to which we belong, our likes and preferences, or our desires and intentions. Of course it is possible that what we wear may not be consistent with who we really are. If I wore a police uniform in public, I would be giving the false impression that I was a police officer. On the other hand, when a police officer wears a uniform, it not only communicates to others his authority, but reminds him to behave accordingly. The uniform communicates something whether it be true or false.

In the days of the Mishkan and the Temple, the priests were required to wear special clothing whenever they performed their duties. To fail to do so would have resulted in dire circumstances. It is not as if they were priests on the basis of their clothing. Not wearing their priestly garments would not make them less of who they were. Still, their clothing was a necessary part of their performing their priestly duty. Priests not only played a special role in the community, they had to look the part as well. They physically and mentally could have performed their duties in regular clothing, but they could not truly represent their position if they didn't take the time to put on their special priestly clothes.

One of the contrasts between the Old and New Covenants is a shift of emphasis from external forms to internal reality. Under both covenants what God is seeking to communicate both to and through us is very much the same, but how he does so is quite different. With the coming of the Messiah and the loss of the Levitical priesthood due to the destruction of the Temple, the external elements of worship and service to God have been internalized in those who trust and follow the Messiah. What was at one time necessary through things such as clothing and other objects is now experienced in and through the living out of our day-to-day lives.

As the priests had to purposely put on special clothing to fulfill their special role in the world, so we too must do the same, but not literally. Rather we are to purposely apply the elements of a godly lifestyle to our behavior (see Colossians 3:1-17). While it is not our deeds that make us God's children, godly living requires decisive, purposeful actions similar to the putting on of special clothing.

At times purposely putting on godly behavior can feel like play acting - more like a costume than a uniform. Being kind, generous, disciplined, and merciful - to name a few godly traits - may not seem natural to us. But we shouldn't think that just because we possess the inner reality of God's presence in our lives that godly behavior will automatically spring forth without our participation. It is similar to dressing up to eat in a fancy restaurant. If it is something we haven't done before or only done on rare occasions, it could feel quite strange. But it's not about feelings. Once we realize that we, like the priests of old, have a special place in the world, then we also realize that it requires our putting on special behavior.