Sunday, July 26, 2009

TorahBytes: Discipline (Va-Ethannan)

Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:36; ESV)

Perhaps the oldest misconception about the difference between the Old and New Covenant writings (Old and New Testaments) is that their portrayals of God are opposed to one another. This is commonly expressed as "the Old Covenant God is a god of wrath and the New Covenant God is a god of love". This false dichotomy can only emerge from selective reading. There is no time here for me to demonstrate that the portrayal of the God of Israel is consistent right through the entire Bible. His complex personality as one who regards his human creatures as his children, longs to be in right relationship with them, going to great means to restore such a relationship, yet insisting on strict adherence to his will, a neglect of which means grave consequences, is how the whole Bible portrays him.

I think many people who have any understanding of the God of the Old Covenant, but have never read the New Covenant Scriptures, would be quite surprised at how consistent the God of Yeshua, Paul, and Peter is with the God of Moses, David, and Isaiah.

Few, if any, serious adherents of the New Covenant would think that the Bible refers to two distinct gods. Yet it seems to be common to think that under the New Covenant he has gone through some sort of transformation. It is as if at one time he went around with an angry scowl waiting to strike anyone who stepped out of line. But with the coming of Yeshua, he has morphed into a sort of Santa Claus, taking us on his knee and showering us with presents - the adorable kids we all are. These two caricatures in no way accurately describe the God of the Bible.

This warped view of God would make understanding the reference I read from this week's Torah portion next to impossible. According to Moses the purpose of God's speaking to the people of Israel was to discipline them. Let's not be confused by the word discipline. In this context it is not referred to punishment, but rather to a lifestyle in keeping with God's standards. This is like the discipline an athlete undergoes or the learning of a diligent student, which is another word for disciple.

Readers of the New Covenant should be quite familiar with the term disciple, since it is used so frequently to describe followers of Yeshua. Followers of Yeshua today, therefore, should be quick to note that God's purpose in speaking to his people has not changed throughout all these centuries.

While through Yeshua God has accomplished his goal of reconciliation with people, he still speaks to us in order to discipline us. Human beings naturally desire freedom from all restraint, preferring to live for self. We tend to bristle under the concept of a God to whom we must give an account, and we value personal pleasure over loving and caring for others. In order to be what we were originally designed to be, it is we, not God, who must be transformed - a transformation that only God can provide. Once this occurs we still need clear instruction on how to live out that transformation. Through God's Word and his work in our lives he disciplines us in order to make us all we need to be.

If we have a misinformed perception of God's character, we could easily misinterpret God's discipline. Many seem to not understand that true discipline is an act of love. Confusing love with permissiveness, which is another common misconception in our day, leads to the kind of warped view of God that I was referring to earlier. While a right relationship with God must include his forgiveness and acceptance, it also includes his correction and confrontation. Just look at how Yeshua related to his disciples in the Gospels to see this in action. Just look at how he relates to us today.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

TorahBytes: Chosen To Fail (Devarim)

Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. (Isaiah 1:4; ESV)

The Bible is primarily the story of God. We learn the story of God through the life experiences of a particular people group: the nation of Israel. While the purpose of the Bible is to make the true God known to all peoples, he is revealed for the most part through this one people. This is summed up in the first book of the Torah, where God says to Abram, " you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Bereshit / Genesis 12:3; ESV).

As the story of the Scriptures unfolds, there are many wonderful accounts of God's magnificence demonstrated through ancient Israel: Moses standing before the world power of his day to lead his people out of slavery; Joshua leading the nation in conquest of the Promised Land; David defeating the giant; Elijah calling down fire from heaven. But these and other shining moments are actually the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, Israel failed in its mission to be God's light to the nations. Isaiah's words that I began with don't only apply to the time in which he spoke. They are rather a reflection of much of Israel's experience right through the Scriptures.

This doesn't mean that Israel did not fulfill its purpose to which it was called. Even though Israel did fail to live up to the standards God set for them, God revealed through them one of the most important truths that we as human beings must learn in order to know God - that on our own we cannot live up to his standards. Hundreds of years after Isaiah indicted Israel for its failure to follow God, another member of the nation of Israel wrote, "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God (Romans 3:19; ESV).

Israel was indeed chosen to reveal God to the world, but a component of that was to make it clear that all people, whatever our background, cannot, on our own, be what we were intended to be. Israel's failure to live up to God's standards is no reason for other nations to point their finger at Israel as if they could have done better. Israel was chosen to demonstrate what we all really are - sinners in need of God's forgiveness and grace.

God's purpose in choosing Israel is only truly fulfilled as we recognize this need. It is when we stop pretending that we are better than we are and accept our dismal human state that we will be in a position to know God. Later in this week's Haftarah, Isaiah says, "'Come now, let us reason together,' says the LORD: 'though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool'" (Isaiah 1:18; ESV). God desires to change us, but unless we recognize our sinful condition, we will never avail ourselves of his offer to do so.

In a day when self focus is expected, self fulfillment is encouraged, self improvement is assumed possible, and personal autonomy is viewed as a right, it is difficult to see ourselves reflected in the failure of ancient Israel. But our refusal to do so doesn't change reality. Until we humble ourselves to accept that we, like Israel of old are "laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly", then that is exactly what we will be.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

TorahBytes: True Value (Mattot & Masei)

Thus says the LORD: "What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?" (Jeremiah 2:5; ESV)

I recently had a discussion with someone about product price setting. I had thought that at least to some extent prices were set based on the inherent value of a thing, which would include the cost of production and a reasonable profit margin. My friend explained that, at least in an economy such as ours, the only factor that should be used in setting price is what the market would bear. Therefore in order to set a price for something I want to produce, I should ask the question, “What is the highest price that people would pay for it?”

This doesn't mean that just because people are willing to pay a high price for something, then it is a good and beneficial thing. It only means that it is valuable to those who purchase it.

How we value something determines the time, energy, and money we invest in it. There was a time when our society valued the household far more than today. While we may claim that we value family and home, how we spend out time contradicts what we say. The pursuit of career, the accumulation of things, and the love of self have taken over the importance of building strong and healthy families. Just as I don't understand why people would trade so much of their hard earned money on harmful substances such as cigarettes, I don't know why we have chosen to give ourselves over to the busy-ness of business and accumulation of things over and against investing in family life.

Our misconstrued perceptions over what in life is of true value stems from how we perceive God. In this week's Haftarah, God asks the question, "What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? (Jeremiah 2:5; ESV). The people of Israel knew the reality of God, yet they went after other things that they perceived as valuable, but were actually worthless. The picture here is of someone examining something and discovering a flaw, thus rendering the thing worthless as far as they were concerned. But what could that flaw be that God's people would turn from him? Of course, there is no such flaw. It is incomprehensible that anyone who truly knows God would turn from him. But that is exactly what the people did. Not only did they turn away from the Master of the Universe, they went after things of no real value.

I wonder how many people turn from God because of a wrong they perceive in him. This may be due to the way God is misrepresented by others. Other times we may draw wrong conclusions about God based on a misinterpretation of life events. Perhaps who God is offends us, because he doesn't meet our expectations or fulfill our preferences.

Whatever the reason, our inaccurate perceptions of God's value will result in our valuing worthless things. But notice that it doesn't stop there. When we value what is worthless, we ourselves become worthless. Made in God's image, we are of great value. God intended that we would live our lives in service to him and that we would be the reflection of all he is. But if we fail to rightly value he who is of greatest value, we ourselves become worthless, no longer able to fulfill the purpose to which we were made.

Thankfully through what the Messiah Yeshua has done for us, we can be restored to that purpose. It is not too late to realize the worthlessness of the worthless things we value and begin to value those things that are of true value, beginning with God himself.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

TorahBytes: Confidence (Pinhas)

But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. (Jeremiah 1:17; ESV)

Jeremiah was called by God to speak messages that were most unpopular in his day. A terrible time in the history of the Jewish people, Jerusalem was on the verge of being destroyed and the people about to be exiled far away to Babylon. Calling the people back to God was something one would expect from a true prophet, but to tell them to submit to the conquest of the Babylonians is something else all together. It doesn't surprise me that the political leaders considered this message treasonous.

Jeremiah must have expected that being entrusted with such a message would put him in a most precarious situation with his people. Moreover, God himself told him that the people would "fight against him" (1:19; ESV). God's promise that they would not prevail against him must have helped, but it would not have necessarily made his job easy.

Regardless of how Jeremiah would have perceived what he was facing, God called him to a high level of confidence. That he was not naturally confident is evident by his initial response to God's call when he said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth" (1:6; ESV). In spite of Jeremiah's hesitancy, God insisted he conduct himself confidently. In fact unless Jeremiah resisted the temptation to be intimidated by the people, he would be undone by fear. In the way God put it to Jeremiah, he was not to be dismayed by the people; otherwise, God would cause him to be dismayed by them.

This is not the same as saying to someone, "Don't be scared, lest you be scared," which would sound so obvious to the point that it would hardly be necessary to say. Saying, "Don't be scared" would be enough. But there is more to this than that. God told Jeremiah that if he feared the people, God himself would cause him to fear them. Jeremiah's fear would not be due to the absence of confidence, but due to God's undermining any remaining confidence and security he may have had.

Perhaps God's dealing with Jeremiah in this way was due to his promises to him: "Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you" (1:8; ESV); "I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" (1:10; ESV); "I am watching over my word to perform it" (1:12; ESV). The God who called Jeremiah to deliver the difficult message also committed himself to stand with him through it all. Therefore for Jeremiah not to conduct himself with confidence was to disbelieve God - the foundational wrong that led his people into the tragic situation before them.

If you are familiar with the rest of the story of Jeremiah, you would know that his confidence to faithfully deliver the messages given him didn't keep him from the expected difficulties. The leaders and people were violently against him. He suffered much at their hands. Yet he continued in confidence, never wavering from his God-given calling.

What we see in the life of Jeremiah is that God gives us no neutral ground. It is not as if our choosing to disregard his word allows us to live disconnected from him as if we are free to do our own thing, so to speak. Either we trust him and his promises, resting in the confidence of his being with us in and through everything or we disbelieve him, resulting in his undermining our lives. To not trust God doesn't cast him away, as if we can be free of his presence and influence. Turning our backs on him puts him at odds with us.

Jeremiah's call to confidence doesn't just differentiate believer from non-believer, but is also a warning to those who claim to believe in God. Those of us who say we know him yet refuse to take confidence in him should not be surprised at the intensity of our fear. It's not necessarily that we are weak in faith, but rather our refusal to trust him as we should may be what is resulting in God's causing us to unreasonably fear.

If this be the case, we should not despair. Jeremiah shows us that in spite of our natural inclination to fear, we can take confidence in God. And as we do, even though we must go through very troubling situations at times, God will prove faithful as he has promised.