Sunday, March 28, 2010

TorahBytes: Seeing God (Pesach)

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation." (Shemot / Exodus 34:5-7; ESV)

The Torah reading this Shabbat is special as it is one of the intermediate days of Pesach (English: Passover). The words I just read are God's answer to Moses' prayer, when he said "Show me your glory" (Shemot / Exodus 33:18; ESV). From the context it seems that what Moses was asking for, was to see God. This would be why God's response is as follows:

I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name "The LORD" And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live...Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock,...and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen. (Shemot / Exodus 33:19-23; ESV)
It is instructive that when God comes to reveal himself, his revelation is primary communicated through words. There is no fire or earthquake, no miraculous surprises. He revealed himself to Moses through words, words which we still can hear today.

To see God is to rightly perceive his character. While we may think that it would be preferable to have some sort of physical encounter with God, which might be what Moses was asking for, having a right understanding of who he is, is what we really need. So I would like to take a brief look at what God said to Moses that day. For through these words we too might see God.

"The LORD, the LORD". This use of God's name denotes that he is the self-existing, self-defining one. He is not to be understood by our perceptions of him. Rather, his identity and character are absolutely dependant on himself.

"A God merciful and gracious". God does not treat us as we deserve, in fact he is the one who gives us the power to live.

"Slow to anger". God doesn't instantly react to our misdeeds. He is patient with us.

"And abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness". God is continually dependable. We can always count on him to do what is right and good.

"Keeping steadfast love for thousands". God's love is not for a select few, but for everyone.

"Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin". God forgives sin. We need not remain in a state of alienation from him. No matter what we have done, we can be restored to him.

"But who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation." Those who do not avail themselves of God's mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness will bring the consequences of their actions on generations. Unresolved wrongs begin a cycle that is difficult to break. But thankfully, that cycle can be broken if and when we get right with him.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

TorahBytes: Only Judaism Explains Christianity (Zav)

This is the law of the burnt offering, of the grain offering, of the sin offering, of the guilt offering, of the ordination offering, and of the peace offering, which the LORD commanded Moses on Mount Sinai, on the day that he commanded the people of Israel to bring their offerings to the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai. (Vayikra / Leviticus 7:37,38; ESV)

If you know anything about Christianity, you are aware that it makes much about the death of its central character. His was no typical martyr's death. He didn't die for a cause. The leaders of his day did him in to prevent an uprising of the common people. The Jewish people in the Land of Israel had a delicate relationship with the world power at that time. They enjoyed basic religious freedom as long as they didn't upset the political situation. While there were some among them who believed in armed rebellion, the majority looked to God alone to deliver them from foreign oppression, much like in the days of Moses. So for the leadership it was disconcerting to see how the young rabbi from Galilee was getting the masses stirred up with talk of the Kingdom of God and performing miracles. To seriously consider whether or not he truly was the Messiah was too much for their leaders to handle. Out of fear of what the Romans might do, they decided he had to be stopped. Upon his arrest and unjust execution, his followers were scattered and completely discouraged. It would not be until after Yeshua's resurrection and the outpouring of the Ruach Hakodesh (English: Holy Spirit) that his followers would have the courage to fulfill the mission to which God had called them.

So it wasn't Yeshua's death that spurred his followers on. Yet they would come to understand that it was his death that made all the difference. Remember, it was not as if his death inspired them to action. Far from it. It actually profoundly discouraged them. His death also brought about no change of heart from his detractors. It would only be later that his followers came to understand that it was through his death that those who believe in him have forgiveness of sins.

Today, two thousand years later, the forgiveness of sins through the death of Yeshua continues to be the central message of Christianity. But what is the basis of such a concept? From where does such an idea come from? How could it be that the shedding of blood would make such a difference? To be able to answer that question, we need to see that this didn't happen out of nowhere. It is not as if God just did this unexpected thing, and then somehow expect people to understand that through Yeshua's death they could be forgiven.

Yeshua's death was a Jewish sacrifice. While sacrifice was common in the ancient world, Jewish sacrifice had been particularly prescribed by God to teach his people the reality of sin and forgiveness. Through the Jewish sacrificial system, God's people learned what was holy and what was not. They learned about the seriousness of righteousness and morality. They were taught about the sacredness of blood, the value of purity, and the importance of restitution. By the time Yeshua came, the people of Israel knew that God provided sacrifice as the means to cover sin and maintain their relationship with him. At the same time the many sacrifices reminded the people of their sin and their need for forgiveness.

When Yeshua rose from the dead, his followers began to understand the implications of his death. All that they had learned and anticipated due to the Jewish sacrificial system prepared them to proclaim forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.

So today believers in Yeshua can return to Torah portions like this week's and plumb the depths of the significance of the Messiah's death on our behalf. Everything that has kept people from intimately knowing God: our sin, our guilt, our impurity, our immorality, our ignorance, our self-centeredness, our unfaithfulness - has all been resolved through the death of Yeshua.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

TorahBytes: Return (Vayikra)

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:21,22; ESV)

With these words, Isaiah captures much of the essence of the message of the Hebrew prophets. The people of Israel - God's people, rescued from slavery in Egypt, gifted with the revelation of God, the Torah, and established in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - were estranged from God. Called to be a reflection of the reality of the Creator and Master of the universe and destined to be a light and blessing to the entire world, they instead had corrupted themselves by adopting the lifestyles of neighboring cultures. At times they ignored God altogether, following false religions, while at other times they attempted to adapt the true God to these false religions. Either way, they distanced themselves from God and his ways.

And so God sent his spokesmen, the prophets. Year after year, these holy men and women would confront their kinsmen with the errors of their ways and foretell the consequences of their misbehavior. Their neglect of God would result in enemy invasion and exile. Removal from the Land symbolized their alienation from God.

Israel's alienation was to demonstrate to the world that all nations were in a similar condition. The consequences of our first parents' rebellion in the Garden of Eden had fallen upon all people for all time. Israel's inability to live up to its chosen status was to be a sign to all peoples of the depth of our sin.

All of mankind, no less Israel, has sought to cope with our sinful condition in all sorts of ways. When our religious fabrications don't prove effective, we may try harder: more fabrications and/or with more intensity. Others assume that all religions must be false and thus try to divorce themselves from anything spiritual. Either route leads us to self absorption as we seek to find peace and security within ourselves, resulting in addictive and destructive behaviors far more oppressive than Israel's bondage as slaves in Egypt.

All the while God calls to us, just as he called to the people of Israel in Isaiah's day. What we ourselves could not do to restore us to a right relationship to God, he himself has done. There is nothing we can do to cleanse ourselves of our sin. Our greatest efforts can never bridge the gap between us and God. Yet, through the death and resurrection of the Messiah, all that is necessary to restore us to God has been accomplished. There is no reason to remain distanced from God, lost in our sin and destined for judgment.

Some may think that because God has done it all, then all that is needed on our part is to simply realize what he has done. They assume that because God has made full provision for our restoration, then we are already restored. Our only problem then is that we don't realize it. But that is neither what God was saying to Israel in Isaiah's day nor what he is saying to us today. Rather because God has made the way for us to return to him, he now calls us to return. To return is not just a state of mind. It is a lifestyle. It includes a change in our thinking, of course, but also a change in behavior. Our efforts can never bridge the gap between us and God. Only God can do that. But because of what God has done, we can return to him. What's stopping you?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

TorahBytes: The Lost Art of Preparation (Va-Yakhel & Pekudei)

Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day. (Shemot / Exodus 35: 2,3; ESV)

One of the necessary implications of God's Sabbath laws is the need of preparation. The prohibition against making fires on Shabbat was not intended to force the people of Israel to freeze during bouts of cold weather. It was not that they couldn't be in the presence of fire on Shabbat; it was that they were forbidden from purposely starting a fire. If a household neglected getting a fire started before the beginning of Shabbat, then they risked being unnecessarily cold for a day. Weekly Sabbath observance as commanded by God would help develop in the culture the art of preparation. Effective preparation requires us to have an accurate understanding of the future and the wisdom to know exactly what to do in face of what is to come.

In today's instant culture, preparation is quickly becoming a lost art. More and more we expect to get what we want as soon as we want it. Not only are information, goods, and services instantly available at the press of a button, we have an economic system that encourages us to acquire things we can't afford. We can have whatever we want, whenever we want, whatever the cost.

Our instant culture tells us that we don't need to think ahead, we don't need to prepare. In fact, those who drive this way of life don't want us to. That's because they fear what would happen if we realized that we don't need this or that right now. What would happen if we actually thought about the implications of our actions before we act, before we buy, before we speak, before we make relational decisions?

Yet we have been led to believe that we don't need to be concerned about the implications of our actions. We think we can always deal with it later, expecting that the problems we cause in an instant today will be fixed in an instant tomorrow. But we are only fooling ourselves, if we think that consequences such as divorce, abortion, drug addiction, and bankruptcy are fixes. Perhaps you haven't come to such extremes, but I wonder how many of us are living lives in the cold, so to speak, having failed to prepare the fire in advance.

While we shouldn't worry about tomorrow, effective living demands wise preparation. Worry is being concerned over those areas of life of which we have no control. Preparation is required for those things for which we are responsible. A farmer needs to prepare his field for harvest; a chef prepares a menu and ensures all necessary ingredients are available; an athlete spends great amounts of time in training to be ready to compete. In the same way God calls us to arrange our lives today in light of what is required of us in the future.

Considering God automatically confronts our instant culture. It is God who dictates to his people that if they want to be warm on Shabbat, they better think ahead. They better be prepared.

Following God means following him at his pace, to make time for what he says we should make time for, to set the priorities of life based on his priorities, to structure our lives based on how he says life should be lived. If our instant culture prevents us from being properly prepared to obey God, then it's the culture that has to give way.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

TorahBytes: Impatience Breeds Idolatry (Ki Tissa & Parah)

So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" (Shemot / Exodus 32:3,4; ESV)

The incident of the golden calf is one of the most tragic in the Torah. Having been rescued by God from oppressive bondage in Egypt, having witnessed his great acts of power through the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, having known his miraculous provision and protection, having heard the sound of his voice speaking from the mountain, it didn't take the nation of Israel long to fall into great depravity of spiritual darkness and moral perversion.

The situation that led them to their sinful behavior was Moses' extended absence. He had gone up the mountain to receive the details of God's covenant, but the people grew impatient. Notice that in a sense the people didn't really turn to other gods, but rather they fashioned a tangible representation of the true God, who delivered them from Egypt.

There are two kinds of idolatry. One kind is the worship of objects that represent false gods. The other is the worship of objects that represent the true God. The sin of the golden calf is of this second type.

It may seem bizarre to you that the God of Israel could be imaged in this way. How could it be that the Master of the Universe, the uncreated creator of all things, be represented as a cow? And yet how often do we image God as something other than who he really is? We prefer to fashion him into all sorts of forms that appeal to us, that make us comfortable, something we can understand and be proud of.

Idolatry misrepresents God. Idols cannot come close to who and what God really is. It's no wonder that the behavior that stems from idolatry is perverted and destructive. When we don't worship God as he really is, we become something other than what we were intended to be.

Israel's impatience which led to this sin is the very thing that continues to drive us to idolatry in our day. The God of the Bible cannot be represented through our own creative endeavors, tangible or intangible. We are to know him through faith, not by sight or feelings. And like the people of Israel long ago, he often leads us in situations in which he doesn't seem to be anywhere around. He is usually doing far more than anything we can imagine, but to us it may seem as if he doesn't really exist or care. So, in our impatience, we substitute all sorts of things to make ourselves feel better, but in the end bring harm to ourselves and to those around us.

Idolatry is an attempt to relate to God on our own terms. It arises from a desire to take control of our lives rather than submit to God as Lord and King. What might appear to be a humble and sincere adoration of our great Redeemer may actually be a self-centered, arrogant, and disgraceful exhibition of false spirituality. Attaching the name of the one true God to the products of our imaginations will certainly lead us to all sorts of perversions and eventually God's judgment.

We must therefore be careful to relate to God in the way that he has revealed himself in the Scriptures. While true worship is not the most comfortable or self-pleasing form of spirituality, it is the only one that leads to a life of lasting blessing.