Saturday, July 24, 2010

TorahBytes: This Is a Test (Ekev)

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 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, 4; ESV)

You may be aware of the miracles of the Messiah commonly known as the feedings of the 5000 and 4000. What you may not be aware of is how they are tied to this verse. Yeshua made explicit references to the manna not too long after the miracle, but there is more to it than that. The connection with our Torah portion is found in a curious question Yeshua asked one of his disciples leading up to the miracle.

A large crowd had gathered, but they had nothing to eat. So Yeshua asked his disciple, Phillip, "Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat? (John 6:5; ESV) - a fairly understandable question, until we read John's comment immediately following. He writes, "He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do" (John 6:6; ESV). "Test him"? What kind of test is this? He wasn't testing his knowledge of grocery stores and fast food outlets in the area. He and his disciples knew that there was nowhere to buy food, let alone have the amount of money to purchase it. It is clear from the interchange that follows that there was no anticipation on the disciples' part that a miracle was about to be performed. Yet John says Yeshua's question was a test.

The parallels between this situation and the verse from our Torah portion are striking. In both cases the people were purposely led by God into a situation where they had no food. Yeshua like Moses had a large crowd following him. In each case, they faced enormous need. Moses tells us that as God led the people in the wilderness, he was testing them to know what was in their heart. The purpose of this kind of testing is to demonstrate the quality of the thing tested. When our hearts are tested, we discover the kind of people we really are and where we are actually at in our relationship with God.

So like the people of Israel, Yeshua also tested Phillip in the wilderness. Phillip's heart was being tested by the Messiah. By this time, Phillip, like the people of Israel, had seen God's power by Yeshua's hand. But had Phillip come to a place of knowing Yeshua for who he really was? Obviously not.

You might want to come to Phillip's defense; I do. He didn't know what Yeshua was going to do. Yet it seems that Yeshua expected Phillip to trust him. If God is real, does he ever lead us into situations where he will not provide? Is that not one of the key lessons of the manna? Had not Yeshua already sufficiently demonstrated that? So why tell Yeshua what can't be done? Shouldn't knowing him always result in confident faith?

My sympathy for Phillip in this situation reveals the condition of my own heart. When I face difficult problems, I, like Phillip, think first of my lack of ability to resolve it. I easily get anxious and overwhelmed by difficult situations. But for those who know God, is anxiety and being overwhelmed ever an appropriate response? My heart has been tested, and I have been found wanting.

But, thankfully, that is not the end of it. God knows our lack of faith better than we do. He tests us to cause us to face reality. Unless we are honest about the condition of our hearts and lives, we won't become the people God calls us to be.

Both through Moses and Yeshua, God teaches us to focus not on our needs and the normal processes of life ("man does not live by bread alone"), but instead to be attentive to everything he says to us ("but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD"). As he tests us, we have the opportunity to learn this lesson.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

TorahBytes: The Torah Controversy (Va-Ethannan)

You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:2; ESV)

Misunderstandings among New Covenant believers about the Torah stem partly from a lack of awareness over the issues the New Covenant writers were dealing with. New Covenant believers, especially of the Protestant variety, see Torah through the eyes of the controversy that took place over the doctrine of salvation during medieval times. In those days it had became common to think that in order to be accepted by God one had to accumulate a certain number of merits. The New Covenant teaching that faith in the death and resurrection of Yeshua was sufficient for salvation had been lost. It seems that many of the creeds and theology established during the Reformation was a response to this and other unbiblical teachings.

Looking at the New Covenant references to the Torah (English: the Law / Greek: nomos), there appears to be very clear statements against an approach to God that includes the accumulation of merits. When reading these statements, one would almost think that the New Covenant writers were purposely and directly criticizing medieval thinking. The biblical contrast of justification by works vs. justification by faith is certainly relevant to that discussion. If I understand this aspect of the Reformation correctly, the prevelant thinking at that time had been that even though a person was part of God's family through faith in the Messiah, they still needed to be good in terms of their moral and religious deeds to be fully accepted by God. The Reformers, rightly based on Scripture, demonstrated that acceptance by God could never be established on the basis of our own efforts, but solely upon the merits of Messiah alone.

Statements about Torah in the Book of Acts, Paul's letters, and the Book of Hebrews clearly demonstrate justification by faith alone. But what has contributed to current misunderstandings is that these statements are not concerned about the accumulation of merits. It is common today to hear people explain our need for God in terms of our not being good enough. We explain how the Torah is God's standard, given to show us that all human beings fail to meet that standard. As a result we are all under God's condemnation and can only be forgiven through faith in the Messiah. All this is true. But the realization of our failure to live up to the Torah's demands is only one aspect of the Torah's function. Most of the negative Torah statements in the New Covenant writings aren't concerned with this problem. Adherents of the Torah in the first century - as well as many in contemporary Jewish circles - were not concerned about being good enough to be accepted by God. Those who wanted to impose Torah upon non-Jewish followers of Yeshua were not doing so that these Gentiles might become good enough. It was that they thought that possession and observance of Torah itself was what merited God's acceptance.

For those not used to this concept, you may need to pause and take a deep breath at this point. The New Covenant writers when speaking about Torah confronted the wrong notion in their day that living a life of Torah was the key to acceptance and intimacy with God. The gift of God's revelation to the Jewish people became something like an idol. Instead of being the people of God, we became the people of Torah.

It is true that this is not the only aspect of the Torah being addressed by the New Covenant writers. According to Jeremiah's prophesy (Jeremiah 31:31-33), there are significant differences between the Old and New Covenants.  One of those differences is the internalization of Torah, not the doing away with Torah all together. Any teaching that implies that Torah is completely done away with is a misunderstanding of the intent of the New Covenant writers. Note that this is not to say that Torah as the Sinai Covenant is still in force. That is made clear both by Jeremiah and the New Covenant writers.

Torah is God's direction or teaching for our lives. Torah is the revelation of God and his revelation of how we are to relate to him. But it is not our understanding of this that puts us in good stead with God. That only happens through trusting in his Son, Yeshua. As we trust in him, we will also hunger for his Word - his Torah - for guidance in life.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

TorahBytes: Torah is Good for You (Devarim)

In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the people of Israel according to all that the LORD had given him in commandment to them... (Devarim / Deuteronomy 1:3; ESV)

In the New Covenant scriptures we read:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17; ESV)
When Paul wrote the words, "all Scripture", he was referring to the Tenach, which is the Hebrew name for the Old Covenant Scriptures. Tenach is an acronym for Torah (the five books of Moses), Nevi'im (the Prophets), and K'tuvim (the Writings). While this reference, by extension, applies to the New Covenant Scriptures, he most likely only had the Tenach in mind, since the New Covenant Scriptures were only at their very early stages of development.

So according to Paul, the Tenach is not only inspired by God, but it is profitable for followers of Yeshua in the ways he lists. The Old Covenant Scriptures are not to be treated like a religious shrine that marks extraordinary events and to which we visit only to trigger memories and evoke feelings. The Tenach is truly profitable for God's people today. And note that he doesn't say some Scripture, but "all Scripture". The whole Tenach is profitable, not just parts of it.

Of course this doesn't mean that every verse is relevant to every single person in every situation. Verses that apply exclusively to women only don't apply to men. God's directives to kill Canaanites don't apply today even if you happen to meet one. Any part of the Bible must be understood not only in its immediate context, but also within the context of the rest of the Bible. The descriptions and regulations of the various sacrifices, for example, are meaningful in many ways, even though the sacrificial system is no longer in force. Directives to kings were specific to the ancient Israelite monarchy, yet there are aspects that are instructive to leaders in general.

There are certain references in the New Covenant writings that sound very negative on the Old Covenant Books of Moses. But those passages are more concerned with relating to the Torah as a system, than with its specifics. Adherence to Torah was never intended as the basis upon which people are made right with God, This is only accomplished through faith in the Messiah. This was also true for those who lived before Yeshua's coming in that their faith was in anticipation of God's provision of salvation through him.

Confusion exists because there is more than one way that Torah can be understood. Torah in a general sense means God's teaching or direction. For the people of Israel this became associated with the covenant given at Mt Sinai through Moses and the five books associated with him. So during the era between Moses and the coming of Yeshua, Torah was synonymous with the Sinai covenant. But in fact they are not one and the same thing. When the New Covenant was promised through Jeremiah, we read that while the people of Israel broke the Sinai covenant, God would put his Torah in their hearts. The New Covenant is not an internalized Sinai Covenant. It includes an internalized Torah, meaning that God's direction for life would not be something that exists externally on stone tablets. Instead, God's direction would spring forth from a new inner nature due to the forgiveness of sins (See Jeremiah 31:31-33).

Since for followers of Yeshua the Torah has become an inner reality, there remains the question as to what are the Torah's specifics for us today. There is no sense anywhere in the Bible that faith automatically and unconsciously results in godly living. It is through the study of the entire Scriptures and reliance on God's Spirit that we learn how God wants us to live today. As we do that we will see, as I have already mentioned, that certain directives don't apply or don't apply directly in the messianic age. On the other hand, there are many directives that are eternal, including don't murder or steal, and stipulations about building safety (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:8) or fair business practices (Devarim / Deuteronomy 25:15). How to determine what applies to today and how it applies is not always straightforward, but it is a blessing to delve into God's written Word to discover his ways, especially when our hearts delight to do God's will.

Of course, much of both the Old and New Covenant Scriptures are not directives. They also include history, songs, and prophesy, etc. Most if not all of this is relevant to us today in that they help us to get to know God better. So we can be confident that these words from Tehillim (Psalms) are as true today as they were when they were first written:
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Tehillim / Psalms 119:105; ESV)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

TorahBytes: The Search for the Authentic (Mattot & Masei)

And now what do you gain by going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile? Or what do you gain by going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates? (Jeremiah 2:18; ESV)

Some serious students of the Bible are keen to establish what they believe to be an authentic expression of biblical faith. While this could be said about almost all serious believers, some are more concerned than others that the various forms of faith today have their roots, not in the Bible, but from paganism. This approach believes that if a custom can be found to be derived from a pagan source, then it is automatically deemed to be inappropriate for believers in Yeshua.

This seems to be what God is saying through Jeremiah in this week's Haftarah. The people of Israel were under God's judgment due to many years of rebellion against God. Failing to heed warning after warning, they were on the verge of destruction and exile. One of the things that Jeremiah was confronting in his day was that his people, instead of turning back to God, gave up on him altogether and were turning to foreigners and foreign ways. Instead of accepting that this was the sort of thing that got them into trouble in the first place, they believed their God had let them down.

I have the impression that some in search for the authentic see themselves as walking in Jeremiah's shoes. Believers may or may not be facing impending doom, but at the very least we are viewed as living far below God's expectations. The reason for this according to the searchers of the authentic is that we have turned from the authentic and replaced it with foreign concepts and forms, thus resulting in God's disfavor.

I agree with this to some extent. God in the Scriptures has revealed to us his ways and we cannot improve upon that. But a commitment to the Scriptures is not the same as the so-called search for the authentic. I say "so-called" because there are some foundational wrong assumptions about such a search. I will mention two of them.

First, the search for the authentic assumes that if something is shown to originate from a pagan or ungodly source, then it is automatically bad. There are many customs that God's people must avoid, but they are wrong because God says they are wrong, not simply because of their pagan origins. If I could show that books with pages as opposed to scrolls were invented by pagans, then should believers avoid them? How about paper money? Or languages besides Hebrew? The real issue has to do not with origins but with how they are regarded by God.

The second wrong assumption is that the authentic customs and forms are easily identified. The searchers for the authentic seem to believe that the New Covenant Scriptures provide sufficient information as to the forms within which our faith is to be expressed. I do believe that the whole Bible, including the Hebrew and New Covenant writings do provide us with all we need to legitimately practice our faith both individually and corporately. However, we are not given a complete picture as to how first century followers of Yeshua did that. More importantly, God has given us relatively few commands regarding the forms of our gatherings and many other practical aspects of faith.

This is not to imply that God has nothing to say about our customs and forms. The Bible is clear on many areas, but we must be careful not to put words into God's mouth, establishing as authoritative that which God himself has not established.

I agree with the searchers for the authentic that we would do well to be more biblical in how we live out our faith. But in order to be more biblical we need to carefully and diligently study the Scriptures, relying on God's Spirit for guidance as we allow him to reveal his will to us. As we do that, we will be better equipped to determine the difference between godly and ungodly customs.