Saturday, August 28, 2010

TorahBytes: God's Secrets (Nizzavim & Va-Yelekh)

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:29; ESV)

I love the Bible! It's hard to believe that this week marks 34 years since I first came to know Yeshua as Messiah. Perhaps my love for the Scriptures has been at least partly fueled by how God used them to bring me to himself. I remember like yesterday how even though I knew little about the Bible at the time, and I wasn't religious in any way, I wouldn't let my eyes be cast upon the New Testament. Whatever was my understanding of Judaism then, I knew that anything to do with Jesus was taboo.

I was overwhelmed by being shown for the first time the messianic prophecies in the Tenach (Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament). Some examples: Zechariah 12 and Psalm 22 foretold his suffering on the cross; Micah 5 predicted that Bethlehem would be his birthplace; Daniel 9 set the Messiah's coming before the destruction of the second Temple (which happened almost two thousand years ago); and Isaiah 53 is a play-by-play description of his rejection, sinlessness, sacrifice, and resurrection predicted hundreds of years before Yeshua came.

So from day one of my following Yeshua, the Scriptures have been foundational to my life. I am so grateful to have been influenced by others who were firmly committed to the complete trustworthiness of the whole Bible. Whatever struggles I have faced throughout all these years, God's written Word has proven to be an anchor that has stabilized me, a compass to give me direction, treasure that has enriched me, and a light to keep me from stumbling.

Some people think I enjoy debating God's Word, but debating is formulating argument to prove one's point. I am not interested in being right, for I know that only God is right. While some may regard me as argumentative, that's just my way of grappling with Truth. If my understanding of something in the Bible is correct, it will stand up to scrutiny and challenge. The Scriptures are likened to a sharp double-edged sword that effectively cuts through to our hearts. By grappling with the Scriptures, we have the opportunity to more clearly understand what God is saying to us.

To understand the Bible's teachings it is essential to not only better understand what God is saying, but also what he is not saying. God has purposely revealed what he has intended to reveal. As for what he has not revealed, that too is purposeful. As we contemplate the revealed things, it is so easy to speculate over what he has not revealed. But God's secrets cannot be known, no matter how hard we try. As we read from the Torah at the beginning, we are responsible to live out all of what God has told us to do. But as for God's secrets - those things which he has kept to himself - they belong to him and he is not sharing.

The Bible is not a text book with neat subject categories. It sufficiently deals with a wide range of subjects, covering every area of life. It is not missing a single essential ingredient for successful godly living. Yet the truth of Scripture often leads us to ask questions to which there are no intellectually satisfying answers. And yet how much division has been caused among God's people over areas that God has not made clear? Instead of being satisfied with what God has revealed, we fight over conclusions established by speculation over what God has kept secret. That doesn't mean we shouldn't ask hard questions or seriously contemplate the implications of the Bible's teachings. But as we do, we also need to take care that we don't create conclusions over things which God has kept secret.

I am aware that we don't always know when we are doing that. But the only way we will discover that we are, is by humbly submitting our understanding of the Scriptures to the Scriptures themselves. We need to be willing to give up convictions that have no basis in what God has truly revealed. As we do, the Scriptures will begin to speak to us with a clarity like never before.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Movie Review: "To Save A Life", but at what cost?

Theatrical Release: January 22, 2010
DVD Release: August 3, 2010

How can someone have an issue with the idea of inviting troubled lonely teens to see a movie that not only attempts to accurately and powerfully speak into their meaningless lives, but also gives them a reason to live? This seems to be the motive behind the film "To Save a Life" - a supposed attempt to provide a true-to-life depiction of today's teen world, including a school shooting, suicide, sex, and drunken parties.

Determined to avoid cheesiness (which is pretty high on the 21st century's list of sins), "To Save a Life" purposely pushes the limit of what is appropriate for Christian film making. Followers of the Messiah who understand that God's morality reaches into every aspect of life understand the need to determine limits when it comes to artistic expression. It seems to me that "To Save a Life" goes beyond those limits.

That God isn't opposed to confronting us with the vilest of evil is clear by the many disturbing scenes we encounter in the Bible. Christian artists are right in wanting to effectively portray evil. To water down truth, positive or negative, is to portray falsehood. Yet, how we portray truth must also include an understanding of the different ways various art forms communicate to our hearts and minds. The visual arts convey truth in a very different manner than does the written word.

God purposely chose the written word, not pictures or other visual art forms, as his chief means of communicating his truth to people. The big difference between conveying truth through words as opposed to pictures is clear in that while God forbids the representation of himself through images, he freely depicts himself thorough words. The conveying of God's truth through pictures, moving or otherwise, carries with it additional information that God did not intend. For example, the Genesis account of the innocence of Adam and Eve's being "naked and unashamed" would be completely lost in a show-it-like-it-really-was movie rendition.

It is understandable that the makers of "To Save a Life" had to grapple with how to effectively depict their subject matter. But the film doesn't simply address these issues; it spends significant time drawing the viewer into immoral scenes. Causing the audience to understand the prevalence of teen drinking does not require lengthy party scenes. The tragedy and immorality of teen sex doesn't require being taken into the bedroom with two of the main characters as they passionately prepare to fornicate. So much for Paul's instruction, "But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints" (Ephesians 5:3; ESV).

Whatever the filmmakers' intent, these scenes are portrayed as some of the more fun moments of the film. In fact youth pastor, Jim Britts, who wrote the screenplay, referring to the two drunken party scenes has said,
That scene and the other party scene were the hardest for me to be a part of. Two or three times in between takes I had to say, "I have to remind you that this life leads to sorrow," because they were looking like they were having a lot of fun. It was hard for me as a youth pastor to watch, even though I knew they were acting (see
These comments are not surprising considering the film itself soft peddles the consequences of immorality. When the police bust one of the drunken parties, the amorous couple escapes virtually unscathed with the main character aided and abetted by a local youth pastor. While the unplanned baby is not aborted, and while the adoption scene is certainly touching, does anyone notice that this consequence of their immoral activity is only a small inconvenience to their pursuing of their personal dreams and goals?
Some may claim that the so-called realism of the film is necessary to attract unchurched teens. It is difficult to know whether including these scenes would make a difference or not. One does not need scantily clad young women throwing their bodies around, a passionate sex scene with after-the-event commentary, crude language, and an actual cutting scene to make a good movie. But who is actually seeing this film anyway? Is it the despairing teens or the Christian kids whose parents would not normally let them see a movie like this?

That the movie is geared toward a Christian audience is made clear by the message of the film. According to "To Save a Life" the reason for teen despair and suicide is the rejection of their peers. The emotionally charged message to the audience is that we need to stop being so cliquish and start looking out for the misfits and the lonely around us. What despairing teens need is a group of other teens that will not judge them, but accept them. Salvation is not found in the Gospel, but in the peer group. The film never actually speaks to the misfits themselves - only to cliquish Christians. But what if their peers, Christian or otherwise, never accept them; what then? "To Save a Life" doesn't tell us.

God never designed us to find our identity or our worth in our communities and peer groups. We need to find these things in him. Healthy godly communities should be vehicles of this to others but not the substance of it. As David writes, "For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in" (Psalm 27:10; ESV). While "To Save a Life" does encourage us to reach out to the lonely and hurting around us, it never makes clear that the acceptance we all need is only found in God through the Messiah.

The underlying systemic problem that this film exposes us to is never really dealt with. For the most part the young people in this movie are on their own. In fact, good parental and adult leadership is almost non-existent. The teen who commits suicide doesn't seem to have a father; neither does the girlfriend of the main character. The main character's father is a self absorbed workaholic, who is cheating on his wife. The senior pastor of the featured church is more concerned about his donors, than God and people. He is completely clued out with regard to his own wayward son. The dominant adult role model is the youth pastor, who seems to have a good heart, a desire to serve God, and is part of a loving family. Yet he has no problem covering up young people's mismanagement of their lives. The only consistent strong adult male is a security guard at the school, but he doesn't influence the plot in any significant way.

So if "To Save a Life" is correct, then today's youth culture, Christian or otherwise, is out of control, completely disconnected from their elders. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that it is time for parents and leaders to take notice of what is going on, including the questionable content of supposed Christian entertainment, and provide the biblically based, loving oversight our children require of us.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

TorahBytes: The Promise Foundation (Ki Tavo)

And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us." (Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:3; ESV)

This week's Torah portion describes what the people of Israel were to say when they presented some of their harvest first fruits. The individual was to verbally recount Israel's history from Abraham through the acquiring of the Land. Before the person presented his offering he was to say to the priest, "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us". By doing this the person reasserted that the blessings he had received were fundamentally due to God's having fulfilled his promise to his people.

The Israelites' living in the Land of Israel was based on a promise - a promise given by God - a promise fulfilled by God. It was not due to their own ability, but God's power. The declaration to be made as the fruit of their labors was being offered not only corrected any prideful misconceptions the people may have had, but reminded the person that God is true to his word.

The trustworthiness of God's word is one of the most basic concepts in the entire Bible. It was over this that our first parents fell out of sorts with God. The serpent had introduced doubt over what God had said to Adam and Eve (see Bereshit / Genesis 3:1). Later on God would instruct the people that their lives depended on everything he said to them (see Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3). And so it was crucial for the people to declare that they were where they were because God fulfilled his promise.

Sadly it is easy to forget how often God fulfills his promises to us. We receive blessing after blessing from his hand and yet we don't always take the time to declare what he has done for us. We may or may not have thanked him at the time, but how about years later? The person in our Torah portion may not have been part of the generation that acquired the Land. He may have lived many centuries later, and yet he was to declare that his current blessings were due to the fulfillment of God's promise in the past.

The fulfilled promises of the past are the foundation upon which our lives are built on today. In fact all the blessings in the world are due to God's being true to his word. It is as people and communities have trusted in God's promises that his goodness has been spread to every corner of the globe. When we declare that our present blessings are due to God's having fulfilled his promises in the past, we see life for what it really is.

If God had not done what he did in the past, we would not have a present to live in. Our technologically-focused society doesn't appreciate this. We throw away yesterday's achievement for today's so-called latest greatest thing. It is as we take the time to, not just remember, but purposefully and verbally declare that we are blessed today because of God's fulfilled promises in the past, that we will truly understand how blessed we really are.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

TorahBytes: The Cursed Messiah (Ki Teze)

And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 21:22-23; ESV)

I referred to these verses two weeks ago when I mentioned how years ago I encountered the faulty logic of claiming that because Yeshua was hung on a tree to die, he was cursed, and therefore could not have been the Messiah. At that time I explained that we cannot determine the state of a person's standing with God based on their circumstances.

There is a sense in which Yeshua was cursed - not because of wrongdoing on his part - but because of his taking our sin upon himself. As our sin bearer, he suffered the penalty of our wrongs by dying a humiliating and excruciating death on our behalf.

That Yeshua was cursed is clearly stated in the New Covenant writings. Paul writes:
The Messiah redeemed us from the curse pronounced in the Torah by becoming cursed on our behalf; for the Tanakh says, "Everyone who hangs from a stake comes under a curse." (Galatians 3:13; Complete Jewish Bible)
Even though Yeshua himself did nothing to deserve this curse, he willingly took it upon himself so that we could be free from God's wrath.

Yeshua's own fulfillment of Torah is evidenced in his death. For the Torah states that those so hanged should not be left all night lest the land be defiled. The Roman custom of crucifixion was known to last sometimes for days. But Yeshua died more quickly than expected. In fact, the accounts of his death clearly suggest that he willed his death once he satisfied God's requirements for him (see Matthew 27:50, Luke 23:44-46, John 19:28-30). This enabled him to be buried on the same day just as the Torah directs. He completely fulfilled the Torah by not only adhering to its moral and religious precepts but also by receiving its curses.

The idea that someone could bear the punishment deserved by another may seem strange, but not from God's perspective. The Torah demonstrates this principle vividly through the sacrificial system. Innumerable innocent animals were cursed to die because of the sins of the people. However strange, brutal, or unfair this may appear it is the way it works. God had intended for his Son to become a curse for us cursed ones and provided a clear illustration of this reality through the sacrifices.

The curse upon the Messiah is not the final word, however. As we read in Mishlei (English: Proverbs), "Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight" (Mishlei / Proverbs 26:2). If any curse was causeless it was the one borne by the Messiah. Therefore the curse could not remain upon him, death was defeated and he rose from the dead, providing the way for those who trust in him to also rise from the dead at the end of the age.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

TorahBytes: Who Are You? (Shofetim)

I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets himself to destroy? And where is the wrath of the oppressor? He who is bowed down shall speedily be released; he shall not die and go down to the pit, neither shall his bread be lacking. (Isaiah 51:12-14; ESV)

A couple of months ago, I began a new journey in my spiritual life. It started as I was struck by Yeshua's words to a particular synagogue official. Yeshua had been on his way to heal his daughter, but she died before he arrived. When the official heard the tragic news, Yeshua said to him, "Do not fear, only believe" (Mark 5:36; ESV). It surprised me to read that it was fear, not doubt that was the potential obstacle to faith and restoration.

Fear is a common human emotion and one that I am greatly familiar with. I know that as a believer in the Messiah, it is not appropriate, but seeing it addressed in this way shed new light on it and has helped me to confront fear more effectively.

This week's Haftarah provides us with yet another angle as to the inappropriate nature of fear in the lives of God's people. The wording here again took me by surprise. Maybe it's just me, but the way God confronts fear here is not what I expected. In this context the people of Israel are afraid of "the wrath of the oppressor." When God confronts Israel's fear one would expect him to say something like, "Who is this oppressor that you are so afraid?", but instead he says, "...who are you that you are afraid...?"

The presence of fear in this case is due not so much to how threatening the enemy was, but because of a lack of correct self awareness. They were reacting to their situation as if they had been abandoned by God and therefore had reason to fear. They had forgotten who they were as God's own children.

Having a correct understanding of God is essential to having a correct understanding of our relationship to God. But it is not enough to understand how great God is if we don't grasp the nature of what it means to be his children.

As followers of the Messiah, we are assured of God's presence, love, and provision. And yet we often find ourselves intimidated by fear as we face difficult people or situations. At those times we may justify our fear for one reason or another. We really do feel threatened. We try to remember how capable God is, but for some reason, we still fear. Perhaps the reason is we haven't really accepted what it means to belong to God. We have forgotten who we are. As we read in the New Covenant writings:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15)
This suggests that what God has done for us through the Messiah has affected a fundamental change in our hearts. Yet some of us still struggle with fear. If we do, then we need to stop and ask the same question God asked Israel through Isaiah: "Who are you?" If we are not God's children, we can become so through repentance and faith in Yeshua as Messiah. And then once we realize that we truly are God's children, the fear that was once so prevalent will begin to disappear.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

TorahBytes: Backwards Logic (Re'eh)

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 13:5; ESV)

I first encountered this verse many years ago shortly after I came to believe in Yeshua. It was in conversation with a so-called ultra-orthodox Jewish man. In his attempt to turn me from my faith, he had me read this verse. He claimed that because Yeshua had been executed, he must have been a false prophet. I didn't know enough at the time to ask him about other true prophets of God who had been executed. Regardless, his logic was faulty.

He asserted that since Yeshua experienced the consequences of being a false prophet, he was a false prophet. Of course, it wasn't Yeshua's death that disqualified his messiahship in this person's eyes. He had rejected Yeshua for other reasons. As far as he was concerned, Yeshua's execution was justified because he was a false prophet. He hoped his backwards logic would impact me. It didn't.

We know that according to Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and Zechariah 12, the Messiah was to die. The popularized understanding of the Messiah in Jewish tradition which focuses exclusively on his victorious triumph over evil and death doesn't take into account the full picture provided us by the Tenach (the Hebrew Scriptures). Messiah's death and resurrection on the third day are key components of his victory for Israel and the whole world.

The faulty nature of the backwards logic offered me that day might seem obvious as I tell this story, but this kind of thinking is far more normal than we might realize. Students of the Bible are aware that life isn't a meaningless collection of random circumstances. The Scriptures teach that God oversees life - both in the grand scheme of things and in the minute details. Theories abound as to how this works; something I don't think the Bible explains, but, however it works, God is intimately involved in the affairs of our lives. Simply, those who truly follow after God and his ways will be blessed and those who do not will be cursed. However, in whatever way this actually works, it is not meant to be understood backwards. Yeshua's execution was not proof that he was not a true prophet of God. In the same way we are not to determine the state of a person's relationship to God based on his current circumstances.

Job's friends (see the Book of Job) also used backwards logic. Since Job appeared to be cursed, they wrongly concluded that he must have greatly offended God. They couldn't have been more wrong. The reason for Job's suffering was because of his righteousness, not his sin. The outworking of God's blessing in Job's life would only become evident in the long term. In the short term, his circumstances proved nothing. What made Yeshua the Messiah was the reality of an entire life lived, not the state of his circumstances at a particular given time. What makes a false prophet a false prophet is his teaching, not his circumstances.

Not only can we wrongly conclude that someone is out of sorts with God because of current difficulties in their lives, we can also wrongly conclude that external blessings somehow justify their otherwise ungodly behavior.

This doesn't only relate to how we look at others, but also how we look at our own lives. While God may use difficult circumstances to get our attention or teach us certain lessons, let us not use backwards logic to create inaccurate pictures about ourselves.