Sunday, April 24, 2011

TorahBytes: A Real Solution to a Real Problem (Kedoshim)

And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. (Vayikra / Leviticus 20:23; ESV)

The great author G.K. Chesterton wrote, "It isn't that they can't see the solution. It's that they can't see the problem." Many voices today offer all sorts of solutions for successful living, but very few accurately identify the problems we face as human beings. This is also the case among those who claim to offer biblically based solutions. That the Bible offers effective solutions many agree: abundant life, everlasting life, freedom, forgiveness, acceptance, healing, hope, joy, peace, love, goodness, stability, wisdom, and so on. These rightly presuppose the common lack of such things as many of us are oppressed, sick, worried, fearful, guilty, depressed, and lost.

In order to resolve the human predicament and experience the wonderful blessings of God in our lives, we need to come to grips with the underlying problem. Otherwise we will only be treating the symptoms and not the problem itself.

It is in identifying the problem that many proponents of the Bible fall short. Many of us agree that the fundamental issue facing all people comes down to our relationship with God. Alienation from God manifests itself in human dysfunction. Where we differ is over how God views our alienation. Failure to correctly understand God's perspective on what's wrong undermines our understanding and application of his solution.

Many see God's perspective on the human condition as one of sympathy only. He feels so bad for us that he has gone to great lengths to convince us of his love. If only we could grasp this, then we could be everything we were meant to be.

It is not surprising that this kind of thinking has led many to wonder where those who believe differently from us or don't believe at all fit in. If God loves us so much and he  has the power to rescue us all, then what stops him from doing so? The weakness with this way of thinking is that it hasn't properly grasped the human problem and therefore fails to provide the biblical solution.

In the verse I read at the beginning we get a glimpse of the real problem. Contrary to popular misconception, God is displeased with the human condition. With regard to the nation living in the Promised Land prior to Israel's conquest, he detested them. God detested people? Doesn't he love everyone? God's love is a complex thing that cannot be truly comprehended apart from his righteous wrath. God is not like a sentimental grandparent, whose heart's desire is to spoil his grandkids with whatever suits their fancy. He is the Creator God and Judge of all, who made human beings in his own image to suit his own plans and purposes. Our rebellion against him is high treason against the only true King and is worthy of eternal punishment. God's love is expressed in his willingness to become like one of us and give himself in the person of the Messiah for the forgiveness of sins.

This solution presupposes a problem of such depth that few of us are willing to take seriously. Human depravity due to our rejection of God makes us detestable in God's sight. We may fool ourselves into thinking that our plight is not that bad as we go to great pains to cover up the evil that dwells in the hearts of us all. Yet we continue to offend our Creator through our self-serving greed and violence. We should wonder why God doesn't wipe out the whole lot of us.

The growing crisis among some Bible believers over how God could allow anyone to perish fails to accept the human problem. But once we see the problem for what it is, not only we can receive God's solution for ourselves, but we can also more effectively help others to do so as well.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

TorahBytes: Favor with God (Pesach)

And the LORD said to Moses, "This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." (Shemot / Exodus 33:17; ESV)

Moses found favor in God's sight. What a concept it is that a human being could enjoy the favor of the Master of the Universe: God - the Creator, Savior, King, and Judge. The Hebrew word for "favor" in this verse is "ḥen" (with an aspirated 'h' as in the "ch" in "Bach") which signifies in this context God's willingness to give help to Moses. So basically Moses is asking God for help and God is willing to give it.

The simplicity of this interchange should in no way undermine the overwhelming implications of what is going on here. People who believe in God and believe that prayer (speaking to God) is a valid exercise, claim also to believe that God answers prayer. But do we approach God with the assumption that we, like Moses, have found favor in his sight? Or in other words, do we really think that God is willing to give us the help we ask for?

To be able to answer that question, we need to determine what the basis for finding favor with God is. Moses knew that if God would be willing to help him, then he would get the help he needed. And because God was favorably disposed toward Moses, Moses' request was granted.

The Bible teaches that human beings are not naturally within the bounds of God's favor. Pesach (English: Passover), which begins this year on Monday evening, April 18, commemorates God's favorable act of the rescue of the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Yet the story of the Exodus illustrates the tension of the human experience before God. While on one hand Israel is delivered from a most terrible situation because of God's favor, their and the subsequent generations' inability to remain within God's favor is evident. Through the Hebrew prophets Israel gained the understanding that while God delivered us from physical bondage in Egypt, there was to be a greater spiritual deliverance one day through the coming of the Messiah. This is why the traditional Passover Seder (ceremonial meal) both looks back on the Exodus from Egypt and forward to Messiah's coming. It is the coming of the Messiah which marks the time when God's people will fully enjoy his favor.

This reality is wonderfully foreshadowed by how the people of Israel were directed on that first Pesach to smear the blood of the lambs on the door frames of their houses to protect them from God's judgment their last night in Egypt. God's favor was upon them as they remained under the protection of the sacrificed lamb. But sadly, as the nation of Israel left Egypt they failed to continue to live lives submitted to God's loving provision and protection, preferring rather to pursue life on their own terms, thus placing themselves beyond the bounds of God's favor.

Thankfully we do not have to remain outside of the bounds of God's favor. Like that first Pesach night we can again come under the blood of the lamb. For by trusting in the poured out life of the Messiah, we can experience the favor of God. As we read in the New Covenant book of Hebrews: "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16; ESV). Those who trust in Yeshua can confidently come before God with our needs and expect to find favor his sight.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

TorahBytes: The Feel of Clean (Aharei Mot)

For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. (Vayikra / Leviticus 16:30; ESV)

Do you enjoy the feeling of clean? You know, after working or playing hard on a muggy summer day and you finally have a nice long shower. There's nothing like that feeling of being free from the stickiness of sweat and dirt.

The Torah uses the terms unclean and clean to describe our state before God. The effect of sin in our lives makes us dirty in a very real sense. While this reality is not physical, but spiritual, it is no less real. Being dirty physically isn't bad in itself, yet it can prevent us from participating in certain situations. While grease and grime may be appropriate for a car mechanic at a service garage, it wouldn't do for that same person to be covered with dirt at his wedding. In the same way spiritual uncleanness makes us unfit to enter God's presence.

Our awareness or lack of awareness of being physically dirty is no indication of how dirty we may be. Human beings are quite adaptable and can get used to all sorts of things including dirt. Getting comfortable with dirt doesn't change the fact of dirt. It's the same spiritually. How aware we are of our uncleanness may or may not be an accurate reflection of our actual spiritual state.

The Torah assumes that human beings gets dirty spiritually, and provides cleansing through the sacrifices. This is a foreign concept for most of us today. In fact, we don't tend to think of ourselves as spiritually unclean. But this is the very reason for our alienation from God. Due to sin, we are unfit to be in God's presence, which in turn undermines human existence in every way.

Yet spiritual cleansing as prescribed by the Torah was only a partial solution in that it only maintained the Old Covenant Temple ritual by allowing the people to participate in the religious affairs of the nation. It never really made the people fit to be in God's presence. It actually served as a reminder of how terribly dirty we really are.

Pesach (English: Passover) is almost upon us for another year. When Yeshua celebrated his last Pesach with his disciples, he washed their feet to demonstrate among other things  the type of humble attitude we should have toward each other. As he was about to wash Peter's feet, Peter understandably reacted to the Messiah's performing the function of a common servant. Once he understood that this was essential for him to be truly part of the Messiah's life and mission, he asked that Yeshua might also wash his head and hands. To this Yeshua made a most profound pronouncement. He said to Peter "Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you" (John 15:3; ESV). While it is still necessary to deal with the uncleanness of daily living, signified by the need of foot washing, Peter was basically clean. Peter was clean but didn't know it. He didn't feel clean. He thought he was still dirty.

Do you feel dirty? Unlike physically cleansing, spiritual cleanness isn't naturally and automatically felt. But if you, like Peter, have turned to Yeshua as your Master and Messiah, then you, like Peter, are clean. Ah, the feel of clean!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

TorahBytes: What Do You Hear? (Mezora)

For the Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army... (2 Melachim / 2 Kings 7:6; ESV)

We live in a day of information. In fact, I am probably correct in saying that we are inundated with more information than any other time in history. We are the object of more data, more opinions, and more claims than any generation that has ever lived.

Here in Canada, we are currently in the midst of a federal election campaign. We are being bombarded by all sorts of promises, criticisms, and commentary all vying for our attention. I have the impression that for many if not most Canadians, the political rhetoric, especially at election time, is nothing but empty showmanship designed to manipulate the public to garner votes and financial contributions.

Political game playing is just one example of the disconnect between information delivery and what we actually hear. Information experts understand this. They know that people don't necessarily hear what is being said. So they design the packaging and presentation of information to evoke a desired response regardless of the actual information content. That is why to communicate effectively, how we present something is just as important as what we say.

This week's Haftarah reveals another aspect of the dynamics of information delivery. In this story Samaria, the capital city of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, was in famine due to being under siege by the Syrian army. Four Israelite men, who had leprosy, decided they had nothing to lose by surrendering to the Syrians. But when they arrived at the Syrian camp, it was deserted. What had happened was that God caused the Syrians to hear what sounded like the coming of a great army. They freaked out thinking that Israel had hired other nations to come to their aid. So they abandoned camp and fled.

Now, I cannot say that this sort of thing happens all the time. But even one example of God causing people to hear something that wasn't really there in order to evoke a desired response should make us pause with regard to how we react to what we hear. Besides the communication issues of such things as hidden agendas, rumors, misconceptions, and outright lies that skew the accuracy of what we hear, once we realize that the God of the Universe may also be involved in information delivery, we need to be very careful about how we hear.

Note how the Syrian army didn't hear voices telling them that they were under attack. They only heard what sounded like an army. The reason why they believed they were under attack was because they were the enemies of Israel and God. If Israel would have heard the same sound, they likely would have believed that an army was coming to their aid instead.

How we hear what we hear is not primarily derived from the information itself, but from our understanding of our relationship with God. When we know that we are in good standing with him, that he loves us, and that he is always out for our good, then that becomes the filter through which we hear everything. We will no longer be victims of those who wish to manipulate us by their words. We will have patience for other people's inability to communicate effectively. We will not be alarmed by news of terrible atrocities in the world. And when we hear rumblings from God himself, we will know that he coming not to attack us, but to our aid.