Sunday, October 30, 2011

Torahbytes: How Blind Is Your Leap? (Lekh Lekha)

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Bereshit / Genesis 15:6; ESV)

One of the most important issues in the Bible is how one finds acceptance with God. For some Jews and Christians, acceptance with God is assumed based on ethnicity or religious affiliation. Many Jewish people think that by virtue of being born Jewish they are in good stead with God. Whether it is due to our forefathers' own special relationship with God or the gift of the Torah through Moses, our relationship with God is inherited.

Many Christians have a similar view, thinking that eternal life can be attained through affiliation with the right church by baptism and/or membership.

However popular these views may be, they have no biblical basis. Neither birth nor affiliation has any bearing on establishing or maintaining a right relationship with God. As we see modeled in the lives of people such as Abraham, it was their faith that connected them with the Master of the Universe. As so well said by the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6; ESV).

Right relationship with God demands first and foremost an acceptance and understanding of his existence. The performance of religious rituals is completely useless unless we first believe God - the true God - the God of Israel - exists. But that's not all. Real relationship with God depends on an awareness that God responds to our lives. He is not a concept, but a living being who "rewards those who seek him."

Besides realizing the necessity for this kind of faith, it is essential to understand what true faith is. Faith, especially faith in God, is often misrepresented as a blind leap into the unknown. While there are aspects of faith that include the unknown, true faith in God has far more to do with what is knowable than the unknowable. Having a vital relationship with God is not about throwing away our minds and going against our understanding. Rather it is committing ourselves to a view of life based on clear evidence of the truth and reality of God.

When children are taught correct life truths by their parents, they may have limited knowledge about those things, but their faith in their parents will benefit them regardless. For example we don't require in-depth knowledge of electric stoves in order to effectively learn how to prevent ourselves from getting burned. Trusting the wisdom of elders is not blind faith. The natural faith of children in their parents demonstrates that we are designed to learn the realities of life from others without having to first come to some elusive full understanding of this or that. Most of our technological advances have developed due to this principle. Scientists and engineers have no need to rediscover every formula from scratch before embarking on new inventions.

I am aware that having faith in our elders can be problematic, since they are not always right. But this problem helps to serve my point. Blind faith is not able to discern when the things we trust are wrong. Blind faith overlooks abuse, ignorance, and falsehood. True faith depends on reality. While it doesn't require complete and thorough knowledge, it must be based on what really is.

The evidence of design in creation, the accuracy of biblical prophecy, the reliability of the text of Scripture, the emergence of the church, the preservation and the restoration of Israel, and the testimony of believers are examples of the overwhelming evidence for the reality and reliability of the God of Israel as he is revealed in the Bible and for the fulfillment of the Scriptures through Yeshua the Messiah.

Deciding to trust in God through Yeshua is a most reasonable act based on clear, tried and true evidence. Are there elements of the unknown involved? - absolutely! - just as there is in anything in life. But blind? Far from it! There are few life decisions you will ever make that will be based on better evidence than this. And the result? Right relationship with God.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Torahbytes: Human Greatness (No'ah)

Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves..." (Bereshit / Genesis 11:4; ESV)

The Torah portion this week helps us to understand how we can achieve greatness in this life.

The settlers of the ancient city of Babel wanted to create a place of greatness, security, and unity. They thought that somehow their city would provide these things for them. They sought to establish an identity based on themselves, thinking they could find security in the work of their own hands.

But God thought it best to thwart their plans by confusing them for the following reason:

If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them (11:6; ESV).

God acknowledges what we would call human potential. History has shown us how we have been able to take ideas - even fantastic ones - and bring them to reality. The technological advances we have experienced in the past 100 years are breathtaking. This ability comes from God as he made us in his image. Even though he put an end to the building of Babel by imposing confusion on the human family, he hasn't taken that ability away from us.

But as far as Babel was concerned, this is a project to which he put an end. But why? The answer is found in the story following this one - the Call of Abraham. God cursed Babel, but blessed Abraham. In fact much of what the people of Babel wanted, God promised to Abraham. That they desired (as we do) to create something enduring, to have identity, and to find community is a good thing. It was how they went about it that got them into trouble.

Self-reliance, self-focus, and self-protection are not what we are made for. We were created to be God's representatives on earth. Our identity cannot be found in ourselves; we, who were made in the image of God. It is only when we submit to God's direction in our lives that we can embrace the greatness he intended.

As we learn to submit to God, we don't lose our intelligence, creativity, and abilities - far from it! It is in this place of humility that we can truly realize our human potential. In fact, as we learn to trust God, we discover that our effectiveness in the world is not wrapped up in our natural abilities at all, but in his power. The talents we possess are gifts from God, instruments given to us by him for his purposes. But it's not until we put ourselves and all we have at his disposal that we will become all we were meant to be.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Torahbytes: Savior (Bereshit)

For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:3; ESV)

Being a Jewish follow of Yeshua has made me very sensitive to misunderstandings between Jewish people and non-Jewish Christians. After becoming a believer I discovered the linguistic gap that exists between these two groups. Even though English is the main language used, how Jewish people and Gentiles use it is different, especially when it comes to issues of faith and religion. For example, non-Jews are comfortable with using the word "crusade" to refer to any enthusiastic, organized pursuit of a cause, while to Jewish ears, the term tends to evoke very strong negative emotions due to our suffering at the hands of supposed Christians during the "Crusades" in the 11th to 13th centuries. When non-Jews think it is silly for a Jewish person to feel nervous about a religious event being called a crusade, then that just proves my point about this linguistic gap.

TorahBytes is a biblical commentary from a Jewish New Covenant perspective. This demands using terms that are more Jewish in nature. This should not be that hard to do since the entire Bible (Old and New Covenant Scriptures) was written from that very perspective and within that cultural framework. But since New Covenant faith has developed through history within a predominantly non-Jewish framework, much of its terminology is not understood within the Jewish community. For example, most Jewish people (and many Gentiles for that matter) don't know that the word "Christ" means "Messiah". Christ, from the Greek "christos," became the preferred designation for Yeshua, because Greek was the trade language of the world at that time much like English is today. First century Jewish people, many of whom spoke Greek, knew that Messiah, from the Hebrew "mashiach," and "christos" meant the exact same thing with the latter having no associated negative connotations whatsoever. The term "Messiah" is used in TorahBytes exclusively to ensure that Yeshua is understood to be the expected Jewish Davidic King and not some pagan concept.

One of the downsides of the exclusive use of Jewish terminology is the possibility of neglecting certain important biblical concepts due to their having negative connotations or being regarded as irrelevant within the Jewish world. One such concept is "savior". That this is a biblical concept is clear from the verse from Isaiah quoted at the beginning, but among Jewish people "savior" is thought of as an exclusively Christian, non-Jewish concept. Its lack of use in Jewish circles is partly due to the Christian overemphasis on the individual's personal need to be saved from damnation in contrast to the Jewish limited view of the Messiah as a national hero - the King who will deliver us from our oppressors. There is truth in both viewpoints and to fully understand the Messiah's role we need to hold both aspects in balance.

The neglect of the biblical understanding of God's role as Savior has contributed to the common Jewish misunderstanding that we have no need of a savior at all. For most Jewish people, we ourselves are the source of our own salvation. Judaism is regarded as God's prescription for whatever problems we have in life, and if we don't follow the prescription, then we are the only ones to blame. This fails to accept that the Torah and the rest of Scripture make it clear that we cannot save ourselves. In fact biblical Judaism was designed to prove this to us and that without a Savior we are lost both personally and nationally.

The Jewish world is not the only community that has neglected the concept of savior, however. Almost every philosophy, religion, spirituality, and way of life today (Christianity and Messianic Judaism included) is based on the notion that it's up to us to fix life's problems, personal or global. I am not saying that we have no part in dealing with the ills of life, but to effectively address those problems, we need to begin with relying on God as Savior. Instead of "God helps those who help themselves", it should be, "Those who rely on God will be helped."

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Torahbytes: Belonging (Sukkot)

Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth? (Shemot / Exodus 33:16; ESV)

One of the strongest human desires is the desire to belong. It is not necessarily a desire that we are aware of, but we are made to connect with other people. While there are some people who thrive on being loners, most of us need to know that we are part of some sort of community. This community may be clearly defined such as a family or club. Or it might be more vague as when people share experiences such as talking about their favorite TV programs, coping with harsh weather, or becoming "friends" on Facebook. The awareness of this desire is not usually felt until one feels that they don't belong as in the case when everyone but you is really into the latest reality show. But the desire to belong often unconsciously drives us as evident by our fashion choices, the people we hang out with, and even our moral judgments. Without realizing it we rarely risk being different from those around us.

When God called the people of Israel starting with Abraham, his desire was to develop a nation different from the other nations of the world. Yet Israel was not all that comfortable with being different. Their desire to belong to the family of nations would prove to be a snare to them. Sadly, they didn't fully understand how much the rest of the world needed them to be different, for it was (and still is) this difference that would bring to people the sense of belonging they desire.

It is not that God simply gave the people a lot of rules that made them different. That's partly true, but according to Moses, it was God's presence that made all the difference. It is one thing for a people group to have their own customs and laws -  every culture has their own customs and laws. But no other nation had the Master of the Universe in their midst, who led them step-by-step, fought their battles, protected them from enemies and hostile environments, and provided for their daily needs.

It was the practical reality of God that made Israel stand out among the nations of their day. No wonder their customs and laws contributed to their distinctiveness. When God is working in your midst, you don't have to live life as if he isn't. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why following God's directives is so important. Neglecting his instructions denies he is really with us.

Because God's intimate involvement in our lives makes us different, we may feel disconnected from those around us. Even though as followers of Yeshua we belong to a vast, world-wide community, we might still struggle with a sense of not belonging, living among those who themselves may not know God. Unlike Israel of old, we do not live in an isolated national community. Instead we find ourselves scattered among the nations of the world, called to be a light to others. At the same time, our feelings of not belonging can be overwhelmingly painful.

But maybe we should look at this the other way around. Perhaps we are not the ones who don't belong. We belong to God's family through Yeshua the Messiah. It is those who don't yet know him who don't belong. They are the unconnected ones. They may not feel unconnected due to whatever sense of belonging they do have. But the desire to belong was not designed to be fulfilled through common tastes, shared experiences, and Facebook. The desire to belong was designed to be fulfilled by belonging to God and to his family.

If this is true, then those of us who are part of his family may need to look at the ways in which we are trying to satisfy our desire to belong. Our disconnectedness from others is actually due to the need of others to be connected to God. Could it be that our attempt to connect with them on their terms might get in the way of their connecting with God, thus experiencing the kind of belonging they most desperately need? Accepting being different and unconnected to others is the first step to discover what it means to truly belong.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Torahbytes: An Unreasonable Facsimile (Yom Kippur)

And it shall be said, "Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way." (Isaiah 57:14; ESV)

I don't know if this sort of thing is still done, but I remember when I was a kid, contests would often refer to something called a "reasonable facsimile." This had to do with the contest promoters allowing for an alternative to the official contest form. Instead of cutting it out of a magazine or newspaper or having to acquire it from the contest promoters, it was acceptable to create and submit your own form as long as all the required information was included.

Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and begins this year on the evening of Friday, October 7. Yom Kippur was part of the God-ordained religious system designed to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah. In particular it illustrates our separation from God and anticipates our restoration to right relationship with him through the Messiah's sacrifice. Not long after Yeshua's coming, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The old system was no longer required, since Yeshua's sacrificial death and resurrection provides everything that Yom Kippur and the rest of the Temple service looked forward to.

The destruction of the Temple created a crisis for the first century Jewish leadership who did not accept Yeshua as Messiah. If Yeshua was not the Messiah, then how was their understanding of Judaism to continue? Tragically, instead of recognizing their error, they developed a new version of Judaism that, though reminiscent of God's original system, was based on human ingenuity, not God's direction. They thought they were creating a reasonable facsimile, but they were not. So year after year an unreasonable facsimile of this most important day has been observed, while the reality of restoration to God in Yeshua is ignored.

As Jewish believers should we embrace this unreasonable facsimile? I have great respect for our heritage, but not when it detracts from the reality of God. Even if the Temple were still standing, the observance of Yom Kippur would be obsolete and unnecessary.

This would be a good time to ask ourselves if we have truly come to grips with what Yeshua has done on our behalf. Do we understand how alienated we were and how intimately connected we now are? Do we live as people reconciled to God, children of God, who have unhindered access to his very presence? Do we represent him to others as though this were true or do we undermine his reality by not allowing him to be everything that he wants to be in and through us.

At this time of year it can be intimidating to boldly reflect God's reality when so many of our people are deeply engaged in an unreasonable facsimile. To stand for something that the overwhelming majority rejects is a challenge. But what good does it do to give in to feelings of intimidation? Is it better to leave people in error - even worse - to encourage them to continue in misguided traditions when they can enter into the fullness of God through the Messiah now?

Wouldn't it be terrible to learn that you failed to win a contest, not because you weren't picked, but because your submission was misinformed, that you submitted an unreasonable facsimile? The opportunity to experience the reality of God as anticipated by the original Yom Kippur is much more than a contest. Full forgiveness of sin and restoration to God are available to anyone who is willing to access God, but only if we do so according to his Truth - his Truth as revealed in the Messiah.

A Courageous Offering

In the early 2000s a congregation in South Georgia decided to make a movie as an effective way to reach the general population with God's Truth. With a budget of $20,000, little to no experience, a crew of volunteers, much faith and lots of prayer, Flywheel was released in a few local theatres and to DVD a few years later. Flywheel has the look of an amateur film, but nonetheless effectively tells a good story about how doing life God's way makes a positive difference. The limited but significant success of Flywheel spurred these folks on and in 2006 they released Facing the Giants - in which the viewer is challenged to trust God through the struggle of a losing high school football coach and he and his wife's infertility. With a budget five times that of Flywheel, but still low compared to most commercial films, the cinematic quality was greatly improved over that of its predecessor. It also did respectably well in the box office, grossing over $10 million. I remember reading a review of Facing the Giants before I saw it, accusing it of being predictable, but having experienced God come through for me in so many of the ways shown in this film, what may seem predictable to some is actually a graphic depiction of God's dependability.

The next offering by Sherwood Pictures, the movie-making arm of the congregation behind these productions (Sherwood Baptist Church), was Fireproof. With a budget of $500,000, it was the highest grossing independent film of 2008, starring Kirk Cameron (well-known from the TV show Growing Pains), as a firefighter whose marriage is falling apart, but who learns the power of unconditional love.

This past weekend (September 30, 2011) Sherwood released its most daring offering thus far. Aptly named Courageous, its courage is found in much more than its story line. Against the backdrop of the lives of four law enforcement officers, Courageous deals with what might be the single most important issue facing the world today. In fact, it is so daring that most people don't want to deal with it. So why make a movie about it? Why risk a million dollar budget and the energy and time of so many volunteers who gave of themselves to be involved in this project. Up until now while these folks have produced films that were personal, emotional and life changing, they were pretty safe.

But Courageous is not safe. It confronts the viewer with what might be some of our deepest wounds, while at the same time calling us to a standard that we would rather ignore. It takes courage to offer a prescription that has been belittled for so long. It takes courage to tell the truth when so many have embraced a lie. It takes courage to offer audiences a biblical solution to the epidemic facing fatherhood and manhood today.

With the growing popularity of so-called, faith-based films, there is a tendency to water down biblical truth for the sake of viewership. I must confess I myself was a bit uncomfortable over the central place Courageous gives the message of the Messiah (just as their other films do). I was falling into the same trap of being concerned more about theatrical success than the need to deliver the Truth. But this is the crux of the matter. It takes courage to tell the truth in spite of people's reactions. It takes courage to do right regardless of others' actions. Courageous is an example we would do well to follow.