Sunday, March 31, 2013

TorahBytes: The Greatest Jewish Story Ever Told (Shemini)

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. (2 Samuel 7:11-13; ESV)

Many years ago a woman by the name of Edith Schaeffer wrote a book called, "Christianity is Jewish"1, in which she attempted to explain that the essence of Christianity is fundamentally Jewish. According to Schaeffer, Yeshua of Nazareth (she calls him by his anglicized Greek name "Jesus"), is the fulfillment of Jewish Old Testament messianic expectation. It is almost funny that most people, including Christians themselves, don't know that this is actually the definition of Christianity. Whether or not Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah is one thing, but that Christianity claims to be the true inheritor of Old Testament promise is what Christianity simply is.

What is not funny at all is how an ancient worldwide movement that claims today to have 2.2 billion adherents, whatever their level of commitment, and has had the kind of influence it has had in so much of the world, can appear to be as un-Jewish (some would say anti-Jewish) as it is.

This year Pesach (English: Passover) and Easter coincide. While more and more Christians have become aware of the connections between these two foundational events, most still have no idea that Easter is the greatest Jewish story ever told. For buried beneath the cultural trappings of the Easter season is a historical event that is not only core to Christianity, but, contrary to mainstream Jewish and Christian understanding, is something that confirms the validity of biblical Judaism: the resurrection.

The idea that people would one day literally and physically rise from the dead is a uniquely Jewish concept.2 While other peoples held various concepts of life after death, only certain factions of the Jewish world anticipated resurrection. Therefore when Yeshua rose on the third day at Passover two thousand years ago, he not only demonstrated his messianic identity, but confirmed this unusual Jewish belief.

To announce Yeshua's resurrection in the Jewish world of his day was to proclaim that those who believed in resurrection were right after all. To announce his resurrection in the non-Jewish world of that day was to risk mockery by those who thought the restoration of the body was not only an impossibility, but a bizarre way of understanding the value of human physicality.

The resurrection of Yeshua not only confirms this unique Jewish view of life after death, but also confirms a biblical worldview in every way. The material world is not an illusion or temporary, but it is the sphere in which God intended us to live and to serve him. Biblical spirituality is not divorced from physical existence, but rather it has been designed by God to be integrated with the creation. The story of the whole Bible is one in which the created order has been adversely affected by sin and its consequences. The anticipation of the Messiah is all about the restoration of the creation. This is the Jewish hope - a hope confirmed by the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua.

1. Edith Schaeffer, Christianity is Jewish (Huemoz, Switzerland: L'Abri Fellowship, 1975).
2. This is well documented in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003).

Sunday, March 24, 2013

TorahBytes: The Restoration of a Nation (Pesach)

Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord." (Ezekiel 37:11-14; ESV)

Ezekiel's famous vision of the valley of dry bones captures the heart of the entire Bible. The story of the Bible is the story of God's solution to the greatest of all human problems: death. Those familiar with the Scriptures know that the Bible addresses more than just this one issue, but this is the theme that drives everything else. Its early chapters reveal to us how we got into this predicament in the first place. Human beings were not designed to die, but due to our first parents' rebellion against God, death and everything associated with death entered the human experience. We later read how God called Abraham to be the channel through which life would be offered to the nations of the world. The family that God purposely developed through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God's chosen vessel to make himself known to the world, that in the end death would be eradicated.

Israel was not chosen because of superior moral or spiritual qualities, but rather to demonstrate the depths of the predicament in which we all find ourselves. Over and over again Abraham's natural descendants illustrate the human race's need of deliverance. The foundational event in Israel's history that is the most vivid picture of this is Pesach (English: Passover), which is celebrated this week. The chosen people of God, having been led by God to Egypt to save them from starvation, eventually find themselves in oppressive bondage in their adopted land. Helpless and oppressed, God powerfully rescues them in order to lead them to possess the land of promise.

In spite of this, the history of Israel continued to demonstrate human beings' inability to free ourselves from the greater oppression, death, which is fundamentally a spiritual problem, since it arises from rebellion against God and our resulting alienation from him.

By Ezekiel's day Israel had lost hope. The nation was scattered and exiled. The symbol of God's presence, the Temple, was on the brink of destruction. Israel had miserably failed to be the kingdom of priests that God called them to be.

Ezekiel's vision of Israel as a pile of old dry bones was an appropriate description of Israel's condition – a people not just dead, but long dead. Yet the vision was not given to describe their final condition, however, but rather as a message of hope.

God's intention for Israel was not to leave them in this state. He promised to do the impossible: gather and restore a lifeless nation. But even though Israel has been miraculously restored to the Land twice since Ezekiel's day, the nation has yet to experience the fullness of this and the other prophetic visions of Hebrew Scripture. While Israel's survival and return to the Land is truly remarkable, there is still more to come. The picture of resurrection in this passage is a foretaste of the overall Jewish and biblical expectation of the eventual eradication of death.

Next week, God willing, we will look at how the Messiah confirms this expectation.

Monday, March 18, 2013

TorahBytes: Biblically Based Repentance (Zav)

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely - in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby - if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt. And he shall bring to the priest as his compensation to the Lord a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty." (Vayikra / Leviticus 6:1-7; ESV)

Recently I was reading the account of Yeshua's interaction with the chief tax collector Zakkai (commonly known as Zacchaeus - see Luke 19:1-10). Tax collectors were despised by the first-century Jewish community, since they were in the employ of the hated Romans to collect funds from their own people for these foreign oppressors. What made matters worse is that they often grew rich by extracting more than required.

It must have been scandalous for Yeshua to invite himself to Zakkai's home. There is nothing I can find in the story to suggest why the Messiah focused on him at that moment. What we do know, however, is the profound effect this had on this outcast. He repented. Right at that moment he determined to live differently by being generous to the poor, and if he had truly defrauded anyone he would give back to them four times as much. Yeshua's response confirmed the godliness of Zakkai's repentance: "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham" (Luke 19:9).

I don't know if I have ever heard any one confirm the reality of salvation in a person's life based on their determination to take action as we see in this story. What Zakkai did looks a lot more like what God required under the Sinai Covenant than what is expressed in most so-called gospel preaching today. As I read earlier, God through Moses was clear as to what should happen when a person did the kind of thing Zakkai did: restoration followed by sacrifice. That Zakkai went beyond the restoration requirement only further demonstrates his change of heart, but his understanding of what to do once he was ready to admit his wrong was derived from the Torah of Moses.

Biblical repentance whether in the Hebrew Bible or New Covenant Scriptures is always the same: a change of heart intimately associated with a change of lifestyle. Deeds don't manipulate God. But if we truly humble ourselves before him, admit our need of him due to sin, and demonstrate willingness to submit to him, he receives us. Righteous deeds will always follow a truly humbled heart as the fruit of repentance. Even though what's going on in the heart is crucial, it is deeds that are the evidence of the internal reality.

What Zakkai did that day relates to what we read from this week's Torah portion not only with regard to his act of restoration. Moses commanded an offering as well. Zakkai likely didn't understand that Yeshua's statement of salvation to him was made effective by Yeshua's offering of himself which was yet to occur. While a change of heart and behavior are necessary elements of salvation, they in themselves do not resolve our alienation from God. Until Yeshua conquered death through his unjust execution and resurrection, repentance alone could not bridge the gap between humans and God. A sacrifice was always necessary to restore relationship with God. Moses commanded it; Yeshua fulfilled it once and for all.

Yet Yeshua's sacrifice as the final solution to our broken relationship with God in no way reduces our need to respond like Zakkai did. On the contrary as people reconciled to God, we should now seek to discern what pleases him (see Ephesians 5:10). Once of the ways we do that is by knowing the Scriptures. Zakkai was a sinner, but when he finally repented he knew what to do, because he grew up in a culture that knew God's Word. It's never too late to start learning.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

TorahBytes: Towards a Biblical Worldview (Vayikra)

Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” (Isaiah 44:6; ESV)

This past week, someone brought to my attention a new teaching that appears to be growing in popularity. It claims to be a form of biblical monotheism, but in my opinion is unbiblical polytheism. Monotheism believes in one god, while polytheism believes in many gods, often as a hierarchy, where some are more powerful than others.

This new teaching claims that traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism doesn’t accurately reflect a biblical worldview. Contrary to common Jewish and Christian teaching that the God of Israel is the only God, this new polytheism asserts that the references to “other gods” in the Bible is an affirmation of their existence as actual gods. For example, the reason give as to why God gave the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Shemot / Exodus 20:3), was because the God of Israel was one of many. Why would the commandment refer to “other gods” if they didn’t exist?

There is much that can be said in response, but due to space and time, I want to focus on one fundamental misunderstanding that appears to be undergirding this way of thinking. In an attempt to discover an authentic biblical worldview, we need to discern the difference between how people in Bible times thought from the truth as God reveals it.

Understanding how people in the Bible thought is most helpful in understanding the Bible. But just because something was believed or said doesn’t automatically make it true. This gets a little more complicated when God himself is addressing an issue within the context of the people’s understanding of something. Take the commandment quoted above, for example. The people at that time believed in the existence of many gods. This is evident from the worship of the calf idols at Mt. Sinai. The people told Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Make us gods who shall go before us” (Shemot / Exodus 32:1; ESV)). But directing the people to have no other gods besides the true God does not necessarily imply the legitimacy of false gods. It is just as likely to mean that the people were not to relate to other entities, real or false, as gods. That this was God’s intent is clear as we read the whole of Scripture.

Even from the people’s perspective, it didn’t take much to convince them that there was really only one true God. Look at the incident of the prophet Elijah’s challenging the priests of the false “god” Baal (see 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 18:17-40). Not only did Baal do nothing at all, but when the God of Israel sent fire from heaven the people responded with, “The LORD is God”, not that he was simply the greatest among many.

By the time we get to the writings of another prophet, Isaiah, we encounter explicit statements regarding the nature of false gods. According to Isaiah, they are nothing. As I quoted at the start from this week’s Haftarah, besides the God of Israel, “there is no god.”

This is not to say that besides the only true God there does not exist other powerful spiritual entities in the universe. The Bible contains many references to such beings, both good and bad. But are they really gods? Some of them would like you to think so.