Monday, January 27, 2014

TorahBytes: If You Build It, He Will Come (Terumah & Rosh Hodesh)

And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. (Shemot / Exodus 25:8; ESV)

A major component of the Torah is the instructions God gave Moses for the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), the large and elaborate, yet mobile structure designed for the offering of sacrifice. It was the precursor of the permanent Temple first built many centuries later under King Solomon, David’s son.

In the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Coster plays Ray Kinsella, a novice farmer who hears a voice, saying “If you build it, he will come.” He believes that if he tears down his corn field and builds a baseball diamond, then a disgraced player from the distant past by the name of Shoeless Joe will come back. Ray does it, and not only Shoeless Joe returns but several other ball players as well. But neither Joe nor any of these players is the one of whom the voice spoke. I won’t tell you who it is in case you haven’t seen it. The point is Ray built “it”, and “he” did come.

This is what God told Moses: “If you build it, I will come!” Field of Dreams is a fantasy. The Mishkan is real. It was essential that Moses followed God’s instructions carefully, because God wanted to live there. Moses built it (meaning it was built under his supervision) and God really came (see Shemot / Exodus 40:16-38).

We learn from the construction details of the Mishkan that God is very particular about where he lives. God is not into “it’s the thought that counts” or “as long as your heart is in the right place.” In fact, the Bible teaches that no one’s heart is in the right place (e.g. Jeremiah 17:9). That’s why we need to come to God on his terms alone. If the people of Israel didn’t follow God’s instructions, he would not dwell in the Mishkan. But they did, and he did.

One of the things that makes the design of the Mishkan so special is that it is patterned after God’s heavenly dwelling (see Hebrews 8 – 9). Exactly how the earthly version parallels the heavenly one, I don’t know; but it does. One way may be how the various items inside the Mishkan, especially the two-room sanctuary called the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place express God’s truth. The Ark of the Covenant speaks of the presence, mercy, and loyalty of God; the lampstand, his light; the table of bread, his provision; the incense altar, prayer. It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of these items. They are not simply ritualistic elements, but speak of how life is really meant to be lived, the most important of all being our need for the very presence of God, which is the main purpose of the Mishkan: If you build it, he will come.

The Mishkan shows us that God came, but. We see this through the existence of a curtain that divided the two special rooms. Only the cohanim (English: the priests) could serve in the Holy Place, which they did on a daily basis. But the Most Holy Place, which represented the presence of God, could not be accessed except once a year on Yom Kippur (English: Day of Atonement), and then only by the Cohen HaGadol (English: the High Priest). This arrangement was designed intentionally to demonstrate to the people of Israel that full access to God was not available. If you build it, he will come; but don’t get too close!

Could you imagine having someone living with you who stayed behind closed doors all the time? Your very existence and identity is wrapped up in that person, but you could never get near to them. It’s not that the person doesn’t want to see you or have relationship with you. It’s that there’s actually something about you that is keeping the other person from getting close.

The people of Israel needed to learn that their sin, like the curtain, erected a barrier between them and God. Sin is that principle of life that twisted human nature into something substandard, lacking the spiritual and moral qualities God requires. The sacrificial system addressed the sin problem, but never resolved it. Until the sacrifice of all sacrifices, that is. When Yeshua died, the dividing curtain tore in two (see Matthew 27:51). It’s as if his sacrificial death kicked down the door that kept us from God. The Mishkan reminds us that God’s desire is to dwell with his people. Now with the coming of Yeshua, he is both with us and accessible.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

TorahBytes: A Permanent Choice (Mishpatim)

Thus says the Lord: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I will reject the offspring of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his offspring to rule over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them. (Jeremiah 33:25-26; ESV)

One cannot read the Bible without noticing the central role of the people of Israel. It’s not that the Bible is only about Israel. The Scriptures are about God. Not any god, however; but the God of Israel. And it is within the context of this particular nation that the only true God has revealed himself to the world. The centrality of Israel is not the case only in the Hebrew Scriptures, that part of the Bible commonly referred to as the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. All but one of the New Testament writers are Jewish, and all write from the perspective of a Jewish worldview. The New Testament constantly quotes or alludes to the Hebrew Scriptures and tells us that the Old Testament stories are life lessons to learn from (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:6). Most importantly, Yeshua (Jesus) himself cannot be fully understood apart from his being the promised Messiah of Israel.

There are many Christians who acknowledge the special place of Israel in the Bible, but only in the past, the ancient past. They claim that with the coming of Yeshua their special role within God’s plans and purposes came to an end. Many conclude that since most Jewish people don’t accept Yeshua as the Messiah, God has given up on them. Having had their chance, they blew it. Others don’t take such a negative position. They see the Messiah’s coming as ending Israel’s exclusive claim to be God’s chosen people and regard the whole community of Jewish and Gentile believers as the new Israel, the old Israel becoming non-Israel. Either view claims that the Israel of the Old Testament has run its course—great for Bible teaching object lessons, but having no current relevancy.

But this is not how the Bible sees Israel (do note that I am discussing Israel the people, not the Land or the political state – important issues for another time). Our reading from the prophet Jeremiah is but one of many passages that is clear that God’s commitment to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is unchanging. In Genesis chapter 12, God made a promise to Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him (see Bereshit / Genesis 12-13). This promise was passed on by God to Abraham’s son Isaac and to his grandson Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel after which the nation is called. The people’s subsequent history with God would be a difficult one, but God’s adoption of the nation as his special possession was not conditional on anything but his promise to them.

Another way that some Christians undermine the continued legitimacy of Israel’s chosen-ness, is by asserting that even in Old Testament times there was an authentic Israel within the nation as a whole. This way of thinking has some legitimacy, since the faithful ones within the nation reflected what God intended for the whole. Still, God’s commitment to the whole is never redefined or undermined. Even though individuals who neglected to live in right relationship to God failed to receive many of the benefits of chosen-ness, they always retained a claim to it. Also, whether or not the people of Israel trusted and obeyed God, God always used them to accomplish his plans and purposes on the Earth. If only the faithful within the nation are regarded as Israel, then why does God say what he does through Jeremiah? The reason for such words of commitment is only due to the ongoing unfaithfulness of the majority as they were facing judgment.

It can be difficult for Christians to understand the ongoing chosen-ness of the people of Israel, since according to the New Testament the basis of right relationship to God has always been a matter of faith. Doesn’t the unfaithfulness of the majority of the nation, therefore, discount any claim it might have to the status of being God’s chosen people? What Christians don’t often grasp is that the national covenant relationship of Israel established by God through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not identical to the individual covenant relationship established by God through faith. For someone, Jew or Gentile, to have a right relationship with God personally, they must repent of their sins and put their trust in Yeshua as Messiah. At the same time, God has made particular promises to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; promises he will keep no matter what.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

TorahBytes: The Devastating Truth (Yitro)

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory! (Isaiah 6:3 ESV)

Isaiah had a heavenly vision. His reaction may surprise you: He cried out, "Woe is me! For I am lost" (Isaiah 6:5; ESV).

I always thought that I would love to have such an experience. Seeing something like this would forever rid me of any lingering doubts I may have about God's existence. It would change my life for the better. I would live the rest of my life as a modern day Bible hero!

Not having had such an experience, I cannot say for sure what its effects would be. But if Isaiah is any indication, then it would be quite devastating. And he is not alone. If you are familiar with the other dramatic revelations of God in the Scriptures, then you know that Isaiah's reaction isn't all that unusual. Seeing heavenly things is actually pretty scary.

This section of the Book of Isaiah begins by telling us that this occurred around the time of King Uzziah's death - a time of uncertainty for the nation of Israel. King Uzziah had been a great king who came to a sad demise due to pride. Times of uncertainty tend to cause us to question the things that we hold dear, including our belief systems.

It was in the midst of such a time that God’s reality confronts Isaiah: As we already read, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3; ESV).

Look at the second part of this statement: "The whole earth is full of his glory." The term "glory," "kavod" in Hebrew, refers to the outward manifestation of one's character and ability. Someone may claim talent, intelligence and other internal attributes, but when those things are outwardly demonstrated in life, they are that person's glory. God's glory is the tangible evidence of his invisible attributes. When the creatures called out, "The whole earth is full of his glory," they were proclaiming that God's reality was being evidenced throughout the entire world. But this was not how Isaiah was seeing things. His belief in God may have been intact, but it is likely that he had trouble accepting that God's reality was affecting the entire world, let alone the situations around him.

It is even possible that he had been expressing his doubts to others, which could explain his confession: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5; ESV).

He knew that it was the heavenly creatures who spoke truth - not himself or his people. Isaiah was devastated by this truth, yet he accepted it, which prepared him to serve God in the days ahead.

From that time on Isaiah would speak out the truth as God would reveal it to him, no matter how contrary it seemed from what was going on around him. His understanding of the great contrast between heaven’s perspective and his own enabled him to confront lies just as he had been confronted.

That same perspective confronts us today. Each day we have a choice as to which perspective we will believe, which version of reality will guide our speech, and according to whose word we will live.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

TorahBytes: A Different Kind of Hard (Be-Shallah)

When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. (Shemot / Exodus 14:10; ESV)

On New Year’s Eve, as is our custom, we had a bunch of people over - some old friends, some new friends - to mark the beginning of another calendar year. At one point I was sitting by a couple of people having a conversation. One of them has known God through the Messiah for about three years; the other for about a year. They were discussing whether or not they were finding life easier or harder since first coming to believe. Each of them at the very beginning of their new lives of faith experienced a great contrast with their life prior to believing. Knowing Yeshua made life so wonderful. Yet for both of them the exhilaration only lasted so long before life again became difficult. It was around that point in their conversation that I asked about the nature of the difficulties they were facing, for I too had a similar experience.

For me the transition from unbelief to faith was like night and day. I had been absolutely miserable, struggling with depression and hopelessness and suffering from panic attacks. But when I asked God to forgive me my sins and asked Yeshua (I called him “Jesus” at the time) into my life, everything changed. Not only did the panic attacks stop, I was on cloud nine for months! But eventually just like my friends were saying the other night, life got difficult again. And also like these friends, I didn’t see right away that the difficulties I was facing were different from those I struggled with prior to my knowing God. I had wondered if the re-occurrences of former struggles might be an indication that I had lost touch with my new found faith or worse - that my spiritual experience was not real after all. What took time for me to discover, and what I was trying to communicate to my friends was that while faith in the Messiah alleviates all sorts of difficulties and problems, it also creates a whole new set.

This is exactly what the people of Israel had to learn when they left Egypt. For hundreds of years they endured the oppression of forced servitude. The sufferings of Israel typify the bondage all of us face under the control of sin, evil, and death. The anguish experienced under slavery completely controls our lives - the suffering of imposed victimization. How wonderful it is when the bonds of control are broken and we are set free. God through signs and wonders changed the people’s status from slaves to free people. They left Egypt, no longer obliged to submit to Pharaoh’s oppressive rule.

But from the moment Israel was no longer Pharaoh’s slaves, they became his enemies. Once he could no longer hold them captive, he pursued them. That was a problem they never had before. Actually, that was a new problem that didn’t last that long. But once they fully eluded Pharaoh and his army after crossing the Red Sea, they had to face yet another new set of problems as God began to lead them through the wilderness. Later in the story we read how they perceived that their new problems were far worse than their old ones under Pharaoh. How quickly they forgot how terrible it was; how quickly we forget how terrible it was for us.

One of the reasons why we struggle with our new difficulties is that we are often not adequately prepared for them. When I was first told about the difference Yeshua would make in my life if I received him, I was given the impression that I would be happy from that time on. No wonder the emergence of new difficulties became a crisis for me. And it’s no wonder if you have a similar expectation of what following Yeshua is all about that you will be offended by the struggles you may be currently facing.

I am sorry if you for one reason or another have misinformed expectations of what it means to know God. But let me give you a more accurate picture; the one given to us by God himself in the story of Israel's release from slavery. Faith in Yeshua is not about freedom from life’s difficulties. It is about being freed from oppression in order that we might become his agents of freedom to others. The things that troubled us when we were slaves to sin, need no longer control us; while those things that trouble us now as believers used to be of no concern to us. The hardships of the past were due to the oppression of sin and evil under the rulership of the devil as we were on the road to hell. The hardships of today (if you are a true believer) are because of God’s work in and through your life, the fruit of which is life everlasting.