Sunday, April 27, 2014

TorahBytes: Priests, Really? (Emor)

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 21:16-17; ESV)

Maybe I am an exception, but growing up as a young person in Jewish communities in the Canadian city of Montreal, I didn’t know that priests were part of our religion. I knew there was something distinct about Jewish people with the last name “Cohen” (which is the Hebrew word for “priest”); that they had certain restrictions that didn’t apply to our people in general. But priests, as in sacrificing animals, offering incense, etc., really? I thought that was only for prehistoric tribes and only in the movies—no insult intended toward Jewish or pagan priests—I was ignorant.

The existence of the Jewish priesthood should come as no surprise to regular synagogue attendees where the Torah (Books of Moses) is read weekly or to any regular Bible reader. For the priestly activity is central to biblical Judaism. God gave the priesthood an essential aspect of the Sinai covenant to, in many ways, maintain the life of the nation. Not only did they perform sacrifices and other rituals, they also made various crucial health and safety decisions and acted as judges and teachers. But the essence of their role was that they represented the people before God and were God’s instruments of bestowing blessing upon the people.

Biblically speaking, do we have priests today? In Judaism, since the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish priesthood lost most of its functionality. Jewish priests retain a special role in synagogue services, and some continue to follow God's commands with regard to their unique marriage regulations (see Vayikra/Leviticus 21:7) and their not being in the proximity of the dead (see Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1). However, their teaching and decision-making roles have been taken over by the rabbis. This is similar to many in Christian traditions, where the ministers or pastors are the main teachers and spiritual leaders. In fact some Christian ministers carry the title “priest.” With the exception of some Christian traditions, these leaders would not see their roles as priestly, especially in the Torah sense, since offering sacrifices is not part of their job descriptions. However, they all mirror the ancient Jewish priesthood far more than they might care to admit, since in almost every case, they possess special status within their communities—that special status being their relationship to God.

The ancient Jewish priesthood did for the people what they could not do for themselves. The rest of the community could not approach God. Sacrifices were given by the people to the priests to offer on their behalf. While neither in Judaism nor Christianity are literal sacrifices being offered today, rabbis and ministers don’t merely function as leaders and teachers, but as the people’s representatives before God and God’s representatives to the people, as priests in other words.

But under the New Covenant there is no special priestly class. Those who have been made right with God by trusting in the Messiah Yeshua are all priests:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

In Yeshua there is no unique priestly class. Because of the Messiah’s sacrifice and his resurrection, all who trust in him are authentic representatives of God. This doesn’t mean that ministers don’t have special roles within their communities; they do. But no one follower of Yeshua is closer to God than anyone else. Yeshua resolved our alienation from God. He broke down the barriers that the ancient Jewish priesthood illustrated for us. Now all believers may approach God freely. All believers can be conduits of his blessings to others. We all can pray for one another.

So do we have priests today? We sure do. If you truly know God through the Messiah, you are a priest...really!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

TorahBytes: Love Your Neighbor (Kedoshim)

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Vayikra / Leviticus 19:17-18; ESV)

The Messiah was asked the question, "What is the greatest commandment?" (See Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37). It was popular among Jewish religious leaders to attempt to summarize the Torah. Here is Yeshua's answer:

The most important is, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." The second is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31; ESV)

Some people take this to mean that unlike the people living under the Old Covenant, followers of Yeshua have only these minimal requirements to follow. But that completely misses the point. Yeshua's summary statement is intended as a perspective by which to view God's requirements, not a recipe by which to ignore them. Yeshua was reminding a people who had become obsessed with the Torah as an end in itself that its directives were intended as the means of loving God and other people. Losing sight of these primary commands results in the failure to properly keep the others. Loving God and loving people is what God's commands are all about.

Hearing Yeshua highlight "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," should draw us to the context of what he was quoting, some of which we read at the beginning. Loving our neighbor is not a vague sentimental concept based on emotion. It has very practical and far reaching implications. For example we read, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him." This tells us first that when difficulties arise with someone with whom we have relationship, we are not to hate them. Hate is not simply negative and angry thoughts toward another person. It is the tendency to disregard them or not care about them. This may occur with very little emotion. God instructs us that instead of ignoring issues we have with others we need to deal with them through open and honest discussion and thereby avoid even greater issues arising between one other. This is what "love your neighbor" is all about or it is at least one example.

It could be that "but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" sums up a larger Torah section (see Vayikra / Leviticus 19:9-18) that includes being mindful of the poor among us, not stealing, having fair business dealings, not lying to others, not using God's name to justify wrong, not oppressing others or robbing them, paying wages on time, showing respect toward the physically handicapped, demonstrating justice in court without partiality, not slandering, and not taking vengeance or bearing grudges against others. This is not a complete list, though it makes it clear that loving our neighbor is far more and much deeper than what we may normally think it is.

Loving our neighbor is not just having warm affection toward others or showing kindness to them, though it may include those things. God's version of loving others involves a deep understanding of his ways and how they relate to how we are to treat others. To love is to be true to our God-given responsibilities towards those with whom we have personal and work relationships, business and legal dealings, as well as the needy and vulnerable around us. Let's not cheapen God's Word by reducing it to anything less.

Monday, April 14, 2014

TorahBytes: Resurrection Hope (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." (Ezekiel 37:11-12; ESV)

Ezekiel's famous vision of the valley of dry bones captures the heart of the entire Bible as the story of the Bible is the story of God's solution to the greatest of all human problems: death. Of course the Scriptures address more than just this one issue, but this theme drives everything else. Its early chapters reveal to us that we were not designed to die, but because of 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 restored to the nations of the world. The nation that God purposely developed through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God's chosen vessel to make himself known to the world, so that in the end death would be completely eradicated.

The people of Israel were 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 most vivid picture of this is also the foundational event in Israel's history: Pesach (English: Passover), which this year begins the evening of April 14. Having been led by God to Egypt in order to save them from starvation, Israel eventually finds itself in oppressive bondage in their adopted land. Helpless and oppressed, God powerfully and dramatically rescues them.

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 resultant alienation from him.

By the days of the prophet Ezekiel, 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 God called them to be (see Shemot / Exodus 19:6).

Ezekiel's vision of Israel as a pile of old dry bones was an appropriate description of their condition at that time—a people not just dead, but long dead. Still, the vision was not given to describe their final condition, however, but rather as a message of hope. This was not the stuff of motivational speeches. For you cannot motivate the dead. Israel was completely incapable of restoring itself. But what’s that to God? He, who created life, recreates life.

In this passage the resurrection of the dead is intimately associated with the return of Israel to the Land of Israel. Taken by itself, this vision of graves opening and the dead coming back to life might be taken as a metaphor for Israel’s return only. But this is not the only passage that refers to resurrection (see also Isaiah 25:6-12; 26:19; Daniel 12:1-4). Using resurrection to describe the return emphasizes the miraculousness of the return and at the same time points to the inauguration of the age to come when death will be no more—a restoration like no other.

The deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 all demonstrate that nothing is impossible with God. An honest analysis of Israel’s condition prior to each of these events shows that Israel had no reason to hope. But with God anything is possible.

Are you feeling hopeless right now? Look to the God of restoration and resurrection. He who brings the dead to life, will bring life to you, if you trust him. There’s no telling where he will take you from there.

Monday, April 07, 2014

TorahBytes: Sex Rules (Aharei Mot)

You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. (Vayikra / Leviticus 18:4; ESV)

One of the most controversial aspects of the Bible as far as the current culture is concerned is its regulations with regard to sexual behavior. In 1967, in my country of Canada, then Justice Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who later became one of our most memorable Prime Ministers, played a key part in transforming the government's role with regard to personal moral issues. It was during that time he made one of his most famous statements: "There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” ( [includes video]). In the western world before then, governments tended to see regulating personal morality as essential to their overall responsibility. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the general mood has been that intimate personal issues should be at the sole discretion of consenting adults. For many, if not most, people in western society, it has become extremely distasteful that an outside agency, such as governments, should impose their moral values upon them. As Trudeau went on to say “what's done in private between adults doesn't concern the Criminal Code [of Canada]”.

So it is no wonder that the Bible, which includes all sorts of regulations governing sex, would be viewed as old fashioned and oppressive. Worse than that! Because the older values of the West were based on a Judeo-Christian worldview, the Bible is blamed for the oppression from which many believe to have been set free.

Even some who claim to adhere to the Bible's teaching regard its rules as oppressive. They prefer to divorce passages of liberty and freedom from anything that smacks of outside control from God or any other authority. Others believe that these rules were good, but only for the time in which they were given. Either modern society with its technological advances and body of knowledge no longer needs what would have been helpful safeguards in an otherwise backward society that didn't know better, or the Coming of Yeshua makes rules redundant as if faith in him automatically produces godly, healthy living.

Let’s work through these rejections of the current relevancy of God’s sex rules. First, the concept of good living as an automatic result of faith in Yeshua is not a biblical concept. The New Covenant Writings, which are often credited for this misguided teaching, don’t support such a notion. Every book provides directives to follow with regard to life issues, sexual behavior included. We wouldn’t know these life principles if we didn’t read them. Second, viewing biblical teaching on sexual matters or any other issue as old fashioned unnecessarily breaks the commonality of human experience through time. There is nothing in the Bible’s teaching about sexual morality that suggests that it is dependent upon the particular cultural contexts of their day. It is instructive as well to see how the morality of the Hebrew Scriptures as given by God to one people group was much later applied to all nationalities via the New Covenant Writings. While there is a development of morality in the Bible, we see it becoming stricter not more liberal as in the cases of polygamy and divorce, for example. Third, good rules—and God’s rules are good rules—are not restrictive. Understanding the limitations of how something is designed is key to its effective use. God’s sex rules were given to human beings to provide optimum health and prosperity.

God knows how powerful sexual desire is. Without objective standards imposed from the outside of ourselves, our drives will destroy us. The pleasure of sex which is designed to draw men and women together can easily put us off course unless we remain within the boundaries set by our loving Creator. Either we submit to God’s sex rules or sex rules.