God and the Gay Christian

Preparing to Review “God and the Gay Christian”

“God and the Gay Christian is a game changer. Winsome, accessible, and carefully researched, every page is brought to life by the author’s clear love for Scripture and deep, persistent faith. With this book, Matthew Vines emerges as one of my generation’s most important Christian leaders, not only on matters of sexuality but also on what it means to follow Jesus with wisdom, humility, and grace. Prepare to be challenged and enlightened, provoked and inspired. Read with an open heart and mind, and you are bound to be changed.”

—Rachel Held Evans, author of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Faith Unraveled”
found at Amazon.com

This isn’t the sort of book I’d normally read, and especially the sort of book I’d pay for, but I found a book review on Krista Dalton’s blog, and it’s quite compelling to consider that someone would say there’s supportive data in the Bible for “loving same-sex relationships”. A surface reading of both the Old and New Testaments would seem to suggest otherwise, but the debate continues to rage regarding the accuracy (let alone “truth”) of this matter. One such debate can be found in the comments section of The Christian Post article Evangelicals Review Matthew Vines’ “God and the Gay Christian” Book, while LGBTQNation.com has a very different viewpoint.

Whenever I’m concerned that my conservative religious, social, and political bias is overwhelming my ability to fairly view an issue like this, I check in with my daughter who is supportive of marriage equality and equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Given her perspective, she continues to think that equality in secular society is one thing, but that it’s a step too far to say that the Bible actually supports and endorses homosexual behavior.

That’s been my perspective as well (for a representative but not exhaustive list of my blog posts on this matter, click on this link). I haven’t reviewed a book like Vines’ before, but I have reviewed a series of reviews of a book called Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe written by the late John Boswell. My conclusion of the author’s supposition that the Church performed same-sex marriages in antiquity and thus, the modern Church should perform same-sex marriages today, is that it was pretty much wishful thinking on Boswell’s part.

I will agree that the Bible generally does not speak of same-sex relationships in a negative light when they occur outside the community of faith. However, for those who are joined to God in a covenant relationship (i.e. the Jewish people) or those of us (i.e. Gentile Christians) who are grafted in and enjoy certain covenant blessings, the story (in my humble opinion) is different.

But I can’t get ahead of myself and I want to be fair. My concern is that this book will be reviewed almost exclusively along emotional, political, and social lines rather than based on an evaluation of the author’s research in comparison to scripture. That is, if you are a liberal Christian or Jew, you’ll love the book. If you’re a conservative Christian or Jew, you’ll hate it. It’s a knee-jerk response from either side of the aisle. You almost don’t even have to read the book in order to render a strongly held opinion.

I’d like the opportunity to look at Vines’ work while minimizing my “visceral response”. I should say that a lot of how one reviews such a book depends a great deal on the interpretative matrix used to understand the Bible. Evangelical Christians will use proof texts from the Old and New Testaments to speak against homosexuality while simultaneously saying the Old Testament laws (which by definition should include those laws that address homosexuality) are dead (for details about a Jewish viewpoint on homosexuality, read Homosexuality and Halakhah).

Liberal Christians and Jews won’t necessarily speak against the literal words of the Bible, but they will reinterpret them in ways that some of us might consider “creative” in order to say that the plain meaning of the text isn’t the true meaning of the text.

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.

-Leviticus 18:22

If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.

-Leviticus 20:13

Matthew Vines
Matthew Vines

Strictly speaking, the New Testament doesn’t address homosexuality or homosexual behavior. It does address sexual immorality in a number of verses (Matthew 15:19, Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 5:11, Revelation 21:8, for example), but it’s a matter of opinion if the intent of the New Testament authors included “homosexuality” as a sexually immoral behavior, although according to this article:

Nearly every major Greek lexicon includes “fornication” as at least an aspect of the meaning of porneia. In addition to premarital sex, this term would also include such things as homosexuality, bestiality, adultery, et al The first definition given above sums it up well as “every kind of extramarital, unlawful, unnatural sexual intercourse.” We would also do well to remember Christ’s words from Matthew 15 which state that it is not only the actual intercourse that is prohibited, but also the sinful affection which lies behind the action (relate to Matthew 5:27-30). (emph. mine)

No doubt, the reviews of Vines’ book, pro and con, are going to be surging forth in the blogosphere, at least in the short run (public opinion is fickle and attention spans are limited), but I feel compelled to add my voice to the din because (hopefully) I can attempt to view what Vines wrote while restricting my reflexive response. If he can make his case based on scripture while avoiding an emphasis on emotional appeal, he should be heard out.

I just ordered the book. It will take some time to get here (five to fourteen business days), but I feel honor-bound to actually read Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships before reacting to it in any definitive sense.

Yom Kippur

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: The Source of Eternal Salvation

Follow the apostolic logic and discover the relationship between Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 and how the writer of the book of Hebrews derived the priesthood of Messiah. This teaching comes with a stern call to discipleship.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Fourteen: The Source of Eternal Salvation
Originally presented on April 20, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him,

“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You”;
just as He says also in another passage,

“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

-Hebrews 5:5-10 (NASB)

In today’s sermon, Lancaster starts out with a bit of review of earlier in this chapter of Hebrews and ends it by “getting Evangelical.”

We return to the concept of the High Priest, who Lancaster called “the Holiest man in the world.”

Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.

-Hebrews 9:6-7 (NASB)

The High Priest was the hope of the nation. Only he could enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and offer atonement for all of Israel. Every Jewish heart turned in repentance toward the Temple, the Most Holy Place, and the High Priest that their sins would be forgiven and atoned for, and they might be justified before God.

But as you might recall from previous reviews in this series, Lancaster believes the readers of the letter to the Hebrews were Hellenistic Messianic Jews who had been denied access to the Temple, the Priesthood, and the sacrifices, by the Sadducees who administered the Temple in those days. How heartbroken and anguished must these Jewish disciples of the Master have been, believing the High Priest on Yom Kippur was not atoning for their sins among the people of Israel.

James the Just and other apostolic figures had been martyred. The Messianic disciples were cut off from the Temple, their faith in the Master was wavering. And this epistle was sent to them as consolation and exhortation, and even as prophesy of a life when the Temple would be no more and all the Jewish people would suffer exile.

They needed a priest. But where did the writer of Hebrews get the idea that Yeshua (Jesus) of the tribe of Judah and the house of David was a High Priest? Wasn’t that only for the sons of Aaron?

And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.

-Hebrews 5:4 (NASB)

In Judaism, no one chooses to be High Priest. Not even King David himself could perform the duties of the High Priest. Only the son’s of Aaron.

Hillel and ShammaiLancaster recalled a story from the Talmud, specifically Shabbos 31, about three converts, three pagan Gentiles who wanted to become proselytes, one on the condition that he could become the High Priest. I found a summary at the Saratoga Chabad website if you’d like to review the material.

The point is, no one, not even the anointed one of God, King Messiah, can demand to become High Priest.

However, in another priestly line, we find another High Priest of a different order, Melchizedek, King of Salem, who Abraham encounters in Genesis 14:18-20

But what does he have to do with Jesus?

Lancaster reads Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 and says that they are both Psalms about Messiah, depict God establishing Messiah as ruler in Zion, show God speaking directly to Messiah, declaring Messiah as both Son and Priest:

I will tell of the decree: Hashem said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.

-Psalm 2:7

Hashem has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

-Psalm 110:4

If you go to the web page for this lesson, you’ll find a PDF with the translations Lancaster uses for these two Psalms.

In short, it’s Lancaster’s opinion that the writer of the Book of Hebrews uses Psalm 2 as the foundation for Psalm 110 and that these are his proof texts establishing Yeshua as a High Priest who is able to make atonement for us.

But when did this happen?

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

-Hebrews 5:7-10 (NASB)

Messiah”In the days of His flesh.” In other words, in Christ’s earthly ministry he was established as a High Priest. How? Why?

Lancaster cites these verses as a wonderful, apostolic eyewitness about how the Master prayed. He prayed very loudly, with great supplications, with crying and tears, to God, the one able to save from death. Lancaster believes this tells of the night Jesus prayed at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-56, Luke 22:39-46).

And even though Jesus was a Son, he obeyed God, even as Isaac obeyed Abraham at the Akedah by allowing himself to be bound as the sacrifice, but in this case, no angel saved the son of promise from becoming the Lamb of God on the altar.

He suffered and was made perfect. Wasn’t he perfect before? What perfected him? The refiner’s fire? He was perfected as we shall be, by the resurrection. And having been made perfect, Jesus then became the one who is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

This is the part where Lancaster “gets Evangelical.” This is the part when he reminded me of the Head Pastor at the church I attend.

For the most part, we learn in the church that if we believe in Jesus, we will be saved from our sins, but the writer of Hebrews says Jesus is ”the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Obey Jesus by doing what?

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

-Matthew 4:17 (NASB)

First Fruits of Zion’s television series A Promise of What is to Come has a number of episodes describing what “the Kingdom of Heaven” or “the Kingdom of God” means and you can take a look at those for the details. But Jesus is calling all who hear him to repentance.

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. (emph. mine)

-Luke 9:34 (NASB)

Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.” (emph. mine)

-2 Timothy 2:19 (NASB)

Repentance isn’t a one time event and it’s not mere intellectual or even emotional ascension that “Jesus is Lord”. It’s one thing to call Jesus “Master” and quite another thing entirely for him to be your Master (or my Master) by a conscious act of our (my) will, allowing him to truly rule your (my) life.

Lancaster pleaded with his audience to examine themselves and to determine if they have truly repented, if they repent daily, if they really, continually do subjugate themselves to the Master’s will, if he really is King of their (our) lives. Lancaster isn’t selling cheap grace. Lives hang in the balance. Like the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Lancaster is exhorting his flock to keep to the faith, not unsaved sinners somewhere outside the body, but living human beings and devotees of the Master within the ekklesia, the body of Messiah.

What Did I Learn?

I listened to this sermon the same day I wrote For Redemption is Not Yet Complete, a dedication to repentance, turning away from sin,  and back to God.

According to Aish.com, there are four steps to repentance or teshuvah:

  1. Regret. To regret what we have done wrong.
  2. Leaving the negativity behind. To stop dwelling on the transgression in thought and action.
  3. Verbalization. To verbally state the transgression.
  4. Resolution for the future. To be determined not to let the transgression happen again.

waitRepentance, true repentance must be humanly possible, otherwise, why would God call for repentance so much in the Bible? In my studies of the New Covenant, thanks to Lancaster’s What About the New Covenant lectures, I know that we are currently in the Old Covenant times, which means we don’t yet have the ability to automatically, naturally, easily obey the voice of our Master. And yet, as believers, we are also called to listen to the voice of our shepherd as if we were already in New Covenant times.

The Master gives us all a sober warning (Matthew 25:31-46) that we can be counted as sheep or goats, and many believe they truly have turned to our shepherd but in fact, they never really repented. And in their sins, even while calling Jesus “Master,” they were rejected (or will be rejected) and sent away.

Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end…

-Hebrews 3:12-14 (NASB)

All shepherds cry out to their sheep, not to wander away, not to be foolish, not to fool ourselves that we are somehow “once saved, always saved,” that our “fire insurance” is all paid up.

The Bible is replete with warnings against human failure and exhortations and encouragement to maintain our faith, even in severe adversity, as did Paul, as did James, even to the death, for the sake of our lives, for the sake of the Master, for the sake of the Kingdom.

If we can do nothing else, cling to him, cleave to the shepherd, grasp the holy garments of the High Priest, repent with tears and anguish, and beg for him to provide your atonement, that you might be reconciled to God and enter His Kingdom.

mountain lake

A Psalm for My Dad

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion;
Who satisfies your years with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.
The Lord performs righteous deeds
And judgments for all who are oppressed.
He made known His ways to Moses,
His acts to the sons of Israel.
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
When the wind has passed over it, it is no more,
And its place acknowledges it no longer.
But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children,
To those who keep His covenant
And remember His precepts to do them.
The Lord has established His throne in the heavens,
And His sovereignty rules over all.
Bless the Lord, you His angels,
Mighty in strength, who perform His word,
Obeying the voice of His word!
Bless the Lord, all you His hosts,
You who serve Him, doing His will.
Bless the Lord, all you works of His,
In all places of His dominion;
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

-Psalm 103

I love you, Dad. Get better soon.

Repentance

Repentance and Regret

The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change.

Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which is often translated as repentance, actually means to “return.” Return to God. Return to our pure self.

How do people become interested in self-improvement?

People have faults. The faults they have cause them to suffer in some way or another. This suffering limits an individual’s freedom and is often painful. Hence, people want to change… to improve. To be free once again.

How does one change for the better? How does one do teshuva?

There are four steps of teshuva.

-Rabbi Mordechai Rottman
“Four Steps to Change”
Aish.com

I know an exploration of teshuva, which is commonly translated as “repentance,” seems more appropriate to Yom Kippur than Passover, but part of the inspiration to invest more in myself along this path and at this time comes from here:

The Midrash tells us that the Jewish people had the same problem in Egypt. Only 1/5 of the Jewish people were on a high enough spiritual level to leave Egypt — and they were on the 49th level of Tuma, spiritual degradation — and were within a hair’s breadth of being destroyed.

Yet, what is amazing is that in the next 49 days they raised themselves to the spiritual level to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai! Each day we climbed one step higher in spirituality and holiness. Many people study one of the “48 Ways to Wisdom” (Ethics of the Fathers, 6:6 — found in the back of most siddurim, Jewish prayer books) each day in the Sephirat HaOmer period between Pesach and Shavuot — which will be explained below — as a means to personal and spiritual growth. This is a propitious time for perfecting one’s character!

Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Commentary on Passover (Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed) (Exodus 13:17-15:26)
Aish.com

I know this is midrash and for most people, especially Christians, the above statement cannot be reasonably derived from scripture. Roll with it, OK? The midrash teaches an important spiritual lesson.

Rabbi Packouz suggests Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom (there are actually 50 of them) series as the perfect companion to accompany the days between Pesach and Shavuot for those seeking to elevate themselves spiritually.

But the first step, at least in my way of thinking, is teshuva, turning away from sin, especially habitual sin, and turning back toward God.

In Judaism, repenting of sins is more than just praying “I’m sorry” to God and maybe saying “I’m sorry” to anyone you’ve hurt. It’s a four-step process:

  1. Regret. To regret what we have done wrong.
  2. Leaving the negativity behind. To stop dwelling on the transgression in thought and action.
  3. Verbalization. To verbally state the transgression.
  4. Resolution for the future. To be determined not to let the transgression happen again.

guiltyThat might seem like only a little bit more effort than what we’ve come to expect in the Church, but that short list can be unpackaged to represent a lot of depth. I plan to take each step and explore it as fully as I can, both for my edification and yours.

Regret

What is regret and how is it different from guilt?

Well , we all know what guilt is. That uneasy queasy feeling that we have done something terribly wrong that can never be fixed…

But how is regret different?

Here is an example of regret:

An eccentric but wealthy, elderly acquaintance tells you to meet him at 2:30 pm on Sunday afternoon at Starbucks for coffee.

At 2:00 pm you are busy watching a great movie and decide not to show up to the 2:30 meeting.

That evening you find out that this elderly gentleman made the 2:30 appointment with 10 people, you being one of the 10.

Only five out of 10 arrived at the meeting. To each of the five who showed up, your eccentric acquaintance gave a bank check for $50,000 dollars.

Now you know what regret is. The feeling of missed opportunity.

When you find out that you missed out on 50 grand for a stupid movie, you feel regret, not guilt.

When we go against the will of God, the feeling we are supposed to have is regret. What a lost opportunity! We lost a piece of eternity!

When we have done wrong, whether an impulsive and momentary act of unintentional sin or repeated acts of intentional sin, it is normal and expected to feel guilty. Some people only feel guilty when they are caught or confronted about their sin, while others wear guilt around their shoulders like a bitter shroud, clinging to its fabric day and night. Rabbi Rottman describes guilt as that ”uneasy queasy feeling that we have done something terribly wrong that can never be fixed,” but the first step in repentance isn’t guilt, it’s regret.

In the example above, we see the difference between the two, but of these two experiences, guilt is much easier because, unless our soul is completely unfeeling, experiencing guilt is almost automatic.

I blame myselfGuilt is a response to doing wrong and to thinking thoughts like, “I’m a no good filthy scumbag. I can’t do anything right. God must hate me because I keep sinning. What’s the use of trying to be better when it always boomerangs on me?”

As you can see, feeling guilty doesn’t lead one to initiate change, it does just the opposite. Feeling profound guilt can be paralyzing and actually perpetuate the cycle of sin rather than change it.

We regret, as in the example above, a golden opportunity to reap great rewards. Making teshuva yields great rewards. It’s an opportunity to reconcile with the Creator of the Universe. He holds wonderful gifts for us but we have to show up at the appointment He makes with Him. Guilt keeps us hiding inside our houses, under our beds, quivering in the shadows. Regret is the feeling we have when we’ve stupidly thrown away the chance to receive free money (citing the above example) and to otherwise enrich our lives. God is a wealthy benefactor who only wants to do good for us, not to punish us for every sin we commit.

God knows we’re imperfect. God is waiting to help us. But we have to regret our sins as events that have prevented us from receiving His kindness and generosity and see that if we continue to commit those sins, we continue throwing away all of those gifts.

God is a personal God. He is aware of us. We are in His presence. He is paying attention. God is communicating to us through His world of beauty and design. He is here and available. The Almighty Creator of this whole universe is saying: My child, I love you. I created you to give you pleasure. Come, let’s explore the world together.

The Creator of the universe loves you? Wake up! That’s exciting news!

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“The Power of Awe”
Step Four in 48 Ways to Wisdom

Look at your life as you’ve lead it up to this point. There are such a variety of people who may read this blog that I’m sure you represent all kinds of different experiences. Some of you may be very spiritually elevated, very close to the Creator through faith in the Master. Others may be barely hanging on to faith at all because of the seeming hopelessness of your lives, because of your apparent inability to shake off sin and guilt.

Feeling guilty is the lazy way of reacting. A guilty person resigns himself to keeping his faults and does not try to take actions to improve.

Don’t use guilt feelings to justify laziness and procrastination. If a person tends to think in terms of guilt, when he hears an idea he will say to himself, “How awful it is that I’m not following that idea.”

It is more productive to keep focus on what you can do to implement the principle or concept.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Avoid Using Guilt to Justify Inaction”
from Today’s Daily Lift #358
Aish.com

jewish-repentanceWe have free will to choose obedience or disobedience to God. Even when we disobey, we have free will to allow our sin to inspire guilt or regret. We have free will to select inaction or action that will lead to change. You may have sinned for years in secret or in public and feel incapable of managing giving up that sin. You may have advanced in many other areas but still fail in one or two that hold you back from a closer relationship with God. You may say to yourself that if you’ve failed in the same way for so very long, that breaking the sin habit is impossible and you are a slave to it forever.

But guilt over missing previous opportunities, if turned to regret, doesn’t have to stop you from keeping future appointments and grasping the next opportunity offered to you by God:

In each one of us there is an Egypt and a Pharaoh and a Moses and Freedom in a Promised Land. And every point in time is an opportunity for another Exodus.

Egypt is a place that chains you to who you are, constraining you from growth and change. And Pharaoh is that voice inside that mocks your gambit to escape, saying, “How could you attempt being today something you were not yesterday? Aren’t you good enough just as you are? Don’t you know who you are?”

Moses is the liberator, the infinite force deep within, an impetuous and all-powerful drive to break out from any bondage, to always transcend, to connect with that which has no bounds.

But Freedom and the Promised Land are not static elements that lie in wait. They are your own achievements which you may create at any moment, in any thing that you do, simply by breaking free from whoever you were the day before.

Last Passover you may not have yet begun to light a candle. Or some other mitzvah still waits for you to fulfill its full potential. This year, defy Pharaoh and light up your world. With unbounded light.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Inside Story on Passover”
Chabad.org

Are you beginning to see why this is a good season to begin to make positive spiritual changes in your life?

You aren’t an innocent bystander in your own life, waiting on a street corner for God to drive up in a bus and offer you a ride. You don’t have to wait for God, God is waiting for you. Every time you are tempted to sin is an opportunity to keep an appointment with Him. Who knows what He has in store for you? You’ll never find out if you keep missing appointments, if you keep hiding from opportunities.

If you think I find all this easy, you’re wrong. I’m writing this in part to process my own experience and grasp the meaning of regret as a motivating force. This is only the first of four steps in the process of repenting to God. A single “I’m sorry for my sins” prayer just isn’t going to do it. Cheap grace is not sold in God’s storehouse. Salvation may be a free gift of God through grace, but you still have to show up to accept it and you need to be in a state of purity to get in the door.

purityThat state of purity, the mikvah process if you will, begins with teshuva and teshuva begins with experiencing authentic regret at having missed out on God’s blessings up until now. Seeing sin as a missed opportunity to draw nearer to God takes a lot of effort. Setting mind numbing guilt aside and allowing regret to enter your life is no easy task. If you stumble, that’s not really unexpected. But regret stumbling rather than letting it tell you some sad and sorry story about how lousy you are. Regret helps you get back up again. Guilt keeps you on the ground eating dust and ashes.

I hope to write about the second step in making teshuva soon.

Solomon's porch

When is Church Not Church?

Long before the church was called the church, it consisted of an assembly of Jewish believers who practiced Judaism as part of their devotion to Yeshua of Nazareth.

In the days that followed the spiritual outpouring of Shavu’ot, the disciples found themselves shepherding a large community of new disciples in Jerusalem. Three thousand men and women received the message about Yeshua and immersed themselves for his name. Many of these joined themselves to the community of his disciples in the holy city.

By devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the community of early believers continued in the Jewish mode of faith and practice, which prioritizes study above other pursuits. Judaism places a heavy emphasis on study, learning, and Torah education. Jewish life structured itself around study, and the study of Torah permeated every aspect of Pharisaic Judaism. Rabbinic literature frequently extols the virtues of study and praises the man whose “delight is in the Torah of the LORD, and on his Torah he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). The sages had numerous axioms about the greatness of Torah study. Judaism regards the study of Torah as a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew and the primary obligation of Jewish life.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Before the Church Was Called the Church,” pp 16-17
Messiah Magazine, Spring 2014 issue

I wanted to juxtapose the above statement with a definition of the Church as a spiritual body, but all I came up with was this:

noun
1. a building used for public Christian worship.
“they came to church with me”
synonyms: place of worship, house of God, house of worship; cathedral, abbey, chapel, basilica; megachurch; synagogue, mosque
“a village church”
the hierarchy of clergy of a Christian organization, esp. the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England.
noun: the Church

Origin
Old English cir(i)ce, cyr(i)ce, related to Dutch kerk and German Kirche, based on medieval Greek kurikon, from Greek kuriakon (dōma ) ‘Lord’s (house),’ from kurios ‘master or lord.’ Compare with kirk.

This is an extension, a sort of “Part 2″ to my prior blog post Notes on the Church from an Insomniac, except that I’m writing this wide awake after enjoying a reasonably good night’s sleep. But the concept I’m trying to explore is “the Church” as a unique entity of people from all walks of life, including Jews, who have converted to a religion called “Christianity” based on the worship of Jesus Christ as we find him in the Gospels, and because of their faith in Christ, are saved from eternal damnation and when they die, will go to Heaven to be with God in a realm of eternal peace.

OK, that’s an oversimplification and I’ve deliberately employed more than a little “tongue-in-cheek” in crafting that description. Let’s see what happens when I put “Christianity” in my Google search string.

noun
noun: Christianity
1. the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or its beliefs and practices.
Christian quality or character.
“his Christianity sustained him”

Not much help there.

But consider, as I understand it from the teachings at the church I currently attend. “The Church” (big “C”) was “born” in Acts 2 by the Holy Spirit inhabiting, first the apostles of Christ in the upper room on Pentecost (Shavu’ot) and then a body of thousands of Jewish people coming to faith in Jesus. So far, that’s semi-consistent with Lancaster’s description, except that he doesn’t say something incredibly new and disconnected from prior Jewish and Biblical history was established on that occasion. As I read Lancaster and understand his teachings on the New Covenant, I can only interpret the Acts 2 event in terms of previous Biblical history and see it as the logical and natural extension of God’s plan going forward in time without the requirement to make the train “jump the tracks,” so to speak, and violently diverge from everything written in the Bible (in this case, Torah, Prophets [Navim], and Writings [Ketuvim] or “Tanakh”) up to this point in history.

Spirit, Torah, and Good NewsThe classic New Covenant texts in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 clearly identify Israel as the focus of the New Covenant, a Covenant with identical conditions to those listed in the Old Covenant given at Sinai through Moses. The only difference, and I’ve said this before, is that the covenant would be written on the heart by the Spirit, not on tablets and scrolls, and internalizing the Torah makes it possible for the Jewish people, that is, the nation of Israel, and those who attach themselves to Israel through an Abrahamic faith in the Jewish Messiah, to wholly obey the instructions of God and live a life of holiness.

The New Covenant was inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit was given as a pledge (2 Corinthians 1:22) that when Messiah returns, he will complete what he has started and the New Covenant will be fully enacted in our world.

Revisiting my quote of Lancaster regarding the vital importance of Torah study, even the Gentiles were required to do this (Acts 15:21) as the means by which they (we) could understand the teachings of our Master and learn to also strive to live holy lives in anticipation of the Messianic Era and the age to come.

So what happened? The original assembly or ekklesia (which also can be interpreted as synagogue) of Messiah was first wholly Jewish, and then it was legally determined that Gentiles had standing in the Jewish ekklesia of “the Way” without having to undergo the proselyte ritual (Acts 15). That is, we people of the nations who are called by His Name (Amos 9:11-12), can be equal co-participants in the blessings of the New Covenant without converting to Judaism and being obligated to the entire set of responsibilities in the Torah. Make no mistake, though. This does not make us absolved of great responsibilities and does not render us “Law-free,” and we indeed have a unique obligation to the Torah of Moses. If we repent of our sins, receive atonement through Messiah, and daily pick up our cross and seek our Master, we will become the crowning jewels of the nations, but only because “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22) through the centrality of Israel and her firstborn son, Yeshua of Nazareth, not because we convert to Christianity and join the Church.

Confused? Am I repeating myself?

What I’m asking is if this more “Judaic” viewpoint on the Bible is correct, and the ekkelsia, in terms of Messianic community simply means “assembly” rather than requiring the creation of a unique body called “the Church” which after being “raptured” to Heaven and subsequently returned with Jesus to Earth, remains separate from anyone who came to faith during the “tribulation” (which doesn’t make a bit of sense), then how did things get so messed up?

Whole books have been written trying to answer that question (including this one, which I will start reading soon), but something I read on New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado’s blog seems to (somewhat) apply.

In the article I note one or two “fashions” in NT studies of past decades, ideas or emphases that seem all the rage for a short while but then seem to have faded just as quickly as they appeared. In this case, I cite “structuralist exegesis.”

I also discuss a couple of “fallacies,” by which term I refer to ideas that obtained wide and long-lasting currency but have subsequently been shown to be errors. The question here is why this happens. How do a wide assortment of scholars take something as given when there never was adequate basis for it?

Finally, I explore very briefly some possible future emphases in the field, such as the growing internationalization of those who comprise NT scholars, the growing interest in “reception history,” and one or two other things.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

A pre-publication version of Dr. Hurtado’s article Fashions, Fallacies and Future Prospects in New Testament Studies (PDF) is freely available for you to read. Hurtado spends much of this article describing how brief “fads” in certain New Testament studies gained traction momentarily, but then…

I turn now to consider some other approaches and ideas that had much more impact and much more “staying power,” but were subsequently shown to be erroneous. These ideas are much more important to consider precisely because they won such wide acceptance and over a goodly period of time. These were not passing fashions. They were firmly held and confidently asserted widely, in some quarters treated as solid truth, but are now clearly seen to have been fallacious.

-Hurtado, pg 4

Hurtado says nothing to discredit current Christian doctrine, but the fact that Christian scholarship had gained an attraction and wide adherence to theories and interpretations of the New Testament that have subsequently proven to be unreliable or just plain wrong is compelling to me. For one thing, it establishes that really anything we believe about the New Testament in specific and the whole Bible in general is up for examination, just like any other scientific endeavor. That’s actually pretty huge since from the point of view of sitting in a pew at church every Sunday morning and listening to the Pastor’s sermon, we are generally intended to take everything we hear at face value and consider the message as (mostly) unquestionable fact and truth.

I say “mostly” because I know Pastor doesn’t expect everyone to agree with him all the time, and because it’s possible to ask questions about the sermon in Sunday school class, but even within that context, there’s a limit and one does not cross the line of (so-called) “sound doctrine” or “solid truth” to consider perspectives that, from an Evangelical point of view, would be considered “cultic” and even “heretical.”

But while we may consider the Word of God as Holy, inerrant, and inspired by the Spirit of God, subsequent human interpretations don’t fall in those categories and therefore are “up for grabs.”

Judah Himango in his blog post Torah demands interpretation: an example from Deuteronomy 16, states:

My modus operandi for the EtzMitzvot.com project is to restate each command in the broadest, least-interpretive way possible, keeping faithful to the text without inferring or assuming what those words mean. As I came across Deuteronomy 16:16, I wrestled with this standard.

For some commandments, this standard is near impossible to apply without some creative interpreting/inferring/assuming.

For example, “just the facts, ma’am version of this mitzvah is, “Appear before God at the place he chooses for the 3 pilgrimage feasts.”

OK, that’s nice, how would you actually apply this in your life, today?

Judah also says:

You might think I am arguing for rabbinic or church interpretation; leaving the hard work of Bible interpretation to people smarter and more studied than us. But the take-home here should be: commandments are not always straightforward. Practicing them requires study and learning. Jewish and Christian traditions can guide us as a point of reference, but should not be elevated beyond the educated guesses they are.

So Biblical interpretation is not only normative in our studies, it’s unavoidable. It is impossible to understand everything we see in the Bible without running it through some sort of interpretive matrix yielding a hopefully accurate but undoubtedly biased set of conclusions. Bias isn’t necessarily bad and as I said, in any event, it’s unavoidable. The trick is to come to a set of conclusions that not only fits the immediate text being studied, but the underlying and comprehensive theme running through the entire body of the Bible. If isolated or “cherry-picked” bits of scripture contradict the overall tapestry of the Bible as a whole, chances are something’s wrong with your hermeneutics.

These musings are necessarily limited and selective, and others will no doubt offer observations additional to or even critical of mine. This is to be welcomed. But, if NT studies is to continue as a viable field, I suggest that the future approaches taken will have to demonstrate that they offer something substantial, something “value-added” to the study of the fascinating texts that comprise our NT and the remarkable religious developments that they reflect. Trying out this or that new speculation, or appropriating this or that methodological development in some other field will (and should) continue to be part of the ensuing discussion. But, I repeat, to amount to something more than a passing fashion, our approaches will have to be both well-founded and substantial in what they produce. And to avoid the sort of serious fallacies that we have noted, we will have to exercise both committed scholarly effort and self-reflective critique.

-Hurtado, pg 21

Carl Kinbar
Rabbi Carl Kinbar

This summons questions about the level of Messianic Jewish scholarship today, and I explored that question, thanks to another blog post by Dr. Hurtado, almost a year ago. Rabbi Dr. Carl Kinbar responded in part:

Here are a few thoughts about peer review. The “peer” in “peer review” is used in a very specific sense: it is someone who has recognized expertise in the subject. For example, the scholars who reviewed my doctoral dissertation are peers in the study of rabbinic texts rather than people “just like me” (since I was only a graduate student at the time). You cannot have a peer review process without experts. Although it is possible for someone to become an expert through self-study, such people are as rare as hen’s teeth and the reason is very simple: 99.9% of people who have never been discipled in their field have not learned the basic habits of scholarship and have not been exposed to the sort of critique that would help them to avoid errors of method and fact. With very few exceptions, even the best of the self-taught are like talented basketball players who have only played in pick-up games but have never been involved in organized basketball on any level and therefore have never been coached or received high-level input. I suspect that there are thousands of such basketball players, some of whom have a lot of talent but none of whom have learned the moves that are required even of entry-level NBA players. Becoming a professional player will depend on how others evaluate their talent, not on their own sense that they are NBA-quality. A true peer in “peer review” is someone who has been evaluated as an expert by existing experts.

As a Messianic Jewish scholar, I try to make up for the lack of peer review by submitting my work for review by a range of people, including both scholars and non-scholars. Before I received a significant amount of traditional and academic discipling, I thought that self-study was enough. I now know that it isn’t.

So on the one hand, we may conclude that the current state of Messianic Jewish scholarship would not yet meet the standards set in the realm of New Testament scholarship at the highest academic levels, but on the other hand, it’s headed in the right direction. Does that mean we are forced to accept Evangelical Christian interpretation as the de facto standard? I personally don’t think so, especially when, thanks to Hurtado’s aforementioned paper, we see that even long-standing and popular opinions on the New Testament can be subsequently discounted or discredited.

Am I right and you’re wrong? I can hardly say that and that’s not the point of this missive. My point is that Evangelical Christian theology and doctrine sits on its own laurels at its great peril, as does any position, system, or intellectual endeavor. Intellectual and spiritual honesty and integrity requires continuing investigation and study. The minute you stop questioning your own assumptions and take a position of static dogma, is the minute you lose a living relationship with the Word of God and perhaps even God Himself. That’s not intentional, of course, but it often is a sad result.

Just remember, at one point the Church thought the earth was the center of the universe based on the Bible. At one point, the Church burned people as witches (Europe) or pressed them to death under heavy stones (America) based on the Bible.

Now we are finally facing the idea that much of the Church’s “sound doctrine” and “solid truth” is based on a two-thousand year old mistake, and worse, that we’re taking our major cues, not from the Judaic understanding of the scriptures as they were viewed during the Apostolic Era, but from a group of European reformers who lived barely five-hundred years ago and who themselves may well have been anti-Judaism and anti-Jewish people.

Up to JerusalemIs that what Jesus taught? Is that how Paul interpreted the scriptures? Is that the way James the Just, brother of the Master, determined Gentiles should be included in the branch of Judaism then known as “the Way?”

When is Church not Church? When it’s the assembly of Messiah longing for the coming of the New Covenant, when God’s instructions are written on hearts, and the spirits of men and women, young and old, from the least to the greatest, know God.

We aren’t there yet, but we have a responsibility to strive to be better than we are and in spite of our assumptions and traditions, to continually “be in the Word” (to employ a Christian aphorism), and to realize that our perspective might not be the best vantage point from which to view the full panoramic scope of God’s overarching plan for His people Israel, who are absolutely necessary and central to the Way of salvation for the rest of the world.

To find out more about why the word “ekklesia” and the word “sunagōgē” which we translate into English as “synagogue,” could all be translated as “meeting place” or “assembly” and don’t have to be translated as “church,” read What does Synagogue mean in Hebrew? by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg.

A final note. I’m quite aware that I’ve scheduled this “meditation” to automatically publish on the morning of Easter Sunday or Resurrection Day. This is probably the most holy day on the Christian calendar and I suppose my interpretation of “ekklesia” into something other than “Church” could be seen as an inappropriate criticism. And yet, who we are and to what body we belong is of vital importance, on this day as much as any other, for our Master is Risen, and he is returning. The Kingdom is at hand, and the New Covenant is unfolding. We must be ready, but to do that, we must understand the actual and authentic nature and character of King, Kingdom, and Covenant. It is to that purpose I have dedicated this blog post and all of my writing.

Inner Word

Chol HaMo’ed Pesach: Writing on Flesh

When Moses descended, he carried the Word of God—not the Word made flesh, but the word made stone upon the two tablets of the covenant.

“The Word from Heaven Was Broken”
Commentary on Chol HaMo’ed Pesach
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

The obvious image those words should invoke is this:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

-John1:14 (NASB)

The Old Covenant was established with the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai and the conditions of that covenant, the Torah, were given on stone tablets.

The mediator of the New Covenant entered our world as “the Word made flesh” and the conditions of that covenant were in every spoken word and action of that “Word,” in the person of Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth, HaMaschiach (the Messiah). But of course, the conditions previously established didn’t change, and everything taught by the Rav from Nazareth was Torah.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

-Matthew 5:17-18 (NASB)

The conditions of the Old Covenant were written on stone tablets. Exodus 32:16 says the finger of God wrote on the first set of tablets before the sin of the Golden Calf, before Moses broke them.

The FFOZ commentary tells us that according to midrash, the tablets that descended from Mount Sinai can be compared to a human body, and when Moses broke that “body,” because of the sin of Israel, the letters on the tablets flew off the stone and returned to their Source in Heaven.

When Messiah Yeshua’s body was broken due to the sin of Israel, his spirit left him and returned to its Source.

letters-on-stoneAfter the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses returned to the mountain and to God to plead for Israel and to renew the covenant (Exodus 34). This began a long and cyclical pattern of sin and repentance for Israel.

After the death of the Master, he was resurrected three days later and thus was completed the inauguration or the very starting of the New Covenant, a process that will not reach fruition until the Master’s return, for he ascended to Heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father, our High Priest in the Heavenly Court, who makes final atonement for the sins of humanity, who is the mediator of better promises. But get this:

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (emph. mine)

-Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NASB)

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (emph. mine)

-Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NASB)

The conditions of the Old Covenant were written on stone tablets and on scrolls, objects that are inanimate and external to human beings. If we want to know about God and if we want to “know God,” we must study and practice, and yet Biblical and human history is all too clear that even the best of us fail, no matter how great our desire to serve God.

praying_at_masadaYeshua came as the “Word made flesh,” the living embodiment of the Torah, the walking, talking, flesh and blood, human expression of the will and wonder of God, all contained within a human body. He was the perfect image of what we strive for, the Word written on flesh.

There’s a difference. John’s Gospel says that Yeshua was the Word made flesh, while we get from Ezekiel and Jeremiah that the Word will be written on our fleshy hearts. We don’t literally become the Word as a human being, we “merely” have it wholly integrated into our being.

But here’s the result.

Amen, I say to you, none among those born of a woman has arisen greater than Yochanan the Immerser; yet the smallest in the kingdom of Heaven will be greater than he.

-Matthew 11:11 (DHE Gospels)

I mentioned above the concepts of knowing about God vs. knowing God. I don’t doubt that there are people today, great tzaddikim or saints who know God, at least to the current extent of human ability, but the Bible records that Moses spoke with God “face to face” (Exodus 33:11). That’s pretty hard for me to imagine, especially since God is considered Spirit and without physical form (the third of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith).

But the Master prophesied that when the New Covenant is fully enacted, then the finger of God will have finished writing His Word on our hearts of flesh and, like Moses and the Prophets of Old, including John the Baptizer, we will all know God, God’s Spirit will be poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17), and everyone, from the least to the greatest, will have a full knowledge and intimate relationship with God. We won’t just know about Him, we will know Him.

Jesus, when the Spirit was poured out on him at his immersion (Matthew 3:16) became the forerunner, the first fruits of New Covenant human beings. He was still fully human, but with the Spirit poured out on him as it will be someday in the Messianic Era, a human being who could be tempted but still not sin. He’s the living promise that we will be perfected even as he was perfected.

It’s exciting to watch God’s plan open up in the pages of the Bible. The progression from the tablets and scrolls to the first fruits of the New Covenant, Messiah, coming as the “Word made flesh,” and then anticipating the day when that Word will be written on our flesh as well.

Right now, we experience just the leading edge of that New Covenant as we continue to live in the Old Covenant era, the Spirit was given as a pledge and a promise of what is yet to come (2 Corinthians 1:22). We aren’t there yet, but God has given His Spirit to us as His bond that what He has promised will indeed occur.

But there’s a catch.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

-2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NASB)

PrayingThis doesn’t just happen.

Yes, God promised it and it will happen, but it won’t just happen to us without an effort on our part. It isn’t just an intellectual and emotional acceptance we make that Jesus is Lord and then suddenly we’re in. As we see from Paul’s example, we only get to the finish line after running the race, after exerting ourselves, after keeping the faith and holding fast to our confession (Hebrews 4:11, 14).

Recently, I wrote of some of this as applied to me personally in For Redemption is Not Yet Complete and next week’s review of D. Thomas Lancaster’s Epistle to the Hebrews sermon The Source of Eternal Salvation will speak strongly to who we are in Messiah and our role in the process of repentance and salvation.

Each day, we struggle to reaffirm our faith. Each day we must repent anew, plead for the forgiveness of our sins, and turn to Yeshua as our atonement. The finger of God is moving and writing, but only if we are willing participants in allowing our stony heart to be transformed, only if we surrender ourselves as the material upon which (upon whom) God may write His Torah.

And we do that only by recognizing the one who came from God and who returned to God and who will come again. The one who arrived as a flesh and blood man and who was (and is) also the Word. For only through him can we find the Word within us as we are within Him.

“Sometimes you have to move on without certain people. If they’re meant to be in your life, they’ll catch up.” -Mandy Hale

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