prohetic return

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Ani Ma’amin (I believe)

What do Maimonides and the book of Hebrews have in common? Find out how the Talmud and the book of Hebrews intersect when it comes to the question of faith in Messiah. The book of Hebrews continues with a call to hold fast to faith in the coming of the Messiah.

References Hebrews 10:32-39; Isaiah 30:18; Habakkuk 2:3-4.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Forty: Ani Ma’amin (I believe)
Originally presented on January 25, 2014
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
How blessed are all those who long for Him.

-Isaiah 30:18 (NASB)

Lancaster’s sermon took a different route this week, the long way around to Hebrews 10:32-39 through the above-referenced prophets, the Talmudic writings, and Mosheh ben Maimon otherwise known as Moses Maimonides or the Rambam.

Lancaster states that the above verse from the prophet Isaiah is very important as a Messianic prophesy. The Talmud interprets “How blessed are all those who long for Him” or “wait for Him” as those among the righteous waiting for the redemption of the Messiah.

Verse 20 says “your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher,” indicating that our Teacher, that is, Messiah, is currently hidden from us (or from Isaiah’s audience, the Jewish people) but that in the coming age, he will be revealed. Verse 21 continues “Your ears will hear a word behind you, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ whenever you turn to the right or to the left,” speaking of walking in the Holy Spirit (the “word behind you”).

But when it says “therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you,” this isn’t speaking of Messiah, but of Hashem, of the God of Israel, for He waits for the Messiah, too…at least according to the Talmud.

Why would God have to wait? You’ll see in a bit.

Lancaster then shifted gears and started quoting from Tractate Sanhedrin about a 3rd century CE Rabbi who came across a Gentile who had discovered a scroll in the Roman treasury. Without going into all the details, the scroll seemed to likely have been looted from Jerusalem by the Romans, perhaps from the Temple itself.

The Rabbi, who believed the scroll to be an authentic Jewish Holy writing, purchased the scroll and discovered it predicted the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah in the year 4291 from Creation, with the final renewal of the world being accomplished in the year 7000.

ancient scrollsProblem is, the Jewish year 4291 corresponds to 531 C.E. which has long since come and gone.

The Talmud uses this story to issue a stern warning against attempting to calculate the dates related to Messiah coming and an admonition against those who insist on calculating such dates. Thus far, everyone who has attempted to predict the return (or coming) of Messiah has been wrong.

This is where Habakkuk comes in:

I will stand on my guard post
And station myself on the rampart;
And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me,
And how I may reply when I am reproved.
Then the Lord answered me and said,
“Record the vision
And inscribe it on tablets,
That the one who reads it may run.
“For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.
“Behold, as for the proud one,
His soul is not right within him;
But the righteous will live by his faith.”

-Habakkuk 2:1-4

Within the context of Habakkuk, this does not seem to have anything to do with Messiah. Habakkuk had just heard from God that the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem was at hand because of their many sins. Habakkuk was upset, not that God had ordered the destruction, but that He had chosen an instrument for that destruction much more evil than Judah and Jerusalem. So he sat in a guard post and waited (probably for a long time) for God to answer his objection.

That said, the Talmudic sages interpret, especially verses 3 and 4, as very much having a Messianic application, and Lancaster agrees, specifically since the Talmud interprets this portion of scripture as stating the date of Messiah’s coming is hidden. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of Lancaster’s explanation. The link to the recording is at the top of this missive so you can listen to the forty minute sermon for yourself.

But then we get back to why is even God waiting for Messiah? Why should God wait? Why not send Messiah now?

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

-2 Peter 3:9

God’s justice (and I believe mercy as well) demands that He wait because those of us who also wait receive a blessing by the merit of the act of waiting, for as it says “Though he tarries, wait for it” (the Hebrew pronoun can also be “him”), and again, “the righteous will live by faith”, and as it says in Isaiah, “Blessed are all those who wait for Him” (Isaiah 30:18 NKJV).

Rambam
Mosheh ben Maimon, the Rambam

Many have been born, lived, and died waiting for Messiah and he didn’t come, yet their waiting wasn’t in vain, for by the merit of their faith, they gained eternal life in the resurrection.

I mentioned the Rambam above. He codified what is known as The Thirteen Principles of Faith, the twelfth of which states:

I believe with a complete faith in the coming of Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless every day I believe that he will come.

This is also known as Ani Ma’amin (I believe) and is traditionally sung at the conclusion of the Shacharit or Morning prayers. The Talmud states that such a lived faith in the coming of the Messiah equals performing all of the 613 commandments (and the version we have today was also organized by Rambam). Yes, it’s that important.

However, when Habakkuk says that “the righteous will live by faith,” he doesn’t just mean that they live a life of faith, but that they will merit life, eternal life in the resurrection, by clinging to their faith in the coming redemption of Messiah. This is an essential principle in Judaism, according to Lancaster, and not only do we see it in the prophets and the Talmud (and Hebrews), but the Apostle Paul referenced it in Romans 1 and Galatians 3. Instead of trying to figure out when Messiah will come (return) and only expecting him then, always expect him today and every day; always live a life of daily expectancy.

Then Lancaster (apparently) switches tracks and talks about how the passage from Habakkuk is very different in the Greek. Why is that important? Because Jewish teachers used the Greek translation of the Tanakh (Old Testament) or Septuagint, when teaching Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles. The writer of Hebrews was addressing Greek-speaking Jews living in or near Jerusalem.

For yet in a very little while,
He who is coming will come, and will not delay.
But My righteous one shall live by faith;
And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.

-Hebrews 10:37-38 quoting Habakkuk 2:3-4

Especially the last line seems quite odd: And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” Lancaster says this speaks of one who shrinks back or loses his faith, specifically in the coming of Messiah, for if one loses his faith in Messiah, he loses God’s favor.

But “My righteous one shall live by faith” in that even if Messiah does not come when expected or even in your lifetime or mine, we must live by faith so that we will live in the resurrection and not lose our place in the world to come. We must seek first the Kingdom as our focus.

Now (finally) Lancaster turns to Hebrews 10:32-39.

He gives a very brief summary of the Hebrews epistle, an exhortation to Jewish believers who because of their faith in Messiah, have been denied access to the Temple and the Priesthood, and who, for that reason, are strongly tempted to renounce their Messianic faith. The Hebrews writer is encouraging them to remain faithful because they always have access to the Heavenly Temple and Priesthood through Messiah as High Priest, and warning them of the consequences of losing faith.

“But remember in former days” is a reference to the early persecutions (read the beginning chapters of Luke’s Book of Acts including the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8) and the “murderous threats” of Saul (the beginning of Acts 9). They were persecuted in many ways and yet “accepted joyfully” those hardships, enduring in the faith. “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence” for in doing so, they would also throw away their reward. They needed to endure as they did before.

Hebrews then quotes the Greek version of Habakkuk, and you should see at this point how well it fits the flow of this part of the letter, and concludes (well, not really…it just concludes the artificial division of chapters):

But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

-Hebrews 10:39

But there’s more. I didn’t expect Lancaster to cover Chapter 11 as well, but when he did, it clicked right into place:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.

-Hebrews 11:1-2

faithThis is the so-called “faith chapter” of the Apostolic Scriptures and Christians often cite it as a “stand alone” definition of what “faith” is, without considering how it fits into the overall message of the epistle.

The writer of the epistle has been encouraging his readers to maintain their faith in the Messiah’s coming, to not abandon that faith, even under the tremendous pressure of not being able to offer korban in obedience to the commandments, for in renouncing Messiah, they would also be renouncing their reward in the Kingdom.

The rest of chapter 11 is a list of examples of people of faith who maintained that faith even though they never saw the promised rewards in their lifetimes. Abraham was promised the Land but died never receiving the promise. So too did Isaac and Jacob. Read the chapter for yourself and see what it looks like now that you have the context Lancaster constructed around it.

Lancaster concludes his sermon by reading verses 32 through 40, but I’ll just quote a portion:

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

-Hebrews 11:32-34

“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me…” The list of the faithful is endless, or seemingly so. It’s not like the writer of Hebrews is asking for the impossible, as if no one who came before ever exhibited such a faith, maintaining it even to the death. While modern religious Judaism doesn’t emphasize the Messiah’s coming all that much, in ancient days, the days of the prophets, the days of the apostles, and the days of the writers of the Talmud, it was much clearer that faith in the coming (return) of Messiah was the lynchpin of Jewish faith in God and the coming New Covenant times.

What Did I Learn?

I’ll never be a Talmud scholar, so all of the tie-ins from Talmud back into scripture are a revelation to me. Lancaster said that the writer of Hebrews and the other apostles read Habakkuk exactly the same way as the sages of the Talmud. This is a very important point because it re-enforces my emphasis that you cannot know or understand having faith in the Messiah unless you study Judaism! This is why I study from within a Messianic Jewish framework.

I hate to slam Christian studies and teachings because I have high regard for those people I know in the Church, but traditional Christian doctrine compared to Messianic Jewish (and other Jewish) studies is like the difference between an eighty-year old frayed black and white still photo and the latest vibrantly colored 3D motion picture in surround sound.

I hope I’m not overstating the metaphor, but a lot of these teachings in Messianic Judaism hit me like someone opened up my skull and poured in a couple of quarts of “Ah Ha! That’s what that means!”

I was also pleasantly surprised when Lancaster mentioned having read the biography of Brother Yun, an evangelist in Communist China who suffered terribly for his faith. I also read the book at the urging of a friend, and as a reminder that I can get tremendously caught up in the “head knowledge” of the Bible at the expense of a living faith in Messiah.

The message of the epistle to the Hebrews is also a message to us nearly two-thousand years later. The Jewish believers reading this letter had a faith in the return of the Messiah who had died, was resurrected, and ascended to Heaven about thirty years prior, within the living memory of a generation, and yet they were tempted to abandon that faith. We have possession of the same faith almost twenty-centuries after the event, and no one alive on earth is a direct witness today. If they were tempted living so close in time to the flesh and blood Jesus, how much more so will we be tempted, especially in a culture of atheism, humanism, and progressiveness, to be lured into abandoning our faith in the return of Messiah?

Which is why we can’t. Which is why Hebrews 11 is so important to us as an example of living and dying and yet not receiving the promise of his return.

For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

-Romans 11:15

lightIf some of the Jews in Paul’s generation not coming to faith in Messiah is compared to death, but their coming to faith is compared to the resurrection. So it is with us. For those who have never come to faith and possibly never will, we can have pity, but we must mourn tragically for those who once had faith and deliberately set it aside for whatever they thought was better, perhaps under some form of social pressure to do so.

I mourn for those every day and I know more than one. Pray that they haven’t shut up their ears permanently, and that they will go from being “cast away” by their own decision, to “acceptance” once again and “life from the dead.”

Bible

What Does God Want From Gay People?

BOISE — After a roller coaster of court rulings, the wait is over for same-sex marriage supporters.

The Ada County Courthouse issued the first licenses to Andrea Altmayer and Sheila Robertson minutes after 10 a.m. Wednesday, to cheers from those waiting in line.

Altmayer and Robertson were among the four couples who brought a lawsuit challenging Idaho’s same-sex marriage ban.

The 9th Circuit Court ruled Monday that marriage licenses could be issued in Idaho beginning Wednesday morning. The order was the latest in a roller coaster of court decisions.

-Katie Terhune, 2:34 p.m. MDT October 15, 2014
“Same-sex marriage begins in Idaho”
KTVB.com

Love doesn’t always look like love.

When I published this blog post two weeks ago, I was prepared for some people to applaud it, and for others to condemn it. That’s what happens whenever you put an opinion out there.

I was fully prepared for the waves of both support and hostility that accompany any vantage point on anything, especially a controversial topic like sexuality.

What I was not prepared for in any way were the literally hundreds and hundreds of people who have reached out to me personally to thank me for bringing some healing and hope to their families. Parents, children, siblings, and adults have confided in me (some for the first time anywhere), telling of the pain, and bullying, and shunning they’re received from churches, pastors, and church members — from professed followers of Jesus.

Scores of people from all over the world have shared with me their devastating stories of exclusion and isolation, of unanswered prayers to change, of destructive conversion therapies, of repeated suicide attempts, and of being actively and passively driven from faith by people of faith.

-John Pavlovitz, Rogue Pastor and Writer
Posted 10/16/2014 1:20 pm EDT, edited 1:59 pm
“Distorted Love: The Toll of Our Christian Theology on the LGBT Community”
The Huffington Post

I don’t have a lot of use for the Huff Post. I read some of their articles, but because they are just as skewed to the left as Fox News is to the right, I can’t see any particular advantage of choosing one over the other, so I don’t consider either reliably credible sources of information.

But given that “marriage equality” has come even to Idaho, and since the Huff Post article was posted to Facebook by someone I admire and respect, I am once again revisiting this topic.

Oh, I’ve been here before. I’ve reviewed Matthew Vines’ book “God and the Gay Christian,” criticized controversial Pastor John MacArthur on his abysmal advice to parents of gay children, and otherwise commented on the intersection of faith and the LGBTQ community within their/our midst here, here, and here (and that’s only a partial list).

michaelsonIn my continued attempt to see what other people are seeing and how they resolve the apparent conflict of cleaving to the Bible as the Word of God and yet accepting actively gay couples into the community of faith, another in a long series of books as been recommended to me: Jay Michaelson’s God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. I don’t high hopes that Mr. Michaelson will be any more successful at showing me what I seem to be missing any more than anyone else has. All of the argument for supporting the acceptance of marriage equality within the Church and Synagogue must either drastically re-write (or at least radically reinterpret) the Bible or baldly insert what isn’t actually there.

I can’t find “loving gay couples” in the Bible, certainly not within the covenant community, nor is what we now call “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” even faintly presupposed in the Biblical text. I can purchase a used copy of Mr. Michaelson’s book for less than a dollar on Amazon, so I risk little in buying and reading what he wrote (and I risk even less because I just discovered his book is available at my local public library).

The core of every gay Christian’s (or ally’s) argument in support of gays participating in the Church while in same-sex romantic/erotic relationships (legally married or otherwise) is that “Jesus is love”. OK, I’m grossly oversimplifying the argument, but stripped down to its nuts and bolts, that’s it.

Pastor Pavlovitz’s article focuses on the damage done to various gay individuals when rejected by their churches and told that their actions and even their desires are sinful (which, by the way, was also a large part of Matthew Vines’ argument). The readers are meant to feel compassion for human beings who were born to desire members of their own sex rather than the opposite. The fault in all this is either God’s or in how we interpret the Bible.

I’m willing to accept the latter argument if you can convincingly show me where the error exists. I’m an advocate for (in theory) taking our understanding of Biblical exegesis “back to formula” and building it up from scratch, since two-thousand years of Christian and Jewish tradition have skewed how we define “sound doctrine” and obliterated how the original writers and readers of the Bible would have understood the message contained therein.

But what I see instead is the desire to not correctly understand the message of the Bible and then conform our lives to a behavioral standard set by God for humanity, but the requirement to fit the Bible into the current societal standards set by progressive cultural and political imperatives.

Besides the recent tide of Federal judicial decisions ordering various states to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Houston (Texas) Mayor Annise Parker and her administration’s subpoenas of the sermons of several local Pastors in relation to a lawsuit regarding the so-called “HERO” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance ) legislation complicates the “war” between religion and the political structures supporting LGBTQ desires.

Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

And I don’t know what to do with the overwhelming flood of anecdotal reports from people who say they were “born this way” and have never known any other way to relate romantically or sexually. I can’t say “no, that’s not how you feel” or “you are giving in to sinful impulses” when I have no ability whatsoever to experience that person’s reality. On top of that, most religious people who have the concept of sin know, at least on some level, when they’re sinning. But if what straight Christians consider sin is experienced only as love (or maybe sometimes just desire) by gay Christians, what am I to say to that?

I’m looking for an answer one way or the other. Unfortunately, Pavlovitz ends his article only with this:

We are losing credibility to those outside organized Christianity, not because we’re “condoning sin” but because when the rubber meets the road, we really don’t know how to “love the sinner” in any way that remotely resembles Jesus, and our “God is love” platitudes ring hollow.

Church, this is our legacy that we are building in these days to the LGBT community and those who love them, and I assure you it’s not a legacy of love.

I don’t know what the answer is for you, and I can’t tell you how your theology gets expressed in the trenches of real people’s lives. I only know that we as Christ’s church can do better, regardless of our theological stance. We have to do better.

This is where our faith is proven to be made of Jesus-stuff or not.

This is where the love of God we like to preach about is either clearly seen or terribly distorted.

I don’t really care about whatever credibility or lack thereof those outside the religious community see in Christianity since we are supposed to please God, not people. Also, in suggesting that Christianity doesn’t know how to “love the sinner,” he is at least hinting that there’s some sort of sin involved in homosexuality, though I doubt he meant to send that message.

While I agree that “demonizing” gay people is not how the Church should respond to them, I do agree that Jesus didn’t die to excuse or cover up sin but rather, to forgive it (once the sinner has sincerely repented). And again, I crash headlong into the issue of sin vs. (presumably) in-born orientation and behavioral expression of said-orientation.

If we are to respond to all sins as being “the same” with no one type of sin being better or worse than another, then I get it. We can’t react to a gay person in the Church any differently than a bank robber, embezzler, or drug abuser in the Church. Gay sin isn’t any more “icky” than embezzlement sin.

But that’s not the issue from Pavlovitz’s perspective or anyone else who supports wholehearted acceptance of the LGBTQ community within the covenant community. The issue is love equals acceptance and that being gay isn’t a sin, it’s a life. It’s built-in, and that being the case, God must approve since God made the person to be gay even as he made me to be straight.

But there’s no “smoking gun” in the Bible, and to the best of my knowledge, Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, David, Solomon, Jesus, Peter, and Paul…well, none of them were gay nor were any of them in a “loving same-sex relationship”.

Despite the vast number of laws and commandments, both biblical and rabbinic, the rabbis insist that sometimes we are beholden to an even higher standard. This is the idea of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, beyond the letter of the law. The sages recognize that one can observe the commandments and still engage in deplorable behavior, and they call one who does this naval b’reshut ha-torah, a scoundrel within the bounds of the law.

-from Walking with the Mitzvot, p.27
Edited by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
and Rabbi Patricia Fenton
Published by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
aju.edu (PDF)

So who is observing the commandments and still engaging in “deplorable behavior” as far as the current debate goes, the Church or the gay Christians in it? I suppose that remains to be seen.

flag

I’m going to the library in a few minutes (as I write this, I’ve already started the book as you read this) to check out the Michaelson book. I’ll try again. I want to be fair. But more than that, I want to do what God wants me to do. I’m pretty lousy at that sometimes, but I’ve got to keep trying.

dark starry night

Seeking God in His Creation

When God began to create heaven and earth…

-Genesis 1:1 (JPS Tanakh)

Without meaning in life even if you accomplish very much, have health and wealth, fame and fortune, there is a strong feeling that something is missing. It is. Without meaning there is no real enjoyment or satisfaction. Yes, a person can have moments of excitement, joy, and even ecstasy. But they are short-lived. When the high feelings settle down, there is emptiness. Nothing seems to really matter. But as soon as you internalize the awareness that there is a Creator of the universe, you see plan and purpose. There is an inner glow and drive for spiritual growth. Those who lack this realization see only the external actions and behaviors of those who live with the reality of the Almighty. They are unaware of the rich inner life of such a person. The true believer in the Creator is a fortunate person. He is the only one on the planet one should envy. He sees divinity in every flower and tree in every blade of grass. He sees the design of the Creator in every living creature. He sees something special in every human being. His life, regardless of how it unfolds, is full of purpose and meaning. While he appreciates this world as a gift of the Creator, he looks forward to an eternity of existence. This is the profound message of the first verse of the Torah.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Awareness of the Creator gives one meaning in life,” pp.18-19
Commentary on Torah Portion Braishis (Genesis)
Growth Through Torah

Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): Do you believe in fate, Neo?

Neo (Keanu Reeves): No.

Morpheus: Why not?

Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.

-from the film The Matrix (1999)

There are two types of people in the world, those who have faith and trust in God and those who don’t. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it seems to satisfy the quotes you’ve just read. According to Rabbi Pliskin, being a “true believer” grants an individual a direction, purpose, and goal for their entire life. No experience or living being is trivial or meaningless. The face of God can be seen in a rose, a blade of grass, a dragonfly…or a human being. But since we people of faith are still people, it’s difficult if not impossible to hold the realization of God in focus for every waking moment. However, when we do focus, the very act of breathing becomes incredible. Opening our eyes in the first few seconds of awakening in the morning becomes the beginning of an adventure. No wonder devout Jews recite Modeh Ani the moment they realize they have woken up and a new day has begun.

But the world is also populated with people like the fictional “Neo” who don’t like the idea that they aren’t in control of their lives. Acknowledging the existence of a living and personal God who is involved in human affairs right down to the level of the single individual means that we aren’t in control. Yes, we have choice, but not of how the universe is unfolding. In fact, we have only limited control over what’s going to occur in our own lives. We can eat healthy, exercise, earn a good living, buy a nice house, and plan for retirement, but who is to say when we might be hit by a bus, or some hidden defect in our heart results in it stopping? There are a thousand different things that could maim or kill us, not to mention all of the other events that might occur which we have positively never anticipated and that could totally change our lives.

CreationWhether it’s fate or God, you can not control everything.

But the realization that there is a Creator and the understanding of His nature changes everything. When the reality of God is fully embraced, us having control over our lives isn’t so important anymore. There’s a purpose written into the very fabric of the universe and we have the responsibility for tracking down the single thread in that overarching tapestry that represents us, and then discovering what that thread is and where it leads, for that is the place and purpose of our very souls in this world.

Sure beats waiting hours in line to buy the latest iPhone from Apple as the high point of the week.

“Knowledge of what you possess is the true wealth. If you are unaware of what you have, or are only faintly aware of its true nature, you actually do not possess it. Thus: ‘He who gives someone a gift should let him know’ (Baitzah 16a). When giving someone a watch, do not remove the slip which states that ‘this watch has an unbreakable crystal, 17 jewels, is shockproof, waterproof, and antimagnetic.’ Let him fully enjoy your gift. Therefore when the Creator gave this world to us, He informed us that all He created was very good.”

-R. Pliskin
“Keep in mind that the Almighty created the world for you to benefit from,” p.21

Although those who do not believe feel that they are in control and they are deriving great benefit from the world around them by virtue of their own independence, the reality is that they have no idea of the true treasure they possess. In this same commentary, Rabbi Pliskin quotes Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s comments about a man who has owned the same house on the same property for many years. Then one day, he receives a phone call from an old gentleman, the last survivor of a group who buried untold wealth in gems on the property thirty years before. This old man is about to die, but wanted the property owner to know where the treasure was so he might benefit by it.

The man owning the property hangs up the phone, goes to the location in his yard where the treasure was supposed to be buried, digs a hole, and discovers the story to be true. Suddenly he is overjoyed at being fabulously wealthy. But what changed? The treasure had been in his possession for thirty years. Only the man’s knowledge of it made the difference.

And so it is true with us. God has given each of us an unbelievable gift: life and the world around us and this, only for our benefit. But we only, truly benefit once we realize the gift exists, that there is a giver, and how to access the treasure.

Whenever you feel despair it is because you tell yourself that things are presently awful and that all is hopeless. At such moments you do not feel it possible that there will be a bright future. If, however, you keep in mind that the Almighty has the power to shine forth a magnificent light, you will overcome your negative attitude of despair. From the bottom of your heart you will call upon our Creator to shed light upon the world. Even before the light appears, you will be full of hope.

-ibid
“The Almighty sheds light even at the greatest moment of darkness,” p.20

Alone in silenceWithout an awareness of God and His gift to us, while we can have a good and satisfying life at times, that satisfaction requires continued effort on our part to seek out or generate the input necessary to provoke our satisfaction. That’s why the entertainment industry is so important for many people, and why there are millions who crave the very latest technological products available. Because without that constant stimulation, the emptiness of their lives and their worlds would become starkly apparent.

And in tragedy and darkness, when the worst possible event actually occurs, without God, even if surrounded by loved ones, you can feel abject loneliness and abandonment.

While even the awareness of God doesn’t always take away the sting of painful events or even the realization of loneliness (because we are human after all, and our faith and trust will never even begin to approach perfection), when we open ourselves up to God, He fills the void abundantly. There is hope in hopelessness, there is brilliant light, even for the blind. There is the knowledge that even if our current situation is difficult, it is temporary and will end, either later in this life, or for all eternity in the life of the world to come.

And we don’t have to wait to be in His Presence. He is always accessible:

Prayer is a time of transformation. Before a person speaks to God, he is alone and frightened, weak and torn by worries that threaten to overwhelm him. When the moment of prayer arrives, man understands that there is a sympathetic listener. He turns to his Father in Heaven and admits his frailties; he allows the weighty burdens to slip from his shoulders, in the comforting realization that he is not alone in his troubles. As the verse states (Tehillim 55:23): “Cast upon Hashem your burden, and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to falter.”

-A Daily Dose of Torah
Commentary on Parashas Bereishis
A Closer Look at the Siddur, p.9

Turn to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will cause you to rest. Accept upon yourself my yoke and learn from me, for I am humble and lowly in spirit, and you will find a resting place for your souls. For my yoke is pleasant and my burden is light.

-Matthew 11:28-30 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

With the beginning of a new year in the Biblical calendar, the beginning of a new Torah cycle, and the contemplation of possibly studying Mussar with an old friend, I’ve become rather reflective and pensive. In all the exegetical gymnastics we put ourselves through so we can make this point or that about the Bible in our blogs and websites, we focus on the details while ignoring the panoramic landscape. What is the analysis of an arcane verse in scripture if it doesn’t lead us to the face of God? What use is ferreting out the correct translation of a difficult term in Hebrew or Greek if we are unable to hear the words of wisdom in the Messiah’s own voice?

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

-1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NASB)

So where do we go, or rather, where do I go in moving forward from here?

When we recite ‘Bless the Lord, my soul’ we also conclude that God is infinite, that He is a necessary reality, for as we said, we cannot grasp non-existence of the entire universe, and just as our soul constantly seeks purpose as well as cause, so there must be cause and purpose in the Almighty’s action. If Man, God’s creation, has freedom of choice, certainly must God possess it.

All this is compressed into the two words “lekh lekha” — if you wish to seek for the Divine, seek not proofs in faraway places. Seek them within yourself, in your own soul. Know thyself, then you will know the autonomous essence of the world, the singular and the unique.

-Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
Commentary on Lekh Lekha
Chapter 1: Abraham Recognized His Creator, p.138
Translated by Kadish Goldberg
Jews, Judaism, & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

Inner lightFor those of us who see Yeshua HaMoshiach as the living realization of God’s redemptive plan for Israel and the world, whose very existence provides tangible proof of the coming of God’s New Covenant and the promise of “Knowing God” and immortal life in the resurrection, when we look God’s creation, we see people made in the image of God and Moshiach as our hope that God is all that He is said to be in the Bible and through the understanding of the Sages by inspiration of the Spirit.

The word was made flesh and dwelled in our midst. We have beheld his glory, like the glory of the father’s only son, great in kindness and truth. Yochanan testified about him and called out, saying, “Look! This is he of whom I said, ‘The one coming after me was before me, because he was prior to me.'” And from his fullness we all have received kindness upon kindness. For the Torah was given by Mosheh and the kindness and truth came through Yeshua the Mashiach. No one has ever seen God; the only son who is in the Father’s lap has made him known.

-John 1:14-19 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

To seek out the face of God and the truth of Messiah, we need only to start with ourselves and then work our way outward to the revelation of God in His Creation (for we are His Creation) and His revealed Word, which also became flesh, and now sits at the right hand of the Father, may glory and honor and praise be His forever and ever.

Amen.

Walking to the Temple

Israel and the Nations in the House of God

True, that particular parcel of land was later named Eretz Yisrael, but even then we saw not a small piece of land, but a polished mirror, reflecting the entire world. In this land will rise up the mount of the Lord “and to it shall flow all to the nations.” On this mount will stand the House of the Lord, “it shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”

-Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
Commentary on Lekh Lekha
Chapter 1: Abraham Recognized His Creator, p.135
Translated by Kadish Goldberg
Jews, Judaism, & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

As Christians (or “Messianic Gentiles” if you prefer), we have our own ideas of how God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob somehow play in to attaching the non-Jewish people groups of the world to the God of Israel. It’s true that we disagree on many of the specifics of the New Covenant and how faith in the accomplished work of Messiah grafts us into the root, and we argue about those opinions day and night, typically by blogging.

Every so often, we employ the classic Jewish writings, not those found in the Bible, but those written afterward, sometimes many centuries afterward, to somehow prove our point. We conveniently forget that these Jewish sages and teachers would not have said or done anything they thought might give credence to the idea that the “founder of the Christian religion,” that is to say “Jesus” (Yeshua) could possibly be the Messiah, let alone of a Divine nature.

However, I believe that only by viewing the Bible through a “Jewish lens” and reading the sacred writings in as close an approximation as possible to how the original audience would have understood them, will we ever come close to capturing the true intent of not only the human writers, but of the Holy Spirit that inspired them. Thus, when I read Rabbi Amiel’s commentaries, which include his insights as to just how the rest of the world was supposed to be attracted to the God of Israel, I become interested.

amiel
Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel

One caveat, though. We can’t read too much into these commentaries for, as I said above, R. Amiel and the sources he quotes would not be considering Jesus in any favorable light, given the long history of enmity that existed between our two faith groups. Nevertheless,I think by examining the Jewish perception of drawing the Gentiles near, we might gain some insights into how we Gentiles might better approach Hashem, God of the Hebrews.

“The Holy One, blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations so that they would attract converts, as it is said, ‘and I shall plant her in the land’ — does one sow a se’ah unless he expects to reap several koor?” (Tractate Pesachim 87b.)

So it was with the first Jew, our father Abraham. His history, as described in the portion of Lekh Lekha, began in Galut, outside the Land of Israel. He, too, was exiled from his land and birthplace only in order to increase proselytes, as is written ‘and all the families on earth will be blessed through you.’

-Amiel
Chapter 2: Our Father Abraham’s Mission, p.141

Of course in Abraham’s day, Judaism, as such, did not exist. Abraham is noteworthy for coming to faith in the One God of all and acknowledging Him as his personal God. We do know from the Bible and midrash, that Abraham did “make souls” or taught his servants and others the ways of God, but would these people have “converted” to anything and if so, what?

His “converts” were not formally converted. Among the seventy souls who went down to Egypt, no mention is made of any converts. They were converted ideologically. They were influenced by Abraham’s noble spirit…

…Thus, the converts whom we are to attract through our exile among the nations are not formal converts — for “converts are as troublesome for Israel as is a skin affliction.” The converts referred to by the Rabbis are persons who are influenced in varying degrees by our sublime fragrance.

-ibid, pp.141-2

With the caveat I mentioned above in mind, how can we compare this to the actual result of the people of the nations being drawn to the God of Israel in the days of Messiah and afterward?

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

-Matthew 28:19-20 (NASB)

“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law…

…But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”

-Acts 21:20, 25

AbrahamSeemingly, there is a parallel between R. Amiel’s interpretation of the “mission of Abraham” to the nations and the mission to the Gentiles initiated by Yeshua and acted upon by Paul, James, and the Apostles. There’s a conversion without a conversion happening. Gentiles are added to the ranks of the ekklesia of Messiah without any formal conversion such as was typical of the proselyte rite in the late Second Temple period.

But how does R. Amiel and the Judaism he represents imagine this was to be done? Certainly not in the matter that the Christian believes.

“‘And I will make you into a great nation’ — therefore we say ‘God of Abraham.’ ‘And I will bless you’ — therefore we say ‘God of Isaac.’ ‘And I will make your name famous’ — therefore we say ‘God of Jacob.’ Are we then to conclude [the first blessing of the Amidah prayer] with all three? The verse specifies, ‘And you will be a blessing’ — we conclude with ‘you’ (singular), not with all three.

-Tractate Pesachim

Not only do the world’s three major faiths, our holy faith and those of the Christians and the Moslems, base themselves theologically upon our Holy Torah. Not only do they draw life-giving waters from our fountainhead, they also relate to us genealogically.

-Amiel
Chapter 3: God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, p.145

You may be aware that Abraham fathered both Ishmael, who became the father of the Arabs and is claimed by Islam, and Isaac, who, through his son Jacob, became the scion of the twelve tribes and finally the Jewish people. But how do Christians derive a genealogical connection to Abraham?

Esau, as you may have read, is Edom, a people who are thought to be the distant ancestors of the Romans, these are the Gentile nations from R. Amiel’s point of view, and thus the Christians, since Christians, by definition, are not Jewish (if that statement makes you uncomfortable when you think of “Hebrew Christians,” remember the Rav’s perspective on the matter is thoroughly Jewish and not easily adapted to Christianity’s framework of conceptualization).

But wait a minute. If both Islam and Christianity can be considered in some manner as physical descendants of Abraham, do we Christians then inherit all of the promises God made to Abraham including possession of the Land of Israel?

Hold your horses and remember your Bible. Even if the Gentile Christians are both “spiritual” and physical descendants of Abraham, there is this:

But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named.”

-Genesis 21:12

Now Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac; but to the sons of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the east.

-Genesis 25:5-6

interfaithIt is only through Isaac that the promises of God are carried on to the next generation and beyond, not through Ishmael or any of Abraham’s other children. Furthermore, of Isaac’s sons, only Jacob inherits both the birthright and the blessing of the first-born.

As it is written, God spoke to Jacob:

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

-Genesis 28:13-15

Thus as we see in Tractate Pesachim, it is only through Abraham and through Isaac, and through Jacob that all of God’s promises are carried out. It is true that based on the commentary, we can consider Abraham the father to other nations, physically the Arab people, and midrashically the Christians, but that makes neither people or religion Jewish.

Expanding on his point, R. Amiel writes:

‘And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.’ Of the End of Days, when ‘the Temple Mount shall be the highest of all, towering above the hills,’ it is written that ‘many nations will come streaming to it.’ This is to say that even though ‘the Lord shall be one and His name shall be One,’ all the nations of the world will not fuse into one nation. There will remain diverse peoples. National differentiation actually contributes significantly to human development, bringing not curses but blessings. But ‘many nations will come streaming to it,’ — all will flow to one central point, to the Mountain of the Lord which ‘shall be the highest of all, towering above the hills.’ Or, as the Torah says, ‘through you will be blessed all the families [plural!] of the earth.’ (emph. mine)

-Amiel, p.147

Up to JerusalemAs I said, the Rav isn’t going to take any Christian innovations regarding Biblical interpretation into account, so it would be easy to discount his comment above based on that. On the other hand, I think there’s some merit to the idea that, by viewing the Bible a bit more “Judaically,” we can get a more accurate picture not only of how Judaism sees the final resolution of the Gentiles to God, but perhaps how the original Jewish writers of the Bible saw this conclusion of human history.

For me, this does re-enforce my currently held belief that the peoples of all the nations remain distinct national groups differentiated from Israel and from each other, and yet all drawn to One God and One place, the Temple, to worship Him in the “House of Prayer for all peoples”.

I’ve said before that it is at least plausible to consider that when the Master issued his Matthew 28:19-20 directive, the Apostles likely believed they would comply by employing the traditional proselyte rite, bringing the Gentiles into discipleship by converting them to Judaism. This, though, violates prophesy as R. Amiel has pointed out. It is clear that the Gentiles were to be drawn near to God as Gentiles.

The Apostle Paul was the one to see this most clearly, but how does Judaism see it standing on the outside of the Apostolic Scriptures and looking in, so to speak?

What prevented their mass conversion was the law of brit milah, ritual circumcision, for they found that particular commandment to be the most difficult of all. The founder of the faith of the “New Testament” exploited this fear of circumcision and prevented the fulfillment of the promise ‘and I will make you a great nation.” Thus Israel is ‘the smallest of nations.”

-ibid, p.148

This is the Rav’s explanation for how Christianity “morphed” into its own, separate religious expression. Like the ancient Apostles, he believes the proper way to fulfill the prophesies is to convert Gentiles into Judaism, making Abraham’s descendants as numerous than the stars (Genesis 15:5). But this contradicts his view that the people of the nations will draw near to God as people of the nations and not as proselytes. R. Amiel’s only apparent option within his contextual framework, is to have the Gentiles “convert” in the sense of becoming Noahides, righteous Gentiles, which would satisfy the requirement of them retaining their national identity while still honoring the One God of Israel.

R. Amiel acknowledges that Abraham is the father of many nations and that the people of the nations are blessed through him, but the “nations inherited the legacy only partially; we (Jews) inherited it in its entirety.” (p.149)

My respectful response to the esteemed Rav is “yes and no.” I agree that we Gentile believers are not Israel and yet, we are not to be compared to the generic nations of the earth. Even if those nations comply with the Noahide Laws, that doesn’t provide those of us who are grafted in to the root through our faith in Messiah access to the New Covenant blessings. This is something that Rabbi Amiel could not anticipate, but we can. We can take what is valuable from the esteemed and honored sages, and in this case, look at it through a New Covenant lens in order to glean what is of value there.

Restoration
Photo: First Fruits of Zion

I mean no disrespect to Rabbi Amiel, those other Rabbis who contributed to the publication of his book, or the long history of the Sages in Judaism, but even as they were inspired and even as they possess authority from God to make halachah for their generations, they were also men, and as men, given the struggles of the last twenty centuries, there were places they just could not see and knowledge they couldn’t assimilate. No one comes to God without the involvement of the Holy Spirit. To everyone else, the good news of the Messiah doesn’t make a lot of sense:

For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

-1 Corinthians 1:22-25

All people, Jewish and non-Jewish, come with blind spots that can only be clarified through the Spirit of God. I suppose God could just re-write our programming and the entire world could wake up one morning all declaring faith in Christ and him crucified, but that’s not God’s plan. It would be easier if it were, but God left human free will intact. We have to be willing to hear the messages of the Gospel, and having heard them, we have to be willing to believe and then act on that belief.

The call of the Master is like hearing a knock on your front door. Is it a thief or a benefactor? We won’t know until we open the door, but if we’re wrong, then it’s too late to save ourselves of any threat that might enter. But if we take the risk and open the door, he will come in and with him…freedom.

May we all meet together one day on the Mountain of God, and may we join in prayer in His House.

‘And the souls which they had made in Charan.’

Reish Lakish said, “Whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah is considered by Scripture as though he himself had made [created] him, for it is said, ‘And the souls which they had made…'”

-Amiel
Chapter 4: Flesh and Soul, p.151

punk rockers

Relative Righteousness

‘This is the story of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and wholehearted.’

What is the implication of ‘his generations’? Rabbi Yochanan said, “Only in his generations, but not in others.”

Reish Lakish said, “If in his generations, then certainly in other generations.”

-Tractate Sanhedrin 108a

Rabbi Yochanan acted in accordance with the noble precept “judge every person positively.” If the text lends itself to both laudatory and pejorative readings, then certainly a man described by the Torah as ‘a man righteous and wholehearted’ should be given the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the Torah itself deprecates Noah for not having tried to influence others, in contrast to our father Abraham, about whom the Torah testifies ‘and the souls they had acquired (lit., “had made”) in Charan.’ The Rabbis explain: “He (Abraham) brought them under the wings of the Holy Presence, Abraham converting the men and Sarah the women. The Torah reckons this as if they had made them” (Tractate Sanhedrin 99b). Except for his immediate family, Noah “made” not a single soul and seemed uninterested in the fate of contemporary humanity.

-Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
Chapter 1: A Tzaddik in His Generations, p.95
Translated by Kadish Goldberg
Jews, Judaism, & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

I’ve read this criticism before. There’s more than a hint of “superiority” in attributing higher or better motives to Abraham, the first Hebrew, than to Noah who was a Gentile, at least on the surface. Of course, if Rabbi Yochanan is correct, then Noah really did forsake even the attempt to inspire anyone in his generation besides his family to repent of their sins and thus be saved of the coming destruction of the flood.

On the other hand, how can Reish Lakish possibly be right, since there is evidence showing that Abraham but not Noah had disciples who were devoted to the One God?

If, however, we assume that the leader is forged by his generation, the picture is reversed. Noah’s stature surpasses that of Abraham. Abraham functioned in a society amenable to moral improvement, wherein one could “make souls.” Noah lived in a totally corrupt society, yet remained unblemished by its immoral influences.

-Amiel, p.96

This doesn’t tell us if Noah tried to save anyone, but it does suggest that he would have universally failed, given the abject corrupt nature of the society around him.

All this is conjecture, of course, but have you ever wondered if the world we live in today is more like Noah’s or Abraham’s?

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.”

-Matthew 24:36-39 (NASB)

We can see that Jesus (Yeshua) is drawing a comparison between the days of Noah and the days of Messiah’s eventual return. In both cases, the general public didn’t have a clue that their time had come and that a revolutionary act of God was imminent. People will still be carrying on “business as usual” right up until the end.

stained glass jesusBut we can’t necessarily extend the comparison to include relative levels of corruption. After all, in the current age, people do respond to Christian missionary efforts and become disciples of Jesus and even some Jews and Gentiles have come to the realization of the revelation of the Jewish Messiah as the Jewish Messiah rather than the Goyishe King, if you’ll pardon my making a distinction.

Beyond the presumed difference in behavior in Noah and Abraham that Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish represent, there’s the idea that God will continue to offer redemption should a generation be open to it, and withdraw that option should that generation be totally cold to God. Does God ever give up on an entire people group?

As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying,

“To your descendants I have given this land,
From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”

-Genesis 15:15-21

Although God promises the Land of Canaan as a permanent inheritance to Abraham’s descendants, they would not be allowed to take possession of that Land until the current inhabitants had become so corrupt that they were (presumably) unable to be redeemed. This seems to indicate some sort of spiritual or moral “cut off point,” a state that once entered into can never be reversed.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”

-Exodus 32:7-10

It seems like Israel had crossed that “line in the sand” or at least was standing right on top of it. If Moses hadn’t pleaded with God for Israel (Exodus 32:11-14), then the inheritors of the Land would only have come from the tribe of Levi, that is, the descendants of Moses.

That last point is debatable however, and God could have been testing Moses the way He tested Abraham at the Akedah (Gen. 22:1–19).

The famous “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20) as Christianity calls it, was Messiah’s directive to his Jewish Apostles to do what had never been done before; make disciples of the people of the nations without requiring them to undergo the proselyte rite and convert to Judaism. It may have been (and I’m extending the previously mentioned midrash about Noah and Abraham) that like the people of Noah’s generation, the Gentiles were considered unable to be redeemed unless they converted and joined Israel and Jewish people “lock, stock, and barrel,” so to speak. If a Gentile were permitted entry into the ekklesia of Messiah and to remain a Gentile, was such a thing even possible?

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

-Acts 15:1-2

Peter's visionMany Jews didn’t seem to think so, not because they were mean-spirited or had anything against Gentiles as such, but because it seemed like a spiritual and covenantal impossibility. Even Peter, if he hadn’t experienced his vision (Acts 10:9-16),would never have understood that it was possible for Gentiles to be redeemed.

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.

-Acts 10:28

See? The vision was a metaphor, not a literal reality. It was never about food. It was about people.

Opening his mouth, Peter said:

“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God.

-Acts 10:34-35, 44-46

Obviously, those late Second Temple period Jews who thought Gentiles could not be brought to God on equal terms and yet remain Gentiles were wrong, but it took a lot of convincing. In fact, Luke’s Book of Acts and many of Paul’s epistles testify to how eagerly thousands upon thousands of Gentiles accepted the discipleship of Yeshua upon themselves, receiving the Spirit and the promise of the resurrection.

But what about we believers today? Oh yes, Christians sometimes go door-to-door passing out religious tracts, send missionaries to far away lands to preach the word of the Gospel, and otherwise proselytize the people around them, but do we ever give up on individuals or, Heaven forbid, entire groups of people?

For Easter one year, the church where I first became a believer many years ago, created a video project. They went to Portland and deliberately approached people who seemed extraordinarily (from these Christians’ point of view) unlikely to accept Christ or even to know much about him. The people they captured on video tape seemed to be what I believe were/are called punk rockers, people, with spiked, multi-colored hair and a proliferation of body piercings; people who didn’t look at all like the “clean-cut” Christians from that church in Boise, Idaho, who typically were socially and politically conservative, and most of whom were educated professionals.

When we screened some of the raw video prior to editing, a lot of people around me in the audience were laughing and making fun of the answers the “subjects” gave in response to the Christian interviewer’s questions about Jesus and Easter.

I was disgusted.

If that had happened today, I certainly would have spoken up, but way back then, I was considered what is called a “baby Christian,” someone new to the faith. I had very little experience as a Christian and didn’t know how or even if this was to be considered normal for a believer. All I knew was that a year from that point, none of the people in that Church would know if anyone they had spoken to in Portland might have made a confession of faith and become a brother or sister in Christ. They’d just written these folks off. More’s the pity.

Who are we? Are we worthy to be called by His Name?

Well, no one is worthy, but by our behavior, by our attitude toward individuals or entire groups or “types” of people, do be sanctify or desecrate the Name of God?

unworthyI can’t tell you about Noah’s righteousness relative to Abraham’s with any certainty, or for that matter, in relation to Moses, but I can tell you that the next time you see another believer operating with a “holier than thou” attitude (or the next time you operate with that attitude), chances are, the second you started making fun of someone else or denigrating them for some flaw or problem they possess, you ceased to have any claim to any righteousness you thought you had.

…as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one…

-Romans 3:10

So what’s the cure for this sickness of self-righteousness?

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent…each of you…”

-Acts 2:37-38

Peter said other things, but I’m assuming that it is as believers we need to repent of how we judge others, not as those who still need to be baptized by the merit of Moshiach. But then again, if we are capable of acts of cruelty or even just indifference to whole populations of people because they don’t look, talk, or act like us, maybe we are not really disciples of the Master at all.

“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'”

-Matthew 7:23

torn veil

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Full Assurance of Faith

“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” “I’m not holier than thou, I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” Something has gone terribly wrong with our thinking if we believe that the only difference between a believer and a non-believer is that the believer is forgiven and assured of eternal life. That’s a useless, selfish, hypocritical religious idea which deserves a slap in the face. It’s not worthy of the name “Christian,” the name of Messiah, and it sullies the reputation of our holy Master. Hebrews 10:18-31 contains a stern warning and exhortation to the upward call of discipleship and the demands of new-covenant living.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Thirty-Nine: Full Assurance of Faith
Originally presented on January 18, 2014
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

This doesn’t have anything to do with the topic, but I listened to Lancaster’s sermon with my laptop in my sukkah a few afternoons ago. Yes, WiFi is great.

Lancaster started out by discussing a song by Paul Wilbur called I Enter the Holy of Holies. I liked a number of Wilbur’s songs but don’t have an opportunity to listen to them anymore. But this specific reference has less to do with worship music, and more to do with the topic of our study:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…

-Hebrews 10:19 (NASB)

But how can we, or anyone but the High Priest, enter the Holy of Holies? Even the High Priest enters the Most Holy Place only once a year on Yom Kippur. The song is nice. It’s inspiring. But it’s not meant to be a theological roadmap as such. Let’s see a little more context:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

-Hebrews 10:19-22

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.

-Matthew 27:50-51

Lancaster says it’s important to realize that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is speaking figuratively, not literally. These verses aren’t permission for just plain ol’ folks, Jews or otherwise, to go “tramping” through the Holy of Holies. Even Jesus couldn’t enter the Holy of Holies of the earthly Temple in Jerusalem (before or after his death and resurrection) because he is not an Aaronic priest.

TempleThese verses are to indicate that we have access to God through the Heavenly Temple and our Heavenly High Priest, who is indeed Yeshua. We can draw near by appealing to our High Priest, our mediator of the New Covenant.

The veil is symbolic of his flesh, as the verses above tell us. Also, to “draw near” is technical language for bringing a sacrifice. When a person, usually Jewish but Gentiles could do so as well, desired an encounter with God in the days of the Temple, they could bring a sacrifice, a korban, to the Temple and indeed, physically, literally, draw near to the Divine Presence.

The readers of this letter are, according to Lancaster, Greek-speaking Jews living in or near Jerusalem, disciples of Yeshua who have been denied access to the Temple. The Hebrews letter writer is trying to reassure them that if they cannot draw near to God in the earthly Temple, they can still do so through their faith in the Heavenly High Priest who presides over the Heavenly Temple.

But this has applications for us as well. After all, there is no Temple in Jerusalem today, so even if we desired with all our heart to draw near to the Divine Presence, it is impossible to do so.

But Lancaster says that we are designed to desire closeness with God. How can we do this? We have the blessings of the New Covenant, but the New Covenant promises have yet to arrive. How do we summon the future into the present?

Through the verses I quoted above. Through having “confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…He inaugurated (the way) for us through the veil (which is) his flesh.” We have “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies (are) washed with pure water.”

The writer of Hebrews is speaking about all this in the present tense. We, and the letter’s original readers, are supposed to be transforming into “Kingdom people” right now. That’s how we “draw near”.

For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 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.

-Ezekiel 36:24-27

The writer of Hebrews could well have been thinking about Ezekiel 36 when he wrote about “hearts sprinkled clean” and “bodies watched with pure water” which is also part of the Yom Kippur service. But the exile hasn’t ended, the Jews have not be regathered, and no, we do not yet have a new heart and a new spirit. That’s for the future.

But as people of faith, we are responsible to live as if the New Covenant age is already here, even though our current world is still full of sin. We must live a transformed or at least a transforming life, rather than a life just like everybody else.

Lancaster calls us tokens of the future in the present world. We are ambassadors of the Messianic future, and that should show in our lives; we should live supernatural lives.

At the very top of this blog post, I inserted a quote that introduces today’s sermon. Lancaster considers it insulting that Christians cheapen themselves by saying they’re (we’re) just like everyone else, only forgiven, as if we live lives identical to our secular counterparts and the only distinction between them and us is that we are forgiven because we believe in Jesus.

synagogueSure, we’re not perfect, but we should be living lives Holy and specifically distinct from our secular neighbors. Just as the readers of this letter were tempted to waver and even to renounce their faith for the sake of possibly regaining access to the Jerusalem Temple (verse 23), believers today waver from their faith and live watered down lives rather than pursuing a closer encounter with God.

Next, Lancaster touched on a subject that has been on my mind lately.

… and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

-Hebrews 10:24-25

Why is the letter writer saying this? In Jerusalem, the faithful among the Jews met daily at the Temple for the prayers. As far as we know, they had no other meeting place, no “Messianic synagogue” as it were.

Why do we worship together? Is the letter writer even issuing a directive that we can generalize to us, to me today? People meet to sing, worship, pray, study, listen to sermons, but most or all of that could be done at home. Lancaster says the Hebrews letter specifies the more important reasons. To encourage one another in our faith and confession. To build each other up. To apply positive peer pressure to live more Godly lives. It’s sociology, not theology.

In my current situation, my most likely options for further fellowship are in the virtual, that is, the online realm, but I don’t know how well that works if verses 24 and 25 are the key reasons for congregational connectedness.

Then Lancaster gets very passionate:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.

-Hebrews 10:26-27

Lancaster calls these verses the “smack down” of this chapter. Once we become believers, there’s no turning back. Either we commit wholeheartedly to living a transformed life and continually becoming perfected in our faith, or we join the enemies of God in harsh judgment and its consequences.

The Death of the MasterLancaster said that, “Messiah died to take away sin, not to excuse it.”

This reminded me of how even among different churches and synagogues, people are dancing on both sides of some serious social topics in an attempt to be people of faith and yet fit in with the rest of the world and what the world (though not necessarily God) thinks is important and right. If you are living a Holy life, your life should not be in synch with the popular and progressive imperatives of our secular society (and political affiliation is beside the point).

Sorry.

Now this is interesting:

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

-Hebrews 10:28-31

This is still in the present tense and remember the writer and readers of this letter are all Jewish. The letter writer is impressing upon his audience, using a lighter to heavier argument (we’ve seen this before), that if setting aside the Torah can result in a death sentence, how much more serious is it to trample underfoot the Son of God. Yes, it’s serious for a Jew to violate the Shabbat but it’s even more serious to consider the righteous and Holy sacrifice of Messiah as unclean and common.

This is a stern warning that even under extreme provocation, the consequences of abandoning faith in Messiah are terrifying.

You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.

-1 John 3:5-6

This makes it sound like we should never, ever sin, not even once after we become believers, but what the apostle is saying is that we should continually strive to become more spiritually perfected, not that we’ll ever be perfect this side of the resurrection, but that we shouldn’t just put up with a certain level of sinning in our lives as if it is inevitable.

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

-Philippians 3:12-14

The Jewish PaulEven Paul said he hadn’t obtained perfection but it was a goal he always moved toward, he pressed on, even though he hadn’t yet put his hands on it. That’s what we’re supposed to do.

Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.

-Philippians 3:15-16

For Lancaster, this is a key statement. We need to keep striving to live by the standard that we are pursuing, the standard of a Holy and righteous life, to live, not natural lives as the rest of the world does, but supernatural lives. This is how we draw nearer to God and draw the Messianic Age nearer to our present reality.

What Did I Learn?

When I was reading in Matthew 27 about the tearing of the veil, I noted the verses that immediately followed:

The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.

-Matthew 27:52-53

No other Gospel writer mentions this event, but for Matthew, who was writing to a Jewish audience just as the Hebrews writer was, one of the strongest promises of the New Covenant is the resurrection of the dead. The death of Jesus was immediately followed by the tearing of the veil and the resurrection of people who were recognizably Jewish tzaddikim must have been terrifically obvious signs of who and what Jesus was and is. Even a Roman centurion present picked up on it:

Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

-Matthew 27:54

I had noted each of these events separately, but putting them together relative to the New Covenant gives them a lot more meaning than just a series of supernatural events related to the death of Jesus. This moment in time formally set into motion the beginning of the entry of the New Covenant into our world and these events were part of the evidence.

But that was almost two-thousand years ago and most people in the world today don’t even think of the Bible as evidence of anything real and applicable to their lives.

That’s why they have us.

Lancaster said that we have to make a difference and we do that by adhering to a standard set before us by God, a standard to live lives of Holiness and excellence, as if the New Covenant were already here, as if we had already been resurrected, as if our hearts of stone had already been replaced by hearts of flesh and we were filled with the Holy Spirit to such abundance that we all “know God” in a manner greater than all the prophets of old.

Imagining myself living a “supernatural life” isn’t always an easy thing for me. I can’t picture myself “checking my brain at the door,” so to speak, and just relying upon my feelings as the means by which I draw nearer to God. I know that isn’t what Lancaster (or those few others in my life who encourage me to also be more “supernatural”) is saying, but it feels like what he’s (they’re) saying.

with godI think what he’s actually saying is that we can live better lives behaviorally, and we can be better people than we think we are. If we tried to be better just by force of will, we might make some temporary achievements, but most of us would fall back into our usual flight patterns after a while. Our natural methods wouldn’t work out in the long run. Only the supernatural methods, by faith, by continually striving for an authentic encounter with God, will grant us access to transforming and perfecting our lives, little by little, bit by bit, until the evidence of God is undeniably visible in everything we do.

Then we will be the evidence that God is real and that His promises are true. They will happen because they’re happening now, through us.

"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

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