Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Sacrifice of Praise

How can we worship God without the sacrifices?” The epistle of the Hebrews points us to the text of Hosea 14:2 to answer this question, employing the same proof text and arriving at nearly the same conclusion that the sages of Yavneh offered after the destruction of the Temple. That prescient message anticipated the coming exile and offered Israel a survival guide for the long years ahead without sacrifice, without priest, and without temple.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Forty-six: Sacrifice of Praise
Originally presented on March 22, 2014
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Lancaster started his final sermon in his “Hebrews” series in what I thought was an odd place:

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer.

-Acts 3:1 (NASB)

You may or may not know about the Tamid or the continual burnt offering which was presented on the altar twice daily, once in the morning for the Shacharit service and once in the afternoon, at the ninth hour, for the Maariv service.

Lancaster takes his audience on a short trip through the Apostolic Scriptures to demonstrate that Yeshua (Jesus) and his Jewish disciples were devoted to worshiping in the Temple in Jerusalem “continually” (Luke 24:53), “every day” (Acts 5:42), being devoted to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42). And the set times of the prayers were at Shacharit and Maariv when a fresh lamb would be placed on the altar to burn from morning to afternoon, and then from afternoon and throughout the night, a sacrifice continually before the Lord.

For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises…

-Romans 9:3-5 (emph. mine)

As we see, even when the Temple stood, the prayer services and the sacrifices were inexorably linked. There was no one or the other in Jewish thought. The singing and the prayers were always part of the sacrificial system that God gave to the Jewish people. This is how God said He wanted His people Israel to worship Him.

But on the 17th day of Tammuz in the year 70 C.E., all that ended. The siege of Jerusalem began and the supply of lambs was cut off. Except for the time of the Maccabees, the Tamid sacrifice had been offered day after day for five hundred years, and before the Babylonian exile, an additional 400 years. For almost a thousand years, morning and afternoon, the priests placed a lamb on the altar to burn continually before God.

And now it was all over, and the Tamid cannot be offered to this very day.

How could the Jewish people imagine worshiping God without the Temple and the sacrifices? This was how God said He was to be worshiped and now it is impossible. The grief, sorrow, and separation from God must have been almost unimaginable.

But even before the Temple was destroyed and years if not decades before the Roman siege on Jerusalem began, the Greek-speaking Jewish disciples of Messiah, the readers of this epistle we’ve been discussing for the past year, were asking themselves the same question.

And here’s the answer:

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
For you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take words with you and return to the Lord.
Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity
And receive us graciously,
That we may present the fruit of our lips.

-Hosea 14:1-2

In verse two, the phrase “fruit of our lips” isn’t quite correct. The Hebrew literally says bulls of our lips,” but that sounded strange to those who later translated the Jewish texts into Greek, so those translators changed the Hebrew word slightly to say “fruit”.

The Sacrifice - detailBut Hosea knew what he was trying to say to his audience, the Hebrews who were offering sacrifices, not in the Temple in Jerusalem which is the only place on Earth God has said it was His will that the sacrifices be made, but to Golden Calves, one in Dan and the other in Bethel.

What did the prophet call for them to do? Return and repent…to offer “words” which are words of repentance and prayer.

Lancaster quoted from Exodus Rabbah to illustrate that after the Temple was destroyed, the sages used these verses from Hosea to salvage Judaism, to design the synagogue system with its daily times of prayers that correspond to the times of the Tamid sacrifices at the Temple, and in which each prayer maps to a specific sacrifice.

Now we get to the end of the Book of Hebrews.

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.

-Hebrews 13:15 (emph. mine)

When a Christian sees this verse and thinks about continually offering prayer, they think “prayer without ceasing,” but that’s not how this passage is meant to be read within the context of first century Judaism. “Continually” summons the ritual of the Tamid sacrifices and the daily set times of prayer, and we see “fruit of lips” being rendered in the Greek but which refers to the original meaning of “bulls”.

So, long before the Rabbinic sages determined that the only way to continue to obey God and to worship Him was to substitute the prayers for the sacrifices in the Temple, it was already being addressed by the Prophet Hosea and much later, by the writer of the Hebrews letter.

But for the readers of the epistle and for all of their Jewish brothers and sisters, it was well-known that one does not offer a sacrifice without a priest. So if prayers are to substitute for sacrifices, then they are offered through the High Priest in the Heavenly Temple, through Yeshua.

But that’s not all of the answer, just most of it.

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit (bulls) of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

-Hebrews 13:15-16

The whole answer of how a Jewish person was to worship God without the Temple was through:

  • The set times of prayer
  • Doing good
  • Sharing with others

And on this answer was built the entire Jewish liturgical prayer service we see in the synagogue today. What served as a word of exhortation for the Yeshua-believing Jews cut off from the Temple service by the Sadducees while the Temple was still standing, became the answer for untold generations of Jews who have lived and died since the destruction of Jerusalem nearly two-thousand years ago.

Lancaster (and he delivered this sermon about eight months ago) said he had just read Aaron Eby’s book, which I have recently mentioned, First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer. He quoted from Aaron’s book saying that if one only used liturgical prayer in worshiping God and only prayed with a minyan, then that person would be missing out on something, for the prayer service can be “tragically impersonal”.

Judaism makes a distinction between corporate and personal prayer, and man was meant to engage in both. Participation in the Jewish prayer services, at least in some small manner, is as if you have participated in the Temple services, which as Lancaster mentioned, is quite a privilege for a Messianic Gentile. It also summons the prophesy that God’s Temple will be a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:7, Matthew 21:13).

What Did I Learn?

I was struck with Lancaster’s presentation of how Judaism was salvaged by the sages on the strength of Hosea 14:1-2. I know many Christians who love the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. However, they just don’t love Judaism. They expect those Jews who enter the Messianic Age to come will convert to Christianity and leave Judaism behind. They can’t imagine that the salvation of the practice of Judaism is a good thing or in any sense, could be pleasing to God. They think Judaism is a man-made religion of vain works, manufactured in order to replace the Biblical commandments God issued to Israel telling them how He wants to be worshiped.

synagogueBut Lancaster makes a good case for the synagogue service being a continuation of Biblical instruction and a direct response to the commandments to make teshuvah and return to God through the prayers (avoda), through good deeds (the mitzvot), and charity (tzedakah).

This is how the very first non-Jewish disciples of Messiah would have worshiped alongside their Jewish teachers and mentors. This is how the disciples Paul made in Antioch would have served God, through the set times of prayer, doing good deeds, and through acts of charity. It must have looked very Jewish.

Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.

-Acts 10:1-2 (emph. mine)

Cornelius didn’t pray without ever stopping, he prayed at the set times of the Tamid offerings. I knew this based on other verses in this chapter, but Lancaster’s example is just one more support for this belief.

In all good conscience, I don’t think we Gentile Christians have much of a leg to stand on if we oppose Messianic Jews practicing (Messianic) Judaism and speak against the synagogue service. If we can accept, even to the smallest degree, that the sages had (and have) a right and responsibility to shepherd the Jewish people in the continuation of devotion to God after the destruction of Jerusalem, then who is to say that their interpretation and application of Hosea 14:1-2 is wrong? Who is to say that Messianic Jews continuing the practice of Judaism as it was established at the beginning of the modern era, and as it has been developed by the Rabbinic sages over the long centuries is wrong?

Maybe it really is a privilege for Messianic Gentiles like me to be able to participate in the synagogue service in anticipation of entering the Temple and praying in God’s House in the days of Messiah.

Conclusion

This has been a long study but an enjoyable one. I was speaking with a friend the other day about some of Lancaster’s points on this epistle, and I could tell by his facial expression and his deliberate silence that he didn’t agree with everything I was saying. That’s OK. It’s possible that Lancaster isn’t 100% correct in each and every little detail, but which Biblical teacher or scholar is? I am still reasonably convinced that Lancaster’s interpretation is viable and sustainable, and it has the advantage of agreeing with the rest of the Bible, especially the Torah and the Prophets, rather than contradicting it and rather than contradicting what I believe to be the will of God for the Jewish people, for the nation of Israel, for the Jewish practice of Judaism, and for the future Messianic Age.

This epistle has been a royal pain in my neck for a long time. It just seemed to say many things that directly went against what I read in the rest of the Bible, including the other portions of the Apostolic Scriptures. This “proof” that Jesus and the spiritual world replaced the Temple, the Torah, the Priests, and everything God said in the first two-thirds of the Bible has never set well with me but it’s in the Bible so what was I to do? Yes, I heard of one guy who made a big deal in certain circles of saying that the Book of Hebrews was either mistakenly canonized or was admitted into canon by Gentile believers in an attempt (apparently a successful one) to remove all vestiges of Judaism from Gentile Christian practice and theology.

As it turns out, such a rejection of scripture isn’t necessary. What is necessary is to engage the text on its own terms and within its own context, not through the lens of almost twenty centuries of Christian interpretive tradition, reinventing the wheel, and revisionist history.

Rolling the Torah ScrollLike my friend, you may choose not to agree with how Lancaster interprets Hebrews but I think his sermons and this study shows that the problem may not be with the Bible but with the traditions we use to read it. Lancaster chooses to use Jewish traditions which renders the meaning of the epistle in a very different and, in my opinion, refreshing way.

I don’t know if I’m ready to jump into another commitment to a recorded series on the heels of ending this one. I could use a break. Besides, I have plenty of other things I can write about.

I hope you enjoyed these reviews as much as I enjoyed listening to Lancaster’s sermons on the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews.

The Lie Being Told about Ferguson and Israel

This is one of those rare occasions when The Mike Report is speechless. These photos were taken in downtown Seattle earlier this evening in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury verdict. Upset with the verdict in Missouri? Then boycotting Israel makes perfect sense.

The banner was carried by members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee. The same group was associated with protests this Summer in downtown Seattle which featured swastikas and comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany.

-from “And Now they Blame Ferguson on the Jews”
The Mike Report

“When in doubt, blame the Jews.”

-commenter on Twitter

I feel just a tiny bit guilty about posting this one because a “morning meditation” (or “extra meditation” as the case may be) should be about something encouraging that inspires us to launch into our day with renewed energy and purpose. This one feels like it’s either a downer or something to make you mad.

It made me mad. It made me even more mad when I posted a link to the article on Facebook and was chastised by a lone “moral” warrior who wanted to argue that it wasn’t really about blaming the Jews, and then he just wanted to argue and argue for the sake of being a nudnik.

Or so it seems.

Anyway, I’m not going to comment about Ferguson. I didn’t follow it closely on the news so I’m not exquisitely familiar with all of the intimate details of the case. I only know some rough outline of the facts surrounding the shooting and the verdict coming from the grand jury.

And the riots and looting.

However, I am concerned about two things.

The first is the blatant and totally erroneous comparison between whatever happened in Ferguson and its consequences and the perception that the nation of Israel and the Jewish people are doing some sort of injustice to the “Palestinians.” What does one have to do with the other? The other is the associated fallout on Jews and Jewish institutions (synagogues, Jewish schools, the JCC) in America. Any attempt to associate Ferguson and Israel is a desperate ploy by the Seattle protesters to “blame the Jews” for just about everything, riding the coat tails of a current crisis in America to mobilize the emotions of those people angry at the verdict and redirect that anger against Israel. What crimes will be committed against innocent Jewish people as a result?

And some people are going to fall for it. Some otherwise well meaning, compassionate, and caring people are going to “knee-jerk” a reaction and say that the Jewish people and the nation of Israel can be compared to Ferguson (and remember, that situation has been manipulated by the media, too). We don’t have to be bad people to do wrong, we just have to be sheep.

I’d love to write a scathing rebuttal, but someone who is smarter than I am and a better writer than I am did it almost four months ago. I won’t quote the entire article here, but let me get you started:

By supporting Hamas, you are supporting the use of Palestinians as human shields, the use of Palestinian children to dig terror tunnels in which 160 have died, and the summary execution of Palestinians by Hamas thugs whenever they open their mouths to protest the use of their homes, school, mosques, or hospitals as weapons caches and missile launching sites.

I’m not sure the people who need to hear this will ever hear it, but I want my conscience to be clear that I said it to them.

Dear Human Rights Activist, Leftist Liberal, Crying-for-the-poor-children, Israel-hating, Hamas-forgiving, marcher, celebrity, news anchor, journalist, writer, media star, politician, head of state. We have seen you marching along the streets of Europe, America, and the Middle East with your signs and kafias and Palestinian flags. We have heard you screaming to whoever will listen that Jews and Israelis are murderers, war criminals, and baby killers.

You think you are telling us who we are. But actually, you are telling us who you are.

-Naomi Ragen
“This Is What You Are Really Telling Us,” August 1, 2014
NaomiRagen.com

Please click on the link and read the entire article. It’s not very long. Especially if you’ve disagreed with everything I’ve written in this blog post, please, please click the link and read. You really need to see what Ragen has to say. I (vainly) hope it opens your eyes.

Justice isn’t what NBC or CNN tells you it is. It isn’t what you view on television. It isn’t at your favorite online news venues. It’s in the real world. You’ll have to work to find it.

If you accept what the mass media tells the masses without question, then you are telling the rest of us something about you and frankly, that scares me half to death.

For more about the media and Israel, read If CNN Had Reported The Crucifixion at the Rosh Pina Project.

Making Sense of the Messiah as the Keystone of Creation

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher.

-2 Timothy 1:8-11 (NASB)

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

-1 John 4:15-18

I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine last Sunday afternoon. Toward the end of our time together, he haltingly asked me something he obviously thought would offend me. I can’t recall his exact words, but he was wondering if I realized the centrality of Jesus as the Lord and Savior of my life. I guess he thought I was getting a little too lost in Judaism or in attempting to engage my faith through a sort of “Jewish lens”.

This lead to a rather lengthy and repetitive monologue on my part and I hope I made some sort of sense. In order to organize my thoughts better, I decided to write them out and share them in a more public venue.

One of the Jewish arguments against Jesus being the Messiah, especially as conceptualized by organized Christianity and as recorded (apparently) in the New Testament, is that Jesus appears to be a tremendous departure from anything that God had done before. I don’t mean that God did something new, but that He did something incredibly different, as if he switched from “plan A” to “plan B”.

There’s no real mention of a Messiah in the Tanakh (Old Testament) particularly as Christianity understands the role, and let’s face it: Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance until the last third of the Biblical narrative. If he’s so important, why didn’t he show up sooner?

Actually, some people think he did:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

He gave him a tenth of all.

-Genesis 14:18-20

Given the mention of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7, most Christians and many in Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism think that Melchizedek is the “pre-incarnate Jesus”. There are a number of other places where Christians exchange their “exegesis” of the Old Testament to “I see Jesus” in the Tanakh, in part to solve the “problem” of why Jesus didn’t put in an appearance before the end of Matthew 1.

D. Thomas Lancaster in his sermon on Melchizedek for the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series which I reviewed, does a good job at refuting the idea that Melchizedek was literally Yeshua (Jesus), but there are plenty of other occasions where some people believe Jesus “beamed” into early Biblical history like some sort of “Star Trek” character.

Gateway to EdenAfter all, who walked in the garden with Adam (Genesis 3:8), wrestled with Jacob (Genesis 32:22-31, and who was the angel God sent ahead of the Children of Israel (Exodus 23:20)?

Frankly, I think attempting to force scripture to have Jesus show up bodily before he’s actually born actually cheapens the miracle and significance of Messiah’s birth by woman and all that he accomplished in his physical, human experience.

But we have this problem of when Jesus appears. If he’s the cornerstone, how can you build the first two-thirds of the Bible without him? Or are we missing the point?

One of our biggest problems with understanding the Bible and the centrality of the Messiah is time. By definition, we are beings who live in linear time. We are born, we live, we die. We have yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That’s how we think. It’s difficult to imagine a universe without time, and we forget that when God created everything, He created time, too.

When I was a little kid, I tried to imagine what God’s “environment” must have been like before He created everything. I pictured an old man with a big white beard and long, shaggy white hair, dressed in a robe and sitting on a golden throne floating in infinite blackness. I thought of the universe as just stars and galaxies not imagining that it’s also space and time.

It’s difficult if not impossible for a human being to even perceive a sliver of God’s point of view. What does God see when He looks at the universe? Who knows? How can God exist outside of time? If time doesn’t pass for God at all, what is that like?

In my conversation on Sunday, I used a metaphor. I said that from God’s viewpoint, all of creation must be like a painting hung on a wall. In the painting is every event that has ever occurred and will ever would occur in our universe from start to finish. It’s like everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen across the entire line of history is all occurring inside that painting simultaneously. God can take in time, the universe, and everything at a glance.

Now imagine that in the very center of the painting is a stone archway. Now imagine that all of the other stones in the stone archway are balanced against a single, critical keystone. If this keystone were removed, the entire arch would collapse into rubble. When the keystone is in place, the other stones and the archway itself are completely immovable.

Guess who the keystone is?

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

-Ephesians 2:19-22 (emph. mine)

Granted, Paul is using the cornerstone metaphor in terms of the structure of the ekklesia or assembly of Messiah, but I think it still works (see also Psalm 118:22, Matthew 21:42, and Acts 4:11). I always wondered how you could build anything else in the redemptive plan of God across human history without first laying the cornerstone, or in the case of the previous metaphor I used, the keystone. Now I think I know, but the explanation is a little metaphysical.

Messiah is central to the plan of God because he’s always been central. He’s just not apparently central when we consider the appearance and work of Yeshua in linear time. This is also why Jewish objections to a first and second coming of Messiah and why Yeshua didn’t finish the work he started in the first advent don’t really matter. It’s because linear time doesn’t determine how and why Messiah is the lynchpin of God’s redemptive plan for humanity.

If it’s possible to use the word “before” in terms of a timeless God, then even before God created the universe, He knew the consequences of creating human beings with free will would result in the universe turning out the way it did. That is, God knew that giving human beings free will would lead to our disobeying Him with the result of changing the very nature of the universe from perfect to damaged.

CreationSo when God created the universe, He also created a plan for restoring it which means the very nature and character of the Messiah is built into creation, that everything rests on Messiah’s shoulders, so to speak, and that without the Messiah (for whatever reason) the universe can never be redeemed.

I know that’s dicey language to use in relation to God since nothing is impossible for Him, but God’s “solution” to the problem of human free will and its consequences is Messiah. It’s as if God created not just all of the universe all at once (well, in six “days”), but all of human history from beginning to end, and then placed that history upon the cornerstone, which is Messiah.

No, I can’t prove any of this from scripture beyond what I’ve already quoted, but it’s the only way I can make sense of God, the role of Messiah, and the narrative of the Bible including God’s plan for redeeming His creation.

Let me know if this makes sense to you.

Shabbat as Mussar

To understand the following Mishnah, let us review some basic concepts:

  1. “willful desecration:” A person who deliberately performs one of the acts prohibited by the Torah as melachos (forbidden labors) on the Sabbath is liable to the death penalty. Even if the death penalty cannot be or is not imposed, the violator is still subject to the Divine punishment known as excision (see Sanhedrin 7:8).
  2. “inadvertent violation:” A person who inadvertently performs one of the acts prohibited by the Torah as a melachah on the Sabbath is liable to bring a sin offering, to theBeisHaMikdash in Jerusalem. Such inadvertent violation may occur if one forgot or was unaware:
    • that such a thing as the Sabbath exists; or
    • that a specific act is forbidden on the Sabbath; or
    • that a specific day was the Sabbath.

-from “Mishnah of the Day: Shabbos 7:1,” p.105
for the commentary on Parashas Toldos for Shabbos
A Daily Dose of Torah

I know a number of people (at least at a distance geographically), both Jews and non-Jews, who observe a Saturday Sabbath in some manner or fashion. I know that in my own recent Shabbos Project I chose (somewhat loosely) a level of observance for my “Sabbath keeping” and through that experience, learned a few things about myself, about the Sabbath, and about my relationship with God.

This, I think, is why we see some non-Jewish believers in Jesus or Yeshua seeking to keep or observe Shabbat, not just because they think it is a commandment incumbant upon them, but because it is a doorway through which we can walk one day out of seven in order to experience God and have a bit of a taste of the Messianic Age of peace to come.

We see, at least according to midrash, that there are expectations or consequences involved should a Jew either deliberately or inadvertently perform one of the melachah, or forbidden acts of labor on the Shabbat. The commentary even brought up the question of whether or not a Jew would know about the Shabbat at all, which seems unusual in this day and age.

Nevertheless, the possibility of ignorance is introduced to explain why a Jew might perform an act of melachah on the Shabbat.

But as Gentiles who desire to observe Shabbos, what about our ignorance? Moreover, what about our arrogance?

How does one observe the Shabbat? The traditional answer in Hebrew Roots is that we simply do what the Torah tells us to do, but there are problems with this explanation. We have to wrestle with the reality that the Bible doesn’t specifically define exactly how one spends their time and what behaviors one engages or avoids on the Sabbath. It doesn’t even really tell us when Shabbat begins and ends down to the minute.

Hence the many, many centuries of interpretations, customs, and traditions surrounding Shabbat we find in the various branches of Judaism.

He passed on from there to their synagogue. A man was there whose hand was withered. In order to find wrongful words to hold against him, they asked him, “Is it permitted to heal on Shabbat.?” He said to them, is there a person among you with a sheep, that if it were to fall into a cistern on Shabbat, you would not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more precious is a man than a sheep! Therefore, it is permitted to do good on Shabbat.

-Matthew 12:9-12 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

Talmud Study by LamplightAlthough the motives of the people asking the Master this question were improper, the behavior being engaged in is wholly Jewish: debating the laws of Shabbat. This is evident in the body of Mishnah that discusses Shabbat and religious Judaism continues that dialog to this very day.

We can get some hints or ideas of how Yeshua and his disciples observed Shabbat, but there’s no complete record of what he would have considered melachah for us to follow. We do see in the later writings of the Apostolic Scriptures some indication of the non-Jewish disciples of the Master made by Paul and others observing Shabbat, but we don’t know if it was directly commanded of them or simply a matter of convention, since the only way the Gentile disciples knew how to learn the teachings of the Master and obey them was to imitate their Jewish teachers. We can’t know for sure Paul’s intent for assemblies of Gentile Yeshua-worshipers as far as commanded vs. allowable practices for Shabbat are concerned, in spite of the protests of some pundits to the contrary.

So today, any Gentiles who desire to “observe Shabbat” have a problem to solve: to what level of observance shall we adhere?

Notice that I’m sidestepping any debate about whether believing Gentiles are commanded to or permitted to observe Shabbos. Today’s “meditation” only involves a Gentile or group of Gentiles who have determined they desire to observe the Shabbat deciding on a level of observance.

Face it, the minute a Gentile lights the Shabbos candles, they have deviated from a “Bible-only” guide being used to solely determine their level of observance.

Honesty, in word and deed, and financial matters, was the hallmark of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky’s life. It is well-known that he refrained from eating gebrochts (matzah that had contact with any liquid) on Pesach, a custom not usually followed in his native Lithuania. One Pesach during his youth, he was visiting a family with standards of kashrus that were somewhat lower than his own.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
from “Even if you must speak an untruth be careful to word your statement in the least dishonest way,” p.67
Commentary on Torah Portion Toldos
Growth Through Torah

Rabbi Pliskin’s commentary (quoting Rabbi Nisson Wolpin from “The Jewish Observer,” May, 1986), doesn’t say that R. Kaminetzky visited a different branch or sect of Judaism which held to a lower level of kashrut, but a family. We can logically believe this family otherwise operated within the same religious and conceptual frame of reference for Jewish observance and affiliation as Rav Kaminetzky. So it’s surprising if not downright shocking (at least for a Gentile such as myself who is uninitiated in this level of Jewish practice) to see variations in standards of Kashrut.

However, we see large degrees of variation in practice all the time in both the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements among Gentiles and probably among Jewish participants as well. Getting back to Shabbat, I heard D. Thomas Lancaster (who is not Jewish) mention in one of his recorded sermons from his Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series, that he refrains from writing on the Shabbat. Writing is one of the acts of melachah not performed on the Shabbat, but usually only in Orthodox Judaism. To the best of my knowledge, Jews in Conservative and Reform Judaism do not put this restriction upon themselves. I also have never encountered (to the best of my knowledge) any Jew or Gentile in Hebrew Roots or Messianic Judaism (except apparently Lancaster) who restricts their Shabbat activities thus.

But what about God?

Orthodox JewsIn my quote from A Daily Dose of Torah above, it mentions that for deliberate acts of violating the Torah, one (a Jew) is liable for the death penalty. Of course, that consequence is not valid today since there is no Sanhedrin or other court system in Judaism legally empowered to mete such a verdict and have it carried out, but there’s also the mention of Divine retribution. Will God deliver consequences upon those who knew better but deliberately violated Shabbos anyway?

On top of that, and going back to my earlier statement about ignorance, once the ignorant become enlightened, will there be acts of atonement to be performed by each of us or at least by each Jew who is under covenant obligation (see Exodus 31:16)?

As far as Gentiles are concerned, the expectations, even from God’s point of view, may be lessened if we are not obligated legally to observe the Shabbos but only to celebrate it in anticipation of the Messiah’s return.

I don’t know if Lancaster believes God actually expects and commands him to refrain from writing on Shabbat, but based on what he said on the recording, he obviously didn’t expect his (Gentile) congregation to follow his lead and not write on Shabbat. No doubt some of them were taking notes while he was speaking, even as I took notes when the Pastor of the church I previously attended delivered his sermons.

Jews, particularly in Messianic Judaism, are faced with a decision regarding the level of Shabbos observance to take upon themselves in response to the commandments and the covenant expectations of God upon Israel. To the best of my knowledge, in Messianic Judaism, since it is made up of different congregations and organizations with somewhat differing standards, there is variability in how these Jewish Messianics approach their Sabbath keeping (I should say here that observance isn’t a static, all-or-nothing practice. It’s very reasonable for a Jewish person to begin at a very simple level and add more “features” to their Shabbat observance over time).

How much more so for we Gentiles to be faced with such a decision assuming we choose to observe Shabbat.

Like Lancaster, we can accept upon ourselves a fairly strict level of restrictions for the Sabbath, and I have to believe that if Lancaster chooses not to write on Shabbat, that his overall level of observance must be fairly close to what you would observe of an Orthodox Jew. However, I’ve never met a non-Jew (or for that matter, many Jews) in Messianic Judaism (besides Lancaster) and certainly not in Hebrew Roots, who observes Shabbat to that degree.

Even when I thought I was “observing” Shabbat in my previous time in Hebrew Roots/One Law, my degree of “keeping” Shabbos was rather loose. I drove. I cooked. I wrote. I tried to avoid spending money, but there were occasions where I allowed myself to if I felt the circumstances required it. So my level of observance at best followed a more or less Reform Jewish pattern and at worst, I was making decisions based on my personal judgment of what I would permit and what I would deny myself for the sake of God (which is pretty typical of my experience with various Hebrew Roots individuals and groups).

But we may be missing the point:

Shemos 31:16 states: “And the Bnei Yisrael shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath for all their generations, an everlasting covenant.” Nesiv Binah (by R’ Yissachar Jacobson) cites several ways to understand the statement that the Bnei Yisrael are to “make the Sabbath.” Mechilta cites a teaching that interprets the verse as explaining what is accomplished by one who observes the Sabbath: “R’ Elazar ben Parta said: Anyone who observes the Sabbath is regarded as if he himself made the Sabbath.”

-from “A Closer Look at the Siddur,” p.111
for the commentary on Parashas Toldos for Shabbos
A Daily Dose of Torah

The commentary goes on to say that with most of the mitzvot, we can determine the difference between performing and not performing them by various objects, such as the use of the esrog on Sukkot or the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. But what makes Saturday different from any other day of the week? Nothing. There is no physical difference between Saturday and any other day. The sun still rises, birds still fly, nothing we can see tells us that a day is obviously Saturday, which is why if a person should, for example, go into a coma and come out of it weeks later, if it were Saturday, that person wouldn’t immediately know it.

The commentary continues (pp.111-12):

What makes the Sabbath day different from other days of the week is the fact that we observe the Sabbath, and make it into a special spiritual time that it is. Thus, one who observes the Sabbath truly makes it.

Christian Bible StudyTraditional Christians might make from this the justification that any day can be the Sabbath, not just the Seventh day, but that’s not what the Bible clearly says. It’s not that we get to choose which day of the week to call the Sabbath but that we are faced with choosing our response and level of observance and thus our level of “blessedness” on the Shabbat.

(I should say at this point that the vast majority if not all traditional Christians either firmly believe that Sunday is the Sabbath, that any day can be the Sabbath, or that Jesus completely did away with the Fourth Commandment, thus the worst we can consider them guilty of, even if we believe Shabbat observance is mandatory for Gentile Christians — and I’m not convinced it is —  is inadvertent violation due to ignorance).

That’s what I learned during my “personal Shabbos Project” and that’s what I believe a non-Jew can take away from any desire they may have to keep the Sabbath. As the Sun begins to descend into the western sky on Friday afternoon, we have a decision to make (and if we are serious about it, we should have been making decisions all week, since Sabbath keeping takes a bit of preparation) about how we are to take advantage of the opportunity.

In some cases, like my own, those decisions are modified by circumstances, such as who you live with and if they are Jewish or Gentile, as well as their views on what (if anything) should be done differently on Shabbat.

This was an external matter and not something that would affect his inner being. He spoke spiritual words but did not become a spiritual person.

-R. Pliskin
“Work on internalizing the elevated thoughts that you talk about,” p.63
Commentary on Torah Portion Toldos
Growth Through Torah

What makes Shabbat different from any other day is how we choose to behave because it’s Shabbat. It’s a day when God opens a door, if you will, between the present and the Messianic future, a day we can make a decision to walk through that doorway and experience a special and unique holiness for the next twenty-four hours. Even if we choose to walk through the doorway, what we do once we’re inside determines our spiritual experience. Some do much and some do little, I don’t mean in terms of behavioral restrictions, but rather, having to do with selecting opportunities for holiness.

If we reduce the Shabbat, or any sort of observant behavior, to a list of “do this” and “don’t do that,” then we’re just mice running through a maze looking for the cheese (although I hear they like peanut butter better). If we choose however, to treat Shabbat, or any mitzvot we desire to take upon ourselves, as an invitation to partake in holiness and a spiritual closeness with God, then it becomes something else entirely. Rather than limiting, it becomes liberating; rather than a restriction, Shabbat becomes freedom.

In this then, the Shabbat is also becomes Mussar.

Mussar: Balancing Pressure

Equanimity is about having balance, level-headedness and calmness of spirit. It is approaching all situations and rising above them, realizing their temporary nature and working through them whether they be good or bad. Equanimity imbalanced can either appear as out of control and hysterical, or completely oblivious and apathetic. Achieving a middle ground of equanimity is ideal, as it is the means by which we can go from situation to situation with grace.

-from “middah of the week: equanimity”
Riverton Mussar

In reading over the articles that arrived in my email inbox on equanimity, it seems a trait designed to maintain inner calm in a moment of excitement or crisis. A crisis, by definition, arrives suddenly and ends quickly. But there are situations that build up over time and then persist like the cold, snow, and ice I’ve been experiencing this past week in my own little corner of Idaho.

How do you remain in balance, not just for a few seconds, minutes, or hours, but for days, weeks, and months? Even if I master the appearance of calm, it’s only because I’m holding everything inside as tightly as I can.

There’s no one thing.

There’s just a lot of everything.

Suggested exercises:

  • When something challenging happens, quote the memory phrase before reacting.
  • View a challenge as a test and score high by staying calm.
  • React to an unpleasant situation by finding the positive in it and speaking it.

Again, that works (potentially) in a moment of crisis but doesn’t help manage long-term stress in a situation that has no easy solutions and in fact, is almost totally in the control of other people.

A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything.

-Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

-Romans 12:18 (NASB)

dancing in the rainI have to agree, at least in principle, with the Alter of Kelm, but peace of mind, when pressed beyond a certain point, doesn’t seem achievable. All I can do is what Paul suggests, but how to let go of the rest?

This can be compared to the story of a rabbi from the days of the Apostles named Nacham. Everyone called him “Nacham This-Too” because, no matter what happened, he would always say, “This too is for the good.” Amazingly, God honored his faith by continually providing miracles for Nacham.

Once it happened that Nacham This-Too was serving as an ambassador to Rome. He was presenting the Roman Emperor with a gift from the people of Judea in an attempt to bribe him into reversing some anti-Jewish legislation. While en route to Rome he stopped at an inn. While he slept, the inn-keeper stole the precious treasures meant for the emperor from Nacham’s chest and replaced them with sand! Nacham went to Rome, unaware that he was carrying a box of sand. When the emperor opened the chest and saw the sand, he ordered Nacham to be put to death. Nacham simply replied, “This too is for the good.” Just then Elijah the prophet appeared in the guise of a Roman officer and suggested that perhaps the sand was “magic sand.” The emperor agreed to test the theory, and indeed, when his troops hurled the sand at their enemies, they prevailed in battle. The emperor immediately released Nacham, reversed his decree against the Jews and rewarded Nacham with great wealth.

The story of Nacham This-Too is a good illustration of Joseph’s story. Like Nacham This-Too, Joseph refused to be pushed around by life’s circumstances. Instead he looked to God for strength and encouragement, and he kept on believing.

“This too is for the good”
Torah Club commentary on Torah Portion Miketz
First Fruits of Zion

Riverton Mussar also has a commentary on the concept of gam zu l’tovah, so it falls within the realm of a character trait that one can develop, and I believe it’s adaptable to long-term circumstances as well as an immediate crisis.

I actually touched on some of this in one of my blog posts not too long ago, and one person commented that it’s extremely difficult to maintain this attitude and perception when the circumstances are difficult or even woefully tragic.

Whatever the answer is, it seems to depend on two things: the ability to differentiate between circumstances you can act upon and change and those you can’t, and possessing bitachon or trust in God.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

-Reinhold Niebuhr
“The Serenity Prayer”

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.

-Proverbs 3:5-6

The Hebrew phrase for equanimity is menuchat hanefesh, which also means “calmness of the soul.”

-Rebbetzin Malkah
Calmness of the Soul

I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

-Philippians 4:12-13

rainI’m actually writing all this and inserting these quotes more for me than for anyone reading this, although it’s my hope that others will benefit. I suppose you could consider blogging “mussar” of a sort, since mussar does involve a certain amount of journaling. My journaling just happens to be published online.

I have to believe that things won’t stay the same forever and that what’s been damaged can be repaired. If others can’t repair their connections with each other, then at least I can try to establish or re-establish my connectedness with them. It’s a difficult balancing act no matter how I approach all these circumstances. Trusting that there is a larger purpose that only God can see, even though things don’t look so good to me, is a difficult mussar.

Is it possible to change my perception of being pressed down to the ground into something that lets that pressure simply wash over me like rain?

Only if it rains can there be rainbows.

I’m not looking for anyone reading this to come up with answers. I’m just writing to find my sense of balance.

Men stumble over pebbles, never over mountains.

-H. Emilie Cady, American author

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Outside the Camp

Our religion involves a lot of ritual foods, including the ceremony that Christians refer to as the Eucharist, but the writer of the book of Hebrews warns his readers to steer away from sacramental interpretations of ceremonial foods. This discussion of Hebrews 13:9-14 brings the central conflict behind the epistle into sharp focus.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Forty-five: Outside the Camp
Originally presented on March 8, 2014
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited. We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

-Hebrews 13:9-14 (NASB)

I have no idea what happened to sermon forty-four. It’s not in the list at the Beth Immanuel website. We seem to be missing the previous week’s sermon which probably covered Hebrews 13:1-8. I guess we’ll have to live without it.

But Lancaster says something compelling about today’s sermon. He says that the whole summation of the entire epistle can be found in these verses. Really?

However, we have to be willing to accept some speculation on his part about the meaning of the “varied and strange teachings”. There’s no way to know for sure what they really were, but Lancaster has a theory. The thinks that these strange teachings were some odd, mystical interpretation about the meaning of the sacrifices, particularly the peace and sin offerings, which are the only ones that were eaten.

Lancaster guesses that some teachings were being circulated, probably by the Sadducees who were in control of the Temple, stating that unless the priest actually eats of the sacrificial portion in the presence of the person making the offering, the offering was ineffective. Or unless the sin offering were completely burned, the sins were not forgiven.

Again, this is pure guesswork on Lancaster’s part, but I thought it sounded sort of like the following:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”

-Matthew 23:16-22

PriestsSwearing by the Temple vs. swearing by the gold in the Temple; yeah, that sounds like a strange and diverse teaching, too. Lancaster believes the writer of the Hebrews letter was saying that the priesthood was circulating strange teachings about the animal sacrifices indicating they meant far more than they actually did. This was an attempt to pile on more pressure, since the readers of the letter, the Greek-speaking believing Jews, had been exiled from the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifices. If these Jews thought that not offering sacrifices meant, on some mystic level, that they were exiled from God, they might actually abandon faith in Messiah for the sake of offering korban.

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.

-Hebrews 13:9

But God’s grace and favor doesn’t come from “mystic food”, it comes from faith.

Lancaster offered the example of the Catholic Church from the Middle Ages to the present. Even in the present-day Catholic Church, the Church can refuse to offer the sacrament of the eucharist, Holy Communion, to a Catholic who has gone against church teaching, perhaps by supporting abortion rights for example. It is a terrible shame to be excommunicated and many Catholics are successfully manipulated by the pressure to at least publicly change their beliefs so they can regain access to Communion.

This is sort of how Lancaster sees what the Jewish letter readers were going through.

Except, like the eucharist, the sacrifices are not “magic food”. Simply offering and eating doesn’t impart or remove God’s grace and blessing apart from the believer’s faith and devotion to God. Verse 9 says the heart is strengthened by grace, not food. It also says that if eating the “magic food” was so effective, how come the corrupt priesthood of Sadducees was still so wicked?

We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.

-Hebrews 13:10

This verse could be one of the proof texts used by the early Catholic Church to justify the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion as a sacrament that replaced the Temple sacrifices (and no doubt more than a few Protestants also believe this). The people who have no right to eat of the sacrament, in this scenario, are the Jews, unless they convert to Christianity.

The Death of the MasterLancaster’s take is different from the traditional Christian interpretation, and follows along with what he’s taught about the rest of the epistle. He’s saying that the earthly Temple is a reflection of the Heavenly Temple, and that the Heavenly altar has “food” that those who serve in the tabernacle, that is, the earthly priesthood, have no right to eat, not because they’re priests or Jews, but because of their wicked hearts and actions.

The next several verses metaphorically compare the national sin offering to the Messiah’s death.

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. herefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.

-Hebrews 13:11-13

The blood of the sin offering was to be taken outside the camp which in those days was outside the walls of Jerusalem. This is where the Master was executed, outside the city walls. The letter writer says that we too should be willing to share in the Master’s reproach, for just like he was, they also have been rejected from the larger community, like lepers, ostracized, seemingly abandoned. But if they are worthy of the Messiah, then they would be willing to suffer, even to the death, for the sake of their faith and the promise of the Messianic Age to come.

What Did I Learn?

I would have missed most of those details, but by now, I’ve stopped reading the parts of Hebrews not covered by the sermons I’ve heard and I’ve been willing to listen to Lancaster’s explanation first. That’s probably a fault of mine, and in retrospect, I should have read ahead to see if what I’ve learned so far could help me in anticipating what comes next.

Be that as it may, I wouldn’t have gotten the comparison of “magic” sacrificial food to the eucharist and the artificial manufacture of a sacramental system created to replace the Temple practices. The sacrament of Holy Communion also requires a priesthood, so you can see how the earliest foundations of the Church were predicated on replacement theology or supersessionism. And even though the Protestant church doesn’t emphasize the necessity of frequent taking of the eucharist, they haven’t done away with it either, accepting the fundamental underpinning the Catholics established, that the wine and the wafer mean something, and that a Christian cannot be complete without accepting Communion.

Lancaster made another point, a big one, that really spoke to me. He compared Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles to those put “outside the camp”. He compared us to the readers of the Hebrews epistle. Those of us who identify with the Messianic Movement are largely to completely rejected by both mainstream religious Judaism and mainstream Christianity in all its denominations.

Judaism not only rejects those Jews who accept the revelation of Yeshua as Messiah, but absolutely rejects the Gentiles who have come alongside Israel through faith in Messiah. Of course this is also true of the Church. I know what it’s like to maintain a Messianic theological and doctrinal framework within a local church environment. Everyone was nice and friendly and accepting of me but not of most of what I had to say. And for the Messianic Jew, the Church has no problems with that person as long as they convert to Christianity and surrender any form of Jewish practice beyond a token Passover seder or maybe building the occasional sukkah.

Lancaster states that Messianic Judaism is based on a completely different set of theological assumptions than Christianity. But it’s a set of foundations that he believes are correct, and in fact, represent a major “course correction” in the deviated trajectory Christianity has charted over the past nearly two-thousand years.

If the foundation of Christianity is “out of whack,” the only recourse is to tear down the structure and rebuild it from the ground up. That’s pretty radical talk, and I can’t imagine too many Christians who would quietly accept such words.

Lancaster was quick to point out that he feels brotherhood with all Christians as fellow disciples of Messiah, but on an institutional level, he has little in common with them.

So if we are reviled and rejected by Jews or Christians for our beliefs, perhaps we are partaking in the Master’s suffering in some small way, and bearing his reproach.

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

-Hebrews 13:14

TempleThis is why we’re willing to suffer. Our hope isn’t in this world or the present institutional state of the Church. We are waiting for the city to come, “New Jerusalem,” if you will, the Messianic Age.

I should note that Lancaster believes the Hebrews letter writer didn’t know that Jerusalem would be leveled a few short years in the future, but the Holy Spirit knew, so portions of this letter, including the above-quoted verse, are prophetic. Once there was no Temple, the believing Jews could only turn to the Heavenly Temple and the Heavenly High Priest, Yeshua.

This is where our faith lies, not in Heaven but in the future Messianic Kingdom come to earth. The price we pay is to share in the trials, the reproach, and the rejection of the world around us including many or most religious institutions. But in that rejection, we must not give up our faith in our Master, lest we lose our reward in the world to come. Too many Messianic Gentiles have lost their faith in the Master and converted to Judaism as their “true love.”

Like Abraham, God sent us out from the accepted and the familiar into an unknown territory and requires that we accept a promise of what we can’t see or touch or hear (see Genesis 12:1-4). We endure difficulties today for the sake of the fulfillment of the future. It’s as if we are approaching the end of a Passover seder and we say symbolically, “Next Year in (Messianic) Jerusalem.”

I must say that listening to this particular sermon brought up some of the same issues I discussed in yesterday’s morning meditation. It’s difficult to discuss the theological and doctrinal differences between traditional Christians, Messianic Judaism, and Hebrew Roots without at least potentially stepping on someone’s toes. How do you say that you love your fellow brothers and sisters in the faith and yet also acknowledge some of the extreme differences in viewpoint?

Next week, I’ll write my review of the final sermon in Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews” series.

"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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