Solomon's porch

When is Church Not Church?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not much help there.

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

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

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

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

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

Confused? Am I repeating myself?

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

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

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

-Hurtado, pg 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judah also says:

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

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

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

-Hurtado, pg 21

Carl Kinbar
Rabbi Carl Kinbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inner Word

Chol HaMo’ed Pesach: Writing on Flesh

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

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

The obvious image those words should invoke is this:

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

-John1:14 (NASB)

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

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

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

-Matthew 5:17-18 (NASB)

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NASB)

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

-Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NASB)

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

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

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

But here’s the result.

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

-Matthew 11:11 (DHE Gospels)

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

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

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

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

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

But there’s a catch.

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

-2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NASB)

PrayingThis doesn’t just happen.

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

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

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

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


Review of “What About the New Covenant,” Part 5

Session Five: From Glory to Glory

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

-Jeremiah 31:31-32 (NASB)

This is the fifth and final lecture in the series What About the New Covenant presented by D. Thomas Lancaster and produced by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ). This sermon is the one that wraps everything up, at least hopefully. We’ve gone through the other four lectures and I’ve offered my thoughts and opinions. Let’s see how everything ends.

Lancaster says the above-quoted text from the New Covenant language in Jeremiah reminds him of the incident with the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). Moses smashed the first set of tablets, symbolizing how Israel broke the covenant, rebuked the people, then went back up the mountain to make atonement. He came back down with another set of tablets, symbolizing the renewal of the covenant.

It came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him. So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. Then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers in the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke to them. Afterward all the sons of Israel came near, and he commanded them to do everything that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he would take off the veil until he came out; and whenever he came out and spoke to the sons of Israel what he had been commanded, the sons of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone. So Moses would replace the veil over his face until he went in to speak with Him.

-Exodus 34:29-35 (NASB)

There’s a lot going on in this paragraph in the Torah. The only time I’ve heard this passage explained before was on Christian radio, and the Pastor doing the teaching (I can’t recall who it was) used it as some sort of evidence to how bad the law was. I can’t remember his arguments, but it seemed more than a little allegorical and was yet another shot by the Church from its Replacement Theology arsenal. Lancaster gives this portion of scripture a fresh look.

When Moses was in the presence of God, his face took on the “radiance of the Divine Presence” but it eventually faded. The people were initially afraid of seeing the light of God’s Glory shining on Moses’ face but he called them back to him. When he was around people, he veiled his face, maybe to keep from scaring people, but maybe to keep them from realizing that the light eventually faded. Only when he was with God did he unveil his face and the shining glory returned to him. almost like Moses was being “recharged.”

This will all become important shortly as we get into Lancaster’s commentary on Paul’s midrash:

For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.

-2 Corinthians 2:17 (NASB)

Lancaster and the rest of the FFOZ staff typically default to the ESV Bible when writing or teaching, but this time Lancaster switched to the NASB, explaining that the ESV Bible does a poor job at translating the verses he’s going to teach from. This matches what Pastor Randy told me one time, saying that he found the ESV Bible in general to give a certain amount of support to Replacement Theology by how it translates the original languages.

The Jewish PaulWe start with Paul defending himself from allegations that he is not really an apostle because he was not commissioned as were the other apostles, by Yeshua (Jesus) during the Messiah’s “earthly ministry.” Paul explains that he did not come “peddling the word of God,” that is, asking for money, but he worked to support himself. He also said “we speak Christ in the sight of God,” explaining that he and his companions were commissioned by God as it were.

Then Paul got a little sarcastic (an attitude New Testament scholar Mark Nanos called “an ironic rebuke” in his book The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context).

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

-2 Corinthians 3:1-3 (NASB)

Without stealing Lancaster’s thunder by explaining everything, he describes Paul as sarcastically asking if his Master or the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem, should have sent him out with a letter or recommendation, sort of like asking, “Should I have brought a note from my Mother?”

But he also says something interesting. He says “you,” his audience, “are our letter of recommendation,” indicating that their behavior, their lives changed by the knowledge of and faith in Messiah, are what establishes Paul’s “cred” as an apostle. But a letter written on hearts by the Spirit of God? Where have we heard that before?

And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God.

-Ezekiel 11:19-20 (NASB)

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

-Jeremiah 31:33 (NASB)

TorahLancaster says that Paul took those two passages, both of which end with the same declaration of Israel being His people and He being Israel’s God in New Covenant language, and leveraged them in this 2 Corinthians 3:1-3 commentary. Paul is continuing to establish himself as an apostle and emissary of the New Covenant, contrasting the Old Covenant and New Covenant, not that the conditions are different, because the Torah as the conditions, are the same between one covenant to the other, but that those conditions, written on stone tablets in the Old Covenant, are written on hearts by the Spirit of God in the New Covenant.

Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.

-2 Corinthians 3:4-11 (NASB)

Especially starting at verse 7, these scriptures are used by many Christian teachers and Pastors to substantiate the allegation that the Torah was “bad” and killed, and that it was replaced by the grace of Jesus which is “good” and gave life. I have to admit, if you had no context for interpreting Paul’s meaning, then “the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones” sounds pretty grim. The Torah brings death, the ministry of Moses was (and is) deadly, he seems to say. But look at the full message from the point of view of a val chomer or from lighter to heavier argument. I’ll paraphrase somewhat:

But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory?

I guess this “ministry of death” thing needs some explanation. What brings death, obeying the Torah? That hardly seems likely since God gave Israel the Torah as the conditions of the Old Covenant at Sinai and, as we’ve seen these past several weeks, the Torah represents the conditions of the New Covenant as well. So how can the Old Covenant and the Torah be a “ministry of death?” What’s the difference between the Old and New Covenants?

Under the Old Covenant, if you disobey the conditions, thereby disobeying God, the consequences were exile and death. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). It’s not the Torah that brings death, and it is not fidelity to the Torah and to God that brings death, the ministry of death is disobedience and sin, the consequences for which, under the Old Covenant, bring death.

gloryBut as we’ve previously seen, under the New Covenant, the Torah or the conditions don’t change, it’s the people who change. It becomes possible for people to not sin at all thanks to what God does in the New Covenant, writing the Torah on people’s hearts so obedience to God becomes part of human nature. It is the ministry of righteousness because the people become righteous.

Paul is saying something like:

If you thought the Old Covenant came in tremendous glory, just you wait. The New Covenant comes with even much more glory, so much in fact that, by comparison, the shining of the New Covenant will make the light and glory of the Old Covenant seem like a dim night-light!

Paul isn’t saying that the Old Covenant had no glory, only that by comparison, the New Covenant, because it makes it basically impossible for people to sin, will seem so much more glorious. In a val chomer argument, the second condition cannot be true unless the first condition is true, so if the New Covenant has tremendous glory, the Old Covenant is glorious as well (present tense), just not quite so much.

Like the glow on Moses’ face, it was brilliant in its illumination, but it had a tendency to fade and needed to be renewed. Something like the pattern of Israel under the glorious Old Covenant. Israel’s faith tended to fade and they sinned, requiring repeated renewal efforts. Christianity has a similar problem but then, we’re still living in Old Covenant times, too. We do however have a pledge of the coming New Covenant, just as all believers do, Jew and Gentile alike.

Lancaster previously talked about a Heavenly Torah that, in order to be understood and accessed by man, had to be “clothed” so to speak, to “translate” from Heaven to Earth. The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul (Psalm 19:7), but since it exists in our world, it is also temporal. Basically, it’s glory “fades.” The Torah of Messiah in the New Covenant is the Supernal Torah and will never fade but instead, Messiah will reveal what is now concealed in the Torah, removing the veil, as it were, from the Torah and from in front of our eyes, so we can see the full glory, just as Moses saw God’s glory on the mountain.

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

-Matthew 5:17-18 (NASB)

heaven and earthThe Old Covenant does not change at all while Heaven and Earth are still here, but eventually, we get a New Heaven and New Earth, so the Old Covenant will eventually cease. Actually I had a problem with this example of Lancaster’s because what I see Yeshua (Jesus) saying is that the Torah, the conditions of the Old and New Covenants, don’t change as long as Heaven and Earth exist, so it seems that the conditions of even the New Covenant will change once we get a New Heaven and a New Earth. Of course, until then, we are living in Old Covenant times, holding only a pledge of the New Covenant through receiving the Holy Spirit, so the conditions are still with us under the Old Covenant and the emerging New Covenant.

When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.

-Hebrews 8:13 (NASB)

Sure, the Old Covenant is becoming obsolete, but that’s a long, drawn out process, and it won’t disappear until Messiah returns bringing the fully realized New Covenant with him.

Let’s finish up with chapter three of 2 Corinthians:

Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech, and are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away. But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

-2 Corinthians 3:12-18 (NASB)

Lancaster goes through this line by line, but what I found important was how his interpretation of Paul redeemed Paul from the criticism of many Jewish people or for that matter, the mistaken understanding of many Christians, who saw Paul as anti-Torah and Law-free, and was teaching Jews and Gentiles to also forsake Torah and to believe the Torah was a “ministry of death”.

Lancaster describes why the Jewish people couldn’t simply obey the Torah as they had always done and have that be enough. It’s why there aren’t two paths to salvation, Moses for the Jews and Jesus for the Gentiles. Hear me out. I think this explanation makes sense.

Under the Old Covenant, as hard as a Jewish person might strive, being only human, sooner or later he would sin and require atonement under the conditions of that Covenant, that is, the Torah. When Israel sinned greatly and did not repent, the conditions of the Old Covenant required exile and death. Nothing in that Covenant made Jewish people “sin proof,” so to speak.

Look at Israel’s history. It’s glorious but it’s also terrible. How many exiles have there been? How many times has Jerusalem been destroyed? How many times has God (temporarily) withdrawn His presence from among Israel due to their “hearts of stone?”

tallit_templeBut under the New Covenant, God makes it possible for Israel not to sin at all and further, God promises to forgive all of Israel’s sins past and present. Apprehending the first fruits of the New Covenant through faithfulness to Yeshua HaMashiach, the conditions of the Old Covenant and New Covenant, that is, the Torah, don’t change, so Jews are still required to perform the mitzvot, but God starts writing on their hearts, starts softening hearts, begins to lead His people Israel into the better promises of the New Covenant.

The veil is lifted and the concealed Torah is revealed. Israel is liberated, not from the Torah but liberated from sin.

What does from glory to glory mean?

From the glory of the Old Covenant, which was and is glorious indeed, but to the greater glory of the New Covenant, which will be eternal and in which all men will know God face to face, the way Moses knows God, not dimly through a mirror, as we know God now.

The glory of the Old Covenant forgives sin but does not make people sinless. The glorious New Covenant forgives all sins past and present, and then makes it possible for people to naturally obey God so that we will never again sin. The Old Covenant was and is good, but the New Covenant really is the better deal. It’s incredibly fabulous.

I’m kind of sad to see this study end. I was really enjoying it. Of course, I’ve got about a year’s worth of Lancaster’s Epistle to the Hebrews study to still work through, so it’s not like I’m out of material to review.

I deliberately left out quite a bit of detail from my reviews, so if these “meditations” have piqued your interest, I’d recommend you order the full five-disc set of audio CDs What About the New Covenant. May you be as illuminated as I have been.


Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: The Messiah Psalm

Psalm 110 is the most frequently quoted text in the New Testament. Why? And what did Yeshua mean when he quoted it to challenge the concept of a Davidic Messiah?

Listen to a study of Hebrews 4:14-5:6 which unwraps Psalm 110 and introduces the priesthood of Messiah. “The Messiah Psalm” offers discussion about the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 110 as it appears in the teaching of Yeshua (Mark 12) and the Epistle of Hebrews.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Thirteen: The Messiah Psalm
Originally presented on April 13, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.

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

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

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

-Hebrews 4:14-5:6 (NASB)

Lancaster teaches some really interesting things in this session, but we have to get there first.

As he often does, Lancaster begins by recapping his previous sermon, in this case by reminding us that we need a priest to approach God, to approach paradise, because we have big angels and a flaming sword keeping us out.

Lancaster also reminds us of who the original readership of the writer of the Hebrews epistle was, and it sure wasn’t us, that is, twenty-first century (Gentile) Christians. The original audience, from Lancaster’s point of view, were first century Hellenistic Jews living in Judea. They had just suffered the martyrdom of James the Just, brother of the Master, the head of the Apostolic Council, along with other important leaders, and they had either just been denied access to the Temple and Priesthood or they were about to be denied. The Sadducees, who controlled access to the Temple, never got along with the Master Yeshua (Jesus) because they deny the resurrection and the existence of the divine soul, both of which the Master taught.

PriestsFrom a Christian’s point of view, it’s very important to realize that the Jewish disciples of the Master did not have a problem with the Temple or the Priesthood at all. They only had a problem with the corruption of the Sadducees who at that point in history controlled access to the Priesthood and the Temple sacrifices. Most Christians read Hebrews as the anti-Levitical Priesthood and anti-Temple book in the Bible, so it’s important to point out these distinctions.

In the next part of the sermon, Lancaster takes us on a small but important detour away from Hebrews and into the Gospel of Mark:

They came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to Him, and began saying to Him, “By what authority are You doing these things, or who gave You this authority to do these things?”

-Mark 11:27-28 (NASB)

Lancaster says that Yeshua evaded the question for about a chapter and then got down to the heart of the matter.

By chapter 12, verse 34, Jesus had so deftly responded to all of his challengers that no one dared to ask him anymore questions. Then Jesus had a question of his own:

And Jesus began to say, as He taught in the temple, “How is it that the scribes say that the Christ [Messiah] is the son of David?”

-Mark 12:35 (NASB)

This is one of those questions that if we don’t consider the context of what was going on and we don’t apprehend the query in the manner of a first-century Jew, we’ll completely miss the meaning. Asking if the Messiah is the Son of David is like asking if the Pope is Catholic. Of course, he is! It’s incredibly obvious. So why did Jesus ask this question?

David himself said in the Holy Spirit,

‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Until I put Your enemies beneath Your feet.”’

David himself calls Him ‘Lord’; so in what sense is He his son?” And the large crowd enjoyed listening to Him.

-Mark 12:36-37 (NASB)

Jesus quotes from Psalm 110. It was common for him to refer to older scriptures, so on the surface, this doesn’t seem unusual. It was common for Paul and the other apostles to quote from previous scriptures, so again, it doesn’t seem to be an unusual event.

King DavidBut of all the Old Testament scriptures quoted in the New Testament, Psalm 110 is the one quoted most often, being cited a total of fifteen times, with nine of those mentions in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The apostles related to Psalm 110 as one of these most noteworthy Messianic prophesies (with Psalm 2 being the other). What was Jesus, and later the writer to the Hebrews, trying to say that we miss, especially in English?

Lancaster tells us that English language Bibles render Psalm 110 poorly because they generally translate the words “my Master” and “Hashem” both as “Lord”. This gives the impression that God is talking to Himself.

Lancaster reads the ESV translation of Psalm 110 but with some slight differences that render it more comprehensible. I’ll reproduce it here with those differences formatted in bold and underlined text.

Hashem says to my Master:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
Hashem sends forth from Zion
your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
Your people will offer themselves freely
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.
Hashem has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Master is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgment among the nations,
filling them with corpses;
he will shatter chiefs
over the wide earth.
He will drink from the brook by the way;
therefore he will lift up his head.

-Psalm 110

The craziness of this Psalm is that David, under inspiration from the Holy Spirit, referred to his descendent, his “son” as it were, as his “Master.” No son is Master of his father. This was Yeshua’s point. The Messiah was surely the Son of David but Psalm 110 also understands that Messiah is more than the Son of David. If Messiah was only the Son of David, he would be seated at David’s right hand.

Licht senderSince Messiah is seated at God’s right hand, whose son does that make him (hint, hint)?

Lancaster read from a collection of traditional Jewish midrash which incredibly, has Abraham also asking why Messiah, Son of David, Son of Abraham ultimately, is seated at God’s right hand.

The Even Zohar, Rabbi Yeshiel Tzvi Lichtenstein in his commentary on Mark 12:25 states that Messiah was indeed the Son of David in the flesh and the Son of God in the Spirit.

Yeshua was confirming that he was the Messiah, Son of David and Son of God. Lancaster says it was Yeshua’s interpretation of Psalm 110 that resulted in his execution.

Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death.

-Mark 14:61-64 (NASB)

If the high priest had just asked “are you the Messiah” and Jesus had said “yes,” maybe he could have been wrong but it wouldn’t be blasphemy. But the high priest asked if Jesus was Messiah and Son of God, and Jesus answered yes. That’s what caused the high priest to condemn Jesus to death.

Now back to Hebrews 4 and our need for a high priest.

Lancaster spent a fair amount of time stating that Jesus had to be fully a human being, not just God or an angel masquerading as a human being. When Jesus was tempted, it had to be completely possible for him to give in to temptation and sin. It’s not temptation if there isn’t a real risk of sinning and if it was actually impossible for Jesus to sin, then he wasn’t really tempted, and therefore, he wasn’t really human. It had to be very possible for Jesus to sin, just like the rest of us. The only difference is that unlike the rest of us, Jesus passed every test and never, ever sinned.

This is where I got stuck last week, since it seems like someone who passed every test still wouldn’t be able to empathize with all of humanity because only he passed all the tests. The rest of us fail.

The High PriestBut in his sermon, as Lancaster entered Hebrews 5, he said this was a very important point. When the writer of Hebrews describes the high priest in verses 1 and 2, he’s not thinking of the then corrupt Sadduceeian high priest, but the ideal among high priests, Aaron. Ironically, one of Aaron’s highest qualifications, according to Lancaster, for the high priesthood was his sin in the incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). It was because Aaron sinned that he could empathize with the weakness of the Israelites and have compassion as he atoned for their sins.

But this presents a problem, at least in an eternal sense.

…he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself.

-Hebrews 5:2-3 (NASB)

Aaron, or the idealized high priest, could “deal gently with the ignorant and misguided” but on the other hand, he still had to offer sacrifices for himself because he too sinned.

While Aaron was the greatest and most noble of the high priests, there was still one who had better qualifications, one who could also empathize and “deal gently with the ignorant and misguided” but ”One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

Verse 5 quotes from Psalm 110 and verse 6 is the writer’s proof text:

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

Lancaster leaves us hanging at the meaning of “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” so I suppose we’ll have to wait until next week to get into what all that’s about.

What Did I Learn?

I liked the “straightening out” of Psalm 110 so that it becomes easier to tell “who’s who” in the text. Also, I found the emphasis of Lancaster (and the writer of Hebrews) on the humanity of Jesus compelling. I’ve heard Christians refer to Jesus again and again as a “man-god,” which makes him sound like something out of a science fiction or fantasy novel rather than who he was and is. It’s fascinating to consider Jesus, our high priest in the Heavenly Court, as fully a human being and out of that sinless humanity, he is able to empathize with flawed and failing people in his being the atonement for our sins. I still struggle with how one who has never failed, as Aaron failed, could ever really feel empathy and completely understand, not only real temptation and the risk of failure, which Jesus did experience, but also how we actually, miserably fail, which Jesus never experienced.

The Death of the MasterIf Jesus had failed, he’d understand us better, but if he failed, he would have been disqualified and never would have ascended to be seated at Hashem’s right hand as our Master.

I can imagine this interpretation presenting some difficulties for many Christians relative to the traditional understanding of the “Godhead” and Trinitarian doctrine. I don’t think Lancaster is challenging this necessarily, but he is forcing us (me, anyway) to view the nature and character of Messiah differently. He was, and arguably still is, fully and completely human and the Son of David according to the flesh, but also fully and completely the Son of God according to the Spirit. How this works, I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone really knows, although there are plenty of opinions to go around, including the denial of the Master’s divine nature completely.

I can only imagine that Lancaster in his analysis of the Book of Hebrews, may have taken this one on as his sermon series progressed. Right now, at the end of sermon thirteen, we’re hanging at the priesthood of Melchizedek. Next week, Hashem be willing, we’ll learn more.


No “Christian Seders,” Please!


I don’t think I’ve ever reblogged another’s material before, but after seeing this reblogged at the Rosh Pina Project, I was compelled to read the original. Having read the original, I found myself greatly impressed by this thoughtful woman’s insights and sensitivity and thought it important to share.

Addendum: I think this news story is the flip side to the plea for “no Christian seders:” Passover: The Jewish Holiday for Gentiles.

Originally posted on Sicut Locutus Est:

155 NOTE: In March 2013, I posted a series of Facebook Notes about so-called “Christian Seders” and the special obligation Christians have in Lent and Holy Week especially to be vigilant about the way our observances may have an impact on Jews, Christian understandings of Judaism, and related matters. I have been asked by several colleagues to re-post these reflections this year. I am happy to do so. I need to make it clear, however, that I am not an expert on these matters. What I say below is my take on controverted questions, born mostly of my own reading and of my interfaith relationships. Please take them as such.

No “Christian Seders,” Please!

With Holy Week on the horizon,  many Christian congregations have started announcing Seder dinners to observe Maundy Thursday. People of good will recognize this as a devout and well-intentioned attempt to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, and…

View original 3,002 more words


For Redemption is Not Yet Complete

But I have been persuaded by Professor Edward Greenstein to read this story existentially rather than critically. The death of Aaron’s sons was not the result of a miscue in the prescribed choreography of the Tabernacle. Their fate conveys the far deeper and more unsettling truth that no amount of elaborate, awesome, and precisely executed ritual should ever leave us with the illusion that we have brought God under human control. The very moment the Tabernacle comes into service, Israel is taught the sober lesson that God’s will remains free and inscrutable, God’s wisdom unfathomable. The religion of the Torah is not a set of magical techniques to get God to do our bidding, but rather a quest to invest our lives with meaning. To rein in the erratic and destructive passions of the earth’s most intelligent animal, that is the Torah’s desperate mission.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Enduring Life’s Setbacks,” pg 411
Commentary on Torah Commentary Aharei Mot
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard.

-Genesis 4:3-5 (NASB)

I’ve read a couple of different commentaries on the death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3) recently. Both said that the “strange” or “alien fire” they offered was fire of their own making. These commentaries said that when God first ignited the fire upon the altar, only that fire was to be used in making offerings to God. A rather simple explanation for a question that has stumped scholars for thousands of years.

No, we can’t make a sacrifice to God of any sort that somehow brings Him under our control or provides Him with something He lacks. Nothing we make, say, or do will manipulate God into behaving or performing in a manner differently than is His intention.

Like prayer, we don’t turn to God with anything that will change Him. The purpose of the sacrifices, the mitzvot, and prayer is to change us.

Likewise the cup that was given to the world’s greatest tzaddik.

And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”

-Luke 22:41-42 (NASB)

It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last.

-Luke 23:44-46 (NASB)

As I write this, I just read a commentary about Passover and atonement which said in part:

“Suffering and pain may be imposed on a tzaddik (righteous person) as an atonement for his entire generation. This tzaddik must then accept this suffering with love for the benefit of his generation, just as he accepts the suffering imposed upon him for his own sake. In doing so, he benefits his generation by atoning for it, and at the same time is himself elevated to a very great degree. Such suffering also includes cases where a tzaddik suffers because his entire generation deserves great punishments, bordering on annihilation, but is spared via the tzaddik’s suffering. In atoning for his generation through his suffering, this tzaddik saves these people in this world and also greatly benefits them in the World-to-Come. In addition, there is a special higher type of suffering that comes to a tzaddik who is even greater and more highly perfected than the ones discussed above. This suffering comes to provide the help necessary to bring about the chain of events leading to the ultimate perfection of mankind as a whole. … Beyond that, the merit and power of these tzaddikim is also increased because of such suffering, and this gives them even greater ability to rectify the damage of others. They can therefore not only rectify their own generation, but can also correct all the spiritual damage done FROM THE BEGINNING, FROM THE TIME OF THE VERY FIRST SINNERS.” (emphasis mine) .. (Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, translation by Aryeh Kaplan Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 1977, pp 123-125)

If you are a Christian and unfamiliar with Jewish texts, this may seem strange or even startling to you. If you are Jewish and not a believer, this will seem like a gross misappropriation of the writings of the sages, bent in an unintended direction for a mistaken purpose.

The Death of the MasterI’ve written about just such an interpretation before, both in The Death of the Tzaddik and The Sacrifice at Golgotha. God is not pleased by unauthorized offerings, strange fires, and certainly not by human sacrifice, which we Christians sometimes are mistakenly accused of condoning.

And yet, sometimes God does ask that we put our soul on the altar so to speak, not because human struggle and suffering is His desire, but because we need to learn that as servants of the Most High God, our lives are subject to Him, not to what we want. By offering sacrifices, whether it be a lamb, a prayer, or our time and energy in performing deeds of kindness and charity, we aren’t giving to God something that changes Him, but we are doing what changes us in the manner God desires us to change.

And even that desire of God’s is not for His sake but for our own.

At the last second, God terminated the Akedah or the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) to spare the life of Isaac and to spare Abraham the death of his only son, the son of inheritance, the son who would carry forward all of the promises God made to Abraham, so they might be sent into the future with Isaac’s son Jacob, with Jacob’s twelve sons, with the tribes they would found, and with all of Israel, today’s Jewish people.

And because God wasn’t asking Abraham for a human sacrifice on the altar by killing his son, He was changing Abraham and changing Isaac, and the result of those changes reverberate down through history in both Judaism and Christianity.

To rein in the erratic and destructive passions of the earth’s most intelligent animal, that is the Torah’s desperate mission.

-Ismar Schorsch

I might have worded that sentence a little differently, but it’s a sound statement. The Word of God exists to change us, mold us, refine us (like a precious metal in fire if necessary) so that we might become a more spiritually pure product over time.

Rabbi Kalman Packouz in his Passover commentary said the following:

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

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

PrayerSome of those terms may seem a little odd to some of you but the principle behind them should be clear. We want to change. We want to be a little better tomorrow than we were yesterday. But even as believers and devout disciples of the Master, that’s easier said than done, at least for me (especially for me). Rabbi Packouz suggests Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s series 48 Ways to Wisdom, working through one “way” each day between the start of Passover and the arrival of Shavuot.

Jesus didn’t die just to be a human sacrifice since God abhors the desecration of human life. But if a great tzaddik can atone for the sins of his generation, how much more does the death of the greatest of all tzaddikim atone for the sins of the world, across the vast panorama of human existence?

But there’s nothing we can offer God that changes God. Every sacrifice, every lamb, every bull, every prayer, every mitzvah, and the death of the tzaddik, the Master, exists to change each of us and to bring us a little closer to God. Empty sacrifices are less than useless however. What we do is important but why we do it is crucial. Simply giving a can of soup to a hungry person feeds that hungry person, which is good, and it may temporarily elevate ourselves, at least in our own eyes, which may not be bad either. But if the act doesn’t reveal a little bit more about God to us, and if we don’t become just a little more dedicated and compassionate as God’s servants because of it, then all we’ve done was given one small meal to one single person.

And they’ll be hungry again in a few hours. So much for our “sacrifice.”

It only really, really matters on a vast and even cosmic scale, if it brings us to a greater realization of who is above us:

“Consider three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in the Book.”

-Pirkei Avot 2:1

Jesus will have died for nothing if we don’t follow him as a result, if we aren’t changed by the crucifixion and resurrection, if his act of inaugurating the era of the New Covenant did not begin to turn our heart of stone into a heart of flesh.

Run to do good. Shun evil. Pray for God to soften you, to change you, to refine you.

Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.
For Your lovingkindness is before my eyes, And I have walked in Your truth.

-Psalm 26:2-3 (NASB)

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

-Acts 20:28 (NASB)

Looking upPlease don’t think me vain if I start by praying for myself. It has been all too easy for me to rest for an extended period of time on a spiritual plateau and it’s all too difficult for me to overcome inertia and begin moving again. Going up means I have to overcome gravity, but going down is not the direction I want to take. Like a boat without oars in a river, standing still is just another way of going backward.

Our love of God is not to collapse even when our soul is shattered.

-Ismar Schorsch, pg 412

For redemption is not yet complete.

-A Passover Haggadah, Ed. Herbert Bronstein, pg 34

The King is coming, but there’s still time for each of us, you and me.

“Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”

-Bonne Raitt

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


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