Tag Archives: Abraham

Be Perfect On Earth and in Heaven

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.”

Genesis 17:1 (JPS Tanakh)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

Another translation of “be blameless” from Genesis 17:1 is “be perfect,” such as we see the Master instructing his students (including us) in Matthew 5:48. But how is this possible, especially when Paul wrote:

…as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one…

Romans 3:10 (ESV)

What does it mean to “be perfect?” I used to think this was one of the great mysteries of the Bible, but perhaps there is an answer after all.

If a human being cannot be perfect, why did God demand perfection of Abraham?

The entire context of the verse indicates both the definition of this perfection and the way in which it can be achieved. It is obvious that no human being can aspire to equal God’s degree of perfection. What man can achieve is to live according to God’s teachings and thereby live up to his own human potential; more than man’s personal maximum is not possible or expected. Thus, God did not say simply, “Be perfect”; He said, “Walk before Me and thereby you will be perfect.” When a person tries to live according to the Divine teachings, that constitutes human perfection, although one is technically never perfect.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for “walk” in the above verse is not telech but heshalech which implies, “Go your way in spite of opposition, not making your progress dependent on external circumstances, but being led from within yourself: Let your movement proceed from your own free-willed decisions.”

The picture is now complete; human perfection can be achieved by making a free-willed choice to live according to the Divine teaching.

Today I shall…

try to realize that although I cannot be absolutely without flaw, I can be perfect if I make free-will decisions to obey the Divine will.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 6”
Aish.com

We all make choices. Every day, we make choices. Sure, some of those choices involve making mistakes, but we continue to strive, like Jacob, struggling with God and with our lives, to do better; to be better today than we were the day before. Of course, observant Jews and Christians have different ideas of what one must do to please God and to stand before the Throne of the Almighty as “perfect.” For Jews, it is an adherence to the mitzvot of the Torah, the study of Torah, and prayer. For Christians, prayer is a large component, as is Bible study, but most importantly, is the belief in the person and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. None of this makes us “perfect” people, but it does represent a journey that we each take upon ourselves, to seek God, even as He is also our traveling companion.

Somewhere in-between the doing and the experiencing of God is where we are supposed to be walking.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty, led the services for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. He stood wrapped in his prayer shawl, profoundly entranced in the cleaving of the soul to its source. Every word of prayer he uttered was fire. His melody and fervor carried the entire community off to the highest and the deepest journey of the spirit.

And then he stopped. He turned, cast off his prayer shawl and left the synagogue. With a bewildered congregation chasing behind, he walked briskly to the outskirts of town, to a small dark house from where was heard the cry of a newborn infant. The rabbi entered the house, chopped some wood and lit a fire in the oven, boiled some soup and cared for the mother and child who lay helpless in bed.

Then he returned to the synagogue and to the ecstasy of his prayer.

The Rebbe added:

Note that the rabbi removed his prayer shawl. To help someone, you must leave your world, no matter how serene, to enter the place where that person lives.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“A Story”
A favorite story of the Rebbe, central to his activist view of life
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Aish.com

Whether you’re Christian or Jewish (or anyone else), the actions of Rabbi Zalman are bound to seem strange, but if you are aware of the extreme solemn devotion and majesty of the Yom Kippur service, certainly the most Holy Day on the Jewish calendar, then imagining the Rabbi abruptly throwing off his tallit in the middle of services, walking out of the synagogue, even in order to care for a newborn infant and his mother, probably seems startling and even shocking.

But what is it to be perfect? Is it entering into an ecstatic holy state of prayer, speaking in tongues, or other mystical or metaphysical experience that brings us closer to the Divine, or is it extending ourselves back outward, away from what we think we want or need, in order to serve someone who has greater needs than ours?

I suppose you could make the argument that it’s both, since after Rabbi Zalman finished his work at the new mother’s home, “he returned to the synagogue and to the ecstasy of his prayer.” On the other hand, he was willing to abandon, however temporarily, the “ecstasy of his prayer” in the middle of worship services on the Holiest day of the year, and perform a servile duty to the lowliest of God’s creatures in their helplessness. It would be as if a Christian Pastor, right in the middle of leading Easter services, were to suddenly stop, walk out of church, and perform the identical action for a new mother and her infant, then go back to church and pick up where he left off.

What would the parishioners think of what he did? Then again, what would God think?

Every person is a microcosm of the entire Creation. When a person brings harmony between his G‑dly soul and his material life, he brings harmony between the whole of heaven and earth.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Microhealing”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

What is it to be perfect? That’s not an easy question to answer. And yet we see that a significant portion of the answer is to strive to obey God and to bring harmony between our “G-dly soul” and our “material life.” The challenge is to find the balance between the two and to continually struggle to not let one overwhelm the other. We cannot serve Him in the material world without being attached to Him as He is in Heaven. But our service to Him in Heaven, so to speak, serves no one unless it is expressed here on Earth.

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:9-10 (ESV)

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The Jesus Covenant, Part 9: The Mysterious 2 Corinthians 3

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered 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.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3 (ESV)

After my brief detour into Ephesians 2 back in Part 7 of this series, and a deeper look at the Abrahamic covenant as it applies to the nations we saw in Part 8, I’m ready to continue pursuing my look at the New Testament scriptures that refer to the New Covenant.

But first, a brief review.

We see Jesus referring to “the covenant” (the word “new” is added in some later texts) in the Last Supper narratives:

  • Matthew 26:26-29
  • Mark 14:22-24
  • Luke 22:19-20

But there are a number of passages in the New Testament letters that specifically refer to the New Covenant. We’ve already examined the following:

Today, we’ll take a look at the above-quoted 2 Corinthians 3, keeping in mind that we still have to address:

  • Hebrews 8:6-7
  • Hebrews 9:15-22

Before continuing, I just want to point something out. Based on the last part of this series, it seems that the primary gateway for the Christian to enter into a covenant relationship with God is through the Abrahamic covenant and specifically, the portion that describes the blessings of the nations through Abraham’s offspring (singular), which we interpret as meaning the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. If the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36) is a confirmation, validation, and expansion upon the previous covenants God made with the Children of Israel, then for our purposes, the New Covenant confirms, validates, and expands upon the blessings we receive for the nations that come from God, through Abraham and our faith in Jesus.

OK, here we go with 2 Corinthians 3.

On the surface, this chapter in Paul’s letter tends to confirm the traditional interpretation of the church, that the Law or Torah “was being brought to an end,” supposedly to be replaced by the New Covenant of grace through Christ. I found the following commentary at BibleGateway.com:

What to do when old ways die hard? Paul’s overall approach is not to denigrate the Mosaic covenant but rather to demonstrate the superiority of the new covenant over the old. To do this he uses a Jewish form of argumentation called qal wahwmer, or what today we would label an a fortiori argument (from lesser to greater). His line of reasoning is that if the glory of the old covenant was transient yet came with such overpowering splendor that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of its minister as he descended from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law, how much greater must the new covenant be, whose splendor is permanent and whose glory does not fade. The implication is that though the Mosaic covenant can impart an initial glory and credibility to its ministers and adherents, because of its transitory character it has no lasting effect. Therefore for these visiting preachers to link themselves with a covenant that is fast becoming obsolete is to suggest that their competency is fading and their credentials are of no lasting importance. It is only the new covenant with its enduring splendor that can impart a permanent and lasting credibility to its ministers.

Paul’s evaluation of the Mosaic ministry is even more to the point. Far from being the key to the victorious Christian life, it is in reality a ministry that brings nothing but death (v. 7) and condemnation (v. 9) to those of God’s people who strive to live by it. To be a minister of the old covenant is therefore to be an instrument of death and destruction. The new covenant ministry, on the other hand, brings the Spirit (v. 8) and righteousness (v. 9). So to be a minister of this covenant is to be an instrument of life and salvation.

I know, the commentary seems pretty hard on the Mosaic covenant and its conditions, the Torah, but then, who is Paul’s audience. Is he addressing a group of Jewish disciples? It seems unlikely. This commentary might make more sense if he’s talking to a group of Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah who have been listening to other Jewish teachers emphasize that the Gentile must “obey Torah” and even convert to Judaism.

I have problems with the references to the Mosaic law “going away” but then again, should the Gentile disciples be listening to teachings that say they are to rely only on Torah obedience for the purposes of justification before God? Doesn’t the Abrahamic covenant emphasize faith?

The clue may be in another part of the commentary:

Paul’s emphasis in particular on the greater glory of the new covenant suggests that his opponents associated themselves in some fashion with Moses and the law–but not with its legalistic side, since there is no mention of circumcision or obedience to the law.

Paul’s Gentile audience may have been tempted to take on board the full yoke of Torah (and perhaps even to convert to Judaism) in order to achieve salvation. Is that why Paul refers to the Torah as “the ministry of death” in verse 7? Paul, in Galatians, was very harsh toward the Gentiles who were considering conversion to Judaism, even going so far as to say that if they did so, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross would become meaningless to them. (see Galatians 5:2)

Still, the content of this letter is puzzling, particularly in light of what we read in the Christian commentary:

To speak of the Mosaic covenant as a ministry that dispenses death would have sounded blasphemous to Jewish ears. It was the uniform opinion of the rabbis that what Moses gave the people of Israel were “words of life,” not words of death (as in Exodus Rabbah 29.9).

The BibleGateway.com commentary is quite correct in asserting this, but then how can they follow-up with this statement?

In verses 10-11 Paul takes his argument one final step and advances the idea that the splendor of the old covenant is not only dwindling but also completely eclipsed by the surpassing glory of the new covenant. This is because the Mosaic ministry is temporary, while the new covenant ministry is permanent.

It doesn’t sound like he’s saying that the Law is for the Jews and faith and grace is for the Gentiles, but that indeed, the Law is fading away and has disappeared altogether and has been replaced by the “new covenant.” But how can this be if the New Covenant merely confirms and expands upon all of the previously established covenants including the Abrahamic and Mosaic?

Seeking an alternate interpretation, I found one at torahtimes.org (Note: I know nothing of this ministry and so cannot vouch for their accuracy or legitimacy. I merely report an alternate way of looking at these verses):

It is the nature of a drash דרש to combine texts that on the literal level have little to do with one another in order to make a point. Paul is not trying to tell us that the ten commandments are the ministry of death. The common element in his quotations is the ministry of death, or the ministry that makes rebels guilty. This is what unites the drash. When the text “engraved … in stones” comes together with the text about the veil on Moses face, we must not assume that Paul is saying the two tablets of the ten commandments that Moses had at the time. That’s not how one interprets a drash. You have to find the homiletical theme of the two quotations and not assume that the use of the two texts mean anything other than what they are used for. The ministry of death in the stones were the curses inscribed upon Mt. Ebal when Israel came into the land. It’s mention next to Moses face is not Paul’s intent to confuse the literal facts but to give a homily on the ministry of death” (torahtimes.org, DLC).

Because I don’t like posting content from a source I am unsure of, I tried to find out something about the commentary’s author Daniel Gregg. I discovered something about him on Derek Leman’s blog. You can read the content there and make whatever evaluation of Mr. Gregg’s legitimacy as a Biblical interpreter you see fit.

That said, Gregg’s interpretation does point out that we may be missing something by trying to understand Paul’s letter in terms of modern Christian thought. Paul’s entire world view was as a Jew and a teacher, and his commentaries on the older scriptures were most likely to be a halalach interpretation that operates outside of traditional Christian thinking. In that sense, we may not easily grasp the meaning behind how Paul (apparently) speaks against the Law or defines it as being ended or fading away, Gentile audience notwithstanding.

My last source, the Rosh Pina Project has a viewpoint that seems to dovetail with Gregg’s (please click the link and read the entire commentary for the full context):

If the Ten Commandments are the ministry of death and condemnation, there is no way we can find life in them. The Ten Commandments are the ministry of death and condemnation, and not because they themselves are unrighteous. They are the ministry of death and condemnation because they show us to be unrighteous, and they show how utterly incapable we are of obeying God’s commandments.

From my own point of view, my reach may have exceeded my grasp. I don’t know what to make out of 2 Corinthians 3. If I maintain my basic assumption that the New Covenant cannot undo or replace the older covenants God made with Israel, then the surface meaning of Paul’s words and the traditional Christian interpretation of this chapter cannot be correct. The closest interpretation that fits my paradigm is the aforementioned Rosh Pina Project, and in this case, they say the Torah is only inadequate because we are inadequate.

Our incapability to serve or honour God through the commands which he decreed should force us to our knees, to cry out for mercy, and to place our trust in the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Moshiach, without whom all our ‘righteous acts’ are like filthy rags before the Holy One.

I don’t know if I find that a completely satisfying explanation for everything Paul writes in this chapter, but I think it points in the right direction. Your opinions may provide more illumination in uncovering the mystery. Then we’ll proceed to Part 10 and Hebrews.

Sharing with Abraham

The Land of Israel is central to Judaism. It is an intrinsic part of the covenant that God promised to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12), and most events recorded in the Bible took place in Israel.

The mitzvah to live in Israel is based on the verse, “You shall possess the Land and dwell in it” (Numbers 33:53). The Talmud states that “every 4 amot (about 7 feet) that a person walks in Israel is another mitzvah.”

The question, however, is whether this mitzvah is compulsory in our times when the Holy Temple is not standing. This is the basis of a dispute between two great Talmudic commentators, Maimonides and Nachmanides. A leading 20th century sage, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, concludes that living in Israel is a “mitzvah kiyuma” – while it is a great mitzvah, there is no absolute obligation to do so.

from Ask the Rabbi
“Mitzvah to Live in Israel”
Aish.com

I used to want to live in Israel. I gathered together various reading materials related to making aliyah. I often imagined what it would be like to permanently move to the Holy Land. It was a rather romantic notion and it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. I’m not Jewish, but my wife is. If she made aliyah, it’s not like the state of Israel would deny her just because she was married to a goy. I’d “go along for the ride,” so to speak.

As the years passed, my passion cooled and reality settled in for the long haul. I realized that my wife had no desire to actually live in Israel (though she and my daughter have visited). According to the Ask the Rabbi quote from above, there’s not an absolute obligation for a Jew to live in the Land, so I guess Jews can still choose to live where ever it pleases them.

But reading the article about the mitzvah of living in Israel reminded me of what I wrote yesterday about Abraham, Jews, and Christians. (I decided not to make this blog post part of The Jesus Covenant series since it’s more of a “side note” on the covenant than a direct investigation, however the relationship between this and the “covenant” series is obvious) The giving of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people in perpetuity is part and parcel of the Abrahamic covenant (see Genesis 12). As I outlined in my previous blog post, while one of the conditions of said-covenant provides a blessing to the nations through Abraham’s seed; through the Messiah, that is the only condition of the covenant that applies to Christianity.

In other words, the Land is promised to Israel through the Abrahamic covenant, but that doesn’t translate into Israel also “belonging” to Christians. My wife, as a Jew, has the perfect right to request and receive legal citizenship in Israel while I, a non-Jew, do not, even if I really, really want to live there.

This is sort of a metaphor for a larger set of obligations and permissions vs. human desires that I experience in my little corner of the blogosphere. As much as I may have wanted to live in the Land of Israel at one point in time, that would only have been accomplished in my case, if I accompanied my Jewish wife when she made aliyah. If she never makes aliyah, then I’m staying in the good ol’ U.S. of A. with her. She has the right to make aliyah to Israel. I can only live in Israel because of her being Jewish.

That covers so many other things. We Christians may see the many advantages the Jews have (see Romans 3:1-2) and we tend to want them for ourselves. That’s probably the desire that is at the heart of supersessionism in Christianity. We’ve been taught that every promise God made to the Jewish people has been taken from them and transferred to us, so when we see the beauty of the various aspects of Judaism, the lighting of the shabbos candles, praying the Shema, reading from the Torah scroll in the synagogue (another form of aliyah), we, or at least some of us, want them, too.

Nevermind that a “want” is not a “deserve,” we still want, much like a child in pre-school sees a playmate who has a cool toy, we want it for ourselves. It doesn’t matter if that toy belongs to our playmate. At that age, kids don’t have a terrific understanding of empathy, boundaries, and distinctions. They are very egocentric. If they want something, they take it. It doesn’t matter that the toy belongs to someone else. That’s why pre-school age children need adults to remind them that they can’t have everything they want, even when they see other kids playing with a really cool toy.

When you’re a small child, you think and feel like a small child and there are many things that you don’t understand. We adults are tolerant of this in our children and grandchildren because we know this behavior is a normal stage of development. We gently provide correction and eventually, the child grows and learns. The problem is when people grow up and they don’t learn, and they still keep thinking like children.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

1 Corinthians 13:11 (ESV)

If we don’t develop properly and we cling to childish ideas, we grow up continually mistaking wants for needs and privileges for rights. In the western nations, we are taught to stand up for our rights, and then we believe that everything is a right. Our Constitution guarantees the right to pursue happiness but that’s no promise that we’ll actually attain it. There are a million things in the world we can have and a million things we can’t. It’s no fun facing that fact, but that is the reality of our existence. Some Christians may want all of the advantages of being a Jew, but it is not our right to take them. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you is called stealing.

The Land of Promise was given to the direct, physical descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jacob was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel and those tribes eventually became the Jewish people. The promises were handed down like a baton in a relay race, from older to younger, down, down across the long generations and to this present day. But each of those runners is a Jew, not a Christian.

That does not mean, in an ultimate sense, that if a Christian finds beauty in Judaism, they are barred from any of the Jewish practices. Many Christians visit their local synagogues and respectfully worship with the Jewish congregation. Many classes are available at those synagogues and anyone, Jew or Gentile, is allowed to attend. No one will object if you choose to light the Shabbos candles on Friday night, or construct a small sukkah in your backyard at this time of year.

It’s like the two metaphorical pre-school children I was talking about before. We can’t just reach out and take what belongs to the other child and pretend that it is ours by right. But we can say something like, “Cool toy. Can I play with it for a little bit?” There is much beauty and joy in the mitzvot of the Jews that can also belong to us. We can feed the hungry, give a thirsty person a drink of water, visit the sick and the prisoner, give to worthy charitable causes, stand out of respect when an elderly person enters the room, and many other things. For those things that belong only to the Jews, some would be ridiculous for a Christian to perform, such as referring to ourselves as “Israel” while davening with a siddur. But there are many others that, even if they don’t belong to us, we can politely ask to share.

I will never live in Israel as a citizen, but someday before I die, I hope to visit and perhaps share in the experience of praying at the Kotel.

The Jesus Covenant, Part 8: Abraham, Jews, and Christians

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3 (ESV)

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

Galatians 3:15-16 (ESV)

For the past several installments of this series including Part 7, I’ve been focusing on aspects of the New Covenant, mainly because the little bits and pieces that relate to Christianity can only be tracked down in different parts of the New Testament. However, recent conversations have shown me that I should probably return to the foundation of my understanding for a bit to illustrate its solidity, or at least describe the trail of reasoning that I’m pursuing.

As you have probably guessed, it all goes back to Abraham and the covenant God announced to him in Genesis 12. But what exactly did God promise Abraham and what does it have to do with us, that is, with Christians?

Here’s my understanding:

  1. Genesis 12:1-3 – God promises to make Abraham into great nation, bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him, and all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham.
  2. Genesis 15:18–21 – God promises to give Abraham’s descendants all the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates, and this area is later referred to as the Promised Land or the Land of Israel.
  3. Genesis 17:2–9 – God promises to make Abraham a father of many nations and of many descendants and the land of Canaan as well as other parts of Middle East will go to his descendants.
  4. Genesis 17:9-14 – God declares that circumcision is to be the sign of the covenant for Abraham and all his male descendants and that this will be an eternal covenant.

This covenant is then reaffirmed to Isaac in Genesis 21:12, and again reaffirmed to Jacob in Genesis 26:3-4. (the New Covenant as recorded in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 affirms and expands upon this and the Mosaic covenant) God confirmed that the promise of the covenant is specifically for the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the Children of Israel, in many places in the Torah, not the least of which is in Deuteronomy 34:4 (ESV):

And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”

As far as the land of Israel goes, there is no provision in the covenant to give it to anyone or any other people group besides the Children of Israel and their descendants forever, the Jewish people.

That takes care of the Land. But what about us?

We learn from Galatians 3:15-16 which I quoted above, that through Abraham’s seed, through his offspring (singular) we among the nations would be blessed. Paul declares that the offspring in question is specifically the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. Our blessings that issue from the Abrahamic covenant are directly transferred to us through the Messiah.

So far, of the four items in the above-referenced list, only one of them seems to apply to Christians, the blessings of the Messiah.

What else do we know about the Messianic blessings in the Abrahamic covenant?

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. –Romans 4:9-12 (ESV)

We see that it was Abraham’s faith that was counted to him as righteousness, and this was before the sign of the covenant was placed upon Abraham. We too, the “uncircumcised” of the nations, are called “righteous” because of our faith. Thus Abraham Avinu is our father, according to Paul, not just the father of the Hebrews. No, that doesn’t mean we are Hebrew (Jewish) too, nor does it mean we inherit the total body of covenant blessings and responsibilities that are incumbent upon the Jews, but it does make us connected to Abraham as the father of our faith, and through his covenant and the Messiah, with God.

This is kind of a delicate trail to negotiate, and we have to be careful that we don’t slip off the path and fall into erroneous thinking. The promise of the Land, and I believe the other specific promises, including the covenantal sign of circumcision, are for the physical descendants of Abraham and of Isaac, and of Jacob. That’s not the rest of us. That’s just the Jewish people.

In other words, all of the conditions of the Abrahamic covenant, including the blessings of the Messiah, flow to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The single blessing that we can be attached to through the Messiah is attached to Abraham alone, as he was before his circumcision, as he was before Isaac; a man of faith and righteousness before God.

That’s the split, the demarcation line between Christian and Jew, the slender thread of “covenanthood” by which we Gentile Christians are connected to Abraham, the Abrahamic covenant, and thus, to God.

So what do we get out of it? Well, first of all, a cautionary tale:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Romans 11:17-24 (ESV)

Paul seems to be toggling back and forth between addressing the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. “You wild olive branches, you Gentiles,” Paul is saying. “Don’t get cocky just because you were grafted in. Remember, it’s the root that nourishes you, not the other way around. You think you are so hot just because a few Jews were knocked off the root to make room for you Gentiles? So what,” he might be saying. “If you fall away from the kindness of the Messiah, you can be knocked off and the Jews can be put back twice as fast!”

So to the Jews, don’t be arrogant to the Gentiles because they’re “newbies.” To the Gentiles, don’t be arrogant because some Jews were removed from the root to which you are now attached. Nothing is necessarily permanent. Anyone can be “ungrafted.”

That’s a terrific lesson for many non-Jewish believers to learn because, through one process or another, we have come to feel superior to the Jewish people who God, in the end, will reattach to the root, all of them. Remember, any of you out there who are not physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (apart from legitimate converts to Judaism) don’t get cocky. God not only didn’t get rid of the Jews, it is through them that your salvation and covenant connection to God is established and nourished in the first place.

And for those of you who feel that being “grafted in” has whitewashed any physical and covenant distinctions between you and the “natural branches,” think again:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,

“That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

Romans 3:1-8 (ESV)

Being Jewish is not beside the point just because we Gentiles have been grafted in. There remains much advantage to being Jewish. Even those Jews today who do not acknowledge Christ as Messiah are not permanently condemned as many Christians seem to believe. They are not discarded and cast aside.

Israel will be saved:

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers:a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

Romans 11:25-29 (ESV)

I’ve probably wandered from the strictly Abrahamic path, but with good purpose. The purpose is to illustrate that just because Jews and Christians share the Messianic blessings that are part of the wider Abrahamic covenant through faith, that does not mean we share all of the blessings attached to that covenant. Paul was extremely clear that there is a distinction between Jewish (native) and Gentile (wild) olive branches. They all didn’t “morph” into a single type of branch with no way to tell them apart.

Also, Paul was extremely clear that there were many advantages to being a Jew. Further, he said that even if some of the Jews were temporarily removed from the root for the sake of we Gentile Christians, in the end, God’s promises to the Jewish people are irrevocable; they cannot be revoked!

The really interesting thing about all of this is that a Christian must choose to become part of the covenant with God through Jesus and Christians can also “unchoose” Christianity for another religion or no religion at all. Not so with the Jewish people. If you are born a Jew, you are automatically born into the covenant (actually covenants, but I’m only talking about Abraham for the moment). God has temporarily turned His face away from His people Israel in the past, and He has temporarily exiled them in the past, but as “temporarily” implies, He always takes them back and He always will take them back.

In spite of the fact that this missive is longer than I intended, I didn’t get to say everything I could have said about Christianity and the Abrahamic covenant. Hopefully, I’ve said enough for now.

The Jesus Covenant, Part 2: Abraham

What is the intent of a covenant? (See Likkutei Torah, Devarim 44b.) When two people feel a powerful attraction to each other, but realize that with the passage of time, that attraction could wane, they establish a covenant. The covenant maintains their connection even at times when, on a conscious level, there might be reasons for distance and separation.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Standing Before G-d”
from the “In the Garden of Torah” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Nitzavim and Rosh Hashanah
Chabad.org

A biblical covenant is an agreement—generally between God and humanity—recorded in the text of the Bible, the common Holy Scriptures of both the Jewish and Christian religions.

-Covenant (biblical)
Wikipedia.org

In Part 1 of “The Jesus Covenant, I started exploring my (mis)understanding of the covenant(s) that attach me, as a Christian, to God. To that end, I accessed some textual and video information produced by Derek Lemen, including his Covenants video (it’s very brief and straightforward, so please give it a look).

In the video, Derek outlines the five covenants that are described in the Old Testament or the Tanakh, three of which are in the Torah or the Five Books of Moses.

  • Noahide
  • Abrahamic
  • Mosaic
  • Davidic
  • New Covenant

Of these five, only the Noahide covenant (see Genesis 9) includes all humanity universally as the people of the covenant. It is God’s promise never to destroy the world again by flooding, and the sign of the covenant is the rainbow. For the other four covenants, the people of each of them is specifically the Jewish people (the specific descendants of the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Of those four, according to Derek, only the Abrahamic and New Covenant contain blessings for the non-Jewish people of the world, although the Davidic covenant, which declares that a descendant of David will always sit on the throne of Israel, has certain Messianic applications.

It is through the blessings of the Abrahamic and New Covenant, that we who call ourselves Christians, are able to enter into a covenant relationship with God through the Messiah and Savior, Jesus Christ.

But from here on in, the path gets a little muddy. Traditional Judaism disagrees with the statement I made in the previous paragraph, and believes that only (or primarily) the Noahide covenant applies to the nations. Traditional Christianity believes that the New Covenant is specific to the church, deletes the previous covenants (except for certain aspects of the Abrahamic covenant), and transfers all the relevant covenant promises from the Jews to all of Christianity, creating new, “spiritual Israel”

I’m going to set aside traditional Judaism’s viewpoint here and focus on Christianity, since after all, I’m a Christian. I’m forced to disagree with the teaching we see in many churches that tells us Christianity has superseded Judaism in the covenants. This is a very old and well accepted belief in the church, but as my long time readers know, I strongly oppose any sort of replacement theology and believe that God did not reject the Jewish people when He allowed His blessings to flow through them in order to touch the Gentile.

So where does that lead us?

It leads us, and I’m continuing to use Derek as my source here, to the understanding that God chooses to bless the Gentiles through Israel without doing away with Israel or fusing the original Israelites with the later occurring Christians, essentially forming a new corporate entity which I’ve previously called “spiritual Israel.” In fact, the concept of “spiritual” vs. “physical” Israel requires more than a little theological and “exegesic slight of hand” to pull off. Also, there’s nothing I can see in the Old Testament prophesies where God comes right out and says to the Children of Israel that they’ll eventually become obsolete, replaced, or watered down by the inclusion of the rest of the world into their ranks. Isn’t Israel always supposed to be a special, unique, and set apart people before God? (see Jeremiah 31:35-37)

I suppose the next step in my quest is to examine the Abrahamic and New Covenants more in detail to try to find where the blessings are for the nations and how that translates into a covenant relationship with God for “the rest of us.”

I found a pretty good summary of the Abrahamic Covenant at GotQuestions.org and looked at the three main features of this covenant. Only one feature directly provides blessings for the nations (the other two apply exclusively to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).

The promise of blessing and redemption (Genesis 12:3). God promised to bless Abraham and the families of the earth through him. This promise is amplified in the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34; cf. Hebrews 8:6–13) and has to do with “Israel’s spiritual blessing and redemption.” Jeremiah 31:34 anticipates the forgiveness of sin. The unconditional and eternal nature of the covenant is seen in that the covenant is reaffirmed to Isaac (Genesis 21:12; 26:3–4). The “I will” promises suggest the unconditional aspect of the covenant. The covenant is further confirmed to Jacob (Genesis 28:14–15). It is noteworthy that God reaffirmed these promises amid the sins of the patriarchs, which fact further emphasizes the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic Covenant.

More specifically, it is the fulfillment of this feature that most concerns Christianity.

The Abrahamic Covenant finds its ultimate fulfillment in connection with the return of Messiah to rescue and bless His people Israel. It is through the nation Israel that God promised in Genesis 12:1–3 to bless the nations of the world. That ultimate blessing will issue in the forgiveness of sins and Messiah’s glorious kingdom reign on earth.

It should be noted that I reject the idea that the Jewish people will need to “convert to Christianity” and abandon Judaism in order to fulfill the prophesy of Israel’s national repentance and forgiveness as we see in Zechariah 12:10-14 and Romans 11:25-27. There’s no logic in a Jew having to stop being a Jew in order to give honor and devotion to the Jewish Messiah King and to worship the God of Israel.

However, we’ve discovered the blessing that comes to us through the Abrahamic Covenant and the Jewish people that allows our covenant connection to God. The promise of the blessings of Messiah are for the Jewish people and the rest of the nations through faith.

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. –Romans 4:9-12 (ESV)

The blessing is for the circumcised (Jews) and the uncircumcised (people of the nations) alike and the way to access the blessing is through faith. Non-Jews do not have to take on the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (circumcision), since that is not a requirement to access this particular blessing. Abraham had faith prior to circumcision and thus it is our faith as well that binds us to God through this blessing. Faith is the medium that connects both Jew and Christian to our Creator, and it is specifically in faith that all people are equal before God.

Thus the ancient Hebrews (circumcised) and their descendants have access to all of the features of the Abrahamic Covenant, while we non-Jewish Christians (uncircumcised) have access to one of the covenant features, which is specific to the blessings for the nations. I suppose I could say a lot more about this, but it seems clear that we Christians are connected by faith to God through this blessing which is the promise of the Messiah, and that promise is realized in the coming of Jesus Christ.

But GotQuestions.org also says that this feature of the Abrahamic Covenant “is amplified in the New Covenant.” That’s where we’ll pick up this discussion in the next part of the series.

In the meantime, feel free to comment, ask questions, and add details to the elementary understanding I’ve presented here. As I keep telling people, I’m not a theologian, Pastor, teacher, expert, or anything else lofty. I’m just a guy; an average Christian (sort of) who is trying to get a better handle on my faith. I don’t think that you have to be an expert or a scholar with a ton of degrees to understand what we believe as Christians and why we believe it. I invite everyone like me, and everyone else, to join me for Part 3 of “The Jesus Covenant.”

The Jesus Covenant, Part 1: The Foundation

I said the New Covenant applies to non-Jews the same way the Abrahamic does: some specific provisions are Israel-specific (land, great nation, bless those who bless you) while the blessings of the covenant are for “all the families of the earth” and “all nations.” Even before the New Covenant was initiated in Messiah’s death (initiated but not fully enacted) non-Jews were invited to God’s blessings in countless Psalms and prophetic passages and in the general invitation to wisdom.

Non-Jews are to read in Israel’s Torah and prophets and writings and find wisdom and righteousness. There is not a separate covenant. It is the covenant with Israel to be read along with Israel.

-Derek Lemen describing the content
of his recent video on Covenants

I was wrong.

I bet that’s not something you read in the blogosphere everyday.

I was used to thinking that Christianity had a separate and wholly contained covenant that connected the non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah to God. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. No wonder I couldn’t find a “discrete container” for this covenant anywhere in the Bible.

But what then? Are we Christians all existing inside an illusion? Did God never really intend for us to have a relationship with Him? I have to answer “no,” otherwise what was the whole point of Paul’s mission to the nations or Christ’s last command to his Jewish disciples in Matthew 28:18-20?

So where is this mythical covenant. I might as well start from scratch and ask what is a covenant? I grabbed a definition more or less at random from Carm.org:

A covenant (Hebrew berith, Greek diatheke) is a legal agreement between two or more parties. The word “covenant(s)” occurs 284 times in the Old Testament (as found in the New American Standard Bible). “Covenant(s)” occurs 37 times in the New Testament, which gives a total of 321 occurances (sic).

That’s probably not the best definition in existence, but it works.

Once I realized that I didn’t have an answer to a very basic question about my faith, I sent out a general “distress message” via email to the various people I trust to answer my honest but dumb questions. Derek Leman, whose qualifications include M.T.S in Hebrew Bible, Emory University and Rabbinic Studies, Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, was gracious enough to respond. Our set of email transactions included this:

Me: However, one of my problems is being able to point at the Bible and say “such and thus” chapter and verse is where you’ll find the “covenant with the Gentiles.” From what you said (and this is probably where my problem comes in), there is no central location for the “Gentile Messianic covenant.” It’s really a ratification of the previous covenants that allows the nations to partake within certain constraints. Correct?

Derek: Exactly.

I was recently criticized when I suggested that, to define the covenant that attaches the non-Jewish people to God, I’d have to do an inventory of different parts of the Bible. As it turns out, I was on the right track, but not quite right enough. We Gentile Christians are not attached to the God of Israel through Jesus Christ by a covenant that is specifically made with the nations. Instead, we receive blessings from already existing covenants that God made with the Jewish people.

But that presents a problem. If we Christians have a covenant relationship with God through covenants that were made with the Jewish people (Abrahamic and Mosaic, specifically) does that mean all of the conditions, requirements, and blessings of those covenants apply in exactly the same manner to us as they do to the Jewish people? In other words, does coming to faith in Jesus Christ make a non-Jewish person “Jewish?”

No, but this is the part that requires some work to discover.

There are three covenants that seem to apply: The Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and the New Covenant.

I’m borrowing heavily from Derek’s Covenants video here. Also, keep in mind, this information is really a summary. There’s a lot more detail that can be gleaned from a deeper look into each of these covenants.

Abrahamic

This is the covenant that God made with Abraham. You’ll find the announcement of the covenant in Genesis 12, the enactment of the covenant is in Genesis 15, and the sign of the covenant, which is circumcision, in Genesis 17. Derek explains that circumcision isn’t a requirement for the covenant to continue, but it is a requirement for Abraham’s descendants, through Isaac and Jacob specifically, to participate in the covenant. It is vitally important to recognize that the people of the Abrahamic covenant are Abraham’s descendants through Jacob, that is, the Jewish people.

Torah at SinaiSome parts of that covenant are only for the Jewish people, specifically the land, that Israel will be made into a great nation, that Abraham’s name will be made great, that those who curse you (Abraham and his descendants through Jacob) will be cursed, those who bless you will be blessed.

However, there are parts of the covenant that are not limited to the Jewish people. There are blessings in the Abrahamic covenant that are intended for the righteous of the nations; blessings for all the families of the earth through Israel. God’s blessing comes to Christians through Israel in that Israel gave Christians the Bible and the Messiah, and Israel will be the center of Jesus’ return and where he will establish his kingdom on earth.

Mosaic

This is the covenant that God made specifically with the Children of Jacob through Moses at Sinai, and the conditions of the Sinai covenant between God and Israel were given as the Torah. The sign of the covenant is the Sabbath.

“You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.'” –Exodus 31:13 (ESV)

Like the Abrahamic covenant, the people of the Mosaic covenant are the Jewish people. However, unlike the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant contains no blessings for the nations. The Mosaic covenant of Sinai is applied only to the Jewish people. This means the keeping of the Sabbaths, including the weekly Sabbath and all of the Festivals, are specifically covenant signs between God and the Jews.

New Covenant

The New Covenant can be found in both Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 however, according to Derek, this is not a New Covenant made with the Christian church. The people of the covenant, just like the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, are the Jewish people.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” –Jeremiah 31:31-34 (ESV)

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. –Ezekiel 36:22-24 (ESV)

Also, countering what many believers may think, the New Covenant doesn’t replace the older covenants but instead, expands upon them and continues to include the previous covenants with Israel. In fact, the exile the Jewish people had suffered from was a direct penalty cited in the Mosaic covenant (see Ezekiel 36:16-19). The end of this chapter in Ezekiel (vv 33-38) reads very much like a return of the blessings of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants upon God’s people Israel:

“Thus says the Lord God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.

“Thus says the Lord God: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock. Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”

Waiting for the dawnBut is that it? No, for like the Abrahamic covenant, although the people of the covenant are the Jewish people, there are blessings in the New Covenant that include all the nations of the world. These blessings are from God but they go through Israel to the nations. In fact, the blessings go from God, through Israel and specifically through Israel’s “first-born son,” the Messiah, Jesus, who we in the church call, “the Christ,” and then to us, everyone, anyone who comes to faith in God for the sake of Jesus, all the blessings through the Son of David.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ –Jeremiah 33:14-16 (ESV)

This is only the foundation of my search for the “Jesus Covenant.” Obviously it doesn’t answer all the questions about how what is being said here connects further on down the road to the coming of the Messiah and the gathering of the people of the nations into the blessings I’ve (or rather, that Derek has) mentioned.

But it’s a start. I’m probably not the only Christian who hasn’t really explored the connections in the covenant blessings that bind us to God, so I hope a few others reading this will benefit. I don’t know if I can produce a second part of this series immediately. I’ll probably end up doing some reading and the High Holy Days are very near now. I trust that you’ll be patient. Of course, if those of you, like Derek, who are learned in such matters, choose to contribute to my “knowledge base,” either through email or by commenting here, I wouldn’t object.

“Jealousy comes from counting another’s blessings instead of your own.”

-Anonymous

To continue with this series, join me for Part 2 of The Jesus Covenant.