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Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Repentance from Dead Works, Part 2

More thoughts on repentance from dead works as an essential part of the gospel and one of the elementary teachings of Yeshua. Evangelism is not like making toast. Discipleship and evangelism entails an ongoing process. Includes excerpts from a blog in which an Evangelical pastor explains why he does not preach repentance. Does repentance mean to “change your mind” or to “turn from sin”?

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Nineteen: Repentance from Dead Works, Part 2
Originally presented on June 8, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Initially, Lancaster took a detour from delving into the deep meaning of the Epistle to the Hebrews to take a closer look at the six elemental principles of our faith as outlined in Hebrews 6:1-3. Since teaching the first principle last week, repentance from dead works, he takes a further detour, traveling a greater distance away from his source material in order to illustrate how far the Evangelical Church has drifted away from the essentials of the Bible.

After his recap of “the milk,” the very, very first thing the Hebrews writer thought that any person needed to know when starting out as a wet-behind-the-ears disciple of Yeshua (Jesus), that is, repentance from sin and turning to God, he tells his audience how difficult the journey of becoming a disciple actually is:

Then a scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”

Matthew 8:19-22 (NASB)

Notice how Jesus doesn’t make it so easy for someone just to follow him? He seems to push people away. Maybe that’s because being a disciple of the Master is a difficult thing to do. It has many advantages and God wants all people to turn away from sin and return to Him, but it’s not like taking a walk in the park.

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”

Luke 9:23 (NASB)

Repentance and salvation isn’t as simple as “Come as you are, believe in me, and you’ll go to Heaven when you die.” Rather, it’s as if Jesus is saying, “Come as you are, pick up your cross, follow me, and prepare to be persecuted.”

This isn’t a terribly popular message in Evangelical Christianity which is why, according to Lancaster, it isn’t preached very much in churches. How does Lancaster know this? He Googled it. No kidding, that’s what he said.

He came across a blog (the link is at the top but I’ll present it again) called EscapeToReality.org owned and operated by someone named Pastor Paul Ellis.

Pastor Paul Ellis
Pastor Paul Ellis

Lancaster said that Pastor Ellis’ blog just came up in the search results and Lancaster doesn’t know a thing about this person except he’s a blogger. Lancaster’s opinion is that if you blog and your material is available on the web, you’re just “asking for it” (which is why Lancaster doesn’t blog and isn’t even on Facebook).

I guess I must be asking for it, too. I’m not sure I’d ever want to have Lancaster comment on my blog given the following, but then again, I hope my content is more doctrinally sound. Lancaster referenced a blog post written by Pastor Ellis in November of 2011 called 3 Reasons Why I Don’t Preach on Repentance (“Turn from Sin”).

Religious people often complain that we grace preachers don’t emphasize repentance sufficiently. It’s true. I hardly emphasize it at all. But then neither did the Apostle John. You’d think if salvation hinged on our repentance then it would be in the gospels but John says nothing about it. Not one word. Neither does he mention repentance in any of his three letters. I guess John must’ve been a grace preacher.

I’d never heard of a category of preachers called “grace preachers” but I guess they stand in opposition to people like Lancaster who do indeed preach repentance.

Lancaster pointed out a couple of things about Ellis’s quote. First, he only draws from the Gospel of John and ignores Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Second, he’s wrong about John.

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:34-36 (NASB)

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.

1 John 3:4-10 (NASB)

Apparently, Pastor Ellis missed a few key portions of John’s writings.

And just in case you missed it (as perhaps Ellis has), Jesus really did preach on repentance. It was his central theme:

From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15

You may have to return to Lancaster’s previous definitions of sin and repentance or look at my own series on Teshuva for the following to truly make an impact:

  1. Repentance means to turn from sin
  2. Repentance means to change your mind

Ellis also says:

It (repentance) means different things to different people. But Biblical repentance simply means “change your mind.” You can change your mind about anything, but Jesus called us to change our mind and believe the good news (Mk 1:15).

Your definition of repentance will reveal whether you are living under grace or works. In the Old Testament, sinners repented by bringing a sacrifice of penance and confessing their sins (Num 5:7). But in the new we bring a sacrifice of praise and confess His name (Heb 13:15). We don’t do anything to deal with our sins for Jesus has done it all.

In other words, just sitting around in church is good enough and you don’t even do that. Jesus does it all and we’re saved. No personal accountability is required.

Oh, the three reasons Ellis doesn’t preach repentance. I’ll give you the raw list, but you’ll have to go to his blog to read the full content:

  1. It puts people under the law
  2. It doesn’t lead people to salvation
  3. We’re called to preach the gospel, not repentance

It’s hard to believe Pastor Ellis has even read the whole Bible. He’s saying that repentance just puts people “under the law,” repentance doesn’t lead to salvation, and we are only supposed to preach the gospel as if the message of repentance isn’t at the gospel’s core.

I’m sorry if this sounds snarky or arrogant on my part (and I’ve had a problem with arrogance from time to time), but Ellis’ blog should be named “EscapeFromReality.org.”

Lancaster also has three points, but in this case, they’re three points on why he does preach repentance:

  1. The gospel message calls us to repent (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15)
  2. Repentance is defined by the Bible as turning away from sin and turning (or returning) to God
  3. Sin is defined by the Bible as a violation of the commandments of God

under the lawI could add a fourth point and I think Lancaster would agree: The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

But how do you preach this message? Actually, Lancaster’s question reminded me of one I asked myself about a month ago. How do you evangelize from a Messianic Jewish point of view?

Lancaster drew a somewhat humorous example to prove his point. Imagine a couple of people from his congregation going door-to-door in the neighborhood:

“Excuse us. We’re from Beth Immanuel just down the street. Can we have a few minutes of your time? Are you a sinner? Do you practice sexual immorality? If so, we have good news for you?”

I don’t think anyone with a message like that would be invited inside for coffee and cookies.

Actually, Lancaster answered his own question, citing a series of teachings he recorded called What About Evangelism (also available in MP3 format), discussing how to evangelize from a Messianic Jewish perspective (and I’ve definitely missed that one).

He made a point that it’s not just the lost who need this message, but the saved. How many “Christians” in churches think they are saved, think they are walking the path of righteousness, but who don’t have a clue about the actual gospel message of the Bible and who, if they’ve repented at all, did so only once when they first came to faith in Christ?

For some people, that could be years or even decades ago.

Lancaster used a “toast” metaphor, but for the sake of time and the length of this blog post, I’ll suggest you read about it in his book Elementary Principles.

Lancaster, by the end of his sermon, seemed satisfied that everyone listening to him had “gotten down” this first foundational principle of faith, this first glass of “milk,” so we can move on to the second one next week.

What Did I Learn?

I learned (I guess it should be obvious) that in some ways, Lancaster remains very Evangelical. He’s a passionate believer in missions and evangelizing the lost. He wants to get the message out to everyone because “God so loved the world.” The fact that he took one additional sermon just to emphasize the desperate importance of continual, ongoing, daily, repentance, constantly picking up our crosses, and following our Master, seems proof of that.

I also wondered, thinking about recent events, if this is one of the reasons for the whole Tent of David mission, which is not just to illuminate Evangelical Christianity on the merits of a Messianic Jewish view of the Bible, but to witness to the “found,” so to speak, who may never have heard the message of repentance of sins before.

what about evangelismLancaster cited something Boaz Michael mentioned to him once about a broadcast interview of the famous megachurch Pastor Joel Osteen (in an earlier version of this blog post, I misquoted Lancaster as saying “Rick Warren”). According to what Lancaster said Boaz told him, Pastor Osteen was asked about the secret of his success, to which Osteen replied, ”The secret to my success is that I never preach about sin.”

But if you don’t preach about sin and repentance, and Lancaster made this very clear, you are misleading your flock and probably condemning them as well. Is that grace?

I thought I’d share some of the comments on Pastor Ellis’ blog post about not preaching repentance, just to emphasize the problem:

Repentance does not save a sinner. If you believe repentance does save, but after seeing the truth and you change your mind, because you realized that it is the blood of Jesus that saves, * then you have repented

Repentance does not forgive sins. If you believe repentance does forgive sins, but after experiencing true forgiveness and you change your mind,because you realized that you have been forgiven and “the blood of Jesus cleanses (continuously)” you of all sin * then you have repented grace and peace

savedbygrace

Thank you! Contemporaries who believe man is dead until regenerated still want to preach repentance to him.

Dean O’Bryan

You know what is interesting is that when I used to preach repentance as a turning from all of your sins was to have another thought nagging me, “How can you say that salvation is apart from works when you are asking man to do something to be saved?”

You rightly pointed out that John never preached repentance, but neither did Paul in the entire book of Romans that had much to say about salvation.

I used to preach Luke 13:5 as proof that one must turn to be saved, but when I read the context was when I realized that being saved from sin was nowhere in the context at all. It was addressing a nation, and not some death, burial and resurrection gospel to be believed. Does not matter what angle you approach Luke 13 from as nothing there is about stopping sins to be saved.

What is sad is how religion will preach the verse that says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” and will change the meaning into, “Believe on the ((((((LORD)))))) Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” They will always shout the word “Lord” and then pause a moment before reading the rest of the verse. They want you to think that Paul was stressing a surrender to the sovereign Lordship of Christ to be saved, as they will claim that Jesus cannot be your Lord until you give up your every sin first.

Dave

In response to one comment, Pastor Ellis said in part:

It starts off in innocence but before you know it you’re listening to talking snakes. Choose life. If saying sorry and making amends brings life and healing, do it (Jas 5:16). If reviewing your sins brings death, suffering and condemnation, don’t.

despairThere are many more such statements but I think you get the point.

I learned that as much as I can experience frustration in the church I currently attend, Pastor does indeed preach repentance of sins and returning to God. If I attended Pastor Ellis’ church, I don’t think I’d do very well there at all.

How many churches out there are preaching “grace” and avoiding “sin” and “repentance” at all costs, including the costs of the souls of their members? Out of some misplaced since of “mercy,” how many “grace preachers” are preventing the people in their churches from repenting and actually returning to God? How many of these believers are still suffering needlessly in their sins or worse, believing that they’re just fine and don’t need to repent at all?

Addendum: I re-read all of Pastor Ellis’ blog post plus a good many of the comments (there are tons of them), particularly comments Ellis wrote. It’s not that he opposes repentance as such, and he even praises repentance, but he gives a rather (in my opinion) simplistic view of what repentance means in terms of our relationship with God through Messiah.

While I believe he is sincere, caring, compassionate, and loves Jesus, I think that like so many Evangelicals, he tends to be “works-phobic” and sees obedience to God by performing the mitzvot (including repentance) and God’s grace as polar opposites rather than co-existing elements in a life of faith.

The comments on that one blog post stretched for over a two year span and they were comments similar to those I’ve experienced on other religious blogs, that is, plenty of strife and theological posturing to go around.

Having read the many opinions expressed in the blog’s comments section, in the end, I don’t believe we’re mere robots who sit around having faith in Jesus and being saved and that’s the extent of our lives as Christians. I believe God wants us to be active participants in our relationship with Him and with each other, including being accountable for our behavior. I don’t think that once we come to faith, it is impossible for us to ever sin again and that we can just “change our minds,” which is a gross over simplification of the concept of Teshuvah (turning from sin and turning to God), and then it’s all good.

God is gracious and He always has been. It wasn’t an invention of Jesus, it’s been God’s nature forever and He’s always been gracious and compassionate to human beings.

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin…”

Exodus 34:6-7 (NASB)

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Repentance from Dead Works, Part 1

What are the basic teachings of Messiah mentioned in Hebrews 6:1-3? Discover the meaning of “repentance from dead works” in this eighteenth installment of sermons on the epistle to the Hebrews.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Eighteen: Repentance from Dead Works, Part 1
Originally presented on June 1, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.

Hebrews 6:1-3

I recently finished reading Lancaster’s book Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity (It’s also available free through a special offer through June 3rd), so I’m getting this material both in the audio recordings from last year’s sermon series and in writing. In fact, yesterday, I read all of the material in the book that I listened to this morning (as I write this), so it’s all been reenforced.

But maybe you haven’t heard the audio or read the book, so I’ll be glad to review this for you.

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.

“But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22:1-14 (NASB)

I’ve never understood what the wedding clothes this fellow lacked had to do with anything, so I was glad yesterday (more than a week ago as you read this) when Lancaster answered that for me.

But first things first.

Lancaster says this parable of the Master is pretty easy to understand (except for the clothes part). A father is holding a wedding feast for his son and invites many guests from all walks of life. In the parable, the father is God and the son is Messiah. The banquet is the Kingdom of God, the Messianic Age. But the wedding clothes?

We’ll get to that.

Lancaster paused to do a brief summary of last week’s sermon about the rather anemic gospel preached by much of the Evangelical church and how what Lancaster preached last week would require a major paradigm shift for most Christians (Lancaster referred to himself as a “recovering Evangelical”).

Although the Church typically preaches salvation through grace, often they miss the very first elementary principle in the Gospel: repent!

The first elementary principle cited in Hebrews 6 is to repent from “dead works.” What are “dead works?”

From an Evangelical point of view, that’s easy. Dead works are works of the Torah. Easy answer and dead wrong, based on a two-thousand year old mistake made by the ancient “Church Fathers” which, according to New Testament scholar Magnus Zetterholm, may not have been a mistake at all but a set of deliberate acts designed to separate Gentile Jesus-belief from its Jewish counterpart and create a wholly new and separate religion called “Christianity.”

TorahSo it stands to reason if the basic foundation upon which our Christian theology and doctrine rests is an effort to make a faith stripped of its Jewish origins and original meaning, then we’ve probably got it all wrong.

So what is Messianic Judaism’s answer for “dead works?” After all, the Jewish writer of the Hebrews epistle addressing Hellenistic Jews in and around Jerusalem who were in danger of apostasy and falling away from faith in the Jewish Messiah could hardly be expected to increase their faith by being told to repent of observing the mitzvot of God, could they? Would that have made any sense at all? Did Jesus replace the Torah of Moses with a truncated gospel of “believe in me and when you die, you’ll go to Heaven?”

So if dead works aren’t works of the Law, what are they?

Sin.

For the wages of sin is death…

Romans 6:23 (NASB)

Repent, not from works of Torah, but from works of sin because they lead to death. It was the Master’s central message.

From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew 4:17 (NASB)

In Christianity, we are taught that we will die, not because of our own sins, but because of Adam’s. If we do nothing at all and never come to faith in Christ, we will die, be condemned by Jesus at the final judgment, and go to Hell forever.

Lancaster says in Judaism, there is a close association between human mortality and sin as well, but not Adam’s sin.

“Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”

Deuteronomy 24:16 (NASB)

Lancaster also uses Numbers 27:3, Ezekiel 18:20, Romans 5:12, and Romans 6:16 to expand on this point. We are all, each and every one of us, responsible for our sins, and the Law of sin is death. The only thing this has to do with the Torah is how we define sin.

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.

1 John 3:4 (NASB)

So according to John, the law (Torah) isn’t bad at all, and in fact, those who disobey the Torah practice lawlessness, which is the same thing as sin. Violation of Torah or lawlessness equals sin. Conversely, observance of the Torah mitzvot, as they apply to us (and they apply differently for Jews and Gentiles in Messiah), equals obedience to God.

How the Torah does and doesn’t apply to different groups is beyond the scope of this discussion, but know, as I’ve just said, that lawlessness or disobedience to God’s covenant conditions is equal to sin and we are required to repent from lawlessness (sin) as the absolute first step in responding to the true Gospel message. “Repenting” from the Torah, that is, forsaking observance of the commandments (as Evangelical Christians believe Hebrews 6:1 should be interpreted), for a Jew, believer or otherwise, constituted sin in the days of the apostles, just as it constitutes sin for Jewish people today.

I found it interesting, in mentioning his childhood and being raised in an Evangelical Christian home, that some of the “sins” Lancaster was taught to avoid were smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, dancing (presumably with girls), and going to the movies.

You can’t find any of those actions prohibited in the Bible.

But…

D. Thomas Lancaster
D. Thomas Lancaster

…but Lancaster, though he made fun of these prohibitions as a teen, sees them now as “fences.” Christians often criticize Rabbinic Judaism for putting “fences around the Torah,” which means taking the basic prohibitions we find in the Bible and adding more prohibitions around them. For instance, Biblically, Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday night, but Rabbinically, it begins a certain number of minutes before sundown. Why? Because if people are taught it starts sooner, they won’t be tempted to “push the limit,” so to speak, trying to get one more thing done before the sun goes down, and thus avoid accidentally continuing to work when Shabbat actually arrives.

So smoking, drinking, dancing, and movies aren’t inherently sinful, but Lancaster can see, especially for young people, how each of these activities could potentially lead to actual sins. It’s an interesting principle to me, mainly because we see Christianity of a generation ago behaving just like Judaism.

Today, we often see almost no difference between the behavior of a Christian and a secular person. We go to the same movies, engage in the same recreation, do the same things pretty much, and except for going to Church on Sunday and maybe a Bible study on Wednesday, most Christians are exactly the same as most other people.

But aren’t we saved by grace? Who cares what we do? We aren’t saved by what we do, only by what we believe. Is that what the Bible says?

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Galatians 5:19-24 (NASB)

But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

Ephesians 5:3-5 (NASB)

Don’t worry. Lancaster isn’t saying that we save ourselves by what we do, but look at this. Paul isn’t saying “just believe and you’ll be righteousness.” Oh no. He’s saying if you do these things you’ll be considered righteousness. If you don’t, you have no inheritance in the Kingdom of God.

It all sounds so legalistic. But that’s what Jesus taught.

So what must we do to be saved? Repent. Without repentance, we have no part of Jesus or the Messianic Kingdom.

No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.

1 John 3:6 (NASB)

Derek Leman
Derek Leman

Our righteousness isn’t “filthy rags” at least the way we have typically been taught. You might want to read Derek Leman’s commentary on the matter.

OK, repentance isn’t exactly an unknown process for many Christians and I bet a lot of believers repented of their sins when they came to faith. But for some people, that was a long time ago. If you repented once in 1976 or in 1998, what does that mean? Have you sinned lately? For some people, they repent only once a year, on Easter or Yom Kippur. Have you sinned recently?

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

Luke 9:23 (NASB)

Lancaster mentioned the example of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak in his audio sermon, but I’m going to take the quote from the Elementary Principles book to make sure I don’t leave out anything:

The famous Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev used to repent every night before saying his evening prayers (Maariv). Every evening, the rabbi of Berditchev examined his heart, what he had done on that day, and repented over every flaw he discovered. For each sin that he discovered, he said, “Levi Yitzchak will not do this again.” Then he chided himself, “Levi Yitzchak said exactly the same thing yesterday!” And he added, “Ah, but yesterday, Levi Yitzchak did not speak the truth. Today, he does speak the truth.”

-Lancaster, pg 41

Many Christians have been taught a false gospel, one that says they only have to believe and they will be saved. Evangelical Christianity is good about teaching us what to believe but not what to do. The Church has experienced a significant and even (eternal) life-threatening mission drift, failing to make the much-needed course corrections for the past twenty centuries since we were first set upon this journey as the body of Messiah by the Jewish apostles and disciples of our Master.

I’ve written a great deal about repentance lately, and I don’t think enough can be said on this. Neither does Lancaster, even though repentance should be a pretty elementary teaching of the Church. It was in the Messianic synagogue in the mid-first century, but much of that Jewish doctrine has been lost.

The path of repentance leads to joy. “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). The rabbis said, “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the world to come.” In his book Love and the Messianic Age, Messianic Jewish pioneer Paul Levertoff says, “The sinner, in whose soul the light of the divine fire has been quenched, is greater, when he repents, than the righteous who have no need for repentance.” The place of the penitent sinner is even greater than that of the righteous person who does not need to repent, because the sinner throws himself entirely into the arms of God.

-ibid, pg 45

Now what about those wedding clothes?

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’”

Revelation 19:7-9 (NASB)

The brideThe wedding clothes are the righteous deeds of the saints, the tzadikim. One who enters the banquet without wedding clothes can be compared to one who attempts to enter the Kingdom of God without repenting of sin, turning to God, and doing good in his life.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)

The words of the Master recorded by Matthew make so much more sense when put in their proper context, don’t you think?

Repentance and salvation cannot be separated. One does not receive salvation unless they repent and repent often.

Some think life is all about doing good and keeping away from evil.

To them, struggle has no purpose of its own—to have struggled is to have failed. Success, they imagine, is a sweet candy with no trace of bitterness.

They are wrong, tragically wrong. Struggle is an opportunity to reach the ultimate, when darkness itself becomes light. In the midst of struggle, an inner light is awakened. Light profound enough to overwhelm the darkness, encasing it and winning it over.

But if darkness never fights back, how will it ever be conquered?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

Although this is the end of the chapter in Lancaster’s book, in the sermon series, Lancaster isn’t finished with the topic of “repenting from dead works.” He presents the second part next week…and so will I.

What Did I Learn?

I learned about wedding clothes and the close connection between sin, repentance, forgiveness, a life dedicated to God, and the joy, not only of someday entering the Kingdom, but of (in some ways) entering the Kingdom right now.

It’s easy to forget to repent. I know that sounds strange. Maybe that admission on my part makes me sound like a terrible person. Maybe all of you reading this, like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, repent daily and on a regular evening schedule. Frankly, by the time I’m ready to end the day, my brain and attention span isn’t worth much. Some nights, I can barely recite the last few paragraphs of the Bedtime Shema.

But as you know if you’ve been reading this blog regularly, repentance is something I’ve been focusing on a great deal, not only in my writing but in my life. I can’t say that I’m really good at it. For some things, even approaching the idea of repenting feels threatening and scary. I don’t know what I’m afraid of exactly. Who’d be afraid of getting closer to God? But we’re all afraid of change, even if the change is beneficial.

What I learned, though, is that I won’t get into the banquet without dressing for the occasion, none of us will. That’s more than just saying “I’m sorry” to God. That’s more than just changing my mind about something. Repentance is a dedicated and detailed process that like any skill (yes, I think it’s a learned skill), takes practice, practice, practice.

hopeBut then, so does establishing and maintaining any relationship, especially as a bride to the groom, especially in the intimacy of a child to a Father.

I fall down and go ker-splat dozens of times a day. Thank God at the end of each day (or several times a day), I can turn back to my Father and turn my heart inside out, spilling all the regret, anguish, pain, and sorrow at His feet and in my own way say, “James will not do this again,” but “James said exactly the same thing yesterday! Ah, but yesterday, James did not speak the truth. Today, he does speak the truth.”

Today, let me repent and let me speak the truth, and let me continue to speak the truth as the day ends and the shadows gather. For in repentance, the shadows are swept away and in joy, there is light.

 

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Spoken by Angels

The writer of the book of Hebrews indicates that the Torah was “spoken by angels.” In this teaching, D. Thomas Lancaster takes a look at first-century angelology to understand the apostolic concept of the Torah being delivered by angels and what role that concept plays in the argument in Hebrews 2.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Seven: Spoken by Angels
Originally presented on February 9, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

In last week’s sermon which I reviewed, we learned that Yeshua (Jesus) was greater than even the angels. What we didn’t learn is why that was important to the addressees of the letter to the Hebrews and why that should be important to us.

Today, we’re going to find out.

For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.

Hebrews 2:1-4 (NASB)

Here, we see another Kal va-chomer argument, from the light to the heavy. Look at this.

For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

In other words, if the word spoken by angels…what word is that? The Torah which was delivered by angels at Sinai. If the Torah proved “unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience (of Torah) received just penalty, then how” must less “will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”

This is the cornerstone of Lancaster’s sermon and we need to pay attention. I said in my first review of this series about the Kal Va-chomer argument, that if the first and lighter portion of the argument was not valid, then neither is the second, and the entire argument disintegrates.

The first part of the argument states that the Torah is “unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty.” In other words, the writer of Hebrews is telling his Jewish audience that the Torah remains valid and unalterable in their lives. The Jewish audience must have continued to be Torah observant Jews who did not question the validity of Torah. After all, if they considered the Torah alterable or invalid or obsolete as most Christians believe the writer of Hebrews is saying, then according to the argument, the heavier aspect of the statement must also be invalid or obsolete: Jesus and salvation. That doesn’t make much sense.

TorahPut in just a slightly different way, if the Torah remains valid and unalterable, how much more is the salvation of Jesus valid and unalterable. The second element in the argument does not undo or invalidate the first but rather rests upon and depends on the first element. If it doesn’t, the argument falls apart.

Christianity’s understanding of the purpose of the Book of Hebrews in general and this portion of the epistle in specific is what becomes invalid based on what the text is actually saying!

However, as Lancaster solves one problem, he introduces another.

For if the word spoken through angels…

Hebrews 2:2 (NASB)

Not only in this verse, but Acts 7:53, the words spoken by Stephen, and Galatians 3:19, which was written by Paul, both speak of the Torah being delivered by angels.

But wasn’t the Torah spoken directly by God to Moses?

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven.’

Exodus 20:22 (NASB)

This is just one of a multitude of examples of God (seemingly) speaking directly to Moses words of Torah rather than having Torah delivered by angels. In fact, where do we ever see angels delivering words of Torah or tablets of Torah to Moses? Apparently no where.

Lancaster goes through a list of the various types of angelic beings, which aren’t important to present here, but he does mention one particular type of angel we need to pay attention to: the angel of the Lord.

In Genesis 18 we see three men visit Abraham at his camp. We know that these three men are really three angels. Two of them go on to Sodom but one stays behind and this is God. But how can it be God if God is infinite and a consuming fire? Just look at what He did to the top of Mount Sinai! Who or what is the angel of the Lord?

According to Lancaster, this is an angel, a created being, through which God speaks. The angel speaks the Words of God in the first person singular as God Himself, but is not God Himself, but rather a representation or extension of God, as if God were talking into a microphone and the angel were a speaker on the other end of a cable.

“Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him. (emph. mine)

Exodus 23:20-21 (NASB)

In other words, when Jacob wrestles with an opponent in Genesis 32, we don’t have to drive ourselves crazy wondering if it is an angel or if it is literally God. Lancaster says, it’s the angel of the Lord, God’s created representation in our world.

And it is not and never has been a “pre-incarnate Jesus.”

WrestlingActually I find that a relief. I always suspected that at least some angels had such a function rather than an infinite, all-powerful, all-encompassing God literally intersecting with our world, He would send a representative being, like an amplified ambassador able to speak as if he were God present among us. It also is a nice response to certain Hebrew Roots commentators who turn exegesis in the Tanakh into “I-see-Jesus” whenever the angel of the Lord appears.

Lancaster provides numerous other proof texts to support his commentary, and you can listen to the full recording to get all of his references.

I will say that Lancaster also mentions that the concept of the angels giving the Torah was very popular in the first century, as evidenced by how well read the Book of Jubilees, which supported the angelic giving of Torah, was among Jews of that period.

All this may sound strange and even alien to us, but Lancaster says it made perfect sense to a first-century Greek-speaking Jewish audience. We can’t judge these things by the context of 21st-century English-speaking Christians living in the United States of America. We have to get into the heads and comprehension of the original audience. Otherwise, we’ll come up with some pretty goofy conclusions.

But what does this have to do with the Messiah being superior to the angels? It seems applied to our Kal va-chomer argument. If Messiah is superior to the angels and the angels gave the Torah, then what the Messiah gives must be superior as well. No, I didn’t say what the Messiah gave replaced the Torah, just that it held much more weight, and to extend the metaphor, the message of Messiah rests on the foundation of the Torah.

Think of it this way.

At Sinai, Moses went up the mountain. He acquired the Torah in the realm of angels, descended and gave the Torah to human beings.

Messiah went up into the Heavenly Court, the realm of angels, at the ascension. When he descends, he delivers the Messianic Era of peace and complete knowledge of God to human beings.

“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. “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.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NASB)

Lancaster didn’t use this scripture in his sermon but I think it makes sense. The New Covenant doesn’t undo any of the older covenants or “unwrite” any of the specific content. It actually amplifies the older covenants, reaffirms them, and makes it more possible for Judah and Israel (and the people of the nations who are grafted in through faith in Messiah) to “know God” in a more fulfilling way than even the great prophets knew God, and the law, the Torah will be written on all their hearts.

Lion of JudahThat’s the Messianic Era. We have just barely tasted the first fruits of that New Covenant. Most of those promises have yet to be fulfilled. Messiah’s work is not finished, otherwise why return and why is the gospel message all about the coming of the Kingdom rather than just a plan of personal, individual salvation for specific human beings?

The New Covenant is wholly dependent upon the older covenants. If any of the older covenants cease to exist, the fabric of the New Covenant unravels and falls to dust and Judah, Israel, and the people of the nations who cleave to the God of Israel have no hope.

But if the Torah is true and valid and reliable, how much more true and valid and reliable are the Messianic promises and the coming of Moshiach?

What Did I Learn?

I did hit something of a wall or contradiction. Probably just a misunderstanding on my part (and I’ve made mistakes before in this review series). If the argument is that Messiah is greater than the angels who delivered the Torah, but was specifically the angel of the Lord, God’s personal angelic representation, if you will, who delivered the Torah to Moses, then does that mean the Messiah is greater than the angel of the Lord?

I don’t know if the question even makes sense, depending on how you view Trinitarianism, but it’s what popped into my head as I was listening to the sermon, so I thought I’d share it with you.

I didn’t read through each and every transaction Moses had with Hashem in the Torah, but I suspect that we may encounter some difficulties in determining on some occasions exactly who is addressing Moses. Is it the angel of the Lord, or the Lord? Does God never speak directly to Moses? Is it always an angel? I don’t know. The suggestion offered by Lancaster seem to bear further scrutiny, however.

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Radiance of Glory

A quick immersion into the Christology of the apostles and the writer of the book of Hebrews based on Hebrews 1:2-3: “… His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”

What role in the creation of all things did the Son play? From where did the apostles derive their high view of Messiah in His divinity?

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Five: Radiance of Glory
Originally presented on January 26, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Lancaster starts his message by taking his audience through a brief summary of last week’s sermon focusing on his conclusions. Those conclusions are going to be important in just a few moments, and again at the end of this review.

This week, the topic is Christology or the study of Christ and particularly his Divine nature. This is something not really (or at all) studied in the Church because it’s pretty much assumed (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, three in one). People pray directly to Jesus, people interchange the Father and the Son, even in song lyrics with statements like, “thank you God for dying on the cross for me.” I personally have always been bothered by how most Christians treat the three persons of the Trinity (and remember, the word “Trinity” never shows up in the Bible) as if they’re interchangeable units, like spark plugs or kitchen knives. One’s just as good as the other, one’s exactly the same as the other.

Lots and lots of what Lancaster calls “Father-Son confusion.”

Lancaster manages to compress a lot of complex concepts into his almost forty-four minute sermon which is reflective of how densely packed he says is Hebrews 1:1-4:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.

Remember from last week, Lancaster said the first few sentences in Hebrews 1 were the premise of the writer of Hebrews, and now that writer has to spend the rest of the chapter and into Chapter 2 to support this thesis, that Messiah is higher and more exalted than Abraham, Moses, the Prophets, and even the Angels.

The question of Christology is summarized by Lancaster in a question asked of him by one of his sons:

“How can Jesus be God if he’s the Son of God?”

Oh, is that all?

Lancaster spends the rest of his sermon trying to answer this question and with the goal of being able to read Hebrews, as well as the rest of the apostolic scriptures, with the same understanding as the apostles and early disciples. This has the benefit, from my point of view, of not having to wade through nearly two-thousand years of subsequent anti-Jewish, anti-Judaism, anti-Torah, and anti-Temple theology and doctrine that was spawned from the early centuries of Church history by the so-called “Church fathers” and certainly cemented in place five-hundred years or so ago by the authors of the Reformation (who are by and large the authors of the Christianity we have today).

…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things…

Hebrews 1:2 (NASB)

When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:28 (NASB)

Here’s where we start getting into “deep stuff” about Messiah. We’re talking about Fathers and Sons and Sons as heirs and all that’s supposed to mean. We’re also starting to decouple our brains from the literal meaning of these ideas because the world of mysticism speaks in metaphor and in symbols. Literal access to scripture is no help in comprehending the Divine nature of Messiah. To do that, we have to travel much more dangerous roads.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1 (NASB)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.

John 1:1-3 (NASB)

CreationPrepositions play a part in Lancaster’s narrative as he tries to weave together the role of Father and Son in Creation. Was the world created “through,” “by,” “in” the Word, the Son, the Word made flesh? Not very much help, according to Lancaster. It doesn’t sound very Jewish.

Next he takes us into a Rabbinic argument (words are flying past much too quickly for me to pick up all of the references) where the sages are debating on what basis did God create the world.

Was it for the sake of Abraham? No? For the sake of David? For the sake of Moses? No? How about for the sake of Messiah? Saying the world was created for the sake of someone is another way of saying that such a person is highly exalted. For the sake of Messiah was the world created. Don’t worry if these abstract mystical concepts are beginning to give you a headache. They affect me the same way.

Plunging deeper into the wine dark waters of mysticism, the sages teach that God created the world through the agency of wisdom, as if wisdom was a separate being from God, an agent where God was the owner of the plan but giving the plans to wisdom, she (yes, wisdom is a “she”) executed those plans by being the agency of creation.

Proverbs 3:19 and 8:22-23 give us a portrait of wisdom as creator but let’s not be too literal. We are talking about God’s wisdom, and here’s the important part when considering Messiah…wisdom is an attribute which does not encompass the totality of God’s transcendent being, but neither is wisdom not God.

This is wisdom “talking:”

The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old.

Proverbs 8:22 (NASB)

Lancaster links various texts such as the one above with the Targums in terms of “Beresheet” or “In the Beginning,” the creation narrative and the agency of creation. Is it IN the beginning or BY the beginning or something else? Some examples are:

From the beginning with wisdom God created and perfected the heavens and the earth.

Or how about…

In wisdom the Lord created the heavens and the earth.

According to Lancaster, THIS is how the apostles learned the Torah, not how we are taught the Bible in the Church today, and it explains John’s highly mystical introduction to his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and…”

…but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:24 (NASB)

…but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory…

1 Corinthians 2:7 (NASB)

Tree of LifeI realize there’s a lot of connections happening here and again, it’s important to look at all this in a somewhat fluid manner, not trying to understand a literal reality here, since we have definitely crossed over, not really into the Twilight Zone, but into a metaphysical realm where mere human beings, even being apostles, are trying to relate in human language, explaining their Christology to us across the long march of post-apostolic history.

Lancaster takes this even further and references something called “The Wisdom of Solomon” contained in a book called the Catholic Published Bible. “The Wisdom of Solomon” was supposedly written by King Solomon and existed about a century before the earthly ministry of the Master, thus we know the apostles would have had access to this material. I won’t go into everything Lancaster cited, but he did produce a nice, numbered list of attributes of wisdom we can make use of:

  1. Wisdom is the worker of all things.
  2. Wisdom passes through all things holding everything together.
  3. Wisdom is the breath of the power of God.
  4. Wisdom is the expression of God’s Glory.
  5. Wisdom is the brightness of everlasting light.
  6. Wisdom is the image of God’s goodness.
  7. Wisdom makes all things new.

And now back to the text for today:

He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.

Hebrews 1:3 (NASB)

From Lancaster’s perspective, it’s as if the writer of the book of Hebrews is stating that what was said of wisdom is true of the Son — the Divine wisdom is within him.

And if that isn’t enough, how about Paul’s Christology?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15-16 (NASB)

Hopefully you are starting to see the connections. Anti-missionaries jump on the word “image” in terms of the Torah prohibition to not worship an “image,” but again, we’re not talking about a stone statue or a painting and the word “image” isn’t quite literal. Adam was created IN the image of God but the Divine Messiah is THE image of the invisible God. Take the mystic concept of the image of the Heavenly Adam, the Divine Messiah, the agency of creation, God’s powerful Word, and unite it with the earthly Adam, human nature, human beings and we have the person of Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth.

Lancaster quoted someone saying of a Maggid (I didn’t catch the specific reference because I can’t write that fast) that he taught Hassidism as if it were Mussar, that is, he taught mysticism as if it had life applications. Often teachings such as these, while intellectually fascinating (for me, anyway), don’t really do much to change our day-to-day lives, but Lancaster said something that impacted mine. It’s what I learned for today.

Caveat

Before I go on, I must respond to what should be a natural objection of most Christians (and I’ve mentioned this before). Lancaster is crafting the apostolic Jewish understanding of scriptures in general and Hebrews in specific based on Talmud and various mystic writings in Judaism that were authored (for the most part) after the apostolic era, sometimes many centuries after. Is it valid for Lancaster to construct an ancient Jewish perspective of Hebrews and the related Biblical texts based on subsequent Jewish perspectives? That’s the $64,000 question. I think (but this is an assumption on my part), that Lancaster believes the concepts and ideas contained in these later writings, existed in oral form or in some earlier but now lost documents during or before the apostolic era, and thus are valid material to project into an apostolic Jewish framework. If that assumption is wrong, then it’s quite possible some or all of the elements of Lancaster’s premise and thus his conclusions are wrong. But, on the other hand, Christianity bases it’s interpretations of the Biblical texts entirely on material, commentary, and tradition created after the close of Biblical canon, by many hundreds if not thousands of years, so we might as well say that Christian Biblical understanding is just as “anachronistic” as Lancaster’s “Messianic” perspective. Lancaster’s assumptions at least have the benefit of possibly really existing during the time of the apostles. I don’t have the same confidence in the Gentile Church Fathers, those involved with the various Church Councils, the Reformationists of five centuries ago, and the Fundamentalists of a century ago to be able to represent the thoughts, comprehension, and intent of the original apostolic writers of what we now call the New Testament. Now on with the show.

What Did I Learn?

waking-up-happyLancaster said that the only practical application some of these lessons seem to have is only relevant to hating on people who don’t have the same interpretation as we do.

That immediately reminded me of this incident and all of the other similar situations I’ve managed to get myself into. I didn’t create this blog with the idea of tilting at windmills or “going after” people who disagreed with me. I didn’t even create this blog with the idea of having to defend myself from the attacks of people who don’t agree with me. Nevertheless, reading back over the last several blog posts, I seem to be repeatedly taking the adversarial role. It’s a role that’s very seductive and also very undesirable.

Lancaster said that it’s the job of every disciple to internalize the teachings of his or her Master, to eat of the bread, so to speak, and drink of the Spiritual water, to incorporate our Master’s lessons into our very flesh and blood and being. Then, if we consider ourselves a Tabernacle, we bring the Divine wisdom into ourselves and into our families, and into our communities, and finally into the world, which is the lived expression of praying “Thy Kingdom Come!”

Pay attention. To what? The teachings of our Master? Why? Lest we drift away from him.

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: A Word of Exhortation

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things. And I urge you all the more to do this, so that I may be restored to you the sooner.

Hebrews 13:18-19 (NASB)

Sermon Two: A Word of Exhortation
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

In this second sermon on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship teacher D. Thomas Lancaster thrusts his audience into a Biblical mystery and casts us all in the role of detectives who are trying to solve that mystery. What is the mystery? We have to answer a series of questions. We should attempt to answer these questions each time we study and analyze any book of the Bible.

The questions are:

  • What
  • When
  • Who
  • To Whom
  • Why

In other words, when considering any book of the Bible, we must try to discover what sort of literary genre it is, when was it written, by whom was it written, to whom was it written, and why was it written.

Lancaster prefaces his attempt to address this mystery by saying that some of his audience, the congregation at Beth Immanuel, might find this presentation long, tedious, and boring. Not the best way to introduce a topic and certainly he was risking alienating his audience. On the other hand, before you paint a masterpiece or write a classic symphony, you must learn the very basics of art or music. So too with Biblical studies.

What, When, Who, To Whom, and Why.

First off, while the Book of Hebrews is assumed to be an epistle, the title “The Epistle to the Hebrews” is traditional and probably wasn’t the original title of the document, if it had a title at all. It doesn’t come with a superscription, that is, it doesn’t say, from so and so to the community of such and thus at this place or that, the way most of Paul’s letters began. Also, according to Lancaster, it doesn’t even sound like an epistle until you get to chapters 12 and 13, especially chapter 13, part of which I quoted above.

What?

If it doesn’t read like a letter until nearly the very end of the document, then what else could it be?

But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I will see you. Greet all of your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you. (emph. mine)

Hebrews 13:22-24 (NASB)

The words I put in bold in the above-quoted scripture are the answer, but what exactly is a “word of exhortation?” What sort of literary genre is that?

But going on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, “Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.” (emph. mine)

Acts 13:14-15 (NASB)

Papyrus FragmentIn Acts 13, we see a traditional example of a Sabbath service in a synagogue in the diaspora (and probably in Israel) in the first century. Prayer services were conducted on every day of the week, but on Shabbat, there was also a Torah service which added a reading from the Torah, a reading from the Prophets (haftarah), and finally a sermon or drasha (Rabbinic commentary) on the Torah reading. When Paul stood up (v 16) and began to speak, he was starting to deliver his sermon, his drasha, his discourse, his teaching on Yeshua the Messiah based on the Torah portion that had just been read.

According to Lancaster, that’s how the vast majority of the Book of Hebrews reads. It’s not a classic epistle, it’s a sermon, probably delivered by the author, perhaps to whatever synagogue community to which the author belonged, or maybe a sermon the writer wanted to deliver to the intended recipients of this document, and then transcribed into a letter and sent to the remotely located recipients who were most likely very far away from where the author and his community were located.

I should say at this point that Lancaster told his own audience that we can’t really answer any of the “What, When, Who, To Whom, and Why” questions very well, and each opinion Lancaster offers resides firmly in the realm of educated guesses. Please keep in mind that neither Lancaster or I are saying that any suggestions offered in his sermon or in this blog post are definite facts. They aren’t. But they are attempts to address the mystery with some sort of credible hypothesis.

So, the suggested answer to “What is it” is, “a Drasha or Sermon”. The “word of exhortation” is a sermon.

When?

Does it matter? Yes. Imagine, as Lancaster suggested, you were reading Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but you thought it was delivered by an American President in 1963 rather than 1863. It would sure give a different meaning to what “four score and seven years ago” meant and thus change much or all of the meaning of this address.

The same is true of any Biblical document including Hebrews. Lancaster offered various proofs establishing that Hebrews must have been written earlier than the year 95 CE, and probably before 70 CE.

For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; so it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.”

Hebrews 8:3-5 (NASB)

Notice that the references to the high priest, the sacrifices, and the Temple are in the present tense (in Greek as well as in this English translation). Although there are detractors, Lancaster believes this is firm evidence that the Temple had to still exist when the letter, uh…sermon was written. He further places it in the mid-60s, maybe before 64 CE but not too much earlier, however you’ll have to listen to the recording to get the details.

Who?

Who wrote the letter, uh…sermon to the Hebrews? No one knows. It’s a mystery. The letter/sermon has no superscription (if it’s a sermon and not a letter, this is probably why it’s absent). The author is anonymous. Not that the intended audience thought the author was anonymous. They probably knew who wrote this missive.

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things.

Hebrews 13:18 (NASB)

If the author said “Pray for us,” that likely indicates that the audience knew who to pray for and who “us” included.

D. Thomas LancasterI won’t go into the details about Lancaster’s proofs, but he’s really sure it couldn’t have been Paul. The style and theology are wrong and the Greek is a lot better than Paul’s. In fact, it shows no signs of having originally been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and looks like it was written by a native Greek-speaker and probably to native-Greek speakers (more on that last part in a minute). The bottom line though, in Lancaster’s opinion, is that it wasn’t written by Paul or any of the apostles, but probably by someone close to Paul, someone who probably knew how Paul thought, perhaps someone close to other apostles, like the “number one disciple” to an apostle, like the role Peter fulfilled for Jesus or the role Timothy fulfilled for Paul.

But we just don’t know who wrote Hebrews. Please listen to the recording though to hear some of Lancaster’s rather intriguing suggestions for authors and the evidence that exists supporting each possible writer.

To Whom?

Who was the intended audience? Not us, that’s for sure. In fact, as Lancaster says, not one word in the Bible was written primarily for any person, Christian or Jew, in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t apply to us, but a lot of believers read the Bible as if it were written directly to them (us). It wasn’t, and that makes a great deal of difference when we try to understand the Bible, including Hebrews.

The language and the contents provide the answer, or at least a good guess as to the answer.

The language was written (in all likelihood) by a native Greek speaker since the Greek is so much better than Paul’s. That indicates it must have been written to native Greek speakers. On the surface, that would seem to say that the audience was in the diaspora, but the sermon reads more like a Rabbinic commentary with lots of references to the Temple, to the sacrifices, and to the Torah, so it seems reasonable that the audience should be Jewish (to the Hebrews). But the present-tense references to the sacrifices present a problem.

Some people think the author was in Jerusalem or Judea and writing to Jews in the diaspora, perhaps in Rome, but Lancaster’s theory is that the intended audience was a group of Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem or Judea. The references to the Temple would have made much more sense to an audience who had direct and frequent access to the Temple and the sacrifices.

But was there a large group of Greek-speaking Jews in or around Jerusalem when Hebrews was written?

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.

Acts 6:1-6 (NASB)

Apostle Paul preachingThere could be a problem with Lancaster’s theory here. After the stoning of the Greek-speaking Jew Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), there was a great persecution of the believing Jewish community in Jerusalem and except for the apostles, the Messianic Jews were “scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1-3) so the question here is, did the “synagogue of the Freemen” (for the Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem) exist when this sermon/letter was written?

As far as I’m aware, no one knows. Perhaps after the “heat” died down, a number of Hellenistic Jews returned to Jerusalem. The text above also says that the persecuted Hellenistic Jews were “scattered” to Judea, so if they remained in that area, Lancaster’s theory still makes sense.

Why?

According to Lancaster, the contents of Hebrews also answers this question. The letter is full of exhortations, that is, words of encouragement.

“Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it,” (Hebrews 13:1) “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith,” (v. 7), “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.” (v. 9)

According to Lancaster, he believes that the author wrote this sermon/letter to encourage and support a group of Greek-speaking Jewish believers who were in dire danger of apostasy; of falling away from faith in Yeshua of Nazareth as the Messiah, and abandoning the specific stream of Jewish faith once known as “the Way”.

Lancaster concluded his lengthy sermon (just over forty-four minutes) with some interesting applications.

The first is that, even though he dates the letter/sermon at about 64 C.E, before the Jewish revolt against Rome, before the destruction of the Temple, and before the horrible exile from Israel and into the diaspora, the letter functions very much as a warning and a lesson of how Jewish believers were to continue to survive as Jewish believers in exile, without the Temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and without Jerusalem.

“Before the Holy One, Blessed be He, inflicts the wound, He prepares the remedy.”

A quick Google search didn’t render the source for that piece of Rabbinic commentary, but it is a principle, says Lancaster, that applies to Hebrews. Even though the original audience and probably the author, could not have known what was coming in the next few years, Hebrews, nevertheless, speaks to the believing Jewish population about how to survive faithfully in exile. Hebrews is the remedy for all future generations of Jews in the galut and across the long centuries, even into the present age.

The other issue Lancaster came up with is the danger of apostasy right here and now. I know there’s been a lot of concern about apostasy in my little corner of the blogosphere recently. Certainly, there have been believing Jews and Gentiles who have abandoned Yeshua-faith for more “normative” Judaism. But according to Lancaster, the anti-missionaries aren’t the “boogeyman” we should be afraid of.

It’s apostasy into secularism, into agnosticism, into materialism, modernism, hedonism, and “me-ism” that’s the real danger.

You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile.

1 Samuel 12:21 (NASB)

The Prophet said this in response to the Israelites’ request for a human King, rather than serve Hashem as their King, and even as he called this “evil,” Samuel granted their wish, only to adjure them to continue to “serve the Lord with all your heart.” (v. 20)

Biblical history tells us that Israel’s first King, Saul, did not obey and neither did generations of Israelites, and yet God has always kept a remnant for Himself. (see 1 Kings 19:18)

What Did I Learn?

Everything. To be more precise, I have never taken up a serious study of Hebrews before, so I really didn’t have a context in which to approach it. The text, as Christian tradition renders it, is very anti-Jewish people/Judaism, anti-Torah, anti-Temple, and probably anti-Israel. As I said in my previous review, the Book of Hebrews, along with Galatians, is among the weapons in the Church’s arsenal to be used to destroy any suggestion or hint that anything “Jewish” survived the first century and continued into the historic progression of Christianity after the leveling of the Holy Temple and the razing of Jerusalem.

It is such Christian traditions that allow men like John MacArthur to say that Jesus “obliterated the sacrificial system because He brought an end to Judaism with all its ceremonies, all its rituals, all its sacrifices, all of its external trappings, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, all of it.”

conference2I personally believe nothing could be further from the truth, and I also believe that in order to make such an offensive and outrageous statement, Christian scholars, theologians, clergy, and laity have to not just tweak Biblical interpretation, but fold, spindle, and mutilate the original meaning of many portions of the Bible, deforming the intent of the Biblical authors (both the human ones and the Holy Spirit) in order to make a Jewish square peg fit with exceptional discomfort into a Gentile Christian round hole.

Every time I read, watch, or listen to a modern Messianic commentary on books like Galatians or Hebrews, I realize those writings don’t belong in a Christian “weapons depot” to be used against the Jewish people, Judaism, and a Jewish-oriented faith in Moshiach, but rather, they are to be an encouragement to Jewish and Gentile believers that the Gospel message is indeed first to the Jews as good news, and thereafter good news also to the Gentiles of the nations who are called by His Name.

Right now, based on this sermon of Lancaster’s, I have a working theory with which to approach the Book of Hebrews that doesn’t drive me crazy. Lancaster said the next sermon will go into more detail about the “Why” of this letter/sermon. I’m looking forward to hearing this lesson and reviewing it.

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Fire on the Mountain

On the third day when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was very powerful, and the entire people that was in the camp shuddered. Moses brought the people forth from the camp toward God, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was smoking because HASHEM had descended upon it in the fire; its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain shuddered exceedingly. The sound of the shofar grew continually much stronger; Moses would speak and God would respond to him with a voice.

Exodus 19:16-19 (Stone Edition Chumash)

Sermon One: Fire on the Mountain
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

I’ve wanted to review D. Thomas Lancaster’s lecture series on Hebrews for a while now, and since I have just finished my reviews of the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) television series A Promise of What is to Come, I thought Hebrews, a particularly troublesome epistle for me, would be a worthy project.

Two interesting things happened to encourage me to start this project. The first was the sermon at church Sunday before last. The guest speaker (Pastor is out of town for a few weeks) taught on Hebrews 1:1-3. I took copious notes and disagreed with about half of what the person was saying. I almost wrote a blog post about it, but decided that I didn’t need to blog about every single experience I have, and certainly not about every single sermon I have issues with.

The next interesting thing was going over last week’s Torah reading, which was Torah Portion Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), a part of which I quoted from above because it factors in to Lancaster’s first lesson on Hebrews.

Lancaster begins his first sermon, “Fire on the Mountain” in the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series by announcing that the traditional Torah readings of the Book of Genesis had just ended (as he made the recording) and the Torah reading cycle was entering the Book of Exodus. Lancaster then briefly summarized the first twenty chapters or so of Exodus for his congregation and I began to think I’d clicked on the wrong audio file in attempting to access the start of his Hebrews sermons.

But there’s a connection between Exodus and Hebrews.

For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.” And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:18-24 (NASB)

Lancaster takes his audience through a short and somewhat loose history of the introduction of the Epistle to the Hebrews and its canonization. The Eastern Church adopted the anonymously written letter almost immediately upon receiving it, but the Western (Roman) Church took its sweet time, not canonizing the epistle until the Fourth Century…three hundred years after it arrived on the scene.

Mount SinaiThe letter was so “Jewish,” so “Rabbinic” that a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it. It came with the title “To the Hebrews,” but what does that mean exactly? It could have been added later and may only reflect the opinion of some translator or interpreter as to the intended audience.

Lancaster then compared his experience with Hebrews to his experience with Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, since both Galatians and Hebrews are typically used by the Church as “proof texts” that the Law is dead and has been replaced by grace. In other words, those two letters are the biggest guns in the traditional Church arsenal used to shoot down Judaism and replace it with Christianity.

To illustrate this, Lancaster described some of his personal history, especially related to Galatians, starting with being a “Pastor’s kid” attending Sunday school classes taught by his oldest brother David. Lancaster thought he knew Galatians pretty well growing up, but about twenty years ago, when attending a congregation that he called back then “the Messianic Jewish heresy,” he was prompted to re-read Galatians and all of his beliefs about what Paul was saying in that letter suddenly weren’t quite so clear.

I won’t go through the entire story, which culminated with yet another sermon series of Lancaster’s that eventually became the book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, but twenty years ago, so disturbed by how the “Messianic Jewish heresy” was describing the continuance of Torah rather than its abrupt death at the hands of Paul, Lancaster called his brother David to get some guidance. Guidance arrived but not in the form Lancaster was expecting. Lancaster quotes his brother as saying about the continuation of the authority of Torah:

Maybe it’s not what we always teach, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

But what’s all that got to do with the Book of Hebrews?

Lancaster set the stage for the further study of the epistle (or any Biblical document, really), but that’s not the emphasis of this thirty minute teaching. The emphasis in the first sermon was on the Kal Va-chomer argument or a comparison of two items from the “lighter” or somewhat less significant, to the “heavier” or more significant.

Jesus used this particular method on more than one occasion:

Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! (emph. mine)

Matthew 7:9-11 (NASB)

Galatians by D.T. LancasterLancaster gave a few other examples, both from the Gospel and Talmud of such an argument, including the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8), which only implies the Kal Va-chomer argument (and seeing that the argument can be implicit rather than explicit is important because a reading of Hebrews 12:18-24 also indicates the Kal Va-chomer argument is somewhat implicit), but the point is that such an argument is not alien to Judaism in general and the teachings of the Master (and apostles) in particular.

Notice something important, though. Lancaster says that in the latter situation in the above example, the generosity of our (good and perfect) Father in heaven, when compared to the earlier situation, generosity of earthly (evil) fathers, the latter does not undo the former. That is, the fact that God is good, perfect, and generous does not invalidate, replace, or cancel the generosity or the status of our human fathers.

Another point to pay attention to is that the first situation, the generosity of imperfect but giving earthly fathers, must be true and have value in order for the second situation, the generosity of the good and perfect Father in Heaven, to be even more true.

Now let’s revisit Hebrews 12:18-24 which compares Mount Sinai and the Torah to Mount Zion and the Messiah. Paraphrasing, and these are my words trying to capture Lancaster’s message:

If you thought it was incredible, awesome, terrifying, and the greatest revelation of God to humanity when God appeared to the ancient Israelites and gave them the Torah at Sinai, how much more so will it be incredible, awesome, terrifying, and an even greater revelation of God to humanity when you confront Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and His myriads of angels?

But the latter doesn’t invalidate the authority, truth, and value of the former, it is just bigger, badder, has more authority, is more true, and has more value.

If the latter invalidated the former, the Kal Va-chomer argument would fall apart and neither situation could be true.

One verse later, the anonymous writer of the letter to the Hebrews uses the same method again:

See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven.

Hebrews 12:25 (NASB)

If those who received the Torah at Sinai couldn’t escape the consequences of ignoring God, how much less will you escape the consequences of “Him who warns from heaven.”

Lancaster offered other examples of these arguments as presented by Jesus, but I think you get the point. Lancaster is saying that, like the traditional, majority Christian interpretation of Galatians, we have it all wrong about how we understand Hebrews. It took a rather pointed and shocking revelation from his brother David for Lancaster to decide to re-evaluate Galatians from a fresh perspective, setting aside Christian tradition, and interpreting the letter from its original, first century Jewish viewpoint.

Setting aside the traditional Christian interpretation and taking a fresh look at old epistles is one point that Mark Nanos makes about the Galatians letter in his book The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context. This is the point that Lancaster is making about how we should treat the book of Hebrews, too. It’s the focus of this lecture series, which I imagine will actually start at Chapter 1, verse 1 in the next recording. I’m looking forward to it.

What Did I Learn?

d_thomas_lancasterI learned to shift my perspective when looking at the book of Hebrews, at least Hebrews 12:18-25. As I mentioned above, Hebrews has been a big problem for me. I had been so exposed to the traditional Christian interpretation of this letter, that I couldn’t see any way around its anti-Jewish, anti-Judaism, anti-Torah message, which stood in such opposition to everything else I understand in the Bible. Now Lancaster has given me a basic tool with which to shift that understanding, a new lens with which to look at the text.

The website of Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship, the congregation where Lancaster teaches, contains all of the audio recordings of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series (thirty-seven as I write this). Believe it or not, I only listed the highlights of Lancaster’s first sermon. You can listen to “Fire on the Mountain” and the other recordings of his Hebrews teachings on that page at your convenience.

I’ll review the second sermon, “A Word of Exhortation” next week.