Are You Listening?

Stop sign superimposed over a large crowd of people walking away

He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mark 4:19)

I recently read a delightful book entitled, Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. I think humor is serious business. No wonder this is among my favorites from Telushkin’s book:

A group of elderly, retired men gathers each morning at a café in Tel Aviv. They drink their coffee and sit for hours discussing the world situation. Given the state of the world, their talks usually are depressing. One day, one of the men startles the others by announcing, “You know what? I am an optimist.” The others are shocked, but then one of them notices something fishy. “Wait a minute! If you’re an optimist, why do you look so worried?” “You think it’s easy to be an optimist?”

This is me. In fact, I surprise myself how positive I can be sometimes. Really! I find life heavy. I am constantly thinking about what’s going on around me, as I try to understand life and how I am to respond to it. I can get discouraged easily as I am perplexed by the complex problems of life. And that was before COVID-19!  And yet, I still see glimpses of heaven’s reality on earth as I catch how God is at work in the midst of our troubles. When I do, my heart leaps for joy.

My main source of encouragement is the Bible. It’s honest assessment of the state of the world combined with insight into God’s plans and purposes, connects me to a more complete reality than the partial and often deceptive message of circumstances. It cuts through the cynical noise of much of the incessant social commentary we are fed.

Still, I need to be reminded to actively engage God’s written word. One of my sons and I are fans of the National Geographic science series, “Brain Games.” The show teaches various components of human brain function by encouraging the viewer to personally interact with the content. Often just before a new interactive segment would begin, the host would say, “Stop! Pay attention.” I was going to write that this reminds me of the words of Yeshua,: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:19), but actually it’s the other way around. Yeshua’s words reminded me of Brain Games even though I had heard and read Yeshua’s words innumerable times many years before watching the show.

The reason for this is that it wasn’t until recently that I began to comprehend what Yeshua meant by these words. As I mentioned a couple of months ago in my article entitled Mountain Movers, I have been on a transformational journey through my studying and preaching the Gospel of Mark. In the past I assumed that “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” meant something along the lines of “these words are for those who can understand them.” In the context of where they first appear in Mark chapter four, Yeshua is speaking parables, beginning with “The Sower.” This parable illustrates four different responses of various people to Yeshua’s teaching. The first three are not good. In the first, Satan snatches the word away. The second are those who initially respond positively, but when pressures arise, they give up. The third are those who are not productive due to the distractions of life. Only the fourth is positive. They are those who truly welcome his teaching, put it into action, and are productive.

Because these are descriptions of different responses, we may think in terms of different people possessing different kinds of receptivity. There is nothing explicit in Yeshua’s words to indicate that those who fall in one of the first three categories should do anything about it. It’s as if this is simply a description of how things are. It’s Yeshua’s version of a personality test, as in “what type of soil are you?”

If so, then why does he close the parable with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”? Is he only interested in informing his disciples through the ages that these types of responses exist? I am aware it is helpful for preachers and teachers to understand that different people respond in different ways. Even Yeshua didn’t always get positive results. But is this parable for the speakers or the hearers? The statement “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” was said to the crowd, not his inner circle to whom he explained the meaning later. Yeshua was calling out to all those within earshot: “Use your ears as intended.” Or in other words: “Are you listening?”

Yeshua invites us to engage his words. We are not to sit back and soak it in, so to speak, nor are we to wait around for him to hit us over the head. Instead, we need to be attentive to what he is saying and get the message. When COVID restrictions first began, I was reminded of Paul’s words when he was in prison:

Remember Yeshua the Messiah, who was raised from the dead, who was a descendant of David. This is the Good News I proclaim, and for which I am suffering to the point of being bound in chains — but the Word of God is not bound in chains! (2 Timothy 2:8-9; Complete Jewish Bible)

Even though Paul was severely restricted to the point of being in chains in a disgusting prison, he understood that God’s Word wasn’t restricted. This wasn’t just a nice encouraging thought of even though he lost his freedom, the Gospel was still making a difference outside his prison walls. Despite his being chained up, he was still composing letters that would powerfully transform lives from his day until our own.

This is not to tell us how amazing Paul was, but how powerful God’s Word is. If God could make a difference through Paul in his restrictive circumstances how much more might we in ours today? Will it be easy? Might we face difficult challenges along the way? Will everything we do automatically be successful? Just like Paul didn’t know he was writing a third of the New Testament, so we have no idea how God might use our efforts. But if we think we cannot make a difference until life gets back to normal, we won’t even try. Let’s seek the Creator for his creative means to fulfill his good pleasure in these difficult and confusing days. It may not be easy to be an optimist, but we have every reason to be.

The Meaning of the Shofar (updated)

Fall Feasts

In the third book of the Bible, Vayikra/Leviticus chapter 23, verses 23-44 is a description of three special observances that were to occur each year around September/October. The first is often referred to as “The Feast of Trumpets,” and became known as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It begins this year the evening of September 18. Ten days later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning the evening of September 27. Five days after that is the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacle or Booths), beginning the evening of October 2.

These three observances are intimately connected in that the first two provide intense preparation for the third. In the midst of the busy fall harvest time, the people of Israel were to stop for a day of reflection to remember God. This was to get the people’s attention so that they would be ready a week and a half later for a full day of humiliation and repentance on Yom Kippur. The restoration provided by that most solemn day enabled the people to engage the over-a-week-long celebrations associated with Sukkot.

We fool ourselves into thinking that we can rush into thanksgiving festivities without taking the previous two weeks to get ready first. We are so busy with so many distractions. Yet God wisely knows that he needs to get our attention first by reminding us of things we so easily forget.

A Time to Remember

The Feast of Trumpets was to be “a memorial” (v. 24) marked by “blowing.” Most translations fill in what it was to be blown, even though the passage nowhere states explicitly what instrument was to be used. Traditionally it is the “shofar” (English: ram’s horn). Also, while the act of blowing was to function as a memorial, we are not told what it was we were to remember. The connection of this day with the other days mentioned above allows for a general reminder of the things of God, but the use of the shofar in particular brings to remembrance some key biblical events and ideas.

The Meaning of the Shofar

I am going to share several passages that reference the shofar and provide some suggestions as to what therefore we should remember when it is blown. In most English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, the word shofar is translated either as horn or trumpet. Horn, of course, is better, since it clearly shows the difference between the use of a hollowed-out animal horn and a man-made metallic trumpet. In each of the following cases, I have replaced whatever English word was used with the original Hebrew word, shofar.

The Covenant on Mt. Sinai: Redemption and Revelation

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud shofar blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.

Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder (Shemot/Exodus 19:16-19).

The blowing of the shofar reminds us of God’s rescue from bondage, his commitment through covenant faithfulness, and the gift of his Word.

The Walls of Jericho: No Obstacles Are Too Great for God

So the people shouted, and the shofars were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the shofar, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city (Joshua 6:20).

The falling of the great walls of Jericho following the sounding of the shofar reminds us that when we are in God’s will, doing what he wants us to do, nothing can stand in our way.

God Alone Is King: Let Us Boldly Acclaim His Rulership

God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a shofar (Tehillim/Psalms 47:5)

As the shofar blast proclaim God’s rule, so should we, boldly and without fear.

God Is Worthy of Praise

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the shofar
    make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD! (Tehillim/Psalms 98:4-6)

The shofar reminds us that God is worth celebrating. We make a big deal over far lesser things. So let us make some joyful noise about God!

The Voice of the Prophet: We Need To Speak Up More

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a shofar;
declare to my people their transgression
    to the house of Jacob their sins. (Isaiah 58:1)

As the voice of the prophet is clear and distinct, the shofar encourages us to not hold back, but to speak up for God and his ways, clearly and unashamedly.

God’s Alarm: It’s Time To Wake Up

Blow a shofar in Zion;
    sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near (Joel 2:1)

The shofar was used as a practical device to get people’s attention. In this passage it is as an alarm to warn God’s people of his coming judgement. One of the great Jewish thinkers of all time was Moses Maimonides. He was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt, who lived between 1135 and 1204 AD. What he said with regard to what people should think of as the shofar is blown goes along with this:

Wake up, wake up, sleepers from your sleep, and awake slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator.

Some of you might catch how these words sound similar to other words written long before Maimonides, from the New Covenant Writings:

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and [Messiah] will shine on you.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:14-16)

The shofar, God’s alarm clock, is to alert us as to the nature of the times in which we live. It is so easy to allow cynicism and apathy to lull us to sleep. It’s much easier to go along with the flow, submitting to the pressures of the culture, than to pursue the things of God day by day. As I write this, the world remembers the September 11, 2001 tragedy, which many at the time said was a “wake up call.” But how many of those same people hit the alarm and drifted off to sleep again. Since then the world has experienced alarm after alarm. Eventually it will be too late. Which brings us to the next one.

The Last Shofar: The Coming of the Lord

Then the LORD will appear over them,
    and his arrow will go forth like lightning;
the Lord GOD will sound the shofar
    and will march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. (Zechariah 9:14)

The day will come, when God himself will blow the shofar to signal the return of Messiah to call creation to account, and judge the world. No more opportunities to go back to sleep. No more chances. This is reiterated in the New Covenant Writings. Since it was originally written in Greek, we don’t know if it is referencing a trumpet or a horn, but the connection with the shofar is clear:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:50-55)

As the final blast marks the great renewal, the beginning of the age to come, when death and all its effects will be no more. For some it will be a time of absolute dread, but for others the greatest moment of their lives. How can we be assured that we will participate in this great event? The shofar the shows way.

Substitution: Life for Life

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (Bereshit/Genesis 22:12-14)

The Hebrew word here is not actually shofar, but a synonym, “keren.” This reference from the first book of the Bible is foundational for everything else the shofar reminds us of. God’s requirement for the offering of Abraham’s son Isaac was fulfilled through the provision of a ram. All through Scripture the sacrificial system, as established by God, reminded the people that an offering of an innocent animal was the necessary substitute for sin. While this is foreign to most of us today, it is God’s way, all the while pointing the people of Israel to the perfect and final offering of the Messiah on our behalf. His life was accepted in place of ours, so that all who trust in him would enter inherit eternal life. It is no coincidence that among all the things that happened to him during his unjust arrest, trial, and execution, when he was mocked by the Roman soldiers, they placed a crown of thorns on his head. Yeshua, like the ram of Abraham’s day, found himself caught in a thicket, and was offered in our place. Like Isaac, we too may go free.

The shofar gives us so much to think about, but we will not be able to fully appreciate all this unless we are in right relationship with God through the Messiah. By accepting Yeshua as God’s provision, everything else becomes clear. The shofar sound not only will reverberate in our ears, but the fullness of its meaning will fill our hearts.

Watch and listen to the shofar now:

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

Moving Mountains

Man looking at mountains in the distance

The Re-Mark-Able Gospel

About a year ago, I started the Gospel of Mark for my personal, daily Bible reading. I have read it many times before as I have done with the other Gospels. The stories are all familiar to me. But something was different this time around. There is something about how this Gospel is presented that unusually evokes emotion and response as if an intended audience is in mind. There are several references to people, including Yeshua, being amazed or astounded. Tradition suggests that Mark wrote what he heard Peter present orally many times. The more I read it, it made more and more sense to me that it was designed as an oral drama.

Why this is worth noting is it appears to be carefully crafted in such a way as to draw the reader or hearer into the story. Early in Mark, chapter four, Yeshua is teaching in parables when he announces: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9, cf. 4:23). This may even be the theme of the book. For while Yeshua explains that parables were purposely obscure for the sake of outsiders (see Mark 4:10-12), throughout the book, we see Yeshua chastising his followers for not comprehending what they are hearing and seeing. The book cries out, “Pay attention; get the message!”

When I read the Bible, I seek to discover the purposeful intent of what God is saying. While I am careful not to read into the text, I am aware that not every lesson in Scripture is obvious on the surface. I produced a message a couple of years ago asserting that we need to be more diligent to plunge the depths of Scripture (see In Celebration of Biblical Narrative: A Biblical Critique of Jordan B. Peterson). Still, I don’t want to read into the Bible what is not there.

The Strange Tale of the Fig Tree

Thus, it was with great hesitation that I began to grapple with the “cursing of the fig tree” in Mark, chapter eleven. After spending about five months submerged in Mark for my daily personal reading, beginning January of this year, I began to preach on it weekly. I am not the only one to find this incident strange, if not disturbing. It is in two parts.

First, Yeshua and his followers arrive in Jerusalem welcomed by a great celebratory crowd with messianic shouts of Hoshiana (English: Hosanna, deliver us now!). He briefly visits the temple and “looks around.” It’s as if he is sizing up a situation that he will confront the next day. He might be sizing up the reader too for that matter. Then, we read:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:12–14)

If this sounds as if Yeshua is being unreasonably vindictive against the tree, it’s because we don’t understand figs. Best I can tell, here’s what’s going on: Yeshua sees a fig tree on the way to the temple that morning. Every year fig trees grow new shoots. The figs for the new season, which will ripen by end of summer/early fall, only grow on these new shoots. Yeshua knows that, but what he is hoping to find is the early figs which appear sometimes on some fig trees, commonly known as breva figs, which ripen in the spring, growing on older shoots. In addition to not finding the hoped-for breva figs, noting that “he found nothing but leaves,” informs us that the expected new fruit for the coming season also wasn’t present as it should have been. This tree, therefore, is good for nothing, and so he curses it. This unusual reaction to a fruit tree should clue the reader in that this is not really about fig trees.

In between the two interactions over the tree, Yeshua drives out the sellers and moneychangers from the temple. This dramatic event includes a brash critique of the temple system, when he says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). This is based on two references from the Hebrew prophets. The first is from Isaiah:

“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:6–8)

This passage underscores God’s intent to bless the nations as promised to Abraham through the Good News of the Messiah (see Genesis 12:3; cf. Galatians 3:8). The large courtyard surrounding the temple proper was known as the Court of the Gentiles. It wasn’t exclusively for non-Jews, but it was the closest they could get to the temple. The moneychangers and people selling sacrifices for Passover, while both legitimate in themselves, had found that setting up in that Court was most advantageous, yet resulted in crowding out the people, particularly non-Jews.

The second is from Jeremiah:

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim” (Jeremiah 7:8–15).

This is a purposeful allusion to the corruption and inevitable destruction of the first temple in Jeremiah’s day. Yeshua is predicting a similar end to the temple of his day. It may sound as if the people behind the commercial enterprise were the object of this harsh saying. However, a den of robbers is not a crime scene, but a hideout, where thieves go to hide from the authorities. The implications here is that the temple had become the abode of wrongdoers, pointing to the priests who likely profited from the commercial enterprise.

The corruption of the second temple was going on for some time. Following the restoration of the temple in the days of the Maccabees a century and a half earlier, the priesthood significantly declined. It became more about preserving the priests’ place and position than for the welfare of their people. To do so required cutting deals with pagan Rome. It’s clear, therefore, that the cursing of the fig tree was a symbolic gesture referencing the corruption of the temple system. What should have been the source of spiritual and moral nourishment to the nation was sucking them dry instead. Yeshua was saying, enough is enough! The temple would cease operation upon its destruction forty years later at the hands of the very world power with whom it had been in cahoots.

Do note that the fig tree signifies the corrupted temple system, not the people of Israel themselves. Yeshua was inaugurating a system change under a new priesthood headed by himself (see the Book of Hebrews). The termination of the Levitical priestly system would reconstitute Israel, but not replace it. Don’t forget Yeshua appointed a new Jewish leadership, trained to bring renewal to Israel and the Abrahamic blessing to the nations. The Jewish believing remnant that has existed from the beginning of the nation will one day be the whole (see Romans 11). The Messiah while condemning the temple system of his day, never condemned Israel as a nation.

Moving More Than Mountains

Understanding the symbolic nature of the fig tree is crucial in understanding the faith lesson Yeshua teaches next (see Mark 11:20-25). The morning after the driving out of the sellers, etc., Peter remarks on the now withered tree. Yeshua responds by teaching how faith moves mountains. On the surface it sounds as if Yeshua was saying, “See this tree, Peter? You ain’t seen nothing yet! If only you would have great faith, you could actually move mountains!” Certainly, Yeshua is not encouraging his followers to engage in literal earth moving. This is the Messiah’s way of saying that genuine faith enables us to do the impossible. But this too, while having general application to life’s difficult challenges, is about something very specific.

North shore of the Dead Sea seen from Jerusalem

Artist’s rendition of the north shore of the Dead Sea seen from Jerusalem, early 1918

By referencing “this mountain,” (see Mark 11:23), he is most likely speaking of the Temple Mount. The sea would be the Dead Sea, the north shore of which could be seen in those days from there. That’s the approximate location of the no-longer-existing Sodom and Gomorrah, judged for its horrible sin, implying that the temple was both utterly corrupt and beyond hope. The faith Yeshua was calling for was not showy dramatic miraculous displays as much as the faithfulness that enables one to stand against great oppressive powers. This is not to say that Messiah’s followers are not to do signs and wonders. But in this context, we are instructed that if God’s people would not be intimidated, but be truly faithful to him, we will see such world powers undergo seismic shifting before our eyes. That’s the faith of Yeshua, and that’s the faith he was calling his disciples to have.

Mark’s audience needed to hear this message. Whether his audience was Jewish, Gentile, or both; be they in Jerusalem or somewhere else within the Roman Empire, the pressure against the Gospel message would be no less than what the Messiah himself faced. The opposition would have been mountainous, so to speak, completely overwhelming and humanly impossible to stand up to. Impossible that is without faith; faith being trusting God, his word, and his will. The second Psalm reads, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Messiah (Anointed)” (Psalm 2:2). Yet, the psalm goes on to say God laughs at them, holding them in derision. Despite their arrogance and temporary power, God will establish his everlasting kingdom: “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6). It is faith that enables the faithful to stand firm while God upends the structures of this world.

Mountain Moving in Troubled Times

We live in tumultuous times: however the global pandemic plays out, there is every indication that we are facing economic collapse, political instability, civil unrest, further disintegration of the family, and snowballing apostasy. Yet, we must not forget that the Gospel was birthed in similar times. Yeshua’s mission was handed to a small eclectic group of Jewish men and women who dared to face the existential threat of both the corrupt religious powerbrokers among their own people and the oppressive controlling world power. Like their master, they were people of faith, who spoke to mountains that moved. Within a few decades the Kingdom of God was multiplying everywhere they went.

Today’s mountains of political intrigue, spiritual decline, and moral decadence will move, if we have the faith to stand and speak the truth of God despite intimidation and persecution. God will prevail. Of that, there is no doubt. But will we be like our brothers and sisters who were part of God’s transformative solution or will we be cast into the sea along with the shifting mountains. To whom and to what will we be loyal? In whom or in what will we place our trust? Will we drown in the sea of judgment or will we be mountain movers?

Certainty in Uncertain Times

Various scary newspaper headline cutouts

This past school year marks five years since I became the developer and teacher of the Bible class at St. Timothy’s Classical Academy. Four of these years, I have been given the awesome responsibility of delivering the graduation speech to the eighth-grade class at the year-end gathering. The weight I felt was far greater this year due to the restrictions of COVID-19. I can only imagine the depths of disappointment felt by the grads, the other students, their families, and staff due to closing the year, watching via Zoom. I so wanted to say something that would make a difference.

What follows is the text of my address from Friday, June 19, 2020. It has been slightly edited it to remove some personal references.

I hope this helps you find some direction and stability in this uncertain time.

*      *      *

At the beginning of the year—No! Three months’ ago no one expected that we would be having a virtual end-of-year “gathering.” But so much has happened since mid-March when it was first decided the school would close for a couple of weeks. I remember talking to Dr. Small at that time. Even then she wondered whether or not schools would reopen. It sounded so strange thinking like that back then. The only thing that was certain was uncertainty. No one really knew what was going on or what was going to happen. I am not sure that now, three months later, even with more things opening up, if it’s any clearer.

So I am attempting to say something helpful to you five as you get ready to start a new chapter of your lives, when we don’t know what that chapter is going to look like. Having not had the opportunity to chat with you these past few months, I don’t know where each of you are at with what’s been going on or how you are thinking about your future. Yet, I am pretty sure that you all pictured a very different departure from St. Timothy’s. Perhaps one or more of you are greatly disappointed with how this has all turned out. Dashed expectations, be they big or small, can deeply affect us.

In the Book of Proverbs, chapter thirteen, verse twelve, King Solomon writes: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” According to Solomon, deferred hope, delayed expectations, in other words, are sufficient to make us heartsick—really sad and discouraged. How much more heart-sick might dashed expectations make us? We all naturally look forward to things. Most often we don’t know we are doing it. We normally orient our lives towards what we anticipate is coming in the near or distant future, whether it be breakfast when we wake up or what a St. Timothy’s graduation is supposed to look like.

Sometimes, we can get our hearts so firmly set on something that, if it doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen in the way we picture, our hearts can break. I don’t know about you, but I have had my share of disappointments in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I have also been richly blessed and have often been wonderfully surprised by God’s goodness (good surprises are a different kind of not experiencing what’s expected, but that’s a different topic).

Yet, I am bit embarrassed to say that despite God’s goodness to me, I find myself at times still feeling the sting of past disappointments. One painful memory I have never been able to fully shake might sound silly to some, while others will completely understand. I was about ten year’s old. The year, 1968. The dinosaurs had recently gone extinct—kidding! Seriously, I had just recently got into hockey—remember hockey? Through a relative I was given tickets, really good seats, to see my very first game at the Montreal forum. However, when I woke up that Saturday morning, I had come down with a cold and my mother wouldn’t let me go. As I said, this all might sound silly to some of you. You may be thinking, “Why would he share something from fifty-two years ago, from his childhood, about a game?” It’s because those childhood experiences, and how we deal with them, can affect us for the of the rest of our lives. I have learned that unless we learn to deal with disappointment well, beginning when we are young, it can ruin our lives.

One of the ways people learn to cope with disappointment, dashed expectations, is by never getting their hopes up. But that’s a symptom of the heart sickness Solomon describes. They go to bed at night expecting the sun will rise the next morning, but with regard to the kind of opportunities and possibilities that fill us with intense longing, it’s easier to pop those bubbles before they get too big, lest they blow up in our faces, because the pain of disappointment is too difficult to bear. Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.

Is this the new normal for the COVID-19 generation? I hope not. I don’t believe for a second that this is how we are to deal with the current, or any other, time of uncertainty. While it is good to learn not to have unreasonable expectations, God made us to be his instruments of positive change in the world. That requires hope: a hope that copes well with uncertainty and dashed expectations.

I would like to share some guidance from the Bible that I believe can help us all to not only cope in uncertain times but thrive. I am going to read three verses about Abraham from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. The letter to the Hebrews is a letter of encouragement to a community of 1st century Jewish Jesus followers, who were having to deal with their own time of uncertainty. The pressures they were facing were starting to get to them. As a result, they had become afraid of being too public about their faith. The writer of the letter urges them not to give into their fears or to lose touch with the truth and reality of God they had powerfully experienced in Jesus. In this part of the letter, the writer provides somewhat of a biblical faith hall of fame: people of the past, who put their lives on the line for the one true God in spite of whatever was going on around them. Sixteen people are mentioned by name plus many more nameless ones.

Considerable attention is given to Abraham, which is fitting because the Bible regards him as a prime example of what it means to be a person of faith. I am reading Hebrews, chapter eleven, verses eight through ten:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

Verse eight tells us that Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was going.” Sounds like someone who went on a journey with no plan, no map, no expectations, no disappointments as if he walked aimlessly about as if that’s what it means to be a person of faith, which is exactly how many people, some Christians included, think of faith. Faith to them is blind, shutting our eyes and minds to everything around us in order to somehow connect with God and the spiritual dimension. In a time of uncertainty as the one we are living in right now; such an approach may be appealing. Since we can’t seem to get a handle on what is going on, why try? Disconnect from everything and just believe (whatever that is). Whatever that is isn’t anything close to what Abraham could relate, because that’s not faith as far as he and his experience of God and life were concerned.

But didn’t we read, “he didn’t know where he was going”? That’s true, but it’s not like he didn’t know where he was going. It’s that, he didn’t know where he was going. Actually, it’s all a lot more logical than you might think. You see, according to Genesis 11:31 (often people start the story of Abraham with Genesis chapter 12 even though he is introduced in the previous chapter), we read in Genesis 11:31 that Abraham knew where he was going. It’s there we read he had started on a journey from his hometown of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia/modern Iraq, along with his father, his wife, and his nephew. We are told: “They went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran [that’s about halfway there], they settled there.”

Only after Abraham’s father dies in Haran does he continue the journey with the others. It appears that the journey was originally initiated when God spoke to Abraham while they were back in Ur. God had told him what would happen if he took this journey, including becoming a great nation that would bless the whole world and that this great nation would one day possess the land to which God called him to go, the Land of Canaan. That’s what Abraham knew. What he didn’t know was: everything else. He didn’t know what would happen along the way or that he wouldn’t see what God promised him in in his lifetime.

So, he knew where he was going, but he didn’t know how things were to work out. And even as they did, it was nothing as he would have expected them to. All this occurring in a foreign land. The Bible’s great example of what it means to live by faith was an immigrant called by God to live his senior years in a strange and hostile land, an experience many people understand. He lived with uncertainty upon uncertainty. Yet, he knew two things for sure.

First, he knew the general location of where he was to go. Second, he knew God. And knowing God enabled him to place his expectations, not in his circumstances, but in God and his word to him. As we read: “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” That’s to say that he placed his hope not on the temporary successes that the world has to offer, but on the things of God that last forever.

Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew, chapter 6, verses nineteen through twenty-one:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The things of this world are temporary. They are by nature uncertain, unreliable. COVID-19 didn’t change anything. It only exposed the truth about the nature of our broken world.  The postponements and cancellations have caused us a lot of grief, but at the same time, they have provided us with a much-needed reality check. What have we set our hearts upon? We were made for greater things than the unreliable, uncertain temporary trinkets the world offers.

St. Timothy’s is a school that has sought to teach you the things that truly last, that really matter, that you can count on. No matter what happens, God’s goodness, God’s truth, and God’s beauty can always be found within his creation. Graduation gatherings and other ceremonies, whether we meet in a building or have to find other ways to connect with one another, the God of Abraham is way bigger than our routines and our expectations. Looking to him, focusing on what he says is important: loving him and loving one another, learning to tell the difference between what is good and what is bad, what is true and what is false, that there really is goodness, truth and beauty in the world he made, will keep us from setting our hearts on what’s uncertain in life and enable us instead to build our lives on what God is building, an everlasting city where no one will experience disappointment ever again.

For more information about St. Timothy’s Classical Academy, click here.

The Blessing: Not just a fad

“The Blessing” – Virtual Choir Version 


By now you have likely seen one or more renditions of the “The Blessing.” Written on February 27 this year by Chris Brown, Cody Carnes, Kari Jobe, and Steven Furtick, it was first presented publicly three days later. Its overwhelmingly positive message has struck a chord with millions of people in this time of fear, confusion, and isolation. All sorts of cover versions have been produced, many of which in the form of virtual choirs, where people from various locations are united through video. The message of the song combined with the smiling faces of people of all ages connecting with one another across cities, countries, and the world, results in a powerful declaration of hope, love, and (obviously) blessing.

I can’t remember when I first heard “The Blessing,” but I didn’t give it much attention as I saw multiple versions popping up on YouTube. The cynical part of me was saying this is just another fad. Being aware of its core biblical message, I felt a little bad thinking this way. I don’t know why but I decided to watch the “Worship Together” virtual choir version (the one provided above). As it played I was getting more and more impacted to the point it brought me to tears. The reason why might surprise you.

Certainly the song is compelling for the reasons I already stated and the production is superb. The way the images of several of the adults were swapped out for children particularly moved me. But there’s still more. It was what they were singing and who was singing it.

The core of the song is the special blessing that God commanded the cohanim (English: the priests) to pronounce over the people of Israel: “The LORD bless you and keep you;  the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26; ESV). God gave these words to a particular people – my people, the Jewish people – a long time ago far away from where I sit as I write this in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. Now all these years later, people from the nations of the world are declaring to the world the priestly words of my people – an expression of what God promised our father Abraham about four thousand years ago: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

Not all my people would find this as heartwarming as I do. Back in the 1980s, when we lived in Vancouver, BC, I met with an ultra-orthodox rabbi almost every week for about a year. He knew I was a Messianic Jew, but he was open to talk. One time I made a comment about how wonderful it was that non-Jews had brought the truth of the God of Israel to the world. He half agreed. “God yes,” he said. “The Bible no.” While he believed it was good and right for Gentiles to believe in the one true God, the God of Israel, he regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as an exclusive gift to and the sole possession of the Jewish people.

I don’t agree. While God did specifically entrust the scriptures to my people – “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:3) – it was not intended to be kept to ourselves forever. However, it doesn’t help that God-followers from the nations haven’t always handled the scriptures with the care they deserve, not that my own people have always done so either. But I suspect that the rabbi and the majority of Jewish people fail to appreciate the benefits of Jewish Scripture upon and through Christianity due to the ways it has been twisted and disregarded. This is especially the case in how the Bible has been used to justify misrepresenting and abusing the very people to whom it was originally entrusted. The effect of this is so severe that many of our people don’t fully connect with the fact that the God of the Christians is the God of Israel.

That’s why I assume that most Jewish people wouldn’t see what I saw the day I was impacted by “The Blessing.” But for me, at the moment I was able to disregard 2000 years of so-called “Christian” anti-Semitism and see the beautiful thread of God’s goodness and truth that has spread to almost every tribe, nation, and language. Those who at one time had “no hope and were without God in the world” (see Ephesians 2:12) are now carrying the power of the Jewish priestly blessing to that world (including me). Despite the historic wrongs done in Jesus’ name, this song experience captures the true essence of the Messiah’s mission. He entrusted that mission to a small group of Jewish followers, who, contrary to the social, religious, and civil structures of their day, risked their lives to bless the nations in fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham. And now I can hear our ancient words, sung back to me in English, French, Russian, German, Spanish, Hindi, Swahili, Albanian, Haitian Creole, Amharic, Tagalog, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Dutch, Swedish, Portuguese, and more(!) from all over the globe.

That’s not all. There’s a central aspect of this familiar message that spoke to me as never before. You may have noticed that the song is unusually long. It runs at seven minutes or more. This is mainly due to the second part of the song which begins, “May his favor be upon you / And a thousand generations” and crescendos with “He is for you” repeated over and over again, thereby dramatically emphasizing its positive nature.

How many of us have stopped to think how radical such a sentiment is, seeing that it is coming from an ancient deity? We forget or never realized how different the God of Israel was and is from other supposed gods. Historically the gods weren’t very nice. The purpose of the rituals performed by their subjects were often to appease them in order to avoid arbitrary disaster. The priestly blessing, on the other hand, demonstrates that the heart of the true Master of the Universe desires we have life, safety, goodness, favor, and peace.

Are these not the words we need to hear in these days (and every other kind of day)? Those who grasp the essence of “The Blessing” find hope and light in the midst of despair and darkness. Knowing the central positive disposition of the Creator when his creation is so threatening not only encourages us, but also makes us sources of life to others in the face of sickness and death.

But is God as positively inclined to us all in the ways the song declares? Basically, yes, but not necessarily in every case. For not everyone is on good terms with the God of “The Blessing.” If you are not, you could be. The Messiah came to reconcile us to God, so that we could know his blessing. By taking responsibility for our alienation from him due to sin and looking to Yeshua (Jesus) to restore right relationship with our Father in heaven, we can be truly blessed and be a blessing.

Then there are those who are in right relationship with God yet still have trouble connecting with the overwhelmingly positive nature of “The Blessing”. That’s why some of us need to hear “He is for you!” repeated over and over again. For all sorts of reasons some us have absorbed a great deal of negativity. Add to that the current crisis and all our coping mechanisms crumble. Thankfully, God wants us to have something much more effective than coping mechanisms. He longs for us to know his blessing.

The Cure for Disorientation

Are you going crazy?

Never before in the history of the world has everyone everywhere been united in the exact same experience: We are all going crazy! Perhaps you have seen the list of twenty-five items that illustrate how our feeling crazy isn’t so crazy. This list is popping up all over the Internet, but as far as I know, the author is unknown.

  1. Basically, you can’t leave the house for any reason, but if you have to, then you can.
  2. Masks are useless, but maybe you have to wear one, it can save you, it is useless, but maybe it is mandatory as well.
  3. Stores are closed, except those that are open.
  4. You should not go to hospitals unless you have to go there. Same applies to doctors, you should only go there in case of emergency, provided you are not too sick.
  5. This virus is deadly but still not too scary, except that sometimes it actually leads to a global disaster.
  6. Gloves won’t help, but they can still help.
  7. Everyone needs to stay HOME, but it’s important to GO OUT.
  8. There is no shortage of groceries in the supermarket, but there are many things missing when you go there in the evening, but not in the morning. Sometimes.
  9. The virus has no effect on children except those it affects.
  10. Animals are not affected, but there is still a cat that tested positive in Belgium in February when no one had been tested, plus a few tigers here and there…
  11. You will have many symptoms when you are sick, but you can also get sick without symptoms, have symptoms without being sick, or be contagious without having symptoms. Oh, my..
  12. In order not to get sick, you have to eat well and exercise, but eat whatever you have on hand and it’s better not to go out, well, but no…
  13. It’s better to get some fresh air, but you get looked at very wrong when you get some fresh air, and most importantly, you don’t go to parks or walk. But don’t sit down, except that you can do that now if you are old, but not for too long or if you are pregnant (but not too old).
  14. You can’t go to retirement homes, but you have to take care of the elderly and bring food and medication.
  15. If you are sick, you can’t go out, but you can go to the pharmacy.
  16. You can get restaurant food delivered to the house, which may have been prepared by people who didn’t wear masks or gloves. But you have to have your groceries decontaminated outside for 3 hours. Pizza too?
  17. Every disturbing article or disturbing interview starts with ” I don’t want to trigger panic, but…”
  18. You can’t see your older mother or grandmother, but you can take a taxi and meet an older taxi driver.
  19. You can walk around with a friend but not with your family if they don’t live under the same roof.
  20. You are safe if you maintain the appropriate social distance, but you can’t go out with friends or strangers at the safe social distance.
  21. The virus remains active on different surfaces for two hours, no, four, no, six, no, we didn’t say hours, maybe days? But it takes a damp environment. Oh no, not necessarily.
  22. The virus stays in the air – well no, or yes, maybe, especially in a closed room, in one hour a sick person can infect ten, so if it falls, all our children were already infected at school before it was closed. But remember, if you stay at the recommended social distance, however in certain circumstances you should maintain a greater distance, which, studies show, the virus can travel further, maybe.
  23. We count the number of deaths but we don’t know how many people are infected as we have only tested so far those who were “almost dead” to find out if that’s what they will die of…
  24. We have no treatment, except that there may be one that apparently is not dangerous unless you take too much (which is the case with all medications).
  25. We should stay locked up until the virus disappears, but it will only disappear if we achieve collective immunity, so when it circulates… but we must no longer be locked up for that?”

     *     *     *

One of the ways I have been keeping my bearings is that in my daily Bible reading journal, I make a note that (to me) is like Captain Kirk’s Star Trek log (e.g. Captain’s log. Stardate 4513.3.). I have been counting my COVID-19 days from the first Sunday our church building was closed, March 15. That makes today (April 21, 2020), “C19 Day 38.”

Disoriented

To be fair, calling how I feel “insanity” isn’t truly accurate, though I am happy to leave that judgement to you. What I think I am actually feeling (as you may be too) is disoriented. Not only is the current virus strain novel, so is everything that that goes along with it. It’s no wonder government directives on how to best navigate the situation are contradictory, no one really knows what’s going on, where it’s going, or how long it will last. Are we doing enough or too much? How can we be sure?

You may be bored out of your mind; you may be busier than ever. You may get to the end of the day and feel guilty for not accomplishing anything but can’t think of what it was you should have done. And since we are living with 24/7 connectivity, we can’t stop: Let’s take a break from our Zoom calls, and watch some Netflix…but, first I need to get caught up with my Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok. Then perhaps I will do my online fitness class for the first time in two weeks. What? It’s 1 a.m. already! Excuse me while I wash my hands. Why do I have Happy Birthday stuck in my head all day long?

Forgetting the Big Picture

I lost it the other day. Am I the only one? I was so overwhelmed with being busy and seemingly having nothing to show nothing for it, I was dumping on my wife. Then she said something that I really didn’t want to hear at the time. It was something to the effect of losing sight of the big picture.

Hey, I’m the Big Picture guy. Haven’t you been to my seminar? What are you talking about?

But she was right. I had become so focused on the details of life – well, actually not. The details themselves had become fuzzy, out of context. I couldn’t see how anything fit anymore. I was just trying to get stuff – whatever stuff – done, that the stuff itself had become meaningless. And why? I lost sight of the big picture.

We forget how much we depend on the big picture – any big picture – to cope with day-to-day life. From when we get up to when we go to bed, we (usually unconsciously) relate the details of life to our understanding of life itself. Whatever big picture we have, it is what drives us, rewards us, condemns us. It’s our metanarrative (the grand encompassing story that informs every other story of our lives) that provides our standards, values, and goals. It’s what makes us feel good or bad about ourselves.

Whether your metanarrative is right, wrong, or a mixture of the two, the current crisis has likely obscured it if not yet destroyed it. How you have made sense of the world until now, doesn’t make sense any more. Those of us who claim to have a well-delineated worldview may think that we are immune to losing focus. But a crisis, be it a typical personal one or a unique global one, tends to challenge our assumptions and expose both the weaknesses in what it we claim to believe and our ability to believe it.

Perhaps your worldview is that there is no big picture; that life is meaningless and disjointed. You do what you do because it’s what you feel like doing at the time. Goals and routine are nothing more than practical conveniences to suit your personal preferences. If that is the case, then the current crisis is forcing you into a metanarrative. You don’t get to control you own story anymore. You can strive as much as you like to get control of the steering wheel of your life, but other forces are driving you now. Despite your denying the existence of any grand meaning and purpose, you too are disoriented.

God’s metanarrative

Once I had accepted that I had lost perspective, I began to imagine how the current confusion could fit into God’s metanarrative as I understand it from the Bible. It really helped me to remember that:

  • We live in a world created good but gone bad due to human rebellion against God.
  • Since then, God has been at work to renew his creation and invites his human creatures to join him in that process.
  • The Bible alone provides us with God’s revelation of his plans and purposes so that we can live effective, godly lives.
  • Godly, effective living must be rooted in reconciliation with God through faith in the Messiah.
  • Our troubles, big or small, should not distract us as we rely on God to direct us and sustain us through the process of his plans and purposes.

And there’s always this one:

  • It’s not about me.

Clarity restored

Being aware of God’s metanarrative doesn’t automatically resolve our disorientation. It takes a purposeful act of the heart and mind to connect ourselves and our situations to the truth of life from God’s perspective. However, we cannot make that connection unless we have a grasp of God’s perspective, his epic story.

Tragically, even people who read the Bible regularly fail to grasp the big picture of God’s epic story. That is due to either the tendency to read the Bible in disconnected chunks or to view it through one of many skewed filters imposed upon it, or both. You may have heard me describe the big picture of the Bible’s story as: “God’s rescue operation of the creation through Abraham and his descendants.” It is once we grasp this that the details of the Bible begin to become clear and we can discover our place in God’s plan.

No crisis, be it global pandemic or localized disaster, undermines the depth of meaning waiting for us to discover in the Bible rightly understood. It’s not too late to discover or re-discover God’s epic story and our role in it.

New! God’s Epic Story Seminar Online

Given the current crisis, I am offering my “God’s Epic Story” seminar online for the very first time.

God’s Epic Story takes you on a tour of key biblical passages that outline the unfolding of God’s plan in such a way that unveils the Bible’s Big Picture. Over the course of this seminar you will…

  • Understand our world from God’s perspective.
  • Discover how the centrality of Israel in God’s plan integrates the whole Bible and provides a foundation for all of life.
  • See how the coming of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah is the fulfillment of Old Testament expectation and enables us to truly know God and live life the way he intends.
  • Realize that the Gospel is much more than an individualistic spiritual experience; it is an invitation to be part of God’s transformational, world-wide mission.

Format: Weekly live one-hour presentation followed by Q&A.

Start Date: Wednesday, May 6, 2020 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time

Duration: 10 weeks

Cost: Free (donations appreciated)

Registration: To register, fill in this form. Further details will be sent to you by email.

Subject to registration minimum.

Feminism at Its Best

Painting of the "woman with the flow of blood" from the Duc In Altum spiritual center, Ancient Migdal, Israel

From a painting of the “woman with the flow of blood,” Duc In Altum Spiritual Center, Ancient Migdal, Israel

One of my goals on our trip to Israel last September was to see how we could tweak our next tour to make it even better than planned. One of those tweaks is the inclusion of a visit to the spiritual center and excavations in Ancient Migdal (Magdala), the home of Mary Magdalene. An Israeli friend of ours strongly recommended it. It didn’t disappoint. Situated on the north-west shore of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), it is one of the more recent such developments in Israel. It includes an excavation of a first-century synagogue along with some unique finds (see video below) as well as remnants of a market and other buildings.

We also visited the spiritual center on site, called “Duc In Altum,” taken from Jesus’ instruction to Simon Peter to “put out [their nets] into deep water, resulting in a most unexpectant, miraculous catch of fish  (Luke 5:4). We didn’t expect a place of such beautiful craftsmanship and meaning. As we entered, we walked into a circular atrium with eight pillars dedicated to various women who played a key role in Jesus’ life. Surrounding the atrium were a series of four small chapels each featuring a mosaic of a different Gospel story. Straight ahead was the much larger “Boat Chapel,” dedicated to Jesus’ preaching from the boat, the context of the catch of fish already mentioned.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise was waiting for us downstairs. The Encounter Chapel is modelled after a first century synagogue. At the front is a mural-sized painting of the story of the woman with chronic bleeding. We are not a fan of religious paintings, but we were both taken by this. No faces, but so powerful! Several people we have shown it to say they never thought about how low down the woman would have had to stoop to touch the hem of the Messiah’s garment.

My first thought while walking around the atrium upstairs was “this is feminism at its best!” Since then I have thought quite a bit about the painting and the story it represents. I don’t think we can overstate the tenacity of this woman. Lately, I have been spending considerable time in the Gospel of Mark. There we read “She had heard the reports about Jesus” (Mark 5:27). This was sufficient for her to push her way through a crowd, knowing she was ritually unclean and would contaminate every person she touched. The Gospel of Mark seems to be specially crafted to demonstrate the various reactions of all sorts of people. I am guessing this was to provoke the hearer (as most people would hear not read the book) to respond. Unlike scholars and other religious leaders who are so cautious and political around Jesus, this lady has chutzpah! Pushing her way through the crowd, she stops at nothing to get to the Messiah, even stooping to the ground (picture 1st century ground!), just for a single touch of his hem. Unlike the scholars and such, all she had to go one was “reports.” But that was good enough for her. Better than that! It was good enough for God as she was instantly healed.

People in our day tend to look askance at ancient times especially when it comes to the roles of men and women. I get the impression that many picture men sitting around on thrones, while women are subjugated as nothing more than sex objects and slaves. Perhaps many women were thus treated. But so were many men. Life for most people, both men and women, for most of history has been very difficult, full of suffering and hardship as they struggled simply to survive. In spite of that, as Ancient Migdal reminds us, there were women who found a way to make a significant, positive difference. And as we read about them, given we assume female involvement in important matters in olden days was to be discouraged, we would expect to find disparaging remarks or other comments of surprise, but we don’t.

Even if we did, I don’t know if they would care. Most people in history who have made significant contributions didn’t spend their time complaining about the injustices preventing them from doing good. Instead they looked for ways to serve God and others. The women commemorated in the atrium at Duc In Altum, are not only an example of feminism at its best; but humanity at its best.

Scriptures from the English Standard Version

Watch as Alan shows a couple of most interesting items found at the first-century synagogue excavation in Migdal (Magdala):

The Bible and the West Bank

Bethlehem as seen from the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

An unsettling view

This past September, I was standing on the balcony of my friend’s house in Jerusalem. From there, I had a great view of Bethlehem (pictured above). I just stood there and stared, trying to take it all in. The neighborhood we were in is Gilo. Before 1967 and the Six-Day War, this was Jordan, not Israel. My friend pointed out a house down below. The owner was born before 1967. He has a Jordanian passport. That’s because Gilo is on the other side of the “Green Line,” the 1949 armistice line, written with green marker at the end of Israel’s War of Independence.

Following the Six-Day War, Israel annexed Gilo, making it part of Israel proper as it did with the rest of Jerusalem. The world community, on the other hand, regards Gilo as an illegal settlement, like all the other Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Standing on that balcony, aware of the disputed status of the neighborhood, I felt agitated. While I fundamentally support the State of Israel, I was unsettled by world opinion.

Policy shifts

Last month, November 18, 2019, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, signified a shift in the State Department’s policy toward Israeli settlements in the West Bank, when he announced: “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” The very next day, the United Nations overwhelmingly passed one of its one-sided anti-Israel resolutions that deems Israel as occupying Palestinian territory with no reference to Palestinian responsibility. Surprisingly, and marking its own policy shift, Canada supported the anti-Israel resolution, thus regarding the settlements, including where I was standing in Gilo, illegal.

Map based on UN Partition Plan of 1947 (click to enlarge)

The technicalities regarding the legal standing of the West Bank are far more complicated than what many think. The West Bank, a Jordanian designation for the biblical territories of Judea and Samaria, wasn’t intended to be part of Jordan. Jordan annexed it after capturing it in the Israel War of Independence. Under the UN Partition Plan of November 1947, it was proposed that the region was to be part of an Arab Palestinian state; that is, not Jordan, but a state for the Arab Palestinians living in the land, as opposed to the Jewish Palestinians (as they were then called). The term “Palestine” in those days had no ethnic connotation; it referred to the region as inhabited by Jews, Arabs, and others. The UN Partition Plan was passed by the UN and, in spite of the Arab world’s rejection of it, became the basis of the Palestinian Jewish settlement’s declaration of independence. Ironically, there was no outcry following the Jordanian takeover of the region as a part of the War of Independence; no outcry over the exile and murder of the residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. And yet, in June 1967, when Israel recaptured the Jewish Quarter as well as Judea and Samaria as part of the victory in a defensive war and was once again able to establish a presence in their ancient homeland, almost the entire world deemed it illegal.

Changing map of Palestine/Israel: 1947-1967 (click to enlarge)

I find it hypocritical that a country such as Canada can pass judgement on Israel when so much of our population enjoys the fruits of colonization. It is now popular, especially at public gatherings, to acknowledge the historic connection of a locale to the indigenous people who may have lived there centuries before. How they can be certain who the actual original people or peoples were, I don’t know. Be that as it may, in spite of these acknowledgments, to my knowledge, there is no attempt among Canadian governmental leaders to restore these lands to their original inhabitants. Neither has the UN passed a resolution declaring the Canadian Parliament, for example, and other such settlements, illegal.

So much more could be said about the historical, political, and social issues relating to Israel and  the West Bank. Understanding such issues are essential to developing a helpful perspective on a most difficult conflict. But as I stood on the balcony in Gilo, more than any of this, I longed to grasp what God thought.

Christians support of Israel

Some Christians express unwavering support of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. However, in my experience, most people who identify as Christian are either ambivalent or uncomfortable with making any connection between their faith and current issues surrounding the “Holy Land.” They are happy to make a religious pilgrimage to the region where the vast majority of Bible stories happened and “walk where Jesus walked.” Beyond that, modern Israel isn’t any more relevant to them than any other country.

These Christians may take the Bible very seriously yet regard the contemporary land of Israel as having no practical and ongoing relevance to their lives or their theology. They may affirm that Israel the people and Israel the land are central to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), and yet take Jesus’s fulfilment of Old Covenant expectation as a transformation of national and geographic issues to universal spiritual ones. The land of Israel becomes nothing more than an ancient stage upon which to learn grander spiritual truths.

Those Christians who support Israel tend to simply point out the very many land promises God gave to Israel (e.g. Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 16; 25:1-6; 26:3-4; 32:28; 35:12). Apart from treating the land promises of Hebrew scripture as still relevant, they may point to a New Testament passage such as Romans 11:29 (“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”) as evidence of God’s ongoing plan for the Jewish people, including the land promises.

The messianic connection

It seems to me that one of the reasons for many Christians’ resistance to the idea that the whole Bible consistently and unequivocally supports the ongoing Jewish divine claim to the land is that it doesn’t seem to have any connection to the centrality of Jesus as Savior. Many believers would agree with the sentiment recently expressed to me by a pastor who said something to the effect that the entire Bible is about salvation. Others term this as “it’s all about Jesus.” As someone whose life has been radically and wonderfully transformed by how the Scriptures vividly point to Yeshua, I understand the emphasis, but there is much more to the Bible than it’s functioning as a spiritual device to create a saving transaction between God and human beings through the Messiah.

The Bible is God’s written revelation to equip us to live effective godly lives (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This begins with and is sustained by a right relationship with God through trusting in his Son. But that’s just the beginning. The Bible also provides all we need as the basis of how to live life as God intends. Genuine, biblically informed, godliness requires gaining God’s perspective on the world in which we live, including understanding God’s relationship to Israel and the Land. Core to this is the direct connection between Jesus and the land promises to Israel.

Genesis chapter fifteen is well-known for the doctrine of justification by faith. In response to Abram’s concern that, due to his being childless, any inheritance he might have would eventually go to his servant, God clarifies that he will indeed have a son of his own. In fact, he was to have innumerable descendants. In spite of his current state, Abram trusted what God said, which in turn was counted to him by God as righteousness (see Genesis 15:6). But that’s not how the passage ends. In the very next verse, God reiterates the promise of the land. Note how he does it: He directs Abram to offer a special sacrifice, so he laid cut up carcasses of animals on the ground. Abram fell into a deep sleep in which God spoke to him about his descendants’ future bondage in Egypt, eventual release, and land acquisition. Then he saw (either in the dream or awake) a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passing between the carcasses followed by these words: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites’” (Genesis 15:18-21).

This scene depicts an ancient custom of covenant making. The Hebrew for “making a covenant” is actually “cutting a covenant” most likely due to a custom such as this. It appears that when two parties cut a covenant in this way, their walking together between the pieces of the sacrifice was to illustrate that if either party fails to uphold their part of the covenant, then a plight similar to that of the carcasses was to befall them (see Jeremiah 34:18). However, in this case, Abram didn’t walk along with God. Instead God (illustrated by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch) walked through the pieces alone. Abram was to surmise, therefore, that if ever he (or his descendants after him) in any way betrayed the covenantal arrangement between him and God, God alone would suffer the consequences. Whether or not Abram understood the implications of what he saw, there is no doubt that God’s promise to him and his future offspring regarding the land was solemnly guaranteed by a pledge of God’s own life, so to speak.

Apart from the insight God gave Abram concerning the future plight of his offspring (see Genesis 15:13-16), Abram knew little of the complexity of the development of Israel—particularly the covenant given them through Moses at Mt. Sinai. He knew nothing of the specifics of how they would acquire the land under Joshua or the struggles they would face in the subsequent centuries. He didn’t know that his people would be eventually judged by God due to their unfaithfulness or that this judgment would include exile from the land promised to them through him. Yet Israel’s failure to be true to its calling as God’s chosen nation could not result in the absolute loss of the land. For God guaranteed otherwise by pledging to suffer the consequences of Israel’s failure. This he did through the Messiah when he died on the cross.

Readers of the New Testament rightly understand Jesus’s sacrifice for sin as the vehicle through which human alienation from God is resolved. What we have missed is that core to this sacrifice is God’s commitment to Abram and its direct relationship to the Land.

God’s giving of the Land to Abram’s descendants doesn’t automatically resolve the difficult and complex problems of modern Israel and the West Bank. But being aware of the foundational claim of the Jewish people to the Land, the West Bank included, sure makes me feel a lot better about staying with my friend in Gilo.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version.

God’s Faithfulness

The words, "God's Faithfulness" superimposed on the first page of the book of Hosea

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I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily. (Hosea 14:4-5)

It was October 20, 2015 – the second night of my first Israel tour. Due to the unique nature of our itinerary, we were staying one night at the Ashkelon Holiday Inn, not a frequent tourist destination. This is likely why the person at the front desk especially thanked me for being there. Just getting to know the Israel tour experience myself, I didn’t realize how close we were to the Gaza Strip. The next morning our tour guide took us on a special side trip to the town of Sderot, even closer to Gaza, to help us understand the existential danger Israel lives with every day.

Back to the evening before, we had a meeting with my old friend Avner Boskey. I first met Avner in the late 70s in Montreal. It was he who introduced me to Messianic music, which was just emerging in those days – songs such as “The Trees of the Field” (the trees of the field will clap their hands, CLAP-CLAP!). Here we were almost forty years later, as he shared with us God’s ongoing concern for the Jewish people. He closed our time by playing a couple of songs for us. The final one was Psalm 117, which he had put to music way back when:

O praise the Lord, all ye nations
Praise him, all ye peoples
For his lovingkindness is great to us
His truth is everlasting

He didn’t know that I had incorporated his version into the Messianic Passover Seder that I had developed and led countless times for all sorts of congregations, groups, and our own family. It’s part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118), recited as part of major Jewish festivals.

So to sit there by Avner that night in Ashkelon, singing this song, was extremely precious to me on so many levels. But it was what he said right after that struck me. Until then I never realized what it was saying. He looked intently at our group and repeated the words: “Praise the Lord, all nations; praise him, all peoples. For his lovingkindness is great to us.” Then he said: “The nations are to praise the Lord, because of his faithfulness to us, the Jewish people.” Is that what I and others had been singing all those years? Is that what the inspired Psalm has been proclaiming for much longer than that? That is what it says.

I don’t think that Avner was aware that I entitled my tour, “God’s Faithfulness Then & Now” (as is our next tour in October 2020). Yet in that moment he shed so much light on this foundational biblical truth. The day before we had been to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and learned about the circumstances surrounding Israel’s declaration of independence and the war that followed. Against all odds, the fledgling state survived. And against all odds since then, it has not only  survived but thrived. For those among the nations who have eyes to see, God be praised indeed!

In my role as part-time, interim pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church, I just completed a four-part series on the prophet Hosea, the theme of which can be summarized as God’s faithfulness to an unfaithful people. There are two common misconceptions among Christians with regard to the people of Israel as they read the Bible. First, that Israel’s failure to live up to God’s standards results in not only their demise, but also in their complete rejection by God. Yet one certainly cannot derive such a thing from Hosea of all books. While his writing contains some of the most discouraging descriptions of Israel in the Bible, God’s commitment to them couldn’t be stated much stronger. The negative aspects of the book are best described as cynical (God’s saying: “I love you, I love you, come back to me – but I know you won’t, so you will face disaster). Yet it’s the intense darkness of this level of negativity that makes God’s unwavering faithfulness to Israel that much more vivid.

The second common misconception is that Israel’s unfaithfulness to God functions in the Bible as a way to demonstrate the results of bad behavior. That is partly true, but not in terms of “look at what they did,” which completely misrepresents a core aspect of Israel’s chosen-ness. Israel wasn’t chosen for its particular tendency toward failure. But rather, because it best reflects the nature of the whole world. Reading about Israel in the Bible was designed by God to be like looking in a mirror. Everyone should be able to see themselves in the lives and experiences of Israel. To distance oneself from Israel in the Bible is to refuse to accept one’s own nature.

When people fail to grasp Israel’s representative role among the nations, they cut themselves off from experiencing God’s faithfulness. It is only when we realize our desperate need of God’s rescuing power in our own lives that we are in a place to receive it. When we read Hosea or any other part of the Bible, we encounter God’s committed unwavering love for his people. If God won’t give up on Israel, he won’t give up on you now. And if he won’t give up on you, how much more will he not give up on Israel?

My sermon series on Hosea can be heard here.

 

Effectively Engaging Scripture: Torah, Law, & Covenant

The words, "Alan Gilman - Bible Teacher | Effectively Engaging Scripture: Torah, Law, & Covenant" superimposed on an open Hebrew Bible

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One of the most misunderstood concepts in the Bible is what is commonly referred to as “the Law.” Without a truly authentically biblical grasp of the meaning and place of the Law, we will never be able to engage Scripture as God intends. What the Law means, its purpose, and its relevancy if any, in the life of the believer in the present day has been controversial through the centuries. Some believe that the “new” in New Covenant necessitates a complete break with anything that comes before, especially if it has Moses’ name associated with it. On the other extreme, there are those who claim that if it’s anywhere in the Bible, then it must have direct application to us today. Both of these oversimplify the God-designed complexity of Scripture, thus preventing us from fully experiencing it as we should.

When Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), he had the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in mind. We know this since the New Covenant Writings (New Testament) were in its earliest stages of development. Paul here asserts that not only is Hebrew Scripture divinely inspired, it has been designed by God as our equipment for effective godly living. Any theological, philosophical, or practical approach that aims at disconnecting us from this section of Holy Scripture, cuts us off from God’s essential communication to us.

The Law as Negative?

But doesn’t Paul refer to the Law in negative terms, dissuading his readers from submitting to it in any way? For example: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Galatians 3:23). This and other passages depict the Law as relevant for only a time. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews apparently agrees: “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). This seems to be in line with Yeshua’s own teaching, whether the six times in the Sermon on the Mount, when he says “You heard it was said, but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21-48), his teaching on the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:35–40, Mark 12:28–34, Luke 10:25-28), or the new commandment (John 13:31-35).

How can Paul assert the usefulness of the Hebrew Scriptures, while at the same time appear to call his readers to distance themselves from it? This apparent contradiction is resolved once we understand the breadth of the Scriptures’ teaching on this matter.

Translation Issues and Word Usage

We will begin by looking at the Hebrew and Greek words normally translated into English as “law.” Then we will discuss the relationship of law to the concept of covenant. While confusing at first, I am sure that the closer we look, the more straightforward this will become. My hope is that you will discover how Hebrew Scripture, including the Law, functions within a New Covenant context.

One of, if not the, reason why this subject is confusing is that the term for “law” in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Covenant Writings is used in different ways in different contexts. The term “law” in the English Bible is a translation of the Hebrew word, “torah.” But torah actually means, “direction” or “teaching.” The reason why English Bibles use law is because the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Septuagint (often referred to as LXX), used the word “nomos,” meaning, as you might guess, law. The Greek word nomos and English word law are not completely wrong. Law is a normal word for rules and directions, whether they be humanly derived or divinely inspired. However, it isn’t the most helpful in that it tends to give the impression of a cold legal code, while God’s torah is far more dynamic and engaging. As it is embedded within the story of Israel, we are meant to understand God’s directives as part of real-life experiences, thus providing the reader, then and now, with more than a list of rules, but rather an extensive understanding of life. This is why it is better to take “torah” to mean more than simply law, but rather God’s instruction.

Just as it is common to refer to a collection of laws as “the Law” so, the word torah, depending on context, may be a reference to a particular directive or the whole collection, the Torah. Another use of Torah as a collective term is how it acts as a title for the first five books of the Bible. That’s because these books are associated with the giving of the Torah (beginning with Genesis as a sort of prologue, followed by Exodus through Deuteronomy).

Because the word “torah” means direction or teaching, not simply legal statements, any correct understanding of God’s directives, in part or as a whole is also torah. So, in the broadest sense of the word, torah refers to all that God has revealed throughout the entire Bible as well as legitimate interpretations. That doesn’t mean every aspect of God’s torah is applicable to every person in every place at every time. We will look at how to approach this broad understanding of torah shortly, but first, we need to note one more key usage of the word that will make all the difference to this discussion.

Torah as Covenant

God’s Torah was given to Israel within a covenantal system at Mt. Sinai. Such a covenant functions as a national constitution, a high-level control system within which the details of life are stipulated. Because the covenant is the system within which torah functions, the covenant is also called Torah.

So far we have seen that Torah can be a particular human rule, good or bad, or it can be a directive of God. It can be used in a collective sense as a way to refer to all of what God instructs, be it the specifics through Moses or the full body of scriptural teaching and interpretations. Torah is a way to refer to the first five books of the Bible. And finally, it is intimately associated with the system or covenant within which God revealed his instruction to Israel.

The New Covenant Writings are aware of all these uses (I provide one example per use here; for a thorough word study, see https://biblehub.com/greek/3551.htm). Like Hebrew, the Greek word nomos can mean laws in general, humanly or divinely derived (Romans 3:27); God’s directives as given by Moses (Matthew 5:18); the books of the Torah (Matthew 7:12); God’s timeless directives (James 2:8); or the Sinai covenant (Galatians 3:23).

Paul’s concern over not being “under the law,” has to do with Torah as covenant. This is similar to regarding it as obsolete in the Book of Hebrews. Both writers are addressing for different reasons that there has been a change of the system governing God’s instruction. Hebrews clarifies this by stating: “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law (nomos/torah) as well” (Hebrews 7:12). The Levitical priesthood was a core constitutional component of the Sinai Covenant. The change in priesthood from the descendants of Moses’s brother Aaron to the eternal priesthood of the Messiah radically transforms the covenantal system.

For Paul, this covenantal change had enormous implications for his God-given mission to the non-Jewish world. The Sinai Covenant constituted the people of God exclusively as natural Israel. The New Covenant as promised by Jeremiah (see 31:31-33) and instituted by the Messiah allowed for the God of Israel to be fully embraced by the nations without submitting to an Israel-centric system.

Torah and New Covenant

The reconstitution of the people of God under the New Covenant doesn’t dismantle natural Israel as some might think, however. Israel as a distinct nation was eternally established by God through his earlier covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What’s changed is that the intimacy with God which Sinai sought to bring about but failed due to Israel’s unfaithfulness is now available to all nations through the New Covenant as established by the Messiah.

This helps us to understand what was going on in Acts chapter 15. The controversy over whether or not non-Jewish believers in Yeshua had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses was a covenantal question. In those early days of the Messianic community, some thought that there was to be absolute continuity with the Sinai Covenant. They didn’t yet understand the full implications of constitutional change. It would be years before the change of priesthood spoken of in Hebrews would be vividly demonstrated by the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Sinai sacrificial system. Still, Paul demonstrated with agreement from Peter, James, and the others, that with the dawning of the Messianic age in Yeshua, the truth of God and his instruction (torah) could be exported to the nations without making non-Jews subject to the old Sinai Covenant.

This meant that Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Yeshua would grapple with God’s inspired written word (the Hebrew Scriptures exclusively in those days) within the New Covenant system. It would necessitate determining what of God’s directives were universal and timeless, which ones, if any, were for Jewish people only, and which ones were rendered obsolete by the change of covenant. The New Covenant Writings help in this regard but provide no easy formula. They help because we see the implications of the teaching of Hebrew Scripture throughout (even though many readers are not aware of this). And yet, there is no clear indication, contrary to what some may think, as to how to classify God’s directives into ancient Israel only vs. relevant to the worldwide New Covenant community. This means each generation and cultural context needs to discern by careful study and the help of the Holy Spirit how the Hebrew Scriptures speak to us today. But that they do, there is no doubt.

Jeremiah captures the essence of torah’s continued relevancy in his prophesy of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33). While the New Covenant was not to be like the old one, under the New Covenant, God would cause torah be internalized. Not only would this result in his people having passionate willingness to obey God’s directives, his directives themselves would be understood to the depths of their intent. This is what Yeshua was preparing his followers for when he said, “You heard it was said, but I say to you” mentioned above. He wasn’t contradicting God’s directives as revealed in the Torah. He was contradicting popular thought by providing God’s own perspective on his word. God always intended his word to be followed from deep within our beings. Under the Sinai Covenant this wasn’t possible because sin (that which twists human beings away from God) had not yet been dealt with. It would take Yeshua’s sacrifice and overcoming of death to open the way to a new system within which God would be intimately known and his instruction (torah) to be followed from the heart.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version