Advent—A Messianic Jewish Reflection

Mogen David over an Advent themeAs a Jewish boy growing up in Montreal, Christmas was a very joyous holiday of happy children being showered with toys. At least that was my impression watching television, since I didn’t have any direct experience with the matter. I remember the classic Christmas specials, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snow Man.” Jesus, Himself, meant nothing to me, since he had nothing to do with our people—or so I thought. I vividly remember my mother’s violent reaction to my saying that I wish we weren’t Jewish, so we could celebrate Christmas, my interest being solely wrapped up in the presents. The fact that Christians were “them” and we Jews were “us” was burnt into my heart that day.

It was shortly before my 19th birthday, in September 1976, that I was first introduced to the authentic Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Key misunderstandings about the Bible, God, and Jesus were corrected that day as the Lord began his transformative work in me. Since then, the Bible has been core to my life as the definitive interpretive lens through which I see the world.

In God’s providence through the years, as he has taken our large family back and forth across Canada, we have been enriched by being a part of several believing communities. In most of these settings, the traditional Church calendar wasn’t a prominent feature. In fact, it was my role as pulpit supply preacher and then interim pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church (between fall of 2018 until this past spring) that made occasions such as Advent expected observances that required my attention.

Prior to my delving into Advent for the first time, I assumed that it was not much more than a lead-up to Christmas.

I approach Christian tradition in a manner similar to how I approach Jewish tradition. In fact, it is an approach that I use for all of life as best as I can. Whatever is clearly directed by God, my heart is to do it; if it’s forbidden, I try to avoid it; if it is neither commanded nor forbidden, I seek God for wisdom on how best to engage it, if at all. Having been a believer in a wide variety of contexts, both geographically and denominationally for over 46 years, I am deeply aware of the wide range of sentiments among different Christian communities. As I attempt to put God and his Word first, I also want to be sensitive to my brothers and sisters, however they may express their faith in Jesus.

This is all to say that for something like Advent, I don’t carry a great deal of sentimentality. Since it is extremely foreign to my upbringing and not central within my congregational settings, there are no emotions attached. But when called upon to minister God’s word within a community to which it is important, I attempt to face the task in a biblically sound and historically accurate way.

Prior to my delving into Advent for the first time, I assumed that it was not much more than a lead-up to Christmas. Isn’t that what Advent calendars are all about, for example? And as far as Christmas, itself, was concerned, while Canadian believers clearly acknowledge the reality of Jesus’ birth at this time of year, its celebration appears to be more about other things than the Lord and His coming.

The term means “arrival,” but in a much more holistic way than simply celebrating the Messiah’s birth.

With my preconceived notions in mind, I was delighted to discover how rich Advent actually is. The term means “arrival,” but in a much more holistic way than simply celebrating the Messiah’s birth. Christians tend to refer to Jesus’s first and second comings as two related but distinct events. But scripturally speaking, Messiah’s advent is one complex event, beginning with His incarnation as a baby in Bethlehem and culminating with His eventual triumphal appearing. When encountering messianic prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures, the anticipation of Messiah is expressed in a way that gives the impression that upon His arrival He would complete His entire mission at once.

This reasonable impression led to much misunderstanding within the Jewish community of the First Century, His followers included. Some assumed that the defeat of evil, specifically through the overthrow of the oppressive Roman regime, would be the proof of messianic identity. Jesus’s lack of explicit political rhetoric, His failure to raise up an army, and His tendency to criticize the religious establishment was confusing to His followers and distressing to others. No one anticipated that the messianic mission was going to be accomplished through a lengthy process over time, beginning with Messiah’s offering Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice for sin. Neither did they foresee the need for His followers to extend his reign throughout the earth until the time of His return.

Advent and Christmas are designed to be reminders of the Messianic Age in which we now live.

The four-week period of Advent anticipates it all, not only the incarnation. The Advent themes of hope, peace, love, and joy are more than holiday niceties, geared to prepare our hearts to welcome the Christ Child. They are reflections of the essence of messianic triumph. Hope is the positive expectation we have as a result of Jesus’ coming. Peace is the restoration of all things united under Messiah’s rule. Love is the bursting forth of God’s generosity through the gift of His Son who has promised to be with us forever. Joy is the effervescence of vitality bubbling forth due to Messiah’s victory along with our intimate relationship with Him through faith.

Both Advent and Christmas are more than celebratory occasions in and of themselves. They are designed to be reminders of the Messianic Age in which we now live. As we await the culmination of His mission, we mustn’t allow the vast number of disruptions, restrictions, and disappointments of the past couple of years to distract us from the reality of His ongoing presence and power. Messiah has come!

Originally published in Spur Ottawa, November 24, 2022. Republished with permission.

Progress, but in What Direction?


Phillips Cassette Recorder, 1963

Phillips Cassette Recorder, 1963

I have always been fascinated by the latest innovations. Perhaps I got this from my father. I remember being one of the first people I knew with a Phillips cassette recorder, introduced in 1963. I also remember how fascinated I was by computerized tic tac toe at the Bell Telephone pavilion at Expos 67. Gaming has sure changed since then. The same pavilion also had a demonstration of an AT&T picturephone, where you talked to a person in the next room on a phone while seeing their

Bell Telephone Pavilion, Expo 67, Montreal

Bell Telephone Pavilion, Expo 67, Montreal

black and white image on a small screen. It took much longer than we expected for such a thing to become mainstream, though we didn’t expect we’d be doing so on pocket-sized devices millions of times more powerful than the Apollo 11 guidance computers. We have certainly seen many innovations come and go in the past decades.

AT&T Picturephone videophone, 1969

AT&T Picturephone videophone, 1969

Technological innovation is a byproduct of progress. Progress is something we take for granted, but it’s actually philosophically rooted in in eighteenth century thought. Philosophical progress is the notion that human beings are getting better and better over time. This concept flourished in the nineteenth century but was rejected by many in the subsequent century with its two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the nuclear bomb (see

I am not convinced that philosophical progress has been completely rejected. It

Will the Future Be Human? - Yuval Harari, World Economic Forum, January 2018

Will the Future Be Human? – Yuval Harari, World Economic Forum, January 2018

certainly didn’t put the brakes on technological progress. Far from it! The motto of technological progress appears to be, “if you can do it, do it.” Where we are at today technologically may very soon be considered as nothing compared to what is coming. For example, some think that transhumanism, the combination of people and technology, will be the next leap in human evolution (

Cover of Gift of the Jews by Thomas CahillIn early times humans took for granted that existence was cyclical. Not only were humans not progressing, there was no sense of development whatsoever. Just like the seasons of the year come and go, all life humanity included, simply repeated itself in an endless cycle. Not so in Jewish thought, however. As documented in Thomas Cahill’s 1998 book “The Gifts of the Jews,” the Jewish people through the Scriptures introduced to the world the idea of human history as something that is actually moving forward in a purposeful direction. I like to summarize the Bible’s basic storyline as God’s rescue operation of creation. The Jewish idea of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world), is the biblically derived call to join God in this.

While life itself isn’t a meaninglessly cycle, there is a cyclical component to it. This is especially reflected in the Jewish High Holidays. As described most fully in the third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus, chapter 23, the three festivals of this time of year are a progression in themselves. Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is a day of remembrance marked by the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn). This begins a ten-day period of reflection culminating in the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kipper/the Day of Atonement, a time of national humility and repentance. Then, five days later is the week-long harvest thanksgiving festival, Sukkot or Booths. The progression here is that the shofar calls us to stop from the busy-ness of the season and remember what life is really all about. This prepares us to make ourselves right with God and others. Only then are we in a position to express gratitude for our blessings.

Despite the moving forward of history, the High Holidays give us the opportunity to stop and recalibrate our lives. We think we keep improving as we supposedly progress toward the future, but have we? Or have we done nothing more than be molded by popular thought? As the struggles and disappointments of the years pile up, how often have we chosen to soothe self over doing what is right?

Maurycy Gottlieb. Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. Vienna. 1878

Maurycy Gottlieb. Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. Vienna. 1878

Many can testify that simply going through the motions of the high holidays doesn’t necessarily ensure that we have effectively examined ourselves. Some of us don’t want to. We may be too afraid to discover what is really inside us.

In the heritage of our people, forgotten by many if not most, is a divine resource available to help us through this process. The Master of the Universe is actually keener than we are to help us recalibrate our lives. Matters of God have been so confused by the forms and rituals of humanly derived traditions. I don’t doubt that the developers of the High Holiday services were seeking to get to the heart of the matter. If the ancient liturgy is both meaningful and helpful to you, that’s great. But it seems to me, we need something more.

The past few years have seriously affected so many of us. People are discouraged and depressed. Life has become nothing more than survival. And now, we hear COVID is over maybe, but don’t count on it. Something worse is probably coming soon, not to mention the inevitability of the climate crisis. But life is meaningless anyway, right? What difference does anything make any more? Either we are heading down the path to Armageddon or falling into the precipice of absolute despair. Progress, really? Tell me about it.

I understand why it might be difficult to believe that there’s a positive plan of God working in the midst of all this. That difficulty is at least partly due to our having lived in what is perhaps the most prosperous, healthy, and peaceful period in all of history. Then, it’s as if overnight we now face inflation such as we haven’t seen in forty years, unexplained excess deaths, and the possibility of nuclear war.

The purpose of the High Holidays was never tied to how good or bad the state of the world or our personal lives might be. The act of remembering what life is really all about was designed to anchor us amidst the constantly shifting conditions of life. Scripture demonstrates that God enters into the most severe conditions of life. From the exodus to the Messiah’s resurrection, we are a people in need of rescue and to whom rescue is available. We may not be able to change the circumstances of life, but we can experience God’s rescuing power. However, we cannot do so if we insist on progressing in the wrong direction.

The biblical concept of t’shuvah, repentance, is that act of acknowledging we have been going the wrong way and deciding to turn to God. It doesn’t matter how bad it gets, the sound of the shofar at this time of year reminds us that God’s rescuing power is available to us still. The way things are is not the way they must be. It’s never too late to make necessary changes in life.

Watch Alan Gilman play the shofar by clicking on the image below:

YouTube player

The Impending Storm

Message title on a field with a single leafless tree and a dark stormy background

A major regret of mine from the past couple of years has been my lack of understanding of what’s been going on in the world. I know I am not alone in being confused, though you may not share my regret. Perhaps there are some who are reading this who are convinced they have a handle on the various dynamics influencing our day. Or you may think it’s no big deal.

Yeshua seems to think it is. Listen to his strong words on this subject:

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:54-56)

The Messiah here is criticizing the crowds for not being able to properly understand their social climate. Before delving into what this is all about, note that in this instance he is speaking to the general population, not leaders, be they religious or political. Elsewhere he targets leaders specifically, not here. Here, he is talking to common folk..

Yeshua begins by affirming people’s ability to predict the weather. We moderns arrogantly tend to think of ancient peoples as completely ignorant of scientific matters. It is we who possess highly sophisticated instruments and systems enabling us to make accurate predictions. What did they have? Nothing but superstition? Seemingly not. According to Yeshua, their observations of earth and sky provided them with sufficient information to prepare for upcoming weather conditions.

God endowed human beings with a high level of analytical ability. From earliest times, we have been able to assess both opportunity and danger in order to plan accordingly. Whether or not this was done perfectly is besides the point. The same ability that enabled us to effectively engage our environment in ancient times has also spurred us on to improve upon what we have learned along the way.

However more advanced we may be in our day, Yeshua clearly affirms human ability to observe and understand environmental conditions. It is on the basis of this affirmation that he criticizes the crowds. He expects that this proven analytical ability should also be active in determining an effective understanding of social climate. Not only does he chastise the crowds for their inability to interpret the times they are in, but he also accuses them of being hypocrites as a result.

Hypocrite is derived from the Greek, “hypocriteis,” meaning “actor” or “pretender.” Why English translators of the New Testament prefer the loan word, hypocrite, over actor or pretender, I don’t know. It would add impact to Yeshua’s confrontation of some of the Jewish religious leaders of his day. To use such a word, not only calls out how fake they were, but likens them to pagan stage performers.

We are used to public authority types being called hypocrites, but why does Yeshua call the crowds, the common folk, “actors” or “pretenders”? How does their (our?) ability to understand the weather but not the social climate make them hypocrites? Using it for religious leaders makes sense, especially when they present themselves as righteous and godly, when it’s nothing more than a big act. But how is it acting or pretending to effectively predict weather but not properly understand the times in which we live? It’s not as if they (or we) are pretending to understand what’s going on in the socio-political realm. There may have been people who were doing that, just like there are such people today. I may not be able to call out political and media types for purposely misrepresenting the truth, although they exist. But that’s not what Yeshua is referring to here.

Remember, he first affirms people’s ability to predict the weather. The accusation of hypocrisy is due to their having this ability while not being able to interpret the times they were in. Here’s my explanation: From the beginning, God had given human beings the responsibility to care for Planet Earth. By making humans in his image, God gave us the ability to do that effectively, which would include having the necessary insight to do so. That God has given us this ability is evident in our interpreting the weather. It’s a gift of God to humanity that we can observe phenomenon and notice recurring patterns to the extent that over time we can anticipate outcomes. If we have this God-given ability to understand weather patterns, how much more should we be using it to understand social patterns.

In Yeshua’s day, there were various social patterns leading to a most devastating religious and political storm. Yet, people, not just leaders, were acting as if this was not the case. It’s not as if the Jewish people in first century Israel were completely unaware that things were not good. The exile from Babylon ended centuries before under the Persian king Cyrus. While this was a direct fulfillment of prophecy most of the other associated predictions had not come to pass. The biblical prophets had appeared to suggest that along with this return would be great spiritual revitalization of the people and an all-encompassing overflow effect on the whole world led by the Messiah. But instead, Israel continued to be under foreign oppression, a tell-tale sign that all was not right between them and God.

Not only was life under the Romans difficult, it was based on compromise. This was chiefly reflective in the relationship between the temple priesthood and Rome. Israel’s religious system was to be under God not Caesar. Yet it was Rome that appointed the priestly leadership in Yeshua’s day. This is one of the reasons for the Pharisees’ disdain for the priestly class, the Sadducees. The Pharisees were rightly concerned for issues of purity and holiness, but in their zeal they added a great many requirements that were overly burdensome for the people, thus making God’s actual requirements onerous for the common person. Then there were the Zealots, who believed that Rome could only be overcome by force, while others, like the Essenes, gave up on everyone and everything else, setting up their own communities in the wilderness, seeing themselves as the only faithful God followers.

These conflicting interests, including Rome’s agenda, created a ticking timebomb. Yeshua attempted to call people to the type of faithful obedience and loving humility that is essential for godly living. But instead, the divisions, the self-righteousness, the compromise, and the party politics would lead to the destruction of the temple and a two-millennia-long exile.

According to Yeshua, the common people should have known better. They had been given both the ability and the responsibility to recognize the social conditions that were leading the nation down a most destructive path. In addition, the people of Israel had also been gifted with the Scriptures. All peoples have been equipped and assigned by God to make wise determinations, but only Israel had been entrusted with God’s special insight regarding all of life. They had no excuse in failing to understand their times.

And neither do we. In fact, if the common people of first century Israel deserved this harsh critique, how more so do we? We have the benefit of an additional two thousand years of history and experience. We have seen many more societal patterns than they did. We also have access to an incomparable amount of documentation and analysis. By now we should be able to figure out what’s going on.

For many this is a far too arduous task. Few believe they have the time or knowhow to give this the consideration it deserves. Too many of us are too quick to pick a side. We choose some self-identified expert to speak on our behalf without taking personal responsibility to discern what is actually going on. Moreover, we are discouraged from thinking for ourselves by the polarized mobs who seek to shame those who don’t agree with them. Our political leadership uses this against the population for their own agendas. Religious leadership is often too afraid to take a stand lest they cause division in their congregations. Whatever may be preventing us from making thoughtful determinations with regard to the current social climate, Yeshua says we are hypocrites for not doing so.

This is why I do the Thinking Biblically podcast. Through biblical teaching and interviews, I want to help you think through how the Bible provides God-given insight into how to effectively engage the world in which we live. Far more than we realize, the Bible shines light on the darkest corners of both societal issues and our individual lives. As we open our hearts to all of God’s Word, he will equip us to navigate these ever-increasing troubled times.

Yeshua’s critique of the crowds should encourage us, because it confronts us with God’s expectation of human beings. We were made to understand what is going on. With God’s help we can do this. I hope you will join me in this endeavor.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

A Hanukkah Love Story

A Hanukkah Love Story

Illustration of Hanukkiah with greeting and heartThe festival of Hanukkah (which began this year Sunday evening, November 28 and continues through Monday, December 6) commemorates the brave stand of a small faithful minority against powerful foreign oppressors supported by a large portion of the Jewish nation about a century and a half before the coming of the Messiah.

The oppressive tyrannical spirit at work in those days was pushed back but not obliterated by the Maccabees. Throughout history, people of God have faced the painful pressure of coerced compliance at the hands of ungodly authority. Sadly and too often people, who should have known better, compromised the very values they claimed to hold dear.

I am currently working through the book of 1 Kings in my personal Bible reading and discovered something I hadn’t noticed before – an insight into a core dynamic that fuels compromise. I recently had the opportunity to share this with a group of pastors I meet with weekly over Zoom. I am sharing a version of my presentation with you all now.

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There are some stories I find so tragic that whenever I encounter the “big wrong decision” that happens every time I read, hear, or watch it for the—who knows how many times—I always shout (in my head or out loud): “No, don’t do it!”—as if that would make a difference. Two big ones are: when Frodo keeps the ring near the end of the Lord of the Rings (sorry for the spoiler) and the other is when Kings Solomon’s life goes off the rails. The book of 1 Kings chronicles how God gifts him as the wisest man who ever lived and blesses him with unsurpassed wealth and influence. The result is that in a relatively short time, Israel becomes a spiritual and economic powerhouse. And yet, he throws it all away by turning to the false gods of his many foreign wives. I am reading 1 Kings 11:1–8.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had wives, who were princesses, and concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods (1 Kings 11:1–8).

Solomon’s slide began with his ignoring of God’s Torah directives.

When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold (Deuteronomy 17:14–17).

While I don’t know anyone who can relate to Solomon’s extravagance, not to mention 700 wives and 300 concubines, that’s beside the point. Failure to stay true to God’s word will always led to trouble.

Yet, there is a dynamic illustrated here that is instructive for us all, no matter how many horses or spouses we may have, and that is, like Solomon…we all have a tendency to compromise for that which we love. As written in 1 Kings 11:4 that “his wives turned away his heart after other gods.”

When we love someone or something—whether they are good or bad—our hearts are drawn towards them. The danger of this may be more obvious when we love something illicit, but it’s not the nature of the person or thing that leads us down the path of compromise. It’s the love we have for it or him or her or them. This is why Yeshua said:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

You may have heard explanations, such as, he didn’t actually mean hate. It’s that our love for him should be so great that our love for others, even family, should seem like hate by comparison. But I don’t think that captures the radical allegiance called for by Yeshua’s words here. If it did, it would beg the question: how much more than others must we love the Lord to meet this standard? Lots? Lots and lots?

I understand this typical “degree of love” explanation, since it should be abundantly clear that the Lord doesn’t mean that we are to actually hate our family members. If he told us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), how much more those closest to us. Pauls writes in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as the Messiah (Christ) loved the church and gave himself up for her.” So then, what other option might there be besides a matter of degree?

Note, there is no mention of love in Luke 14:26, though there are other perhaps similar statements that do mention love. For example:

No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:13).

This may underscore the actual issue Yeshua is addressing. You may be aware that, money is not in itself evil, but the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil (see 1 Timothy 6:10).

Some of the confusion is over the word “hate.” There is a tendency to think of hate as an emotion of disgust, which it can be. I am sure we all have feelings about certain foods, for example. But while hate may include disgust, that’s not its essence of its meaning. Hate is actually a couldn’t-care-less sort of response. It needn’t have emotion attached to it. It’s expressed in neglect. Check out the context of “love your neighbor as yourself” in Leviticus 19:18. In the immediately preceding verse, neglecting to speak frankly to our neighbors about serious life issues is defined as hating them.

So then is Jesus instructing us to neglect our loved ones? Of course not. But when allegiance to him clashes with allegiance to them, what are we going to do? Are we going to be like Solomon who, out of love to his wives, turned his back on God and his word? Or will we choose to disappoint the ones we love and follow the one whom we claim to call “Lord”?

The cost of hating our loved ones in this sense can be great. Luke 14:26 continues with: Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27).

Hanukkah is a good time to ask ourselves the question: Where does our allegiance lie? Are we putting the Lord and his Word first? Or are we caught like Solomon between conflicting loves?

Check out my Hanukkah discussion with Messianic scholar Dr. Mark Kinzer:

YouTube player

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

The Indivisible Scriptures (repost)

Note: I am reposting this article from August 2018, because it addresses one of the main reasons why I am offering my Old Testament course online this month. Register now here.

Hebrew and Greek biblical manuscripts side by side

Hebrew & Greek biblical manuscripts

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35)

This past spring, popular megaplex church leader, Andy Stanley, presented a three-part sermon series, entitled “Aftermath,” described on his church’s website as: “Jesus’ resurrection launched a series of events that introduced the world to his new covenant and new hope. But old ways don’t easily give way. Not then. Not now.” In part three of the series  Stanley claims that the early Jewish believers called for a sharp disconnect between the fledgling New Covenant community and the Hebrew Scriptures. Much can be said to critique Stanley’s approach and many of his specific statements, but what I wish to demonstrate here is that his attempt to undermine the ongoing authority of the whole Bible is not new. From the ancient heretic Marcion, who claimed the New Testament “god” was different from the Old Testament “god” to the Nazi-inspired “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life” to Andy Stanley’s attempt to make Christianity “irresistible,” there have been all sorts of intentional schemes to tear the Hebrew Scriptures away from Christianity. While many believers immediately reject such anti-biblical ideologies, you may be surprised to discover how common negative views of the Old Testament really are.

Two gods?

Do you find how God is depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures overly harsh? If so, you may be further along the road to Marcionism than you may realize. Refusal to accept that the God who commanded Joshua to exterminate the nations of Canaan is the same God who through Jesus blessed little children and offers you forgiveness, then you may actually believe in two (non-existent) gods. The one God of the entire Bible may be difficult to understand, but not impossible. God himself succinctly expressed his complex and integrated character to Moses:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)

“Merciful and gracious… but who will by no means clear the guilty.” God is both merciful and just. From Genesis to Revelation, God is always and forever consistent with himself.

Breaking an essential bond

We break the connection between Old and New Testaments every time we create illegitimate contrasts between them. For example, when Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said to those of old” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43), are taken to mean “You have heard that it was written to those of old,” that assumes that Jesus is contradicting, not interpreting, Moses. Is not twisting “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law (Torah) or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17) into abolishing the Torah and the Prophets an attempt to unhitch the New from the Old? And this is in spite of what Jesus says in the second half of that same verse: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”? “Fulfill” here cannot mean “to put an end to.” Rather, it indicates Jesus’s intention to demonstrate bringing the Hebrew Scriptures to their fulness by truly living them out and to equip others to do the same.

This would be a good place for me to clarify that there are indeed contrasts between the Testaments. How Scripture is to be understood and applied must be in light of our living in the Messianic age – these days of the New Covenant since Jesus’s coming. The Levitical sacrificial system is no longer in force nor is the Israelite theocracy, even though the sacrifice of the Messiah and his kingly role are central. The homogeneous makeup of Israel as the people of God has been extended to the ingrafting of the nations without the need of initiation rites. Yet this reconstitution of God’s covenant relationship to his people should not lead us to assume a casting away of the foundational function of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the unconditional, eternal promises to Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But doesn’t John chapter one, verse seventeen, for example, distance the New Testament from the Old? It reads: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” This wording is found in the King James Bible and many other, though not all, popular English versions. But the “but” isn’t in the Greek. It was added in these translations, because the translators deemed it to be implied. The problem is that the implication may be more due to prejudice towards the Hebrew Scriptures than sound scholarship.

The addition of “but” in this verse fuels the law vs. grace false dichotomy. Christians have often taken Paul’s insistence on faith being the sole basis of God’s acceptance as necessarily devaluing the books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul was certainly concerned about an aspect of rabbinic teaching that regarded the embracing of Torah, not faith, as the sign of genuine covenant relationship with God. According to this traditional view, only born Jews and converts to Judaism can truly fulfill that role. The New Covenant opens the door to non-Jews to find full acceptance by God outside of the community of Israel. The term “law” in such contexts is a reference to the rabbinic system they erroneously assumed to be based on Torah, rather than the contents of the Books of Moses themselves.

Grace isn’t an exclusively New Covenant concept. Paul demonstrates that right relationship with God has always been established on the basis of grace through faith. The term, “grace,” is to be understood as God’s enabling power freely given to those who trust him, as reflected through all those who have been faithful to him from Abel onwards. The  contrast between Moses and Jesus in John 1:17 is one of degree and application, hearkening back to Jesus’s words from Matthew about “fulfillment.” Grace doesn’t nullify the essential role of the Hebrew Scriptures. On the contrary, we can’t fully understand grace apart from it. Through Jesus the satanic oppression of sin is broken, thus enabling anyone anywhere to know the God of Israel and be filled with his Spirit. What was experienced by a few in a relatively small region of the world is now accessible to all everywhere through the New Covenant.

The Law as negative

Another way some disconnect the Hebrew Scriptures from the New Testament is even though they passionately value God’s Law, they do so only in a negative sense by focusing exclusively on how it demonstrates our need for God. Doesn’t Paul make a case for this?

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)

The Torah’s function in illuminating the human sin problem is core, but is that it? Is this all that’s behind these words from Paul to Timothy?

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).

Are we made “complete” (meaning “mature”) and “equipped for every good work” by the Hebrew Scriptures showing us nothing but how sinful we are? You might think that’s why Paul told the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13) that Israel’s failure in the wilderness should act as an example – a bad example – to them. If so, you may have negative prejudicial glasses on. Israel did act badly. But how do we know this was ungodly behavior except that the Books of Moses plus commentary from the Psalms inform us of such? Paul’s goal for the Corinthians wasn’t only that they wouldn’t follow the bad example. It was that they would act in the desired godly manner as revealed in these Torah stories. The effectiveness of these examples is that they reflect the reality of life and God’s will regardless of the time period.

This is what Paul is talking about when he reminds Timothy that “all Scripture” is essential for godly living – “all Scripture” meaning, as it did in the entire early church, the Hebrew Bible, since there was no New Testament yet. Not only did Paul regard the Hebrew Scriptures as effective, they were also sufficient. This may be difficult for many Christians to accept, due to how much they are ignored, with or without the negative sentiments I have outlined. This in no way downplays the inspiration and authority of the New Testament. Rather it emphasizes how foundational and effective the Hebrew Scriptures were (and should still be) for believers.

The “Old” Testament

Then there’s the title itself, “the Old Testament.” You likely have never thought about how this way of referring to it devalues it. First, Old rather than New automatically sounds negative to modern ears as in “Tired of the same Old Testament? Try the new and improved one!” Of course, that might be due to we moderns’ overly positive take on progress. Be that as it may, it doesn’t accurately describe this sacred collection. It’s misleading, in fact. While the Old Covenant (“testament” being another word for “covenant”) given through Moses at Mt. Sinai plays a central role in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s revelation of truth in these writings isn’t limited to the covenantal arrangement itself.

There are obvious passages that are outside of the Sinai covenant. All of Genesis through Exodus chapter nineteen precede it. The Book of Job doesn’t have covenantal references nor do some of the prophetic messages given to non-Jewish nations. Even within the narrative context of the Sinai covenant itself and its specific directives (commandments), we discover universal truths about God and life that both predate and outlive it. This is why I prefer to use the term, “Hebrew Scriptures.”

The New Testament’s dependency on the Hebrew Scriptures

Finally, contrary to popular misconception, the New Testament doesn’t stand on its own. This is not to say that it can’t or should never be read on its own. It’s that it understands itself as being based on the Hebrew Scriptures. Not only is it filled with hundreds of direct quotes from, and allusions to, the older writings, the concepts of God, righteousness, sin, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, Messiah, the Holy Spirit, and on and on, are all deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. To read the New Testament apart from its scriptural context is to leave it open to great abuse and manipulation. To unhitch the Hebrew Scriptures from our faith is to cut ourselves loose from God himself.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

The Bible : A real shot in the arm

A woman wearing a medical mask and reading the Bible

2020 has been quite the year. As we start a new year, many of us thought that the dark days of the pandemic would have been behind us by now, not that we would anticipating many months (at least!) before it’s over.

I have been thinking something a physician said to me days before our region’s first COVID-19 lockdown last March. He said, “This is a secular society’s response to a crisis like this.” A secular society is one in which the things of God are confined to the personal sphere, having been deemed to be irrelevant to the public realm.

A secular society is a closed box in which outside forces are not welcome.

A secular society has no hope outside of chance and human ingenuity.

A secular society is alone.

I have watched as political leaders assert that it is ultimately their responsibility to keep people safe. I have seen how the doctors and scientists are the new clergy, while the media are their prophets of doom. I have been struck (pun intended) by how messianic expectation has been placed in vaccines. The response of a secular society to such a crisis indeed!

The Bible gives us a different perspective—not that we shouldn’t use our intelligence and tools to alleviate suffering—not that we shouldn’t respect those in authority within reasonable limits—not that we shouldn’t do our best to keep people safe from dangerous threats—but the Bible’s perspective is that we are not alone. Therefore, we shouldn’t live as if we are alone.

The Bible’s perspective is that COVID-19 is but another symptom of our broken world. The Bible’s perspective is that we are to be wise, but without fear, as we trust in the One who has destroyed the power of death. The Bible’s perspective is that the cause behind pandemics is that which has caused every other ill, be they medical, relational, or societal. Human rebellion against God, resulting in living in a cursed creation is at the root of it all. The Bible’s perspective is that the curse has been broken through the resurrection of the Messiah. If we put our trust in him, we can live life free from the curse’s effects, including COVID-19. That doesn’t mean that you and I won’t get sick or die. What it does mean, however, is that our lives need not be controlled by COVID or anything else, except for God.

This freedom doesn’t come easily. Everything around us shouts at us to surrender to the threat of the curse. Every fear or distraction reminds us that we are part of this world. It can take all our energy to focus on God’s truth in these dark times. This is why we need to engage God’s word, as it is written: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The Bible inoculates us from the infection of deceit and the sickness of despair. But for the Bible to work, we need to ingest it on its own terms. This includes fully embracing it.

Sadly, the foundations of biblical truth are too often neglected by too many people. When Paul wrote Timothy that all Scripture is God-breathed and equips us to live effective godly lives (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17), he was referring to the Old Testament. Without good understanding of this essential part of Scripture, we are ill equipped to navigate the deceitful and sin-sick world in which we live.

This is why, as we begin 2021, I am offering my Old Testament Survey course online for the first time. Each Wednesday starting January 13 at 7 pm Eastern Time for twenty weeks I will help you understand the Old Testament’s purpose and how it informs our relationship to God, each other, and the world.

The course is free, but you need to register. You can do so now by going to If you have any trouble accessing the form, email me at

Unleashing the Old Testament

Updated June 29, 2021Woman pulling back the pages of the Bible like a curtain

Full course now available here: YouTube Playlist

Course resource page (handouts, etc.)

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Let me ask a question: Does faith in Jesus as Messiah depend on the New Testament or the Old Testament? I would guess that most people would say either the New Testament or both. But that’s not really correct. The answer is the Old Testament. I’ll tell you why.

Before I explain, there is nothing in what I have to say that in anyway undermines the truth, authority, and power of the books of the New Testament. On the contrary, what I share here will hopefully increase your respect for it.

The prime purpose of the New Testament is the proclamation of the good news of the Messiah and its implications. However, this message is not dependent on itself, but rather upon the Old Testament. This is what Paul writes in First Corinthians:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

He goes on to refer to eyewitnesses of Jesus’s resurrection but notice what they witnessed to was an event that derives its significance from the Old Testament.

The New Testament’s reliance upon the Old Testament is not limited to its anticipation of the coming Messiah. Its entire view of life, including its understand of God and other theological and moral matters, is derived from the Old Testament. There are almost three hundred quotes of the Old Testament in the New, not to mention the hundreds of additional allusions. In almost every case, Old Testament references are used explicitly or implicitly as the basis of whatever the New Testament asserts.

You may think, however, just because the New Testament relies so heavily upon the Old Testament, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Old Testament is still relevant today. Since Old Testament expectation is fulfilled in Jesus, what value does it have apart from pointing to him? Let’s look at what Paul wrote to Timothy:

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).

When Paul penned these words, he was referring to the Old Testament, as there was no New Testament yet. Paul makes it clear that the Old Testament is sufficient to equip believers to become mature and effective in life. This doesn’t devalue the New Testament. Rather it’s through Jesus and what he has done for us that the richness of the Old Testament comes to the full. The Old Testament is the basis of the New, while the New unlocks the fulness of the Old.

The New Testament assumes an Old Testament scriptural context. While we are under the New Covenant (that’s what “New Testament” means), which is not like the Old Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare Luke 22:20), the New Covenant Writings (aka the New Testament) don’t address anywhere close to the amount of material found in the Old Testament. It doesn’t need to, since it assumes its ongoing relevancy. Further, the New illuminates the Old, so that the New Covenant believer may discern the will of God as revealed through the whole Bible in every aspect of life.

Yet, for many Jesus followers, except for a few passages, the Old Testament remains a closed book

That is until now! Introducing “Unleashing the Old Testament,” an online journey designed to make the Old Testament accessible to everyone.

Full course now available here: YouTube Playlist

Course resource page (handouts, etc.)

Over a course of twenty, one-hour, weekly sessions, I will take you on a tour of the entire Old Testament. By completing this course, you will

  • Grasp how the Old Testament reveals God and his plan for the world.
  • Appreciate the importance of the Old Testament for your life today.
  • Learn how to effectively interact with the different parts of the Old Testament.
  • Encounter key Old Testament concepts and their enduring value.
  • Discover how the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament weave a cohesive storyline that draws us into God’s plan for our lives
  • See how the Old Testament anticipates the New and the coming of the Messiah.

By the time we are done, the Old Testament will no longer be foreign and dry. Rather, as you learn to embrace the whole Bible, you will possess the tools to embark on a most wonderful scriptural adventure.

Apart from the weekly readings, there are no assignments or tests. Each one-hour presentation will be followed by a half-hour Q&A.

Please share this with others.

Full course now available here: YouTube Playlist

Course resource page (handouts, etc.)

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?