For the week of November 28, 2015 / 16 Kislev 5776

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12

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Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:26-28)

Last week we talked about people like Jacob who intensely and incessantly strive to get their way even though their success is ensured because God is with them. While such lives produce so much good fruit, their basic insecurities due to their lack of trust in God tends to cause all sorts of unnecessary grief.

This was Jacob’s life until God got a hold of him, quite literally. Upon his return to the land of his birth, he heard that his twin brother Esau, along with four hundred men, were on their way to meet him. Jacob was pretty freaked out, for it was fear of his brother’s murderous threats that caused him to run away twenty years earlier. So true to his self-focused manipulative self, he devised a scheme in an attempt to placate Esau while also maximizing his personal security. While spending the night alone after placing his large family, entourage, and a river between himself and his dreaded brother, a mysterious individual who we eventually learn is God, begins to wrestle with him. How fitting for a person like Jacob who has been wrestling his whole life. From what we know about God from the rest of Scripture, this story makes no sense. Talk about unfair advantage! The God of the Bible is no humanly derived concept, whose characteristics are based on human traits, good or bad. He is the Creator God, the Master of the Universe, who knows no equal. And yet they wrestle all night. Eventually God, would you believe, requests that Jacob let him go, which he won’t do until God blesses him – O Jacob, you always need to get your way, don’t you? But God grants his demand, even while injuring his hip that leaves him with a limp. The result is a new humility in Jacob and a true personal relationship with the God of his fathers (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:20).

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of all this is what God said to Jacob in response to his demand of blessing: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28). Do you hear what God is saying? The blessing, summarized in his new name Israel, was due to his having striven and prevailed with people and God. Prevailed. Not just against people, but God. Not endured, which would be impressive, but prevailed. Not survived, which would be pretty good. But prevailed – as in he, a human being overcame God. God got through to Jacob, not by overcoming him, which he could have easily done by breaking him spiritually and physically – not in spite of his tenacity, but because of it.

One of my favorite spiritual illustrations in literature is the transformation of Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the books in the Narnia series. Eustace is a brat, who ends up in the fantasy world of Narnia with two of his cousins. His arrogant and selfish behavior result eventually into his becoming a dragon, a dreadful state, which works to create in him a newfound humility. When he encounters the Messiah character, the lion Aslan, he is told to scrape off his dragon skin, only to discover that every layer he removes reveals another set of scales underneath. Eventually Aslan says that he himself would have to deal with Eustace’s condition. He tells him to lie down as he digs his claw deep into his dragon’s skin, thus restoring Eustace to newborn-like innocence. Such a beautiful portrayal of personal transformation at the hand of God, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. “Let go, and let God” as some may say.

What a beautiful picture and perhaps one that many may relate to, but not Jacob. Not that he transformed himself, but he was anything but passive in the process. Far from letting go, he held on for dear life. It wasn’t that God was finally able to bless him once he let God have his way. On the contrary, God blessed him because he insisted on his way. Jacob was no passive wimp that simply let people and God run over him. Never a victim under the control of others or a doormat for people to walk on, he had a deep sense of the important things in life, both earthly and heavenly, and went after them with everything he had. What made the difference for Jacob was that, while misguided and insecure, he was aiming for the right things. Somehow he knew his mysterious visitor had something he most desperately needed and held on until it was his own.

I wonder how many blessings we have missed out on because we have given up too soon. We confuse humility with passivity, and tenacity with arrogance. We may fear making mistakes along the way as if God is looking for perfection instead of faith. What Eustace learned is still true: unless God transforms us we will remain dragon-like. But perhaps the key to personal transformation requires a lot more tenacity on our part than we might think.


Are You Jacob?

For the week of November 21, 2015 / 9 Kislev 5776


Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English: 12:12 – 14:9)

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Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:20-22)

From before he was born, Abraham’s grandson and Isaac’s son Jacob was a fighter, constantly contending with others, wheeling and dealing in order to get the upper hand. One day he would even wrestle with God and to some extent win, but that’ll have to wait until next week. He was a driven man, who knew (or at least thought he knew) what he wanted and strove to attain it at all costs. The ironic thing about Jacob is that God had already determined that he would receive many of the things he strove for, but that didn’t create a laid-back, passive, “whatever” approach to life. Instead he was willing to outsmart, trick, and deceive even his closest family members to get his way.

But why is that? Was he oblivious to God’s plan for his life? We know that his mother knew about his destiny, because God had told her (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22-23), It’s possible that she kept that to herself even though her role in Jacob’s deceiving his father for the blessing may have been fueled by this knowledge. But whether or not he knew of God’s promise from an early age, God himself made it clear to him in a dream as he was running away from his brother Esau (Bereshit/Genesis 28:10-17). Yet the awareness of God’s promises didn’t alter his approach to life. The bulk of this week’s Torah portion deals with his wrangling with his uncle Laban. God prospers Jacob nonetheless, but through it all, Jacob fights for everything he gets.

Do you know anyone like Jacob? Born to greatness – people who do well at whatever they put their hand to, but seem to think that their success is completely dependent on themselves? On one hand they are likeable and helpful. They are winners after all. Who wouldn’t want them on their team? They tend to make others look good. However, they are always fighting, struggling, vying to get their way. They seem to always be selling something, while they relate to others, even their friends, as opponents. They don’t think anyone really understands them and the world would be a better place if everyone would simply listen to them. Because of their great abilities, much good comes from their efforts, but they can sure be tiring to be around.

Why is that? Those who are of the normal cantankerous sort just cause trouble. It’s better to avoid those kinds of folks. But not the Jacobs. The blessing and favor of God is upon them. But it’s as if they don’t know it. And that is exactly what their problem is. They live with some sense of God’s call and presence in their lives, but at the same time, the reality of that has not fully taken over their hearts.

When God appeared to Jacob as he ran away from home, he didn’t completely deny that God spoke to him in his dream. That’s what the true atheist or agnostic might have done. But in Jacob’s case he acknowledged God’s existence and that he had actually spoken to him. Yet he couldn’t accept God’s promise to him. The way he strove after his father’s blessing, he must have had an understanding of its value, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t trust that God had already determined to give it to him and/or had the ability to do so. Therefore he lived as if his success was totally dependent upon himself.

His failure to grasp the reality of the situation didn’t change the fact that God’s promises to him were unconditional. Jacob may have thought he was such a good fighter, smarter and stronger than his perceived opponents, when all along it was God working in and through him and his circumstances to bring about his will in Jacob’s life.

His eventual wrestling match with God would change all that. But until that happened, think of all the wasted and misguided energy and action on his part, resulting in so much anxiety and unnecessary strife. It was Jacob against the world, when all along God was guiding him and prospering him. Of course, we will never know what it would have been like had Jacob trusted God from the beginning or at any other time before God finally had his way. It’s too late for him. But it’s not too late for the Jacobs of today. Why wait until you (if you are a Jacob) are at the end of your rope to get this message. If you are in covenant relationship with God through the Messiah, you can relax. Knowing God’s favor is upon you doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard or you won’t face trouble. It’s that you will no longer see everyone around you as an opponent to overcome. Instead you can serve God and others, knowing that God will indeed have his way in and through you.

The End


Special Status

For the week of November 14, 2015 / 2 Kislev 5776

Sunrise at the Dead Sea. Photo: Alan Gilman

Sunrise at the Dead Sea. Photo: Alan Gilman

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1-2:7

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“I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” (Malachi 1:2-3)

This Haftarah reading (selection from the Hebrew prophets) was obviously chosen because of its reference to Jacob and Esau, whose story is found in this week’s parsha (Torah reading). And speaking of chosen, that’s what this is all about. Before these boys were born God determined that the younger twin would be the recipient of the promises given by God to their father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. My using the words “determined” and “chosen” causes all sort of emotions for all sorts of people. But I think that the controversy over such things is due to various assumptions, implications, and conclusions that are not necessarily derived from the text. The main misconception about such things is that it must involve fatalism, which even a superficial reading of the text demonstrates that this is anything but the case. The outworking of Jacob’s choseness is anything but fate. The twists and turns are absolutely delightful – that’s delightful for the reader not for Jacob and Esau. Their story involves real people in real circumstances making real decisions. Somehow God is working out his will, but as for how it works, I am happy to leave that with God.

I probably haven’t satisfied most of you who are either champions or opponents of the doctrine of predestination, but I think there is a much more controversial and crucial aspect to the story of Jacob and Esau. However choseness works, God chose Jacob, which is an extension of his choosing Abraham and Isaac and the establishment of the special status of Jacob’s descendants, the people of Israel. That the Master of the Universe might bestow special status upon one nation over any other is thought of by some (or most) as the worst kind of religious arrogance there is – that is until you understand what choseness really entails.

I recently wrote on this elsewhere from the perspective of the Jewish people. And having just returned from leading my first tour to Israel, I can assure you choseness is not what you might think it is. What it does mean is what other people consider normal doesn’t apply to you. They love you or hate you to the extreme, sometimes flipping from one to the other without warning. Most feel the burden of being God’s people without knowing what it is, longing to just fit in, but knowing it isn’t possible. You get a lot of attention, but you never know who your real friends are. You despise being judged by a different standard from everyone else, but deep in your heart you long for that standard.

It’s interesting to me that this description of Jewish choseness could equally apply to any true follower of Yeshua, Jewish or not. Once the God of Israel gets hold of you, you discover that life treats you differently. After a while you realize that this isn’t due to personal choices, other believers, or circumstances. It is because God is involved in your life in an unusual way. You have been set aside for something bigger than yourself as you have been thrust into God’s plans and purposes. You have been chosen. You have special status. This doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else, you’re just different, different in a good way, of course.

Being in Israel for two weeks reminded me in graphic terms of the depths of that difference. A land of such great diversity, beauty, and conflict that cannot be understood through the narrow focus of a media lens. One needs to grasp the full vista of its heights and depths. Those who treat the realities of Israel like cold theological doctrines miss the powerful voice of God, who is speaking through the complexities of life there. The hurts and confusion, fear and turmoil, blessing and presence of God found in the story of Jacob and Esau continue to play out in the Land of Israel today. But unless we recognize God’s prerogative to invest himself in those in whom he chooses, and bless those whom he decides to bless, we will find ourselves out of sorts with God and life, walking the path of Esau who lost himself in his own selfishness. Instead of grumbling or complaining about the concept of choseness, recognizing it is the first step of discovering that you may be chosen, too.


Action Items

For the week of October 24, 2015 / 11 Heshvan 5776

Lekh Lekha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:3)

The Bible is built on a foundation of the reality of God. That should be obvious. God is never explained in the Bible; he is simply assumed. For many, believing in God amounts to no more than an acceptance of his existence, but the Bible claims much more than that. From the beginning Scripture reveals that God speaks. Not only did he create the universe by his word, he also speaks directly to people. That’s not the end of it, however. Not only does God exist and communicate, he expects those to whom he communicates to respond.

For many readers of the Bible, that’s nothing new. We don’t read the Bible to mindlessly fulfill a ritual. Even though we may find ourselves doing that from time to time, we know better. We read the Bible to get to know God and obey his instructions. But I wonder how much we really do that. We may be reminded of things we’ve forgotten and perhaps intend to make adjustments to our lives, but how often do we really take action?

It has become common near the end of business meetings to make precise note of what needs to be done and who is going to do it. These are called “actions items.” Otherwise things don’t get done. Simple, right? Yes and no. Certainly there is great wisdom in clarifying who is responsible for what and accurately specifying what those things are and by when they need to be done. But it’s not the listing of action items that accomplishes anything. They still need to be done by the person responsible. Unless you know what do, you can’t do it. But once you know what to do, you still need to do it or it won’t get done. Still sounds simple. And to some extent it is. The concept isn’t complicated, but for some of us, getting from action item to action can seem impossible at times.

One of the most important action items in history is the call of Avram (English: Abram), whose name God later changed to Avraham (English: Abraham). God’s directive to him begins in Hebrew with “Lech l’cha,” often translated as “Go forth” or “Leave” But this doesn’t fully capture the intensity of what God was saying to him. The Hebrew is literally “go for yourself,” and is better represented by older translations, such as the King James Version, which reads, “Get thee out of thy country.” There is a sense in God’s action item for Avram that requires him to fully engage what God was telling him to do.

Things don’t happen by themselves. And yet, even the more spiritually minded can become overly passive when it comes to responding to God. After all, is he not the Supreme Being? Didn’t he speak the world into existence? All he had to do was say, “Let there be light” and light came into being. And yet, how many things has he said to you and me that haven’t gotten done?

God’s word to Avram didn’t sweep him off his feet and float him off to the land of Canaan. Did you know that he got stuck about halfway between his hometown and God’s appointed destination until his father died (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:31). No wonder God had said to him something to the extent of “Come on, get up and get going.”

It takes strenuous, focused, and determined effort to obey God. Avram is our example – a childless, elderly man, called to journey far away from home and the familiar via a long, dangerous route to a hostile environment, not knowing where he will live or what he will do. But because he did it, God, through Avram’s descendants, and particularly, but not exclusively, through the Messiah, has blessed the nations of the world.

Has God given you one or more action items? Maybe it’s time to get up and get going.


The Days of Noah

For the week of October 17, 2015 / 4 Heshvan 5776

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-55:5

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This is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, and will not rebuke you. (Isaiah 54:9)

This week’s Haftarah (extra reading portion from the Prophets) was obviously chosen long ago because it included a reference to a key event in its associated Torah portion. The story of Noah and the flood is one of the greatest tragedies recorded in Scripture. The world had become so evil that “the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Bereshit/Genesis 6:6). The word translated “regretted” is actually based from the same root word, “naham,” from which Noah’s name is derived. In some contexts, it can also mean “to comfort,” which appears to have been his father’s intention when he named him (see Bereshit/Genesis 5:29). This breadth of meaning encompasses the great irony of it all. God’s grief over extreme moral decay led to an extreme solution through Noah.

If in reference to times in which we live, I said, “this is like the days of Noah,” you may assume that I was making a statement about current moral decline. You might think that I was implying that we are on the brink of judgment, something similar to the devastating flood that wiped out all land and air creatures, except for Noah, his family and the animals on the ark. While that’s a reasonable conclusion, that’s not what God is saying through Isaiah in the quote I read at the beginning. Stating “this is like the days of Noah” in this context is not about the threat of judgement at all. On the contrary, it is a statement reaffirming God’s commitment to protect his people from such threats.

Soon after the flood, once the ground was sufficiently dry and Noah, his family, and the animals were able to leave the ark, God promised to never again destroy the world by a flood (see Bereshit/Genesis 9:11-17). The rainbow was to forever serve as a sign of God’s commitment to us. So many centuries later this is still the case. While flooding still poses a threat in the world, we needn’t fear the possibility of a flood of the magnitude of Noah’s day again. While that is good news for everyone everywhere, think what it must have meant to Noah’s generation. Talk about Post-traumatic stress disorder! While grateful for being preserved, what a horrific experience it must have been to witness the drowning of so many, and then to have to endure a whole year in a dark, cramped, smelly enclosed box, not to mention bobbing on the water for much of that time. Every drop of rain after that would have brought back extreme nightmarish memories. But every time the rainbow appeared the people would be reminded of God’s faithfulness.

This makes me wonder if the story of Noah’s ark isn’t more about not fearing dangerous threats than about the judgement that befell the world through the flood. It’s probably both, but I don’t think we spend enough time focused on God’s commitment to preserve his people.

But what are the days that are “like the days of Noah” spoken by Isaiah? Is this a general statement to the people of Israel to not fear hard times whenever they may occur? That’s a good principle to live by, but that’s not what’s going on here. God through his prophet is referring to another time, a time in the future that will be “like the days of Noah.” Through many of the Hebrew prophets we learn of such a day, when the threat of judgment will be no more. A day when Israel’s relationship with God will not only be restored but permanently established, never to be broken again. Due to the New Covenant as established by the Messiah, sin will be forgiven, the Torah (God’s teaching) will be internalized, and Israel will be God’s people forever (see Jeremiah 31:31-33). “Like the days of Noah,” but only more so, there will be nothing to fear ever again.

Until then, we can have a foretaste of that kind of security in God now. By putting our trust in Yeshua the Messiah’s death and resurrection, we, like Noah and his family, will be preserved in the midst of horrific circumstances. And even while the storms of life wage on, we needn’t be traumatized. Just as God has preserved us until now, he will continue to do so forever.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


God’s Development Plan

For the week of October 10, 2015 / 27 Tishri 5776


Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:9-11)

I have the impression that there is a misconception as to our first parents’ moral state at the time of their temptation. It’s actually a misconception we have about the creation in general. I hear people speak of that time of history as being perfect. That not only was life the way it should be at the time, there was no need for further development at all. I agree it was the way it should be, because God created it as such and pronounced it as “very good” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:31). But it should be obvious from the scriptural text that further development was essential to God’s plan. The creation of Planet Earth was not an end, but a beginning – a beginning of a vast development project to be supervised by human beings under the direction of God.

To describe the creation in general or Adam and Eve in particular as perfect confuses our understanding of the necessary development of life on earth, including that of the human family. Adam and Eve were created with particular capabilities given to them by God. But there is no reason to assume that those capabilities were functioning to their full potential from the moment of consciousness. Like their offspring to be, they had much to learn. What that learning would have been like had they not succumbed to the serpent’s deception, we don’t know.

So if we understand “perfect” as fully developed and functioning according to a thing’s potential – something we call “maturity” – Adam and Eve were not perfect, at least not yet. What they were was innocent, but they were also naïve. I used to think that the statement, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:25), meant that they were in a state of great moral purity along the line of the kind of perfection I was referring to. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. The reason why they were not ashamed of their nakedness was that they didn’t know they were naked. This is evident by what happened after they ate the forbidden fruit: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:7).

It is also the awareness of nakedness that caused them to try to hide from God. God’s response to this was to confront them with the question, “Who told you that you were naked?” God’s will for them at this point in their development didn’t include this aspect of self-awareness. As I mentioned, we’ll never know God’s original human development plan because they undermined it so early on. But might have lessons in self-awareness, sexuality, gender differences, and so on been on God’s agenda for them? We might assume so, since such things are addressed in God’s subsequence teaching through Moses and the rest of Scripture.

Sometimes people speak of God’s future restoration of the creation as a return to the Garden of Eden. Certainly there are aspects of that initial goodness and innocence that are essential to the age to come. However, there is no sense in Scripture that we are destined to return to the simplicity and naivety of those early days. The Scriptures anticipate a city, not a garden. We read of throngs of people and kings of nations worshipping the God of Israel (see Revelation 21-22). Might something similar have been God’s development plan all along? Again, we don’t know for sure, but certainly it was not to remain as it was.

While Adam and Eve’s sin is unique in that it brought God’s curse upon all of creation until the time of the full restoration when Yeshua returns, there is a something about their temptation experience that is practically relevant to us today. In fact, properly dealing with this dynamic is key to living truly godly lives. Even though unlike our first parents we carry from birth the burden of the curse upon us, we continually face the same sort of decision that they did that day. Throughout our lives, moment by moment, we hear as they did the Evil One contradicting the voice of God. Though his Word and by his Spirit, God seeks to direct us in the path of life. At the same time, the Evil One tries to convince us that God doesn’t really have our best interests in mind. He relentlessly seeks to make us think that it is preferable to assess life’s opportunities based on our own perceptions rather than God’s. Every time we do that, we head further down a destructive path.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Through the Messiah, we can be part of God’s development plan again. By trusting in Yeshua’s death and resurrection, we need not repeat our first parents’ grave mistake. By his grace he gives us all we need to resist temptation and fulfill his instructions until we become perfected in him in every way.


Super Blood Moon

For the week of October 3, 2015 / 20 Tishri 5776


Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; Bemidbar/Numbers 29:26-34
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18-39:16

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And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the LORD, the Holy One in Israel. (Ezekiel 39:7)

The special Haftarah selection (reading from the prophets) for the festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths) is especially fitting. You may be aware of the great interest in the rare coalescing of several celestial and religious events happening at this time. The first evening of Sukkot this year (evening of September 27) is being marked by a potentially remarkable full lunar eclipse, referred to as a blood moon due to its telltale reddish color. It’s remarkable due to the full moon being the largest of the year. Four to six times a year we get larger than normal full moons, called supermoons, due to the moon’s closer proximity to the earth, but this one is the closest of the last 12 months. That in itself isn’t remarkable as it is an annual occurrence, but that it is also a full lunar eclipse – the first supermoon full lunar eclipse in over thirty years – has the potential of making it a spectacular sight. What has caught the attention of some students of the Bible is that this Sukkot lunar eclipse is part of a tetrad, which is the technical term used when four lunar eclipses in a row are all blood moons. What makes it more interesting is that the other three fell on the last two occurrences of Pesach and last year’s Sukkot.

Some claim that tetrads, especially when they fall on Jewish festivals, coincide with extraordinary events that significantly affect the Jewish people. But what does this have to do with our Haftarah portion? There’s no reference here to anything to do with moons at all. Well, as it turns out this passage has often been interpreted as describing a catastrophic scene that marks the end of the world as we know it, the kind of thing that may coincide with our super blood moon. Here we read about Gog and Magog, who come against the Land of Israel, but unknowingly have been drawn on their destructive quest by God himself, who through several cataclysmic events utterly destroys them. The result is that both Israel and the nations know who God really is once and for all.

Will the events of Ezekiel’s prophesy begin to unfold in the next few days? Might the super blood moon be a sign that the end (or the beginning of the end) is upon us? That is extremely possible, and I’ll tell you why.

Judgement is coming. Maybe it’s already here. Maybe things are going to take a turn for the worse. Or maybe it will get better before it gets worse. Maybe your life is already as bad as it will get. Or maybe you had it too good for too long. I don’t know. But what I do know is that at some point you and I will have to give an account for our lives. Every deed, every thought exposed, scrutinized, and judged. Judged by the Almighty. The rightful King is coming. He was already established as such following his death and resurrection. Since then he has been extending his rule by his Spirit, through his people, calling everyone everywhere to get right with the God of Israel before it is too late. For many it is already too late. The dead care little about blood moons and prophetic predictions. Perhaps you care too much. Are you more interested in prophetic speculations then you are about getting ready to face your Maker?

If you are reading this, then it’s not too late. The first evening of Sukkot promises to be spectacular, depending on where you live and if the sky is clear. But think of how much more spectacular it will be if through the Messiah Yeshua, you got your life in order. Then again, perhaps, you’re doing okay. Really; I’m not making fun. You may truly be one of the humble ones with a heart open to the will of your heavenly Father. You’re ready for the end. You have nothing to be afraid of. Still, perhaps this is a good time to ask your King, “Is there anything I have left undone?” You never know, God may want to make you a greater sign than a super blood moon.

Might we be in unusual times? Of that I have no doubt. Are we on the brink of some catastrophic event? We might be. But does it really matter whether the end is nigh or only yours? Read the signs and get right with God before it’s too late.


Justice Is Alive

For the week of September 26, 2015 / 13 Tishri 5776


Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:3-4)

When I first read this passage in this translation, I found it jarring, because I was used to hearing, “all his ways are just.” If you look at a list of various other English translations, you will see an assortment of words used, such as fair, right, righteous, just, judgement and the one used here, justice. The Hebrew word is “mishpat,” which indeed means justice, which is a noun, but in English it doesn’t sound right. The phrase more naturally lends itself to using an adjective, the way I am used to hearing it. But to make the text read, “God’s ways are just,” gives the impression that his ways simply possess a just quality to them. While that is true, what mishpat expresses here is much more than that. Regardless of the sound English prefers, God ways are in and of themselves justice.

Let me try to explain. If I said “smoking is harmful,” harmful being an adjective, then I am saying that smoking has a destructive quality. How it causes harm depends on how people relate to it (smoking or breathing second-hand smoke, for example). But if I say instead “smoking is harm” (which sounds strange, of course), I am claiming that smoking’s harmful quality is essential to its essence, and that its existence in and of itself brings about harm regardless of how people use it or relate to it. Whether or not smoking is truly that I will leave to anti-smoking advocates to decide.

So when Moses says God’s way are mishpat, it is not only because his ways have a just quality to them, but that his ways are in and of themselves justice. It is not as if they are shown to be just only when they are followed as when we follow good advice. Rather God’s ways establish justice by their very existence alone.

How this works becomes clearer when we understand that God is personally invested in his word. By his power his ways are actively at work in the world, confronting evil and leading people in the path of righteousness. No wonder the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews states, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

One might argue that the word of God cannot function on its own, but rather requires someone somewhere to communicate it. While this is normally the case from personal conversation to preaching to writing to broadcasting, we need to realize that the power of justice in God’s ways as communicated through these methods is far more dependent on God than we may think. It is God who uses people to communicate his word, and it is God who makes his communicated word effective.

Let me illustrate with a true story. I had been thinking and praying about this concept, when a young family friend posted online an experience she had. I share it with her permission:

Late this evening I was busing home, and I was very tired. So tired in fact, that I fell asleep. However, I was woken with a start when someone tapped on my shoulder to ask me about abortion. She had noticed the pro-life shirt I was wearing. She said “I’m pro-choice. Always have been and always will be. And you can’t change my mind.” I replied, “Guess what? I am also pro-choice, but not when it comes to taking the life of an innocent human being.” She then went on to say that she didn’t think that they were human until the point of birth. So we talked about when human life begins, and she finally agreed that they were human from conception. But she still said, “What if the mother can’t afford to keep the child? Wouldn’t it be better for her to just have an abortion in that case?” I replied “What if the mother of a toddler lost her job and could no longer afford to raise the child, would it then be ok for her to kill the toddler?” The woman right away shook her head and said, “No.” Then a light dawned on her and she said, “I never thought of it that way before. You’re right, killing a pre-born child is no different than killing a born child. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all of this to me.”

Our friend was sleeping when the ways of God provoked the other person to wake her up, resulting in repentance. The other party was in collusion with death and destruction. God’s word, which appeared to be just lying there doing nothing was actually living and active as it pierced the heart of that up-till-then confused soul.

Mishpat, justice, is a living force, given to the world as a gift of God through the revelation of Scripture. And as it is living and active, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Perhaps it’s time to embrace it.


The Meaning of the Shofar


For the week of September 19, 2015 / 6 Tishri 5776


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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 13. Ten days later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning the evening of September 22. Five days after that is the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacle or Booths), beginning the evening of September 27.

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 as is the point it makes:

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 end of life as we know it, it also signals 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 our lives. How can you be assured of eternal life? Here too, the shofar shows the 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 a satisfactory 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 live forever. It is no coincidence that among all the things that happened to him during his unjust arrest, trial, and execution that he was mocked by the Roman soldiers by their placing a crown of thorns on his head. Yeshua, like the ram of Abraham’s day, found himself caught in a thicket, and offered in our place, so like Isaac, we too may go free.

The shofar gives us so much to think about, but it is all meaningless unless we are in right relationship with God. 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 find its way into our hearts.

Listen to the shofar now:

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


Live Long and Prosper


For the week of September 12, 2015 / 28 Elul 5775VulcanSalute01_480

Torah: Devarim/ Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 30:9-10)

You may recognize the title of this week’s message as the familiar salute of Mr. Spock, the half human/half alien from the widely popular TV and movie series, “Star Trek.” The hand gesture used by the actor, the late Leonard Nimoy was derived from his own Jewish background as used by the cohanim (English: priests) as a blessing in the synagogue. While “live long and prosper” are not exactly the words spoken, they certainly sum up God’s own desire to make his people “abundantly prosperous.”

But what constitutes being abundantly prosperous? What may come to your mind is likely very different from the intention of the Torah here. Perhaps to you prosperity is an economic state whereby no matter how much you need or want, you always have extra. It’s a sense that whatever happens, there is always more financial resources to draw on. The biblical understanding of prosperity is very different. It’s having enough for yourself and those dependent on you, plus a little more to share with those in need (see Proverbs 30:7-9; 1 Timothy 5:8, 6:6-10; Hebrew 13:16).

Biblical prosperity is not about how much stuff you have or the size of your bank balance. You could have an enormous amount of goods and money, but still not really be living well. The prosperity here refers specifically to “the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground.” You could have all the money in the world, but unless living things thrive, both human and animal, and there is sufficient nutritious food to eat, we are not really living. Societies that only focus on self and do not adequately work towards the emergence and thriving of future generations will die. So ultimately prosperity is not about me and what I have, but the blessing of provision for the furthering of God’s creation long-term.

What will it take, then, to “live long and prosper”? Our passage tells us, “When you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law (Torah), when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” It’s tragic that there is so much misunderstanding regarding a command such as this. For some it is clouded by humanly derived traditions that add or replace God’s expressed intentions. Others confuse godly directives with a misguided system that bases God’s acceptance on performance. The whole Bible understands true godliness as an outcome of sincere trust in God. Those who are truly faithful to him have a heart to obey him in every way. To disregard God’s ways leads to anything but prosperity.

God wants us to live a full and abundant life (see John 10:10). But in order to have the quality of life he desires, we need to embrace his version of what life is really all about. Redefining biblical prosperity along the lines of greed and covetousness undermines the abundance that God has for us. Similarly claiming fairy-dust notions of grace that disregards God’s directives in Scripture may numb the effects of deception for a time, but in the end profits absolutely nothing.

However, if we embrace God’s version of what prosperity actually is and diligently follow his ways as outlined in Scripture, then we will indeed thrive both in this life and in the age to come forever.

Live long and prosper!