Justice Is Alive

For the week of September 23, 2023 / 8 Tishri 5784

Message info over a golden burst background

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English: 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20, Joel 2:15-17
Originally posted the week of September 26, 2015 / 13 Tishri 5776

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. (D’varim/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 (https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Deuteronomy%2032:4), 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.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


World of Promises

For the week of September16, 2023 / 1 Tishri 5784

Message info over a photo of Planet Earth from Space

Rosh Hashanah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 21:1-34; B’midbar/Numbers 29:1-6
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/Samuel 1:1 – 2:10

The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-2)

This week’s Torah reading is special for Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, which is derived from the biblical Feast of the Blowing of the Shofar (see Vayikra/Leviticus 23:23-25). The Torah reading begins with the wonderous birth of Isaac in fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah.

Has it ever occurred to you that we live in a world of promises? Most of the time we are not aware how promises are pillars of human interaction. Promises make up so much of our lives. As I am writing this, it’s with an understanding that the computer I am using is going to work promised, be it the hardware or the software. And that’s just the beginning. Since my plan is to share this with the world via the extremely complex system known as the Internet, there are innumerable pieces of technology and human involvement committed to perform as promised. I am depending on those promises. I depend on the promises my fellow drivers make when they get their drivers’ licenses to not purposely harm me. I expect that businesses will be true to their word when I purchase their products. If I buy a carton of milk, I expect the promised milk to be in the carton. So many promises do we take for granted!

Most employment and work contracts contain all sorts of promises made by all parties involved. I promise to do a particular type and quality of work for a certain number of hours. You promise to pay me a certain amount of money to be given to me at set time intervals.

We depend on the promises given to us via travel and event schedules. You couldn’t plan a trip, be it locally or internationally, if buses, trains, and planes would only be available when travel companies might feel like it.

I am guessing that while you have been reading or listening to this, you have thought about the great number of broken promises you have endured in your life: companies that didn’t deliver the goods, undependable employees, the show you were looking forward to cancelling last minute, buses that don’t show up, and so on. The reason why this is so irksome is because we are promise oriented beings. We expect promises and we expect them to be kept.

We live in a promise-oriented world because it was created by a promise-oriented God. Promise is embedded in the very system of life. Even more than our dependance on the promises we make to each other, we depend on the systems of life, subconsciously most of the time. We don’t worry that gravity or buoyancy will not come through for us. That’s because the God of promise designed, implemented, and oversees these systems. Even people who believe that the universe is the result of random impersonal chance, relate to life as if it is designed in the dependable way I just described.

They do so until they want otherwise. More and more people are attempting to deny the innate dependability of God’s creation. It doesn’t matter to them that men and women are created a certain way, for example. It doesn’t seem to matter to that treating ourselves or others contrary to design will inevitably end in disaster. Desire, not design, is paramount.

It’s no wonder that along with rejecting the way the promise-oriented God made the world, more and more have human promises become less and less reliable. We still promise but do so in order to manipulate others not commit ourselves to promised outcomes. Politicians have been doing that for a long time. Perhaps we have all become political now, treating our word like it’s nothing.

This is not new, of course. When Messiah came into the world, he said: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). Being true to our word should be normal. We are to be promise-oriented people because we have been made in the image of a promise-oriented God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


When Blessings Become Idols

For the week of July 1, 2023 / 12 Tammuz 5783

Message info over a replica of the bronze serpent mentioned in this post

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8
Originally posted the week of July 13, 2019 / 10 Tammuz 5779

So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (B’midbar/Numbers 21:9)

One of the prime focuses of the Hebrew Scriptures is the issue of idolatry that was expressed in ancient Israel in two ways: the worship of false gods as represented by an image or claiming that the true God was represented by an image. In either case, the essence of idolatry is it misrepresents reality and especially the reality of the God of Israel. The dynamics of idol worship is captured by the New Covenant Writings through this statement: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:25).

Idolatry, whether it be through an actual figure associated with the true God or false gods, gives undo credence to a created thing instead of to the author of all creation. Putting one’s hope in an idol assumes that goodness can somehow be derived from the experience of engaging the thing, receiving blessing in other words. But blessing, as I just quoted, is derived from God, not things, even though God uses things to bless us. And therein lies the problem. It is so easy to confuse the instruments God uses with God himself.

This is exactly what happened with the Israelites and the bronze serpent, a story that took about eight hundred years to tell. During the wilderness wanderings under Moses, God punished the people for their grumblings by sending deadly snakes among them. In response to their humbling themselves, God prescribed an unusual remedy. He told Moses to set up a bronze serpent on a pole. All anyone bitten by a snake had to do was to look at the bronze serpent and they would be cured.

What we don’t know until the reign of Hezekiah eight centuries later was that not only did they hold on to the bronze serpent, but they made offerings to it, that is until Hezekiah smashed it (see 2 Melachim/2 Kings 18:4). For eight hundred years worship of this object had been tolerated! For eight hundred years “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

It isn’t difficult to understand why they did that. They believed, mistakenly so, that there was power in the object. What had begun as an act of faith unto God by following his instructions at the time, became an idol. They confused the source of power through his chosen instrument with the thing itself.

This is what underlies superstition. Superstition is believing that certain objects when related to in particular ways will empower us in some way. This is what happened with the bronze serpent. Looking to it was not originally superstition, since doing so was directed by God. It only became superstitious once the people assumed the power was in the object itself. They may have justified their misguided beliefs by claiming that if God used it in the past, then it’s appropriate to continue using it even after the occasion for which it was made was over and done with.

This is exactly where a lot of people of faith get stuck. We have a legitimate experience of God in the past and insist on revisiting it, thinking that we can continue to derive blessing from it when it’s outlived its intended purpose. We may not be doing this with a tangible object, but the dynamics are the same. Our precious moments with God were for the time allotted to them. To expect to derive the same blessings over and over again from what God did in an earlier time and place is to exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!

It is the Creator “who is blessed forever.” Blessing resides in God, not objects or experiences. He is free to use whatever he wishes to pour out blessings upon us. But if we confuse the One who blesses with that which he uses to bless, we will find ourselves living a lie and cut off from the very blessings we long for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Leadership Is Not Privilege

Message info over a red carpet draped over wide white stairs

For the week of June 24, 2023 / 5 Tammuz 5783
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Prophets: 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 11:14-12:22

So the LORD said to Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood. (B’midbar/Numbers 18:1)

Leaders are special. Whomever or whatever they may be leading, their role sets them apart from others. They stand out. Everyone knows their names. In many cases leaders have benefits, perks not accessible to non-leaders. Their importance often gives them access to even more important people, thus potentially increasing their influence even more. They live on a different plain from the general population.

When we think of leaders, this may be all we think about. Compared to them, we feel less important, disadvantaged. We might accept that some people in leadership truly possess superior ability than the rest of us. But others are just like us. Yet, they were chosen to be special. And that’s just not fair! What right do they have to be given all sorts of privileges we don’t have?

This was the sort of thing that Korah and his associates were thinking when they confronted Moses and Aaron in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). Despite already being part of the specially chosen tribe of Levi – the tribe responsible to assist the cohanim (English; the priests) – they were greatly offended by their not being selected for the priesthood itself, which by God’s decree had been given to Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants.

Their perception of the priestly role was all wrapped up in everything except what it actually was. What it was is emphasized by God’s words to Aaron immediately following the tragic outcome of Korah’s rebellion. As I quoted at the start, after the deadly plague and God’s confirmation of Aaron’s calling, he impressed upon Aaron the depths of responsibility he and his sons would bear in their priestly role. Every special aspect of their leadership was designed to serve the crucial responsibilities God gave them as cohanim. No other Israelite would carry the concerns of the sacrificial system and everything along with it as they would.

The truly special thing about leadership is not the perks but the responsibility. Perhaps I should say, “genuine, godly leadership.” I don’t deny that to a great extent leadership throughout history has been about being at the top of the heap on the backs of the oppressed masses. Many leaders are nothing more than spoiled children who one way or another managed to hoard more toys than anyone else. But neither of these examples reflect how God designed leadership to be. And it doesn’t matter if leaders are aware of the true God and his ways or not. Genuine leadership is only realized when it is in keeping with God’s design.

The Messiah needed to remind his followers the true essence of leadership when he said:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

Korah and company were not the first (or last) to misunderstand true leadership. Yeshua’s teaching here completely turns conventional thinking on this issue upside down. He confronts typical warped thinking on leadership at its utterly selfish core.

Leadership is not fundamentally about power. Leaders certainly possess far greater power than others. But they have been given that power not to benefit themselves but rather to empower others. This is related to the general stewardship role given to all human beings at the beginning of creation. By virtue of our being made in the image of God, we have all been entrusted with various resources, abilities, and opportunities to be used for the benefit of others. Leaders are those who, as part of that general stewardship, have been assigned levels of management for the common good.

Leadership is simply a heavier level of stewardship. In the New Covenant Writings we read, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Being given greater responsibility than others is noble and should be treated as noble. It’s not about money or popularity. It’s about being true to our God-given responsibilities; something to which we will all be called to account.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Sacrifice of a Different Kind

For the week of June 17, 2023/ 28 Sivan 5783

Message info over a dark fire background

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Revised version of “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” originally posted the week of March 17, 2018 / 1 Nisan 5778

But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him. (B’midbar/Numbers 15:30-31)

For the New Covenant believer, the concept of forgiveness of sin is central. We understand that whatever the Old Covenant sacrificial system meant, it in some way points to the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice. For that reason, it is understandable that we would search for parallels between the multi-purpose sacrifice of animals in the Torah and Yeshua’s unjust death. The problem is it is difficult to draw exact parallels. First, not all Torah sacrifice was for sin. At times, people would offer something due to gratefulness, for example. But in contrast, the Messiah’s death was altogether tragic. While Yeshua freely accepted his mission, there was nothing celebratory about his having to die. While the results of his death were over-the-top good, and his resurrection certainly should be celebrated, the process of death itself was not good. Therefore, Yeshua’s sacrifice only parallels those sacrifices that were for sin of some kind.

Another dissimilarity is that the animals didn’t unduly suffer when killed. They weren’t beaten beforehand as Yeshua was, and they were killed quickly unlike Yeshua’s slow, excruciating, humiliating death on a Roman cross.

There’s at least one more difference. We see it in the verses I quoted at the beginning. You might be surprised to learn that Old Covenant sacrifice for sin was only for unintentional sin. There were no sacrifices for intentional sin at all. The consequence for intentional sin, the Hebrew phrase for that being sinning with a “high hand” (B’midbar/Numbers 15:30), was either banishment or death. This could be why King David in his well-known penitential psalm writes:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:18-19; English: 51:16-17).

This is not a New Covenant-esque post-sacrificial system advanced theology of anti-animal sacrifice. It’s that there was no sacrifice that could cover David’s intentional sins of adultery and murder. The only acceptable action on David’s part is what he did – honestly and humbly admit his guilt.

What was the point of sacrifice for sin if it was not to cover serious, intentional wrongdoing? It appears that the loss of animal life was designed to make the people aware of their sinful condition. Most of us are conscious of our big sins, but we tend to go through life blind to how much we fall short. The sacrifices helped the people in ancient times to take even their unintentional shortcomings seriously. Sin is costly to ourselves and to those around us; it is also an affront to God who created us to serve him and his purposes. Instead of glibly saying, “nobody’s perfect,” we need to be made aware of the great chasm caused by our ever-present failings and the world as it was supposed to be.

It should be obvious that if unintentional sin was serious enough to require the killing of innocent animals, how much more serious is intentional sin? No wonder Yeshua’s offering was so different from animal sacrifice. It was the only sacrifice designed to actually take away sin. Old Covenant ritual wasn’t simply symbolically foreshadowing a similar, but greater, sacrifice, Rather it prepared Israel and the world for a much different, far more effective sacrifice that would deal with sin once and for all.

Despite the supreme effectiveness of Yeshua’s death for sin, its effects are not applied to us automatically. In order to experience the benefits of what Yeshua has done, we need to echo David’s words. On our own we have nothing to offer that which could satisfy the great losses we have caused the world or the affront our lives have been to our Creator. Nothing but God’s full giving of himself in the person of the Messiah is sufficient to resolve our alienation from him. Making it ours requires a turning of our lives in faith to Yeshua and personally accepting the precious gift of his sacrifice.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


What’s Driving You?

For the week of June 10, 2023 / 21 Sivan 5783

Message info over a modern crowd in the Sinai wilderness facing a pillar of fire

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)
Originally posted the week of June 13, 2020 / 21 Sivan 5780

At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (B’midbar/Numbers 9:18)

I am a big picture guy. That’s true in nature as well as stories and ideas. I love grand views and vistas, be it wide mountain ranges or hills and valleys from above or looking back at the skyline of a great city. I love big pictures because I also love the details they encompass. The better I can see the big picture, the more I understand its details. In stories, the Bible included, between its big picture and details are themes and motifs. Themes are ribbons of ideas, common subplots woven through events and descriptions. Motifs are recurring story elements. God’s love, mercy, and justice are biblical themes. The dynamics of how humans interact with God’s will is a common motif.

We first encounter this motif in the Garden of Eden (see Bereshit/Genesis 3). God gives clear directives to Adam and Eve, which are soon challenged by the serpent. The reader can sense the peril that awaits our first parents should they give into the temptation to doubt the goodwill of their creator, which tragically they do. This motif is played out over and over again throughout Scripture, including this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

Israel’s journey through the wilderness is a time of training between their slavery in Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land. Having been given the gift of God’s word through Moses, the difficult challenges of wilderness living provides opportunity after opportunity to discover the nature and character of their God.

Like Adam and Eve before them they are instructed that obedience to God results in life and blessing, while rebellion results in death and destruction. One of the many ways this was to be lived out was in their travel directions. God reserved the right to tell them when they were to break camp and where they were to go next. The indication of when to go and where was provided by a pillar of cloud. If it stayed, they were to stay. When it moved, they were to move until it stopped.

Our translation expresses God’s communication via the cloud as being at “his command.” While capturing the intent of the Hebrew metaphor here, it misses its vividness. The Hebrew reads more along the line of “At the mouth of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the mouth of the Lord they camped. The picture painted by the metaphor is one of God’s speaking, key to the motif we are looking at. What’s not clear is whether it’s the cloud’s movement that’s in response to God’s speaking or that the movement of the cloud was the indication of God’s speaking. Either way, the people were to learn to embark or settle exclusively in response to God’s word.

Note the implications of this. If God’s word was to be their only guide, then that means they were not to listen to anything or anyone else. Enemies attacking? No cloud movement. Stay put. Water supplies exhausted? No cloud movement. Stay put. Living in a lush oasis? Cloud is moving. Time to go. Circumstances, preferences, and opinions don’t count. Only God’s word.

Should it be any different for us today? There’s no cloud to follow that I know of. Yet we have something more, not less, than the ancient Israelites. We have far more of God’s written word than they had. In the books of the Hebrew and New Covenant Scriptures we have more direct words from God; more examples, good and bad; more truth sorted out than they did. Plus, under the New Covenant, we have a far greater intimacy with God through the Messiah and the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) empowering us. It’s as if the wilderness cloud has now taken up residence within us.

Are we being driven by voices shouting at us or are we listening to God? That in no way diminishes the issues of our day, but it should determine what we do about them. The listening to God motif of Scripture clearly directs us to avoid being reactive. Circumstances and opinion are blind guides. Only God’s direction leads to life.

It feels good to connect to popular causes, but at what cost? What would happen if you stopped, took a deep breathe, and asked God what to do? His direction may not take you where you think you should go, but it’s the only way to ensure you get to where God wants you to go.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Returning the Blessing

For the week of June 3, 2023 / 14 Sivan 5783

Message info over blessing hands with a Mogen David brick motif

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, the LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

You may be aware of the recent three-week initiative to pray for Israel. At the beginning of this time, my wife and I, both Jewish believers, were in a small prayer group (the others aren’t Jewish). We were praying for Israel. We have rarely been in the presence of such precious prayers. One of the people had it on his heart to pray the priestly blessing from B’midbar/Numbers chapter six, which is part of this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion), over the Jewish people.

You may or may not be aware how common it is for Christian leaders to recite this blessing, usually at the end of a service, over their congregations. The words are wonderful. The sentiment is great. It is certainly a blessing! You might remember the musical rendition of these ancient words around the beginning of COVID. It warmed my heart to hear God’s word through Moses sung over and over again in a multitude of languages by the peoples of the world amidst the fear that had gripped so many.

Let me try to unpack why I was so touched by the blessing being prayed over our people that Sunday evening. First, in my experience, most people who call themselves Christians see themselves as the new or true Israel. Whatever their personal feelings might be toward Jewish people, there is a tendency to view us as having been God’s chosen people at one time, but with the coming of the Messiah, that identity was transferred to the community of Yeshua followers, the “Church” in other words. This idea is technically termed, “supersessionism,” or more popularly “replacement theology.” Yet, even among those Christians who claim to reject such an idea and accept God’s ongoing faithfulness to the Jewish people, there is still a tendency to directly apply elements of Scripture that were particularly given to the people Israel to themselves. In many cases, perhaps most, I believe this is legitimate, at least to some extent. Let me explain.

Through the Jewish Messiah, the peoples of the nations have the opportunity to have a personal relationship with the one true God, the God of Israel. While there are ongoing distinctives between Jews and Gentiles, the way that non-Jews learn the truth of God and life is via sacred writings that are fundamentally Jewish. All people, Jews and Gentiles, learn about trusting God through Abraham’s willingness to follow God into the unknown. We learn to pray through David’s psalms. We understand God’s faithfulness through his commitment to the people of Israel. And on it goes.

While it is, as I said, legitimate for non-Jews to apply Scriptural truth to themselves, it is tragic that it is often done without ever acknowledging its original context or how it has come about that Jewish Scriptures can become God’s Word for all or the Jewish Messiah can be anyone’s Messiah. The result is the replacement theology I referred to earlier that regards the Church as the new or true Israel even among those who deny such an idea.

With all this in mind, let’s return to the Sunday evening prayer time. Against the backdrop of layers and layers of historic misrepresentation of and arrogance toward Jewish people; a precious and powerful blessing which has been appropriated by the Church unto itself for two thousand years was being returned to its rightful place as this precious man prayed for God’s favor to once more be poured out upon Israel.

You might think, “So what?” What difference does such a sentiment make? It’s because this gesture functions as a symbol of what I believe is the general change of direction that must occur among our non-Jewish fellow Messiah followers. One day we might realize the untold damage the Church has done both to itself and to the Jewish people for not heeding Paul’s words from Romans, chapter eleven, “do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:18).

It is time for the Church worldwide of every tradition to acknowledge, not only the primacy of Israel in the plans and purposes of God, but his ongoing faithfulness to Israel despite our spiritual condition. Great blessing has come to the Gentiles through, not only the Jewish Messiah, but through those early Jewish believers, who broke through unimaginable barriers to bring God’s blessing to the nations.

God’s heart of love and concern for the Jewish people has never changed. Therefore, let those among the nations who have been richly blessed by the God of Israel in the name of the Jewish Messiah rise up and declare to the people of Israel, “the Lord bless you and keep you!”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Yet I Will Rejoice

For the week of May 27, 2023 / 7 Sivan 5783

Message info on plain black background

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17
Haftarah: Habakkuk 3:1-19

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation (Habakkuk 3:18)

This coming Shabbat (English: Sabbath) coincides with the festival of Shavuot (English: Weeks/Pentecost). As far as I know, no one knows for sure the exact reasons why the various Haftarah readings (portions from the Hebrew Prophets) were chosen to accompany the weekly Torah readings. Often, it is obvious due to content elements of each. This week’s reading from Habakkuk is not so obvious. Clearly, the Torah portion was chosen because it includes Shavuot, but why read the last chapter of Habakkuk? One source speculates that the description in Habakkuk of God’s dramatic exploits are reminiscent of the events at Sinai. But you might wonder, what does Sinai have to do with Shavuot? While there is nothing explicitly said in the Bible as to Shavuot’s connection to a historical event as is the case of Pesach (English: Passover), which commemorates the exodus, and Sukkot (English: Booths) which commemorates the wilderness wanderings, traditionally, Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. As Shavuot occurred fifty days after Pesach, this association is reasonable.

I would like to propose what I think is a more profound connection between Habakkuk and Shavuot. My thoughts also see a connection with the Torah but is based on the Shavuot’s primary function as a harvest festival. Here is Habakkuk 3:17-18:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

Habakkuk praised the God of Israel despite the prospect of no harvest. For many of us today it is difficult to comprehend how a failing harvest necessarily meant starvation. This is a disaster of great proportions. The book of Habakkuk features the prophet’s anguish over God’s showing him the impending doom coming upon his people at the hands of the Babylonians. Through a most painful process, he resolved to rejoice in God.

Shavuot was designed to give thanks to God for the harvest, but what do we do when there is no harvest? Our tendency is to despair, to be angry, to lash out at God perhaps. Habakkuk wasn’t blind to the terrible prospects ahead. Far from it! He felt the anguish of the coming suffering deeply. Yet he would not give up on acknowledging God for who he is.

It is fitting to remember these things at the same time we remember the giving of the Torah. The Torah constituted Israel as a nation before God based on his rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. It declared that he was Israel’s God and Israel was his people. After much consternation, Habakkuk determined that he would not allow dreaded circumstances to get in the way of his commitment to God. He came to accept that the coming devastation was the just punishment for his people’s ongoing waywardness. God had been patient for a long time, but now, the results of misguided living were coming to fruition. Habakkuk would not blame God for the evil of his people. God was still good. God was still right. God was still worthy of praise. Even though occasions such as Shavuot are designed to be occasions to rejoice over God’s provision, he no less deserves praise when he pours out much deserved punishment.

For all sorts of reasons, some deserved, some not, we go through great hardships at times. How often have we reacted to such painful circumstances by doubting or even rejecting God? It’s no easy thing to come to the place that Habakkuk did, but with God’s help we can. To do so, we need to be willing to see the difficulties of life for what they really are, including our part in bringing them about and God’s ongoing faithfulness through it all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Owned by God

For the week of May 20, 2023 / 29 Iyar 5783

Message information over an illustration of the ancient tabernacle of Israel

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/ 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of May 15, 2010 / 2 Sivan 5770
Revised version from the book Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses

Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the LORD. (B’midbar/Numbers 3:12–13)

The Levites (Hebrew, levi-im), the descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, fulfilled a special function among their people. Instead of being given territory within the Land of Israel like the other tribes, they were to be special religious servants. A subset of the Levites were the priests (Hebrew, cohanim), the descendants of Moses’s brother Aaron, who offered the sacrifices. The rest of the Levites assisted the priests in their duties and fulfilled other religious tasks throughout the nation. The Levites belonged to God in a way the rest of the people did not, for their daily concerns were consumed with the service of God rather than normal human endeavors.

The setting aside of the Levites was not simply because there was a need for religious ministers. Rather, they stood in the place of all the firstborn males who survived the Exodus. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt by striking the Egyptians with ten plagues. The final plague was the killing of the firstborn males, both human and animal. To protect the people of Israel from this, God told them to sacrifice a lamb and apply its blood to the doorframes of their houses. When the Angel of Death came to strike down the firstborn males, he passed over the houses upon which the blood was applied. This is why the festival commemorating this event is called Passover (see Sh’mot/Exodus 11:1–12:13).

But how does this relate to the Levites? The tenth plague was not limited to the striking down of the Egyptian firstborn only, but rather all the firstborn of the land of Egypt regardless of nationality. The stubborn disobedience of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, brought general destruction upon his land. There were certain plagues in which the people of Israel experienced special protection, but not all of them. With regard to the tenth plague, if any Israelite home did not follow God’s instructions, their firstborn males would have perished as well. Therefore, the preservation of the Israelite firstborn males was due to God’s special grace upon them. Thus, the firstborn males of Israel were indebted to God to a much greater degree than the rest of the nation. While the whole nation was indebted to God for their freedom, the firstborn males were also indebted to him for their very lives.

The preservation of the firstborn males and their special relationship to God was to be remembered throughout future generations. Instead of the actual firstborn males of the whole nation being called into religious service, God determined that the Levites should stand in their place. Their service to God, therefore, represented God’s unique ownership of the firstborn males.

Just as the Levites were God’s special possession, so are all followers of the Messiah. Like Egypt of old, God’s judgment is coming upon the whole earth. Due to our stubborn refusal to obey God according to his standards, God condemns everyone to eternal destruction unless we apply the blood of Yeshua’s sacrifice to our lives. Like it did over the firstborn males, God’s judgment will pass over us if we follow his instructions and entrust ourselves to Yeshua the Messiah.

Like the firstborn males, if we believe in Yeshua, we are indebted to him, not just for our freedom, but for our very lives. Therefore, like the Levites, we are owned by God. We no longer have the freedom to live however we wish, pursuing our own goals and desires. Rather, as his special possession, we are set apart to serve his interests alone.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Covenantal Foundations

For the week of May 13, 2023 / 22 Iyar 5783

Message info over wooden tablets of a Hebrew representation of the Ten Commandments

Behar & Bechukotai
Torah: Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14
Updated version of message posted the week of June 4, 2016 / 27 Iyar 5776

But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:40-42)

Here in the last weekly portion of the third book of Moses, we read of the conditions under which God would restore the people of Israel to a right relationship with himself and return them to their land. The covenantal reference in the verses quoted above is key to understand God’s unique arrangement with Israel.

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) describes the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience under the covenantal arrangement established through Moses by God at Mt. Sinai. As long as Israel adhered to God’s commands, they as a nation would thrive. But should they reject God’s ways, breaking this covenant, they would experience terrible circumstances, culminating in oppression by their enemies and removal from their land.

Should this occur, which indeed it did, God made provision within the Sinai covenant for restoration to himself and to the land. But note that this provision is not based on the Sinai covenant, but on the earlier one made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Israel’s existence as a people, including their habitation and their role among the nations of the world, was established, not by Sinai through Moses, but through God’s unconditional promise to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3) and passed down to Isaac and Jacob. The Sinai covenant with its conditions of blessings came about as a result of God’s deliverance of Israel from their oppression in Egypt, a deliverance also rooted in his earlier covenant with the patriarchs. This is what we read in Shemot (the Book of Exodus):

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Shemot/Exodus 2:23-24)

The earlier covenant is the driving force behind all of God’s dealings with Israel. So that even if Sinai resulted in failure, which it did, the covenantal foundation would survive. That’s why God’s judgment upon Israel could never be his final word to them. Even after rejecting God by turning to other gods and suffering the threatened consequences, there would always remain a right of appeal to unconditional promises that predate Moses.

This is also why a new covenant would one day be necessary. Jeremiah in chapter thirty-one of his book looked beyond the day when these words of judgment would be fulfilled towards a new covenantal arrangement that would finally resolve the sin problem that continually beset Israel under the Sinai covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31-33). That God’s affirmation of his ongoing faithfulness to Israel is based on their being the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is eloquently stated immediately following:

Thus says the LORD,
who gives the sun for light by day
    and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
    the LORD of hosts is his name:
“If this fixed order departs
    from before me, declares the LORD,
then shall the offspring of Israel cease
    from being a nation before me forever.”

Thus says the LORD:
“If the heavens above can be measured,
    and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel
    for all that they have done,
declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:35-37)

The establishment of the New Covenant on the foundation of the patriarchs provides hope for Israel’s full eventual restoration. It’s in Romans 11:28 that we read despite Israel’s behavior, “they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” More than that! Knowing that the New Covenant is rooted in unconditional promises to Israel assures all its participants, Jew or Gentile, of God’s ongoing faithfulness to them.

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