Mercy Place

For the week of March 4, 2017 / 6 Adar 5777

3D Illustration of the Ark of the Covenant

For illustration purposes only. Not intended to provide exact representation of the Ark.

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)

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You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. (Shemot/Exodus 26:34)

As part of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and its furnishings, God directed Moses to build a “kapporet,” an ornate cover to be placed on top of the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). The aron ha-b’rit was an elegant box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar with a portion of manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded. It resided in the Mishkan’s inner sanctum called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: the Most Holy Place), and it represented the very presence of God within the community of Israel.

When the “Cohen Ha-Gadol” (English: the High Priest) entered the kodesh ha-k’dashim once a year at Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), the kapporet was the focus of his attention, for he was to apply the blood of the festival’s special sacrifices before it and over it (see Vayikra/Leviticus 16:11-4). The purpose of this ritual was to provide purification for the inner sanctum from the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins.

The kapporet was a lid made of pure gold overshadowed by the wings of golden “k’ruvim” (English: cherubim). The Scriptures tell us little about these creatures. We are introduced to them when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and God placed them to guard the tree of life. It is possible, therefore, that their being symbolically part of the kapporet was to remind Israel that the way to everlasting life remained blocked during the days of the Mishkan and its successor, the Temple.

Many English Bible versions translate kapporet as “mercy seat.” This goes back to one of the earliest English Bible translators, William Tyndale, whose 16th century translation became the core of the King James Bible and much of subsequent English translation tradition. It appears that Tyndale’s rendering of kapporet as mercy seat is based on Paul’s use of the Greek equivalent “hilastērion” in his letter to the Romans as he refers to the Messiah Yeshua, “whom God hath made a seat of mercy through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:25; Tyndale’s version). Hilastērion is the word for kapporet used by the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was common in Paul’s day. While hilastērion had a different usage in Greek outside the Bible, Paul must have had its biblical use in mind, a connection that Tyndale choose to make abundantly clear.

Regrettably, in my opinion, the translators of the King James Bible and many other later English translations chose not to preserve this connection. Instead most go with the pagan Greek meaning, “propitiation,” which is the idea of appeasing an angry god. Ironically, the King James and many other English translations that use “propitiation” in Romans retain Tyndale’s “mercy seat” in Exodus even though the reason for translating the kapporet as “mercy seat” is because Tyndale was drawing from Paul’s allusion in Romans to the place of God’s presence and mercy where cleansing occurs.

You may not be aware of the great controversy among scholars over the meaning of Paul’s use of hilastērion. This is part of a discussion about how Yeshua’s suffering and death provides forgiveness and acceptance to those who trust in him. But however it works, let us not miss the power of Paul’s allusion. Through Yeshua’s giving of his life, he has become our kapporet – the place of mercy. What was once hidden and inaccessible has become available to all. If we put our trust in him, God purifies us once and for all, making us fit to freely enter his presence.

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


Where Is Heaven?

For the week of February 25, 2017 / 29 Shevat 5777

Beautiful blue sky background as metaphor for heaven

Mishpatim & Shekalim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; 30:11-16
Prophets: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 & 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Shemot/Exodus 24:9-11)

One of the most intriguing incidences in the Torah is when Moses, his brother Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and seventy elders had a meal with God. The references to seeing and beholding God seem to contradict God’s later statement to Moses about not seeing his face (see Shemot/Exodus 33:20). But in both occasions, there seems to be a seeing but not seeing happening at the same time. In the later story, Moses is told that he can’t see God’s “face,” but only his “back” (33:23). How literally this is to be taken, we don’t know. It is reasonable to assume that seeing God’s face versus his back are references to levels of encountering his presence in the physical realm. Human beings, due to our alienation from him, can only tolerate his revealing himself to some extent, a fullness of which would result in death. This explains the reaction of surprise by people such as Jacob, Gideon, Samson’s parents, and Isaiah, who have encountered God in some physical sense and yet survived (e.g. Bereshit/Genesis 32:30; Shoftim/Judges 6:22-23; 13:22, Isaiah 6:5).

A hint that Moses and company in this instance didn’t see God in his fullness is the mentioning of “his feet” and the appearance of the ground underneath God. If they saw more than that, one would think that there would be other more graphic things to describe.

Experiencing the presence of God or the lack thereof is a recurring element of Scripture. The early pages of the Bible describe God as naturally mingling with people (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:8). Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden due to their rebellion against their Creator marks the beginning of our alienation from him. And yet God is not entirely absent. His contact with human beings from that time on is primarily verbal (however that worked) with a few dramatic and more intimate encounters such as the ones I have referred to.

The directives given by God to Moses concerning the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), the precursor of the Temple, indicate God’s desire to dwell with his people. On one hand, he was understood to be in the people’s midst, but on the other hand, he was hidden from them behind the veil in front of the Mishkan’s inner sanctum, “the Holy of Holies.”

But doesn’t God live in a completely other place called “heaven?” Both the experience of eating with God and God’s presence within the Mishkan tell us something different. Heaven isn’t way out there; it’s where God is. Understanding heaven as far away is a way of speaking to describe the separation of God’s realm from the world in which we live. Yet the Bible teaches that the heavenly realm breaks in from time to time. And one day, the heavenly and earthly realms will co-exist harmoniously as God always intended, when the New Jerusalem is established on earth (see Revelation 21). Moses and company had a taste of the age to come.

We can access heaven now. That’s what happens when God’s Spirit takes up residence in us. The Messiah’s sacrifice and defeat of death through his resurrection creates an access to heaven beyond anything experienced prior to his coming. Heaven, the realm of God, is not something we are waiting for to happen when we die; it can be our current reality by putting our trust in Yeshua.

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


What’s with the Sabbath?

For the week of February 18, 2017 / 22 Shevat 5777

Ask me a Bible Question!

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6 (English Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:6-7)

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Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Shemot/Exodus 20:8-11)

I was recently in Vancouver, Canada, to participate in a convention called “Missions Fest.” Over three days thousands of people gather at one of the city’s largest venues to hear speakers on a variety of biblical topics. My ministry was one of over two hundred which had displays, small and large. Weeks before the event, I was discussing with one of my daughters what I might do to encourage people to interact with my display. She suggested I make a simple sign with the words, “Ask me a Bible question!” on it. This led to some very interesting discussions.

One interaction didn’t go so well, because in the name of asking me a question, the person chose to harshly lecture me on the Sabbath. In the end, they questioned my eternal future with God because I wouldn’t fully subscribe to their perspective, which is too bad, since this is a very important, and often neglected, issue.

So, as briefly as I can I will share what I believe to be a sound biblical perspective on the Sabbath. First, however we might derive universal moral principles from the Ten Commandments (of which the Sabbath command is a part), it is primarily a cornerstone of the covenant given by God to the people of Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. As the special ten, they represented the whole of the covenant, which includes many other directives covering every aspect of Israelite society. This is why the tablets of the Ten Commandments were to be included in the Ark of the Covenant, stored in the Most Holy Place within the Tabernacle and later the Temple.

Unlike the earlier covenant God made with Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which was unconditional and eternal, the Sinai Covenant through Moses was conditional and temporary. As a covenant, it was broken by the people of Israel by their turning to other gods over and over again. God’s response to the breaking of the Sinai Covenant was the New Covenant promised through the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-33) and instituted by the Messiah (see Luke 22:20).

The New Covenant internalizes much of the essence of the Sinai Covenant and permanently establishes right relationship with God. And so, as a system of law, the Sinai Covenant is no longer in effect. Therefore, the Ten Commandments as representative of the Sinai covenant aren’t binding. This doesn’t imply that the principles they represent are to be neglected necessarily, since biblically speaking they, like so many of the other directives contained in the Sinai Covenant, are clearly eternal, universal principles. Application of the Sabbath beyond the confines of ancient Israel, however, isn’t straightforward. As the early followers of Yeshua began to teach God’s Truth to non-Jews, while they taught principles based on Old Covenant Scripture, including the Ten Commandments, they warned against the imposition of Sabbath law (e.g. Galatians 2:16; Colossians 4:10). Why is that?

Unlike the other nine and many other directives revealed by God through Moses, Sabbath keeping includes more than the moral and spiritual components of other commands. By regulating the work-week, Sabbath also addresses general society. Not only would it be impossible for people outside the Jewish world to effectively observe Sabbath by demanding the cessation of work, it would cause an unnecessary clash with the pagan world of that day.

Does that mean, therefore, that Sabbath has no place whatsoever among Yeshua’s followers? For much of history Sabbath has been most central to the lives of believers. It is thought that the Sabbath was changed from the seventh day (Saturday) to the first (Sunday), due to Yeshua’s resurrection and the early believers meeting on that day. Actually, there is very little evidence of what really occurred and why. Nevertheless, believing communities for most of the past two thousand years have almost always determined that some sort of Sabbath keeping was to be implemented. They were right to do so, because even though Sabbath keeping was not to be imposed upon believers from among the nations, it is clearly an important principle of Scripture stemming back prior to the giving of the Sinai Covenant. While the Sabbath as expressed in the Ten Commandments is specific to Israel under the Sinai Covenant, it is not only rooted in creation (Bereshit/Genesis 2:1-3), it reveals God’s perspective on the need for rest, not only for self, but for those under our care, including even animals. Why, therefore, would we not seek to implement a principle that so obviously expresses God’s understanding of life, work, and rest?

By not imposing their particular implementation of Sabbath the early Jewish believers gave non-Jewish communities the opportunity to develop culturally appropriate expressions of Sabbath over time, which is exactly what they did do, that is until more recently when it is just about forgotten altogether.

While we are not mandated to impose Sabbath keeping upon one another, we would be well advised to seek God and the Scriptures for appropriate application of the Sabbath within our communities today. This includes speaking into the society at large, encouraging civil governments to return to the kind of godly rhythm of rest exemplified by the Creator himself.

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


Vulnerable Situations

For the week of February 11, 2017 / 15 Shevat 5777

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31

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And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. (Shemot/Exodus 13:21)

Freedom! Such a key theme of Scripture. The exodus from slavery in Egypt is a prototype pointing to the Messiah’s release from the grip of the greater slavery of death. Genuine freedom is different from our many popular conceptions. For many today, freedom is imaged as the unrestricted ability to do whatever we want whenever we want however we want to or with whomever we want as much as we want. But true freedom is not the opposite of any and all constraint; it’s the opposite of oppression. The people of Israel’s journey through the wilderness is an authentic picture of freedom: God’s people in bondage to Pharaoh set free to serve the only living and true God.

The period between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land is full of unusual demonstrations of the power and presence of God. One of these was ongoing – the pillar of cloud and fire. The pillar was their God-given GPS system to direct their journey day by day. In the daytime, its appearance was as a cloud. At night, it was as fire to light their way. Thus, they were able to travel day or night.

Hold on! Day or night? They sometimes had to travel at night? Who wants to travel at night? You call that freedom? Besides walking for who knows how many hours per day (and that’s families with kids), they didn’t get to rest when they wanted to, but rather at God’s command. On the other hand, perhaps travelling at night might be preferred due to the wilderness conditions in that part of the world. All of a sudden night travel doesn’t sound that bad. Under normal circumstances, objections to night travel would be its associated dangers, including robbers and wild animals. Nighttime might be ideal for expert trackers and swift warriors, but not so good for the young and the weak. Unless God himself provides the headlights!

Whatever the reason for night travel (or day travel), God gave them exactly what they needed to negotiate the difficult environment whenever they needed to be on the move. I wonder when they entered the Promised Land, and the pillar was no more, if the people thought God was no longer with them. Or with them, but not so close; available, but not so available. While he continued to guide the people and help them overcome great challenges in the Land, they no longer had this vivid, obvious demonstration of his powerful presence.

But the reason why they had the pillar in the wilderness is because it was a pillar they needed at the time. People who have a genuine relationship with the God of Israel will often say when reflecting upon the darkest moments of their lives that they sensed God’s presence with them in unusual, almost tangible, ways during those times. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t with them during other times. When life is more routine there’s no need for him to shout directions at us. Normal living as God’s people is beautifully expressed near the end of Psalm 32:

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you. (Tehillim/Psalm 32:8-9)

The pillar of cloud and fire was not proof of God’s presence with the people, but rather the necessary provision at the time. God always knows in every circumstance exactly what we need, whether it be a shout from heaven or a quiet whisper inside our hearts; a pillar of fire or silent confidence in his faithfulness. Because of God’s goodness and because his people were in an extremely vulnerable situation, his faithfulness was evidenced through something as dramatic and tangible as the pillar of cloud and fire.

On one hand, I want to encourage you that you needn’t be concerned about not experiencing God in dramatic ways, since God’s presence is not dependent upon such things. But, I also want to encourage you to ask yourself if perhaps the lack of such things is more due to an unwillingness to step out into the kinds of vulnerable situations in which God’s tangible presence is often made manifest. Just asking.

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