God’s Forgiveness

For the week of October 1, 2022 / 6 Tishri 5783

Message info along with traditional Rosh Hashanah fruit and honey

Vayeilech (Shabbat Shuva)
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English: 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19)

We are currently in the High Holiday season, particularly what is called, “the Ten Days of Awe,” the time between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year, the biblical Feast of the Blowing of the Shofar) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The Haftarah readings this week are composed of excerpts from three Hebrew prophets and are in keeping with the themes of the season.

For some reason, I was struck by the concept of God’s forgiveness last week. It’s not as if I had done anything seriously wrong at the time. I was heavily burdened over wondering if something I had said or done was the right thing or not. I do struggle with perfectionist tendencies and an inordinate desire for other people’s approval. Some of you can relate, I am sure. “Should I have said that? What are they thinking? I am sure it was the right thing to do, but I probably could have done better. Perhaps if I had said it differently. But am I responsible for how other people react or perceive me?” Exhausting!

Then the thought came to me: I am forgiven. God forgives me. I am not saying that I shouldn’t take responsibility if I had done something truly wrong. Believe me, I am not saying that! It’s that I was impressed by how, objectively speaking, my life rests upon a foundation of forgiveness. Because of what God has done for me through the sacrifice of the Messiah, I am right with God. You might think that’s pretty easy to say especially for someone biblically and theologically savvy like myself. But in the moment, it’s as if I saw it – vividly saw it – for the first time.

The picture that came to me was that because I was right with God, I was fundamentally right with the universe. Sorry if that sounds too mystical but stay with me for a second. The term “sin,” is a biblical concept to describe the way human beings fail to meet God’s standards. It’s something we do (or don’t do) that is rooted in that part of our nature that’s been inherited from the beginning when our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God. The result of sin is God’s cursing of the human family and the entire creation in which we live. It’s as if everything is tainted or broken as a result of human rebellion against God.

When Messiah came and presented himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin, he repaired the brokenness effected by the curse. Since then, history has been in a process of renewal that will culminate upon his return, when he will judge all who have ever lived and will fully establish God’s reign forever. Trusting in the Messiah reconciles us with God and connects us to God’s restorative power. While we continue to interact with the world’s current broken state, it’s as if we do so within the context of the final restoration now.

Forgiveness releases the believer from the control and effects of sin. Sin no longer defines who we are or determines our destiny. The barriers between us and God have been removed. As a result, the resources of heaven, God’s goodness and power, are at our disposal. Our restored relationship with God changes our relationship to the entire creation. While the broken creation will continue to give us trouble, because of God’s forgiveness, it needn’t have the upper hand in my life. God isn’t holding my sin against me any longer. Instead, his love and presence are guaranteed no matter what happens.

The prophet Micah foretold that God would “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). It is from this that the custom of “tashlikh” is derived. Usually preformed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, people go to a flowing body of water and take food, usually bread, and cast them from their pockets into the water to symbolize God’s casting our sins into the depths of the sea. That wasn’t the picture I had in mind, last week, but it’s a good one. Because God himself has cast away our sins, we needn’t be burdened by them anymore.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


God’s Faithfulness

For the week of September 24, 2022 / 28 Elul 5782

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20 (English: 29:10 – 30:20)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:1-3)

This section of the Torah is extraordinary. First, given all that God had done for the people of Israel up to this point, one would not think of anticipating failure resulting in exile. But more surprising is the promise of return. That God would make room for Israel’s restoration after suffering the consequences of their unfaithfulness is core to God’s revelation of himself and his character.

God used the people of Israel as the stage for making himself known to the world. It is through the giving of Torah that we learn the truth that the universe was created not by some meaningless random process, but personally by God through his word. We discover that it was made not as a substandard, less real, evil material mistake, but as a very good complex design within which God’s purposes would be accomplished. We learn that human beings are distinct from the rest of creation due to our being made in God’s image. And that we have been commissioned to care for and rule over Planet Earth. The brokenness of creation is due to the first humans’ failure to obey God, but this state is temporary until God eradicates the influence of evil. How that works out is what the story of the rest of the Bible is all about.

The promises to Abraham as passed down through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob are the foundation of the development of the people of Israel, whom God would use to accomplish the restoration of his creation. God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt demonstrates his role as rescuer. His giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai reveals how human image bearers are to reflect his holy character. Israel’s failure to live up to God’s ways shows how humans cannot resolve our alienation from God on our own. God’s judgement upon Israel emphasizes the seriousness of that alienation. His promises with regard to the Messiah returns us to the rescue motif in which we are reminded of our ongoing need of God to fulfill his promise of creation restoration.

Central to God’s character is his heart for restoration. Not only is this a foundational theme with regard to his creation generally, but also in his understanding the dynamics of how he relates to his people. Throughout the whole of Scripture, including the New Covenant Writings, he remains faithful to Israel despite his harsh warnings and severe punishments. As he said through Moses in this week’s parsha, he was determined to always remain open to the possibility of Israel’s restoration even after being exiled among the nations. Paul wonderfully elaborates upon this in Romans, chapter 11 (see my booklet on the subject for more information).

While God’s faithfulness to Israel has been a great source of hope to Israel, it is not for Israel alone. When one realizes how much we have received from God, starting with our very existence, we have no claim upon him. Every act of love and generosity on his part is derived exclusively from him. After all he has done, he has every right to make any and all demand of us, not to mention calling us to account for every abuse of our place and position in life. And yet, through Israel, he has demonstrated that he is always ready to restore us to right relationship to him whenever we turn back to him.

The New Covenant Writings strongly emphasize God’s faithfulness as rooted in Hebrew Scripture. In the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), while the son’s return journey must have taken some time, as far as his father was concerned, despite the level of disregard his son had shown him, his acceptance was immediate. We also read how God’s heart of restoration is well-expressed by John in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Commandment Intolerant

For the week of September 17, 2022 / 21 Elul 5782

Message info over a person holding their stomach and extending the other hand palm out

Ki Tavo
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (English 26:1 – 29:9)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the LORD your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the LORD your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

I am gluten intolerant. After testing negative for celiac disease, but based on my symptoms, my doctor advised me to stay away from wheat and other sources of gluten. What a difference it made!. I must admit, I do cheat, but rarely. When I do, it is with a sense of trepidation, as I anticipate discomfort.

With this picture in mind, it seems to me that many Christians are “commandment intolerant.” Any suggestion that God might have clear demands upon us, is deemed bad for one’s health, spiritual or otherwise. These folks seek to follow a strict commandment-free diet.

The commandment intolerant tend to regard commandments as part of an antiquated, detrimental Old Testament system. It’s as if God’s word to the ancient Israelites was nothing but damning evidence against their deprived irredeemable nature. Hundreds of commandments over hundreds of years had no other function whatsoever but to demonstrate human beings’ alienation from God as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. This appears to be backed up by New Testament statements such as:

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

I don’t deny that this is indeed a function of God’s commandments. By revealing his standards to Israel, God makes clear to everyone the whole world’s fundamentally deprived condition. Accepting this is a necessary step in experiencing restored relationship with God through Messiah’s sacrifice on our behalf. This negative function, however, doesn’t automatically preclude one or more positive ones. Clearly, keeping God’s commandments resulted in all sorts of benefits, individually and corporately, be they health, agricultural prosperity, or national security.

Didn’t Yeshua himself say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)? Despite such a clear statement, the commandment intolerant claim that Yeshua’s approach is night and day different from that of Moses. Moses, they say, gave 613 commandments (which is really a rabbinic calculation. Whatever the actual number is, there are a lot of them), while Yeshua just gave two. The “two-commandment” version of the Messiah is a complete misrepresentation of what he said on the topic. Both references to the “two commandments” give “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:5) as the first, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18) as the second. The Matthew version (Matthew 22:34-40) has a Pharisee who was also a Torah expert, ask “which is the great commandment in the Torah (Law)?.” In the Mark version (12:28-33), a Scribe asks, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” The differences in the identity of the questioners and their questions suggest that these are two different incidences. This shouldn’t be surprising due to how such questions were and are common in Jewish thought. While the two commandments are the same in each incident, Yeshua’s closing remarks are different. In Matthew’s version, it’s “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” In Mark, it’s that doing these “is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In both cases, Yeshua in no way diminishes the important of obeying God’s commands, but rather provides God’s perspective and priorities on how best to approach them.

A commandment-intolerant position cuts the reader off from Scripture. Whether you are reading the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Covenant Writings, there is just nothing that isn’t a commandment of some kind. Scripture doesn’t require “thou shalts” to be a commandment. Whether it is a “thou shalt” or a narrative section, Scripture is God’s revelation instructing us how to live. The all-wise God has graciously revealed reality to us. To ignore his directives, however spoken, is to purposely disregard God’s gracious benefits.

This is not to say that every single one of God’s commands in Scripture is for all people everywhere for all time. But that’s another issue for another time. Still, the only way to discern the ongoing nature of Scripture is to begin with hearts open to God’s instructions, whatever they may be.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


It Is Written

For the week of September 10, 2022 / 14 Elul 5782

Message info over a image of a finger writing in the sand

Ki Teitzei
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:22)

Following up on The Lost Torah from last week, I want to look at how misguided interpretations of the New Covenant writings (the New Testament) have led to a tragic neglect of God’s Word as revealed through Moses. Both Yeshua and his followers have been mischaracterized as misrepresenting their deep-seated conviction of the ongoing relevancy of Hebrew Scripture.

An example of this is the well-known story of what’s often called “the woman caught in adultery” found in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John. It is here we read of a group of religious leaders bringing a woman to Yeshua to apparently get his legal opinion. Claiming she was “caught in adultery,” they asserted that, according to the books of Moses, she should be stoned to death. The story explicitly tells us that the leaders were doing this to purposely test him to get him in trouble. If you think about it, however, this comment is hardly needed. What other reason would there be to make such an inquiry of Yeshua? Jewish courts were well established. Yeshua’s input wasn’t necessary to determine a verdict. While theoretical discussions of this nature were commonplace among Jewish leaders and teachers of the day, this wasn’t a theoretical discussion. It was an actual case.

Regardless, Yeshua takes them on, knowing full well their hypocrisy. Note his immediate reaction. He writes with his finger on the ground. How I wish I knew what he wrote, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a Torah verse on the subject like the one I quoted at the beginning. Yeshua then says the famous words: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7) and goes back to writing. Then one by one, they leave until only Yeshua and the woman remain.

No doubt a key lesson here is one of attitude. As sinful human beings, religious leaders included, we all need to exercise great humility when addressing the wrongs of others. But many take this further, claiming Yeshua necessarily implies that such wrongs shouldn’t be addressed at all. He is wrongly understood as teaching a novel form of extreme love and forgiveness in contrast to an assumed Old Testament harsh judgementalism.

I don’t deny that in the Messiah we encounter a greater depth of love and forgiveness hitherto unknown, but it is not as entirely different as some would have us think. It’s not as if Yeshua simply lets the woman off the hook. His final words to her are not, “Neither do I condemn you,” but “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Exactly what the woman’s sin was, we don’t know, though in the context it is likely she had done the very thing she was accused of. Why then let her off the hook? Whether or not Yeshua wrote one or more Torah verses on the subject, he was certainly aware what Torah actually teaches on this matter: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:22). Picture the Messiah writing on the ground, “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man.” Where, then, is the man? How could it be that the woman was found caught in adultery, while the religious leaders didn’t know who the fella was? This is not about a disregard of Torah, but the exposing of gross hypocrisy.

Contrary to popular misconception, Yeshua and his followers don’t undermine Hebrew Scripture. They clarify it. Yeshua didn’t undermine, contradict, or replace Torah. Instead, he taught it as it was meant to be understood and obeyed. Once we accept that, we are far better equipped to grasp both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Covenant Writings.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version