The One Thing that Really Matters

Circumcision in itself is nothing, just another bit of body modification. It’s irrelevant to your salvation. Neither ritual conversion to Judaism nor ritual rejection of Judaism has any impact whatsoever on who you are in God’s Kingdom. These are merely works, whether good or bad, and, by themselves, works can never save you.

What you do cannot define who you are. Rather what you do is determined by who you are.

This is the true meaning behind Yeshua’s words when he said, “It isn’t what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out of him.” (Matthew 15:11) What comes out of a man isn’t limited to words and waste products, but also includes all the things that a man does. So that what a man does is determined by what is in his heart. The evil that is within comes out as deeds. So if a man, whose faith is in God, commits some infraction through ignorance, accident, or momentary weakness, this cannot condemn him.

Likewise, a man, whose faith is in himself, can do every action that the Law requires and still not be saved in the end. He can be circumcised, eat vegan so that he never risks eating anything unclean, give a double tithe, and volunteer every spare minute to the poor, yet still be condemned to eternal destruction because his faith is not in the Creator.

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but keeping the commandments of God. (1 Corinthians 7:19) And “keeping the commandments” includes the most important commandment of all: You will love Adonai your Elohim with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” (Deutereonomy 6:4-5)

Do you ever wonder why churches don't teach what the Bible actually says?

We call ourselves Christians, so why don't we live as Christ lived?

The Two Trees of Moses

Ecclesiastes 12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Psalm 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!

Proverbs 3:18 Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.

God placed two distinct trees in the Garden of Eden and told Adam that he could eat of one–the Tree of Life–but not the other–the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. You know the story. Adam ate from the wrong tree and died spiritually, condemning all mankind with him. He was exiled from the Garden.

God’s Law (aka Torah) also is a tree of life. Moses said that those who keep it will live and those who do not will be cursed. In Deuteronomy 29:18-20, he described a man who chose the other tree, who said, “I know better than God what is good for me. I don’t need a book to tell me what is good and evil, and I will be blessed despite my flagrant disregard of Torah.” Moses said, “God will not overlook his transgressions. God’s anger and jealousy will smolder against him, and all the curses of the Torah will settle on him, and God will blot out his name from under heaven.”

Proverbs 14:12 There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

Choosing to keep Torah is choosing to submit to God and acknowledge his lordship and superior understanding. Rejecting Torah is claiming to be greater than God or, at the very least, to be equal. This was the same temptation Satan used to persuade Eve in the Garden.

If obedience to God’s Law brings life, as God and his prophets clearly stated many times in Scripture, why then was Israel rejected? Why were they scattered and persecuted as if they had not obeyed?

Paul wrote that Israel followed after “a law of righteousness” in their Zeal for God, but they never attained it. (Romans 9:31) They didn’t really submit themselves to God because they didn’t really have faith in him. The had faith in themselves and submitted to a law mostly created by men. They said, in effect, “If obedience is good, greater obedience must be better,” and added a host of rules on top of God’s commands.

Legalism replaced God's Law with man's. Obedience to God's Law is not legalism.

Legalism replaces God’s Law with man’s, while licentiousness ignores God’s Law. Reject both. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

The Jewish teachers rejected the essence of Torah, and chose love of knowledge and tradition over love of God and man. In trying to gain life, they rejected it in favor of self, and they lost both. They failed to see that, although Torah can enhance one’s life in the here and now, its ultimate end is the salvation of the soul. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes.”

The story isn’t over, yet, though. We have all been redeemed from Adam’s sin if we repent. Just so, God promised to restore Israel and punish those who persecute her. As Israel repents and elevates her love and fear of God over her love of tradition, she is even now being regathered from her long exile.

Deuteronomy 30:1-6 And it shall be when all these things have come on you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and when you shall call them to mind among all the nations where YHWH your God has driven you, and shall return to YHWH your God and shall obey His voice according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, with all your heart, and with all your soul, then YHWH your God will turn your captivity. And He will have compassion on you, and will return and gather you from all the nations where YHWH your God has scattered you….And YHWH your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed, to love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.

Do you ever wonder why churches don't teach what the Bible actually says?

We call ourselves Christians, so why don't we live as Christ lived?

On Becoming Great

Deuteronomy 26:19 And to make thee high above all nations which he hath made, in praise, and in name, and in honour; and that thou mayest be an holy people unto the LORD thy God, as he hath spoken.

Yeshua said that anyone who failed to keep Torah and taught others to do likewise would be called the lowest in the Kingdom of Heaven. I have actually seen people argue that, because he also said that the last will be first and the first will be last, then this means that those who teach that the Law has been abolished will in reality be the greatest in Heaven.

Wow. Self-serving rationalization at its finest.

Yeshua did say that the last will be first and the first will be last, but one can clearly see his intended meaning from the context: He who surrenders earthly status in order to serve God will have great status in Heaven. (See Mark 9:33-37.)

Yeshua sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35

Do you want to be great in God’s eyes? To be called great in Heaven? Then be a servant here on earth. How does one serve on earth? By obeying God’s commandments. As Yeshua said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”

These are God’s commandments as expressed in the Torah and the Prophets:

Leviticus 19:17-19 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. (18) Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. (19) Ye shall keep my statutes…

Deuteronomy 6:5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

Matthew 22:35-40 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, (36) Master, which is the great commandment in the law? (37) Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. (38) This is the first and great commandment. (39) And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (40) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Do you ever wonder why churches don't teach what the Bible actually says?

We call ourselves Christians, so why don't we live as Christ lived?

The Great, Invisible Sin of Our Time

God gave Israel a system for handling difficult criminal cases. They were to take the case before the priests and the national judge and, once a ruling had been made, it was to be obeyed with no questions asked.

The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:12)

God didn’t say, “If the judge’s character is unimpeachable and the priest’s theology is impeccable.” We know from the Biblical histories that the priests and judges weren’t always as pure as the driven snow. Gideon, Samson, Eli… They were a very mixed bag of nuts.

John Chrysostom was the archbishop of Constantinople at the beginning of the 5th century, about one hundred years after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. He is respected in many Christian circles as a great teacher and theologian. I haven’t read all of his writing, but I’ve read enough to know that he had some really good things to say.

He wrote some really rotten things too.

For example, he wrote extensively about what a “poor and miserable” people the Jews are, and not in the sense that they are broke and unhappy. He meant that they are evil, wicked people who deserve nothing but death and abuse at the hands of every good Christian.

No Jew adores God! Who says so? The Son of God says so. For he said: “If you were to know my Father, you would also know me. But you neither know me nor do you know my Father”. Could I produce a witness more trustworthy than the Son of God? -John Chrysostom, Against the Jews, “Homily 1”

In this work, he falsely stated that the synagogues were full of homosexuality and licentiousness, and were the houses of demons. He misquoted scriptures that contain indictments of a subset of Jewish leadership and even some that were directed at unbelieving and rebellious gentiles and he applied them to all Jews everywhere. He slandered all of the Apostles and the first Christians, since they were all Jews.

Chrysostom wasn’t the only venerated Christian teacher to spew such un-Christlike garbage. Martin Luther wrote this gem of libelous absurdity:

The sun never did shine on a more bloodthirsty and revengeful people as they, who imagine to be the people of God, and who desire to and think they must murder and crush the heathen. -Martin Luther, “The Jews and Their Lies”

I find it very difficult to believe that it is possible to love God and hate the Jews (as a people, not any specific sect or individuals) at the same time, and I will be very surprised to see either Chrysostom or Luther after the resurrection.

Fortunately for them, I don’t get to make those decisions.

I can’t see inside of anyone’s soul. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even think I have a very good view of my own. How could I hope to judge someone else? For all I know, John Chrysostom is one of God’s cherished favorites.

Speaking of a “man after God’s own heart”, what about King David? He was an adulterer, a murderer, and an idolater, yet clearly still a great man of God. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners, and despite their frequent efforts to suppress or abolish the abominable institution, they didn’t hold their professions of human equality and God-given rights quite highly enough to do all that was necessary to secure the same rights for all Americans. Nonetheless, I believe them to have been great men.

How can we reconcile the evident greatness of the prominent men and women of history with their equally obvious moral flaws?

It seems to me that the first thing to do is to look in the mirror.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got more than my share of flaws. I’m ashamed of some things I’ve done, and I suspect there are other things in my life that I ought to be ashamed of if only I knew about them.

Nobody is perfect. Everyone sins. Even you.Many of the glaring sins of our forebears weren’t so glaring to them. Every house in David’s day had its household gods, and his was no different. His wife, Michal, used one to trick Saul’s men into thinking David was ill and asleep in bed. Washington and Jefferson thought they were doing everything reasonably within their power to end slavery, although from the twenty-first century it appears that they could have done so much more if they had truly believed their own rhetoric. Martin Luther was only echoing the predominant view of Jews among his countrymen. He had been steeped in lies about the Jews his entire life. These men were all products of their time and cultures, just as we are.

That doesn’t excuse anything they did. Chattel slavery, antisemitism, and idolatry were still sins against God–right is right and wrong is wrong no matter the cultural context–but those things were ubiquitous elements of the time. It’s hard for a fish to see the water in which it swims.

The bad news is that you and I are fish too. In two hundred years, our descendants will be saying the same kinds of things about us. Every day, we need to be looking in the mirror and asking God to reveal our slavery, our idolatry, our antisemitism to us. What is the great, glaring sin to which we have been blinded by air travel, fully stocked grocery stores, and the World Wide Web.

Is it something so obvious as abortion or homosexuality? No, good people with a solid biblical foundation can easily see the evil in those things. The great invisible sin of our age is something that most people don’t even notice and about which only a few people feel a little uneasy.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

I can’t tell you what our great sin is because I don’t know. But I can tell you that destroying the public symbols of our history, the writings, the names, and the images of great men and women who were also guilty of some great, invisible sin of their own, really accomplishes only one thing. It lets us pretend that we are better than they were.

And maybe that’s our sin.

Two Mountains over the Jordan

Mounts Gerizim and Ebal represent blessings and curses for obeying or disobeying God's Law.The Hebrews spent forty years in the wilderness getting to know God and their place in relationship to him. Sometimes they did things his way and things went well. Sometimes they tried it their own way and it went poorly, but eventually they made it through, which means that, on the whole, they must have done more right than wrong along the way.

They fought the Amalekites. They fought Kings Og & Sihon. They won great victories and vanquished wicked peoples who were much stronger than they, at least from the world’s perspective. Finally arriving at the Jordan River, they paused to take stock. It was the moment they had been waiting for the day they walked out of Egypt. Everything had been building to this moment.

After summarizing their long trek, Moses pointed to the two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, and said to them “These two mountains represent the two paths you can take once you’ve crossed over. Things are going to go well for you over there if you obey God’s commandments, or they’re going to go very poorly if you don’t. The choice is yours.”

I can almost hear what they were thinking.

“Hold on. Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute. I thought all the hard stuff was on this side of the Jordan. Isn’t it supposed to be easier on the other side?”

Anyone who has lived very long should understand that’s not how life works. There are easy moments and hard ones, but there is no “easy” stage of life. There is no point at which we can say, “I’ve arrived. I can stop trying now.” But don’t we always seem to slip back into that same assumption that it’s going to get easier once we get past this next challenge? Okay, maybe the next one. The one after that?

The Promised Land was just on the other side of the Jordan, but the Promised Land was never intended to be a place of eternal harps and cotton candy clouds. God intends for the Promised Land to be hard work.

For you are to cross over the Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving you. And when you possess it and live in it, you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the rules that I am setting before you today. (Deuteronomy 11:31-32)

The Jordan didn’t mark the boundary between difficult and easy. It was more like the boundary between practice and execution, between rehearsal and performance. The Promised Land was where the real fighting was to take place and the biggest fight that the Hebrews would face wouldn’t be against the Canaanites. It would be against themselves and their own inclination to forget God’s commandments.

Once their enemies were mostly defeated, Israel lost their focus and drifted into complacency and idolatry. They took possession of the land, but they forgot the most important part of living in it: keeping God’s Law. To obey is to choose Mount Gerizim and life as God intends it to be, while to ignore God’s Law is ultimately to choose Mount Ebal and death.

We cross Jordan Rivers all the time in our lives. The cycle of leaving Egypt, wandering in the Wilderness, fighting giants, and crossing into the Promised Land happens over and over for everyone. When you graduate from school, get married, have children, get that promotion…these are all Jordan Crossings. At every stage of life we face the same challenges: a struggle to achieve freedom, a period of wandering and discovery, hard battles, breakthroughs and victories, and then slowly we drift back into the chains of drudgery, of spent energy and forgotten dreams.

It’s going to happen. You will forget your purpose. You will get stuck in a rut. You will backslide. Don’t beat yourself up about it too much. Thank God that he is a long suffering and forgiving God and that he sent Yeshua to take away the curse of eternal death that disobedience merits!

Having crossed the Jordan, don’t give up. Take possession of the Promised Land that God has given you, whatever it is in your life right now. Maybe it’s a great career, a ministry, or a profound new friendship. But whatever it is, don’t stop at taking possession. Don’t ever think that possession is the end goal.

And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. Are they not beyond the Jordan…? (Deuteronomy 11:29-30a)

Crossing the Jordan is just the beginning. The greatest opportunities for blessing and curses aren’t behind, but still ahead of you. Keep moving, and be careful to follow God’s instructions as you do. Choose to live in your Promised Land. Make it bloom and produce one hundred fold, because God isn’t giving it to you solely for your enjoyment. He is giving it to you so that you can do something with it to glorify him, to lift up his son, Yeshua, and to edify his Kingdom.

Over there, across the Jordan, putting your Promised Land to work is where God intends for you to be. It’s the place where you will be the most effective for the Kingdom. But only if you are faithful and keep your eyes on him.

Questioning Traditions

Traditions are wonderful and powerful forces for creating and reinforcing the bonds of family, community, and nation. Shared experiences even bind together generations separated by centuries. For example, people have been singing hymns at church and synagogue for thousands of years. If you were to travel back in time to a first century congregation, the shared traditions of singing hymns and reading and studying the Scriptures would unite you with those ancient believers in a meaningful way despite the vast linguistic and cultural differences.

Traditions inform our language by filling our words and expressions with meaning. One or two words between two people with a shared culture might contain unspoken volumes. Weddings. Independence Day. Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas sweaters. Merit badges. I know what images these words invoke in the minds of most readers because I see them in my own mind, while they might be meaningless to a Hindu in Jaipur.

Not every tradition is good. Some traditions are tainted by origins in idolatry; others require active participation in sin. Jeremiah prophetically quoted future gentiles turning to God’s truth:

Our fathers have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit. (Jeremiah 16:19)

But I love tradition! We all have traditions we love dearly. And tradition…it loves us too, so much that it doesn’t want to let go. The very qualities that give tradition so much community reinforcing power, also give it claws that grip deeply.

When confronting the Pharisees and Scribes concerning man-made traditions that caused people to break God’s commandments, Yeshua said:

Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. (Mark 7:6-8)

Men who spent their entire lives studying God’s Law couldn’t bring themselves to give up traditions that violated it. For the most part they couldn’t even see that there was a problem. Traditions can become so much a part of who we are that they become semi-invisible.

Even so, we do have to try to see them. When we stand before Yeshua one day, we don’t want to hear the same words he spoke to the Pharisees.

Yeshua gave his life so that we wouldn’t be condemned for our imperfections, but he didn’t give his life so that we could ignore God’s Law either. Fortunately, we don’t have to empty out every room and shine a light into every corner of our lives today. What we need right now is a desire to find and remove the things in our lives that are displeasing to God. The actual removal will take time and we have to be okay with that, both in ourselves and in others.

Three questions to determine if a tradition should be discardedI recommend asking yourself a few simple questions to determine if any tradition or habit or activity is something you need to stop:

1. Does this activity cause you to break one or more of God’s instructions? If yes, stop. If no, carry on.
2. Does this activity prevent you from keeping one or more of God’s instructions? If yes, stop. If no, carry on.
3. If possible, place the activity into the context of a marriage with God as the husband and you as the wife. Would this activity be appropriate in that context? Would it please your husband? If no, stop. If yes, carry on.
4. Does this activity make you uneasy? If yes, go back to question 1. If no, enjoy!

Finally, don’t panic. God doesn’t expect you to do everything perfectly from day one.

Or ever.

There will always be another dustbunny to sweep up, a stain to scrub out. In this life you will never be perfect. Fortunately, God is willing and eager to forgive those who approach him with a right heart, which means a desire to do the right thing even if we can’t always tell what that is.

Understand that God knows you. He knows what’s in your mind and in your heart. On one hand, this understanding ought to have us quaking in our boots. God is privy to every dark thought we entertain. But on the other hand, nobody is any different, and if an evil inclination was a barrier to God’s love, then we would all be lost. This was the very reason that Yeshua shed his blood. It covers over our flaws and washes away our sins so that we can approach God without fear of condemnation so long as we are committed to working out our salvation through continual improvements in our behavior and thoughts.

Cleaning the inherited lies from the dark recesses of life’s closets is important–it’s commanded–but having faith in God’s mercy to overlook the flaws that we have been unable (but not unwilling!) to address is even more important.

Start somewhere because starting everywhere isn’t possible and starting nowhere means we have no faith at all. Don’t get too uptight about all the places you haven’t cleaned yet. Knowing that there is more work to be done is one way that we know we’re on the right track. When you think you’ve got your house completely in order, then you can really start to panic.

Faith and a Punch in the Mouth

Eventually you have to stop preparing and start moving.When some people prepare for a road trip, they spend weeks planning, packing, and making checklists. Other people throw some clothes in a backpack and hit the road without so much as a route mapped out in advance. Based on my own experience, I know which one I’d bet on reaching their destination and having more fun while there, but to each his own.

Of course, some journeys require more planning than others. There’s going to the grocery store and then there’s going off to college. Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t know which is which and sometimes there’s just no time for thorough planning.

The Hebrews spent a lot of time moving from place to place in the wilderness. They spent very little time preparing for each move, but those moves didn’t require or allow extensive planning. Is the cloud moving? Then it’s time to go. But on either side of their wilderness journeys there were two moves that were of a very different sort.

God gave them one day to get ready to leave Egypt and had them prepare by asking their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold. God told Moses to tell the people, “Go ask your neighbors for money. God is sending one more plague tonight, and Pharaoh’s going to let us go in the morning.” They didn’t have years to save their pennies or to collect survival gear. They didn’t have weeks to pack up for the movers. They had one day.

Which was more than Yeshua gave to his disciples one time:

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts–but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:7-11 ESV)

Just like with the Hebrews many centuries before, Yeshua wanted to teach his disciples to trust in Providence. When God tells you to go, he will also provide the means. When the “what” is certain, but the “how” seems unimaginable, trust God to provide the means or an alternate route.

God provides. To reinforce that point to the Hebrews, he led them to a dead end, trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s chariots. Failure appeared certain, yet he made another way. God parted the sea and brought it back together again to drown Israel’s enemies.

Once in the Wilderness, God transformed them from bitter, defeated, and dependent slaves into a cohesive nation with a powerful faith in him. He spent forty years preparing them for their next mission, the conquest of the Promised Land.

If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve learned that no amount of planning can ever account for every possible eventuality. Stuff happens. Roads fork. Children. As Mike Tyson says, “Everybody has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.”

At some point, you have to move from planning to execution. You have to stop training, contemplating, brainstorming and start storming castles.

You have been traveling around this mountain country long enough. Turn northward. (Deuteronomy 2:3 ESV)

After an entire generation had died in the wilderness, it was finally time to stop moving from one campsite to another. It was time for Israel to turn north toward Canaan and start confronting the peoples whom God said had lost all claim to the land.

They had the Torah and the Ark of the Covenant. They had the priesthood and new, aggressive set of leaders. They were hardened and free, no longer thinking like slaves. The Hebrews were as prepared as they could ever be and nation after nation fell before them.

And then they came to Jericho.

They looked at each other and asked, “Now what?” It seemed that nothing they had experienced had prepared them for the impregnable walls and well trained soldiers of Jericho.

But that wasn’t quite true. It was true that their swords, slings, and arrows were no more effective than feathers against that wall, but all of their weapons and tactics were the least of their tools. They had one weapon that was mightier than all the armies that have ever existed: faith.

Faith brings obedience and obedience brings victory.

When no weapon was of any use, they obeyed God. They marched, blew trumpets, marched some more, and then shouted for all they were worth. Against all reasonable expectations, Jericho’s walls collapsed before the weight of their faith and the city was theirs.

Planning and preparation is important–nothing about any of these stories should lead you to believe that God doesn’t want you to prepare for life or ministry–but planning isn’t everything. Eventually you have to stop circling the mountain and turn northward.

When God told the Hebrews to ask their neighbors for traveling money, when he told them not to fear Pharaoh, when he told them to move from camp to camp, and when he told them to march around Jericho he was preparing them by building their faith in him. Without faith, all of our plans and maps will come to nothing. Whatever we might accomplish in life, wherever we think we have gone, without faith in God and the obedience that inevitably follows it, it will all turn to dust before the end.

On that day, when everyone and everything is getting punched in the mouth, only those things solidly built on a foundation of faith and obedience to God will survive.

God Is Faithful to the Faithful

Have I mentioned that I love chiasms? (Technically, I think it’s supposed to be chiasmi, but you know what? I’m sticking with chiasms.)

I do. I love chiasms and I have another one for you. This one is in Psalm 66, which begins and ends with praise to God and a call to the nations to worship the God of Israel, but is centered on the trials and restoration of Israel.

A chiasm in Psalm 66 highlighting God's faithfulness to His faithful remnant

Hard times come and go for everyone and sometimes it seems like there’s more coming than going. I don’t know what is happening in your life or what trials you have faced or might be facing now or in the future. I won’t pretend that I understand your suffering or that I’ve been there. Chances are very good that I haven’t. Overall, my life has been pretty good. I have been fortunate in having been spared most of the horrible things that many people must endure. I pray that God is merciful to you, that your burdens are as easy as they can be and still accomplish God’s purposes.

“God’s purposes? You mean God is doing this to me?”

Probably, yes. Again, I won’t pretend to know everything. Maybe the things you have endured are strictly from the Adversary and not from God at all, but the weight of Scripture is on God causing your suffering.

Many people are under the false impression that God never does anything bad to anyone or that he only did that in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, there are a large number of examples in both Testaments of God inflicting suffering on both the wicked and the righteous, and, as he told Malachi, “I am YHVH. I change not.”

Psalm 66 says

For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance. (Psalms 66:10-12 ESV)

Clearly God inflicted great hardships on Israel. Enslavement in Egypt, oppression by the Philistines and others, conquest by Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome…all brought on Israel by God. The Scriptures and the ancient sages of both Judaism and Christianity are agreed on that point.

Each person suffers for different reasons at different times. Some are wounded and sick so that God can be glorified through their healing. Others, as the Psalmist points out, are afflicted so that they will be refined. And still others so that their lives may become catalysts for the salvation of many more.

Although all peoples have suffered, because of the Scriptures and the scholarly traditions of Jewish culture, we have a more thorough record of the trials of Israel and the Jews than of any other people. Whether they have suffered more or less than others, I can’t say, but after all that they have endured, it is truly remarkable that they still exist as a people at all.

For almost 2000 years they were homeless sojourners all over the world in lands where they were alternately blessed and cursed by their hosts. They have been subjected to genocide after genocide, purge after purge, and yet they persist long after the Philistines, Hittites, and Midianites have vanished from all but stone and parchment.

Because God is faithful.

God promised Israel–the physical descendants of Jacob, not anything called the Church–that he would always preserve a remnant of them for his own purposes. He made covenants with Jacob, Moses, and Pinchas (among others), that their descendants would always be a people before God, and that all the fires, nets, and burdens of the ages could not eradicate them, but would refine them like silver in a crucible.

As we who have submitted ourselves to Messiah Yeshua are grafted into the tree of Israel, we become joint heirs of the promises and prophecies it contains, both good and bad. Refinement by fire is part of being Israel. If we are to be citizens of the Kingdom, then we must be willing to bear our crosses alongside Yeshua, whatever crosses God might have in store for us.

Remember that Yeshua said it was not the Romans or the Jews who crucified him, but he gave up his life willingly according to God’s will. And we know that, just like the suffering recounted by the Psalmist, his suffering was for the good of the whole world. His shed blood opened the way to our adoption into the House of Israel. Without his suffering we would be lost, and without our own suffering, we would remain impure, incomplete and incapable of fulfilling the role that God has for us to play in his great plan.

The chiastic pattern in Psalm 66 tells us what God wants us to do with our suffering: he wants us to praise him, to trust him, to tell the world about his great deeds and how he is faithful to bring those who trust in him through any trial, no matter how severe.

God’s plan might be impossible for us to see from where we stand, but the essence of faithfulness is trusting in him despite whatever evil happens in the world around us, to us or to others. The faithful are preserved, while those who cling to their sin are burned off like dross and cast aside.

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. (Psalms 66:18-19 ESV)

Keep the faith, because God’s purpose is not to destroy his people, but to refine them. Recall what Paul wrote to Timothy:

The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful [to the faithful, according to his word]– for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:11-13 ESV)

And what Yeshua said to the disciples:

But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. (Matthew 24:13 KJV)

Suffering must come, but those who reject God because of it will in turn be rejected by him. Those who endure, however, will be restored in mercy and rewarded appropriately. Stand tall or fall on your face before the almighty, whichever seems right to your circumstances. You are in good company.

When Love Requires Violence

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-45a,48)

In Matthew 5, Yeshua corrected a number of man-made doctrines and misunderstandings of Biblical principles. Although Leviticus 19:18 says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, there is no command in Scripture to “hate your enemy”. It’s easy to see where they would get such an idea, though. In Psalm 139, David wrote,

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:21-22)

This sounds at first like David hated his enemies, but that’s not what he said. David hated “those who rise up against” God and also counted them as his own enemies. He didn’t say that he hated his own enemies, most especially those who merely hated God in their hearts–which is bad enough–but only those who took action on their hatred, who rose up against God in open rebellion, attempting to bring others into their error.

On the national level, the Tanakh (the Old Testament) records numerous instances of God commanding Israel to attack those who had made themselves enemies of God either by attacking God’s people directly or by attempting to lead them into sin through which they could be cursed and defeated.

This is exactly the strategy that Balaam taught Moab and Midian to use against Israel. By attacking Israel, those nations became God’s enemies. If they had attacked Israel only in self-defense, they would still be Israel’s enemies, but not necessarily God’s, and Israel would be in the wrong. But they didn’t attack Israel in self-defense. They didn’t even attack because they hated Israel, but because they hated God who had chosen Israel instead of them.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.” (Numbers 25:16-18)

There is no instance of God commanding Israel to attack or hate anyone simply because they were rivals or enemies of Israel. Edom also hated Israel, but unlike Midian and the various Canaanite nations, they didn’t rise up against God. Despite centuries of conflict between the rival kingdoms, God commanded Israel to respect the boundaries of Edom until they were both conquered by Babylon.

The same principle holds true for interpersonal relationships, especially between brothers among God’s people. In Matthew 5:43-48, Yeshua drew on the broader context of the original source of “love your neighbor as yourself”, Leviticus 19:1-30. This passage is structured as a chiasm (see here for more information on chiasms) in which commands to refrain from hateful behavior are sandwiched between instructions on sacrifice, refraining from idolatry, and reverencing parents, Tabernacle, and Sabbath.

  • v3 – Reverence for parents & Sabbath
    • v4 – Idolatry/paganism
      • v5-10 – Sacrifice and food
        • v11-20 – Fraud, oppression, hatred, mixtures, sexual abuse
      • v21-26a – Sacrifice and food
    • v26b-29 – Idolatry/paganism
  • v30 – Reverence for Tabernacle & Sabbath

A chiasm in Leviticus 19:3-30 that equates hatred with idolatry.This is very similar to another, much larger, chiastic structure in Exodus 25-40. In that instance, the idolatry of the golden calf, after which God commanded the faithful of Israel to kill their own brothers, is set between the stone tablets, Sabbath, and instructions for the Tabernacle. See more details on that chiasm here.

God’s intent in this arrangement appears to be to equate unjust hatred for one’s brothers with idolatry, or hatred of God himself. To paraphrase God’s message…

Don’t steal from or lie to one another. Don’t oppress the powerless. Don’t hold hatred in your heart for your brother. Don’t speak ill of one another. Respect the boundaries I have created. Just like you, your brothers are created in my image and if you abuse them, it is like you are abusing me. My true worshiper not only offers sacrifices and reverences his parents, my sanctuary, and my Sabbath, but reverences his brothers, even those who have done him wrong.

Mercy is always God’s default position. He loves all mankind and doesn’t want even a single person to be lost. But for reasons of his own, he has created us able to reject him and each other. We are fully capable of theft, rape, and murder, and God doesn’t stop us from committing whatever wicked act comes into our hearts.

Just as he has empowered us to do evil, he has empowered and even commanded us to correct injustices. We are required to execute murderers and adulterers and to exact punishment and restitution where applicable.

The punishment of criminals and the destruction of entire nations who have sworn enmity against God is not counter to Yeshua’s instructions to love one another. It is impossible to love everyone equally as some are willing oppressors while others are innocently oppressed. To destroy the one is to love the other and God’s word is consistently in favor of the oppressed.*

Usually love means being kind and merciful, but sometimes love also requires violence.

*And by oppressed I don’t mean poor or uneducated. Those are conditions that might be the result of oppression, but they might as easily be the result of natural disasters or poor personal decisions. I mean people who are actively being oppressed by someone else and who are unable to defend themselves.

The Rewards of Kings and Prophets

Whoever receives you, receives me

Israel had been in the wilderness for 38 very long years. They had wandered–seemingly without end–through some of the harshest terrain the world has to offer, living in tents, driving their herds before them. They had suffered internal and external violence, fire from heaven, and the earth opening beneath their feet. Finally, they were on the border of the Promised Land. They could walk north through a short stretch of territory belonging to Edom before crossing the Jordan to their new home. Just a few more miles.

That was the plan, at least, but no plan ever goes quite the way we intend.

At the border of Edom, Moses sent messengers to the king asking for permission to cross. Israel would not stray from the main road and would pay for any resources used, even for water. The king refused them passage, and they had to walk months and many miles out of their way.

After Israel had gone around Edom, they encountered King Arad, who not only refused them passage, but attacked them unprovoked. King Sihon, the Amorite, and King Og of Bashan, followed suit. Their hostility to the Hebrews is unexplained in Scripture. Their land wasn’t within the boundaries that God had originally described, so until they attacked Israel (or, as in the case of Edom, simply refused to cooperate), they had no cause to worry about this vast horde descending from the wilderness.

Not only did they have no cause to attack, but they had every reason to be friendly. Every nation in the area must have known what happened to Egypt. Why weren’t they afraid? Each of these kingdoms suffered a worse fate than the one before. Edom lived in Israel’s shadow for many centuries until they were ultimately destroyed as a nation and partially absorbed into Judah. Arad’s people were devoted to future destruction. King Sihon’s Amorites were dispossessed, and their land was occupied by the Israelites. Finally, King Og and his people were destroyed, men, women, and children.

Imagine how different Edom’s place in history might have been if they had helped Israel instead of hindering them? If they had been willing to trade with Israel, they could have established a very profitable relationship that might still exist today.

When preparing the twelve disciples (How many tribes of Israel are there, again?) for their evangelistic missions, Yeshua said “Whoever receives you, receives me.” Then he extend this principal to all people who are anointed by God to perform a mission.

One who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

I believe he was specifically thinking about these episodes in Numbers 20 & 21 when he said this, and here is the clincher:

Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.

He told twelve men that those who provide aid–a cup of water, even–to them while on a God-ordained journey will receive a reward. The parallel to the twelve tribes being denied a cup of water by Edom is hard to escape. Indeed, those who will not extend a cup of cold water to them will receive their reward as well, but they might not like it very much.

Just ask King Og.

There are a number of reasons why someone might attack one of God’s anointed: hatred of God, jealousy of their anointing or position, pride, etc. It’s no different today. Whatever motivated Edom and Arad still motivates people today. Anyone who boldly speaks out against precipitously declining morals will be attacked. It doesn’t matter how polite they are about it. The truth is hateful to people who are desperate to believe a lie.

Everyone in God’s Kingdom has a job to do, and all of our jobs are important no matter how big or small they appear in our own eyes. King Og was a giant of a man–Deuteronomy 3:11 says his bed was about 13 feet long–but he was a gnat before God’s little ones. Don’t be afraid to put your hand to your plow or to your cross. (The two are very often one and the same.) You might not be a prophet or pastor, but whatever God has given to you is important, and the rewards for obedience are great. We are all anointed for one task or another and we all have opportunities to aid one another along the way.

It’s even possible that the job God has given you is to stand at the side of the road with a cup of cold water like Phoebe did for Paul. (Romans 16:1) Don’t dismiss service and kindness as inconsequential. Edom could have saved millions of people months of hardship just by standing aside and giving a little water. Instead, they are gone, erased from history as a people, remembered only for what they did wrong.

Be who God made you to be and don’t stand in the way of others who are also about God’s business. You will by no means lose your reward, and when you aid others in God’s service, your reward will be all the greater.