The Importance of Primary Sources

The importance of primary sources in finding the real truth.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there’s a newspaper out there that employs unbiased reporters and never confuses reporting with opining. I know that’s a stretch, but let’s pretend anyway. We’ll call it The Daily Truth.

If you want to know what’s been going on in Congress you have four choices:

  1. Read the Congressional Record, which is a play-by-play created by people who were there and participating.
  2. Read the Politics section of The Daily Truth, which may or may not include reporting by people who were present at the events, but certainly includes narrative based on the Congressional Record.
  3. Read the Opinion page of The Daily Truth, which includes personal opinions about the news reported in the Politics section written by people who definitely weren’t there.
  4. Check Facebook, which is like the Opinion page in the junior high student newspaper. You’ll be lucky if anyone even knows The Daily Truth exists, because it’s not allowed on Facebook.

Now, the Opinion page will certainly have content relevant to current events and even to specific and important political issues, but opinions aren’t facts. If you want to know what actually happened as opposed to what some pundit thinks about what happened, you only have two reasonable options: the Congressional Record and the Politics section of The Daily Truth, and most of the Politics section is probably written by people who don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the events they’re reporting.

So, if you want to get the bare facts–or as close to the facts as possible–then you have to go to the primary sources.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a record of events by someone with first-hand knowledge. Examples include meeting minutes, personal diaries and letters, and first-hand accounts of historic events.

A secondary source is opinion about a primary source. Examples include most news articles, history books (not written by witnesses), academic papers, documentary videos, and commentary.

A Facebook post is a quip about headlines about opinions about primary sources.

Secondary sources can be interesting and informative, but they will never be anything more than opinion about someone else’s reporting of the facts. If you want to know the actual facts, and not opinions, you have to go to a primary source.

Of course, that doesn’t mean secondary sources are useless.

All translations of primary sources are, to a great extent, secondary sources, because translations are always affected by the knowledge and biases of the translator. Many words in one language have no direct equivalents in other languages, and sometimes the same word can have multiple meanings. If you were to translate a personal letter from Russian to English, you would have to make some guesses about what the author meant by some phrases. You would have an even harder time with translating across very different cultures in different eras.

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, etc., are almost always secondary sources and can have huge disparities in their reliability.

The solution is to consult primary sources whenever possible and to consult several secondary sources when necessary. Make it your habit to compare Bible translations, Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, and commentaries. Over time, you will cultivate a good feel for which of these resources are reliable, which are interesting, and which are safe to ignore completely.

Even then, remember that the most reliable secondary source is still someone’s opinions about a primary source. They might be excellent opinions, but they’re still just opinions.

See this guide from the University of Massachusetts Boston for more information: description and examples of Primary vs Secondary Sources.

Return to the Common Sense Bible Study home page.

Be Aware of Your Assumptions when Reading the Bible

Everyone assumes.

That’s not a bad thing in itself. We have experiences and we’ve been taught things about the world, and we use this information from our past to help us understand what we experience in the present and what we expect from the future. We will never know everything there is to know about any event in our lives or that we read about, but we make assumptions about things that we can’t see based on what we have seen in similar circumstances before.

If you see a masked figure running from a bank, the movies you’ve watched, the news you’ve read, and your personal experiences with masks and banks will probably lead you to assume that the person has just robbed the bank. You’d probably be right.

Without assumptions, we’d be paralyzed by every new event. We would never be able to make decisions about anything because we’d have to analyze every detail and every detail about those details.

Unfortunately, our assumptions aren’t always right. Maybe there’s an employee costume party going on at the bank or the running figure was a horribly disfigured man late for an appointment with his plastic surgeon. Neither explanation seems likely, but they’re both possible.

The farther a situation is from our personal experiences, the more likely it is that our assumptions about it will be wrong. The passing of only a few decades or a few thousand miles can mean dramatic cultural changes.

Consider the differing experiences of farmers across the world in the same year. The work of a coffee grower in Indonesia, a Chinese rice farmer, a corn farmer in Iowa, and a greenhouse grower in Massachusetts has significant similarities. They plant, cultivate, harvest, and sell, but the differences are also significant. One might be a technician with an advanced degree in botany or biology, while another might be an illiterate slave. They speak different languages, use different tools and methods, have different values, follow different growing seasons and development cycles. They would not use the same vocabulary to record their life stories, nor the same metaphors to communicate their thoughts about God.

War, mass migrations, changes in language, economic conditions, technology… the potential complications can get…um…complicated. Now, extend that across thousands of years, a hundred generations and dozens of genocides, the rise and fall of empires and religions.

Welcome to Bible study.

The Bible was written over the course of 1500+ years, in multiple languages, by people with vastly different personal experiences and assumptions about the world. When you read it, you need to be aware of the historical, cultural, linguistic, and personal context of the original text, and even more aware of your own presuppositions.

If you approach the Bible wearing your modern American assumptions over your eyes, you are going to see much that isn’t there, and you will miss much that is. Your study will tend to reinforce what you think you already “know” rather than reveal what actually is.

Surviving through Trials, Prospering by Faith

The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, (2) “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (3) For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, (4) but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (5) You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. (6) The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, (7) and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.
Leviticus 25:1-7

And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ (21) I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. (22) When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives.
Leviticus 25:20-22

Every seventh year, called the Shemitah, God wants the land to rest from laboring for mankind. He promised that if his people allow the land to rest in that year–no sowing or reaping–then he would provide a triple harvest in the sixth year, enough to still be eating it in the ninth year.

This can all be a little hard to grasp when you don’t live in an agrarian culture, so I charted it out to see why we would need a triple harvest in the sixth year when we are only supposed to skip planting and harvesting in one year.

  • The GREEN BARS represent the time from planting until harvest.
  • The YELLOW BARS represent the harvest period.
  • The BLUE BARS represent the time in which that year’s grain harvest is stored and used.
  • The GRAY BARS represent the periods in which the fields are left fallow or are growing other crops.

The barley crop is in a darker shade than the wheat.

As you can see, the barley and wheat crops are planted beginning around the month of Cheshvan, roughly around October, and grow for 4-8 months before harvesting. The barley begins to ripen around the end of Adar and the beginning of Nisan, which is around March or April.

According to Leviticus 23:10-14, no barley from the new harvest may be eaten until after the wave offering that is done a few days after Passover. This wave offering is sometimes called Early Firstfruits.

The wheat harvest begins almost two months later at the beginning of the month of Sivan, just before the holiday known as Pentecost, Shavuot, or Later Firstfruits.

Each of these harvest periods lasts from one to two months, and that grain has to last until after Passover the next year. The crops from year 5 are stored and eaten up until the harvest of year 6.

Barley and wheat were the primary staple crops of the ancient Near East, including Israel. They were the main source of calories for almost everyone. Although God allows the people to eat what grows of its own in the 7th year, he does not allow mass harvesting for sale or storage, and there wouldn’t be a lot of grain growing on its own. Since there is no planting or harvesting in year 7, the harvest from year 6 has to last at least two full years or people will begin to starve.

If the people follow this plan, God promised that there would be a triple harvest in the 6th year. Why triple if only two years are required to get through the Shemitah year? Because a double harvest is the bare minimum to survive, and God wants to reward his people for their faithfulness. He doesn’t want us to barely get by.

In its plainest sense, this law only applies to those living in the land of Israel, and it requires that you leave your fields fallow in the 7th year and only eat what you have stored up and what grows on its own without cultivation. Don’t buy fresh produce at the grocery store. Don’t import avocados and tomatoes from Mexico. Just trust divine Providence.

However, the principle applies more broadly: God rewards those who trust in him and demonstrate their trust by keeping his commandments, even when they don’t make sense.

The rewards of the Kingdom of God are not stored up for the religious, the popular, the powerful, or even for those who suffer the most. There is nothing virtuous about self flagellation. No, the rewards of the Kingdom are stored up for those who trust in God.

I’m not saying that you will always be rich. Sometimes God makes you poor, like in the seventh year, so you’ll learn to trust in him more. Sometimes he makes you sick or takes away everything you have, like Job, but he only does it so that you will have the opportunity to grow into the great man or woman of God that he knows you can be.

Consider Joseph. When he was young, he was tactless and possibly a bit foolish, but he trusted God. Despite that trust, his brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery. In Egypt, he was abused, slandered, and imprisoned.

He thought he would become the patriarch of a large and wealthy family. Instead he became the top prisoner in a dungeon, and a servant to white-color criminals. Despite many years of injustice and misery, Joseph kept his faith that God was in control and that justice would ultimately prevail.

But then Pharaoh had a nightmare that no one could interpret, and one of those criminals remembered the young Hebrew seer who worked in the prison. Joseph was brought up from the pit and–after thirteen years!–rewarded with status and wealth beyond anything he had ever dreamed.

It’s hard to see the finish line when your course is through valleys, jungles, and swamps, but if we could always see exactly what reward lay at the end, we’d have no need for faith.

Great trials build great faith, and great faith brings great rewards, but the timing and the forms of trial and reward are God’s to decide, not ours.

Jacob Becomes Israel

When Rebekah and Isaac sent Jacob to his uncle Laban’s home to find a wife, Jacob stopped to rest at a place called Bethel. There, he saw a vision of angels going to and from Heaven. He vowed to serve God and God vowed to see him safely back home again to the Promised Land. (Genesis 32:10-22)

Many years later, as he was returning, God met him on the road again, but this encounter wasn’t as peaceful as the first. God appeared to him in the form of an angel and they fought all through the night. Jacob refused to let the angel go, until the angel seriously injured him.

After they wrestled, the angel told him (in Genesis 32:28), “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” However, the narrative continues to refer to him as Jacob and not Israel for several more chapters, only using the new name to refer to Jacob’s descendants. More years passed, and Jacob went on with his life.

Why did God give Jacob this new name and then not use it?

I believe it’s because Jacob wasn’t ready to be Israel, yet. Through his whole life to this point, Jacob had been passive. He was manipulated by his mother, by Laban, and by his wives, Leah and Rachel. The only times he actively pursued his own interests, he did so through treachery, sleight of hand, or flattery.

Jacob wasn’t an evil man, but he wasn’t a strong man either. He certainly wasn’t the kind of man you might expect to be the founder of a nation. He was a paragon of the beta male.

Idolatry was rampant in his house, and although Jacob might not have taken part in the worship of inanimate objects, his relationship with Rachel was, in its own way, idolatrous enough. She was the focus of his life. He doted on her to the detriment of the rest of the family, but fell short as her husband.

When she died, he merely put Joseph and Benjamin in her place and then left town to sulk by himself. His son Reuben took advantage of his absence to attempt a poorly planned and executed coup. His daughter Dinah began running with the wrong crowd, and got herself into a very bad situation. Finally, two of his sons sacked a city, killing or enslaving all of its inhabitants.

It was true then, as it is now, that profound personal growth rarely happens without profound personal pain.

After all of these troubles were piled on his head, God called Jacob back to Bethel (Genesis 35:1) where he had once pledged to serve YHVH (Genesis 28:20-22). Despite all of the trouble and conflict, God had kept his side of the bargain and brought him safely back to the land of his fathers. But Jacob hadn’t kept his.

Jacob Turns a Corner

With this reminder, Jacob finally began acting like the father and husband he should have been decades before. He commanded his family to give up their idols and he led them all back to Bethel, where Deborah, Rebekah’s old nurse and the last remnant of the previous generation, died.

Jacob finally took the helm of his own family and began to become Israel.

That’s when God repeated the promise of a new name as well as the promises Jacob had inherited from Abraham.

God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”
Genesis 35:9-12

This is also the point at which the Biblical narrative begins to refer to Jacob as Israel.

Jacob became Israel, but he didn’t become perfect. He continued to make bad decisions and the narrative switches back and forth between the two names. Jacob was human, and no mere human will ever be perfect in this lifetime.

This shouldn’t discourage us, though. Our weaknesses are no barrier to God’s anointing.

God calls us wherever we are and then begins moving us in the right direction. Change doesn’t happen immediately for anyone, and we all move at a different pace. Even so, we are called and given a new name by God’s grace.

We don’t get to point at anyone else and say, “You’re too flawed. You don’t deserve that ministry.” Our expectations, our standards mean nothing to God. If he wants to raise up a drug addict to disciple thousands, then that’s what he’ll do. If he wants to raise up a weak husband and absent father to be the leader of a new nation, then what is that to you or me?

God will call whom he wills, even if it’s you.

P.S. This article was inspired by a conversation at Brenham Torah Community‘s Bible study a few weeks ago. Thank you, BTC!

All About the Weekly Sabbath

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. -Yeshua

The Sabbath is a sign of God’s relationship with his people, and I firmly believe that those who have put their faith in Yeshua and are sincerely longing for a closer relationship with the Father will also feel a pull toward keeping the Sabbath. Unfortunately, they are often stuck without any sound teaching.

Too often, their pastors will discourage such obedience to God as “legalism” or “judaizing”. If they try to learn from Judaism, they are likely to get bogged down in a swamp of rules with disconnected from both the Bible and modern life. And if they turn to the Seventh Day Adventists and similar groups, they find a string of self-proclaimed prophets who are obsessed with questionable eschatology and consistently fail to deliver on their prophecies.

God’s people desperately need some common sense instruction on how to keep the weekly Sabbath. With that in mind, this year I’ve been writing a series of articles on the Sabbath as a guest at CallUponMe.com.

The series is divided into five parts:

  1. Will the Real Sabbath Please Stand Up? – Some people teach that the Sabbath was moved to Sunday. Others say that the Sabbath always follows the new moon regardless of the day of the week. Still others claim that there is no way we can possibly know that the day we call the seventh day, Saturday, really is the seventh day. In this article, I cut through the confusion and lay these rumors to rest.
  2. How to Keep the Sabbath, part 1: Why Is It So Hard? – Why are there so many conflicting opinions about the Sabbath? And how can we tell which ones are right? I answer those questions, plus give a summary of the following 3 articles.
  3. How to Keep the Sabbath, part 2: The Positive Commandments – The Bible contains both “do’s” and “don’t’s” in regard to the Sabbath. In this article, I examine the Do’s. We know we’re supposed to rest, but do we have to go to church? What else does God want us to do on the Sabbath?
  4. How to Keep the Sabbath, part 3: The Negative Commandments – Some people are really strict about the Sabbath, saying “Don’t work, don’t buy, don’t sell, don’t run, and don’t have any fun.” Others say rest and work are too subjective to define. In this article, I examine what the Bible actually says, as opposed to man-made traditions about the Sabbath.
  5. How to Keep the Sabbath, part 4: The Gray Areas – The Bible doesn’t cover every possible circumstance. It’s not supposed to, because God wants us to think and work some things out for ourselves. Even so, it can be hard to know what to do in some situations. In this article, I discuss the nature of Sabbath and the related commandments, and how that can help us decide what to do when things aren’t as clear as we would like.

My goal is to make things clearer for you, not to muddy the waters even more. If you have questions, if anything still seems confusing, you can ask questions here. I’ll do my best to help.

Remember that I’m still just human, though, and sometimes I really do make things more confusing than they need to be. I think it’s OK, though. The Sabbath was made for man, so it’s not supposed to be so complicated that the average man can’t understand it.

Burning Down the House with Strange Fire

Nadab and Abihu evidently held to the same maxim as feminism and today's emasculated church: "Listen to your heart."

Leviticus 10:1-11 “Nadab and Abihu…offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.”

When addressing the age-old spiritual pathologies of feminism, humanism, and hedonism, there is no passage more appropriate than Jeremiah 17:9. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

Nadab and Abihu evidently held to the same maxim as feminism and today’s emasculated church: “Listen to your heart.”

I believe they meant well. They wanted to express their devotion to God in a dramatic way, but it is not man’s place to decide when, where, or how to worship God.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this story to understand is Moses’ instruction to Aaron and his remaining sons. They were not allowed to touch the bodies nor show any grief or sympathy for the two dead men. They appear to have been in the middle of consecrating the Tabernacle for its first use, and Moses said that if they were to leave the Tabernacle or disrupt the ceremony before the consecration was complete, they would die. That’s not because they were weak, but because there are dangerous spiritual forces at work in the world, both good and evil.

Remember Uzzah.

God allows us a wide margin of freedom in showing our love for him, as fathers do their children, but every good father imposes rules for the health and safety of his family. There are some tasks in a house which are only appropriate for more mature children and only appropriate at certain times and when done in certain manners.

There are also tasks in God’s kingdom which he has set apart with more specific guidelines, and not all of them have to do with the Levitical Priesthood. In fact, most of them don’t.

God also gave us instructions on crime and punishment, clothing, diet, and family relationships. None of his instructions are arbitrary. They are all given for our benefit, to keep God’s house healthy and family safe.

He appointed men to be the heads of their wives and the spiritual coverings of their houses, for example. When they abdicate their authority, their families suffer. When women attempt to take on those roles, they are more likely to be harmed than blessed, not because women are weaker, but because they are the wrong tools for the job. A voltmeter is a great tool, but it makes a very poor hammer.

When our hearts lead us to actions contrary to God’s design, they deceive us and leave us vulnerable to consequences which we might not foresee or to attacks against which we are not prepared to defend. It’s better to accept God’s design without understanding than to rely on your own understanding and be burned like Nadab and Abihu.

When a wife consciously rejects her husband’s covering–or a child rejects his father’s or, indeed, when any person rejects the covering of God’s instructions–based solely on the feelings in her heart she must accept the consequences of her own actions. Courts and other sympathizers who would blame her husband for her actions insult the woman by treating her as completely incapable of controlling herself, and they treat her husband unjustly.

Nadab and Abihu walked their own path instead of the one that God had mapped out for them. No one forced them to act outside the covering of their priestly calling. They were not deceived by anything outside themselves, and no one else could accept any blame. They followed their hearts and they died for it.

God will not hold them blameless who hold their own hearts higher than his Law.

You Will Not Wander Forever

And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws." Genesis 26:2-5

And the LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
Genesis 26:2-5

A Promise Delayed

Because of Abraham’s faith that was made manifest in his obedience to God’s instructions and laws, God made promises to both Abraham and Isaac, promises that neither of them ever saw fulfilled in their own lifetimes.

God said that he would give them the land that we now call Israel, yet they were both wanderers in a land occupied by foreigners all their days.

God said that he would multiply their descendants as the stars of heaven The promise was first given to Abraham, and only his son Isaac inherited it. LIkewise, of Isaac’s two sons, the inheritance passed by Esau in favor of Jacob. After three generations, Abraham’s descendants numbered the vast total of one.

Even so, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob kept their faith in God’s name. They trusted him that those promises would be fulfilled when the time was right, and God’s timing can’t be rushed. He sees more and farther and deeper than we ever will. His understanding of the movement of time and men’s hearts is perfect.

God Hasn’t Changed or Forgotten Anything

God has made promises to all of us who have pledged our allegiance to Yeshua and joined ourselves to Israel, and sometimes it seems as if they will never come to fruition. It’s easy to get discouraged and distracted when the light at the end of the tunnel never gets any brighter.

Fortunately, God’s light is always around us. It’s in the long history of his faithfulness to his word, the beauty and wonder of his creation, and the wisdom of his Torah.

Remember also that the light of his promises can never be dimmed by us. No matter how un-Christ-like we might feel or actually be at times, God will never break his word. Judgment will come, balance will be restored, and the bill for our ultimate salvation is already paid in full. Not because of anything we have ever done or could do, but because Abraham was faithful to obey God’s voice, to keep his charge, his commandments, statutes, and laws, and–more importantly–because God has said it.

In the words of Balaam who tried and failed to curse us…

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? Behold, I received a command to bless: he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The LORD their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them.
Numbers 23:19-21

The Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life… What Did Paul Mean?

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 2 Corinthians 3:5-8

…Our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.
(2 Corinthians 3:5b-11)

The passage above is often treated as if it’s contrasting the Old Covenant with the New or God’s Law with a new “Law of the Spirit”.

Interpreting it to mean that the Old Covenant or God’s Law kills, while the New Covenant or new law gives life is natural in light of the antinomian standard of modern Christian theology, but, as with all erroneous interpretations of Paul, it sets the reader up to get hopelessly lost in contradictions.

Paul also wrote these passages:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law….Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
(Romans 3:28,31)

So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
(Romans 7:12-14)

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.
(Romans 7:22)

But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.
(1 Timothy 1:8)

When Paul wrote that “the letter kills, but the Spirit brings life”, he was clearly not saying that the Law of God as given through Moses kills, and that we must reject the written Law in order to live in the Spirit. Throughout his letters in the New Testament, Paul continually based his teachings on the Torah (aka the Law of Moses). If he then told the Corinthians that they had to reject the Torah in order to be saved, he would be telling them to reject all of his prior teachings, including the very letter in which this statement was written. (The fact of Paul basing all of his teaching on the Torah also refutes the idea that the Torah is only for the physical descendants of Jacob.)

Not only has God’s Law not been superceded by the New Covenant, but God’s Law is an inherent part of the New Covenant.

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
(Jeremiah 31:33)

Without God’s Law, there is no New Covenant, for one of its central promises is the writing of the Law on the hearts of God’s people rather than on stone. The content of the Law doesn’t change from one covenant to the other, but only the medium on which it is written.

So what did Paul mean?

Let’s take the 2 Corinthians passage phrase by phrase.

…our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant…

We know that we are capable of the mission that God has assigned to us, because God is the one who has assigned it. He knows us and what we are capable of, and he would not have given us a commission to preach the good news to the whole world if he did not believe we were capable of it.

…not of the letter but of the Spirit.

God has not commissioned us to carry only the news of the coming Kingdom, but also its fullest meaning, its wonder, and the hope that it carries with it to transform us into new creatures able to serve God with our whole beings. We need to understand the Scriptures and God’s Law in such a way that we are able to apply it in new circumstances that aren’t addressed by the letter without creating unintended burdens as the Pharisees have done.

It’s not enough to tell people that Jesus died for their sins without also giving them reason to hope that this means something real. We must allow God to soften our hearts into suitable media for his Law so that we are able to help others do the same. We have not been commissioned to teach men to obey, obey, obey, but to teach them to become sons of God who love him and desire more than anything to live as Yeshua lived.

For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

If we only teach men do this and don’t do that, we aren’t doing them any favors. We’re just setting them up for a lifetime of stressing over rules. Striving always to live between the lines is like treading water. Sure, you’ll avoid drowning for awhile, but you’ll never reach the shore either. Eventually you’re going to tire and sink despite your best efforts.

Yes, God’s Law contains rules, and they’re important, but the rules can’t save anyone’s soul from eternal damnation. Our goal shouldn’t be to mark off all the boxes on a checklist, but to become the kinds of people who no longer need the checklist, to have God’s Law written on our hearts instead of only in our memories.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end…

God’s Law is a great thing no matter what it’s written on, but the glory of the written law was always intended to be temporary. Not the law itself, but the necessity of it being written.

…will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

To live according to the letter of the Law in either the Old or the New Covenant is to live by rote, to be bound on every side by blind regulation and empty ritual. To live according to the spirit of the Law is to live by faith and in harmony with the ultimate role for which we were created.

In truth, there is no conflict between the letter and the spirit of the Law. They speak in unison. The conflict comes when we attempt to live by the letter without the spirit. Then we are in conflict with ourselves because we are holding ourselves to an impossible standard. No one, except Yeshua, has ever been able to live out the letter of the Law perfectly, and he only did so because he always lived by the Spirit.

The Spirit has no existence apart from the Law because the Law is a reflection of God’s own character. Yet the Law is empty without the Spirit, a body with no life in it.

The eternal state to which we aspire and to which God has ordained us is that of having his Law written in our hearts, so that it is no longer necessary for anyone to study and memorize it in the form of words and symbols. When we live in the Spirit, we keep God’s Law naturally and inevitably because it has become who we are. We will live in purity of knowledge, of understanding, and–most glorious of all–of relationship with our Savior.

Moses said that if we keep God’s Law, we will live by it. The letter alone kills, but Yeshua took the eternal penalty of our disobedience on himself, so that the Spirit can write the letter on our hearts, and we can live to the fullest, as God intended us to live.

David Wilber on the Epistle of James

When Faith Works: Living Out the Law of Liberty According to James by David Wilber

Martin Luther believed that the Epistle of James shouldn’t be in the Bible because it contradicted the letters of Paul. Fortunately, most theologians for the last 2000 years have disagreed with him. On the contrary, James might be the most earthy and “real” of all the Apostolic letters in the New Testament.

When Faith Works: Living Out the Law of Liberty According to James by David Wilber
When Faith Works: Living Out the Law of Liberty According to James by David Wilber

In his new book, When Faith Works: Living Out the Law of Liberty According to James, David Wilber examines James’ letter, passage by passage, and in the process, illustrates two things beyond any doubt: First, that James aligns perfectly with the rest of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. Not only does James not contradict Paul, but they complement each other nicely. Second, that James is imminently relevant to the daily lives of believers in all nations, all cultures, and all strata of society. Whatever your pain, whatever your temptation, whatever your joy, James wrote for you.

If you have ever wondered if Luther was right when he called James an “Epistle of Straw”, you need to read this book. Wilber proves that James is among the most relevant, consistent, and impactful of all the Epistles. When Faith Works is a great book. I highly recommend it.

What about Colossians 2:16?

Colossians 2 is about man-made rules, not God's Torah.

A follower on Twitter asked me about Colossians 2:16 last week.

I’m including the rest of the chapter here for context:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Does Colossians 2 Cancel the Torah?

Does this mean all of God’s commandments about food and drink, sabbaths and feast days, etc., have been nullified? Not unless you think God’s instructions are “elemental spirits of the world”, “human precepts and teachings”, and “self-made religion” with only “an appearance of wisdom”. Certainly many atheists would agree with that, but I don’t see how anyone who accepts the Bible as authoritative could.

Have you heard the phrase “Torah terrorist”? It jokingly refers to someone who is always telling other people they’re doing it wrong. Paul was saying, “Don’t let people condemn you for not eating, drinking, or keeping a feast day in exactly the way they think it should be done. It’s okay if you don’t do everything exactly right or if you disagree with someone else about the details of what’s good for food and what isn’t.”

Paul was addressing two categories of erroneous teaching:

  1. The elevation of the forms of religion over the substance. See verse 17. For example, many people were teaching that new converts must be circumcised in order to be considered truly saved. There is NO commandment in Torah for a grown man to be circumcised in order to be considered an Israelite. You can’t eat the Passover unless you are circumcised, but otherwise, the only commandment is to circumcise newborn boys on the 8th day.

    This is directly related to the ruling of the Jerusalem Council in the Book of Acts. New converts shouldn’t be expected to keep the whole Torah perfectly, let alone all of the man-made rules that we have added to Torah. Start with the basics and learn the rest as you go, not letting anyone condemn you for the things you haven’t mastered yet.
  2. The elevation of man-made tradition over God-given instruction, whether it be Christian, Jewish, or pagan. As an example, consider the rabbinic rule against eating dairy and meat together. Some people will say you are sinning if you eat a cheeseburger, but this is based only on the opinion of some rabbis, not on what the Torah actually says.

    Other examples would be the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, mandatory attendance at church, the celebration of Easter, etc. These are man-made traditions with little or no foundation in Scripture, yet many will insist you can’t possibly be a Christian or a Jew unless you follow the Pope or the rabbis or your local pastor instead of the clear commandments of God.

Don’t let those people pile their rules on your shoulders as if you are beholden to their weak consciences. Their rules, no matter how wise they sound, are not even a “shadow of the things to come”, but only a shadow of their own minds.

And don’t let people condemn you for being imperfect. God knows we all sin. We all fall short. I think him all the time that my salvation does not depend on my perfect obedience, but on my repentance and on his grace to forgive.

Live in peace with those people as much as you can, but don’t let them poison your relationship with the Father, with Yeshua, or with your fellow believers.