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.

Is saying “Amen” speaking the name of a false god?

Does the word amen come from the Egyptian god Amun Ra? Should we be using it in our prayers?

A couple of days ago, I saw someone on Facebook expressing dismay about the word “amen”. Someone had told them or they had read somewhere that “amen” comes from the name of the Egyptian god Amun Ra, and he was feeling very convicted about using it to end every prayer. He wanted to pray in Jesus’ name, not Ra’s!

I do understand, and I have struggled with similar questions. Exodus 23:13 says that we shouldn’t allow the names of pagan gods to touch our lips.

I don’t like using the names of the days of the week because they are named for pagan gods, and, many years ago, I once tried to replace them with “first day”, “second day”, etc. I soon realized that this presented another problem: Nobody understood me, and I spent all my time explaining what I meant by “second day”, instead of just saying “Monday”. If I’m unable to communicate with people, then I won’t be able to function as an effective community member, and God’s Law can’t be kept alone. We need community in order to be faithful to God.

(To be fair, you could lose the word “amen” from your vocabulary without hurting your communication with other people at all, so if it bothers you very much, then, by all means, don’t use it. God certainly won’t be offended by you not saying it.)

Through time and further study, I also came to understand that the concept of “name” in Scripture is much more complex than a mere label we attach to someone. Calling on the name of YHVH or praying in the name of Yeshua (Jesus) doesn’t mean only making the sounds of the spoken names. It means calling on the authority, promises, and reputation–the whole person–represented by the labels.

God doesn’t need labels to refer to himself. He doesn’t need a name to differentiate himself from other gods, like we do to tell John from David. Hence, when Moses asked whom he should say sent him, God told him, “I am the one who is. I am self-existent without reference to anyone or anything else.”

Those spoken and written labels, YHVH and Yeshua, ought to have meaning to us, and the power is in the meaning, not the letters and sounds. The tetragrammaton isn’t a magical incantation that has power or authority over God. When we call on his name, we aren’t just saying Yahweh or Jehovah or Yahuah (or whatever you use), we are calling on the totality of who he is.

I don’t believe that God has a native language that would make any sense to us. Human languages are for humans, not him. We don’t have to speak any particular language in order to communicate with him. He understands them all, because he understands us. He understands us just as well in Mandarin Chinese as he does in Spanish or English, and he knows that someone speaking Mandarin isn’t speaking Spanish..

As we speak, we create audible sounds, and every sound we can make means something in some other language, probably in several. The sound “wee” is a first-person plural pronoun in English, but it means “yes” in French, and it’s also the name of a video game console. I’m sure it has at least a dozen meanings in as many other languages. There is probably a false god out there that goes by the name “We”.

Fortunately, we don’t need to care about that, because when we say that word, we aren’t speaking to or about a false god. Since we’re speaking English, we’re using it as a collective pronoun. If I learned that there really was a god named We (or Wii or Oui or Wee), it would be foolish to eliminate the pronoun, we, from our vocabulary, because nobody would understand us in English anymore.

That’s not a problem, though. Just because there are any number of other languages that have identical sounding words, doesn’t mean we’re speaking the words of any of those languages when we make the same sound. God knows that, when we say “we”, we’re not speaking about or to that false god. He knows we’re speaking English and that we’re not calling on the names of other gods or referring to them in any way.

The same is true of “amen”. There is no actual linguistic connection between the name of an Egyptian god and the Hebrew word “amen”. None, whatsoever. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to pass off an old urban myth as established fact, but age and repetition doesn’t make a lie any more true.

How can I be so certain? God commands people to say “amen” in Numbers 5:22 and Deuteronomy 27:14-26. If anyone would know if the word was connected to an Egyptian deity, God would.

We aren’t speaking ancient Egyptian when we pray and we aren’t referring to a false god in any conceivable way when we say “amen”. God’s native language isn’t Egyptian, and he won’t be offended if some English or Hebrew words sound like some Egyptian words.

Think about this. Here are just a few words you would have to eliminate from your vocabulary if you want to avoid saying anything that sounds like the name of a false god:

  • Gad
  • pan
  • sheaf
  • tear
  • bill
  • air
  • hell
  • knot
  • nut
  • set
  • shoe
  • an
  • sin

And, of course, the names of the days and some of the months. I’m sure there are many hundreds more.

I hope you can see just how crazy things could get if we seriously tried never to even inadvertently speak the name of a false god.

I really wish we could change the names of our days, which, unlike “amen”, really are connected to the names of pagan gods. I seriously hope Yeshua fixes that when he comes back. In the meantime, I content myself in knowing that I am not referring to Thor, Freya, or Saturn in any meaningful way when I talk about my plans for the week. All days belong to YHVH, and Thursday is just a word.

Don’t worry about whether an English or Hebrew word sounds like the name of some obscure pagan god. That’s a distraction that our real enemy throws in your face to keep you from focusing on what’s really important: worshiping the Creator and doing tangibly good things for your neighbors.

If You Love Me…

In the Torah portion called Pekudei, (Exodus 38:21-40:38), Moses recorded twenty times that the Israelites did exactly as Yahweh commanded.

Twenty iterations of “They did all that Yahweh commanded Moses,” or some slight variation thereof. (See below for a complete list.)

They made the furniture of the Tabernacle. They wove and embroidered the curtains and the priestly garments. They erected the structure, anointed its contents and its priests, and put the various articles in their assigned places. Finally they lit the menorah, placed the bread, and burned the incense.

All exactly as Yahweh had commanded.

Take a moment to check out these interesting observations about the twenty statements of obedience in this parsha.

Twenty Statements of Obedience

  • The first time, the people did according to what Moses commanded.
    • 38:21 – At the commandment of Moses
  • The next eleven times, the people did according to what Yahweh commanded Moses.
    • 38:22 – All that YHVH commanded Moses
    • 39:1 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:5 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:7 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:21 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:26 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:29 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:31 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:32 – According to all that YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:42 – According to all that YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 39:43 – As YHVH had commanded
  • The next seven times, Moses did what Yahweh commanded.
    • 40:16 – According to all that YHVH commanded him
    • 40:19 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 40:21 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 40:23 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 40:25 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 40:27 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
    • 40:29 – As YHVH had commanded Moses
  • The next time, Moses plus the Cohanim (priests) did what Yahweh commanded Moses.
    • 40:32 – As YHVH commanded Moses
  • Finally, Moses completed the work.

Obedience by the Numbers

Okay, maybe you won’t find that as interesting as I do, but here’s some of what this says to me:

Twelve times, the people did what they were commanded: once by the command of Moses and eleven by the command of God delivered through Moses. Twelve is the number of God’s people. There are twelve tribes, twelve gates, and twelve disciples. Except when one of those disciples followed the commands of men instead of God.

Seven times, Moses alone did as he was commanded directly. Seven represents perfection. David reminded us over and over that God’s Torah is perfect, and Moses delivered God’s Law perfectly, just as God intended it to be. Then he commanded us not to alter it. Yeshua reiterated that command when he said that anyone who relaxes even the tiniest part of it will be called the least in heaven.

Psalms 19:7 The law [Hebrew: torah] of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.

The final statement of obedience in Exodus 40:32 doesn’t stand on its own. It is the eighth statement of Moses’ obedience, eight being the number of new beginnings, but this time, he was joined by the priests. He was a king-like figure acting as one with the High Priest.

Yeshua is king and high priest in one.

The aim of the Torah (misleadingly translated as “the end of the Law” in Romans 10:4) is the Messiah who has become our High Priest. It teaches us about him and points us to him. It tells us how to recognize him, why we need him, and what he does for us. He is our Cohen Ha Gadol, our High Priest, albeit of a different order than the sons of Aaron. He is our new beginning and our rebirth.

Remember, however, that it was not the priest alone included in the eighth repetition, but Moses and the High Priest together. Just as Jeremiah prophesied, the New Covenant brought by Yeshua does not leave Moses behind (Jeremiah 31:33).

In the New Covenant, the God’s Law that was delivered through Moses (aka the Torah) is to be written on our hearts and no longer on stone. God still wants his people to keep his Torah, but we are not condemned by it because we are not under its authority. We are children of the King and obey his laws because we love him, not because we are afraid of the King’s sheriff.

After all twenty statements are complete, the Torah says, “And Moses finished the work.”

As James taught to the first century church, no one needs to keep the Torah in order to gain their salvation, but once a person becomes a citizen of the kingdom he would do well to begin learning and practicing its laws. (Acts 15:21)

The End of the Matter

God gives us an enormous amount of freedom in how we are to live our lives, but as anyone who has lived long enough to outgrow the fiery idealism of our youth realizes, true freedom is not possible without some rules. Neither is love.

A husband cannot say to his wife, “I will show my love for you by pouring red wine on all of your white blouses.” Well, I suppose he could say it, but I don’t think she would quite get the message he intended. Or maybe he could say, “Honey, I’m thinking of a very nice anniversary card and a set of beautiful diamond earrings.” Unless he followed his imaginings with happenings, they won’t be very well received.

We frequently hear people say that it’s the thought that counts, but we all know that’s only true in very limited circumstances. It’s the thought plus the deed that really counts, and if the deed is carelessly executed, we probably can’t even say that the thoughts were all that great. If the husband in the examples above had poured his wife a glass of water (not on her blouse) and bought her a card and a bouquet of roses, then his grand intentions, however humbly expressed, would have counted for much, much more.

Several things are conspicuously missing from the list of the people’s contributions to the Tabernacle in Vayakhel (Exodus 30:11-34:35) and Pekudei: green, orange, and yellow yarn; iron and lead ingots; cowhides; marble and fossils; oak and ironwood. I am certain that some people wanted to give these things along with their gold and silver, but God was very specific about what materials could be used in his Tabernacle.

Just like the man’s wife who didn’t want wine on her clothes, God didn’t want lead in his Holy Place. I can speculate all day and night about the spiritual significance of this or that metal and color, but it really comes down to this: God knows what he wants, and he doesn’t want just anything.

Yeshua said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and also, “I and the Father are one.”

John also linked the love of God and obedience to the commandments in 1 John 5:2: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”

  • If we love Yeshua, we will keep his commandments.
    • Yeshua and the Father are one, and their commandments are one.
  • If we love the Father, we will keep his commandments.

We have the freedom to serve him and a lot of leeway in how we carry out his will, but we do not have the freedom to serve him in any way we choose. If we love God, we will obey his commandments. God doesn’t want us all to be missionaries to Borneo or to give him a million dollars. What he wants from each of us might be very different, but he always wants us to give him our best, and to give him what he asks.

God especially wants our love, and he wants it by his rules, not ours.

We don’t fit here anymore. What now?

We weren't created to be lone wolves, but to live in community.

Jeff & Barb’s Story

When Jeff first began to believe that he should be keeping the Sabbath the way that God instructed, on the seventh day of the week instead of the first, he did what many good Christians do: he asked his pastor for advice. Jeff’s pastor told him what he had been taught: Jesus canceled the Sabbath so we didn’t need to keep it anymore, and the Apostles moved the Sabbath to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. When Jeff asked where that was in the Bible, his pastor could only point to where Jesus disagreed with the Pharisees about how to keep the Sabbath and where the first century believers consistently gathered on the first day of the week. He couldn’t point to any verse that plainly stated Jesus canceled the Sabbath or that the Apostles changed the day, nor why the Apostles would change the day of an observance that Jesus had canceled.

Unsurprisingly, Jeff wasn’t convinced.

The pastor asked him to keep these concerns between just the two of them, but the unanswered questions accumulated, and they came to frequently derail the intended course of discussions in the small group where he and his wife, Barb, met with other church members on Thursday nights. Some of the other members in that group also began to ask questions. Then there was a shouting match.

Jeff and his family began lighting Shabbat candles just before sunset on Friday evening, and spending Saturdays together at home. Although they frequently helped clean up after services on Sunday, they stopped participating in Saturday work projects.

They began feeling like outsiders in the church they had attended for many years. They no longer believed the same as everyone else on some significant issues. They couldn’t participate in some Friday night and Saturday events. Their attendance at Bible study was sometimes fractious and always resented by a few. Barb had begun asking awkward questions about every dish at church pot luck dinners.

“Is there pork in that meatloaf?”
“Do you know what kind of sausage that is?”

When the pastor called and asked them to meet with him again, he didn’t say what it was about, but Jeff and Barb both knew. They would either be asked to leave or to stop asking questions. Jeff wasn’t sure which would be worse. For both of them, the heartache started before they even got in the car.

Their church wasn’t their home anymore.

God is calling people all over the world to return to his instructions, to keep his Sabbaths, his appointed feast days, his rules for living, speaking, and loving. Some of those people call themselves Messianic Jews, some Hebrew Roots, Sabbath Keepers, or some other label. Most, like me, don’t fit cleanly into any of these groups. They only know that the churches are missing some vital aspects of the teachings of Jesus, the Apostles, and all of the Scriptures, and they’re trying their best to find those pieces and put them back into the puzzle where they belong.

But in following God’s call to repentance, they face two major challenges:

  • The loss of old relationships
  • The lack of new relationships

Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to continue regular fellowship with those who have not yet heard the call or who have heard and rejected it without deafening oneself. To speak is to bring strife, but to remain silent seems like complicity in a lie.

This degree to which this is a problem varies from one church to another. Some churches are little more than social clubs, and others barely make a pretense of Biblical doctrine. Jeff and Barb probably wouldn’t have lasted so long at one of those churches. Some are much better–and therefore much harder to leave–and a few are very good, even to the point of openly tolerating us Hebraic misfits.

If you find yourself in a situation like Jeff’s, I can’t tell you what you should do–every situation is different–but eventually, you will either have to transform your church or exchange it for something else.

Becoming a spiritual hermit isn’t a viable option. People without community tend to lose their grounding. Without the balance of other believers and guidance of more knowledgeable teachers, their spiritual pursuits often become dominated by shiny object syndrome. They jump from one fringe idea to another with nobody to keep them anchored to reasonableness. Their understanding of Scripture becomes unbalanced, and their spiritual lives either stagnate or get lost in irrelevancy. We need community to be healthy by every conceivable metric. Internet teachings and live streams just don’t cut it.

Finding a Home

When you look for a congregation (I write “congregation” rather than “church” because many of them will use some other word.) that both recognizes Jesus as Messiah and keeps God’s Law, you might find a variety of options, or you might find nothing at all. Let me give you a brief rundown of what’s available.

    • Seventh Day churches of various denominations. You’ve probably heard of the Seventh Day Adventist church, but there are also Baptists, Church of God, and even LDS (aka Mormon) churches which keep a seventh day Sabbath. If you are serious about keeping God’s instructions, these will come up short in time. They keep the Sabbath and the Biblical feasts to varying degrees, but usually stop there. They also tend to come with an amount of baggage related to false prophecies and extra-Biblical scriptures.
    • Messianic Jewish. Technically, Messianic Jews are Jewish people who believe that Jesus (aka Yeshua) is the Messiah. They will call their meeting place a “synagogue”, and their services and operation range from Jewish to liturgical Christian.
    • Other. These are the Hebrew Roots congregations, non-denoms, upstarts, rebels, and flakes. Since neither you nor I have the time to list every possible variation, I am forced to dump all that remains, good and bad, into a single category. Here you will find home fellowships, Black Hebrew Israelites, Torah-observant Christians, Sacred-Namers, and just about anything else that you could imagine. They will range from the outstanding to the diabolical, and it can be very confusing to sort through them. Here are a few warning signs to watch out for. Only the last one would be a total deal-killer for me. Your mileage might vary.
      • The pastor/rabbi/leader has changed his name to sound more Hebrew or otherwise ethnic.
      • They use bizarre spellings of commonly known Hebrew words, especially if it’s really important to them.*
      • They rely heavily on extra-Biblical writings, such as the Talmud, Books of Enoch, or Kabbalah.
      • They keep a lunar Sabbath (a weekly Sabbath that drifts through the days of the week because it’s calculated from the new moon, not the historic 7 day week that the rest of the world uses).
      • They believe the earth is flat. Run, do not walk, to the nearest fire escape.

You will never find a perfect congregation nor meet another human being who agrees with you on every point. If you did, you probably shouldn’t be friends with them. Like many fruit trees need winter freezes, we need an amount of conflict and disagreement in our lives to be healthy.

Identify what’s really important, and therefore what isn’t. A church or synagogue that promotes behavior God abhors, can be easily eliminated. If they calculate God’s feast days by the sighting of the new moon in Jerusalem instead of the astronomically calculated calendar used by the mainstream Jewish calendar, that might not be such a big deal. You’ll have to decide what your priorities are, as well as what they should be, and then act accordingly.

The one thing you should not do is go it alone. God made us to be communal creatures. His Law teaches us how to love, but only within the context of community. If a Methodist or an Assemblies of God church is the best option available in your area, don’t dismiss it.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Hebrews 10:24-25

Go to church if that’s what God has provided, and then consider starting something new. Maybe God has placed you where you are for just that purpose.


A Note on Names

* I hate that I have to bring this up, but there is actually a lot of disagreement about how to spell and pronounce the Hebrew name of God and Jesus, and some people get very intense about it. I think these arguments are mostly wastes of time, but since they are out there, they need to be addressed, however briefly. The table below presents the various ways I have seen the names spelled. Those in the “Good” column are conventional and widely accepted by most historians and linguists. Those in the “Iffy” column are less likely to be accurate, but aren’t terribly unreasonable. Those in the “Nope” column are almost certainly wrong, and people who insist on them probably have much more serious problems. I strongly recommend avoiding congregations that insist there is one, and only one possible correct spelling or pronunciation of the divine names, and anyone who doesn’t use their version is a heretic.

English Good Iffy Nope
LORD
God
Jehovah
YHVH
YHWH
Yahweh
Yahovah
Yehovah
Yahuah
Yahawah
Ahyah
Jesus Yeshua
Yehoshua
Y’shua
Yahshua Yahawashi
Yahusha
Yashaya
Yahuwshuwa

The Praise of Storms and Men

Praise YHVH! Praise YHVH from the heavens; Praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; Praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, Praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Psalm 148:1-4

In Psalm 148, the Psalmist exhorts the heavens, angels, animals, hills, and even the weather to praise the name of YHVH. He spoke, and they were created in all their complex glory, therefore they ought to praise him, and they do!

We humans, on the other hand, have rejected him, despised his instructions, hated one another, and killed his Son. If the sun and moon and all of these things which have no real will, which have never rebelled against God, ought to praise his name, how much more we, who have been forgiven so much, who have been created not once, but twice, ought to praise his name!

Sing and speak of God’s glory, justice, and mercy. Praise his power to destroy, as well as his willingness to forgive. Most of all, praise his name by emulating him to each other. Keep his Law, which instructs in how to love. Live a righteous life. Be patient and understanding. Champion justice–God’s justice, not man’s perversion of it–protect those who are in your power, and be quick to forgive those who wrong you. Teach your children what it means to love God first and their neighbor second.

The most effective way to express our gratitude to God for his grace, is to reflect his character into the world through our words and actions.

God’s Olive Grove

Every faithful believer supplies oil for the Menorah that shines God’s Light into the world.

 

You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.
Exodus 27:20-21

Sometimes I wonder if I am completely insane, because of all the crazy stuff I see in Scripture. Do you see the parable of the talents in this passage? The gifts of the Spirit? Homeschooling? Mentoring and apprenticeship? I see all of those things, and I wonder if I’m hallucinating.

There are several different metaphors in those two verses.

Olive oil is healing, comforting, enlightening, a picture of the Holy Spirit, the Ruach haKodesh, and beaten oil is deliberate refinement in/of/by the Holy Spirit. That this oil for the Menorah is to be supplied by the people is a picture of every faithful believer’s priestly role in God’s service.

God has given everyone resources which they are required to use for the profit of his kingdom. We all have a gift, a calling, a special skill that can be made available to the Kingdom of God. Paul listed some of those gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, but he did not intend for us to take that list as comprehensive. He described three categories of contributions (gifts, services, and activities), and only expanded them in part. I believe that teaching and counseling could be included alongside faith and healing, as well as musical talent, mechanical aptitude, writing, and every kind of artistry and craftsmanship.

With the right refinement, all of those things can be fuel for God’s Light in the world.

Like its organic counterpart, the fuel God has implanted in each of us doesn’t come straight off the tree, ready to use. It must be harvested, pressed, and refined. Nor does it suffice to pour it into any lamp or onto just any fire. It must be channeled into the right reservoirs and tended by God’s appointed authorities.

Parents, first of all, and then pastors, educators, priests, and people of all kinds of skill and talent are to instruct their successors in serving God and using their spiritual gifts to the profit of God’s kingdom. Men with special skill in the engineering of homes and office buildings must mentor apprentices into building to God’s glory. Those with extraordinary artistic talent must work with the next generation of painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, etc., use their gifts in ways that enlighten God’s kingdom rather than corrupting it.

God’s appointment of gifts is also like olive oil in this respect: it is counter-productive to isolate a single ingredient or aspect. Each person is a complex interaction of flaws and talents, and we need to seek a balance. While one of us might have a more beautiful voice than others, that isn’t a license to ignore character development in favor of breathing exercises. Olive oil is valued for its scent, flavor, color, and combustibility. It isn’t enough to achieve maximum caloric output. It must be an attractive, multi-dimensional output that allows God’s character to show through us.

As the keepers of God’s olive grove–and we are all both keepers and trees–he will hold us responsible for how we managed his oil. Are you a talented musician who can play any instrument he touches? Then play for God’s glory, and use your talents to encourage other musicians to use their talents for God’s glory. Are you a leader who can take the full measure of a man in minutes? Then lead God’s people, identify the potential leaders around you, and mentor them also into righteous, productive leadership of God’s people.

You are the priests in the tabernacle of your own family and community.

You are the people of God supplying the oil for the Menorah. You don’t possess even one skill or experience that is solely for your own benefit. God has entrusted you with a valuable treasure, and he will demand an accounting of it one day. He has not asked for volunteers, but has commanded every single one of us to produce or be cut off.

What do Bats, Blue Whales, and Neutron Stars Have in Common?

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Hebrews 11:3

If you explored a mysterious cave in the depths of an unexplored jungle and found something there with all of these qualities, you might believe some lost civilization or advanced intelligence had made it.

  • Multiple, networked information storage and retrieval systems
  • Complex, interdependent systems
  • Materials with properties beyond anything our best engineering can duplicate
  • Flight capabilities with greater speed and maneuverability at low speeds than any bird
  • In-flight sensing systems that can detect and track multiple tiny objects simultaneously and calculate trajectories with pinpoint accuracy

Such a discovery would be undeniable proof of advanced intelligence, but really it’s just a bat like many that I’m sure you’ve seen before. They live in caves, barns, and forests, and under bridges all over the world. Bats are powerful evidence of God’s hand in the world, but as amazing as bats are, they are far from God’s most astonishing creatures. If you’re curious, look up glass frogs, compass termites, and blue whales.

Now move your attention to something bigger. Much, much bigger.

There are things in our universe that are so massive, so powerful, that we can only hold them in our minds if we imagine them to be much tinier than they are.

Think of yourself as the size of a grain of sand. The earth would be the size of an enormous mountain in comparison, and the sun would be the size of a large country. Now imagine the energy generated by all the wind, solar, hydro, coal, and nuclear power plants that have ever existed. Now add the power released by every nuclear device ever exploded. The sun releases millions of time more energy every single second than humans have produced throughout our entire history.

On the galactic scale, the sun isn’t very impressive.

The size of many other stars is as much greater than the sun’s as the sun’s is greater than the earth’s. The sun’s energy output is mind boggling, but a neutron star can release as much energy in a single second as the sun does in a million years. The Milky Way galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars.

Hundreds of billions of stars.

And on the universal scale, the Milky Way isn’t a big deal.

It’s breathtaking. Astounding. There aren’t enough superlative adjectives in the English language–or any language–to describe the wonders of God’s creation on any scale you might use. The mind blowing complexity of the subatomic, quantum world, and the crushing grandiosity of the universe that is so big that no human will ever, ever see the light from the most distant stars.

And the most awesome thing is this: God spoke it all into existence.

We are awed by thunderstorms, but a thunderstorm doesn’t even rise to the level of a single spark compared to the power of the sun, which is, itself, a mere speck of dust compared to the Milky Way, which is….

You get the picture. We serve an awesome God indeed.

No wonder it’s so hard for some people to believe in God. He is so far beyond our comprehension that it’s simpler for many people to pretend that bats and black holes just happened all on their own.

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
Hebrews 11:3

We are incapable of comprehending God. His existence is more than our tiny minds can handle. It is only by faith that we are able to see what ought to be obvious and incorporate it into our worldview: the existence of the Creator and the evidence of his handiwork in absolutely everything that is.

And it is only by faith that we are able to comprehend what is even more incomprehensible than all of this: The Creator of heaven and earth sees us. He knows us. He cares about us.

6 Rules and 6 Excuses

What animals does God say qualify as food and what animals don't.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Peter’s vision of the sheet with the unclean animals and showed how it was not about animals and food, but about people and the Kingdom of God.

There are other arguments and New Testament passages that people frequently quote when they attempt to disprove Yeshua’s words in Matthew 5:17-19, but before I address some of those, I probably ought to define the topic.

What does clean and unclean mean?

God’s rules aren’t arbitrary. There is always a reason for them, and that reason is always for our ultimate good. What makes an animal unclean is still a difficult question to answer, though, because the Bible doesn’t spell it out.

About the only thing we can be sure of is that “unclean” (tamei) doesn’t mean soiled or sinful. Uncleanness refers to a spiritual impurity, and is most often associated with death or a loss of life-force: blood, disease, corpses, graves, and bodily discharges.

Nothing in the Bible says “This is what makes an animal unclean,” but it does list some unclean animals and describe characteristics of others.

Leviticus 11 lists the basic rules of what animals God doesn’t want us to eat.

  1. Land animals that are cloven-hoofed and chew the cud are food. Any animal with one and not the other is not food.
  2. Water animals that have fins and scales are food. Anything under the water with neither or one and not the other is not food.
  3. Birds of prey and carrion birds are not food.
  4. Certain other birds are not food, but due to translation uncertainties and a lack of defining characteristics in Torah, we have no way besides inference and tradition to tell us about birds that aren’t mentioned. (“Living the Law: Reinforcing the Tradition with a Palpable Precedent” by Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan is an interesting article if you can find it.) Songbirds and wading birds (herons, storks, etc) are probably out, while pigeons, chickens, and turkeys are acceptable.
  5. Insects and other creepy crawlies are not food except for four types of grasshoppers and/or locusts that have over-sized rear legs for jumping.
  6. Anything that walks on paws or slithers on its belly is not food.

That leaves most ruminants, most fish, and many birds as suitable material for stew, salad, or stir-fry, but reptiles, amphibians, and shellfish are not allowed.

But…but…Acts 10!

There are six common objections to a Christian or Messianic Jew to keeping kosher:

  1. “Those rules were just because they didn’t have refrigeration. Now we know about tape worms and trichinosis and we keep everything frozen or at least cold before we cook it.”
     
    Beef spoils if left unrefrigerated for too long, and chicken is notoriously dangerous. Yet both are kosher. The rules for clean and unclean animals have nothing to do with safety or refrigeration.
     
  2. “Jesus made all foods clean. Jesus died so we don’t have to obey those laws anymore.”
     
    Actually, Jesus never said anything of the sort. When debating the Pharisees about whether or not it is acceptable to eat food with unwashed hands when that food would otherwise be perfectly kosher, he told them that they were so concerned about their own traditions that they were ignoring God’s actual laws.
     
    His central point was this: What difference does it make if a man eats with dirty hands (or eats pork or lobster!) if he is a murderer, a liar, or an adulterer? If you put something into your mouth, your body eventually purges it. If you put something into your heart, however, there is no automatic, natural process to remove it.
     
    Jesus didn’t die so you could eat bacon. He died so you could have eternal life in spite of eating bacon.
     
  3. “That was only for the Dispensation of Law. God told Noah he could eat any animal. That changed when God gave the law at Mt. Sinai, then it changed again when Jesus rose from the grave. Now we are in the Dispensation of Grace and can ignore the Law of Moses.”
     
    Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 12:20 that the Israelites could eat whatever meat they wanted, but just 2 chapters later he repeated the list of things that God didn’t want them to eat.Sometimes one passage, when removed from the context of the whole Bible, appears to contradict one or another passage. That’s an illusion caused by our preconceptions and inability (refusal?) to consider those same passages from a more holistic perspective that harmonizes all of Scripture as a unified whole.
     
    Everyone reads the Bible through a lens that colors their interpretations. The problem with most people is that they don’t know it, and act as if their vision is crystal clear with no possibility of tint or distortion. Humility is a rare commodity.
     
    When you read about Noah after the Flood or Peter and Paul after the resurrection, consider–as an intellectual exercise if nothing else–reading those stories as if you believed that not a single letter could ever be removed from God’s Law. Do some of the words have alternate meanings (they all do) that work in the new context? Are you able to understand those passages in that light? If so, then it’s just possible that it is the correct light.
     
  4. “Those are ceremonial laws. They don’t apply to us anymore. Only the moral laws are still in effect.”
     
    I have never yet seen a reasonable defense of such a distinction in the Law. There is no civil vs ceremonial vs criminal or any such division in Scripture. It’s an invention of man. To the contrary, God said, “Do not take anything away from my laws nor add anything to them.” On one side are hazy conjectures and complicated theories. On the other side are several very clear, unambiguous statements from God. I’ll go with the latter.
     
  5. “All of the Law of Moses was abolished. It was entirely replaced with a new set of morals defined by Jesus and fleshed out by Paul: Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
     
    When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he quoted the Torah, and he said that all of the rest of God’s words hang on just two commandments. He didn’t say that the rest of Torah was no longer relevant. He didn’t add or subtract anything at all from the Torah. He didn’t even say anything new, although it might have been new to the Pharisees with their burdensome traditions:
     
    Matthew 22:37-40: And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (38) This is the great and first commandment. (39) And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (40) On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
     
    Jesus (aka Yeshua) wasn’t telling them anything new. He was just quoting Moses, words with which they were already very familiar:
     
    Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (5) You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
     
    Leviticus 19:18b You shall love your neighbor as yourself…
     
    Earlier I mentioned something else Yeshua said about the Law of Moses:
     
    Matthew 5:17-19: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (18) For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (19) Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
     
    Note two things about that statement: 1) Whatever “fulfill” means here, it does not mean to destroy. 2) Nothing can be removed from the Law until heaven and earth pass away.
     
  6. “The Law of Moses is still valid and still applies, but only to Jews. It was never intended to apply to gentile Christians.”
     
    As far as salvation is concerned, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” However, the New Covenant was not promised to gentiles. It was promised only to the houses of Israel and Judah. See Jeremiah 31:31.
     
    Those of us, who were once Gentiles, have been grafted into the tree of Israel, not the other way around. There is only one body in the Messiah, one law, and one nation: Israel. If you want to be part of that body, then you have to become an Israelite, which means that, even if this objection were true, the Law must apply to all true believers in Yeshua. (Notice that I did NOT say you have to become Jewish.)

There are many strong-sounding arguments for ignoring God’s instructions regarding which animals are acceptable as food, and I don’t have time to hash them all out in this one article. Stick around, though. I’ll get to them eventually.

I assure you that every argument that relies on interpreting some Bible verse to mean the opposite of what Yeshua said in Matthew 5 falls apart when you start assuming that Yeshua knew what he was talking about.

The Prophetic Significance of Hanukkah

The Prophetic Significance of Hanukkah

 

Hanukkah commemorates a miracle at the Temple after the “abomination that brings desolation” prophesied by Daniel was removed and the Temple cleansed. After Yehudah the Hammer (aka Judah Maccabee) chased the Greek interlopers out of Israel, the Temple was cleansed and rededicated.

In order to put the Temple fully back into working order, the menorah had to be lit. It took about 8 days to make a batch of the sacred oil, but there was only enough left to keep it burning for a short while. They decided to light it anyway, trusting in Providence. They weren’t disappointed, as God kept the menorah burning for eight days until a new batch could be made.

The victory of Yehudah and the Jewish freedom fighters over the Greek armies of Antiochus is real history. The miracle of the Menorah isn’t so well established. It’s still a great story, though, and the miraculous liberation of Judah is worth commemorating.

One of the most well known Hanukkah traditions is the lighting of a hanukkia, a special menorah with eight candles for the eight days that the oil lasted, plus an extra candle for lighting the others.

Interestingly, the number 8 is often associated with new beginnings in the Bible.

Hanukkah is mentioned once in the New Testament at John 10:22. Yeshua had come to Jerusalem for the holiday, referred to as the Feast of Dedication, and spent much of his time at the Temple.

Like so much else that has happened to God’s people, the events preceding and during Hanukkah were a shadow of greater things to come. The Abomination That Brings Desolation came once under the rule of Antiochus, but Yeshua said that it would come again. Some say that happened when the Roman general Titus invaded Jerusalem. Perhaps it did, but I think it will happen again.

Like birth pangs, each of these prophetic fulfillments is larger than the one before. Antiochus set up an idol in the Temple and sacrificed a pig. Titus tried to set up an idol, but destroyed the Temple before it could be done. They were both antichrists, shadows of the Antichrist prophesied by John. What form will the abomination of that one take?

Watch for a Jewish Temple to be rebuilt. The world will almost certainly be enraged. If an outsider then manages to take it over and defile it, watch for the ensuing bloodshed to be like nothing Israel has ever seen before.

Our salvation won’t come through arms or stockpiled food, but only through the miraculous intervention of Yeshua, Messiah son of David. He will rescue his people, cleanse the Temple, and fill it with new light.

Yet, there is more to Hanukkah than war and blood. It is a celebration of light and God’s Spirit, and there are types and shadows within types and shadows.

The menorah is a type of the Holy Spirit and we are the Temple. After having come to belief in our Messiah, if we were left to ourselves to make our own way to holiness, we would be hopelessly lost. When we are reborn, we have no power in ourselves to accomplish anything. We have no oil of our own, and we can do nothing in ourselves.

Whether in war or acts of kindness, there is no circumstance in which we are capable of acting in any truly meaningful way without the aid of our Creator. It is only God’s mercy which fills us with his Spirit and allows us to be a light to the world.

Note: Although I believe Hanukkah has prophetic significance and its celebration honors God, it is not one of God’s commanded feast days. If you choose to celebrate it, great! If you don’t, that’s great too!