God’s Loving Graciousness

God is love.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

We hear these statements all the time. We smile, nod our heads, and enjoy the warm fuzzies.

But do we know what they mean?

We think we do. We assume we do…. But remember what happens when we assume? Yep. You guessed it.

I didn’t want to assume that I knew what Moses and John and other Biblical writers meant by “love”, so I spent some time over the last few weeks looking at the various Hebrew and Greek words that are translated into English as love and how they are used in Scripture.

Most of us who grew up in a Christian church have probably heard more than one sermon about the difference between agape and phileo. Agape is supposed to be unconditional, godly love, while phileo is a lesser, brotherly love, but I think that might be making too much of it.

(Just FYI. I’m not an expert in any Biblical languages. I have only a small knowledge of Hebrew and rely extensively on concordances, dictionaries, and commentaries.)

In many cases, “like” is a perfectly adequate translation of phileo in the Greek Scriptures with no need to add anything mystical to it, while agape is closely analogous to the English word “love”. Certainly *unconditional* love would fall within the scope of agape, but to say that agape always refers to that kind of love is an overstatement.

Genesis 34:3 says that Shechem loved Dinah, whom he had just kidnapped and raped. The translators of the Septuagint, who understood ancient Greek far better than anyone alive today does, chose to translate the Hebrew word for love in this verse as agapao, the verb form of agape.1 Clearly Shechem did not have unconditional love for Dinah.

Since the Apostolic writings were essentially exposition on the Torah and the Prophets in the context of Greek and Roman culture, I think we can get a very good idea of what these words meant to them by looking at their corresponding Hebrew words in the Old Testament.

There are essentially 3 Hebrew words that are frequently translated as love in the Old Testament.

  • אהב (H157), pronounced as ahab
  • חשׁק (H2836), pronounced as chasak2
  • חסד (H2617), pronounced as chesed2

Ahab is usually translated as “love”, and its meaning is almost identical to the English: a strong, favorable emotion linked to desire, longing, and affection. Accordingly, it can refer to the love of God for his people, a father for a son, a man for his wife, and anyone for his favorite food. Ahab has a wide range of meaning. It can be used in almost any context in which you would use the English word love.

Here are some ways in which this word is used in the Old Testament3:

  • Genesis 27:4 – The food that Isaac loves (ahab).
  • Genesis 34:3 – He loved (ahab) the young woman and spoke tenderly to her.
  • Leviticus 19:18 – Love (ahab) your neighbor as yourself.
  • Deuteronomy 11:1 – Love (ahab) YHWH your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always.
  • Isaiah 61:8 – God loves (ahab) fair and honest judgment.

Chasak is a more difficult word to translate, but the concept doesn’t seem to be very difficult to understand. (Did I mention that I’m not a scholar of ancient languages?) Essentially, chasak is an attachment to something, whether of one physical object to another or, in a metaphorical sense, an emotional attachment to do or have something. It’s translated into the Greek equivalents of the English words choose, elect, smith (as in a metal smith), and take.

Here are some examples of chasak in the Old Testament:

  • Genesis 34:8 – Shechem longs for (chasak) Dinah.
  • Exodus 38:17 – The pillars of the court are fastened (chasak) by silver.
  • Deuteronomy 7:7 – God set his love (chasak) on Israel.
  • 1 Kings 9:19 – Solomon desired (chasak) to build.
  • Isaiah 38:17 – In love (chasak) God delivered.

The third word, chesed, is closer to what people usually mean when they talk about the Greek word, agape, but different Bible translators favor different English renditions. Some of the most common translations are “loving kindness”, “steadfast love”, and “mercy”. It is usually translated into Greek as eleos, instead of agape or phileo.

I’m going to give you more examples of chesed from the Old Testament, because frankly I think it’s a much more interesting and profound word, and I’m going to spend more time talking about it:

  • Genesis 19:19 – You have shown me great kindness (chesed) in saving my life.
  • Genesis 24:49 – Show steadfast love (chesed) and faithfulness to my master.
  • Genesis 47:29 – Promise to deal kindly (chesed) and truly with me.
  • Exodus 15:13 – In your mercy (chesed) you led the people whom you redeemed.
  • Numbers 14:18-19 – YHWH is slow to anger, and of great mercy (chesed).
  • Deuteronomy 5:10 – Showing steadfast love (chesed) to thousands of those who love (ahab) me and keep my commandments.
  • Deuteronomy 7:9 – The faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love (chesed) with those who love (ahab) him and keep his commandments
  • Judges 1:24 – Please show us the way into the city, and we will deal kindly (chesed) with you.
  • 2 Chronicles 35:26 – The acts of Josiah, and his kind deeds (chesed).
  • Jeremiah 33:11 – YHWH is good, for his steadfast love (chesed) endures forever!
  • Daniel 9:4 – God keeps covenant and steadfast love (chesed) with those who love (ahab) him and keep his commandments.
  • Jonah 4:2 – You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (chesed), and relenting from disaster.

Kindness is a dominant theme in the use of chesed throughout the Bible, but kindness is both too simple and too broad of a concept. Chesed is a special sort of kindness. In every case, the person who shows chesed to another is in a position of relative power.

Let me give you two examples from the Old Testament texts and two illustrations from Biblical relationships.

Two Examples of Chesed in the Old Testament

When Joseph was young, he would have loved (ahab) his father. He probably felt affection for him, enjoyed being in his presence, and did good things for him. However when Joseph was the Prime Minister of Egypt and Jacob was very old, their positions were reversed. Joseph held all the power, while Jacob was feeble and completely dependent on his son. Then Jacob begged Joseph’s mercy (chesed) in not allowing his bones to remain in Egypt after his death.

The translators of 2 Chronicles 35:26 had difficulty translating the chesed of King Josiah. Different translations render it as good deeds, goodness, mercy, kind acts, etc., but these differences are minor. The intent is clearly to show that Josiah showed exceptional mercy to his people.

Two Illustrations of Chesed from Biblical Relationships

It’s good if a man loves (ahab) his wife, and it’s even better if he loves (chesed) her. This is what Paul meant when he said that men should love their wives as the weaker vessel. Husbands have spiritual authority and physical dominance of their wives, and they need to keep that in mind so that they will be mindful to give chesed. It’s easy to be kind to your peer or to someone with more power. It’s something else to be kind to someone who is relatively weak and vulnerable.

Although God loves (ahab) us, he also shows us loving kindness (chesed) in deigning to provide for us, protect us, and raise us from our sin and poverty. God loves (chesed) those who love (ahab) him. God shows chesed to man by forgiving, protecting, and healing, but man never shows chesed to God because no man has ever been in a position of power over God.

Chesed and the Grace of God

If I had to summarize the meaning of chesed in a single English word, that word would be grace. Not in the sense of the physical grace of a ballerina, but the regal grace of a king who treats his subjects with kindness and understanding. He has the power, the authority, and the right to destroy those who offend his law, but he shows grace by commuting sentences, by hearing and embracing his poorest subjects, and by granting mercy and honor to weaker rivals.

When the Apostles wrote of God’s grace, this is what they meant.

The Greek word usually used to translate chesed in the Septuagint (a 2200 year old Greek translation of the Old Testament) is eleos, and this Greek word is almost always (and accurately) translated into English as mercy.

On the other hand, the Greek word translated as grace in the Apostolic writings is charis.2 Grace is an excellent translation of this word into English, as it appears to carry the same dual meaning of physical elegance and regal forebearance in Greek as it does in English.4

So why did the Apostles use charis instead of eleos to express the concept of Hebrew chesed?

Perhaps it was an idiomatic use that had been adopted by Jewish scholars when discussing biblical concepts among themselves in Greek. Or perhaps they consciously used charis because of the additional dimension of elegance in the meaning of the word.

Regardless of how the word Greek charis was used in everyday speech by the Greeks of the first century, the Apostles used it very much like Hebrew chesed was used in the Old Testament scriptures: to refer to the loving graciousness that one person in a position of power willingly shows to another in an inferior position.

Read these Apostolic passages as if they were written using the Hebrew word chesed instead of the Greek word charis:

John 1:17 – For the law was given through Moses; chesed and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, this is the wording used in Proverbs 16:6 – “By mercy (chesed) and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.” Chesed gives this verse so much more depth of meaning. God Law was revealed through Moses, but God’s grace to forgive was revealed in the person of Jesus. (And I can already see I’m going to have to write another article on the topic of “grace and truth”.)

2 Corinthians 8:9 – For you know the chesed of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

Although he had all power and authority in Creation, he came down from his throne to live among his subjects in order to elevate them.

Ephesians 3:8 – To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this chesed was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ…

Paul wrote that his appointment as the Apostle to the Nations was an undeserved kindness granted by God.

It seems to me that God’s mercy & loving kindness, as described throughout the Old Testament with the Hebrew word chesed, is the very essence of divine grace, and it is glaringly obvious that grace was not a new concept in the first century. Yeshua’s death on the cross wasn’t God’s first act of Grace. Rather, it was the apex of his grace, the most personal, painful, and heart-wrenching extension of his loving kindness to mankind.

The grace of a king is manifested in the mercy that he extends to those who have violated his law, and he rightly expects them to be grateful and to stop doing whatever it was that caused them to come under his Law in the first place. How must it seem to Yeshua when those for whom he suffered and died in order to earn that pardon use it as a license to ignore his law instead of as an opportunity to start over with a clean slate?

God’s grace, his chesed, is not the suspension of his Law, but the suspension of his judgment for violating it. That suspension will not be extended indefinitely to people who abuse it.

God's grace consists of his willingness to forgive and heal those of us who have rebelled against his Law.

1 The language of the New Testament (Koine Greek) is a little different than the language of the Septuagint. I don’t think that difference has any significant impact on this point.
2 In both Hebrew and ancient Greek transliteration, the letter combination of ch is pronounced like kh. There is no ch sound (as in church) in either language. Why tranliterators chose to use ch instead of kh, I don’t know. They should have asked me first.
3 Most of the Bible quotes in this article are taken from the ESV, but I also used the KJV, LITV, and others when the ESV’s translation of a word seemed especially obscure.
4 See these comments on the secular and Biblical usage of charis: https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/518/Charis.htm

God Hates His People

God hates his people.

Or at least that’s what many churches teach. They quote Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in which he said, “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commands all men every where to repent.” (Acts 17:30) Then they quote Yeshua’s statements along the lines of “You have heard it said thus, but I tell you differently.” And they conclude that God’s Law no longer applies and at least partly consisted of God winking at sin all along. The Law was incomplete and Jesus fixed it. Or worse, that God played Keep-Away with eternal salvation by setting the Jews up with an impossible standard even while he told them that it wasn’t that hard.

God loves his people! His word is true! Obedience brings Life! God never changes!Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. That’s not hyperbole. They literally don’t understand what they’re saying. I have to wonder if those theologians have ever actually read their proof texts. Neither Yeshua nor Paul was addressing the Law of God in those passages. Yeshua was correcting traditions of men, which misrepresented the Law, and Paul was speaking of total ignorance of the Law, which, for the sake of your faith in him, God overlooks until you are able to learn it.

The idea that God deliberately hobbled his Law by “winking” at certain sins or hobbled his people by making them dependent on an impossible standard for their salvation means that God hates the very people whom he claims to love.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall always rebuke your neighbor, and not allow sin on him. (Leviticus 19:17)

If God compromised his Law in deference to the prevailing culture (you know, that Egyptian culture of idolatry and incestuous marriage), then, by his own standards, he hated Israel even while he proclaimed his love. If the church is right, that God established sin in his Law or lied about his real expectations, then God is a liar and a hater of mankind.

What man is there of you, if his son asks a loaf, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks a fish, will he give him a snake? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him? (Matthew 7:9-11)

Which, of course, means that Yeshua was also a liar and evil. His execution was deserved, and we have no hope of salvation.

Ever.

The entire history of God’s interaction with man has been a long, cruel joke. The manna was poisoned, and the Passover lamb was infested with parasites.

But I don’t believe any of that!

I believe that David knew of what he spoke when he said that “The Law of YHWH is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of YHWH is sure, making the simple wise. The Precepts of YHWH are right, rejoicing the heart; the Commandments of YHWH are pure, giving light to the eyes.” (Psalm 19:7-8) I believe that when Yeshua said, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” he meant all of his commandments, and not only the ones that he had to tell us twice.

I believe that God loves his people, that his Word is true, that obedience to his Word brings life, and that he never changes. What was a sin three thousand years ago remains a sin today. What was not a sin three thousand years ago is still not a sin today.

Because God is love, and a loving Father doesn’t give his son a stone when he asks for bread. (Matthew 7:9)

Why Do We Need Yeshua?

Let’s play a game.

You’ve probably played this one before. It’s called word association. I’ll give you a series of words. After each word, you respond with a word of your own, the first word that comes to mind.

Ready?

  • Circumcision
  • Law
  • Commandment
  • Precept
  • Statute
  • Obedience

Fun, right? Well… that depends.

If you’re like most western Christians, you probably responded with some pretty negative stuff like ouch, rules, judgment, obsolete, or legalism. When I talk about obedience to God’s commandments, most people want to tell me about Jesus and how he fulfilled the Law so that we don’t have to.

“Don’t you know that we’re not under the Law anymore?”

I’ll set aside the mountains of bad exegesis and indoctrination behind that reaction to just say, I get it. I understand where you’re coming from. Before you go any further, let me tell you what I really believe.

I know this won’t be the last time–I’m sure I’ll write more articles with this same basic theme–but I’d like to get this down as succinctly and vividly as possible.

I don’t believe that anyone can earn their eternal salvation.

I don’t believe that keeping God’s Law (aka Torah) can make anyone righteous enough to pass muster at the final judgment.

There is one–and only one–Way of Salvation, and his name is Yeshua. You might know him as Jesus. If you truly believe in him (trust him to keep his word and to be faithful to deliver you in the end), you will be saved.

But I still believe in keeping the Law.

(Did I just heard somebody choke.)

“If we’re still supposed to keep God’s Law, why do we need Jesus?”

Good question! I’m glad you asked.

Let me draw you an illustration.

The Bible defines sin as breaking God’s Law, and we all sin. Except for Yeshua, there are no exceptions. Every single man and woman who ever lived has sinned, including you and me.

Imagine that God is up in the sky and we’re down here on earth. Our sin breaks our wings and puts a giant impenetrable barrier between us and God. He is up there, we’re down here without hope, and there is no way we will ever be able to get back to him. God is perfect and we’re not. Even in death, released from all fleshly ties, our spirits will only sink even further beneath the weight of our sins.

It doesn’t matter if we keep the Sabbath, observe Passover every single year, offer sacrifices, honor our marriages with lifelong fidelity, pay every tithe, and on and on and on. It doesn’t matter how perfectly we live, no amount of obedience will ever let us climb high enough to remove the stain and weight of our failure.

Satan, that serpent from the Garden, will still be there at the end to accuse us before God’s throne, and there will be no question of our guilt because God knows everything we have ever done. We can hide our sins from ourselves, our children, and even our mothers, but we can’t hide them from God.

In fact, he knew all along what we would do; he knew we would fall for Satan’s tricks and lock ourselves out of God’s presence. Fortunately, because he is just and merciful, he also set in motion a redemption plan so that we wouldn’t be completely without hope. From the very first sin in the Garden, God promised that a Redeemer would come to crush the head of that serpent and to set us free again.

God sent Yeshua, the only perfect man, to suffer and die for sins he didn’t commit. His blood washes away the stain of sin from our spirits and bridges the barrier that we erected, allowing us to be reunited with the Father.

Keeping the Sabbath, loving our neighbors–even our enemies–caring for widows, praying, fasting, and worshiping… all of these things are good and wonderful, but they can’t repair the damage we’ve already done.

Baruch HaShem! Bless the name of God! Honor and love the King by keeping his commandments. Just understand that the only way to heal the rift between you and God is by throwing yourself on the mercy of Messiah Yeshua and pledging all your allegiance to him.

Humility Before a Great, Incomprehensible God

A personal prayer from Ben Franklin

There’s an interesting little chiasm in Leviticus 8:1-5. (See here for more information on chiasms.)

  • Lev 8:1-2 – God instructed Moses on how to carry out the ordination of Aaron and his sons.
    • Lev 8:3 – God told Moses to assemble the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
      • Lev 8:4a – Moses did as God commanded him.
    • Lev 8:4b – Moses assembled the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
  • Lev 8:5 – Moses told the congregation what God had commanded regarding the ordination ceremony.

The ordination ceremony involved killing animals, burning some parts, washing others, handling some organs, and boiling and eating yet other parts. There was bathing, anointing with oil, and splattering and dabbing with blood. Read all of Leviticus 8 for the full ceremony.

If you or I were to put together a ceremony for ordaining a new priesthood, I doubt it would involve bloody toes, eating boiled meat, or sitting outside a tent for seven days. God’s instructions for this event seem almost arbitrary, but Yeshua assured us that every letter is significant. God is never arbitrary. Every command has a reason, even if he doesn’t always explain it to us.

In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography he admitted to a lifelong tendency toward pride. He tried various exercises to overcome it, but in the end settled for simply hiding it behind kindness and carefully chosen words, which wasn’t a bad strategy. If every prideful person followed his example, ours would be a better world by far.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s pride in his own intellect led him to reject most of the Bible as a factual record of God’s relationship with mankind because so much of what God did and said seemed to him to be arbitrary or nonsensical. If he couldn’t see the utility in a particular command, he rejected it personally, even while generally respecting the beliefs of others.

Feeding the poor, ensuring justice for the accused, respecting the name of God, et cetera… These things made sense to Franklin, so he kept them. But the Sabbath, dietary laws, and others, he found to be devoid of practical purpose. He certainly isn’t alone. Most modern Americans share his opinions on these matters. Most of them, however, can be at least partly excused because of their lack of knowledge of the Scriptures and training in basic logic. Old Ben didn’t have those excuses.

Franklin believed in God and that God had created the universe and mankind. Reason ought to have informed him–as it did most of his contemporaries–that a being of sufficient intellect to have created the universe with all of its physical laws and intricate living systems must of necessity be in some respects far beyond our own ability to comprehend. A man of overwhelming curiosity, Franklin was acutely aware that he could never hope to understand even a fraction of the physical universe in his lifetime, so it would be a mystery to me how he could have concluded that everything about God and his commandments should be so easily grasped.

I say “would be a mystery to me,” because it would be if it weren’t for his admission to excessive pride.

Contrast Franklin with Moses.

Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

When God asked the impossible, Moses obeyed. When God commanded the absurd, Moses obeyed. He might have been embarrassed or inconvenienced or baffled at times, but he still obeyed.

Ben Franklin was a good man–a great man even–but because of his pride, all of his intelligence, experience, and wisdom was worthless compared to Moses’ humility. Two thousand years from now, if Yeshua tarries, Benjamin Franklin will likely have been forgotten by all except the most ardent historians. The name of Moses, on the other hand, will still be as large as ever.

It’s good to consider the “why” of God’s commands. Think about them, meditate on them, debate them. All of these things can bring insight if done in good order. But the one thing we must never do is to reject them simply because we don’t understand or like them. God’s wisdom is as far above ours as ours is above a worm’s. Probably much farther.

Second guessing God’s instructions brought on the fall of the entire human race in Eden. You are mistaken if you think you can get away with it now.

One Law or Two?

Are there separate laws for Jews and Gentiles or One Law for both?

I teach that there is one Law for all citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, that those who have been grafted into Israel are subject to the same statutes and moral standards as those who were born into Israel. One common–and reasonable–objection is that if the law didn’t apply to gentiles prior to Yeshua’s incarnation, why should it apply after? Wouldn’t that mean a change in the Law itself?

For now, I’m going to set aside the distinction between such terms as Jews, Israelites, and Church. It’s an important distinction, but I’ll get to that in a separate article. In this article, I use the term “Jew” as shorthand for the people known as Jews in the time of Jesus and their heirs, because that’s how the term is used in the Apostolic writings.

If I wrote of every scriptural evidence that the Law applies to more than only the Jews, I would have to write a book. But then if I had the time to write a book, it would have to be a different one. So I’ll settle for a handful of evidences.

Evidence 1: Romans 3:9-11,19-21 (9) What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, (10) as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; (11) no one understands; no one seeks for God… (19) Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. (20) For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (21) But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it…

The phrase “under the Law” does not refer to those who are obligated to obey it, but to those who have violated the Law and are therefore under its judgment. The Law testifies against the sinner, thereby making him accountable for his sins. Paul wrote that “both Jews and Greeks are under sin.” But how can a Greek be “under sin” apart from the Law if, as Paul also wrote, “through the Law comes knowledge of sin?” He did not write, “Through one law comes knowledge of sin to the Greeks and through another Law comes knowledge of sin to the Jews.”

Some will say that there are two different laws at work here, one for the Jew and one for the Greek. Don’t let the necessary improvisations of the English translators fool you. The same Greek word nomos was translated as law in every case, and there was no capitalization or punctuation in the Greek. Every use of nomos in this passage refers to the same Law as verse 21 makes clear. There is one Law for both Jew and Gentile.* The Israelites were only the vehicle through which God gave his Law. Verse 2 says that they were entrusted with the oracles (utterances or revelations) of God, not that they were the only people to whom those oracles were addressed. If it’s still not clear enough to you, read the next two verses:

Romans 3:22-23 (22) …the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: (23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

There is no distinction between Jew and Greek in our guilt before the same Law, just as there is no distinction in our salvation through faith.

Evidence 2: Galatians 3:8-14 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (9) So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (10) For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (11) Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (12) But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” (13) Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”– (14) so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Although I would like to focus on verse 13, I copied much more of this passage to give you a good idea of the context. The Letter to the Galatians was not written to Jews, but to Galatians. They were Gauls, Greeks, Romans, and other mixed gentile nuts. There were probably some Jews there too, but they weren’t Paul’s primary audience. Paul warned this mixed multitude of new believers against relying on the Law for their salvation, so we can be sure that he meant the Law of Moses. He told them that Yeshua set them free from the curse of that Law, but if the Law did not apply to the Gentiles of Galatia, how did they come to require salvation from its curse? Of course, the Law did apply to them. It wasn’t given only to be a witness against the Jews, but against the whole world! (See Romans 3:19.)

Evidence 3 & 4: 1 Timothy 5:18-19 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (19) Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

These are just two examples among many of Paul’s teaching of Torah to Gentiles. To what scriptures was Paul referring? Deuteronomy 25:4 and Deuteronomy 19:15. Since Torah doesn’t apply to Gentiles, why would Paul burden them with its instructions? His words make good sense, of course, but Paul explicitly founded his advice in the Law. He would later write to Timothy that all of scripture, including the Torah, is worthwhile to study and to teach. All of it. And going by Paul’s example, it’s not just good to study, it’s good to do.

Just ask James:

Evidence 5: James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

James 4:11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

James was specifically addressing the Twelve Tribes in Diaspora, so this doesn’t directly counter the original objection. But if the objection is correct, and Christians have no responsibility to keep the Law at all, then they should remove this letter from their Bibles altogether because it wasn’t addressed to them anyway. All this talk of law would probably only confuse them. On the other hand, I know that many people teach believing Jews that they must abandon Torah when they come to faith in Yeshua. James, the head of the church in Jerusalem, obviously disagreed. Faith in Yeshua (aka Jesus) does not abrogate the responsibility to keep the Law, but rather establishes obedience as effectual for the holiness of all believers.

Evidence 6: 1 John 3:4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.

John, in addressing some common early heresies, defined sin as living without the Law. One could object that John meant living without any law and not specifically the Law of Moses, but I think that seems a little silly after Evidences 1-5. I think we can all agree that he wasn’t talking about Roman civil law or Jovian ecclesiastical law.

I have already gone beyond the “handful” of evidences I intended, but I really should add a few from the older scriptures for the benefit of any Jews who might be following along.

Evidence 7: Isaiah 56:1-7 Thus says the LORD: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. (2) Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” (3) Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” (4) For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, (5) I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (6) “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant– (7) these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

This is just about as plain a statement as you could want. Those non-Israelites who join themselves to God must never say that they are separated from his people, the Israelites. Just as Paul would write hundreds of years later: under God there is no difference between Jew and Greek. If gentiles worship the true God and keep his commandments, then they will be invited into his house. The implication is that, if they do not keep the Sabbath, they will not be invited, and their offerings and sacrifices will not be accepted.

Perhaps this is why David wanted to teach God’s Law to everyone. He was a man after God’s own heart, after all.

Evidence 8: Psalm 119:46-47 I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love.

Although he used two words, “testimonies” and “commandments”, the context indicates he meant them to be synonyms. If you aren’t as sure as I am, that’s understandable. Look a little further into Psalm 119, and maybe you will be convinced.

Evidence 9: Psa 119:118-119 You spurn all who go astray from your statutes, for their cunning is in vain. All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross, therefore I love your testimonies.

David wrote that God spurns all who go astray from his statutes. Not just the Israelites or the Jews. “All the wicked of the earth.” Since he did not want to be spurned, discarded like dross, he chose to love God’s testimonies. These lines are even clearer than the previous ones that “testimonies” was used synonymously with “commandments” and “statutes” throughout Psalm 119, and that all three apply to gentiles as well as to Jews.

Appropriately enough for the topic, I will conclude with a tenth scriptural evidence that the Law of God applies to all people, though there are many more to be found.

Evidences 10: Zechariah 14:18-19 And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the LORD afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths.

Sukkot (the Feast of Booths) memorializes Israel’s time in the wilderness and prophesies of the coming of the Messiah. One could spiritualize this passage to avoid the issue–and the allegorical interpretation might not be entirely incorrect–but the literal meaning is quite clear. The day will come when any nation on earth that does not keep Sukkot will also not receive rain.

Sukkot, which means “tabernacles” or “booths”, is a festival that happens every Fall. It memorializes the time that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness living in sukkot and is the most likely time when Yeshua was born, hence the prophecies of the Messiah coming to tabernacle among his people. The manger probably wasn’t a feeding trough, but a tabernacle, a temporary shelter constructed in obedience to the command to live in sukkot for one week every year. Although it isn’t kosher by rabbinic standards, we set up our tents in the yard every year and try to sleep in them as much as possible for that week.

So, keep Torah (the Law) or not. Just don’t say that God never intended for non-Jews to keep it. The Apostles disagree.

*Be careful not to conflate the Sinai Covenant with the Law itself. The Law was included in the Covenant–Jeremiah says that the New Covenant also includes the Law–but it isn’t identical with the Covenant.

What Purpose the Crucifixion?

In the eyes of God, Yeshua's blood erases our sins and his righteousness becomes ours.Someone on Twitter recently told me that he is still not sure why the Messiah needed to die. My reply (brief due to the limitations of Twitter) was something like this:

Something has to cover (atone) our sins before we can approach God. A precise understanding of how atonement works is probably beyond our comprehension, but I think of it like neutralizing a bad odor. God can’t stomach our stench, so he sent Yeshua whose blood covers and removes it. His good odor becomes ours in God’s nostrils, hence the repeated description of sacrifices as “a pleasing aroma” to God.

This interaction reminded me of another conversation I had with someone a long time ago, reproduced here:

Q: What purpose did the crucifixion and resurrection serve?

Among other things, the Crucifixion satisfied the requirement of the Law for the death of the sinner, and the Resurrection established Yeshua’s permanent mastery of death. The Law still requires death for certain offenses, but there is forgiveness apart from mere physical death. Yeshua’s crucifixion opened the door for grace at the final judgment and for eternal salvation.

Q: Did they change anything? If so, what, when, and for whom? Was the world a different place after the resurrection than before Christ’s death on the cross? In what way?

There was a change, but it was subtle (and dramatic at the same time, if that makes sense). Without Yeshua’s death and resurrection, nobody at any point in history, backwards or forwards, could ever be saved from eternal damnation or granted eternal life, but the method of salvation didn’t change after that event from what it was before. In other words, someone in 100 BC is saved the same way as someone in 100 AD: through faith in God’s mercy enabled by the blood of Yeshua. Salvation has always been available to anyone who asked and subjected themselves to God’s mercy. No one was ever saved by his own circumcision or obedience to Law, but by the grace of God in providing a substitutionary payment for the sins of all people who have ever lived.

Yeshua’s resurrection proved his innocence. He could not be condemned because he never violated a single point of the Law and so could not be held in the grave. Untainted blood acts as a sort of spiritual shield or mask that allows us to approach God (and vice versa) closer than we could as our natural, fallen selves. In the eyes of God, Yeshua’s blood erases our sins and his righteousness appears to the Father as our own if we willingly place ourselves beneath it. But since God exists outside of time and could look through that blood at Abraham and David as well as at you and I, this doesn’t really answer the question.

The world was a different place after Yeshua’s death and resurrection in three important ways.

First, our perspective changed. Abraham knew a redeemer must come and looked forward in faith to that day. We now know that the redeemer has already come, and we look back at that day in faith that his blood is sufficient to cover our sins. The ultimate fulfillment of redemption is yet to come, but the payment has been made in full. An earnest of delivery was given in the form of the Holy Spirit, and we now look forward to the reality.

Second, although God exists outside of time, our spirits do not. Before Yeshua, the Scriptures seem to indicate that the dead went to some place like the underworld common to most ancient mythologies: “Abraham’s Bosom” for the faithful and Hades for the unfaithful. They could speak and thirst and could sometimes even return to the land of the living. Yeshua changed something in that arrangement, although I won’t pretend to understand exactly what.

Third, Yeshua, who has become a man and the firstborn of the resurrection, can now operate as our high priest in the supreme tabernacle in Heaven. When we accept his kingship and covering of our souls, our obligation is transferred from the Law, which holds us in bondage as lawbreakers, to him, who sets us free by mercy. His priesthood is superior to that of Aaron’s and his forgiveness supersedes any condemnation we might have under the Law.

Q: Did He die only so that we wouldn’t have to go to Jerusalem every year and kill animals for God?

No. The sacrificing of animals never had anything to do with eternal salvation. They atoned for inadvertent or accidental sins. There has never been an animal sacrifice for deliberate sin. Having said that, I don’t know exactly what affect his death and resurrection has on animal sacrifices. Since they were never intended to save anyone’s soul and there is no altar on which to offer them anyway, it’s not something I’m going to worry about overmuch.

However, there are prophecies that appear to indicate there will be animal sacrifices offered up again on an altar in Jerusalem under Yeshua’s personal supervision. If that is a correct understanding, then his death could not possibly have negated all need or use for sacrifices. Perhaps no sin offerings will be made, but other kinds will. I’m not sure.

Q: The patriarchs of old, were they really saved through their faith that Yahweh would send a walking talking Messiah one day thousands of years in the future to walk and talk with their descendants, or were they saved through simple childlike faith that Yahweh would somehow make good on His word that He would redeem all of His people?

Both. They were saved by their faith in God’s mercy that he would give them life despite their sins. The mechanism of that mercy was the Messiah’s death, which some of them knew was necessary. I don’t believe they had to know the precise details of what form that mechanism would take, so long as they trusted in God to provide it. I believe the same is true today.

Q: Did they really know who the Messiah would be or what purpose He would serve?

Some of them, yes. I believe Abraham knew after God provided a sacrifice in place of Isaac. He prophesied of the Messiah when he told Isaac, “God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” (Hebrew for “burnt offering” is olah, which means “an ascending”. It implies something that burns and rises up in smoke, but it could be interpreted as anything that ascends to Heaven.) God actually provided a ram that day, not a lamb. The promised Lamb of God appeared centuries later in the person of Yeshua, was killed, rose from the dead, and ascended to Heaven.

Q: Christ said “believe on me and you shall be saved.” How about those who lived and died before Christ? Did Job appeal to his Maker or to his cousin Abraham’s seed?

Isn’t Abraham’s seed and Job’s Maker one and the same? In order to believe on Christ, no one needs to know the specific sounds that make up his human name (or any facsimile thereof) or even to know that he has already come. They only need to know that they are sinners and hopeless in themselves and to trust in (“believe on”) God to provide the means of their salvation. That means is Yeshua, but Job didn’t need to know the name of the Messiah nor the specific time or place of his birth. He just had to trust God to take care of it.

Q: Another very odd thing about the Scriptures is that they almost always, when properly translated (such as in the KJV, remarkably enough), say that the faith OF Christ shall save us, not our faith IN Christ. Now isn’t that strange?

The limitations of human language. We cannot possibly be really saved by any actions or thoughts of our own. Salvation is provided solely by God based on his own criteria. Fortunately, he has promised that salvation to us based on certain conditions which do not include physical obedience to any law.

Q: And what of Mark 9:24, where the man says “I believe. Help my unbelief.” How does a man need help believing if he is already fully convinced?

Is anyone ever fully convinced of anything? I trust and believe, but sometimes I still have doubts.

Romans 7:15-17 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

There are so many questions concerning spiritual matters for which we only have unsatisfactory answers, at least intellectually. But this is one of the greatest things about God and his plan for our salvation. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how well you can wrap your mind around the incomprehensible details of an infinite God. What matters is that you are able to perceive and admit your own imperfections and to trust in Him, and our capacity to trust is not tied to our capacity to reason.

Enemies Within and Without

Every external trial is sent for an internal purpose.

The enemy within your gates must be defeated before you can effectively engage the enemy without, but sometimes the enemy outside is sent to expose and defeat the enemy hiding within.

In Psalm 86, David began with a parallelism that lays out a cause and effect relationship between the state of his heart and God answering his prayers.

  • V1 – Incline your ear, O YHVH. Hear me.
    • For I am sorrowful and destitute.
  • V2a – Preserve my soul
    • For I am pious.
  • V2b – Save your servant
    • Who trusts in you.
  • V3 – Be merciful to me, O Lord
    • For I cry out to you daily.
  • V4 – Gladden the soul of your servant
    • For unto you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
  • V5 – You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love
    • To all who call upon you.

David went on to ask God to help him become a more righteous man, to thank Him and glorify Him for His steadfast love and deliverance. Only then did he come back to the problem at hand: A group of lawless and violent men were conspiring against David, and he needed divine protection.

This Psalm is remarkable for more than just the parallelism at the beginning. In it, David touched on every major point of The Lord’s Prayer as taught by Yeshua in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. I have listed some of the correlations here but I am sure there are more:

  • v8,12 : Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
  • v9 : Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
  • v1 : Give us this day our daily bread, and
  • v5,6,15,16 : forgive us our trespasses,
  • v11,17 : as we forgive those who trespass against us, and
  • v2,11: lead us not into temptation,
  • v2,13,17 : but deliver us from evil.
  • v10,12 : For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.

Not only does David foreshadow the Lord’s Prayer, but also the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:

  • v1 : Blessed are the poor in spirit
  • v4 : Blessed are they who mourn
  • v2 : Blessed are the meek
  • v11 : Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • v17 : Blessed are the merciful (David did not pray for their destruction, but their repentance.)
  • v2 : Blessed are the pure of heart
  • v17 : Blessed are the peacemakers (See above)
  • v14 : Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness

Is it any wonder that, despite all of his many sins and flaws, David is called a man after God’s own heart?

Like all of us, David continued to battle his sinful nature throughout his life, recognizing that he needed to have victory over the battle in his own heart before he could hope to have any real victory over external forces. This Psalm is an excellent pattern for every believer.

No matter how righteous we think we are, no matter how close to God we believe ourselves to be, our personal righteousness is a relative thing and will always be nothing compared to Yeshua’s. The trials that God sends are designed, in part, to remind us of this. The prayers of a righteous man are powerful, but righteousness that isn’t continually progressing becomes unrighteousness in time. This is a call to ever greater sanctity in our hearts and behavior, for there can be no victory in the world without victory in the heart.

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

The One Thing that Really Matters

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

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

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

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

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

Questioning Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or ever.

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

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

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

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

What Is the Difference between Grace and Following the Law?

Choosing to continue in sin is rejecting grace.

This is from a conversation I had on Google+ today, but I thought it deserved to be preserved here at American Torah.

———-

Paul wrote “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.'” in Romans 7:7. The word for “law” is nomos, which is the same word used throughout the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “torah”.

John wrote, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness.” in 1 John 3:4. His word for “lawlessness” is anomia, which literally means “non-law” or “a condition of being unlawful”. It’s the same word used by Matthew to describe people who break Torah. The KJV renders that phrase “for sin is transgression of the law.”

We have inherited a terrible misunderstanding of the phrase “under the law” as well as of James’ discussion of law and faith. This misunderstanding generates a “nomophobia” among many Christians, in which any mention of “law” or “torah” triggers a fight-or-flight reflex.

In reality, Torah and grace work together. Grace is God’s forebearance of our sins, His willingness to forgive us for our shortcomings. However, the word “sin” has no meaning without Torah for, as John pointed out, sin is Torah-lessness. Everyone sins. Except for the one man, Yeshua, every person who ever lived has violated Torah. Yet, by God’s grace alone, we don’t have to be condemned because of it.

Even after being born again into life with Yeshua, we continue to sin. Very few Christians would disagree. Paul wrote about this struggle in Romans also. Yet, how is it possible to break a law that doesn’t apply to you? Can an Australian break an American traffic law without stepping a foot out of Australia? That’s absurd! But that’s the gist of the argument that says it’s possible for a Christian to sin against a law that no longer applies to him. They might equivocate on the definition of “sin”, but I think Paul, John, and James do a pretty good job of establishing it’s meaning. And a very few people might assert that it’s impossible for a Christian to sin, but that’s so obviously unscriptural it hardly needs refutation.

There are three ways a person can live and only one of them leads to life.

1. Live without the law and perish without the law.
2. Live under the law and be judged by the law.
3. Live under God’s grace and be forgiven of one’s sins.

In none of these cases is a person free to behave as he chooses. The first person does what he wants and earns eternal damnation. The second person tries to earn his salvation through his behavior and inevitably fails. He too earns eternal damnation. The third person recognizes his inability to live a perfect life and throws himself at the mercy of the Heavenly Court. Then, having been granted grace by God who is eager to forgive, he doesn’t throw it in the trash by going on to live as if God had no standards whatsoever. He’d soon find himself in the same boat as the lawless pagan. Instead, he shows his gratitude for God’s grace and his love for his Creator by studying God’s instructions and applying them to his everyday life, “working out his salvation in fear and trembling.”

In summary, there is no difference between grace and following Torah. Indeed, to reject Torah is to reject grace also.