Out of the Poverty of the Heart…

Leviticus 13-14, in the Torah portions called Tazria and Metsora, describes the process for diagnosing, treating, and cleansing of a disease called tzaraat. (Most English Bibles translate this word as “leprosy”, but that’s incorrect since the Biblical condition doesn’t really align with what we know of as leprosy or Hansen’s Disease.)

Levitics 14:2 says “This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest,” and then gives instructions to the priest for completing the cleansing of the leper. When the leper’s skin condition has cleared up, he is to take an offering to the priest who will perform the necessary rituals to make him ritually clean again.

This is the passage that Yeshua cited after he healed a leper in Luke 5:12-14.

While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
(Luke 5:12-14)

Notice that Yeshua did not say “Be healed”, but “Be clean”. Having declared the man clean, Yeshua told him to go to the priest as required by the Law, except that the Law says the man goes to the priest after he has been healed of the disease in order to be declared clean so that he can rejoin the congregation of Israel.

But if Yeshua had already cleansed the man of tzaraat, why would he need to go to the priest?

Jewish tradition says that tzaraat is caused by lashon hara or evil speech, especially against a person in divinely appointed authority, such as a priest or prophet. If the tradition is correct, tzaraat is the physical manifestation of a spiritual condition. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” (Matthew 15:18)

It seems to me that, if the disease in the skin is caused by a disease of the heart, then the heart must be healed before the skin can be made whole again. When Yeshua said “Be clean”, he wasn’t referring to the tzaraat, because, even as Yeshua himself confirmed, only a Levitical priest can declare a leper clean. Yeshua was referring to the man’s heart. In effect, he said “Be cleansed of your bitterness, resentment, and every other kind of hatred that causes one man to speak ill of another.”

Yeshua did not say “Be healed” because he was addressing the man’s spiritual condition, not his skin condition. Once the man’s heart was made whole, the tzaraat was cut off from its roots and his skin was healed as well. His physical healing was a happy side effect.

No one acts for long in opposition to who they really are. If you let a person talk and walk long enough, he’ll eventually show his true colors.

out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Matthew 12:34

When Yeshua looks at us, he never sees only our outward appearance or even the things we do and say. He sees straight into our hearts. That’s how we need to look at people. We need to see with His eyes.

We need to see that when people say ugly things, it’s because there’s something ugly on the inside that needs to be healed. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad people. It could mean they’re hurting, sick at heart and longing to be told, “Be clean.”

It usually takes time and spiritual discernment to tell which. “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” (1 Timothy 5:24) Don’t be hasty to judge a person’s heart. Let your default position be in understanding and kindness.

Does Acts 15 Say We Can Ignore God’s Law?

The first century church dealt with a recurring conflict between missionaries to the gentiles and a group that is sometimes called “the Party of the Circumcision.” Acts 15:1 tells us that

…some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

The rest of the chapter discusses this controversy and how the Jerusalem Council responded. I don’t like to reproduce large blocks of text from the Bible here, but I think it’s necessary because the council’s ruling is easy to misinterpret without considering the full context.

Act 15:1-33 (1) But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  (2) And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.  (3) So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.  (4) When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.  (5) But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”  (6) The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

(7) And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.  (8) And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,  (9) and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  (10) Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  (11) But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  (12) And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

(13) After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me.  (14) Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.  (15) And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,  (16) “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins,  and I will restore it,  (17) that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,  says the Lord, who makes these things  (18) known from of old.’  (19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,  (20) but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.  (21) For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.

(22) Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers,  (23) with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.  (24) Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,  (25) it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,  (26) men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (27) We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.  (28) For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:  (29) that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

(30) So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.  (31) And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.  (32) And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.  (33) And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them.

I can see how it might appear to the casual reader as if the Jerusalem council ruled that the Torah does not apply to gentile believers. But a reader more interested in the broader context and a fuller understanding of what he reads might notice a few details that seem to indicate otherwise.

First, let’s define the controversy.

Verse one says that some men came from Judea and told the new gentile believers that, in order to be saved, they must be circumcised according to the “custom of Moses.” Paul, Barnabas, and some others went to Jerusalem (in Judea) to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders (v2). When they had brought the Jerusalem council up to date on their mission to the gentiles and had described the controversy at hand, some of the same group of men were there and reaffirmed what had been told to the gentiles (v5). These might have been the “others” who had accompanied Paul and Barnabas, possibly to ensure that both sides of the argument would be represented fairly.

This is the question that the Jerusalem Council convened to answer: Must the gentile converts be circumcised according to the custom of Moses in order to be saved and should they be ordered to keep the law of Moses? As you can see, there are actually two questions, and if you are unfamiliar with the written Torah, it will be very easy for you to misunderstand the nature of these questions from the text in Acts alone.

Note that verse one states “circumcised according to the custom (ethos in Greek) of Moses.” There is no general command anywhere in Torah to circumcise grown men. There were specific circumstances in which the Hebrews had neglected the command to circumcise their infant sons, and so they rectified that by circumcising themselves as adults, but those were one time events. Nowhere did Moses write, “If a foreigner wishes to be grafted into Israel, he must be circumcised,” or “a grown man who was not circumcised as a child must be circumcised as an adult before he can be acceptable to God.” The Law only stipulates that a newborn boy must be circumcised on the eighth day.  This “custom of Moses” was just a custom of men and came with a long list of extra-biblical do’s and dont’s known as the Eighteen Measures of Shammai (briefly mentioned in this Jewish Encyclopedia article). By demanding that new believers must be circumcised in order to be saved, they were adding to God’s Law, something He expressly forbade them to do.

Verse five says that the Pharisees also wanted to order the new converts to keep the whole Law of Moses, something that they clearly weren’t even doing themselves. As Yeshua told them years earlier, “By your traditions you make void the commandments of God.” In fact, since their circumcision was only a man-made tradition, it’s very likely that the laws they intended weren’t the Law of Moses at all, but either the Eighteen Measures or else the full body of draconian and contradictory Jewish law. Peter’s statement (v10) confirms that this is almost surely the case:

Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
(Acts 15:10 ESV)

How could God’s Law as delivered through Moses be such an onerous burden when God Himself says that it was not?

Deuteronomy 30:9-16 ESV (9) The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, (10) when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (11) “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (12) It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (13) Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (14) But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (15) “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. (16) If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

How could they have been unable to bear the burden of God’s Law about which David wrote such stirring words:

Psalms 119:44-48 ESV (44) I will keep your law (Hebrew: Torah) continually, forever and ever, (45) and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (46) I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, (47) for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. (48) I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.

So what was the yoke that the Apostles and their fathers couldn’t bear except for the innumerable regulations that lawyers had piled on top of the Divine Law? Yeshua was continually rebuking them for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9), and this was just more of the same. The “party of the circumcision,” as Paul would refer to them, wanted to make all of these new gentile believers into full-fledged Jews, complete with a Jewish ritual conversion and all the rules and regulations that were impossible to keep and often in direct contradiction to the written Torah.

The actual question at hand was not whether the Law of God (aka the Mosaic Law) applied to the gentile converts, but whether they ought to be required to keep the Jewish traditions that had been added to God’s Law.

Peter urged the council to reject this proposal. What was too difficult for the Jews who already knew the Torah well would surely be even more difficult for the gentiles, and many would turn away in discouragement.

This is James’ final ruling on the issue:

Acts 15:19-20 ESV “(19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, (20) but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”

What did the Jerusalem Council really say about gentile converts and keeping the Law?Clearly he rejected the idea that the converts must be circumcised to effect salvation, but did he go so far as to reject Torah observance altogether? It almost reads that way! But what about keeping the Sabbath, stealing, coveting, dishonoring parents, and oath breaking? If you refrain from sexual immorality, but hate your brother, have you really done well (v29)? Of course not! Paul, Peter, John, and James all wrote strongly against a number of immoral behaviors that James didn’t even mention, so we know that James didn’t mean for them to interpret his ruling as license to commit everything under the sun so long as it didn’t violate one of these four prohibitions. That would be putting God to a far more severe test than the legalism he was refuting.

So what did he mean? The vital clue in the very next verse is usually ignored:

“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Acts 15:21 ESV

James said that they should not trouble the gentiles, but only tell them to avoid these four things, because Moses is taught in every synagogue every Sabbath.

The Apostles had rejected the Circumcision’s premise that a ritual conversion was necessary and had then gone much further than anyone had expected. Not only did converts not need to be circumcised and keep all of the Pharisees’ man-made traditions, but they didn’t even need to keep God’s Law in order to be saved! This was truly radical! But it wasn’t the end.

What were they to do with their salvation now that it was assured apart from circumcision? This is the question that James was really answering. Let me give you my amplified version of his ruling:

“Let’s not discourage the gentiles with a treatise on every moral particular. We’ll keep it simple and easy with just four really important things that will facilitate fellowship between Jews and gentiles. They can progress from there by learning over time just like Jewish children for many generations, hearing Moses read aloud and discussed in the synagogue every Sabbath.” James’ words embodied a great principle of human nature: demand too much, too fast, and you’ll get nothing at all. You’ll break people instead of advancing them.

The controversy addressed in Acts 15 was never about whether gentile believers in Yeshua ought to keep God’s Law as given through Moses. It was about conditions for salvation and for acceptance into fellowship.

This is the very essence of God’s grace: He loves us right where we are, and we don’t have to keep any set of rules to be saved. His grace is sufficient for our salvation. We don’t need to be circumcised, dunked, shaved, bathed, anointed, slain in the spirit, or sprinkled for His grace to be effective at covering over all of our sins and making us His own. All we have to do to be saved is throw ourselves on His mercy, begging His forgiveness and throwing our sins at His feet.

But the liberty we have in Messiah does not mean we are free to make void the Law of God. As Paul said to this idea, “Heaven forbid!” It only means that we are not condemned by our failures as we progress toward the mark of perfect faithfulness. We are free to obey God without fear that every misstep will send us plunging into the abyss.

Start where you are and work to do a little better every day. And if you do these things, you’ll do well.

The Elegance and Depth of Torah

The elegance of Torah

One characteristic of what computer programmers refer to as “elegant” code is that it accomplishes much with little. In other words, a complicated process reduced to a few simple lines of instruction. One can usually tell a novice programmer by the convoluted nature of his code.

Torah is like an elegantly written piece of software. While it seems at times to be just a long list of dos and don’ts, in reality, it is a simplified portrayal of deep and nuanced concepts. A set of instructions on what to do in a particular circumstance often (always?) opens into a multi-dimensional framework of truths concerning the nature of God, man, redemption, and spiritual health and sickness, but only if you look at it from the right angle. Here are just some of the characteristics that a passage contains greater mysteries than appear on the surface:

  • Unusual Hebrew spelling.
  • Altered Hebrew characters, whether in size, shape, position, or orientation.
  • Thematic parallels with other passages.
  • Parallel or mirrored structure, often called a chiasm.
  • Numerological and pictographic double-meanings.
  • Puns and cognates.

At Ashrei, Rabbi B discusses some of the deeper meanings of “clean” and “unclean” in Leviticus 11-15 (aka the Torah portions of Sh’mini, Tazria, and Metsora), and how these concepts contain real and applicable spiritual import for people in ages and cultures.

It is in the most unlikeliest of places that we often discover the most precious of treasures. From time to time I hear from people who read the Bible how they skip certain sections when reading because those sections seem tedious and boring, or even irrelevant. When expressing this sentiment they often cite the lengthy genealogies or the detailed laws concerning sacrifices or laws pertaining to cleanliness.

Although I understand and sympathize with the sentiment somewhat, I often respond by reminding them that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of G-d, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of G-d may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (cf. II Timothy 3:16). And all means all, including the passages we are about to consider in this and subsequent posts.

I believe that G-d’s Word is inspired, literally “G-d-breathed,” all of it. Not just some of it, or just the part starting with the Gospels, but all of it, very single word, every single syllable. I also believe that in the beginning was the Word, that the Word was with G-d, that the Word was G-d, and that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (cf. John 1). That being said, I believe that we can find the Messiah being proclaimed on every page of the Bible. Let’s begin by taking a look at one of those long, tedious, and detailed sections of the Torah and see what we might discover.

Read the rest here: The Leper Messiah.

Imperfection Is Part of the Plan

Nobody starts out complete. IMPERFECTION is part of God’s plan.
Leviticus 12:3
And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

No human being, including Yeshua, has ever been born complete.

When God created the world, he said it was good. It was perfect, but not in the way you might think. Perfection can imply an untouchable, changeless quality, but the world was meant to change. Adam was put in the Garden not only to care for it, but to subdue it, to change it.

Mankind too was created imperfect by design. We are flawed, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and that’s exactly the way that God intended to create us. However, he did not intend for us to remain in that state. On the eighth day of his life, a baby boy begins his transformation into the man he is to become, and his initiation is accomplished through pain inflicted by the hand of another man. Again, by design.

We are born in pain and grow to maturity through pain. Without it, we would live and die in infancy, never knowing who God intended for us to become. Without experiencing the sorrow of death and separation, we can never experience the full measure of life.

When God or man bars the way with trial, don’t waste time crying over facts, but consider how they can be used and overcome, like the last one, and the one before that, and the one still to come. With each victory gained through struggle over suffering, you will be one step closer to the perfection that God intended you to achieve.

The Law of Sin & Death: Sin Separates Us from God

2 Kings 7:8-9  And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent and ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent and carried off things from it and went and hid them.  (9)  Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.”

The four lepers had a major windfall. They expected death and found life and riches instead. They could have kept on gathering and stockpiling with no one the wiser, but they remembered their starving brothers and shared their knowledge, bringing life to the entire city.

Romans 6:20-23  For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  (21)  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.  (22)  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  (23)  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Tazria and Metsora (this week’s Torah readings from Leviticus 12-15) are about things that cause separation from God, i.e. spiritual death, among his people. Even if they are already saved, already members of “the king’s household,” they might not know that their actions adulterate their life with death. When we were slaves to sin, we were not bound by any considerations of righteousness. But now that we have been set free from sin, we are bound to obey God, i.e. to do what is righteous.

Therein lies life.

Continuing in sin will only put us in bondage again because sin separates us from our Creator.

We are not set free and given eternal life just to sin, but rather to obey a different master. Continuing in sin will only put us in bondage again because sin separates us from our Creator. Disobedience brings death. Once we know that there is a better way, that there are choices and actions that increase our separation from the world while decreasing our separation from God, like the four lepers in 2 Kings 7, we are bound by love for our neighbors to share that knowledge.

Look for opportunities in your day to share your knowledge of greater life, to tell someone how to reduce the separation engendered by disobedience and to draw closer to our Creator.