Threads in a tapestry, links in a chain, cupbearers in Pharaoh’s court…
God’s plan is always convoluted. He weaves divers threads from the beginning of time knowing precisely where He will bring them together millennia later so that events will converge just so and individuals will be presented with choices that will determine their status in the world to come.
Consider the long chain of events that brought Joseph into power in Egypt. God gave him dreams and caused Jacob to give him a peculiar coat so that his brothers would be jealous and betray him in time to sell him to the Ishmaelite caravan that delivered him to Potiphar who threw him in prison where he met the baker and the cupbearer who told Pharaoh about him so that he could save both Egypt and his own people, all the while laying down patterns that foreshadowed the ministry, betrayal, death, and resurrection of the Messiah who would also save both the world (Egypt) and Israel.
Complex, convoluted, and–in the end–all wrapped up with no loose ends. Not even Hollywood could tie a plot together like God does.
Joseph isn’t the only person for whom God arranged the threads of existence.
Let’s zoom in on Pharaoh’s cupbearer for a moment. Whatever his crime had been, God needed him to be in prison so that he could meet Joseph who could interpret his dream so that he could later tell Pharaoh about it. The plot grows thicker.
Pharaoh restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. (Genesis 40:21)
Read this verse again, paying special attention to the second half. Isn’t that an odd statement? “He placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand,” as if there was only one cup and it was a one-time event.
Throughout the Scriptures, cups are used to portray what we might call fate. God gives to one person or nation a cup of wrath and to another He gives a cup of blessing.
I will take the cup of salvation. (Psalm 116:13)
and Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath. (Jeremiah 25:15)
So the cup that the chief cupbearer placed into the hand of Pharaoh is not just a cup, but a Cup of either curses or blessings. Whether it was one or the other depended on a series of choices:
Would the cupbearer remember Joseph to Pharaoh or not?
Would Pharaoh tell Joseph his dream?
Would Pharaoh believe Joseph’s interpretation and heed his advice?
If any of these had gone the wrong way, Egypt would have suffered in the coming famine while God would have saved the Hebrews some other way. As it was, the cup was full of blessing until Egypt once again forgot Joseph many years later.
Interestingly, the baker and the cupbearer foreshadow another aspect of the story of Yeshua. One of them (the cupbearer) was released and the other (the baker) condemned during a national holiday (Pharaoh’s birthday). Yeshua was arrested during a national holiday (Passover) and, after His trial, Pilate reminded the people that it was a tradition to release one prisoner every year at this time. They chose to release Barrabas (the cupbearer) and to execute Yeshua (the baker).
It makes me wonder if the cupbearer was actually a murderer and if the baker was innocent.
God’s story-telling mastery is so complete that He has done the same thing for every one of us. You are somebody’s cupbearer, choosing in each moment to deliver the truth about God, His Law, and His Messiah or to withhold that truth. If you behave or speak in such a way as to deny someone God’s Truth, you become partly responsible for the resulting curses in that person’s life, and you have no way of knowing in advance which moments, which choices will have the greatest impact. It’s your responsibility to do right when you are able, to put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand, so to speak. When you have spoken the Truth, when you have shown the love of Messiah in the world by doing good to those around you, then your cup becomes one of blessing to you, and the power to transform the contents of the cup in one way or the other devolves to the next person.
We are all threads in a continuous fabric that stretches from one end of time to the other. God sees the overall pattern and places us where He needs us. We don’t always have a lot of control over the basic circumstances in our lives. We do, however, have control over how we choose to interact with those circumstances. We can be like Joseph, speaking the Truth, doing what’s right, and forgiving those who meant to do us wrong, or we can keep silent, look after ourselves, and resent those who appear to have imprisoned us.
You can choose to drink from a cup of salvation or be forced to drink from a cup of wrath. However the world appears around you, the choice remains yours.
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.”
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.
Someone once wrote, “It is absolutely bizarre that some Christians are still under the impression that they have an obligation to abide by Jewish Law.”
I completely agree.
If that surprises you, then you might be operating under the same lexical error as the original writer. The problem is a confusion of terms. Most Christians will read this phrase and actually understand it to mean “It is absolutely bizarre that some Christians are still under the impression that they cannot be saved unless they obey the Law given to Israel at Sinai,” and that’s probably what the writer meant too, but it’s not what the words, as written, mean at all.
Take the word “obligation” for instance.
If I am obligated to abide by posted speed limits everywhere in the United States, does that mean I will lose my citizenship if I exceed the limit at any time or even if I ignore them altogether? Of course, not. That’s absurd. It only means that I’ve broken the law and thereby placed myself under the jurisdiction of the local justice system, often colloquially known as “The Law”.
At no time before, during, or after my speeding episode was my citizenship in jeopardy. Likewise, no one is under any obligation to keep Torah in order to earn salvation, nor is anyone who is already “saved” or grafted into the nation of Israel obligated to keep Torah in order to keep that status. Which is not the same thing as saying that he is not obligated to keep Torah.
Anyone who claims to be grafted into the tree of Israel is obligated to keep Torah because God commanded Israel to keep it forever. Yeshua (Jesus) said further that anyone who refuses to keep it and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Notice that the offender is still “in the Kingdom,” but has been demoted by his disregard of God’s commands.
Be careful also of the term “Jewish Law.” It’s confusing because it’s often used to describe contradictory ideas. For example, many people are under the mistaken impression that Torah requires ritual handwashing before eating bread. Matthew 15 describes an incident in which a group of Jewish religious teachers asked Yeshua why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating as required by the “tradition of the elders.” Yeshua responded with a question of his own: “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” There is no commandment in Torah to wash one’s hands before eating. This was a “tradition of the elders” only. It was Jewish Law, but not God’s Law, and God isn’t concerned with Jewish Law.
“In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9 & Isaiah 29:13)
This was the same battle that Paul fought all through his ministry. He was constantly correcting people who were conflating Jewish Law with God’s Law. People who say believers in Yeshua shouldn’t keep “Jewish Law” are making the exact same mistake the Pharisees did: they replace God’s commands with man’s. Either they reject God’s Law and keep a new “Christian” set of laws against drinking, swearing, and smoking, or they reject God’s Law because they don’t want to make the mistake of keeping “Jewish” law, not understanding that they are not the same.
Is God’s Law Jewish? Only if you use the term “Jewish” to refer to all things related to Hebrews and Israel. It’s not technically accurate, since the term originally only applied to the Kingdom of Judah and not to the Kingdom of Israel and the tribes that were scattered by the Assyrians, but human language is rarely technically accurate. Referring to all Israelites as Jewish has a long history–even Paul did it at times–so I won’t quibble with that too much. Just be aware of the difference and be aware that the writings of the Jewish sages, the Talmuds, and the Jewish traditions are NOT the same as the written Torah. They are commentary, and often they are even very good commentary, but they cannot change, add to, or remove anything from God’s Law.
If you are grafted into Israel as Paul described in Romans, then the Law that God commanded the Israelites to keep applies to you. If you are not, then nothing that Yeshua said applies to you either, since he said that he came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Yeshua and Torah are a package deal. Either you’re in or you’re out. Either Yeshua and Torah both apply to you or neither do.
1. The term “Judeo-Christian” doesn’t refer to rabbinic Judaism, but to the faith lived and taught by the Jewish prophets, the Jewish Messiah, and the Jewish teachers who came to be known as Christians.
2. Rejecting the Jews because they “killed Jesus” is self-refuting. Jesus IS a Jew. God killed Jesus. You killed Jesus. If you reject the Jews because they killed Jesus, then you also must reject God, your neighbor, yourself. More significantly, you must reject Jesus, because, if He is who Christianity claims Him to be, nobody could have killed Him without His help.
3. Words change meaning over time. Get used to it. The English language exists because the English people changed the pronunciation and usage of German, Celtic, Latin, & Greek words over time. The word “antisemite” doesn’t mean “opposed to all descendants of Shem”. That’s the literal meaning of the Greek and pidgin Hebrew roots, but it’s not how the word is used. It means “opposed to the physical descendants of Jacob and adherents to the cultural and religious system known as Judaism.”
Man was created to be an intermediary between Heaven and Earth, to govern the lower creation in deference to the higher. To accomplish this role we were given bodies with physical and spiritual components. Our flesh and spirit are intended to work together for maintaining, encouraging, and healing the natural world in communion with our Creator and one another.
When Adam sinned, he introduced signal pollution into both of these communication channels, the upward and the downward. We are no longer capable of effectively stewarding God’s Creation, forced into a situation in which we must extract our sustenance from it without inflicting too much damage. We are no longer capable of seeing God face to face. We must have prophets, teachers, intermediaries of all kinds to go up the mountain for us, because we are unable to endure the divine presence. His voice alone is enough to destroy us.
As a partial and temporary remedy to our spiritual injuries, God gave the sacrificial system, detailed most famously in the book of Leviticus. The khat’at (sin offering) in particular illustrates this point most clearly.
The bronze altar of the Tabernacle had horns on each of the four corners representing a connection to Heaven. The blood of the khat’at animal was collected by the priests and then the High Priest would paint these four horns with it, thereby purifying the entire altar. The remaining blood was poured out at or around the base of the altar, making the altar holy and atoning for (covering) it. The blood on the horns (the connection point with Heaven) and the base (the connection point with Earth) served as a sort of signal filter, temporarily removing the noise from our corrupted spiritual communications and allowing the altar to function on a higher plane.
We are like that altar, intended to be a connection between heaven and earth. Yeshua’s blood, shed on Passover, atones for the sins of all who repent and believe in him, restoring our relationship to God and enabling us to communicate with Him. Since we still inhabit fallen bodies and live in a fallen world, we continue to struggle with sin. We fight our evil inclinations daily, repenting for our failures, and continually appealing to God’s grace for His mercy. Ongoing, unrepented sin causes a breakdown in spiritual communication until we can no longer hear God’s voice at all.
We were created for a purpose, collectively and each of us individually, but if we are living in sin, we are incapable of fulfilling our purpose. Ramses had wealth, fame, and greater military and political power than any other man on earth, yet his great contribution to history is as the Pharaoh whose defiance of God brought Egypt to the brink of extinction. By clinging to our sin, whatever great contribution we might have had to God’s Kingdom could be reduced to an object lesson in what not to do.
I’m not saying that perfect behavior is a condition of salvation. If it were, no one on earth could be saved. I am only addressing our ability to act effectively as God’s emissary. (Deliberate rebellion against God’s commands is something else entirely, and will have to wait for another day.)
Our great hope, the point of our faith, is that in the day of the resurrection, our bodies will be made new despite our personal failings, and we will be permanently transformed along with our relationships to Creator and Creation. We will be enabled to resume our intended place in God’s order as the connection point between Heaven and Earth. Nature will no longer fight us and we will commune freely with God and peacefully with each other.
The Didache is an ancient Christian writing that purports to be a summary of the teachings of the Apostles. The most interesting things about this particular writing are that it dates from the first century, from the very earliest years of the Gentile congregations, and that it was considered by many early Christians to be authoritative Scripture.
For the next couple of weeks [posted June 17, 2015] I’ll be tweeting highlights and thoughts derived from the Didache at Twitter. You can read along for free at Early Christian Writings or buy your own copy at Amazon.
The first chapter of the Didache focuses on the second greatest commandment, love your neighbor as yourself, through a series of instructions on living out the commandment, all of which are directly derived from other Scriptures, both Old and New Testament.
For example, one instruction says “Love them that hate you, and you will have no enemy.”
The kindergarten level interpretation of this is if you are nice to those who are mean to you, they’ll change their minds and be nice to you in return. Of course we all learn very quickly that it doesn’t really work that way. So what could the writer have meant?
If you return love for hate, most of your enemies will continue to hate you. They might hate you even more than at first.
If you return kindness for cruelty, your afflicter may become even crueler than before.
But be sure of this: Your enemy will no longer be your enemy. He will be the enemy of God, punishing you for the goodness of God that he sees in you. More importantly, he will be his own enemy, fighting to keep his own spirit from hearing the testimony of your actions. Your kindness will become the instrument through which God disciplines his soul, sealing his condemnation if he doesn’t repent or transforming him if he does.
The Didache also repeats Yeshua’s words, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also,” adding “and you will be made perfect.”
Yeshua wasn’t telling us to be pacifists. That’s the kindergarten interpretation again. He was telling us to be slow to anger and don’t make overly quick conclusions about another’s motivations. Don’t immediately react to violence with violence. Rather, learn to control your passions in order to better judge every situation. Maybe you were struck by accident or because of a misunderstanding. If you discover that someone does indeed intend to do you harm, by all means defend yourself and others.
By mastering self-control, patience, and good judgment, you will become a better person and more Christ-like. This is what it means to “be made perfect.”
Understand also that love and kindness will not always appear as you might expect. Do you love your own soul? Then cut off your hand if it makes you to sin.
We know that God’s Law is the working out of love in an imperfect world. It is a reflection of the character of a perfect Creator who wants only the best for His Creations. Where it forbids, it forbids out of love. Where it allows, it allows out of love.
Be kind. Be patient. But also be wise.
(See here for thoughts on why The Didache cannot be included in the Biblical canon.)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
(1 John 5:1-5)
All those who believe that Yeshua is the Messiah are the children of God. John did not mean the mere intellectual assent to the idea that Yeshua is the Messiah, but full acceptance and submission to Him as the Lord of the Kingdom of God. James wrote that even demons believe that God is one, yet they do not believe on Him. If they did, they would not have fallen. Likewise, we do not become children of God merely by believing that Yeshua is the promised Messiah, but by believing on Him as Messiah and Savior.
Whoever loves the Father, must also love His children, as any father will attest. If you attack a man’s children, you as good as attack the man. Likewise, if you bless a man’s children, you bless the father. If you claim to love your neighbor, yet treat his children spitefully, you are a liar, for a man’s children are an extension of himself into the world.
We know that we love the children of God if we love God and keep His commandments, for keeping His commandments is the very meaning of loving God. Yeshua said that the greatest commandment is to love God and that the second greatest is to love your neighbor. All the rest of the Law and the Prophets depend upon and these two. He was quoting from the Torah.
In Deuteronomy 6, Moses explains that all of the commandments that make up the Torah are given for our good and the good of the whole people. He said that we should be careful to keep them, to meditate on them, and to teach them to our children. He commanded us to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might, and these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” The very clear implication is that “these words,” the commandments of Torah, are both the instrument and the product of our love for God. If keeping God’s commandments brings blessings (as He told us multiple times), extends our lives, and is good for the whole community, then if we love our neighbors, we ought to be striving to keep God’s commandments. We keep them because we love God, and we keep them because we love His people.
His commandments are not difficult to keep, because all of His children are overcoming the world. Despite what you may have been told by people who refuse to believe the words of Moses (and Yeshua said that if you do not believe Moses, you won’t believe Him either), the commandments of God are not a burden. The Torah is not a curse. Rather, the commandments that men pile on top of God’s commandments are a burden. That is the thing that “neither we nor our fathers were able to bear”, not the commandments of God, which He described as “not too hard for you, not far off nor in heaven, not beyond the sea, but very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart so that you can do it.”
I don’t mean to imply that anyone can obey God’s Law perfectly–No one but Yeshua has ever been able to do that–but God never expected perfection. His Law contains numerous provisions for what we are to do when we fail, so rather than threatening eternal damnation for the slightest infraction, it assumes our evil inclination and tells of God’s eagerness to forgive. Obedience is in the heart, and God is graceful to forgive those who turn to Him with an obedient spirit despite the failings of the flesh.
Our victory over the world is by our faith. Because we have faith in God’s grace to forgive our sins and to work in our hearts as we seek to obey Him, we can be assured of victory over the world. He has already won the victory for us, and the only thing we need to do to obtain it is to put our trust in Him. So long as we live this life, our victory is not completely realized, but we are overcoming the world and our sinful nature through our faith in Messiah Yeshua.
Who else has overcome the world except he who believes that Yeshua is the Son of God? No one! Without Yeshua, there is no victory, there is no eternal life or forgiveness of sins. Through His shed blood, we are brought near to God and pulled away from the world. Through His broken flesh, one day our sinful flesh will be remade in His image, perfect and sinless. This is the ultimate victory of our faith and by our faith.
Because we believe in the victory He has purchased for us, we will behave as victors over the world and over our flesh. Because we love God, we will love His children. Finally, because He has taught us what it means to love by His commandments and by His example, we will obey Him.
It was just a wind that blew a dry channel through the Red Sea, an algae bloom that turned the Nile red, and a superficial, if bloody, wound that allowed Yeshua to come out of the grave again. He wasn’t really dead after all, you see.
Men have invented uncountable reasons why what God said is true isn’t really. If people held the rest of recorded history to the same standards to which they hold the Bible, then we’d have to put Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and King Alfred in the same category as rainbow unicorns.
God makes it easy to disbelieve if you want to. If you are really determined, sometimes He’ll even help you along like Pharaoh chasing the Hebrews between the walls of water against all good sense. Egypt was devastated by one miraculous plague after another, a massive storm had just blown a hole through the Red Sea, and a pillar of fire had kept his chariots from advancing on the Hebrew camp, and still he went on. What was he thinking?
We all see the Truth eventually, of course, but if you wait for Him to force it on you, it’s usually too late. The wind will have died and the water will already be closing.
After carrying the wood of his own death to the mountain, Isaac, a grown man, laid still for Abraham and waited for the knife to fall.
After losing their families and homes and serving the King of Babylon for many years, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walked into the furnace and Daniel walked into the lion’s den.
After carrying his execution cross to Golgotha, Yeshua allowed the Roman soldiers to nail him to the wood, pierce his side with a spear, and force a crown of thorns onto his head.
After Stephen, Peter, and countless others dedicated their lives to preaching salvation and the Word of God to the world, they willingly gave up their lives in the dungeons, arenas, and fires of evil men.
Meanwhile, the userer, the unjust, the reprobate, and the cruel live freely and without fear. As Solomon wrote,
Ecclesiastes 8:14 There is a vanity which is done upon the earth: that there are righteous men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous – I said that this also is vanity.
Where exactly is justice in this world? Solomon also said this,
Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember then thy Creator in the days of thy youth, before the evil days come…
Evil days will come; they come for everyone eventually. Everyone suffers. Everyone goes through fire. But in the very end, only that which is pure survives:
Isaiah 33:10-22 Now will I arise, saith the LORD; now will I be exalted; now will I lift Myself up. (11) Ye conceive chaff, ye shall bring forth stubble; your breath is a fire that shall devour you. (12) And the peoples shall be as the burnings of lime; as thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire. (13) Hear, ye that are far off, what I have done; and, ye that are near, acknowledge My might. (14) The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling hath seized the ungodly: ‘Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?’ (15) He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from looking upon evil; (16) He shall dwell on high; his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks; his bread shall be given, his waters shall be sure. (17) Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty; they shall behold a land stretching afar. (18) Thy heart shall muse on the terror: ‘Where is he that counted, where is he that weighed? Where is he that counted the towers?’ (19) Thou shalt not see the fierce people; a people of a deep speech that thou canst not perceive, of a stammering tongue that thou canst not understand. (20) Look upon Zion, the city of our solemn gatherings; thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a peaceful habitation, a tent that shall not be removed, the stakes whereof shall never be plucked up, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. (21) But there the LORD will be with us in majesty, in a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby. (22) For the LORD is our Judge, the LORD is our Lawgiver, the LORD is our King; He will save us.
The world is full of trouble and sorrow, and I won’t pretend to understand why it had to be this way. There is only One who knows the beginning from the end. Put your trust in Him, not in men or political parties or ideologies.
Remember how Solomon concluded his treatise on the vagaries of mortal life:
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (14) For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
(Edited and moved from “Soil and Stone” where it was first published on February 22, 2013.)
In Deuteronomy 8:7-9 God lists twelve things that the Hebrews would find when they finally arrived in the Promised Land.
For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.
(Deuteronomy 8:7-9 ESV)
Why does he pick out these things in particular? What about the pastures or the fish in the Kinnereth? Honestly, I can’t tell you why God didn’t specify other things, and I can only guess at what He meant by the things He did list. One thing I can say for certain is that His selections were not random. God does nothing without a good reason. In fact, He usually has more reasons for everything He does than we could possibly comprehend. One clue that they are not intended to be understand merely as a random sampling of the Promised Land’s good qualities is their chiastic arrangement:
A. Brooks of water/Fountains and springs out of the valleys and hills. (Water that comes from the ground.)
………B. Wheat/Barley (Raw ingredients for making other food.)
………………C. Vines (Fruit from which another product is extracted.)
………………………D. Fig trees/Pomegranates (Fruit trees whose produce is usually eaten raw.)
………………C. Oil olive (Fruit from which another product is extracted.)
………B. Honey/Bread (Processed foods, one the product of the labor of bees, the other the labor of men.)
A. Iron from stones/Bronze dug from the hills. (Metals that come from the ground.)
It could be argued that chiastic structures such as this are simply poetic devices. While it is true that they can be found in the literature, both religious and non-religious, of many cultures, we believe that the Bible was inspired by God, and it seems unlikely that God would employ such devices without purpose. Let’s examine each of these items to see if there is further meaning that can be drawn out.
1. Brooks of Water
The Hebrew word translated as “brooks” is nahal (נחלי) and refers to the seasonal creeks that are commonly called wadi today. Like the arroyos of the American Southwest, these brooks are dry for much of the year, only filling up after a good rain, and only flowing steadily during the rainy season in winter.
In Genesis, Jacob wrestled all night with God at a ford of the brook Jabbok. (Genesis 32:23-32)
Throughout the Torah, histories, and prophets, brooks are used to mark the borders of various lands. (E.g. Numbers 34:5, Deuteronomy 3:16, etc.)
Brooks are also another sort of border, but a border to be crossed. They mark a transition from one phase to another. (E.g. Genesis 32:23, Deuteronomy 2:13 & 2:24)
Job referred to his friends as brooks, meaning that they are an unreliable source of support, providing water only in the rainy season, and having nothing useful to offer when life is harshest. (Job 6:15)
Brooks are places of hidden water that must be uncovered. Frequently, if you dig at the lowest point of a dry creek bed, you can find water. Large trees can thrive next to a seasonal creek either because they are able to withstand long droughts or because their roots can reach the water that is below the surface. (E.g. Genesis 26:19, Job 40:22, etc.)
Elijah was fed by the ravens at the brook Cherith. (1 Kings 17:3-7)
If I had to take some meaning from these things, I would say that brooks of water are symbolic of seasonal refreshment or relief after a long struggle in preparation for the next long struggle. Life in the Promised Land was never intended to be a life of ease, but one of predictable rewards after honest, hard work.
2. Fountains and Springs from the valleys and hills
The Hebrew word translated as “springs” in the English Standard Version is tehom (ותהמת), which is frequently translated as “depths” or “the deep”. They are underground reservoirs (e.g. Genesis 7:11) and the deepest places of the seas (e.g. Exodus 15:8). These are mysterious places that men cannot visit, measure, or know, the domain of God alone. In connection with “fountains” (Hebrew ayin (עינת), which can also be translated as “eye”), this seems to describe natural springs. Short of a major engineering project, there is nothing you can do to create a spring. It comes out of a mysterious source below the ground or it does not.
I suspect this refers to one of two things:
Supernatural provision from God that flows regardless of the season. Sometimes God simply provides for us, whether we have worked for a reward or not. The sages say that wealth does not necessarily come to those who work hardest, but to those who are most ready for it.
The moving of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus (aka Yeshua) said in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
A good wheat harvest is the result of prolonged hard work. It is a source of wealth and, since it stores well, also of ongoing nourishment. In more spiritual terms, it is the result of sustained evangelistic efforts, of preaching, teaching, and living exemplary lives. It sprouts long after the barley and is harvested later still. (See Exodus 9:32.) Wheat is a picture of delayed rewards multiplied many times and of the righteous in the last days before the final harvest. (See Matthew 9:37-38 & 13:30.)
Barley sprouts and is harvested earlier than other grain crops. It was used as a standard to measure the value of land and other property. (See Leviticus 27:16.) Barley has always been considered an inferior crop, courser and of poorer taste and nutritional value. At times it was thought only good for animal fodder. Revelation puts the price of a measure of barley at one-third that of wheat. (See Revelation 6:6.)
Despite its humble status, Yeshua used barley loaves to feed the multitude in John 6:9. Barley sustains the people until the later grains are ripe, makes a more plentiful food for the poor, and has been used to brew mild alcoholic beverages since long before the Hebrews left Egypt. Barley is a picture of the simple, first adopters of faith. It is the Hebrew rabble that first left Egypt, David’s Mighty Men who were debtors and running from trouble, and the twelve disciples who were commoners and a tax collector.
The grape vine is associated with family, children, lineage, and inheritance. It is the source of growth in progeny and ideology. It is a picture of unbroken inheritance. Psalm 80:8 speaks of nations in terms of vines. Genesis 49:11 contains a prophecy of the Messiah coming from Judah’s line. On the surface, it tells of Judah’s rich inheritance in the land. On another level, it appears to says that the Messiah will come from Judah’s descendants, his vine. Princes in times of peace rode on donkeys, and Zechariah 9:9 says this is how the Messiah will appear. Judah binding the ass to his vine is an image of the future King of Judah entering Jerusalem on the colt. (See Matthew 21:1-11.)
But the vine is more than an image of physical descendants.
In Deuteronomy 32:32, Moses gave another dual prophecy simultaneously calling the Israelites and their enemies the heirs of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this prophecy, God predicts the apostasy of Israel and their defeat at the hands of their enemies.
For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of poison; their clusters are bitter;
(Deuteronomy 32:32 ESV)
On the one hand “they” in this verse refers to Israel who has adopted the ways of those perverse people and inherited much of their fate with it. But on the other, “they” refers to Israel’s enemies who are even more the spiritual descendants of Sodom and possibly even the physical descendants who have misunderstood their victory over Israel as evidence of their own strength rather than God’s discipline of the people He loves.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of a grape vine used to illustrate a spiritual or ideological inheritance is found in a lengthy teaching that Yeshua gave just before His death:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
(John 15:1-6 ESV)
6. Fig Trees
Fig trees are an image of prosperity, contentment, and security, the well-deserved product of honest business. They provide sweet fruit, income, and shade long after the work required to establish them has been completed. The man who dwells beneath his own fig tree has no wants or worries. (See 1 Kings 4:25, 2 Kings 18:31, etc.)
Vines, pomegranates, and figs go together in scripture for a total picture of peace and prosperity (See Numbers 13:23 and Numbers 20:5.), and appropriately so. All three are symbols of fertility and prosperity, but of these three, because of its large number of seeds, the pomegranate is more associated with fertility than the others. (Figs are also considered fertility symbols, but not as strongly as pomegranates.) Tradition places the number of seeds in the fruit at 613, which is also the traditional count of individual commands in the Torah. The implication is that keeping God’s commands makes one fruitful, both in body and in enterprise.
Like the fig tree, most of the labor is required long in advance of the extended reward.
8. Olive Oil
Olive oil brings to mind the anointing of priests, prophets, and kings, and is symbolic of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was used to fuel the Menorah in the Tabernacle, which is also a picture of the Spirit. Olive oil is a source of light, while the Spirit is a source of enlightenment. The oil was used in cooking, as a base for perfumes and incense, as skin care, and for countless other uses.
(Note: An alternate interpretation of “honey” is the date palm because of its syrupy juice.)
Honey was the sweetest thing known to the ancient Israelites. The idiom “land of milk and honey” was frequently used to describe a near paradise. It was used as a gift, as a special treat, and those who over-indulged were thought decadent and corrupt. Honey has two distinct qualities: First, it is very sweet. Second, someone else does all the work to produce it. Honey, like all of the sweetest things in life, is best taken sparingly lest we lose our taste for anything less, and fall into the habit common to all libertines of constantly searching after the next high.
There is nothing wrong with honey and fine things; they are a gift from God. But they are a gift that is easily abused. Remember that most things worth having don’t come easy.
Since wheat, barley, and olive oil are already listed, it seems odd to add bread, but there is a difference. The raw ingredients have nearly indefinite shelf lives if they are protected from vermin, but no so bread. It goes moldy or stale very quickly. On the other hand, the raw ingredients aren’t easily eaten or digested on their own. They require a certain amount of processing. The end product was treated as the single most important part of any meal.
Bread was a fundamental element of hospitality. Abraham offered bread to his three divine visitors (Genesis 18:6), and Abigail presented David with two hundred loaves of bread as part of a peace offering to prevent the death of her husband (1 Samuel 25:18).
The Showbread Table in the Tabernacle held twelve loaves of bread, one for each of the tribes of Israel. It is a picture of the Messiah, who called himself the Bread of Life.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
(John 6:35 ESV)
His body, striped by the centurion’s whip and pierced by the crown of thorns and the nails of crucifixion, is illustrated to this day in the matzoh eaten at every traditional Jewish of Passover. Just as bread made with grain and oil was fundamental to the Hebrew physical diet, so is the Bread of Life fundamental to our spiritual life. There is no spiritual life without Yeshua.
The last two things prophesied to be found in the Promised Land are a little more enigmatic. All of the previous items were things that you put into your body: water and food. The following are metals that are transformed or taken out of something else, and I believe the sources of the ores might be as significant as the ores themselves. Forgive me if I seem to be indulging in so much speculation in these last items, because I am. My opinions here are not cast in iron or set in stone, and they are certainly not so well polished as a brass mirror. (Also, please forgive the bad puns. I can’t help myself.)
11. Iron from Stones
Stones have a very complex representation in Scripture. Spiritually calloused and rebellious people are said to have hearts of stone. Stones can represent individual people or groups of people. They are the foundations (as altars), media (as tablets), and witnesses of covenants. They are instruments of punishment, markers of wealth, ornaments, and most significantly, they are used to represent the Messiah.
Iron is very similar to stone, but where stone is hard, iron is unbreakable. Where stones can be symbols of wealth, iron signifies strength, power, and punishment. It is unyielding, impenetrable, and forged into weapons of war.
I imagine two possible meanings of “a land whose stones are iron”:
The Lord disciplines those He loves, and His harsh discipline transforms hearts of stone into hearts of iron.
Even the common people of Israel are iron to their enemies.
12. Bronze Dug from the Hills
(Note: The word for bronze is sometimes translated as copper or brass.)
Hills appear to be as symbolically versatile as stones. They are places of refuge from disaster and points of connection between Heaven and Earth. They are platforms for prophecy and divine pronouncement. Armies gather and fight in the hills. Finally, hills are symbols of strength and permanence.
Bronze, unlike iron, is used extensively in the Tabernacle and Temple, and is usually taken to symbolize judgment and the process of purification. (Think of the bronze laver, in which the priests were to wash before serving in the Tabernacle.) It also has military uses, in weaponry and armor. Bronze and iron were often paired in prophecy to represent a harsh and unforgiving land or a hard and unrepentant people.
I have only one good thought about the bronze:
Hills can be dangerous, wild places with any number of hiding places for shelter or ambush. Primarily, they are a place where people in fear of the wrath of God flee in search of futile protection. Bronze, however, is an image of God’s refinement of his people. Through God’s judgment and Law, His people are brought out of the hills into which they have fled, exposing their sin to that refining fire. God’s people have been scattered throughout the world, many forgetting even that they were ever chosen. But God knows them and where they have hidden themselves and been hidden. He has prophesied their repentance and has promised to bring them back again from all the places they were driven.
God knows you. He knows all your hidden sins, and you can’t hide from His law or His call.
America is not Israel, and we cannot automatically claim all of the promises made to the Hebrews simply because we worship the same God. But believers in Yeshua of whatever ancestry are none-the-less God’s people, grafted into the tree of Israel. We are not in the Land of Israel, but I strongly believe that God’s Laws are universal and founded on Natural Law. The promises God gave to Israel for obedience are in large part an expression of cause and effect. If any person keeps His law with a right heart, they are bound to benefit in many ways, although trying to keep God’s Law with evil intent or in a misguided attempt to earn your salvation will likely do you more personal harm than good.
Throughout history, nations that keep more of God’s Law benefit from it, while those nations that reject it suffer by their rejection. We can learn from the principles described in this passage. In keeping God’s Law–not for salvation because that’s impossible–we will undoubtedly become a stronger, healthier, wealthier nation.