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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Spirit of the Law

At crosswalk.com, Clarence Haynes wrote What Christians Need to Understand About the Spirit of the Law vs. the Letter of the Law. In the light of the recent conversation here and on Banned by HWA, I thought it might be helpful to my readers to excerpt some of his comments. Indeed, I think he was able to articulate my own thinking on the subject even better than I was. He said:

"To follow the spirit of the law is to simply not put the strict adherence of the law above the person to whom the law is meant to serve. Jesus gave the ultimate summary of the spirit of the law when he said this.

Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.' (Matthew 22:37-40)

There really is no greater verse in my opinion that sums up the spirit of the law vs the letter of the law than these verses. It boils down to loving God and loving people. Every one of the 613 commandments has these two commands as the foundation, heart, or the spirit behind it."

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Paul Used the Old Testament to Preach Jesus

When Paul addressed the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome, we are informed in the book of Acts:

"When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets." - Acts 28:23, ESV

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Gospel of Matthew: The Torah Transformed

Biblical Scholars have long characterized the Gospel of Matthew as "the most 'Jewish' of the four Gospels." (Ehrman, The Bible). Indeed, many of them have noted just how intentionally this Gospel was organized by its author. The book begins with an origin story for Jesus which emphasizes his descent from Abraham and David. Also, just as the Torah is divided into five books, Matthew is divided into five discourses or sermons of Jesus. They are: 1) The Sermon on the Mount, 2) The Missionary Discourse, 3) The Parabolic Discourse, 4) The Discourse on the Church, and 5) The Olivet or End Times Discourse. (Five Discourses of Matthew) Finally, there is a kind of epilogue which follows these sermons which deals with the events surrounding Christ's arrest, trial, execution, burial, and resurrection.

In this connection, an article by Dr. Paul Penley caught my attention. Jesus vs. Torah is an excellent exposition on how the Sermon on the Mount redefined Torah. Penley wrote: "The allusions to the laws of the first covenant become even clearer when you investigate the form and content of Jesus’ first and most famous sermon given on a mountain. Have you ever thought about the fact that Matthew situates the first long sermon on a mountain? Do you think it is intentionally meant to mimic God’s first giving of the Law on Mount Sinai? Absolutely it is. If you have overlooked that detail your whole life, it’s because you were not immersed in the Torah as a child and did not participate in the Law’s required Jerusalem pilgrimages to worship as an adult. The Jewish audience of Matthew’s Gospel wouldn’t miss these subtle connections between the Law of Moses and teaching of Jesus."

Dr. Penley went on to point out that the Beatitudes "echo the blessings of Deuteronomy 28:1-14." He also referenced the fact that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls anticipated that the Messiah would revise the Torah, and that Jesus had done that in the verses which follow the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:31-47). Penley continued: "All these revisions to established practices that distorted God’s character lined up with Jesus’ thesis statement in the Sermon on the Mount: 'Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill it.' The Hebrew word 'to fulfill' means 'to obey' in Rabbinic teaching from Jesus’ day. 'To fulfill the Law' means Jesus’ teaching better represented God’s intent behind the original instructions. That is what the Sermon on the Mount and the entire teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is doing. It redefines the Torah as people understood it. It redirects people to faithfully represent and enact God’s will on earth."

Penley went on to observe that: "This structural and historical analysis of the Gospel according to Matthew dramatically elevates the significance of Jesus’ sayings. Matthew’s structure tells an informed Jewish audience that Jesus is the new Moses. His words are the new Torah. His 5 sermons now do what the 5 books of Moses did. The covenant is changing and therefore the content of God’s commands change as well, just like the Temple Scroll anticipated." He concluded that: "Jesus is the teacher of a new Torah. His words replace the books of Moses. His sacrifice undermines the Temple. His people become the locus of his presence rather than Jerusalem. They are the light of the world bringing a priestly message of atonement for all. The way Matthew’s Gospel organizes Jesus’ life for a Jewish audience makes all these moves clear."

It seems to me that it is highly unlikely these observations about the structure/organization of the Gospel of Matthew would be happenstance/coincidental. In short, it is self-evident to some of us that the author of this Gospel organized his account to draw a clear parallel between the teachings of Jesus Christ and the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, the nature of Christ's sermons were clearly intended to try to recapture God's original intention and make the application of the principles which underpinned Torah universal - going far beyond the children of Israel, the Temple at Jerusalem, and the borders of the Roman province of Judea.

Friday, April 21, 2023

I'm Not Going to Read or Listen to Anything That Might Change My Mind!

Humans have always been adept at protecting their faith and opinions, and avoidance is one of their favorite devices for doing so. We simply avoid anything which contradicts or is critical of our beliefs and opinions. Historically, we have devised a number of ways to avoid opinions which might offend us (e.g. forbidden reading lists, book burnings, censorship, imprisonment or execution of the promulgators of said material, etc.) As technology has advanced, we have employed filters, created forums or "news" outlets which reinforce our own views and preclude the possibility of being exposed to alternative viewpoints, and have attempted to curtail access to some media, forums or websites.

Of course, the reasoning behind all of this appeals to our vanity and is very seductive. After all, if we're right, why do we need to bother with alternatives? If we are correct/right, all other opinions/viewpoints/perspective must necessarily be incorrect /wrong - right? And, make no mistake, the notion that we have discovered or learned the truth of the matter is very satisfying and flattering. It is comforting and comfortable to have figured things out - one less thing to have to consider or think about! Thus, the investigation or consideration of other viewpoints or evidence becomes unnecessary, a waste of time, or a potential threat! In other words, if we continue to consider other viewpoints or evidence, we might become confused and lose that feeling of satisfaction which we attain when we have settled or figured something out.

But what if we really haven't got it figured out? What if we are wrong? What if our information is faulty? What if we've only collected and considered part of the evidence? What if we've misinterpreted or misunderstood some of the evidence we've collected? Unfortunately, if we believe that we're finished - that we've figured it out, there is no incentive to consider the matter further. Once again, we may even consider further investigation or consideration to simply be a waste of time! What about you? Have you got it all figured out? Are you wasting your time on alternative viewpoints or perspectives?

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Assumptions of Torah and Whether They Apply to Christians

In a series of posts and comments over the last few months, I have talked about how Torah pointed to Jesus of Nazareth, and how he fulfilled its provisions. I have also discussed how Christ summarized Torah into two great commandments - thus broadening its application to every situation/circumstance which might confront us in this life. Of course, although not acknowledged or given very much consideration by the vast majority of Christians, these concepts are not new, and I am NOT the only person who has recognized or advocated for them. In Jeffrey Kranz's The Torah: a Quick Overview of the Pentateuch, we read: "There are hundreds of individual laws, but they all boil down to two overarching principles: Love and devotion for God. Israelites couldn’t worship other deities, and because God’s temple was in their midst, the people maintained a degree of ritualistic purity. Love and respect for other humans. Israelites were expected to show generosity toward marginalized people, execute justice for both the rich and the poor, and not bring shame on each other."

For Christians, Christ is seen as the embodiment of the sacrificial system and the various rituals and Holy Days. Likewise, under the New Covenant, many of the physical observances of the Torah are seen as having symbolic applications (e.g., Sabbath is seen as the Christian resting from his/her own works, circumcision is seen as a spiritual operation performed on the human heart, Christ has made the unclean clean, etc.) And, although the assumptions of the Torah are no longer present in the New Covenant, the fact that the Old Covenant was also based on Love for God and each other means that many of the Torah commandments dealing with morality/righteousness are consistent with a Christian's obedience to the same two commandments which Christ incorporated into the New Covenant - the one he made available to everyone who accepted him and all of the things which he had done for them.

Even so, some folks seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge just how different the two covenants really are from each other. They reason that what was identified as evil or righteous by the Torah is still evil or righteous in the Christian Era. Interestingly, of course, almost all Christians acknowledge that everything in Torah was NOT carried forward into the Christian Era. Nevertheless, you may have noticed that there is NO consensus within that community over what exactly is excluded and what is carried forward. A popular answer is that the "moral law" was carried forward into the New Covenant. Unfortunately, this answer does not take into account that the Torah (moral laws included) was based on a number of assumptions (things that are taken for granted) which are NOT applicable to the Christian Era.

What are the assumptions on which the Torah legislation is based? They are: 1. Ethnicity - Torah was for the children of Israel (Christianity is available to everyone - there is neither Jew nor Gentile) 2. Gender - Torah assigns various commandments, rituals, and roles to males and females (In Christianity, there is neither male nor female) 3. Patriarchy - Torah is based on male authority and ownership 4. Slavery - Torah assumes that there are masters and slaves and outlines the responsibilities of both 5. Agricultural - Torah assumes a primitive agriculturally based economy 6. Polygamy - Torah assumes that men can have more than one wife 7. Territorial - Torah is concerned with the Promised Land, Jerusalem, and Samaria - implied/anticipated (other peoples/nations are only mentioned in terms of their interaction with or impact upon the people of Israel) 8. Familial/Tribal - Torah is focused on the story of a large family which is eventually organized into twelve/thirteen tribes 9. Ritualistic - Torah is focused on rituals related to the Tabernacle/Temple, Levitical Priesthood, Holy Days, sacrifices and offerings, clean and unclean, tithing, etc. 10. Legalistic - Torah is a written code of dos and don'ts 11. Collective - Torah is a compilation of the terms of God's covenant with an entire people - all of whom are responsible for adhering to its terms (Christianity is focused on the individual's personal relationship with God) 12. Punishment or Revenge - Torah assumes that the innocent will be avenged, and that the wicked will be punished. Hence, we can see that the assumptions of Torah are VERY different from the assumptions of the New Covenant. In short, the New Covenant is NOT premised on ANY of the assumptions which underpin Torah!

Once again, Torah is a shadow of the reality found in Jesus Christ. Torah points to Christ. Torah was fulfilled by Christ. Torah was summarized by Christ into two broad commandments or principles which were to be internalized by his followers as the foundation of their consciences going forward. In other words, a baptized Christian is expected to ask him/herself whether or not some action/behavior is consistent with loving God and each other. The Christian does NOT refer to a list of dos and don'ts. He/she is expected to ask him/herself if a behavior/action will disrespect God or hurt/harm another person/entity.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

One Convinced Against His Will - Is of the Same Opinion Still!

If you haven't been following the debate over the applicability of the Torah's moral code to Christians over at Banned by HWA, you've missed a fairly vigorous exchange of viewpoints. If you're interested, you can check it out here: LCG: Beyond "Dos and Don'ts"

In response to a query about Leviticus 18:22 (the homosexual "clobber" passage), I posted the following:

Leviticus 18:22 is one of many commandments in the Torah governing human sexuality. In the article I quoted in an earlier comment (https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1797/prostitution-in-the-ancient-mediterranean/), we read this about the Torah's perspective on morality as it related to human sexuality:

"Prostitution in ancient Israel was not deemed a sin. The legislation in the Law of Moses that was directed to marriage and divorce utilized the concept of women as property. Women were the property of their fathers, then handed over in a marriage contract to a husband. Adultery was related to these unions; adultery meant the violation of another man’s property. In a world without DNA tests, it was crucial that the bloodlines remained clear.

Prostitutes were not under contract in a legal marriage, so sex with a prostitute was not in violation of the social codes. This does not mean that prostitutes were a favored commodity. They were at the bottom of the social ladder. The ancients did not know that semen regenerates; a man should not waste his semen outside the marriage contract.

Surprisingly, the Jewish Scriptures relate stories of prostitutes in what is termed a literary type as 'the righteous harlot.' These are stories of usually Canaanite women (non-Jews), who nevertheless believe in the God of Israel. When Joshua sent spies into Jericho, the madam of the brothel, Rahab, hid them because she knew that God would give the victory to the Israelites. Judah’s Canaanite daughter-in-law, Tamar, disguised herself as a harlot by the side of the road, to seduce Judah so that his line would not die out.

The Hebrew word for 'prostitute' was zonah, but we also find the word kedeshah, which means "set apart" or "consecrated". It usually appears in descriptions of non-Jewish women who served as servants in the fertility temples. There are references to male prostitutes, also termed kadesh, or "set apart". Depending upon the context, they are referred to as "sodomites".

None of the daughters of Israel shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a kadesh. You shall not bring the hire of a prostitute (zonah) or the wages of a dog (kelev) into the house of the Lord your God to pay a vow, for both are an abomination to the lord your God. (Deuteronomy 23:17-18)"

The article went on to demonstrate that adultery was used as a metaphor for what had happened with Israel - their idolatry and foreign alliances.

Sorry, that's not 3 sentences. However, as you can see, the subject of sexual morality in Torah is NOT a simple subject. And, what was included here, is a brief summary for consumers of online articles. This underscores that Torah was tailor-made for the society and culture of ancient Israel. Yes, like the New Covenant, Torah was founded on love for God and each other, but its individual commandments are NOT always consistent with the morality and circumstances of First Century Christianity.

This produced the following response from the anonymous commentator who had made the original query:

Leviticus 18:22 is contained within a collection of laws that is carefully prefaced and also has a kind of afterword. The essence is that God is telling Israel not to engage in the practices, without qualification, of Egypt and Canaan. Because to God these practices are “defiling” and “abominations.” The Mosaic preface (Leviticus 18:5) is repeated by Paul (Romans 10:5). This collection of prohibited sexual unions is cited in Romans 10 as being an example of law written on the heart (Romans 10:8). Further, in the Book of Revelation God continues the use of Egypt as the archetype of evil (Rev 11:8). Is it a valid conclusion that God’s viewpoint on what is evil changed because of a change in covenant? Is evil with this kind of pedigree something that is arbitrary or simply ceremonial, a form without moral underpinning, to be discarded on whim? I think not.

First, this is the full text of the preface to the sexual laws of the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus:

Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. I am the Lord your God. So do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live, or like the people of Canaan, where I am taking you. You must not imitate their way of life. You must obey all my regulations and be careful to obey my decrees, for I am the Lord your God. If you obey my decrees and my regulations, you will find life through them. I am the Lord.'" (Leviticus 18:1-5)

As with the rest of the commandments of Torah, this passage about forbidden sexual practices was directed to the "people of Israel." Also, please notice that these instructions were given to them because God didn't want them to imitate the practices of the society they had just left (Egypt) or the society who then occupied the Promised Land (Canaanites). In other words, there is no escaping the fact that these commands were tailor-made for a particular people, time, and place!

Next, lets take a closer look at some of the individual prohibitions of Leviticus 18. There are a number of commandments directed at prohibiting incestuous sexual relationships. And, although many of these are founded on the notion that females were the property of males (and that polygamy was acceptable), we should all be able to acknowledge that these are also excluded by the principle of familial love and respect. Likewise, bestiality is inconsistent with the principles of consent, equality, and doing no harm (all features of the Law of Love). Obviously, a loving Christian parent would NOT sacrifice his/her children to a pagan god, but what about having sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman? So, while some of these prohibitions would also be prohibited because they would cause obvious hurt or harm to another, some of them would not be covered by that principle, and the original premises of property and polygamy would completely disappear.

Third, lets take a closer and more comprehensive look at what Paul had to say in the tenth chapter of his epistle to the Christians at Rome. We read there:

"Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands." (Romans 10:1-5)

As is his message throughout this letter, Paul taught that Christians must have faith in the work which Christ accomplished on their behalf! In other words, a person trying to parse and obey certain provisions of Torah is NOT going to make him/herself "right with God."

Fourth, in the verses which follow this passage, it is made very clear that it is/was NOT the dos and don'ts of Torah that were/are written on a Christian's heart! We read there:

"But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).' In fact, it says, 'The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart.' And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced." (Romans 10:6-11)

Paul is very clear. Salvation is found in our faith in Jesus Christ - PERIOD! It is NOT found in trying to obey these dos and don'ts!

Fifth, in the book of Revelation, there are a number of symbolic "archetypes of evil." In addition to Egypt, Babylon and Rome are prominently mentioned in this connection (one could argue that they play a more prominent role in that symbolism than Egypt), and that ultimate "archetype of evil," Satan the Devil. Taking into account the larger context of both the Old and New Testaments, these symbols make a lot of sense. They all represent the opposite of Christ's commandments (intentionally drawn from and summarizing all of the dos and don'ts of Torah) to LOVE God and each other!

Finally, you may have noticed that the anonymous commentator completely ignored the "pedigree" for the Torah's forbidden sexual practices given in the article cited in my original response to him/her. Why would he/she ignore that pedigree? Because it goes to the heart of this whole question of the applicability of the sexual practices forbidden by Leviticus 18 to Christians! How can those prohibitions have a universal spiritual application if they are premised on women as the property of some male? How can a moral code which accepts prostitution (the exploitation of individuals for sexual gratification) be harmonized with Christ's Law of Love?

Sorry, Charlie/Mike/Sheila or whatever your name is, while many of these individual sexual prohibitions are justified by Christ's commandments, it does NOT follow that they are all automatically carried forward into the terms of the New Covenant! The original premises (male ownership of females, polygamy, and slavery) are most assuredly NOT consistent with Christ's commandments. The question that Christians need to ask: Is this behavior/practice consistent with loving God and each other - of doing no hurt or harm to anyone?

Friday, April 14, 2023

Beyond Legalism

In the light of the recent discussion on this blog regarding a Christian's obligation to Torah, a post over at Banned by HWA caught my attention. The post, LCG: Beyond "Dos and Don'ts", opened with: "It is amazing how various COG groups continue to make excuses to this day on how liberated and enlightened they are. Gerald Weston hilariously believes that he and the Living Church of God do not follow a list of 'do's and don'ts' Who wants to tell him?" Well, obviously, for anyone with an ACOG background, there is a long list of "dos and don'ts" which those folks have borrowed from the Torah (Sabbath, Holy Days, clean and unclean foods, etc.).

Even so, the LCG article which is the object of this post does make some points that are worthy of a deeper dive. For example, after quoting from the account of Christ's confrontation with the Pharisees about tithing (Matthew 23:23-24), we read: "Often, for those who take a 'checklist' approach, there are bigger questions that are ignored or missed. Jesus Christ told the Pharisees that they had neglected the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. These are less easily defined. It is not that they are undefinable, but they require us to use righteous judgment. We must mature over time as we grow in understanding and Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit, so that we may make godly judgments (Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 5:14). Tithing on something is rather clear cut. If someone says you must tithe on mint and anise and cumin, these are clear guidelines—how and when and how much—and we can feel very good about doing that. But without clear 'dos' or 'don’ts' on a point of justice, mercy, or faith, it’s not so easy to know if we have pleased God. Yet He is plain that they are 'weightier matters' that mean a great deal to Him."

Again, for most of us who have left Armstrongism, it is obvious that LCG is still following a long list of "dos and don'ts." However, without comprehending its full implications, the above quoted statement underscores the problem inherent with legalism. Christ's summary of Torah into two great commandments (Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself) is the basis of  the Christian life - it is what was written on the hearts of Christ's followers by the Holy Spirit. And, as the LCG quote suggests, this is a much more comprehensive and harder standard to implement, because it requires us to THINK about what we are doing - we don't have the list of "dos and don'ts" to fall back on!

Later, in the same vein, we read about some of things which Paul had written to the saints of Corinth: "Paul’s statement challenges Christians to aim higher—to ask harder questions. Asking 'Can I technically justify my actions in the law?' is one thing. The Pharisees were very good at this. But asking questions like 'Does this edify others?' and 'Is it helpful to the congregation and my family?' and 'Does it truly reflect God’s own mind, thinking, and desires?' is something very different. The Pharisees were not very good in this department." The New Covenant moral standard is vastly superior to that which was required of the Israelites operating under Torah! Indeed, we read in the article's conclusion: "This kind of thinking—real, honest self-examination concerning our own motives and desires—is hard. Much harder than checking a list of 'dos' and 'don’ts' to see if something is 'OK' or 'a sin.'"

Unfortunately, while some of us are very willing to criticize the ACOGs for holding on to many of the ritualistic "dos and don'ts" of Torah, we go down the same rabbit hole in trying to make other "dos and don'ts" applicable to Christians! Sure, we refer to these provisions as part of a "moral law," but the effect is exactly the same! We are effectively making some of the "dos and don'ts" of Torah (some of the terms of the Old Covenant) applicable to New Testament Christians! In other words, just like our ACOG brethren, we are cherry picking provisions of the Torah!

In the commentary which followed, one person wrote: "Lonnie, Your statement strikes a distinct anti-nomian tone. The way 'back to God' is not without law. Not without behavioral prescriptions. Solo Christo must be accompanied by Sola Scriptura. Hebrews 10:16 speaks of a Law, a body of legislation, discernible by the Christian from the New Testament, that defines the behavioral dimension of The Way, The Truth and the Life. There is no circumvention through Solo Christo. Something does get written on our hearts. And something does comprise Paul's concept of sin. And the Holy Spirit does not trace out an arc that is wholly other. Maybe I have read something into your statement that is not there. Pardon me if this is so."

I responded: "I have NEVER advocated antinomianism (the notion that Christian's are not obligated to follow moral law). I believe that Christians are saved by grace through Jesus Christ. However, I also believe that a Christian's life will reflect the fruits of God's Holy Spirit - the new man/woman which Christ's work has made him/her. Christ fulfilled and summarized Torah into two great commandments for his followers: Love God and each other. If the disciple internalizes and applies these principles/commandments, he/she will live a moral life. For example, if love truly does no harm to another, then that would preclude things like adultery, pedophilia, bestiality, murder, stealing, lying, jealousy, violence, etc. In reality, Christ's commandments are much more comprehensive than the list of dos and don'ts outlined in Torah - they cover ALL aspects of human behavior/conduct. Hence, if a Christian is following Christ's commandments, he/she will easily exceed the righteousness which is derived from scrupulous legalism. It is NOT that we (Christians) do not have a moral standard, it's that we have a DIFFERENT standard than that which applied to the Israelites operating under the terms of the Old Covenant."

Thursday, April 6, 2023

A Light for the Gentiles

There is a clear difference between the way that Jewish people interpret the prophecies of the book of Isaiah, and the way that Christians interpret those same scriptures. Obviously, Christians see Jesus of Nazareth in many of those passages, but many Jewish scholars feel that Christian apologists have hijacked their scriptures and twisted their meaning to accommodate their faith. Of course, most of the folks who reject the notion that the Judeo-Christian canon is Divinely inspired will side with the Jews on this point. They claim that these writings can NEVER mean what they were NEVER intended to mean by the people who actually wrote them.

In this connection, a passage from the 42nd and 49th chapters of Isaiah is a case in point. For some folks, the "servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles" (42:1) clearly refers to Israel (and/or Isaiah). Now, admittedly, the people of Israel were intended by God to be an example to the rest of the world - to introduce the God of the Hebrews to the Gentiles.

In this, however, they failed miserably. Indeed, even the context of this passage from Isaiah makes this plain. A little further down in the same chapter, we read: "Who is blind, but my servant? or deaf, as my messenger that I sent? who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the Lord's servant? Seeing many things, but thou observest not; opening the ears, but he heareth not. The Lord is well pleased for his righteousness' sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable. But this is a people robbed and spoiled; they are all of them snared in holes, and they are hid in prison houses: they are for a prey, and none delivereth; for a spoil, and none saith, Restore. Who among you will give ear to this? who will hearken and hear for the time to come? Who gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers? did not the Lord, he against whom we have sinned? for they would not walk in his ways, neither were they obedient unto his law." (42:19-24) So, instead of fulfilling the commission which God had given them, the Israelites failed to follow God's laws and willfully violated the covenant which he had made with them.

For Christians, however, the "servant" referred to in this passage is clearly Jesus of Nazareth! He is the one about whom we read: "I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles, To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house." (Isaiah 42:6-7) And, just so that no one missed this connection, we read in the Gospel of Luke's account of the presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before his death (Luke 2:21-26). Moreover, when Simeon took the child into his arms, we are informed that he said: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel." (Verses 29-32) And, for good measure, Christ himself is reported to have asserted twice that he was "the light of the world." (John 8:12 and 9:5) And, finally, we know from the book of Acts, that Paul viewed himself as having finally fulfilled God's commission to introduce the God of the Hebrews to the Gentiles (Acts 13:45-47).

Still, the notion that Israel and Isaiah originally had this job is firmly rooted in those passages from the book which bears his name. In the 49th chapter of Isaiah, we read: "Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name. And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me; And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified. Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God. And now, saith the Lord that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength. And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth." (49:1-6) Of course, my friends within the ACOGs will start talking about duality and will suggest that these prophecies applied to both that time and Christ's time.

However, if we are honest with both the biblical and secular record of history, we are forced to admit that these prophecies were NEVER fulfilled by Israel, Isaiah, or Cyrus the Great. NONE of those folks succeeded in introducing the God of the Hebrews to the Gentile world. That was ONLY accomplished through Jesus of Nazareth and his apostles. In short, Jesus of Nazareth was the "Light for the Gentiles." Because of Jesus Christ and his disciples, approximately one third of the Gentile world is Christian today, and most of the people who are not Christian are at least familiar with the Hebrew God! As I've suggested before, this development is nothing short of miraculous - that the God of an obscure, nomadic, and persecuted minority would become THE God of so much of humanity!

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

You CANNOT Impose the Terms of the Old Covenant on the People of the New Covenant!

Torah (aka. The Law, The Pentateuch or first five books of the Hebrew Bible) outlined the terms of God's covenant with the people of Israel. If anyone has any reservations about that statement, he/she need only review what those writings reveal about themselves. Towards the end of the book of Deuteronomy (the last book of the Torah), after enumerating the blessings they would receive for obedience, and the curses they would experience if they failed to obey, we read: "These are the terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites while they were in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Mount Sinai." (29:1, NLT) A little later, in the same chapter, we read: "Therefore, obey the terms of this covenant so that you will prosper in everything you do. All of you—tribal leaders, elders, officers, all the men of Israel—are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God. Your little ones and your wives are with you, as well as the foreigners living among you who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But you are not the only ones with whom I am making this covenant with its curses. I am making this covenant both with you who stand here today in the presence of the Lord our God, and also with the future generations who are not standing here today." (Verses 9-15)

Likewise, just prior to giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, we read: "Then Moses climbed the mountain to appear before God. The Lord called to him from the mountain and said, 'Give these instructions to the family of Jacob; announce it to the descendants of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation. This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.'" (Exodus 19:3-6) Next, we read: "Then God gave the people <of Israel> all these instructions..." (Exodus 20:1) Likewise, in the following chapter, we read: "These are the regulations you must present to Israel." (21:1) Over and over again, we read: "Then Moses called together the whole community of Israel and told them, 'These are the instructions the Lord has commanded you to follow.'" (35:1) In the first chapter of Leviticus, we read: "Give the following instructions to the people of Israel." "Give the following instructions to the people of Israel." (4:2) Prior to delineating which animals would be acceptable or unacceptable for food, we read: "Give the following instructions to the people of Israel." (Leviticus 11:2) Likewise, prior to delineating sexual practices which were to be forbidden, we read "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. I am the Lord your God.'" (Leviticus 18:1-2) In the following chapter, we read: "The Lord also said to Moses, 'Give the following instructions to the entire community of Israel. You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.'" (19:1-2) Once again, prior to giving instructions for the various festivals, we read: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. These are the Lord’s appointed festivals, which you are to proclaim as official days for holy assembly." (23:1-2)

For some of my readers, this review will have appeared redundant and unnecessary. For others, however, this exercise will prove to be essential. Why? Because it is absolutely essential that we clearly establish that the commands of the Torah are the terms of the Old Covenant with Israel! Now, that is NOT to say that some of those individual commands would not be applicable to other humans in other times and locations. Clearly, some of those commands reflect universal principles that would be compatible with Christ's summary of the Torah into two great principles: Love for God and love for each other. This, however, CANNOT and DOES NOT change the fact that EVERY one of the commands listed in the Torah are a part of the terms of the OLD Covenant. In other words, the fact that we find ANY of these commands to be applicable to individuals who are a party to the NEW Covenant is a consequence of them fitting within the framework/terms which Christ established for the NEW Covenant. As we will shortly demonstrate, the NEW Covenant supersedes and abrogates the OLD!

In the book of Jeremiah, we read: "The day is coming,' says the Lord, 'when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,' says the Lord. 'But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,' says the Lord. 'I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,' says the Lord. 'And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.'" (Jeremiah 31:31-34) Notice that this "NEW" covenant with the Israelites would be completely different from the one God had made with their ancestors at Mount Sinai. How? They wouldn't need a list of instructions going forward, because God would plant the principles of his instructions "deep within them" - that he would "write them on their hearts." In other words, under the terms of this new covenant, the principles themselves would be internalized - the written list of commands would no longer be needed!

In the New Testament, we see that the early Church had a great deal of difficulty coming to terms with the fact that Christ had inaugurated a New Covenant. Many of the Jewish Christians simply could not understand that Gentile Christians would NOT be required to follow the terms of the Old Covenant, but the great council at Jerusalem settled the matter for all times - Gentiles would NOT be required to come under the terms of the Old Covenant (see Acts 15).

Likewise, in Paul's epistle to the Christians at Rome, he gave what is probably the clearest statement about a Christian's obligation to Torah. In the second chapter of that letter, Paul pointed out that some Gentiles had observed the universal moral/ethical standards of Torah, because they had instinctively adopted and internalized the principles which underpinned it (2:14-15). He went on to point out that the Jews had often broken its provisions - though they were great at reciting them (2:17-24). Paul concluded: "The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it. For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people." (Verses 25-29)

In the third chapter of the same letter, Paul continued: "Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are." (3:19-20) According to Paul, the New Covenant pointed in a different direction. He wrote: "But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law." (Verses 21-28)

A little later, in the same epistle, Paul concluded: "So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. When we were controlled by our old nature, sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced a harvest of sinful deeds, resulting in death. But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit." (Romans 7:4-6) So, we see that because of Christ, we are no longer obligated to obey the written code. Instead, we are obligated to internalize those universal principles which Christ derived from the Torah for his disciples!

Likewise, in Paul's letter to the saints of Ephesus, he told them that the New Covenant wasn't just for the Israelites - that it also applied to the Gentiles who had NEVER been part of the Old Covenant or its terms. We read there: "For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us." (Ephesians 2:14-18) Once again, the principles behind Torah are internalized in the Christian - Jew and Gentile. Righteousness is no longer found in those written lists of dos and don'ts!

Also, in Paul's epistle to the Colossians, we read: "When you came to Christ, you were 'circumcised,' but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality." (2:11-17) The commands of the Torah pointed to Christ, but "Christ himself is that reality." These are things which CANNOT be found in a written code, or even individual commands! For the Christian, they are found in Jesus Christ and MUST be internalized - so that they are applied to every situation which might confront us!

Finally, after speaking at some length about the Torah's instructions for the proper observance of the Old Covenant, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews underscored that God had instituted a New Covenant through Jesus Christ. We read there: "If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it." (8:7) The author went on to say that God had "found fault with the people," meaning the Israelites. Then, he/she proceeded to quote that passage from the thirty-first chapter of Jeremiah referenced earlier in this post (verses 8-12). Then, the author concluded with: "When God speaks of a 'new' covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear." (Verse 13) Hence, as Christians, we should NOT be using the standard of the Old Covenant as the standard of the New Covenant. And, just as Paul wrote to the Christians of Galatia: "But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, 'Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.' So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, 'It is through faith that a righteous person has life.' This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, 'It is through obeying the law that a person has life.'" (Galatians 3:10-12)

Thus, as Christians, we MUST NOT look to the Torah as the standard of the New Covenant. The Torah was Christ's standard, and he FULFILLED it. The Torah pointed to him, but he is the reality. The Torah was founded and based on LOVE for God and each other, and Christ incorporated those principles into the terms of the NEW Covenant which he has made with everyone who accepts his fulfillment of Torah and sacrifice for our many violations of its precepts. Clearly then, salvation is found in HIM, NOT in the commands of the Torah! 

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Things Which Divide Us

Unfortunately, the history of Christianity is largely the story of how a community of people has spectacularly failed to accommodate differences within their midst. In the past, Christians quarreled over the definition of orthodoxy - separating theologically sound doctrine from heretical teachings. Of course, this often resulted in both sides excommunicating/disfellowshipping/shunning each other and claiming that the members of their group were the only "true" Christians. In other words, error equaled disqualification!

More recently, theological differences have been seen by more and more members of the Church as petty, arrogant, and inconsequential. These days, Christians are more likely to "cancel" each other over taking different sides in the larger societal "culture wars." In other words, it is much more of a contest over whose values are to prevail within the country as a whole. Moreover, instead of the mostly interdenominational conflicts of the past (e.g. Protestants vs. Catholics, Baptists vs. Methodists, etc.), these values conflicts are often intradenominational. Indeed, very often, we find groups like Evangelical Christians making common cause with Conservative Catholics on these kinds of issues.

Crosswalk.com posted an article back in 2018 which I think nicely summarizes the most divisive issues which are currently still plaguing the Christian community. In an article written by Veronica Neffinger titled Here Are 8 of the Most Controversial Issues in the Church Today, the dubious honor of first place is given to the issue of gay marriage. Moreover, mirroring reactions in the larger society, the reactions of those who support or oppose the practice to each other are very often just as visceral and dismissive of the other side as those which take place among Democrats and Republicans. The other side isn't just wrong - they are immoral, hateful, ignorant, or unchristian!

As one would expect, abortion comes in a close second. And, once again, one's stance on whether or not women should be able to obtain this procedure is presented as an issue which separates the "true" believers from the "false" ones! For many, designating someone as a "pro-choice" Christian is seen as an oxymoron - an impossibility. "Abortion is murder," they reason, and "a Christian cannot murder anyone." Case closed. Black and White. Clear as night and day.

The article also identifies a few other issues as being the most likely sources of division within the community. They are: Women in Church leadership positions, the types of music considered appropriate for worship services, charismatic worship services, baptismal rituals (hold overs from the theological controversies of the past), politics from the pulpit, and whether or not its appropriate for Christians to consume alcohol (I would enlarge this one to include the degree to which some folks think that it's appropriate to participate in the wider secular culture). All in all, I think that's a pretty good list. I think that it accurately reflects some of the most divisive issues which face Christians in 2023.

Now, while the sources of division within the Church may have shifted over the history of the movement, unfortunately, the propensity of the saints to excommunicate each other for adopting the "wrong" perspective on these issues seems to be just as strong as ever. Indeed, when listening to some of the discussions that have been generated within the community on these topics, it is not hard to imagine folks burning each other at the stake if that was still permissible! Sadly, judgement rules over tolerance. Too often, hate triumphs over love. "It's my way or the highway," is the popular standard. For too many Christians, Paul's assertions about the proper role of personal conscience is ignored or dismissed.

To be clear, there is NOTHING wrong with being passionate about one's faith or the particular issues cited in this article. Even so, I am very proud of the kinds of discussions that these issues have provoked on this blog, and I hope that that kind of Spirit always prevails here! I wish to make it very clear that anyone who decides to criticize a view expressed here - or adopt the opposite position on some issue discussed here - is always welcome here! As long as the discussion is thoughtful, compassionate, respectful, and constructive, I simply cannot imagine excluding someone as a brother or sister-in-Christ.