Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Quote of the day:

"You are not expected to complete this work, but you are obliged to participate."

- Jewish saying

Friday, May 22, 2009

Getting to know our Rabbi

Which one of these pictures fits best with your idea of Jesus?

I think for a lot of people, the first picture is what generally comes to mind when the name Jesus is mentioned. This type of Jesus is what I like to call "Swedish Ski Team Jesus," and in truth, it is nothing like what Jesus would have actually looked like if we compare him to other Jews of his day. The second picture is probably very close to what he would have looked like, and certainly much closer than the first. The second image was created using computer graphics, and was based off an unearthed male Jewish skull from around the time that Jesus lived.

Generally, after pointing something like this out, people ask me, so what? Why does it matter what we picture Jesus looking like?

I think it matters A LOT to our relationship with Jesus, because things like this effect the way that we follow Him and our understanding of our faith in general. One of the most important aspects of being a good disciple is KNOWING your Rabbi and being able to live like he does and emulate him. Being a disciple means allowing yourself to be shaped by your Rabbi and becoming more like him every day. Being "covered in the dust of your Rabbi" is a well-known phrase in the Middle East, and it comes from the idea that a good disciple will follow his Rabbi so closely to hear what he says and learn from him that by the end of the day he/she will be covered in the dust that His Rabbi kicks up. How can we be like Jesus, our great Rabbi, if we don't know anything about the culture that He lived in, the customs of His time, what people thought of Him, the things He did during the day, what His interactions were like, His thoughts on the Torah, how His listeners interpreted his parables and teachings, etc., etc., etc.? The two pictures are just a small example of the fact that quite possibly we don't know the real Jesus at all.

And we can't BE LIKE someone that we don't know anything tangible about. Truthfully, it seems that in the Western World we just assume that Jesus grew up in a world exactly like ours, and so we also assume that we can completely understand Him through our own worldview. We have lifted Him out of His setting and plunked Him into our own, making Him into something that we can understand easily. In essence, we have made him simple and we have made Him safe, two things that Jesus most certainly is not. We have made Jesus into an image of ourselves, which then makes it easier to follow him within the boundaries of our own demands and desires. In a sense, it is a very subtle but very powerful form of idolatry. If we continue to see Jesus as a Swedish Ski Team Captain walking around with flowing hair, all soft and vulnerable, then we will never really know Him, we will never be able to
really follow Him, and worst of all, we can never be like Him.

And that scares me, because we are
called to be like Him. It is our one job. What happens if we do it wrong, or not at all? Not only that, but our version takes away from who Jesus was to such a degree that I don't know why we would want to see Him our way anyway.

Here are a few examples of things we can learn about Jesus by putting Him back into His own background and setting.

Jesus was a Jewish man from Galilee. Galileans were known to be more laid-back and lighthearted than their Jewish brothers from Judea. They were also known to be less legalistic than Judeans, a description that fits Jesus well.
Jesus was a Rabbi, which means that He was at the top of His class at school. Only the most competent students were allowed to continue their studies after a certain age. Most young men after a set amount of schooling would learn their father's trade. Jesus was one of the brightest and the best. He most likely knew the Torah by heart and most of the Psalms and prophets as well. He was fiercely intelligent and disciplined. He loved the Word of God. He asked good questions (a trait of a good Rabbi AND a good disciple. Next time you read the gospels, notice how often Jesus answers a question with a question). He studied vigorously.
Jesus was often asked if he was Elijah come back to earth. This most-likely means that He was very passionate (the fact that people thought He was Elijah attests to that, since Elijah is thought to be the most strong-willed and passionate prophet of all Israel's history, so Jesus' comparison to Him tells us a lot about His character).
Jesus was often butting heads with the Pharisees and Sadducees. This is because He challenged their authority and the laws they had set forth, something that very few did. The Pharisees were extremely knowledgeable on the Law and even more so on the "traditions" (the additions to the Law made by past Rabbis). They were so learned that it was probably very hard for someone to debate with them, another fact attesting to Jesus' incredible understanding of the Law and His knowledge of the traditions of His time. This also shows that Jesus was teaching new ideas, and that a lot of His teaching was different than what most people were hearing.
Jesus healed on the Sabbath. To the Pharisees, honoring the Sabbath was one of the most important laws that God had given, and they had built many of their own on top of it in order to protect it. The fact that Jesus was willing to heal ("work") on the Sabbath says an incredible amount to Jesus' stance on the legalism of the day. To most Pharisees, healing on the Sabbath was one of the worst crimes you could commit, some even thought worse than murder. Jesus, by healing on the Sabbath, showed that He put importance on God's Law, and that the traditions of the Rabbi's that had been built on top of that were not the authority. To Jesus, loving your neighbor by healing was much more important than following the tradition of "not working" on the Sabbath. In His time, it was an important act and a different take on scripture than many of the Pharisees of his day.
Jesus was a "tekton." Tekton can either mean Carpenter or stonemason, and since most work was with stone in Jesus' day, he was most likely a stonemason more than anything else. Next time you read, notice how Jesus is always noticing structural aspects of the buildings and using stone masonry and building in his parables.
Jesus got tired. Jesus was human, and often had to be go off somewhere by Himself to be refreshed by the Lord. Being a Rabbi, and a good one at that, He spent much of His time traveling around, teaching in synagogues, and healing the sick. He gave of Himself incredibly and selflessly, but He also knew His boundaries. He also knew that He could not pour out onto others that which God had not poured into Him first, and so he was constantly getting away to spend time with the Lord and be filled.
Jesus met people on their level. Jewish scholars and historians alike attest to the fact that Jesus was one of the greatest story-tellers that ever walked this earth. His parables were simple but powerful, and filled full with multiple layers of truth. Jesus had an incredible skill at creating parables of depth. Most importantly though, Jesus spoke to people with examples that they could understand. He packed hard and deep ideas into stories from every day life, ensuring that people would understand and remember His teachings. He knew His audience, and shaped His teachings to things they could relate to. Out of everything, I believe that this was one of Jesus' most important strengths, and something that the church today does not excel at. We have "church-speak," but very little language that relates to the World in ways they understand. Jesus was excellent at this, probably because He knew how important relating to people was when attempting to get to a deeper level with them.
Jesus was a Revolutionary. In His time, Jesus was looked at as someone who was going against the general thought of the people. He was leading a new movement, and one that was contrary to much of the assumptions of the day. He claimed to be Messiah near the end of His life, but in a way that no one expected. Instead of being a political Messiah like everyone expected and desired, Jesus came as the sacrificial lamb. He taught that the meek shall inherit the earth, and that the Son of Man must die to bring about the Kingdom. These ideas were nothing like what the Jews had assumed the Messiah would be. They wanted power over Rome. They wanted freedom now. They wanted control and a nation of their own. But Jesus came to bring life to all nations through His own death. He, the teacher, would become the servant. He, the Master, would wash His disciples feet. He, the Son of God, would die on a cross on Passover as the shofar blew for the afternoon sacrifice. Jesus completely flipped the model and changed the whole concept of what King meant, what the Kingdom of God would look like, and who would be a part of it. He was different, unexpected, and revolutionary for His time (and ours). In the words of Phillip Yancey, "If Jesus had never lived, we would have never been able to invent Him." It is His difference within the setting and time that He lived and the unexpectedness of His message that is so striking.

OK, so that's a lot of information for one sitting. But this list is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the beginning of what there is to find out about who Jesus was (and is). And remember, Jesus is forever the same. He was, is, and is to come. So if you want to know Jesus now, you need to know Jesus then. And despite what most think, Jesus is relevant today, and understanding Him in a real setting (like biblical times) in a real place (like Israel), dealing with real people (like Judaens and Galileans and Pharisees and Herodians and Essenes, etc.), helps us see and understand that.

Lastly, be proud! You are a disciple of the greatest Rabbi that ever walked this earth. You follow this great teacher, Jesus, by His invitation.
You have the ability and the access to be taught by this wise man every day.

And most of all, this kind, passionate Jewish teacher loves you and wants you to know Him as much as He knows you. He wants your company, and if you get to know Him even at all, I
guarantee that you will want His as well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

David's Sin

When we hear the name David, two stories generally come to mind: Goliath and Bathsheba. Because these are the two stories that David is most known for, we the reader tend to equate David's early life as successful, courageous, and God-led, and his later life as sinful, disobedient, and self-led.

I wanted to get a clearer picture of David's life, so I read his story in full once again, and what I saw was a man who constantly inquired of the Lord and even on his death bed was passing down the blessings of God to his son and trusting in God's promises. Personally, that doesn't sound like someone who is distant from God or lacking in faith.

So, how does the story of David and Bathsheba fit in? To find out, I went back to the story and paid careful attention to what happened. Here is a summary of what I found:

Truthfully, the story of David and Bathsheba is a horrible one involving multiple sins. Not only did David commit adultery and then have someone murdered, but he carefully planned every action and did it all for very selfish reasons. This wasn't just a spur of the moment, sneak-up-on-him kind of sin. This was a long and planned-out set of sins that David thought over and carefully orchestrated to cover up his actions. Not a great example of a man living in obedience to God.

Of course, God saw all that David did and intervened, opening David's eyes to his own sin. Through a parable, God was able to show David his true role in the story, his own sin, and the punishment he deserved because of it.

But this isn't the whole story, and there is so much more to learn from it!

It is important to notice David's reaction upon realizing the truth of the parable. Immediately after being confronted by and understanding the truth , David admits his sin and repents.

'Then David said, "I have sinned against the Lord."' - 2 Samuel 12:13.

Notice David doesn't say "I have sinned against Uriah" or "I have sinned against Bathsheba" or "I have sinned against Israel." No, his first thought is: "I have sinned against the Lord." This is clearly an intimate reaction by a man who is repentant and ashamed of disobeying the God that he loves.

Even more startling than the speed of David's repenctance is the immediacy of God's forgiveness.

"Nathan replied, 'The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.'" - 2 Samuel 12: 13.

The minute that David takes responsibility for his sin and repents, God's forgiveness is present. The depth of it is amazing!

Not to say that God does not discipline David for his sin. There are consequences that David must face despite God's forgiveness, and he faces them soon after; his newborn son dies 7 days after birth.

This is important to note and remember. God is one of forgiveness AND discipline. He desires us to be free from our sin, but he also desires us to learn from it and become better. How does that understanding come about? Consequences. God does not desire for us to be weighed down by guilt, but He does require us to deal with the choices we have made and the circumstances that arise because of them. God does not promise us a life without hardship, but a life of inner peace. His forgiveness offers us this, and his discipline reminds us to make better choices in the future.

Of course, David's story does not stop with discipline. God's stories never do. God, above all, is a God of redemption. Is not redemption the very reason that Christ walked this earth and died on a cross? That we might be redeemed from our sin? Yes, God is a God of great and powerful redemption, and he reminds us of it in the conclusion of this story. Bathsheba gives birth to another son, who eventually grows into a great and mighty king, respected and revered throughout the nations for his wisdom. What amazing redemption!

If you take nothing else from this, Take heart, friend, that God's story ALWAYS ends in redemption. Even now, we know that God's GREATEST story, the story of His son, the story of our great Rabbi, the story of our freedom from sin, has already ended in redemption.

"He is not here, He has risen! Just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay." - Matthew 28: 6

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Picture It: David and Goliath

When reading the Bible, I like to see things for what they were. It helps me to connect with the story and remember it well. I have been reading through Samuel, and thought I would include some pictures that might give a better understanding (and help us connect to) the story of David and Goliath, since it seems to have become more of a fairy tale in the Western world than a real-life, bloody battle to the death. Hopefully, this will cement its reality a little more in our minds:

David was most likely a young boy of 11-13 years of age when he fought Goliath. Most boys who watched over the flocks of the family were quite young.

Two examples of what a sling probably looked like in David's time. They would spin it in circles over their heads to gain speed and momentum, and let go when the timing was just right. It took a lot of practice to have the accuracy that David had. No doubt God prepared him for the battle against Goliath with a lot of target-practice during his many hours shepherding near his home.

A diagram of where the battle took place. Matters were often decided by having 2 men from either army fight against each other because of the belief that battles were really fought by the gods. It was a way to stop unnecessary bloodshed, and still see who's god was more powerful. This idea gives new depth to the meaning behind David's words in the following verse.

" All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give all of you into our hands." 1 Samuel 17:47.

By challenging the Israelites and talking of victory over them, Goliath was saying that his god was stronger than the God of Israel, and David knew in his heart that this was untrue. He fought to prove the honor of God to the Philistine nation, and to gain back the respect that his God was due(!).

Man of the people

While reading through the books of Samuel, I can't help but notice the differences between King David and King Saul. When being introduced to them, they are both described in much the same way: godly men with strong characters. Most importantly though, both David and Saul were anointed by God himself to rule over Israel as King. With such similiar begginnings, we have to ask ourselves why there was such drastic differences in their reigns. To answer this question effectively, we need to go back and look at the choice made by Saul that ultimately destroyed his Kingship; Israel's battle against the Amalekites.

Before the battle, God had commanded Saul to go up with the Israelite army and fight the Amalekites (a people that represented everything that God was against), destroying EVERYTHING in their land and leaving no one alive. Basically, God was telling Saul to purge the land of all that went against His commands in order to ensure holiness for the Israelites. Saul, instead of obeying the Lord's command, destroyed only some of the plunder (that which was weak or unsuitable) and left the rest.

When Saul was confronted by the prophet Samuel about this lack of regard for God's Word, Saul justified his actions by explaining: "The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest." (1 Samuel 15:15).

Seemingly, Saul kept the plunder to offer to the Lord, a good reason in theory. But a sacrifice is not what the Lord asked of him, and we learn later that this was not even Saul's real reason for not destroying everything as commanded. In 1 Samuel 15:24, Saul admits: "I have sinned. I violated the LORD's command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them."

Why did Saul disobey God's command? Because his fear of the people was far greater than his fear of the Lord. Quite a dangerous trait for a leader.

Contrast Saul's actions with David's, and we see why David was ultimately successful as leader of Israel where Saul was not.

There are multiple instances in the early parts of his leadership, before David had become King, when he goes against the people and does what he thinks is right in the eyes of the Lord.

The most well-known account of this is David's encounter with Goliath, when David's anger at Goliath's blatant disrespect for the God of Israel was far greater than his fear of fighting the giant or dying in battle. Along with his battle against Goliath, there are many other instances when David did what the Lord wanted rather than what the people asked for. A few examples are:

*David refuses to kill Saul the multiple times he is given the chance (which would secure his own safety from death) because he refused to kill someone that God himself had anointed.
*David refuses to kill Abner despite warnings from his men that Abner was working for Saul. David had given Abner his word that there would be peace between them and that Abner was safe, and he would not go back on it (2 Samuel 3).
*David, after defeating the very Amalekites that Saul failed to destory earlier, goes against the majority of his army's wishes and allows the soldiers from his army who did not go and fight with them against the Amalekites to have their share of the plunder anyway. Why? To be fair and just.
Again and again, David listens to the word of the Lord instead of the words of his people. I imagine that as King, that must be an extremely challenging thing to do, but David did it. Why? Because his fear of the Lord was great. Much greater than his fear of the people. For that, David was blessed by God.

These stories make me wonder: In a time when tolerance reigns and going against someone or questioning another's beliefs is considered disrespectful and rude, who do I fear more, God or others? More often than not, I find myself recognizing a desire in myself to please those around me, sometimes allowing my obedience for God to falter and get rough around the edges. I want people to think I'm nice and accepting and not one of those "bible-thumping" Christians. Basically, I want the people to like me. But part of being a Christian is being different. Part of being a Christian is saying the hard things. Part of being a Christian is standing up for truth. And yes, we are called to do this with grace and love, but sometimes I think rather than grace and truth, we allow ourselves and our beliefs to be compromised instead. Why?


Ask yourself today; are you a God-pleaser or a people-pleaser? Who/what do you fear, and how is that fear influencing the way you live on a daily basis?

Deuteronomy 10:12-13

12 And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the LORD's commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

Isaiah 2:22

22 "Stop trusting in man,
who has but a breath in his nostrils.
Of what account is he?"