THE LAW – JUST TWO (Part 2)

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. [Deuteronomy 6:5 (NLT)]

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 19:18 (NLT)]

New England asterYesterday I told about a friend who was reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a young Jewish man belittled her belief in God. Admitting that he once believed, he explained he no longer did because the Torah had too many laws. My friend was pleased when the Holy Spirit provided her with this simple response: “Try the New Testament; there are only two laws in it!”

As Christians, we adhere to some laws found in the Old Testament but not all. For example, while abiding by the commandments regarding adultery and idolatry, we ignore the ones requiring ritual baths or prohibiting pork and shellfish. Because of this, non-believers sometimes accuse us of being inconsistent or hypocritical. The law God gave in the Old Testament was given specifically to the nation of Israel. Setting them apart from the pagan nations surrounding them, the covenant He made was with them and not anyone else.

God gave the new nation of Israel a set of civil laws dealing with such things as their relationship with one another, conducting business, and settling disputes. He gave them ceremonial laws dealing with things like worship, temple practices, sacrifice, ritual cleanliness, and priestly duties and attire. God also gave Israel moral laws: laws telling them what was right and wrong, like those found in the Ten Commandments. Because Israel’s nationality and religion were one in the same, their civil, ceremonial, and moral laws often were interconnected.

The civil laws governing the nation of Israel don’t apply to us any more than Colorado’s laws regarding ski resorts apply to Florida’s beaches or New Jersey’s speed limit of 65 applies to a driver going 80 down a rural freeway in Texas. Like the civil laws, Israel’s ritual laws also were specific for them. Jesus finished the work of their priests and no more sacrifices or days of atonement are necessary.

What then of the moral laws? Based on the character of God, they transcend Mosaic Law and the principles behind them remain valid. With the exception of keeping holy the Sabbath day, the Ten Commandments are repeated throughout the New Testament. Sometimes, they are repeated in much stronger terms, as when Jesus equated anger with murder and lust with adultery! [Mathew 5:21-23,28]

Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites were given a choice: obey and reap God’s blessings or disobey and reap His curses. Having to justify themselves, Israel struggled and failed time and time again. The New Covenant, however, is based on grace rather than obedience—Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. With the New Covenant, God’s grace wasn’t limited to one nation but was made available to all people and for all time.

So what laws are we Christians to obey? Jesus made it simple with just two laws: wholly love God and love others as ourselves. Those two simple laws cover every conceivable situation far better than splitting hairs over who qualifies as a neighbor or how many times we are to forgive. We don’t need specific laws telling us to pay wages in a timely manner, use honest weights and measures, be charitable, honor our promises, do no wrong in buying or selling, and not to afflict widows and orphans. Found in both the Old and New Testaments, we have two all-purpose laws that cover all of those situations and much more. If we can fulfill these two, we’ve fulfilled them all!

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-40 (NLT)]

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THE LAW – MORE THAN 613  (Part 1 of 2)

Adonai said to Moshe, “Come up to me on the mountain, and stay there. I will give you the stone tablets with the Torah and the mitzvot I have written on them, so that you can teach them.” [Exodus 24:12 (CJB)]

black-eyed susansA friend told of reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a stranger came up and made a disparaging comment about her belief in God and Scripture. Identifying himself as Jewish, he said he no longer believed the Bible, adding “There are just too many laws in the Torah.” Observant Jews have even more than the 613 laws found in Scripture. The words of Exodus 24:12 were construed to mean that, along with the written commands in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, God gave Moses additional explanations and examples that he was to teach. Believing these oral explanations were passed from Moses to Joshua and on down to the following generations, Deuteronomy 17:8-11 was understood to mean that, along with declaring verdicts in disputes, the priests or sages could further clarify and interpret the law.

The sages often used this oral tradition to “put a fence around the Torah” and prevent transgressions. For example, beginning at midday on the 14th day of Nissan, leaven was prohibited during Passover. If clouds covered the sun, the sages were concerned that leaven might accidentally be eaten so they extended the law by two hours. While Scripture alluded to prohibited labor on the Sabbath, such as kindling a fire or doing business, it never listed every prohibited act. In great detail, the oral tradition specified kinds of work and explicitly prohibited anything even resembling labor such as braiding hair (weaving) or applying makeup (dyeing).

The work of compiling these oral traditions began around 200 BC and continued until what’s known as the Mishnah was completed around 220 AD. Divided into six sections, it deals with agricultural laws, prayers, festivals and fasts, family life, both civil and criminal jurisprudence, and the regulations defining what is “clean” and “unclean.” Since some earlier oral material had not been included in it, rabbis continued to interpret and clarify the law and their findings were gathered into the Gemara. Around 540, the Gemara and Mishnah were collected into the Talmud. Consisting of 63 tractates (treatises) divided into 523 chapters, the Talmud represents the labor of many generations over a period of approximately 800 years. Today, the Torah consists both of the written law, Torah Shebichtav, found in the first five books of the Old Testament, and the oral law, Torah Sheba’al Peh, found in the Talmud.

While the law was God’s gift to His people and a guide to life in Israel’s new land, human traditions ended up supplanting and complicating God’s word. With all of the Torah’s rules, regulations, and interpretations, it’s easy to see why the young man became discouraged. It’s not that the Torah is bad, it’s that his religion had become more about rules and obedience than relationship and faith.

Only take great care to obey the mitzvah and the Torah which Moshe the servant of Adonai gave you — to love Adonai your God, follow all his ways, observe his mitzvot, cling to him, and serve him with all your heart and being.” [Joshua 22:5 (CJB)]

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SOLA SCRIPTURA

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)]

snowy egretProtestant reformers summarized the essentials of the Christian faith in five short statements, the first of which is “Scripture alone” (Sola Scriptura) which means the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is the sole, definitive, dependable, and essential authority for our faith and practice. While the Bible is not the only place we’ll find truth, the concept of “Scripture alone” means that everything else we learn about God must be interpreted in light of Scripture. When it comes to theology, if an idea doesn’t stand up to the Bible it hasn’t passed the acid test of truth.

Jesus warned of false prophets who would come in “sheep’s clothing,” [Matthew 7:17] Peter warned of false teachers in the community of believers who would slander the truth [2 Peter 2:1-2], and the Apostle Paul continually warned churches of the dangers of those “who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.” [Galatians 1:6-9] The danger of false doctrine has not lessened in this day and age of influencers and mass media where anyone can create a platform to spread his or her version of God. People are looking for a ray of hope in our divisive and often angry world and false prophets often appeal to what we’d like to hear rather than what God said. Subtle in the way they can spin truth into untruth, false teachers are hard to recognize, especially since so few Christians actually have read the Bible!

Scripture doesn’t explain metamorphosis, photosynthesis, or Boyle’s law or tell us the value of pi, how to find a square root, make a perfect soufflé, or write a computer program. While it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know, Scripture does tell us all we need to know to become a Christian, live as a Christian, and mature as a Christian. The Bible may have been penned by human authors but the words they wrote are the words of God and the Bible is the supreme source of truth for what we believe and how we live.

Sola Scriptura, however, doesn’t mean the Bible is the only place where we’ll find truth. People like Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lee Strobel, John Bunyan, N.T. Wright, A.W. Tozer, and Francis Chan are all valuable resources and I’m sure God inspired many of their words. Nevertheless, unlike the words of Scripture, their words are not infallible and, if they don’t agree with Scripture, they’re the ones who are wrong!

It’s good practice to complement our Scripture reading with Bible commentaries, theology books, Christian blogs, devotionals, Bible studies, and sermons, but we must remember those sources are supplements, not substitutes, for the real thing. Let us continually use discernment and be wary of theology that isn’t firmly based in God’s Word. Consider how different it would have been if Eve had stuck with God’s word instead of believing Satan’s explanation of God’s motives! Sola Scriptura: let Scripture alone be the final authority!

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures. [Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures)]

But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, just as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent. You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. [2 Corinthians 11:3-4 (NLT)]

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KORAH’S SONS

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. [Psalm 46:1-3 (ESV) A Psalm of the Sons of Korah”]

monarch butterflyWhen researching their genealogy, most people hope to lay claim to ancestors who were nobility, war heroes, statesmen, historical figures or people who performed note-worthy deeds. Nevertheless, every tree has a few bad apples and we all probably have a few scoundrels in our line. For those seeking infamous rather than famous ancestors, several web sites provide access to court records, outlaw and criminal biographies, and lists of prisoners, convicts, executions, “pirates and buccaneers,” and inmates of asylums.

With the “sons of Korah” having written at least eleven of the psalms, the question of genealogy arises because we wonder about Korah’s identity. In Scripture, “son” has the broad meaning of descendants and Korah was the bad apple on their family tree. A Levite from the Kohathite clan, Korah’s story is found in Numbers 16. The Kohathites had the honor of transporting the most sacred objects of the tabernacle. Korah, however, wanted to serve as a priest—something that only could be done by Aaron and his family. Whether jealous of Aaron or resentful that the holy items had to be carried on his shoulders rather than transported on an ox cart, Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Along with two malcontents from the tribe of Reuben, he challenged their leadership. As a result, the rebel leaders were swallowed by a sinkhole, 250 of their followers were consumed by fire, and 14,700 people died in a plague. Korah’s three sons, however, were spared and, seven generations later, the prophet Samuel came from his line.

Scripture tells us that Korah’s descendants (Korahites) joined David in various military exploits and, when he was king, they led the choral and orchestral music in the tabernacle. Three of those sons are named: Heman the Ezrahite (grandson of Samuel), Asaph, and Ethan (or Jeduthan). Along with being David’s chief musicians, all three men served as “seers” or prophets. Once the Temple was built, the “sons of Korah” became doorkeepers and custodians for the tabernacle.

For those of us with rotten apples on our family tree, unless we publicize their sordid history, it’s our secret. Korah’s descendants, however, had no secrets; their ancestor’s rebellion was a significant part of their nation’s history. I wonder if, when they wrote of the earth giving way in Psalm 46, they remembered the story of their rebellious ancestor sinking into an abyss. Korah had been given a special ministry by God but didn’t appreciate it. Covetously, he wanted more and people died because of him. His “sons,” however, never allowed the infamy of their ancestor to keep them from faithfully serving both God and their king as doorkeepers and musicians and using their God-given gifts to magnify the Lord.

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor.  [Psalm 84:10-11 (ESV) A Psalm of the Sons of Korah]

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THE HALLEL

Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever. Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord. [Psalm 113:1-3 (NLT)

Southern MockingbirdSeveral years ago, our mountain church hosted a concert sponsored by the small Jewish congregation in town. I vividly remember the end of the program as Jews and Gentiles sang Hava Nagila, joined hands, and danced the hora around our large sanctuary. Impressed by the performer’s energy, passion, and love of God, I purchased one of his recordings. Yesterday, after sorting through some old books and CDs, I listened to it for the first time in over 10 years. The music was composed and performed by a man who still performs today but the Hebrew words he sang were those of the Hallel and over 2,000 years old.

Hallel means “praise” and the Hallel is a liturgical prayer found in Jewish prayer books today that consists of all or parts of Psalms 113 through 118. Considered the cornerstone of Jewish liturgy, it testifies to the glorious miracles performed by God. Except for the solemn days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the jubilant Hallel is said or sung on all major Jewish holidays.

The author or authors of the six psalms of the Hallel are unknown but the psalms share a common theme: the events surrounding the exodus, God’s covenant with Israel, and the people’s obligation of praise and thanksgiving for God’s loving-kindness and sovereignty over Israel and all nations.

It opens with the simple song of praise found in Psalm 113 which begins and ends with “Hallelu yah” meaning “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 114 follows with a poetic description of the exodus and all of nature reacting in dance to God’s great work. Psalm 115 is an appeal for God’s assistance, not for Israel’s sake, but to bring honor and glory to God’s name among the pagan nations. The next psalm is one of gratitude by someone who, in a time of trouble, called upon God and was saved. Ending with a commitment to serve the Lord, it is followed by the shortest of all the psalms with a call for all nations to praise the Lord. The final psalm, 118, begins with thanksgiving followed by recounting God’s salvation in troubled times. It echoes the words Moses and the people sang after crossing the Red Sea: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory.” [Exodus 15:2] This last psalm ends as it began—with thanksgiving.

Until now, I don’t think I appreciated the psalms as what they are: an ancient hymnbook. Reciting or singing the Hallel was a well-established part of the Jewish Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkoth celebrations by the first century. When I’ve sung or spoken the psalms in unison at church, I didn’t think about Jesus singing or saying those very same words (in Hebrew, of course). That Jews continue to sing the same hymns of praise sung by Jesus and the disciples when they worshiped—the same songs they sang together during the seder on the night He was betrayed—is mind boggling. That we still have those beautiful words of praise and thanksgiving, words we can say or sing any time, is a blessing. Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord, all you nations. Praise him, all you people of the earth. For his unfailing love for us is powerful; the Lord’s faithfulness endures forever. Praise the Lord! [Psalm 117]

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GIVE PEACE A CHANCE

A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. [Proverbs 15:1 (NLT)]

mourning doveIn 2 Samuel 20, we find the story of the “wise woman from Able.” Even though David and his men had suppressed Absalom’s revolt, hostility remained between the people of Judah (David’s tribe) and the ten northern tribes of Israel. When a “troublemaker” named Sheba led the men of Israel in rebellion, Joab and an army of Judeans pursued him. After Sheba’s men found refuge in the town of Abel, Joab’s forces raised a siege ramp against the ramparts of the city and began to batter its walls. Knowing the city and all of its inhabitants would be destroyed once the walls were breached, a “wise woman” came to the wall and asked to speak with Joab. After reminding him that her city was famous for the wisdom of its inhabitants, she assured him of their loyalty and inquired what it was he wanted. Telling her that all he wanted was Sheba, the woman struck a bargain with him and traded the life of Sheba for the safety of the city. After she convinced the town to turn over the rebel leader, his dismembered head was thrown over the city wall, Joab and his army withdrew, and the city was safe.

Like many Old Testament accounts, this story is gruesome, but that shouldn’t keep us from its lesson. With famine, disease, destruction, and death threatening the besieged city, Able’s men wouldn’t stand idly by while their walls were under attack and some of Joab’s troops surely would fall before they conquered the city. When it comes to war, while one side eventually may lay claim to victory, no one ever wins. Instead of coming to the city wall armed with weapons as did Joab, the wise woman of Able came armed with reason. Simply by saying, “Let’s talk!” she discovered what he wanted, determined a solution, and saved lives on both sides of that wall.

It was this nameless woman who defused the situation but that’s what Joab should have done. When God gave the Israelites all those laws in Deuteronomy, He gave them some about warfare and, before attacking a city, they were to offer the inhabitants terms for peace. [20:10] Joab, however, immediately launched an attack (but we know from the rest of Joab’s story that he was a man of treachery and not of God). Wisdom, however, comes from the Lord and the wise woman of Able knew God and His word!

Unlike Joab, we’re not likely to be chasing a rebel army and, unlike this unnamed woman, we probably won’t need to save an entire city from death and destruction, but consider what might happen if we always sought peace before conflict? What if, the next time we’re in a disagreement or dispute, we were more interested in resolution than victory? Instead of trying to change someone else’s mind, what if we opened ours? What if we discussed rather than disparaged and negotiated rather than litigated? Instead of insisting we’re right, what if we tried to reconcile our differences? What would happen if we said, “Let’s talk!” and then really listened? What if we asked, “What can I do to make this right?” and then did it?

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:9 (NLT)]

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. [Romans 12:18 (NLT)]

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