God’s Best Practices

BestPractice01_480

We live in a day of unprecedented social change. The forces which have brought about everything from radical Islam to the redefinition of marriage and family have been at work for a long time, but it’s only more recently that their fruit has ripened unto harvest. It’s not as if there haven’t been those who have sought to stem the tide of these changes. But many of us refused to heed their warnings, and now we find ourselves up to our necks in cultural conditions for which we are not sufficiently prepared.

This is not the first time that societies that have had considerable biblical influence in the past have fallen into significant moral decay. And since God is still King, we can rest assured the world is not spinning out of control. Far from it! Not only will he one day call everyone to account; even now he is at work to fulfill his purposes. This doesn’t imply, however, that we should sit back and do nothing. Or worse, go with the flow and celebrate misguided and destructive value systems. Instead, God’s ongoing presence and power should embolden us to engage the culture as never before.

In order to do this effectively, we need to be biblically informed. Mindlessly spouting traditional values assuming they are biblical isn’t enough to withstand the constant barrage of ungodly propaganda or those who use the Bible to justify it. It is this misuse of the Bible that I wish to address here.

More and more people are claiming the Bible supports the ever-expanding alternatives to marriage and family. They do so in two ways. First, they tell us that passages that have historically been used to forbid certain behaviors, particularly homosexuality, have been wrongly applied. They claim that a proper understanding of the contexts reveals that only very specific kinds of sexual expressions were to be regarded as sinful. The argument continues that since current behaviors were not in mind in these passages, they should be permitted.

This approach to Scripture is flawed for at least a couple of reasons. First, how do we know that these contexts do in fact limit the directives contained therein? This is a case where a supposed understanding of the cultural background is being used to determine the meaning of a text. While historical and cultural background can be helpful, it is not to be confused with the Scriptures’ own authority. Not only do we not have the ability to determine beyond a reasonable doubt the exact cultural issues of those days, even if we did, that is no guaranty that the relevant passages are speaking to those cultural practices alone.

Second, a biblical derived understanding of marriage and family doesn’t depend on prohibitions alone, but also upon both explicate and implicit passages about God’s design of human community. The institutions of marriage and family were not the product of social engineering. They were established by God. The first two chapters of Genesis reveal God’s ideal structure for the building of human civilization: children were to emerge through the life-long commitment between one man and one woman. This is the primary biblical context within which the rest of the Bible is revealed. It is this that enables us to properly understand God’s directives regarding adultery, divorce, marriage, and family.

Yeshua’s teaching on divorce is most instructive in this regard. When he was asked to comment on what appeared to be the Torah’s permissive view of divorce, he said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:8-9). While divorce was permitted, it was never a best practice as far as God was concerned.

So, does that mean divorce is permitted or not? Is Yeshua now forbidding his followers to do something that Torah had permitted? No, rather he was providing a truly godly understanding of God’s revelation through Moses. If you look at the passage from Deuteronomy referenced here, you will see it is not actually permitting divorce, but forbidding a man from remarrying a woman he had divorced, who had a second divorce from the subsequent marriage. Acknowledging and regulating an activity is not the same as permitting it. Yeshua was saying that, based on Genesis, the people of Israel should have upheld the ideal standard of lifelong monogamous marriage all along.

Polygamy, like divorce, was also tolerated in Scripture. Not only is it not forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Covenant Writings also appear to generally tolerate it, since it is only forbidden for certain spiritual leaders (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1-13). Therefore some may say that it is right to assert that polygamy is biblical.

I bring this up for two reasons. One, how we deal with the explicate and implicit biblical references regarding polygamy affects how we determine the Bible’s take on other social and moral issues, whether they are mentioned in the Bible or not. On the one hand classic liberalism asserts that Scripture is so culturally bound that so much of it is irrelevant to modern times. On the other hand when evangelicals require chapter and verse as the only basis of truth and practice, there is a tendency to miss out on the fullness of the whole Bible, especially those Scriptural elements that provide very clear implications for godly living.

The second reason why I mention polygamy is that there is already an indication that countries, such as the United States and Canada, which for so long had determined that it was not in their best interest for their people to have multiples spouses are already beginning to rethink that position. As the culture becomes even more open to changing our understanding of marriage and family, it is necessary to take a closer look at what the Bible actually teaches about this.

Even though there are no explicit prohibitions again polygamy (apart from the exceptions I mentioned already), as we saw with divorce, Yeshua didn’t need a prohibition to impress upon the people how bad something really was. But that was Yeshua, right? He had the authority to establish truth in the moment, did he not? But that was not what he was doing in that case. He was providing the correct understanding and application of Scripture. Just because we don’t have his comments on polygamy, that doesn’t mean we can’t use a similar interpretive technique. While polygamy is not forbidden, like divorce, the Bible paints it in a negative light. Polygamous relationship were always problematic. That’s why in the New Covenant Writings, if men were in such relationships, it was sufficient reason alone to disqualify them from being elders or deacons. If leaders were called to such a standard, what impression do you think the people would get? It’s not as if monogamy was special just for leadership. For as we saw with the divorce issue, God instituted monogamy as the marriage standard. In his wisdom he didn’t forbid it in biblical times. Rather he controlled it, so as to provide the best way to protect women and children in a society that embraced it. That is why even today, we should be careful when confronting polygamy in cultures of which it is still a part. Dismantling polygamous households will do more damage than good. In those cases, providing good godly controls upon this substandard form of marriage is the best approach. But for societies that have already attained to God’s best practice of monogamous marriage, to reintroduce polygamy is not only a disservice to all involved, it is simply not biblical.

Whether it is divorce, polygamy or anything else, let us call one another to God’s ideal standards. Why settle for anything less?

The Meaning of the Shofar

shofar01_480

Fall Feasts

In the third book of the Bible, Vayikra/Leviticus chapter 23, verses 23-44 is a description of three special observances that were to occur each year around September/October. The first is often referred to as “The Feast of Trumpets,” and became known as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It begins this year the evening of September 13. Ten days later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning the evening of September 22. Five days after that is the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacle or Booths), beginning the evening of September 27.

These three observances are intimately connected in that the first two provide intense preparation for the third. In the midst of the busy fall harvest time, the people of Israel were to stop for a day of reflection to remember God. This was to get the people’s attention so that they would be ready a week and a half later for a full day of humiliation and repentance on Yom Kippur. The restoration provided by that most solemn day enabled the people to engage the over-a-week-long celebrations associated with Sukkot.

We fool ourselves into thinking that we can rush into thanksgiving festivities without taking the previous two weeks to get ready first. We are so busy with so many distractions. Yet God wisely knows that he needs to get our attention first by reminding us of things we so easily forget.

A Time to Remember

The Feast of Trumpets was to be “a memorial” (v. 24) marked by “blowing.” Most translations fill in what it was to be blown, even though the passage nowhere states explicitly what instrument was to be used. Traditionally it is the “shofar” (English: ram’s horn). Also, while the act of blowing was to function as a memorial, we are not told what it was we were to remember. The connection of this day with the other days mentioned above allows for a general reminder of the things of God, but the use of the shofar in particular brings to remembrance some key biblical events and ideas.

The Meaning of the Shofar

I am going to share several passages that reference the shofar and provide some suggestions as to what therefore we should remember when it is blown. In most English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, the word shofar is translated either as horn or trumpet. Horn, of course, is better, since it clearly shows the difference between the use of a hollowed-out animal horn and a man-made metallic trumpet. In each of the following cases, I have replaced whatever English word was used with the original Hebrew word, shofar.

The Covenant on Mt. Sinai: Redemption and Revelation

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud shofar blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.

Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder (Shemot/Exodus 19:16-19).

The blowing of the shofar reminds us of God’s rescue from bondage, his commitment through covenant faithfulness, and the gift of his Word.

The Walls of Jericho: No Obstacles Are Too Great for God

So the people shouted, and the shofars were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the shofar, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city (Joshua 6:20).

The falling of the great walls of Jericho following the sounding of the shofar reminds us that when we are in God’s will, doing what he wants us to do, nothing can stand in our way.

God Alone Is King: Let Us Boldly Acclaim His Rulership

God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a shofar (Tehillim/Psalms 47:5)

As the shofar blast proclaim God’s rule, so should we, boldly and without fear.

God Is Worthy of Praise

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the shofar
    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! (Tehillim/Psalms 98:4-6)

The shofar reminds us that God is worth celebrating. We make a big deal over far lesser things. So let us make some joyful noise about God!

The Voice of the Prophet: We Need To Speak Up More

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a shofar;
declare to my people their transgression
    to the house of Jacob their sins. (Isaiah 58:1)

As the voice of the prophet is clear and distinct, the shofar encourages us to not hold back, but to speak up for God and his ways, clearly and unashamedly.

God’s Alarm: It’s Time To Wake Up

Blow a shofar in Zion;
    sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near (Joel 2:1)

The shofar was used as a practical device to get people’s attention. In this passage it is as an alarm to warn God’s people of his coming judgement. One of the great Jewish thinkers of all time was Moses Maimonides. He was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt, who lived between 1135 and 1204 AD. What he said with regard to what people should think of as the shofar is blown goes along with this:

Wake up, wake up, sleepers from your sleep, and awake slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator.

Some of you might catch how these words sound similar to other words written long before Maimonides, from the New Covenant Writings:

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and [Messiah] will shine on you.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:14-16)

The shofar, God’s alarm clock, is to alert us as to the nature of the times in which we live. It is so easy to allow cynicism and apathy to lull us to sleep. It’s much easier to go along with the flow, submitting to the pressures of the culture, than to pursue the things of God day by day. As I write this, the world remembers the September 11, 2001 tragedy, which many at the time said was a “wake up call.” But how many of those same people hit the alarm and drifted off to sleep again. Since then the world has experienced alarm after alarm. Eventually it will be too late. Which brings us to the next one.

The Last Shofar: The Coming of the Lord

Then the Lord will appear over them,
    and his arrow will go forth like lightning;
the Lord God will sound the shofar
    and will march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. (Zechariah 9:14)

The day will come, when God himself will blow the shofar to signal the return of Messiah to call creation to account, and judge the world. No more opportunities to go back to sleep. No more chances. This is reiterated in the New Covenant Writings. Since it was originally written in Greek, we don’t know if it is referencing a trumpet or a horn, but the connection with the shofar is clear as is the point it makes:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:50-55)

As the final blast marks the end of life as we know it, it also signals the beginning of the age to come, when death and all its effects will be no more. For some it will be a time of absolute dread, but for others the greatest moment of our lives. How can you be assured of eternal life? Here too, the shofar shows the way.

Substitution: Life for Life

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Bereshit/Genesis 22:12-14)

The Hebrew word here is not actually shofar, but a synonym, “keren.” This reference from the first book of the Bible is foundational for everything else the shofar reminds us of. God’s requirement for the offering of Abraham’s son Isaac was fulfilled through the provision of a ram. All through Scripture the sacrificial system, as established by God, reminded the people that an offering of an innocent animal was a satisfactory substitute for sin. While this is foreign to most of us today, it is God’s way, all the while pointing the people of Israel to the perfect and final offering of the Messiah on our behalf. His life was accepted in place of ours, so that all who trust in him would live forever. It is no coincidence that among all the things that happened to him during his unjust arrest, trial, and execution that he was mocked by the Roman soldiers by their placing a crown of thorns on his head. Yeshua, like the ram of Abraham’s day, found himself caught in a thicket, and offered in our place, so like Isaac, we too may go free.

The shofar gives us so much to think about, but it is all meaningless unless we are in right relationship with God. By accepting Yeshua as God’s provision, everything else becomes clear. The shofar sound not only will reverberate in our ears, but the fullness of its meaning will find its way into our hearts.

Listen to the shofar now:

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

Hope: One of Life’s Essential Ingredients

Highway of Hope

It has been said that the life of a believer is more like a marathon than a sprint. Yeshua (Jesus) says in Matthew 10:22, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved”. While the Bible is clear that God preserves his children, holding on to us through everything (see John 10:28-30; Romans 8:31-39), it’s not as if we are to be passive in the process. Rather, we are called to endure until the end.

Right now, you might be simply trying to endure until the end of the day, never mind the end of your life, but thinking long-term is necessary, since ignoring the future will inevitably lead to disaster. Also, learning to think long term is what is going to make us more effective in short term.

We live in a culture that is very focused on the now. I remember hearing about the “Now Generation” in the 1970s. So if the 70s were the Now Generation, we must be in the Digibit Generation (I think I made that up). The Digibit Generation is focused on the thousands of tiny bits of information that constantly bombard us though texts and tweets. Technological advances develop at such lighting speed today, we hardly have time to catch our breath, let alone think about their long-term implications.

Having said that, there are so many life disciplines that demand careful attention to detail and precision, where distraction and/or rushing can be disastrous. Surgeons, airplane pilots, and baseball players, among others, are keenly aware of this. But I wonder even among those who know these principles so well, do they take the time to notice how similar care is required for their personal lives as well? Or is it just a matter of time before they too burn out if not blow up?

There are various ingredients in life that are helpful in making sure that we finish our lives well, to make it through life successfully God’s way. Basics include being right with God through faith in His Son, keeping short accounts with God and others whenever we do wrong, focusing on what’s good and godly, and building healthy relationships. Then there are the spiritual disciplines of daily Bible reading and prayer, spending time with other believers and nurturing godly community. But there’s an ingredient of life that is most essential for the long hall. Without it, it won’t be long before you find yourself completely deflated and “endurance” sounds like a dirty word. That ingredient is…hope.

Proverbs 13:12 reads, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” This divinely inspired saying contrasts the difference between serious disappointment and fulfilled expectations. This is not those normal disappointments we face every day that we easily dismiss. It’s the big ones. The “will my dream ever come true?” kind of disappointments. Those disappointments that not only threaten our life expectations—career or otherwise—but, due to how much heart we have invested in them, they also threaten to destroy the very core of who we are.

Before I discuss how hope works as a necessary ingredient in facing disappointment, I want to make it clear right here that I don’t believe that the key to avoiding being devastated by dashed expectations is in not caring about your dreams. “If you hope for nothing, you will never by disappointed” may be true, but I don’t believe God wants us to live that way—especially since many of the dreams and desires we have are from him in the first place.

Biblically based spirituality is not learning to disconnect from life. It’s one thing to become so obsessed with our life goals that we become blind and deaf to everything else. That’s making your dreams an idol, which will do you in eventually. But if your dreams are from God, they are important—important enough to cling to even when they seem almost impossible to attain. In fact, a biblical understanding of hope should help you pursue your dreams in the way God wants you to.

The word translated “hope,” both in the Old Testament (the Hebrew word “tikvah”) and the New Testament (the Greek work “elpis”) doesn’t mean “wishful thinking” as in “I hope it doesn’t rain today,” or “I hope I get a raise.” It is actually the idea of “confident expectation.” It’s what keeps you waiting at the coffee shop, for example, when your friend is late. Based on your knowledge of his or her character and ability, you hope for their coming. If they said they will be there, they will be there. Your confident expectation makes you stay in spite of appearances and your discomfort. The longer you wait, the more uncomfortable it gets, but your confident expectation—your hope—allows you to endure. This kind of hope is more dependent on the one your hope is in rather than the one doing the hoping, yourself. When we talk about the essential ingredient of hope for life, we are not talking about hope in just anyone, but in God, who is absolutely dependable.

The great hope or expectation for the believer is in the return of the Lord—that the Great Judge is coming, and he will one day deal with all the corruption of this age and make everything right. If we are convinced that he is coming to call his creation to account, then we can put up with his seemingly long delay and continue to live in accordance with his will in spite of the fact that it may seem that evil has the upper hand.

But is Yeshua’s return our only hope? Is it right to allow our hearts to be filled with expectation for anything else besides God’s future eternal reality? Absolutely! We are not on this earth at this time in history just to bide our time. God created us on purpose and for a purpose, and he expects us do the best we can to discover that purpose and fulfil it, whatever it might be.

So how do we know if our dreams and desires are from God or not? That’s a good question. A question that could only be answered by God. And he will answer it, if you seek him diligently. King David gives us a hint on how to synch our desires to God’s desires. He writes, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

If your delight is in God, then his desires will become your desires. His dreams, your dreams. And when his dreams are your dreams, he is more interested than you are to ensure they come about. But the road from the birth of a dream to its realization can be a difficult one.

Sticking with David for a moment, he was probably in his late teen years when the prophet Samuel anointed him the next King of Israel while King Saul was still king. It was soon afterwards that he killed Goliath and became Saul’s armor bearer. Not long after that, he was successfully leading battles. But that success made Saul jealous to the point of wanting to kill him. He eventually ran for his life, hiding in caves and living in exile. Some dream! No one would blame David for being discouraged and losing hope. But he didn’t. He held on. He held on to what God said, and he held on to the God who said it.

Now just because we have a dream or a desire that is rooted in God’s heart, doesn’t mean we truly understand what it’s all about—which is something the years and the challenges help clarify. But through it all, if our confident expectation is in God, yearning for that clarification from him, he will sustain us for the long term.

Centuries after King David, the prophet Isaiah spoke about the kind of thing that David would have already understood so well:

Why do you say, O Jacob,
   and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
   and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
   the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
   his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
   and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
   and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
   they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:27-31).

The word “wait” in “they who wait for the LORD” is the essential ingredient, “hope” (tikvah), confident expectation. It is those who put their hope in God who will renew their strength and will have what it takes to endure until the end.