February Essays

February Overview:
From Exodus to Sinai, and on to the New Covenant


In February we are moving into Exodus and Leviticus, and finishing Matthew and starting Acts. The books of Exodus and Leviticus may be like swimming in deep water for you. For those who want to tackle them, they are full of important information for Jesus' life and message. In fact, Jesus probably spent more of his time studying the Torah - the first five books up to Deuteronomy, than he did the rest of his scriptures, our Old Testament. But the Bible has riches if you are just starting out, and it has even more if you are willing to dig. Be encouraged.

Interestingly, there is a very strong connection between the story in Exodus and the stories of Matthew and Acts! The Lord is replaying history to teach from it. In Exodus, people are in bondage to slavery and he saves them. They mark their houses with the blood of a lamb that was slain to redeem them. And then God passes over them in his judgment of the Egyptians. In the New Testament we learn that we were in bondage to sin, and God saves everyone from judgment who will mark themselves with the blood of his Lamb, Jesus Christ.

I think you can see the strong connection between the physical salvation of God's people, the Israelites, and the spiritual salvation of believers. But you know, the connection even goes beyond that! Soon after God redeems his people, he brings them to Mt. Sinai and gives them his Torah, his law, and establishes his covenant with them. God said he would someday do something even better:

Jer. 31:31 "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… 33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

This month in the book of Acts you will be reading about the fulfillment that prophecy as God establishes the New Covenant and pours out his Spirit on all of the Jewish believers at Pentecost. Through the gift of the Spirit to guide, convict and teach us from within, God has put his law in our hearts. Interestingly, the feast of Pentecost, Shavuot, is the celebration of giving of the first Covenant on Mt. Sinai! How appropriate to fulfill his promise of his new covenant on the anniversary of the giving of his first covenant!

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Week 6: Exodus 19- 32, Matthew 25 - 28, Acts 1, Psalm 17 - 18

What Did Jesus Mean By "Do Not Judge?"

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Luke 6:37-38, Matt 7:1-2

  What did Jesus mean by "do not judge?" This is one of those sayings of Jesus that can be unclear. It is can sound like Jesus is saying to look the other way when you see sin. From everything else that Jesus says, Christians know he couldn't be suggesting that we show no discernment, but we still struggle to find a way to sort out wrong but never actually call it that so that we don't judge. While Jesus' demands are high, we can give up trying to follow them if they don't make sense to us.

An alternative is to listen to some of the discussions going on among others in Jesus' culture, and see if they can shed some light on his words. Interestingly, other rabbis of Jesus' time taught ideas close to this concept of "do not judge". While their words do not have the authority of Jesus', and we need to be discerning about our conclusions, they have some good ideas that Jesus may have been expanding on in his teaching on judging. Personally, the insights I have found in Jesus' words in their rabbinic context have made it one of the most important commands that Jesus gave, which applies to my life every day.

We can find some of the discussion of Jesus' contemporaries in the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish sayings which was written a couple hundred years after Jesus but includes rabbinic teachings from Jesus' time and before. It has more than one reference to judging. One of its most prominent statements about it is  "Judge every person in favorable terms." In one place it says "He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God". (Which is reminiscent of Jesus' saying, "with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.") To "judge in favorable terms" was considered as important as visiting the sick and devotion in prayer, and teaching the scriptures to your children! A story is told that illustrates the point:

A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages so that he could go support his wife and children. The farm owner said to him "I have no money!" So he said to him, "Well, give me some of the crops I've helped grow," to which the man replied "I have none!" He then asked to be given some goats or sheep, and the farmer told him again that he had nothing to give him. So he gathered up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart. A few days later his employer came to his house with his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to him, "When I told you I had no money, what did you think?" He said to him "I thought you might have lost it in some bad business dealings." Then he said "What did you think when I said that I had no crops to give you?" He said, "I thought perhaps they were all leased from others". He then said, "What did you think when I said I had no animals?" and the man said, "I thought that you may have promised them to the Lord, to dedicate them to the Temple." The farmer answered him, "You are right! I had dedicated all of my possessions to the Lord. But, just a couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!"

This story has elements in it of not condemning another, and also a parallel of "For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."  Could this enlighten us to the gist of what Jesus is saying? The idea from the text is that the hired hand always gave the employer the benefit of the doubt by imagining the best possible motivation for his actions that otherwise seemed suspicious. This is exactly what the rabbis meant by always judging a neighbor favorably.

This seems like a nice thought, but hardly an earthshaking interpretation of Jesus' words. But what if we applied it to our own lives, what would happen?  As a scenario, imagine going to church one Sunday morning and all the choices you make in deciding how you react to the situations around you:

- On the way there, a car passes you on the road and cuts you off.
Why? The driver is has no regard for speed laws!
He is a road hog who is just trying to impress people! or, Maybe the driver is in a hurry because he's late for something, or his kids are driving him crazy.

- When you are told to greet the people around you, the woman in front of you didn't shake your hand. Why? She is obviously a snob and you didn't dress well enough today!
or, Maybe she is new to this church or uncomfortable meeting people.

- A woman asks you afterward about the surgery she had heard that you had.
Why? She is just snoopy and wants to put her nose in your business!
or
, She is a caring person who worries about others and wants to share your burdens.

         In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people's behavior. But truthfully, only God himself knows the heart of a person, and only He can judge. The way we interpret other's motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others. 

Here is another scenario. Imagine a congregation where a "worship war" has broken out with the older members wanting to sing hymns and the younger members wanting a rock band. Typically the older members say things like "They have no appreciation for the richness of the ancient hymns - they only want to be entertained!" And, the younger members say things like "The old folks don't care about reaching out to the lost - they are just want to do things the same old way!" What would happen if each group stopped assuming negative motivations for what the other ones said? What if the older folks said, "Maybe the young folks want to bring new meaning to the service by putting it in their own words!", and the young folks said "Maybe the older folks find more meaning in what they know than what is strange to them!" How long would the conflict last in that church? How long would it be before both groups would try their best to love and accommodate each other?

If the idea to "judge others favorably" is always applied, it is impossible to have a critical or cynical spirit towards others. It is hard to gossip about people if you start assuming that they may have worthy reasons behind conduct that seems questionable. It is difficult even to remain angry or bear a grudge against someone once you start thinking of what might have motivated them to do whatever you are upset about. We would start saying things about our bosses like "Maybe she was short tempered today because of problems at home." When we have an argument with a friend, we would assume that they felt their opinions made sense and should be defended. When we hear a negative attitude toward our faith, we could say "That person must have had some bad experiences in the past with Christians in order to make him feel that way." It is a lot easier to reach out in love when we let God judge other people's motivations, and not do it ourselves. Jesus' saying "Do not judge!" becomes the best wisdom for any situation when we know that people are sinful and may have wrong motivations, but only God knows their heart.

One thing that this does not include is the need to excuse actions that clearly violate the scriptures, or to throw away all discernment. Imagine knowing that a coworker is having an affair with his secretary.  You could say to him, "Herb, I know Sue is attractive and you have worked long hours together! And you and Helen have had your difficulties and you need someone to talk to. But for whatever reason you've gotten involved, you just can't do this to Helen!" By giving your coworker the benefit of the doubt even when he is clearly in the wrong, you can more easily come to him to tell him to change his ways. To discern and correct conduct is appropriate for Christians to do, but to presume to know the sin of the heart is only God's business.

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.

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Week 7: Exodus 33 - 40, Leviticus 1- 7, Acts 2 - 7, Psalm 19 - 21

God's Amazing Replays

This week in the New Testament we have been reading about some of the defining events of Christianity: the Last Supper, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. I was amazed when I found out that each of these events is rooted in the Old Testament, in the defining events that shaped the nation of Israel. Coincidentally, we have been reading those passages in the last couple weeks as well! Understanding the relationship of the gospels to the story of ancient Israel has been incredibly rich for me because it pours new meaning and depth into the New Testament.

The Last Supper and Crucifixion

Jesus' final meal with his disciples, the Last Supper, occurred at the celebration of the Passover meal (Matt 26:17) that was originally described in Exodus 12. It was a yearly feast to reenact God's greatest act of redemption in the history of Israel, the freeing of the nation from slavery in Egypt. This act defined Israel as a nation, and showed God's great compassion for their suffering. Still to this day, Jews who do not know Christ see it as the most obvious time in all of human history that God intervened in human affairs. Isn't it interesting that God chooses this season to intervene another time in human affairs to save his chosen people? Only this time it isn't just physical bondage in slavery, this time it bondage to sin and death itself.

The Seder meal that Jesus ate is still eaten every year by Jewish people celebrating the Passover feast. The ancient Israelites sacrificed a lamb or kid and marked the doors of their houses with the blood so that the angel of judgment would pass by. The parallels between Jesus' blood protecting us from judgment are obvious. Some even suggest that when the Israelites smeared patches of blood on the top and on either side of the door, and they poured the remaining blood in the trench at the foot of the door, they were marking where Jesus' blood would be - from the nails in his hands and feet, and from the crown of thorns. What a potent image!

Another very strong connection between Jesus and the lamb of Passover is Isaiah 53, one of the most powerful passages in the Old Testament about the coming Messiah.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. ... Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:5-7, 10-11)

When I first encountered this passage I thought it was from the New Testament! But it actually was written over 700 years before Jesus. I was moved to tears when I saw this text on display as part of the of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which predate Jesus. This underlines the fact that thousands of years before in Egypt, God was thinking of the Lamb to come, and then hundreds of years later, God tells Isaiah of him too! And God even preserves an ancient text written before Jesus' time to show it was God's idea, not a later addition.


The Pentecost - Sinai Experience


This week as we are starting Acts, we also read about the amazing experience on Pentecost where they heard a wind and saw tongues of fire that split apart and then filled them with the Holy Spirit and the ability to speak in other languages. Jews of every nation heard them speaking their own language. Peter then stands up and speaks, and 3000 are saved that day. (Acts 2)

Our traditional reading of that text is that they were in the upper room when this happened. But, Pentecost, or Shavuot, is one of the three major festivals which required their attendance, and at nine in the morning, they would have been at the temple in with the crowds of Jews from every country who had come to the feast. The temple, where they would have been, is often referred to as "the house", and still is in Hebrew even to this day. So the temple was filled with a sound of a mighty rushing wind, and the vision of tongues resting on them took place in front of thousands of other people. Here in the temple (and not in an upper room) Peter could speak to the multitudes about Jesus.

The feast of Shavuot is a harvest festival that also commemorated the giving of the covenant on Mount Sinai. On that mountain, God came down in fire and gave his ten commandments and established his covenant with his people (Exodus 19 - 20). God used that incredibly important experience in Israel's life to begin his relationship with them, and He replays it here. The fire that appears that separates into tongues is reminiscent of the God's appearance in fire on the mountain, as is the wind (Ruach) of God's Spirit. What is fascinating is that ancient Jewish traditions show even more parallels between Sinai and Pentecost. They said that when God came down to Mount Sinai, angels brought "crowns of fire" for every Israelite. And, when God spoke, "The Divine voice divided itself into the seventy tongues of men, so that all might understand it... All heard indeed the same words, but the same voice, corresponding to the individuality of each, was God's way of speaking with them. And as the same voice sounded differently to each one, so did the Divine vision appear differently to each." (Legends of the Jews [213 -215], Louis Ginsberg)

Isn't it amazing that the scene at the temple is a replay of the great scene at Mount Sinai? But it fits in perfectly with what God said he would do for his people in the future:

“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  (Jer. 31:31, 33-34)

On Shavuot of this important year, God poured out his Spirit as part of his new covenant. This Holy Spirit entered the believers' hearts to guide, convict, correct, give wisdom and enable them to live the way God wanted them to, just as his Torah (Law, or Instruction) did in the first covenant. And all of those who are a part of this new covenant know the Lord, from the least to the greatest. Why? Because the only way to become part of the new covenant is through faith in God through Christ.

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An excellent source for more information on this topic is the Faith Lessons Video series and study guide, Set 4, by Ray VanderLaan, published by Zondervaan. He discusses many amazing parallels in these stories. In this article I discussed other parallels than what are found there for the most part, since many readers are familiar with this material. 

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

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Week 8: Leviticus 8 - 22, Acts 7 - 11, Psalm 22 - 24

Leviticus: God's Way of Teaching


Leviticus is a challenge. To many it is legalistic, gory, and impossible to understand. Some come close to committing the heresy of Marcion, an ancient church leader who said that the God of the Old Testament was evil and created laws just to hold people in bondage. Even though the church denounced Marcion, his attitude has lingered to this day. If we believe the truth that "the Son is the exact representation of the Father", we must understand that the same powerful love that characterized Christ is also that of his heavenly Father. The fact that Jesus himself was there helping inspire Leviticus should color our reading of the book!

So taking that attitude, let's look at some broad principles for how to read the laws of the Torah:

God only teaches what people are able to understand. That means that he spoke in a way that made sense to people 3000 years ago, and he modified his style as people changed over time. In Genesis God let Jacob marry both Leah and Rachel, and both became mothers of the tribes of Israel. But in Leviticus God gave the law that a man should not marry a woman and her sister, and later the New Testament clarifies the fact that God's ultimate intention is that one man marries one woman. God didn't try to change Jacob and his culture all at once, he did it gradually over many years. This is just like a parent who speaks one way to a 4 year old, and another way to a 14 year old. God was patient with his people and knew that humans can only change little by little. (Although we think we can handle all his teaching at once!) If we see what people were thinking at the time, and then what God was teaching them in the language they understood, we can see the purpose and importance of his Torah.

God is teaching inner attitudes by shaping outward action.
  The word Torah, which we translate Law, has a negative sense to many Christians. But the word in Hebrew actually means instruction or guidance. A teacher is a "morah" and his/her teaching is "torah". It has the sense of pointing, as in aiming an arrow to hit a target. God uses his laws to teach his people who he is, what good and evil is, and how to live life the way it was meant to be lived.

Behind every regulation is a principle of what our hearts should be like inwardly. Parents use that kind of teaching with their children too. Think of the fact that we train our children to say "Please" and "Thank You". We aren't just doing that to add another rule to their lives or to conform them to social expectations. As a child learns the habit of "please and thank you", the attitude of consideration of other's desires and gifts is also learned. God teaches great truths about himself to these people by how he shows them to live. For instance, when God tells them to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to harvest, he is teaching them to care for the less fortunate. When he gave them the laws of the Sabbath he was teaching them to trust him to take care of them one day out of the week, and that they can rest from their own advancement and rely on him. Both of these ideas were radical ideas of that age, in which the poor were exploited and resting one day out of seven was unheard of.

So what was God teaching them?  Of the many things that God taught them, the most important was that He is the true God of the Universe, and He is sovereign. The ancient world largely believed in territorial gods that were responsible for the fortune of the peoples who worshipped them. Religious worship was not for the sake of the god, it was to ensure fertility and prosperity of the people. Idols were set up, and incantations were used to induce the god to enter the idol, and fertility rites used to get the god to cause crops to grow and animals to breed. Behind this is a pagan understanding that gods are able to be manipulated by the power of incantation and magic to obey man's desire for prosperity. There was also very little thought about the god being moral and decreeing moral laws that we should obey. Their "gods" were to be manipulated into serving man's needs, but people lived the way they desired.

The True God starts to challenge this by every encounter Israel has with him. He makes a covenant with them that they would obey his laws and not the other way around. He will not be manipulated when they set up the golden calf idol, even though they were trying to invoke his presence through it. He replaces the pagan incantations and fertility rites by giving them detailed instructions on how to make a tabernacle and objects to worship him. While other cultures had similar forms, a revolutionary change took place: in the middle of the Holy of Holies there was no idol, but rather a chest containing his Covenant as well as evidence of his salvation in the form of manna and Aaron's budding staff. This amazing concept of an invisible God with moral laws who would save his people was also unimaginable in the ancient world. This was a radical new way of thinking for them.

So as we read Leviticus, the challenge is to find God's teaching that underlies the ancient laws. Even though we are not under the sacrificial system, and Jesus was the final sacrifice, we can learn from it what God felt was important and apply it to our lives. Because Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, we can tell if we have been learning what God is teaching us if our lives resemble that of Jesus more and more.

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

 



Week 9: Leviticus 23-27, Numbers 1-9, Acts 12-16, Psalm 25-27

Holy, Holy, Holy

I have a friend in Baltimore whose business allows him interact often with the Jewish people there. He said that every year for the festival of Sukkot, people would spend $50 or more for a citron, a lemon-like fruit that they used in the observance of the harvest of thanksgiving. Some of them sold for as much as $900! Irritated, he asked why the prices were so high. They explained that the citrons had to be raised in Israel, and then inspected for absolute perfection, and 95 out of 100 were not good enough. Only flawless ones were allowed to be shipped to America and sold for the festival.

Even more amazing is that the people who were buying them were by no means rich, and some of them were very poor indeed! But when he asked one Jewish friend why they spent such so much of their meager income on these things, he said, "How can we worship our God with anything less than the very best?"

What an amazing attitude! Is God so important to us as Christians that we would spend our money and time extravagantly on him? Even if buying things to worship him is not our main goal, do we display this attitude about being consumed by a desire to be like Christ, to spread God's word, and to honor him with our lives instead? If you think about it, what else would be appropriate? The King of the Universe who set the galaxies spinning and designed our DNA has stooped down to live with us. And, he has become one of us and suffered and died for our sins. What else but our very lives is appropriate as a response to that?

That is what God is teaching his people throughout the scriptures this last week. The God of the Universe has decided to live among his people, and every aspect of their lives must change because of it. This is true both about Leviticus and Acts at the same time. In Leviticus God is teaching his people how to honor Him in their daily activities and worship, and in Acts when God comes to live in their hearts, the people are now consumed with a desire to tell the good news to everyone around them. In Leviticus, the gold and silver of the tabernacle and the many sacrifices cost much of their wealth, and the Sabbath days and years will cost them time that could be spent on growing crops, training armies and building their nation. Could it be that the reason why the early believers in Acts had such amazing passion for serving God was because they were used to thinking in terms of using everything they owned to bring him honor?

We also see the same attitude toward revering God's holiness in Acts as in Leviticus. God explains that they should bring only their absolute best to him and live pure lives before him. We saw twice what happens when humans approach the presence of God without treating His holiness with the reverence it deserves. When Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons, came too close and offered incense in an inappropriate way, they insulted the God who carefully explained how to come near him, and it cost them their lives. In Acts, when Ananias and Sapphira bring money to Peter and lie about the price of the field, they brought the Lord a sacrifice laced with their own sin! This was amazingly offensive to God, and once again he takes their lives. It was especially important as God was beginning a new work that his people revered him as God.

If God is teaching us inner attitudes through the external laws that He gave, what is he teaching us from this? That He wants our absolute best, our first fruits of our time and energy, not our leftovers and flawed material. We fool ourselves if we say that God accepts every gift from us, so anything we bring is fine. The widow who brought two pennies gave an acceptable sacrifice because it was all she had, but if a rich man would have thrown in two pennies, it would have been contemptuous and insulting. It has been extremely rare that God ever shows his holiness and punishes those who abuse it. Rather, God allows us to come to him with halfhearted prayers, sinful self-absorption and hollow promises to do His will, and he patiently works to transform us into people strong enough to live sacrificially for Him.

If we really have learned from Leviticus about God's holiness and glory, and our need to sacrifice our very best for Him, it should make us utterly sold out to please Him - to spread the gospel, to serve those around us, to do our work well and bring Him honor. Then we will be as effective and fruitful as the believers in Acts, who gave everything they owned to Him, who were ready to lose their lives for Him. That must be our goal.

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.