The State of Israel: Modern Miracle or Quirk of History?

“A quirk of history???” Although many Bible believers consider the Jewish State of Israel to be a modern miracle, one leading theologian has maintained that Israel is totally insignificant—It is, in his words, “a quirk of history.”

Israel will celebrate its 69th Birthday this upcoming Tuesday. David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel and father of the modern state, said “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles!” After more than 2,000 years since the Jewish loss of independence, the long term dispersion of the Jewish people around the globe, and the relatively recent horror of the Holocaust, it seems to be a miracle that there is once again a Jewish state in fulfillment of Bible prophecy.

Yet, some people object that Israel is a secular state—that the majority of Israelis are quite irreligious and not even observant Jews. And the 25% of its citizens that are orthodox Jews and do believe in God, do not yet believe in Jesus. Of course, there is a strong remnant of Jewish followers of Jesus in the land today. But they are a miniscule minority. So, people object to me, how can you believe that the restoration of Israel today is a work of God and not of secular humans?

There’s much to be said, and I’d recommend my book, Understanding the Arab Israeli Conflict: What the Headlines Haven’t Told You if you’d like to read more. But right now I want to specifically address the objection that Israel is a secular nation that for the most part does not believe in Jesus. Three perspectives help us to see that God has brought His people back even now, when most Israelis don’t yet believe in Jesus.

First, there is a principle at work here: God remembers His people Israel even when they forget Him. This is the point of the book of Esther. God isn’t named directly, not because He’s not working but because Israel in captivity had forgotten Him. So the author of Esther deliberately chooses not to refer to God directly and yet shows how God’s providence, in faithfulness to His word, preserves the Jewish people. That’s why Mordechai tells Esther “If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place” (Est 4:14). His message was that God would be faithful to His covenant and His promise even when Israel was not acting in faith. And so Israel’s secular nature today, certainly does not prohibit God from acting in conformity to the Land promise He gave and biblical prophecy He revealed.

Second, there is an example of precedence: God brought the people of Israel back to the land of Israel after the first exile even though they were not filled with faith then either. Those that returned were not driven by faith—read the prophets that wrote after the exile (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). Each book challenges the people for lacking faith and being disobedient to God. Here’s just one example—Malachi 2:11 says: “Judah has acted treacherously, and a detestable thing has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the Lord’s sanctuary, which He loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god.” Nevertheless, the restoration at that time was certainly a work of God even though Israel was living in unbelief.

Third, there is the promise of prophecy: the prophets foretold that the people of Israel will only come to faith after being returned to the land of Israel. For example, Ezekiel 36:24-26 says “For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land.” Clearly, this is a promise of restoration. But the next verse says,  “Then I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Only after being returned would Israel believe and be transformed. Also, Zechariah 12:10 teaches that it is only after being returned and facing a terrible attack that Israel will turn to the One who can save them; they will look in faith to the Him who was pierced and mourn in repentance for having so long rejected their Messiah, and then they will be saved.

So yes, I agree that Israel today is a secular state but that does not preclude that the modern state of Israel is indeed a work of God, a modern miracle. God is faithful and He is working, restoring Israel to the land today so He can and will restore Israel to faith in the Messiah Jesus yet in the future.

Where Was God?

Where was God when the Six Million died? What was He doing as His people suffered and perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators? Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, begins this Sunday evening and lasts until sundown on Monday. It’s the official Israeli day for remembering the Nazi murder of their 6 million  Jewish victims and its observed by Jewish people around the world. But the question of “Where was God?” persists, like an open, unhealed wound.

I was raised in an observant Jewish home and my parents were both Holocaust survivors. As a result, two facts helped shaped me. First, I was raised to believe that God exists and that He chose the Jewish people to represent Him on earth. The second fact taught to me was the horror of the Holocaust. I heard about the Nazi persecution, oppression, torture and murder of the Jewish people as a fact of life. It really happened and it happened to my family, the people I loved most in the world. But it was only when I was in college, having read Night by Elei Wiesel, that I began to deal with the question of “Where was God?” Since God certainly existed, and loved the Jewish people, I struggled to understand, why He allowed the Holocaust to happen, why He didn’t defend His people. And now, after all these years, I still don’t have a perfect or simple answer as to why God allowed the Holocaust. No one does.

But as to “Where was God when the six million died?” there is this simple answer the Scriptures give: God was present with the Jewish people, suffering with them, in the ghettos, in the concentration camps, in the gas chambers. Isaiah 63:9 says, “In all their afflictions, He was afflicted.” When the people of Israel suffer, the God of Israel suffers with them.

God’s presence with the Jewish people in their suffering is also evident in Zechariah’s vision of the Angel of the Lord among the myrtle trees, found in Zechariah 1:8-17. There the myrtle trees represent the people of Israel, and the trees are in a ravine, indicating that the Jewish people were in a lowly, oppressed place. In their midst, in that place of suffering, is the Angel of the Lord, the preincarnate Messiah.

More than 50 years ago, the great scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Merrill Unger wrote, the Jewish people are “still scattered throughout the world in unbelief and still persecuted with frightful cruelty in the modern world. It is a great consolation to Zechariah, however to know that . . . the preincarnate Messiah is identified with His people in their sufferings, degradation, and woe. He is still standing among [them] . . . . We may be sure, moreover, that if the earthly high priest used to carry the names of the twelve tribes of Israel upon the breastplate nearest his heart (Exod 28:29), the true High Priest, who is the King of Israel as well, has them just as near His loving heart. He loves Israel and yearns for the day . . .  when they will crown Him Lord of all” (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory, pp. 28-29).

In the course I teach on the Holocaust, when we discuss rescuers, I always ask students if the Lord Jesus would have been a rescuer? Virtually all classes say “absolutely, Jesus would have certainly been a rescuer of the Jewish people.” And then I always remind them that the Lord Jesus, since He is Jewish, would not have been a rescuer but rather one in need of rescue. The real question is not “Where was God” but “Where was man?” Would they, would you, rescue the Lord Jesus? Because He taught, “I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine (the Jewish people), you did for me” (Matt 25:40).


The Passover Hustle


Is it wrong for followers of Jesus to celebrate a Passover Seder? Was the Last Supper even a Passover Seder? This past week, Christianity Today published an article by two Rabbis, Yehiel Poupko and David Sandmel, titled, Jesus Didn’t Eat a Seder Meal and Why Christians Shouldn’t Either. I cannot figure out why a purportedly Christian magazine would give these men, who are decidedly not followers of Jesus, a platform for their views. But that’s their decision. What bugged me even more was the con job that was presented in the article itself.

I’m from New York City and as a teenager I used to watch the con men in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park hustle people with their sleight of hand. Nobody ever won, whether playing three card monte or a shell game. That’s what I felt as I read this article–it was “The Passover Hustle,” designed to make Jesus followers feel guilty about celebrating a messianic Passover. Here are three ways they used deception to confuse this issue.

First, the article uses historical sleight of hand. It states, “The Seder ritual, as it is practiced today, did not exist at the time of Jesus.” Frankly no one disputes that. Certainly, the Seder meal was only codified after the AD 70 destruction of the Temple. However, the authors know very well that the codification was based on the book of Exodus and oral traditions present for generations. So, the last supper was substantively a Passover meal/a Seder with multiple aspects of Seder ritual evident in the gospels. Some examples include ritual hand washing, the breaking of bread or matzoh, the use of red wine, reciting the Hallel psalms (they sang a hymn after the meal), the anticipation of the messianic kingdom (Jesus said I won’t drink of this cup until I drink it with you in the kingdom), eating ground up bitter herbs (called the sop that Jesus passed to Judas). The great scholar Joachim Jeremias in the Eucharistic Words of Christ, notes 14 of these clear associations with the Passover Seder. So, even if the Last Supper was not a Seder as practiced today, it certainly was an incipient Seder, as practiced before AD 70.

A second problem with the article is its theological sleight of hand. The authors intend to drive a deep wedge between Exodus of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament faith. They argue that the Exodus belongs to Jewish people and the Last Supper belongs to Christians, and the two shall never meet. They further maintain that Jesus created a new religious civilization unrelated to the Jewish world from which He came. The problem with their view is that Exodus is the foundation for New Testament faith. Without understanding Passover, we could never fathom what Jesus’ cousin John meant when he said, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Or Peter’s description of the Messiah Jesus as “that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Pet 1:19). Or Paul’s declaration that “Messiah our Passover has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor 5:7). Followers of Jesus, recognize that He is the Jewish Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover ritual. The authors may disagree with this conviction but they may not determine how followers of Jesus should express their faith in the Jewish Messiah Jesus.

A third issue with the article is that it practices cultural sleight of hand. The authors assert that observing a messianic Passover Seder somehow shows a lack of respect for Judaism and Jewish people, as if Judaism never borrowed from any other culture. Of course Jewish scholars actually recognize that some aspects of the Seder, such as reclining at the table to show freedom is taken directly from Greco-Roman culture. The authors maintain that Jewish people find it troubling when followers of Jesus participate in a Seder, particularly if led by a Messianic Jew. While it may very well bother these authors, they certainly don’t speak for all Jewish people at large. Moreover, Romans 11:18 attests that the Jewish root sustains the faith of Gentile believers. When followers of Jesus celebrate Passover, even with all its messianic implications, it reflects great appreciation for Jewish people. No disrespect is ever intended or present.

If we believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Messiah of the world, we can’t help but appreciate the heritage of the people of Israel. It enlightens and enlivens our faith. And that’s why we lose if we play the Passover hustle; We’ll have abandoned the Hebrew heritage of the Scriptures from which we understand our faith, while cutting ourselves off from the rich root of the olive tree from which our faith springs. Always keep your eye on the pea!

The Believer and the Occult

This past week, a friend of mine, told me her sister had visited a spiritist to enquire about her own life. The medium’s words were recorded and my friend listened to the recording, which she said was creepy, but in some respects, accurate. How should anyone, but especially a follower of Jesus, respond to the occult?

To begin, let’s define what we’re talking about. The word “occult” comes from the Latin “occultus” and means “knowledge of the hidden.” It refers to paranormal beliefs and activities related to the supernatural, including magic, mysticism, witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy, astrology or spiritism.  It is the counterfeit of the true spirituality found in the Bible. Well what does the Bible have to say about the occult?

First, the Bible forbids any association with the occult. In Deuteronomy 18:9-14, God clearly warned Israel when the nation was about to enter Canaan and take the land, that they were to have nothing to do with spiritism. Here’s what is written: 9 “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not imitate the detestable customs of those nations. 10 No one among you is to make his son or daughter pass through the fire, practice divination, tell fortunes, interpret omens, practice sorcery, 11 cast spells, consult a medium or a familiar spirit, or inquire of the dead. 12 Everyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord, and the Lord your God is driving out the nations before you because of these detestable things. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God. 14 Though these nations you are about to drive out listen to fortune-tellers and diviners, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do this.” This is not just for Israel in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, sorcery is listed among the deeds of the flesh (Gal 5:20) and sorcerers are numbered among those excluded from the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:8). So the first bit of advice I’d give anyone is not to have anything to do with the occult. even a small glance at the astrology column in the newspaper should be rejected. John Piper once said that looking at an astrology column is as unfaithful to the Lord as a man, glancing through a Playboy magazine, is unfaithful to his wife.

Second, recognize that there very well may be some reality to the paranormal and the occult. That’s why Paul says that “our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). Many years ago, Eva and I had a friend who was not a follower of Jesus, who told us she wanted to go see a fortune teller and wanted to know what we thought. Eva told her not to waste her money for two reasons. First, many times these so-called “spiritists” are scam artists and don’t know anything about your life—it’s all made up. So why throw money away on falsehood? On the other hand, the second reason Eva gave for this woman not to go, was that the fortune teller may very well may know certain aspects of her life. But even so, since the God of Israel flatly prohibited this, we know that if the medium knows anything it is, by virtue of familiar spirits and demons. Who wants to hear from them? It will only end up hurting us. So, happily, our friend listened to Eva’s advice and did not go to the fortune teller. The reason it is good she didn’t go is that when spiritists are accurate their words are from the evil world. They give accurate facts to draw people in and then use that to destroy them. They hook us with initial accuracy but the goal is to hurt us in the end.

Third, if we’ve had anything to do with the occult, just reject it and renounce it. Get rid of anything associated with it. That’s what was done when the gospel came to Ephesus, described in Acts 19:18-19, “18 And many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices, 19 while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value, and found it to be 50,000 pieces of silver.” This is what Paul meant by demolishing strongholds and taking every thought captive to the Messiah Jesus (2 Cor 10:5). We don’t need a bonfire but we do need to confess and toss any tarot cards, Ouija Boards, astrology books, or anything to do with the occult into the trash.

Finally, we need not fear or focus on the occult. This is what the Lord Jesus taught 70 of His disciples when they returned from a successful ministry trip. They said,    17 . . .“Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your name.” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a lightning flash. 19 Look, I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; nothing will ever harm you. 20 However, don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” We don’t need to fear the evil spirit world because the one in us is greater than He who is in the world (1 John 4:4). In fact, the Holy Spirit who indwells followers of the Lord Jesus, is the power that raised Him from the dead (Rom 8:11)—so we don’t need any greater power nor should we fear any occult power. Nevertheless, we don’t need to be absorbed with spiritual warfare. The Messiah Jesus teaches us to focus on the Lord and our salvation, that our “names are written in heaven.”

C.S. Lewis, in the introduction to the masterful Screwtape Letters gives the right balance: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

What About Lent?

People keep asking me about Lent—what is it? What do you do for Lent? What do you think of Lent? So, here are my thoughts about Lent.

The word “Lent” means Spring and in many Christian traditions it is observed for 40 days before Easter excluding the Sundays (46 if you count the Sundays). During this time many traditions encourage the practice of penitence and intentional spirituality as preparation for Holy Week observances. Unfortunately, sometimes people think that fasting or giving up certain practices like TV watching or meat on Fridays helps them earn favor with God—like some sort of spiritual brownie point system.

So after the Reformation, most Protestants gave up observing Lent out of concern for not confusing the issue of salvation by grace through faith. But, if a follower of Jesus wants to practice some form of denial as a spiritual discipline, I have no objection . . . as long as it’s clear that we stand before God not based on our good deeds but solely by God’s grace available by faith in Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah.

As for me, keeping Lent was never part of my spiritual practice. I always felt I shouldn’t emphasize what I give up for the Lord but what He gave up for me. In an ancient hymn that Paul included in Philippians, he wrote, (in Phil 2:5-8), “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Messiah Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a tree.”

This amazing passage says that the Messiah Yeshua was always fully God, but He did not regard this as something to be grasped, meaning He didn’t take advantage of His deity. Rather, He emptied Himself, not of His deity, but He laid aside the privileges of deity and became fully human. But, even beyond this, He wasn’t just a man, He became a servant (or as the HCSB has it, “a slave”). And if that weren’t enough, He willingly submitted to an unjust death as our atonement. And, even more, that death was by crucifixion, death on a tree, showing that He became a curse for us (Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13). At each step, the Lord Yeshua gave up more and more for us.

In my Jewish tradition, at the Passover Seder we sing a song called Dayenu. It means “it would have been enough” and describes all that God did for Israel with the Exodus. Every time we thought God did enough, He did more. And so we sing, it would have been enough. I often think of Philippians 2 as the ultimate Dayenu. It would have been enough if the Lord Yeshua, in all the fullness of His deity, had become a man to identify with us. It would have been enough had He become a man, but He became a servant. It would have been enough for Jesus to become a servant but He willingly died for us. It would have been enough had Jesus died for me, but He even accepted the cursed death on a tree.

The passage goes on to say that because He humbled Himself in this way, the risen Lord Yeshua will be greatly exalted and every person will one day acknowledge that Yeshua is indeed Lord. When I consider how much He gave up for me, I feel I can’t ever earn any standing with Him based on what I give up. All is grace and grace is all I need.

So this season, whether you’re observing Lent or not, as we anticipate the Spring festivals of redemption and resurrection, let’s spend some meditating on this passage, remembering all that Yeshua did for us. And let’s sing Dayenu, it would have been enough but He always gives more and more.

Ten Fast Facts about Anti-Semitism

A Jewish cemetery in Missouri was desecrated last week and 11 Jewish Community Centers across the nation had to be evacuated because of bomb scares. In fact, there have been 69 of these threats against Jewish Community Centers and Synagogues in recent weeks. The oldest hatred, Anti-Semitism, is raising its ugly head again. Just what do we need to know about it?

Most of us know Jewish people have been hated and persecuted in the past. But too often we think that anti-Semitism was only a historical problem. But now, with hatred of the Jewish people fast reappearing and even growing, it’s necessary for Bible believers to become knowledgeable about it. So here are ten fast facts about anti-Semitism

  1. Anti-Semitism means hatred of the Jewish people, nothing more and nothing less. It doesn’t include hatred of any other people groups, even some that speak Semitic languages. The word was actually coined by a 19th century political writer, Wilhelm Marr. He thought the term “Jew hatred” was too vulgar. So to make his hateful ideas more palatable to the masses, he replaced “hatred of the Jews” with the more scientific sounding “anti-Semitism.”
  2. Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest ethnic hatred. It goes back to Pharoah’s enslavement of Israel and then his attempted genocide of Israel by killing of the nation’s sons. It persisted, affecting Balak, who hired Balaam to try to curse Israel, to Haman who wanted to destroy all the Jewish people, and on into the 20th century, with modern murderers like Stalin and Hitler.
  3. Anti-Semitism need not be genocidal for it to be true anti-Semitism. People express their hatred socially, by excluding Jewish people from clubs and societies. They believe false stereotypes about Jewish people and express resentment regarding the success of some Jewish people. At UCLA last year, a student government group tried to exclude a Jewish student solely because she was Jewish. Just because certain haters don’t want to kill all Jewish people, they can still be anti-Semitic.
  4. Anti-Semitism is found across the political spectrum, with both the extreme left and the extreme right holding noxious views of Jewish people. It seems that political extremists of any perspective find common ground in hating the Jews. Members of ANSWER, the radical leftist group, carry anti-Jewish signs at their rallies and members of the Alt-Right express their hate of Jewish people on Twitter. They are only united by their hate for the Jewish people.
  5. The Church has a terrible history of hating Jewish people based on the false Christ-Killer charge. Although Acts 4:27-28 clearly teaches that there was a conspiracy of human guilt for killing Jesus, the church has historically placed the blame solely and eternally on all Jewish people.
  6. Islam also is notable for its expressions of hatred for the Jewish people. Although present throughout history, Islamic anti-Semitism has grown in modern times because of Muslim resentment of the reborn state of Israel.
  7. Anti-Semitism will increase in the end of days. Zechariah 13:7-9 and Jeremiah 30:7 both depict persecution of the Jewish people during the future tribulation. Jeremiah says that era will be called “The Time of Jacob’s Trouble.”
  8. Anti-Semitism has a Satanic motivation. The persecuted woman of Revelation 12 is a symbol of the Jewish people. The dragon, an image representing Satan, will persecute her. The reason is that Satan hates whom God loves.
  9. Despite human anti-Semitism, God loves the Jewish people and cares for them deeply. In Zechariah 2:8, they are called the apple of God’s eye. Romans 11:28-29 says God still loves the Jewish people and they are still His chosen people even though most don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah.
  10. Followers of Jesus need to be the most outspoken opponents of anti-Semitism. Our faith rests on Jesus, who Romans 9:5 says was Jewish according to the flesh. Since the covenant God made with Abraham is still in effect, we can be assured that God will still bless those who bless the Jewish people and curse those who curse them (Gen 12:3).

In the late 1970s, neo-Nazis were planning a march in Skokie, IL, a community with the greatest concentration of Holocaust survivors in the US at that time. One of my heroes of the faith, Dr. George Sweeting, then President of Moody Bible Institute, took out a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune, to express God’s love for the Jewish people and Moody’s solidarity with the Jewish community in opposing anti-Semitism. This leader, a godly role model, understood the dangers of Anti-Semitism, and the need for believers to take their stand against it. God is still calling us, the followers of Jesus, who is the Son of David and the son of Abraham, to stand by His people and to oppose this demonic hatred of those whom God loves.

Do Camels Break the Bible’s Back?

There are camels in the biblical stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Does this disprove the truth of the Bible? Does modern archaeology prove the Scriptures to be just a bunch of ancient legends and not actual history?

Not long ago, while in a course on Genesis, a student asked me about some newspaper stories he had read about the Bible not being true or accurate because it includes camels in the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  And he’s right about the newspaper stories. Just a couple of years ago, some archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, studied settlements in the Arava Valley in Israel. They claimed all the settlements before the 9th century B.C. had camel bones, but earlier ones did not. So they concluded that there were no domesticated camels before the 9th century B.C. in Israel.  And since the Bible has camels mentioned in the patriarchal period with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then the Bible is anachronistic and wrong.

And if you do an internet search about this archaeological claim, you’ll find headlines raving about errors in the Bible. Here’s some samples: “Camel bones Suggest Error in the Bible;” “Camel Bones PROVE the Bible Wrong;” “Discovery Suggests the Bible is Wrong;” How the Camel Disproved the Bible;” “Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?”  Despite the headlines, this is not a new claim – William Albright, the Father of Biblical Archaeology made the same claim many years ago. And it didn’t make anyone who believed the Bible bail on their faith in the Scriptures. And this more recent study is not going to make me give up my confidence in the Bible either. Here’s why:

To start with, this is an argument from silence. The old dictum, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” certainly applies here. These archaeologists haven’t checked every ancient settlement. Who’s to say they won’t find domesticated camels yet in the future? For generations it was claimed that there was no archaeological evidence of writing during the period when Moses was to have written the Torah. Yet now we know there was writing in Egypt and Ancient Israel from that same period. In the 19th century people disbelieved the Bible because it mentioned the Hittites and everyone knew there was no such kingdom. Of course then archaeologists found out that there was a vast Hittite kingdom in Anatolia. The same is true about ancient Near Eastern kings mentioned in the Bible, like Belshazzar of Babylon and Sargon of Assyria. Then, archaeologists found those kings and like Emily Littella, the character from Saturday Night Live, they had to say, “Never Mind.” Who’s to say that further archaeological excavations won’t find domesticated camels from settlements earlier than the 9th century B.C.?

And if it’s true that there were no domesticated camels in Israel before 900 BC (and that’s a big if), there is documentary evidence that there were domesticated camels in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the patriarchal period. Abraham, of course, was a nomad who came from Ur of the Chaldees, which is in Mesopotamia. He also went and stayed in Egypt during a famine. Genesis even says he received camels from Pharoah (Gen 12:16). Then, it’s possible that he had either Mesopotamian or Egyptian camels or both. So even if camels were not in widespread use in Canaan back then, certainly Abraham and his family may have had camels in their settlements.

Hyperventilating archaeologists and blaring headlines don’t disprove the Bible. The Messiah Jesus, in His High Priestly prayer to His Father said, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17). It makes a lot more sense to stick with His confident declaration over the limited knowledge and spurious charges of modern archaeologists.

Learning to Love Like God

Valentine’s Day is coming up and it seems we’re too much like Charlie Brown, opening our mail boxes, counting our Valentines, wondering who loves us. Jesus (Yeshua) taught that we need to be more concerned with who we love instead of who loves us.

One place where we find Yeshua’s’ teaching about love is in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:43-45. Here’s what the Messiah said, “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Jesus’ teaching was radically different than what was understood in that first century culture and in our culture as well. Here’s why:

First, the Hebrew Scriptures taught that we were to be selective in love. That’s why Yeshua says You have heard it was said, Love your neighbor. That last phrase comes right from the Law of Moses where it says  Do not hate your brother in your heart . . .  Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself  (Leviticus 19:17-18). To love our neighbors means that we are to love “our brothers, our fellow countryman (our relatives)” We are to love our people. Note that there is no command to hate enemies in this Old Testament passage –it doesn’t even address outsiders let alone our enemies. It’s saying love those within our group. And it makes perfect sense to love those love those within our own communities. We are to love our fellow citizens, the people in our spiritual communities, and our own families.

Second, some of the Bible teachers of Jesus’ day were teaching that we were to be exclusive in love. Yeshua’s words, You have heard it was said, Love your neighbor but hate your enemy  refer to a few teachers saying that we are to love our neighbors but to to hate those outside the community. It wasn’t a common teaching, in fact, it can be found written in only two extra-biblical passages, but people did hear it in first century Israel. At Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, they taught “love the sons of light but hate the sons of darkness.” And one ancient Bible teacher said, “love all of these (in your community), but hate the secterians, apostates, and the informers.” In other words, love the insiders but hate all outsiders.  I don’t think most of us would do this openly—we just find ways to cover it up. Like we might say of someone we can’t stand, I love him in the Lord. Or, as I learned from a former student of mine who came from the Southern United States, that at her congregation you could say all kinds of evil about a person and express true hatred, but then finish it off with, “Bless her heart” and everything would be considered fine.

Finally, Yeshua the Messiah taught that we should be impartial in love. We’re to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” We are to love those inside our communities and those outside. Those who get along with us and those who don’t. Those who seek our good and those who seek our harm. The reason is that this will emulate God’s love. That’s what it means to be sons of your Father in heaven. Sons tend to look like their fathers. For example, not too long ago one of my sons was visiting from out of town. He went to a Chicago park with a friend where a former student of mine, who had never seen him before, walked up to my son, and asked, “Are you a Rydelnik?” Poor boy, he looks a lot like me.

So we are to look like our Father in the way we love people and here’s what God’s love looks like:

God’s love is unconditional. John wrote in 1 John 4:10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God never waits for someone to be worthy of His love, He just loves people. I’m grateful because I did not love Him but He loved me.

God’s love is sacrificial. The Bible says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16). This doesn’t refer to just the world of believers but to all people. God sacrificed the one who was most precious to Him for the whole world.

God’s love takes the initiative. In Romans 5:8 it says, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Messiah died for us.”  God  doesn’t wait to see our appreciation, our interest, or even our obedience before extending love to us.

At Valentine’s Day, and every day, let’s remember not to love like Charlie Brown but like the God who gave us His Son, the Messiah Yeshua, not because we deserved Him but just because God loved us.

The Executive Order and the Refugees

The President’s new immigration order, calling for a 90 day pause in immigration from 7 predominantly Muslim countries, has caused all sorts of controversy in the last week, including protests, court orders, and social media firestorms. But what should a follower of Jesus think about it?

Three questions ought to guide us in evaluating the President’s order: They are: 1) Is it legal? 2) Is it biblical? and 3) Is it wise? As to the first, the legal question, it appears to me, an untrained citizen, and not a constitutional lawyer, that this order is legal, falling within the authority of the Executive to establish these kinds of immigration policies.

But with regard to the second question, what do the Scriptures, a subject I know a little more about, have to say about immigration policy? First, the Bible does not endorse the idea of open borders and does not demand that a nation open its borders to anyone wanting to enter, whether legally or illegally. For example, God is the one who created nations and their borders. God scattered the nations from Babylon when the nations wanted to establish a one world project in Babylon. By confusing their languages, God started different nations and ethnicities and spread them across the earth (Gen 10:32-11:9). So in Deuteronomy 32:8, it says, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance and divided the human race, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the people of Israel.” This is referring to the 70 nations in the table of nations of Genesis 10 and the 70 of the household of Jacob that went down to Egypt (Gen 46:27). The only point here is that God did establish borders for the nations and they were not necessarily open borders. In fact, in Deuteronomy 23:3, God banned the Moabites and Ammonites from immigration to Israel for 10 generations.

But some might object that in Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, we are called to care for the least of Jesus’ brothers; that if we care for them we are actually caring for Him. But that’s not what the passage is about at all. It is speaking of judging individuals of the nations when Jesus returns. Their genuine faith in Jesus will be apparent based on the way they have cared for the Jewish people, Jesus’ brothers, during the tribulation, when they will face terrible anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, by application, we should care for any who are suffering persecution. But we need to distinguish between the responsibilities of individuals versus nations. Of course I as an individual want to care for those suffering persecution and danger. But, according to Romans 13, it’s the responsibility of governments to protect its own citizens. The government is God’s servant for the good of its citizens and an avenger for those who do wrong (13:4). According to Scripture then, governments can establish immigration laws, practice enforcement, and even issue temporary immigration bans from dangerous areas.

Someone has asked me if I thought it was acceptable that the United States restricted Jewish immigration during the Nazi era, when Jewish people were trying to get out of Nazi Germany and Nazi controlled Europe? No, I don’t, but the circumstances then were significantly different than today in this respect. Jewish refugees from the Nazis had nowhere else to go; there were no nations willing to accept them. That is not the case with Syrian refugees today. Other nations are accepting them—in fact Turkey alone has accepted over 2 million refugees from Syria.

But what about the third question, Is it wise? I suppose that this is where my difficulty lies. It appears that the roll out of this executive order was not thought out completely. First of all, it seems that before issuing this order, the government should have worked on establishing safe zones within their countries for refugees fleeing danger. Second, it should have made clear from the outset that the order does not apply to people with US green cards. Third, it should have worked with our allies in the Arab world to establish alternate places for fleeing immigrants, places where they speak the language of the refugees and that are closer to their home country. Then, they could return home more easily when the crisis passes. These actions, and even some others, would have indicated our nation’s concern for those in dire need to escape danger.

Let’s be clear about what I am not saying and what I am saying: I am not saying that the Bible compels the government to issue this pause in immigration from these seven countries. I am saying it’s permissible according to the law and the Bible. But it was not issued with wisdom or compassion and we need to keep working on that.

Learning to Love Leviticus

Do you remember how exciting it was to start that Bible reading program on January 1st?  Well, Genesis was fine, and Exodus seemed good, at least about half of it did, but now . . . Leviticus. Now you want to quit reading just because your bogged down in Leviticus.

Why do we find it hard to read Leviticus? Well it’s about all these sacrifices and rituals that no longer matter to us. There’s no Tabernacle or Temple, no more sacrifices today, so why bother reading Leviticus at all?

The key to reading Leviticus is to remember that Leviticus is the Word of God. It’s not just rules for ancient Israel but it has transferable principles for our lives today. It’s truth that transcends. For example, one great aspect of Leviticus is that it reminds us of the holiness of God. Even though God desired close fellowship with Israel, they couldn’t just enter His presence as if the Lord were some buddy or pal. He is the Creator of the Universe, the King of the World, and His essence is glorious purity and total holiness. When we read all the rules about approaching God in Leviticus, we need to be reminded of just how holy He is. Most of us know that Peter’s first New Testament letter reminds believers to be holy because God is holy. But do we realize that 1 Peter 1:18 is actually quoting from three separate verses from, you guessed it, Leviticus?

Another example of a transferable truth from Leviticus is found in the entire sacrificial system. There are principles in all the different kinds of sacrifices but the most foundational is in the sin offering. Found in Leviticus 4-5, it shows how a sinner is to present an animal sacrifice, place his or her hand on that animal as a symbolic identification with the animal, sort of a sin transfer from the person to the animal. The animal’s death would follow and the sinning person would be forgiven and live. This is sort of a divine transaction—an exchange of life. The reason this sacrifice is so important is that without it we couldn’t understand the meaning of the Messiah Jesus’ death for us. He presented Himself to God as our sacrifice. Jesus identified with our sin while remaining sinless Himself. Then Jesus died for us, paying the penalty for our sin. If we have faith in His death and resurrection, then the great transaction takes place, His exchange of life. He died that we might live. This whole idea of the Messiah Jesus’ substitution, that “God made Him who knew no sin to be a sin offering on our behalf, that we might be the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21), wouldn’t be even comprehensible without understanding the sin offering, found in (surprise, surprise), the book of Leviticus.

Here’s one more example of the value of Leviticus for today: when the High Priest was consecrated to serve God, Moses took the ram of ordination, slaughtered it and put some of its blood on Aaron’s right earlobe, right hand, and the big toe of his right foot (Lev 8:22-23). While this might seem weird, there was a purpose. The ear represents hearing; the thumb, doing; and the toe, walking. Basically, it was saying that the High Priest was to be consecrated to serve God every day in every way. He was separated for God’s service, not just when he went into the tabernacle, but every minute of every day. That’s a great reminder to us because in Revelation 1:6, we are called “priests to [our] God and Father.” We are mediating God’s love to this world not just when we are at our congregations or serving in some ministry, but like Aaron, our whole lives, whether at work, school, or play, are to be consecrated to serving God. And this great principle is found in . . . wait for it, Leviticus.

There’s so much more to Leviticus than I can address right here and now. But let’s say this, Leviticus is God’s Word and it can transform our lives. My paraphrase of Proverbs 16:20, says, “He who gives attention to the Word, even the more challenging parts of it, will find good and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord.” So go back and keep reading Leviticus.