How Do We Discern What is Important to Know?

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As most of you who are reading this blog today already know, I am a member of half a dozen (or so) “Christian” or “Messianic” discussion groups. Constantly I see the same type of discussion being raised, and the main ones that generate the most passionate responses (which are often not very “Christian”, if you know what I mean) are ones dealing with the pronunciation of the name of God and the need to obey the Torah once you have accepted and asked forgiveness through the Messiah, which we call being “saved.”

The people who consider it paramount that we know and use the “proper” pronunciation for the name of God (and Messiah) are called “Holy Namers”, which is a somewhat derogatory epithet, but is accurate in that the names are holy. God’s holy name, which is made up of 4 Hebrew letters, is called the Tetragrammaton.

I, myself, do not use God’s holy name simply because I am Jewish and we don’t do that. It is our way of showing respect for God, as well as a “fence around the law” about not using his name in vain (which is Number 2 on God’s Top Ten Hit Parade of commandments.) I understand that there are those who use it often, and I have seen no less than 4 different pronunciations, each one being the only correct one.

When we talk about obedience to the Torah, well, we can go almost anywhere with that one. I mean, really- even within Judaism, there are 6 different sects that each have different ideas about how to obey the Torah. Not to mention the additional requirements under the Talmud! Oy! If we Jews can’t make up our own minds, how can we expect the Gentiles to make up their minds? Am I right?

Besides these two issues, there are other questions that come up: when does the day really start; how do we really know when the holy days begin (is it only when they see the moon in Jerusalem?); should we celebrate Hanukkah or any other traditional holiday if it isn’t specified in Leviticus 23?

These questions and many others are not invalid or unnecessary, but we need to ask ourselves: Are they important?  And to answer that, we need to know just what is important. And I don’t mean what is important to us, I mean what is important to God.

I think it is, first and foremost, important for you all to know this: I cannot tell you absolutely how to determine what is important. Sorry- I am raising an issue I do not have an absolutely correct answer for. The best answer I have is that we each have to determine what we believe God wants us to know. If you are absolutely certain that you need to know an answer to something that you read in the Bible but don’t understand, then ask God first (I think we can all agree that is the best place to start) then ask others, those you trust and know to be spiritually mature. I suggest you also keep an open mind because, at least for myself, I truly do not trust my own judgment, and what I may think I am “hearing from God” may really only be my own voice with an answer I want to hear.

Sidebar: when I think I am getting an answer from God and it goes against what I would like the answer to be, then I feel pretty certain that it is from God.

Discernment should start with learning, which comes from reading the Bible and listening to others who have shown they have both a high level of biblical knowledge and spiritual maturity. Also, pray to God to show you through the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) the truth he has for you and to place in your path through life those who God wants to teach you.

He definitely did that for me, and I am very grateful to him for that.

I always use an “Acid Test” question when trying to discern what is important to know and what isn’t: I ask myself, “How does this affect my salvation?”  To answer that question also takes a bit of discernment and spiritual guidance, simply because we humans want to know everything there is to know about everything, and God doesn’t work that way. He keeps those things secret that he wants to, and reveals those things that he will (Deut. 29:29), and I believe he will reveal different things to different people so what may be important to me may not be important to you, and vice-versa.

There is no end to learning about God and the Messiah. From this moment on, until you get to meet them face-to-face, be open-minded, be studious (a “Berean” of the Word), and be flexible and compassionate with others who may have different priorities than you do. If you know someone is on the wrong track, gently and lovingly advise them. If they refuse to listen, so be it. Maybe they really do have a valid reason to know what you consider to be nothing more than biblical minutia. Who knows?

Finally, trust in God that what he wants you to know he will make sure you do, and what you don’t know but want to, well….always ask yourself if it is really that important? Are we saved by knowing exactly when the moon rises on the 10th day of Tishri? Is God going to condemn you to hell forever if you mispronounce his name?  If you celebrate a holiday that is a traditional celebration of God or Messiah but has a history that dates back to a pagan holiday, will your worship and prayers be rejected because of what that day used to represent, even though you are earnestly praying to the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

I will end with something I do believe is important to know: I don’t think God is so thin-skinned to be upset by what something used to mean or how you pronounce whichever name you use when praying to him, so long as your prayers to and worship of God is from your heart and an attitude of faithful obedience and love for him.


When is Study of the Bible Too Much Study?

No video today.

Let me start off by saying, absolutely, that the study of the Bible is a life-long quest and is what we should all be doing. We should be reading and analyzing and trying to understand what message God has for each one of us within the words of the text. 

That being said, I am asking, “When does it become too much studying?”

Too much of anything can be bad for someone, and too much studying, even of the word of God, can end up misleading us from what God wants us to know. 

Most everyone reading this probably knows about Gnosticism, and how that belief in hidden messages and secret knowledge being the pathway to salvation is considered a “bad” thing.  Another “bad” thing is legalism, i.e. only through absolute obedience to the laws and rules is how we are redeemed, and that faith is not necessary. 

I have seen many people who are good students of the Bible become lured away from understanding what is in the Bible because they want to understand absolutely everything in the Bible. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but what I mean is that their desire to know what every little detail means leads them to see only the individual trees and they lose sight of the forest.

Doesn’t God tell us in Deuteronomy 29:29 that those things he wishes us to know he will reveal, but the secret things of the Lord are his alone?  The writer of  Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) says that knowledge and work and everything is useless. Do you know why he says that? It’s because Kohelet wanted to understand why God does what he does and to know what God knew. That’s why everything under the sun was useless to him- it is impossible for any of us to fully understand God. 

I once read that any god that can be understood by the mind of man is not worthy of the worship of man.  How true that is, and how unfortunate that so many people just don’t understand the implications of that statement. 

What is the difference between faith and lack of faith? Well, that is an open question, isn’t it? For the purpose of this message, faith is accepting that we can’t understand some things and so we should focus on what we can, and weak faith is ignoring what we can understand and focusing on that which we don’t.  In other words, God will let each and every one of us know what he wants us to know, and what he doesn’t want us to know will remain unknown until such time, if any, when God will reveal it to us. For me, faith is accepting that we won’t understand everything, whereas lack of faith (or a weaker faith) is to delve into minutia that isn’t going to edify or help anyone to know what God wants them to do. 

Didn’t Micah tell us that all God requires of us is to love mercy, act justly and walk humbly with God? Didn’t Yeshua say to love God and each other are the most important commandments, and that by following these everything else will just fall into place?? There is no commandment that says we must understand why God tells us things, or exactly what God’s purpose is when he tells us to do something. 

What God requires of us is faithful obedience and faithful acceptance that whatever he tells us is for our own good. When Yeshua said we need to come to him like a child he meant without needing to know “why” or with excess questioning, although anyone who has ever reared a toddler knows that endless questioning is part of their makeup.

I am sorry if this isn’t as “cut-and-dried” as I would like it to be. I am not saying we shouldn’t study the Bible, and I agree that understanding only comes with judicious study, as well as listening to others with knowledge to share. What I am trying to say is that when our desire to know what something means gets in the way of simply accepting that there are some things which aren’t necessary to know, some things which we will never know (such as the Chukim laws), then our “study” of the Bible has gone too far.

I am saying that faithfully believing God will let us know what he wants to reveal to us, if and when he does, is better than forcing ourselves to know everything we possibly can.  Too much knowledge can lead to misunderstanding if it is for the wrong purpose, meaning for prideful desire to show others how “spiritual” we are, how knowledgeable we are, or how much better we know the “Word” than they do.

I pray that this message is getting through, and I am sorry that I haven’t been able to phrase it better. We all should never stop reading and studying the Bible, as well as extra-biblical sources, but only in order to know what God wants from us. We should not try to understand God, or try to know what he knows, or (especially not) try to see hidden messages or find secret truths within the numbers or words. That leads to Gnosticism and a system of legalism. 

Never stop reading and studying the Bible and remember it’s more important to know what is in there than where it is. If you have a question about a meaning or passage, bring it first to God and ask for the Ruach HaKodesh to give you understanding. If God wants you to know, he will reveal it, and if it isn’t revealed then faithfully accept that you don’t need to know it.

God will let you know what you need to know, when you need to know it. That’s what he did with Moses, that’s what he did with David, with the Prophets, and that’s how Yeshua taught both the people and his Talmudim. 

If it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us. 

Basic Rules for Torah Interpretation

I thought we’d take a different path this morning and talk about the mechanics of Torah interpretation. I am constantly telling people to read the Manual, yet I haven’t really helped anyone in understanding how to read the Torah.

The following suggestions are from a Bible study class I used to give on interpreting the Torah. I hope it is useful to you.

Essentially, when reading the Torah (or any scripture) we need to look at what the text says, then we need to look at how it says it.

There are 4 different levels, if you will, of interpretation:

1. P’shat- the plain meaning of the text, i.e., what you see is what it means

2. Drash- the homiletic meaning (from which we get the Midrash)

3. Remez- the esoteric meaning

4. Sod- the hidden, Kabbalistic meaning

These levels may not all be present, and generally the Ruach will be the driving force in understanding the Drash and deeper meanings.

One of the keys to working within these levels is to observe and review how well the meanings fit and make sense with regards to the other writings in the Bible. This is called Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics means that there is continuity of meaning. We are told that God is the same now, before and in the future- He never changes. The meanings and statements made in the Bible should also have this sameness about them- if you interpret something in a way that goes against other, established understandings then you should review what you’re thinking. If something in what you read in Leviticus seems to be totally against what you read in Romans, then there is something wrong, or missing, in that interpretation.

That may not be the best example, since Romans is historically used as a polemic against the Torah when, in fact, it is an apologetic, but the point is that the Bible is the same from start to finish and the interpretations should all be hermeneutically aligned.

You need to always use (what I learned as) Circles of Context. This means to know who wrote what and to whom, and to incorporate both textual and cultural context when forming your interpretation.  Don’t assume that the slave talked about in Leviticus is the same type of slave we had in America. At that time, being a Jewish slave to another Jew was more like being an indentured servant than the horrible torture and misuse that the slaves in America during the 16th through 19th Centuries had to endure. Also, words had different meanings. For example, in Mattitayu 5:17 when Yeshua said He came to fulfill the law, the word “fulfill” did not mean to “complete” something but to interpret it correctly. When you look at the surrounding text, He goes on to say nothing will change. Yet, poor interpretation has constantly led people to teach that His “fulfillment” of the law was to complete it, thereby doing away with it forever. Wrong-o!

Another biblical form of writing is the use of repetitive statements, and you need to review these very carefully. When the tribes of  Reuben and Gad asked to remain east of the Jordan, they said they would build pens for their cattle and homes for their families. Later that is repeated by Moshe, but he tells them to build homes for their families and pens for their cattle. Moses reversed the order of possessions. The Kumash tells us that this was on purpose to show that Moses wanted the leaders to understand that family is more important than possessions. By carefully reading the repetitious statements and stories you can gain a better understanding of what was happening. The same thing can be seen in the story of how Abraham’s servant found Rachael. The story has subtle changes between the first narrative of the event and then, later, what the servant tells Laban.

Finally, I would like to offer some tools that I use. Of course, the main tool in your shed should be the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, to lead you in your understanding. But, besides that, it couldn’t hurt to have a few other tools.

Extra-biblical writings are useful, but I offer this with a caveat- don’t forget that what you are reading is someone else’s interpretation and you have to verify it against the original text. One that I trust is Strong’s Concordance (you may need to do some weight-lifting to get in shape to carry that book); you can also use a good Hebrew-Greek-English Dictionary and selected commentaries from established biblical experts (again- they usually repeat what they have been told so verify verify verify.)

There are many different Bibles- the Complete Jewish Bible, the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, the NIV, the KJV, interlinear bibles, and many, many other Bibles, all with their own interpretations found in what the text says. I am not against reading different versions; in fact, I think it will help to identify the differences and that will help you to find the interpretation you are most comfortable with as being the correct one.

The Kumash is a great tool. I use it over and over. The one I have is the Soncino Pentateuch and Haftorahs: the quintessential Bar Mitzvah present. In fact, the one I have is from my Bar Mitzvah, and it’s still in good shape. Embarrassingly enough, that’s because I never even opened it until I came to know Messiah Yeshua, but (at least) I kept it.

Ultimately, however you do it,  you need to study the Word of God. All of it, from Genesis to Revelations. Heck- you should even take a gander at the maps, now and then, if for no other reason than to be able to picture in your mind where these events are taking place.

Read the Word, study the Word, and get to know the Word, intimately. It is the sword of God, and without knowing what God has told us, through human writings, you can’t possibly be prepared for what is coming.

When you go to a baseball game, they tell you, “Get your scorecards- you can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” If you don’t know what God is telling us about the Messiah, what God is all about (He tells us all about Himself in the Bible) or what evidence there will be of the coming Acharit HaYamim (End Days, Judgement Days), you will not know how to protect your soul from the Enemy.

The Enemy will not come right out and announce himself- he will sneak in behind someone else and slowly, carefully lead you into taking the mark and being forever cursed. If you don’t know the warning signs, you won’t know how to avoid damnation. It’s that simple.

Take your Bible and read it; study it; know it; otherwise, you better have a good supply of Coppertone.