A continuous source of amazement for me is the fact that many of the men and women who have contributed substantially to my spiritual growth most likely would not be comfortable sitting in the same room with one another.
Perhaps it should not be a surprise. Inspiration for my life has come from Baptist Christians, Presbyterian Christians, Anglican Christians, Catholic Christians, Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians, Messianic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Reformed Jews, and Hebrew Roots Torah teachers of many different streams. It is amazing what these people have in common. It is more amazing what divides them, and how senseless that division is in the long run.
What fellowship, for example, does D.L. Moody have with R.C. Sproul? That is a question most readers could not answer, not having a clue who either of those esteemed gentlemen are. Had they been contemporaries, however, the simple tenets of Moody’s evangelism (“Ruined by the Fall, Redeemed by the Blood, and Regenerated by the Spirit”) would clash with Sproul’s elaborate Reformed reasoning.
We might say similar things of many, many others – even of the two authors who have had the greatest influence on my life. It just so happens that they were contemporaries, serving as professors in related fields at prestigious English universities. It is no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien was instrumental in bringing C.S. Lewis out of atheism and into a relationship with Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Messiah). Yet Tolkien was disappointed that he could get Lewis no closer to what he considered true Christianity (Roman Catholicism) than the Anglican Church. And yet the two remained friends and colleagues, greatly influencing each others’ literary and other works.
This begs the question: If Tolkien and Lewis could get along, why is it that Hebrew Roots believers have trouble getting along with one another? Or why is it that traditional Christians and Messianic believers of all stripes find it easier to condemn one another rather than support and pray for one another? Or why do Christians and Jews have such difficulty accepting one another as part of the same covenant people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? It seems that our divisions are doing more work for the enemy of our souls than the good we hope we are doing for the Kingdom of our God.
In the interest of helping to correct this tendency, I am pleased to share an article recently published by Messianic Jewish leader Daniel C. Juster. Much of my understanding of the Hebrew Roots (or Jewish Roots, as he would say) comes from Dan Juster. I have been blessed to sit under his teaching and to be discipled by this writings.
There is an old joke about Moses standing on Mount Sinai waiting the hear from YHVH. The hand of the Almighty appears with the Ten Commandments written on stone, and a great Voice says, “Take these two tablets and call me in the morning”.
It is funny because it is not a joke. We know what happened: Moses took the tablets with the Ten Commandments back to the people of Israel, but when he found them celebrating in idolatrous revelry (oddly enough, in worship of YHVH by pagan means), he threw down those tablets written by the Finger of God and shattered them.
Parents should have special insight about YHVH’s reaction to all of this. First, He punished everyone – both the instigators who provoked the people to disobedience, as well as the willfully ignorant who allowed themselves to be led astray. Even those who stood by and let it happen did not escape His notice. Do we not act similarly when our children embark on a path of foolishness that wrecks the house?
That was the negative reaction. What came next was His solution to the problem: He directed Moses to clean up the mess. Consider these words:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I will write on these tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you broke. So be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself to Me there on the top of the mountain. (Exodus 34:1-2 NKJV)
In other words, “Bring two tablets and call me in the morning.”
What happens when an author combines the mega-conspiracy theories of Thomas Horn, the spiritual warfare depictions of Frank Peretti, and the science fiction apocalyptic vision of Larry Niven? The result is The Cooper Chronicles, Daniel Holdings’ End of Days trilogy recounting the adventures of physicist and inter-dimensional globetrotter Dr. Bryce Cooper.
Apocalyptic literature is fascinating to say the least, but such works are not necessarily encouraging or fun. If done with the appropriate touch of realism – as, for instance, Nevil Shute’s post-nuclear war drama On the Beach – the work is depressing and scary. The subject, after all, is the complete eradication of human life on planet earth. On the other hand, a Terra-über-Alles yarn like Footfall (co-authored by Niven and Jerry Pournelle) makes the human cost merely the backdrop of an adventure story featuring mankind’s technological prowess and luck in overcoming an invasion by a fantastic foe from deep space. The loss of all of India, for example, registers little to a reader certain that somehow the story will have a happy ending.
The challenge of balancing realism with readability takes on an added dimension in spiritual subjects. A writer of Christian fiction must remain true to the Bible, or at least to his or her interpretation thereof. The result can be dismally flat, contrived, and divorced from real life – which is why it takes a special gift to write such a work. C.S. Lewis comes to mind as the pioneer and first master of modern Christian apocalyptic fiction, a genre which Peretti further develops. Yet when it comes to End Times novels which try to tell the tale of the Great Tribulation from a realistic viewpoint, no one has done quite so well as Daniel Holdings.
It helps that Holdings approaches his subject with the understanding that no one is exempt from the trials and devastations prophesied to come upon the earth according to the Bible. This gives him an advantage over Christian authors who write from the belief that there is a “pre-Tribulation rapture” which will remove Christians to some heavenly safe haven. To such authors, the real prize is not being on earth when bad things happen, which means their interest is not really in figuring out how the bad things are going to happen.
In recent days my friend Pete Rambo and I have enjoyed a lively email exchange with a Jewish brother. By this time we have identified many of the key differences in our beliefs and the ways we perceive the world. I think it is safe to say we are confident enough in our relationship that we can ask some pointed questions without fear of alienating one another. The good thing is that we are all curious about what we believe, and we genuinely want to know how we each perceive the world. This has been eye-opening on all sides. I have learned that some of the things I thought I knew about Jews and Judaism were not quite right, just as our friend has learned that some of the things he thought he knew about Christians and Messianic believers were not quite right. This is the kind of dialogue that is essential if we are to come to an understanding of one another and begin to cooperate in bringing Messiah and building his kingdom.
What I share here is a response provided to our friend in answer to two questions. The first concerned our celebration of Passover (Pesach) – as in, why do non-Jews celebrate the Feast, and how do we do it? The second question involved our description of ourselves as something other than Christian. In other words, how is it that we believe in Yeshua, or Jesus, as Messiah, but do not consider ourselves Christians (or at least traditional Christians). In the interest of building mutual understanding, here are my answers to those questions.
This year we participated in a Passover seder with friends in Austin, TX, just as we have done for the last three years. All of our friends have come out of the traditional church, but all embrace Yeshua as Messiah and have a heart to learn and live the Torah as he taught it. This year we had ten people around the table, including our youngest daughter. Although she is 22 and about to graduate from the University of Texas, she was still the youngest person there, and it fell to her to ask the traditional questions.
We used a Messianic haggadah from Lion and Lamb Ministries. In years past we have produced a haggadah of our own, but it’s easier to take one from a source we appreciate and modify as we go along. That’s precisely what we did. Since none of us grew up Jewish, we do not know the traditional songs and sayings and prayers. However, we know enough to see where the traditions of Judaism mesh with what we have learned about Yeshua as our Messiah. That is why we are comfortable taking a traditional Jewish seder and inserting Messianic and Christian elements. For example, although we sang a chorus of “Dayeinu”, most of our songs were Christian hymns celebrating the death and resurrection of Yeshua as our Passover Lamb. We had the four cups of wine and we said the traditional prayers in Hebrew (since my wife and I have studied the most, we got to lead the prayers), but we did leave out a few things (such as horseradish – much to my chagrin since I like horseradish).
Language is a perilous thing. It can unite us, but quite often it does the opposite. That, by the way, was God’s intent. We know that from the story of how He created the different languages of the earth as presented in Genesis 11:
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9 NASB, emphasis added)
Ever since then that curse of language has been with us. And, by the way, so has the curse of nations.
Curse of nations? Yes, it does seem to be a curse. It would seem that the Lord did not intend for humanity to be scattered and separated across the face of the planet in competing factions. Nevertheless, nations were His idea. The story of the Tower of Babel explains why. You’ll notice that mankind also had an idea of uniting themselves as one people, but their idea was not the same as the Almighty’s. They wanted to be a single, unified power that could challenge YHVH for sovereignty over this planet. Since these people lived in the generations immediately after the Great Flood, we can suppose that some of them harbored a little resentment at God’s destruction of the pre-Flood civilization. Maybe they thought they could do things better than their ancestors, perhaps by building a strong defense that could ward off any further Divine intervention in human affairs. Now since our God does not change (Numbers 23:19; I Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8), and since the eternal governing principles of the universe which He established do not change (Psalm 119:44; II Kings 17:37; Matthew 5:18, 24:34-35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33), He had to do something about this blatant rebellion. There can only be one God, after all.
The problem with sin is that it seeks to create many gods – in fact, as many as there are human beings on the earth. That is at the heart of Satan’s insidious deception spoken to our mother Eve: “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5 NASB) Tragically, the way our Creator dealt with the deception before the Flood was to destroy humanity. I would surmise He had little choice in the matter since all of humanity apparently was united as a single people, most likely under satanic leadership (not unlike the world we are anticipating at the end of this age when Messiah returns). To make sure He did not have to make a complete end of the human race this time around, the Lord God created nations and then scattered them across the earth. If they were divided in language, they would soon be divided in every other imaginable way, and the resultant wars and rumors of wars would ensure that a united human empire would not arise to defy the Living God until the end of days. In the meantime the Living God could go about the process of cultivating His redemptive work in human hearts while they remained in the nations.
In a response to a reader’s question about his works, author Stephen R. Donaldson provided this enlightening comment about the motivation behind his writing:
I’m a storyteller, not a polemicist. As such, my only mission is to help my readers understand my characters and appreciate what those poor sods are going through. (Stephen R. Donaldson Official Website, February 23, 2004)
Donaldson’s best known writings might be categorized as postmodern American science fiction and fantasy literature. The worlds he creates are not the pristine, archetypical fantasy worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but darker realms that mirror our present ambiguous reality. Donaldson explores human nature in a secular, relativistic world detached from the moral underpinnings of Christian civilization. Good and evil manifest in the worlds he creates, but they are often uncomfortably intertwined so as to be nearly indistinguishable. Such is the case with his most famous protagonist, the anti-hero Thomas Covenant. In ten novels published over the span of 36 years, Donaldson follows Covenant through three epic quests in The Land, the world of his creation where magic and Earthpower shape the lives of mortals. Covenant is one of the most unlikely heroes in the history of literature: a leper living in present-day America who is magically transported to The Land to save it from destruction by Lord Foul the Despiser. He wears a wedding band of white gold, the source of Wild Magic, which is the greatest power ever known in The Land. He does not know how to wield this power, nor does he desire to do so, yet the dire circumstances of The Land compel him to find a way. Each victory comes at a cost. Ultimately it is Covenant himself who pays the greatest price, and thus he earns not only sympathy, but redemption.
We learn much about power in White Gold Wielder, the last novel of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The Elohim, supernatural beings who keep watch over the Earth, “silence” Covenant, placing him in a catatonic state so he will not use his ring unwisely and risk destruction of the world. After Covenant is revived by his companion Linden Avery, Findail of the Elohim explains their actions to her:
The ring-wielder we silenced, not to harm him, but to spare the Earth the ill of power without sight . . . Thus the choice would have fallen to you in the end. His ring you might have taken unto yourself, thereby healing the breach between sight and power. Or perhaps you might have ceded the ring to me, empowering the Elohim to save the Earth after their fashion. Then would we have had no need to fear ourselves, for a power given is altogether different than one wrested away.
Findail’s declaration, “a power given is altogether different than one wrested away,” is a restatement of something taught long ago by One Who understood power:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NASB)
This post-modern generation of the industrialized West has lost sight of the power of the Oath. That is why there is so little understanding of the covenant terminology which establishes the context of humanity’s relationship with our Creator. An oath sworn in good faith is something far more powerful than a legal procedure. It is a spiritual transaction which makes an indelible mark on the parties who take part in it. That is why one’s conscience is troubled when even the least significant promises are broken. Something as simple as committing to be at a certain place at a specified time is a type of oath or covenant. Failing to keep that promise fosters disappointment, anger, and bitterness in the heart of the one who is expecting the appointment to be kept. Hopefully the one who broke the promise will make amends and resolve to keep such commitments in the future. However, if the promise-breaker develops a habit of showing up late, or not showing up at all, then eventually his or her conscience will no longer serve as a reminder about the transgression. And then the promise-breaker becomes something worse: an untrustworthy person.
If this is the case with something as simple as a promise to be on time, what can we say about more serious promises? There is an illustration which may help. J.R.R. Tolkien delved deeply into the subject of oaths and covenants in his epic works about Middle Earth. Perhaps his most memorable account is the oath made by the Men of the Mountains to fight against Sauron, an oath they did not keep. In The Return of the King, Aragorn explains the circumstances of this broken oath:
But the oath that they broke was to fight against Sauron, and they must fight therefore, if they are to fulfill it. For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Nümenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not: for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.
Then Isildur said to their king, “Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”
In Tolkien’s novel, Aragorn leads his companions to the realm of these dead oathbreakers, and as Isildur’s heir calls them to fulfil their oath by following him into battle against Sauron’s armies. They answer the call, and upon winning the victory are released at last to depart in the peaceful sleep of death.
In Tolkien’s story the oathbreakers are redeemed by the descendant of the king whom they had betrayed. Their answer to his call brings an end to the curse and the blessed peace they have sought through the ages. As is so often the case with Tolkien, he illustrates a profound principle first explained in the Scripture. Yet what we learn from Moses differs from Tolkien in one critical point: redemption from the curse of broken oaths, or vows, results not the peace of death, but in the promise of life.
Was Sam Houston a Cherokee? It is a fair question. The man who won independence for the Republic of Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto had spent many years with the Cherokee nation. His first contact with the tribe occurred in his youth, when his family moved from their home in Virginia to Tennessee. He learned their ways and their language, was adopted by a chief of the tribe, and in time represented the Cherokee people to the United States government. Houston even took a Cherokee wife: Tiana Rodgers, daughter of a Scottish trader who had married into a prominent Cherokee family. Houston’s marriage with Tiana was never recognized in white society, but they were legally married under Cherokee law. Even after he had returned to white society, Houston never remarried until after Tiana’s death.
But the fact is that Sam Houston did return to white society. In 1832 he moved to the Mexican territory of Texas, and within four years had secured independence for Texas, forever linking his name with that great state. Today, over 150 years since his death, Houston is remembered as a military hero and statesman, serving the Republic of Texas as its general and elected president, and the State of Texas as its senator and governor. Houston is also the only man ever to have served as governor of both Tennessee and Texas. These are the things that might come to mind when one thinks of Sam Houston, but what does not come to mind is his identity as a Cherokee.
Houston’s identity in history is the result of his own choice. Had he remained with his adopted people, he would have been remembered as one of many non-Indian white and black people who became members of various Native American tribes. Yet he chose otherwise, and therefore his Cherokee identity is merely a footnote of history.
It was the other way with our ancient Israelite ancestors. Once they chose to become united with the tribes of Jacob’s sons, their previous identities became footnotes, lost forever in the sands of time.
אַחֲרֵי מוֹת / קְדֹשִׁים
What is this fascination with the possibility of life beyond this planet? Are we so insecure in our human existence that we cannot bear the thought of dwelling on the only inhabited territory in the entire universe? Or is it, perhaps, a deep-seated sense of being incomplete in ourselves? Whatever the reason, since the dawn of human existence we have sought for something, or Someone, beyond ourselves who shares our experience of sentience and can explain it to us.
For over a century the search for the Interstellar Other has found expression in science fiction. Novelists like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke have made their marks on several generations of impressionable youth, yet the massive explosion of science fiction onto popular consciousness came not with books, but with movies. Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey took science fiction movies to a new level. It combined world-class writing with world-class filmmaking to proclaim to audiences that we are not alone, but in so doing left more questions than answers. Ten years later, Steven Spielberg sought to answer some of those questions in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, proposing that the Interstellar Others have been visiting earth for a long, long time, and asserting that humanity had reached a point where these advanced beings could take us into their confidence and educate us further. Movies produced over the next generation investigated different aspects of this question. Some, like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 thriller, Signs, explored the dark possibility that alien visitors are not friendly. Signs clings to the hope that humanity can defend itself from alien intruders, and that the hostile encounter restores a sense of purpose we did not know we had lost. And then there is Knowing, a 2009 drama in which Dr John Koestler, played by Nicholas Cage, embarks on a search for the meaning behind clues predicting one global disaster after another. He learns at last that he can do nothing about the disasters; they themselves are clues all-knowing alien watchers have tracked through time to warn humanity about the imminent destruction of our planet in a massive solar flare. The aliens have no intention of letting the human race pass into extinction. Their clues guide people like Koestler in gathering children so the aliens can take them to a place of safety where humanity can begin again.
A recurring motif in these science fiction films is the search for meaning behind the evidence of alien presence. In 2001 the evidence is a mysterious monolith, and in Close Encounters it is the connection of unexplainable phenomena across the globe. In Signs it is the appearance of crop circles, and in Knowing it is the incomprehensible code of numbers and letters scratched by a child and left in a time capsule. The story tellers would have us believe that the answers to human existence are all there if we can only decipher the patterns.
The science fiction story tellers are correct in that an Interstellar Other has left patterns for us to decipher. What they have missed is that the Interstellar Other is the Holy One of Israel. His clues are in Torah, and His answers are in the rest of Scripture.
At some point between the withdrawal of Rome’s legions in 410 CE and the advent of Saxon England in the 6th Century, a Celtic chieftain named Arthur restored a measure of order to Britain. Arthur’s reign occupied a bubble in time, set apart from the chaos that preceded and followed it. Although the mists of time shroud the truth of Arthur’s career, the legends born of that truth still inspire us 1,500 years after his passing. Who cannot admire a king so good, so wise, so honorable, and so humble that his very presence compels the allegiance and obedience of all good people? Such a king is invincible, for no evil thing can overcome him. If Arthur has a fault, it is that he bestows his love too freely and trusts too completely. And in this we find the enduring tragedy of King Arthur. His downfall and the end of his shining kingdom of Camelot came not at the hands of an enemy, but through his beloved bride and his greatest friend. We rejoice with Arthur that he finds in Guenevere a queen of exquisite purity, grace, beauty, wisdom, and kindness, and we rejoice still more when he is joined by Lancelot, the epitome of knightly honor, courage, and fidelity. How it wounds us when Guenevere and Lancelot cannot remain true to their king, but fall to the attraction they have for one another. Their adulterous affair ruins the king and the kingdom with him.
One of many moving interpretations of the Arthurian legend is John Boorman’s film Excalibur, starring Nigel Terry as Arthur, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, and Nicholas Clay as Lancelot. At the high point of the film, all is well in the kingdom except for the perpetual absence of Lancelot. Because of his attraction for Guenevere, the good knight has exiled himself from court so as to avoid temptation. Everyone in the kingdom seems to understand this, everyone, that is, except the king himself. No one speaks of this matter until one day when Sir Gawain (played by Liam Neeson) takes it upon himself to address this blight on Camelot’s perfection. Gawain accuses the queen of driving Lancelot from the company of Arthur’s knights. Stung at the assault on her honor, Guenevere turns to Arthur and cries, “Will you not champion me?” He replies:
I cannot! I am your King, and I must be your judge in this. Lancelot must do it. He also stands accused. I decree – that at sunrise, two days from now, the champions will meet, and the truth shall be known. For by the law of God, no knight who is false can win in combat with one who is true.
The trial by combat proves Guenevere’s innocence as Lancelot defeats Gawain, but which the secret is exposed Guenevere can no longer hide her attraction. Before long she and Lancelot are indeed lovers, leaving Arthur devastated and bringing about the dissolution of Camelot. Yet in the end Arthur has a chance to restore order by leading his knights in one last, desperate battle against Mordred, his mortal enemy. On the eve of the battle he goes to visit Guenevere, who has turned from her sin and sought a life of holiness in a convent. There she has kept Arthur’s great sword, Excalibur, in hope that one day he will take it up again in the cause of justice. After receiving the sword from her, Arthur bids Guenevere farewell with these words:
I’ve often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future, can be just a man, we might meet. You’d come to me, claim me yours, know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have.
Arthur’s dream is the very dream, and the very promise, of the Holy One of Israel.