Give Me Understanding

Wisdom is the principal thing, the most important thing: wisdom and understanding. (Pr 4:7)

Five times in the Bible someone asks God directly: give me understanding; each time it’s the same person, all in the same chapter, Psalm 119, a singularity in itself on multiple levels.

Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart. (34) The psalmist is committed to obeying God fully and passionately, without reservation or reluctance, in every possible way. Obedience is the foundation of faith in prayer (1Jn 3:22); there’s no hope for an audience in God apart from obedience. (Ps 66:18)

Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments. (73) The psalmist, admitting God is his personal Creator and Designer, worthy of all worship and obedience, asks for understanding so he may learn God’s laws. Though He has God’s commands plainly written out, he doesn’t presume to understand fully and completely the nuances and proper applications of God’s commands, and asks for this enlightenment that he may please and honor God in rightly obeying them.

am thy servant; give me understanding, that I may know thy testimonies. (125) The psalmist, testifying that he is God’s servant, committed to obeying Him in every respect, asks for understanding that he might fully know and fathom God testimonies, God’s witness of reality as revealed in His laws.

The righteousness of thy testimonies is everlasting: give me understanding, and I shall live. (144) The Psalmist admits that the rightness and holiness of God’s testimonies is eternal, and asks for help to understand them so his life might be complete, as if there’s no life worth living apart from knowing and keeping the commandments of God. (77)

Let my cry come near before thee, O Lord: give me understanding according to thy word. (169) The Psalmist finally cries out to God for understanding, appealing to His promise to give to those who seek Him out earnestly, an open door to those who knock with a committed heart. (Mt 7:7-8)

Seeking understanding without an intent to obey is pointless (155); those who don’t choose the fear of God will never find true wisdom and understanding, regardless how hard they try. (Pr 1:28-29) To rightly know anything we must start here, reverencing God and seeking to obey Him. (Pr 1:7) If anyone will do as God wills, they’ll understand (Jn 7:17); the rest deceive themselves (Ja 1:22), ever learning, yet never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2Ti 3:7)

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The Law of Jehovah

When someone is challenging us on our moral beliefs, accusing us of hatred, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, gynophobia and/or whatever, I find it helpful to pause for a moment and ask them to explain their moral standard.

Those who are unfamiliar with God’s ways generally find them offensive and troublesome. They may come after us in fear, resentment and/or hatred for disagreeing with their claims; they may feel condemned, offended and even harmed by our mere unwillingness to approve their manner of life. Even if we’re personally very kind toward them and pose no direct harm, our mere lack of agreement may be deeply threatening to them.

But it seems to me that few have taken the time to ask themselves how and why they’re so convinced they’re right: they have no explicit moral standard to reference, and I expect most have neglected to give this the attention it deserves.

This is likely the root cause behind their defensiveness: when all we have to support our behavior is blind emotion, feeling intimidated is perfectly natural when we’re challenged. Pointing this out can be extremely powerful and disarming in the midst of heated conversation.

For example, when a transgender male (thinking he’s female) accosts us for not referring to him as “she”, we may simply ask, “Can you please tell me what your moral standard is? How do you decide what’s right and wrong?”

Clearly, these folk have a VERY strong sense of morality, but they’re evidently making it up as they go. Their feelings are so powerful that questioning and challenging their emotions is unthinkable.

Yet if we can engage them in civil dialogue, we might be able to point out that simply because we happen to want something to be true doesn’t make it so. They would likely agree with this (else, they should concede that all other opinions are as valid as theirs).

Then, observe with them that they’re already instinctively acting this way; in rejecting our feelings and treating our opinions as invalid, they’re claiming the existence of a universal moral standard, independent of human opinion, which we should all obey. They can’t intelligently disagree with this; no one can.

Since they’re already doing this right in front of us, acting as if they’re passionately following a universal moral standard, ask them to explain this standard so you can study and understand it. Ask them where it came from and who revealed it.

Point out that any universal moral standard, being independent of any and all human opinion, must by definition be a divine standard, revealed to Man by God Himself: Nature cannot create such a standard. Ask them what evidence they have that their moral standard is inspired by God.

The point is this: those decrying hate may hate Jehovah’s standard and trash it all day long, but without an explicit, divinely inspired moral standard, they’re being fundamentally inconsistent. No one can live as if there’s no universal moral standard: we can’t just make it up as we go; it’s not how we’re designed. Doing so creates emotional imbalance, intellectual dishonesty and personal instability.

The law of Jehovah, His perfect standard (Ps 19:7), is the only one which has any remotely credible claim to being divinely revealed (De 4:6-8), and it’s right. (Ps 19:8) Asking those who hate it to tell us about theirs might be a good first step forward in helping them see.

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They Chew the Cud

God often gives us commands without explaining why; He doesn’t owe us an explanation. Obeying Him simply because He says so is likely the highest form of respect and love. (1Jn 5:3)

Even so, many ask why we keep certain laws for which they see no good reason; such as dietary laws. Since I also like to understand why God’s laws are good I try to provide some reason in addition to, “God says so.”

I see an indication from the dietary detail that we shouldn’t eat carnivores or scavengers, and have often cited this as a possibility; it is the kind of food generally discouraged by cardiologists and other health professionals. However, recently, when asked why we don’t eat horses, I found a more interesting and inciteful explanation: efficiency.

Horses are unclean because they don’t have a split hoof and because they don’t chew the cud. However, horse flesh is quite nutritious, it’s less fatty than beef, and they’re vegetarian, so why aren’t they on the menu?

As it turns out, animals which chew their cud are more efficient at turning food sources into nutrition for humans; they’re a more economical source of food: they consume less nutritious food themselves and produce a better meal for us. So, cultures who eat beef will tend to prosper and thrive more than those who eat horses.

God has a good reason for every one of His laws; they’re holy, just and good because He is. (Ro 7:12)

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Repent and Believe

John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by preaching repentance (Mk 1:4); Christ Himself preached the same (Mk 1:14-15) and so did His disciples. (Mk 6:12) Repent: this is Christ’s first call.

To repent is to change your mind, to start thinking differently, and the context here is sin (Mk 2:17), which is breaking God’s Law. (1Jn 3:4) God is introducing Himself by saying, Change your mind about breaking My Law.

This isn’t quite the same as, stop sinning; no one can totally stop sinning and live perfectly. (1Jn 1:8) It’s more like … stop sinning on purpose, deliberately, intentionally; stop thinking it’s OK to sin, that God doesn’t mind.

Sin is offensive to God, and willful, intentional sin angers Him. (He 10:26-27) Choosing sin is choosing darkness (Jn 3:19), choosing the lie; and God is light (1Jn 1:5); God is Truth. (Jn 14:6) Walk in the light. Pursue the truth. Do your best to obey God’s Law, all of it, as well as you can, and keep asking Him for help where you’re still failing to keep it perfectly. It’s the only way to be in relationship with God. (1Jn 1:6-7)

Christ follows this call to repentance with a call to believe the gospel, the good news that the kingdom of God is open to us. He doesn’t start with this message; that would be like the King giving us directions to His home while we’re still defying Him and running away; it doesn’t even make sense. Before giving us directions to help us find the Way, we must be seeking Him. (He 11:6)

Those who aren’t trying to obey God don’t know Him (1Jn 3:6); those who intend to continue offending Him have alienated themselves from salvation itself. (Ps 119:155)

Salvation isn’t so much about deliverance from Hell as it is the offer of a new nature that’s inclined to obey God’s Law (He 8:10), freeing us from the power and dominion of sin so we can fellowship with Him. (Ro 6:22) Repentance is God’s gift (1Ti 2:25), opening the door to salvation, enabling us to turn from death to life. (Ac 11:18)

This may explain why Christ replied to the rich young ruler the way He did (Mk 10:17-19); it was an invitation to take God’s Law seriously. The Law is our teacher to bring us to Christ (Ga 3:24); until we earnestly submit to this divine teacher and learn from Him we won’t find Christ.

To profess Christ yet not do what He says (Lk 6:46) is to deceive ourselves (Ja 1:22), miss Heaven altogether (Mt 7:21), and store up eternal wrath for ourselves. (Ro 2:8-9)

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Her that Is Divorced

Christ teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount that marriage is sacred. If a man pursues a married woman with the intent to defile her current marriage then he’s as good as done it: wrongful intent is equivalent to wrongful action. (Mt 5:27:28) It’s about the heart, not just the action.

In the process, Jesus teaches us something else about marriage: when God’s Law permits divorce (31), the spirit of the marriage relationship implies the grounds for divorce are quite strict. Note carefully the qualifying exception: sexual impurity or infidelity (32a); it’s when a husband has come to hate, resent or mistrust his wife in a manner comparable to what’s expected if she’s become sexually impure, that we should consider the relationship properly irreconcilable. (Mt 1:18-19)

This can easily be seen in the Torah itself: it’s when a wife finds no favor at all in her husband’s eyes that he’s to divorce her. (De 24:1) If his heart has become so hard towards his wife that he finds no mercy or compassion for her, no love or concern or care for her, the spirit of the marriage is already broken so deeply that it’s better for the woman to be released of the marriage bond. Divorce isn’t God’s original intent for marriage; it’s how Love deals with hardness of heart. (Mt 19:8)

The implication is that reasonable men don’t become so hardened toward their wives, such that they cannot possibly live with them in peace. So, as long as people are minimally reasonable, there should be no divorce … as long as wives aren’t adulterous.

However, the Pharisees had evidently turned this provision for divorce under exceptional circumstances into a sort of wife-swapping, putting away their wives for trivial reasons and deeply violating the spirit of the marriage covenant. (Mt 19:3) In these cases, where the marital relationship isn’t so deeply broken, marrying a divorced woman permanently breaks the marriage covenant in much the same way adultery does (Mt 5:32a), because this step prevents her from being reconciled to her former husband according to God’s Law. (De 24:3-4)

We should keep this context in mind when Christ adds: “and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.(32b) This is significant since in Torah, when a woman is divorced by her husband she is free to remarry. (De 24:2) Is Christ saying Torah permits a certain kind of adultery? Is He changing the moral standard?

Paul doesn’t seem to think so: he says if an unbelieving man departs his marriage, implying he abandons or divorces his wife, she’s no longer bound to her marriage covenant, implying she’s free to remarry (1Co 7:15), just as Torah says. Paul wouldn’t allow this if remarriage was inappropriate in a properly irreconcilable context, if it constituted adultery under a newer, higher standard set by Christ.

It seems much more reasonable to interpret Christ, not as correcting Torah or creating a higher standard, but focusing on the spirit of marriage. Re-marrying a divorced woman under less severe circumstances, unless all reasonable hope of the prior marriage being reconciled has expired, expresses an irreverence for the marriage covenant.

Divorce is acceptable only under the most extreme relational circumstances, and the divorcing husband should consider his action permanent. If a divorced woman believes her former husband may eventually change his mind, and wants to wait and leave the door open for reconciliation, that’s up to her; it isn’t necessarily wrong for her to move on, but if she does she’s effectively permanently sealing the termination of that marriage, as her former husband has decreed it.

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Praise His Word

I was warned early in my spiritual journey to not worship the Bible, to not make an idol out of it (1Jn 5:21), to avoid what we might call bibliolatry.

Certainly, the idea of bowing down to a bible, a literal physical book, worshipping it or praying to it, never crossed my mind. Yet the spirit of this warning might be taken a bit further, suggesting we shouldn’t love the words of scripture too much, and this is perhaps a more interesting and relevant concept. How much should we value the words of scripture? (Ps 19:10) What does the value we place on them reveal about us and our spiritual state? (Ps 119:127)

Asked another way, can I envision God reprimanding me for loving what He says too much? for taking Him too seriously? for treasuring His words too much, or trying too hard to understand His ways and obey His commands? (Is 66:2)

In other words, what’s the practical difference between loving God and loving what He says? (1Jn 2:5) Can I be loving Him and disinterested, even the slightest bit, in what He’s saying? (Ps 119:155)

Jesus says those who love Him will keep, guard or cherish His words. (Jn 14:23) He’s telling us there’s a direct connection between how we treat His Word and how we view Him; our view of His Word reveals our heart toward Him. (24)

It’s easy to mistake a love of Bible study and teaching the Bible, even memorizing it and quoting it to others, for a love of God’s Word. Yet, if we aren’t earnestly obeying all of it as well as we can, in both letter and spirit, we aren’t loving God’s Word itself at all: we’re just loving what we can do with it, and missing the whole point. (1Ti 1:5-7) God equates loving Himself with obeying His commands. (1Jn 5:3)

Do we praise God’s Word as we’re praising Him? (Ps 56:10) Are we delighting in God’s Law so much that we’re constantly thinking about it? (Ps 119:97) consumed with wanting to understand and obey it more and more? (20)

If God actually were to equate our love for Him with how we treat the Bible (Re 3:8), how would it go? (Mt 7:24-27) Seems to me very likely that He will. (Jn 12:48)

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Till All Be Fulfilled

Early in His ministry, Christ commands us to reject the idea that He has come to abolish God’s Law (Mt 7:17a): He didn’t come to destroy Torah, but to fulfill it. (b) This is evidently central to Christ’s teaching, so it’s important to get what He’s saying.

First, since Christ didn’t come to abolish Torah — He didn’t abolish Torah. Yes, it’s stating the obvious, yet most of us still don’t seem to get it, and somehow construe the passage as if He said: “I came not to abolish Torah, but to abolish it.” Perhaps the blinding power of presupposition is demonstrated here as well as it can be; some of us only see what we want to see in scripture, so we miss its message.

The fact is, if we aren’t diligently keeping all the Mosaic law we’re able to keep then we’re making this very basic mistake, which Jesus is telling us right up front, in plain and simple language, not to make.

Of course few argue whether God’s moral law is still valid; we know we aren’t free to steal, kill and destroy as we please. Virtually no one debates this since it’s so obviously wrong; the lie is generally more subtle, that Christ just abolished the civil and ceremonial parts of Torah, that these less important laws were temporary.

Yet, Jesus says that until Heaven and Earth pass away, no part of Torah will be abolished, until all is fulfilled. (18) In other words, not even the smallest nuance of Torah will become obsolete as long as Heaven and Earth remain; until every detail of God’s entire plan for the ages is accomplished. This includes every Old Testament prophecy and every New Testament prophecy.

So, those who arbitrarily classify God’s laws as moral, civil or ceremonial, claiming only moral law is still relevant, however we define it, are headed for trouble. (Ps 119:118) Christ is telling us in no uncertain terms that we’re not to neglect even the least of the commands: we’re all supposed to be trying to keep all of Torah that we’re able to keep; it’s all essentially moral in nature. (Mt 22:40)

Another lie is that since Jesus kept the law perfectly and has become our righteousness, we don’t need to worry about keeping Torah, that somehow His flawless obedience gives us liberty to be disobedient. Jesus rejects this when He tells us anyone willfully breaking any part of Torah as a manner of life will be the least worthy of His kingdom. (19) He’s referring here to our actual lifestyle, not imputed righteousness.

Sure, many texts of scripture are difficult to reconcile with this one, we get it; but we can’t just ignore the problem and pick the side we like. Stewards of the mysteries of God must be faithful (1Co 4:1-2), and not handle the Word of God deceitfully. (2Co 4:2)

It’s our duty to wrestle this out until we find a perspective which does justice to all scripture, including this key text in the introduction to the greatest sermon ever preached. Otherwise, we may find ourselves, unlearned and unstable, wresting Pauline passages out of context unto our own destruction. (2Pe 3:15-16)

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Keep the Feast

God tells gentile believers in Christ to keep Passover (1Co 5:7-8), the first of seven feasts in God’s annual celebration cycle. (Ex 12:2)

Since this command was initially given to a community living quite a distance from Israel, in an era when international travel was extremely slow and perilous, and since the prescribed location for correctly celebrating Passover is in Jerusalem, and since there’s no mention of them permanently relocating, the command implies there are valid ways to observe God’s feasts imprecisely, outside the Promised Land, apart from Levitical priests and the temple. Simply ask: which parts of each feast are we still able keep in our current circumstance?

Believers scattered abroad throughout the nations can’t keep everything about these feasts exactly as prescribed, but this appears to be inconsequential in the overall scheme of things. God has embedded prophetic pictures and rich symbolism within the rituals of each feast (Col 2:17), and evidently intends to systematically edify us as we engage each other in celebrating them as well as we can.

For example, the Passover Seder has enabled Jews to celebrate Passover for centuries without the temple, a sacrificial lamb or convening in Jerusalem. It enables us to retain the spirit and overall benefit of the feast for ourselves and families as we recount our deliverance from Egypt, God’s provision of blood in the paschal lamb to deliver us from spiritual death, the bitter herbs reminding us of our being freed from bondage to sin and the world (Ro 6:22), and unleavened bread symbolic of God’s call to holiness. (1Pe 1:16)

Christ adds that the unleavened bread of Passover is symbolic of His body, and that the cup of wine traditionally taken after the meal is symbolic of His blood. (Lk 22:20) Thus, He further enhances the meaning of Passover, telling us to continue celebrating this particular feast in remembrance of Him. (19) So, Passover, which is The Lord’s Supper (1Co 11:20), is one key way in which we’re to remember Christ and what He’s done for us. (1Co 11:25)

Similarly, we can keep the feast of Firstfruits in celebrating Christ’s Resurrection (1Co 15:20), and Pentecost to celebrate harvesting souls in God’s eternal redemption plan. (Ac 2:1) It’s no surprise that Christ fulfilled all three of God’s Spring feasts in His first coming. (Mt 5:17)

The Fall feasts evidently await their fulfillment in Christ: Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles are likewise packed with precious insights into God’s Way, work, and eternal plan. There is vast wealth here, the riches of Christ, to be mined through prayerful and obedient celebration of God’s amazing feasts, even though we cannot do this perfectly.

Most all of what God calls us to enjoy in these celebrations does not require a priest or an earthly temple. As we delight in each one with what opportunity we have (Ro 7:22), we align with celestial hosts celebrating with God about the true tabernacle in Heaven. (He 8:2)

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Thy Commands Are Righteousness

God says all His commandments are righteousness. (Ps 119:172) Of course, all God’s commandments are righteous (138), yet together they also compose the complete definition of moral perfection. Removing or neglecting any one of God’s commands yields an inferior standard; each of His laws reveals a facet of holiness, departure from which defines sin. (1Jn 3:4)

This explains why we ought not neglect any part of Torah (Ps 119:6), because doing so diminishes its full scope and impact in our lives. (Mt 5:19) God is love (1Jn 4:16), and every word from Him faithfully testifies of and reveals His love. (Ps 119:86)

Every single law in Torah hangs on, is derived from, the Laws of Love for God and Man (Mt 22:40); these commands help us understand love and guide us to walk in love. So, for as long as Love is not perfected in us all (1Jn 4:17), not even one small nuance of the law shall fail, or be discarded, or made obsolete. (18)

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Bound by the Law

The New Testament (NT) makes many references to Mosaic Law, Torah, repeating and reinforcing its commands. The Tanach (Old Testament) was the only inspired scripture in the days of the Apostles, who were zealous of Torah their entire lives (Ac 21:20); they quoted it often in their teaching, and based all of their doctrine upon it.

Some seeking to diminish the relevance of Torah today claim that only commands specifically called out in the NT are still relevant. This standard is, of course, arbitrarily imposed on scripture: it is not in scripture itself. Still, it’s enticing to those looking to ignore some part of Torah (Ps 119:6), unaware of the eternal consequences. (Mt 5:19)

The primary problem with this view is that Christ openly refutes it early in His earthly ministry, explicitly addressing this error and affirming the eternal validity and relevance of Torah in precise, unmistakable language. (17-18) Once we understand this, if we’re observant, we find the entire Tenach reinforced and upheld by apostolic teaching.

For example, Paul says we’re bound by Mosaic divorce laws (Ro 7:2-3, 1Co 7:39), and claims a law governing the treatment of oxen is intended for us all, instructing us in financing Christian ministry. (1Co 9:9-10) He commands us to avoid all uncleanness (Ep 5:3), which must include the types of uncleanness specified in Leviticus, and Peter appeals to gentile believers to live in holiness (1Pe_1:15-16) because God commands Israel to be holy. (Le 20:7)

Paul tells us the entire Tenach is given to thoroughly equip all believers to live godly lives. (2Ti 3:16-17), so the idea that some part of Torah is obsolete, or no longer relevant, is foreign to apostolic thinking; they rejected this error decisively and consistently (Ac 21:24), along with the apostle Paul. (Ro 3:31) The error took hold in the Church many decades after the apostles moved on to Glory, and persists quite widely until the present.

Even so, Paul asserts that Torah will be the universal standard by which Christ shall judge the world, stating that the entire world remains under its authority. (Ro 3:19) Yet, he also asserts that believers are under grace and not under Torah (Ro 6:14), raising the ultimate question: is the believer then free to sin, to violate Torah?

This is equivalent to asking if we’re required to stay within the protective guardrails of a canyon’s precipitous overlook. Only those with a death wish would even ask the question.

The answer is obvious, and Paul answers clearly: No (15), we’re not free to sin. Believers are not only obligated to obey Torah (16), we’re given a new nature which delights in Torah (7:22) and enables us to obey it. (Ro 5:21)

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