“Comfort and keep comforting my people,” says your God. “Tell Yerushalayim to take heart; proclaim to herthat she has completed her time of service, that her guilt has been paid off, that she has received at the hand of Adonai double for all her sins.” Isaiah 40:1-2

ICEJ Teaching

‘Hear, O Israel!’ The Shema in Jewish Faith – By Dr. Jürgen Bühler

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4–9)

The Jewish Confession of Faith

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad! “Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is one!”

This is known as the Shema—the most central prayer in Judaism. It is considered the main confession of Jewish faith. As such it is different to our Christian confessions, which usually are expressed in multiple series of declarations: “We believe …” The Jewish confession, however, is not so much a “we believe” statement but a divine command to hear, to listen to the voice of God regarding who He is—the one true God. The Shema has such a sanctified status: for many rabbis, the short phrase “Shema Yisrael” is equal to the very name of God, many times symbolized with only the Hebrew letter ש [shin].

Every Jew is supposed to pray the Shema at least twice a day, in accordance with the above passage from Deuteronomy 6, that you should say it “when you lie down” [in the evening] and “when you rise up” [in the morning]. This is at least according to the prominent Jewish sage Shammai, who lived around the time of Jesus.

The entire daily prayer is composed of three biblical passages. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:4, which is the commandment to love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.

The second passage included in the traditional Shema prayer is taken from Deuteronomy 11:13–21, which underlines the prayer’s spiritual significance: Blessing comes with obedience, but if Israel should turn aside from Adonai, they would “perish from the good land” the Lord had given them.

Finally, the third passage comes from Numbers 15:15–41, where the command is given to undertake practical steps to incorporate the Shema into daily customs and rituals. This includes the command to place the fringes (tsizit) on one’s garment, the mezuzot at every door post, and the binding of phylacteries (tefillin) on the arm and forehead—all of which contain the above-mentioned Bible passages. This ancient tradition to combine these passages in the Shema prayer dates back well over 2,000 years and is mentioned in the Qumran scrolls.

Jewish rabbis teach that with every recitation of the Shema prayer, every Jew accepts the yoke of the kingdom of God upon his shoulders.

The Shema is the first prayer taught to a Jewish child when they start speaking, and it is the last prayer a Jew is taught to say on their death bed. It also became especially noted for its dramatic usage during the Holocaust.

Former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has repeatedly told the story of how many Jewish children were hidden in Christian orphanages during the Holocaust. When they searched for the Jewish children after the war, it often was difficult to find and separate the Jewish youths among the Christian orphans. But Rabbi Lau said it was enough just to start proclaiming “Shema Israel”—the Jewish children would instinctively reply with “Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad.” Many of these rescued Jewish children are still alive in Israel today.
In addition, the Shema prayer was on the lips of the more than one million Jews who perished in the Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz, the more than 33,000 Ukrainian Jews murdered in the massacre at Babi Yar outside Kiev, and the scores of Jews who died at the execution wall of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin.

The Most Important Command

The question we need to ask ourselves is: Does the Shema bear any significance for us as Christians and for the church? The answer comes directly from Jesus. When asked to identify the most important commandment of the Bible, Jesus replied:

The first of all the commandments is: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is the first commandment. (Mark 12:29–30)

According to Jesus, this commandment carried the highest relevance as the most prominent biblical commandment for His disciples and all who would follow Him. For Christians, it is therefore noteworthy that God defines His relationship to His people most clearly through the means of hearing “Hear, O Israel!”

God could have used several other senses to define His relationship to us. Besides hearing, we also have taste, touch, feeling, seeing, and even smelling. Jesus Himself repeatedly called His disciples to “come and see.” He could have chosen even Psalm 34:9 as the defining verse of our relationship to him: “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”

The medieval cathedrals—with their spectacular stained-glass windows, gold-covered statues, paintings, and frankincense that filled the air—touched exactly these senses. But the hearing part fell woefully short, as the sermons back then were delivered in Latin, a language few understood. Even today, our emotions are well served by spectacular new church buildings and holistic experiences in our services, but we often forget that the kingdom of God should be less “show-business” and much more “hear-business.”

The Challenge to Listen

Interestingly, it was with the “hearing” part that Israel often struggled. The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly challenged Israel for not hearing what God had spoken: “Hear this now, O foolish people . . . who have ears and hear not” (Jeremiah 5:21); “Indeed their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot give heed” (Jeremiah 6:10); “I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you, but you did not answer” (Jeremiah 7:13). Consequently, Jeremiah saw Israel being judged by God and exiled to Babylon.

And if we are honest with ourselves, this was not just Israel’s problem; so often, it also is our problem today. Even the disciples struggled with hearing and understanding the message of Jesus (Mark 8:17ff; 16:14). And this means we all need to be watchful over how we hear. Thus, Jesus admonishes His disciples: “Therefore take heed how you hear!” (Luke 8:18, emphasis added).

That means in the eyes of Jesus there is hearing, and then there is truly hearing. You can hear and yet not really listen to God’s voice. It is this perpetual struggle to hear Him that presents possibly our biggest challenge as believers.

Let’s be honest! How many sermons have we heard, how many Bible studies have we attended, how often have we read the Bible, yet so little has changed in our lives. Too often, we select between what we want to hear and what we deem as not relevant for us. Already in Paul’s time, Christians were drawn to teachers who “tickled their ears,” who taught what the people wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear. And even more, we often are sincerely touched by God’s voice in a sermon or daily reading, but our busy lifestyles distract us immediately and we become what the apostle James calls “forgetful hearers” (James 1:24ff).

God speaks to us in many ways. Of course, primarily it is through the Word of God—the Bible, and through the preaching of the Word. But often He also talks to us through circumstances or daily lives. But do we hear?

I well remember a visit to Holland years ago. Our national director there, Jacob Keegstra, took me to Westerbork, one of the few concentration camps in the Netherlands. Walking through the forest to Westerbork, we passed by an array of huge radio telescopes directed to heaven. There, Jacob explained me, the faintest signals from space could be detected. I marveled on humanity. We have grown so sophisticated to be able to listen to the slightest sounds from outer space, but there in Westerbork, as in Dachau and Auschwitz, humanity failed to hear the deafening cry of God: “Where is Abel your brother?” And in our busy lives, we cannot hear Him cry to us even now: “Adam where are you?” Shema Yisrael!

Some did listen during Hitler’s rule in Germany, like Pastor Theodor Dipper (1906–1967), who led dozens of other pastors around Stuttgart in hiding and rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, risking their own lives. Or there was Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who preached regularly against Hitler and his deceptive and evil empire.

But God also speaks today, through Israel. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote in 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited in the wake of the Six Day War: “Now we can read it in the newspapers: God keeps His promises!” But are we listening? Do we react when He speaks? And do we act upon what we hear and see? Shema Yisrael!

God also spoke to His people during the days of Elijah through three years of devastating drought. Life became very difficult as harvests were lost, and people starved and lacked life-sustaining water. For sure, people must have died. But when Elijah’s voice resonated from Mount Carmel: “‘How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.’ But the people answered him not a word” (1 Kings 18:21).

The question is, are we listening during this current coronavirus crisis? I am concerned when I hear people say all they want and pray for is just to return to normal, to the life they lived before COVID-19. God spoke to us at the Christian Embassy through the prophet Haggai just a few days before the coronavirus hit. Haggai foresaw a great shaking coming over the world. It is a time of divine reset when God is calling us back to Him, back to more prayer, back to spending more time in His presence, back to reevaluating the priorities in our lives. Are we listening?

HANUKKAH AND THE MYSTERY OF LAWLESSNESS

By: Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President
Posted on: 18 Dec 2020

Hanukkah and the Mystery of Lawlessness
Every year during the months of November and December, the Jewish world celebrates the festival of Hanukkah. It starts the 24th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar and continues for eight days. This holiday remembers the historical events which took place in 167 BC during the time when Israel was under Syrian-Greek rule and the Jewish people were suffering severe political and religious persecution.

The Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes intended to de-Judaize the people of Israel. He forbid the study of Torah (Books of Moses) and many biblical practices, such as circumcision. He also desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing pigs. It is considered one of the darkest hours for the people of God.

Until finally, Israel was delivered through a bold leader, Judas Maccabeus. The great miracle celebrated during Hanukkah is that a tiny portion of remaining oil for the Temple’s menorah amazingly lasted for eight days, enough time to ritually produce a new supply of pure olive oil.

Hanukkah is not a “feast of the Lord” explicitly commanded by God in Scripture, as the events took place some 200 years after the last book of the Tanach (Old Testament) was written. Yet it still can be referred to as a biblical feast as the events surrounding Hanukkah were precisely prophesied by the prophet Daniel some 500 years before they happened (see Daniel 8 & 11). We also read that Jesus came to Jerusalem to mark Hanukkah, which is also known as the “feast of Dedication.” (John 10:22)

While this Jewish festival is generally not celebrated by Christians, Hanukkah still carries much significance for the Church, as it teaches us about the prophetic. It presents the Syrian-Greek king, Antioch Epiphanes, as a prototype of the future Antichrist. The Book of Daniel, chapter 11, begins by accurately describing the flow of history which led to the events around Hanukkah and then moves seamlessly into a more distant prophecy about a future villain – the Antichrist. While today not much is preached about the Antichrist, the Bible refers to him quite frequently (Daniel chapters 7, 8 11 & 12; 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 John 2 & 4; Revelation 13 & 17).

The Bible describes him as the main earthly opponent to the people of God (Israel and the Church) in the immediate years before the return of Christ. It needs to be underlined, however, that the Antichrist is neither a challenge nor a threat to God Himself. Jesus upon His arrival will effortlessly deal with him by the mere ‘breath of his mouth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:8). But he will represent a significant challenge to the people of God by “making war with the saints” (Daniel 7:21).

There are various names the Bible gives to him. Paul calls him “the man of lawlessness”, the “son of destruction”, and “the lawless one” (2 Thessalonians 2:1ff). Jesus refers to him as “another one who will come”, while John calls him the “Antichrist” (1 John 2:18ff) and “the Beast” (Revelation 13). Daniel refers to him as a king (Daniel 11) and cryptically as “a horn with eyes of a man and a mouth to speak great things” (Dan 7:8, 11, 20, 21).

It is important to understand this embodiment of evil, as his coming is not a mere possibility but an absolute certainty. Paul saw it as a prerequisite to the return of Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:3) and therefore he preached and wrote about it (2 Thessalonians 2:5). In addition, according to both Paul and John, the appearance of the Antichrist is not just a singular event, somewhere in the distant future, but they saw the principles and the spiritual force of the Antichrist already in operation in their day. I strongly believe it is also very much in operation in our days. John calls this dark force the “spirit of Antichrist” (1 John 4:3) which “is in the world already”, and Paul refers to it as the “mystery of lawlessness” that is “already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7).

Coming back to our Hanukkah story, we need to ask ourselves how did it all start back then – when Antiochus Epiphanes rose up and viscously attacked and deceived the people of God? How did the thought enter his mind to “act against the holy covenant” and to make war with the saints?

The Apocryphal book of Maccabees gives us an answer. It indicates that the thought to do so was not triggered by his own mind as a preconceived vicious plan to go against the Jews, but it originated within the people of God. In the book of First Maccabees, we read that at the same time Antiochus came to power, “lawless men arose in Israel and seduced many with their plea, ‘Come, let us make a covenant with the gentiles around us, because ever since we have kept ourselves separated from them we have suffered many evils’” (1 Maccabees 1:11). In other words, already years before Antiochus ever came to Israel the “spirit of lawlessness” was operating among the people of God, when some thought that adopting gentile practices was better than strict adherence to the word of God.

Sadly, this appeal was widely received and a delegation took the initiative even to visit King Antiochus, requesting his approval for their apostate aspirations. As a consequence, Jerusalem became a center of Greek learning and culture in the region, and a gymnasium was built there – the hallmark of Greek civilization. All activities in these gymnasiums were carried out completely nude, and soon local performers ashamed to be identified as Jews tried by various means to ‘undo’ their circumcision.

In the meantime, Antiochus strengthened his kingdom and conquered neighboring Egypt. On the way back to Greece, he passed through Jerusalem and “with arrogance he went into the sanctuary. He took the gold altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its equipment.” From now on, Greek culture was not only encouraged, it became the only allowed option. Study of Torah, prayer and circumcision were banned under penalty of death, and the Temple was completely desecrated.

The door that “lawless men in Israel” opened to liberalism and open-mindedness, to new cultures and more modern practices, led not just to more modern and ‘culturally relevant’ expressions of faith, but it opened the floodgates to the destruction of the spiritual life of Israel.

It is no surprise that Paul saw a similar sequence of events occurring in the last days. “The day of the Lord”, Paul writes, will not come “unless the rebellion comes first” followed by the “arrival of the man of lawlessness”. He sees a falling away (Greek apostasia) which precedes the coming of the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:3ff).

Paul also notes that “the mystery of lawlessness” is at work already. Both Paul and Jesus warn us about the last days, that it will not be legalism or overly strict obedience to the word of God that will be the main threat, but that “lawlessness will increase” to such a degree that people will fall away from their faith.

It should make us concerned when we hear today that during the time of the Coronavirus, the average churches in North America and Europe have lost some 50% of their attendance – including on their online platforms. “People just disappear”, a leader from Europe recently told me. While some will come back when we return to the new normal, it is still alarming.

It should make us concerned when an influential leader in the USA recently called upon his followers to “unhitch from the Old Testament”, as it is no longer relevant to the young generation of today and even steers them away from church. We should be alarmed when churches in Europe adopt transgender language for their ministries, forsaking the truth that God created mankind in His image – “male and female created He them”.

The story of Hanukkah should be a stern warning to all of us to strengthen our faith and take our stand amid the dark times we live in. But how then shall we live as everything around us seems headed for uncertainty and chaos?

The word of God gives us hope! The prophet Daniel, who himself foresaw the difficult time of Antichrist, also saw that in the midst of these challenges there will be those “who know their God.” He sees these people as not defeated and broken, but – as the New King James version says – “they will carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32). It will be a time of great darkness, but Daniel also foresees that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament,” and “turn many to righteousness like the stars” (Daniel 12:3). Also, the prophet Zechariah sees an overcoming army of “sons of Zion” who will challenge the “sons of Greece” (Zechariah 9:13).

The battle we are engaged in, unlike at the time of Maccabees, is not against flesh and blood but it is a spiritual battle against “principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). It is a time to fasten on our spiritual armor, so “that you may be able to stand in the evil day” (v. 13).

The book of Maccabees tells us that when Antiochus came to Jerusalem, his main targets were three-fold: He desecrated the altar, the menorah (lampstand), and the showbread table in the Temple.

The Menorah speaks about the prophetic testimony of the church in dark times. Let us not compromise our confession, but stand firm on God’s word. The needed oil for the Menorah’s light is the Holy Spirit, which God promises to give freely to those who seek Him.

The Table of Showbread speaks about our fellowship and communion with God and with our fellow brothers and sisters. The book of Hebrews encourages us to not “forsake the assembly, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). Do not allow Corona to stop you from meeting with your spiritual family. Even though Zoom and Skype are inadequate substitutes for personal gatherings, these tools can still be powerfully used by God and even strengthen our fellowship. Here at the ICEJ, these tools have significantly strengthened the fellowship among our global ICEJ leadership in recent months.

The Altar is our prayer life. Both Daniel and Revelation speak about the man of lawlessness targeting the “regular sacrifice”. I believe it not only speaks about a future temple, but Satan aims to kill your regular fellowship with Jesus. The most powerful antidote for the times we are living in is to strengthen our ‘prayer muscles’. I am personally very encouraged by the increase of prayer at the ICEJ during this pandemic year. I want to encourage you also to use this time of shaking to strengthen the feeble knees and rediscover the power of prayer for yourself. Maybe even consider starting the new year in prayer with our Global Prayer Gathering every Wednesday or Rosh Chodesh prayer vigil.

Hanukkah is all about the rededication of these pillars in our spiritual lives. Be encouraged to enter the new year with great resolve to stand in faith during these challenging times we now live in. Make the decision to rebuild your altar, to have oil in your lampstand, and not to forsake the fellowship of the saints.

God bless you as we end Hanukkah and enter the joyous season of Christmas and the New Year!

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