Acharei Mot (After the death)
Ezekiel 22:1-19 (A); 22:1-16 (S)
Just like the double Torah portions of Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) that are separated for leap year readings, Acharei Mot is usually coupled with the following portion, Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27). Our selection for this week starts out with describing the meticulous requirements the high priest is to perform on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur (rWPK ~wy; Leviticus 16:1-34). It is followed by general instruction about sacrificial offerings and blood (Leviticus 17:1-16), and various kinds of inappropriate sexual relations (Leviticus 18:1-30).
The instructions detailing Yom Kippur naturally get your attention in reading Acharei Mot. This observance is stated to be a permanent statute for God’s people, and a special High Sabbath, when people contemplate their humanity by humbling themselves:
“This shall be permanent statute [chuqat olam, ~lA[ tQx] for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute” (Leviticus 16:29-31).
Once a year, the Lord really does want His people to think about their sins—both individual and corporate—and what it takes to provide restitution for them. While Believers today might not think that this is really necessary, because we have the blood covering and sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua, there are still things to pray about on Yom Kippur such as those who do not have the blood covering of Messiah Yeshua over their hearts. We can also consider how we ourselves have been maturing, or not, in Him. By fasting and humbling ourselves on this solemn day, we can reflect on where we stand before the Lord, acknowledging those areas before Him in prayer where we need to improve. We can reflect on how the original sacrifice offered at Yom Kippur has now given way to the supreme of sacrifices in what the Son of God has accomplished for us, as is summarized by the Apostles:
· “[B]eing justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Messiah Yeshua; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed” (Romans 3:24-25).
· “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
· “[A]ccording to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Yeshua the Messiah and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure” (1 Peter 1:2).
· “[B]ut if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
If Paul, Peter, and John understood and reflected upon the need for a blood sacrifice to cover sin—with Yeshua’s own blood now permanently covering sin—it is obviously beneficial for us to reflect on what this all means, and what He endured for us on the cross. In this week’s Torah portion, the principle of an animal giving of itself and its blood to cover (temporarily) a human transgression, is articulated:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17:11).
Here, our Heavenly Father explains that an atonement for sin can only be accomplished by the substitution of life-for-life or blood-for-blood. In the Torah, God originally required various animals (cf. Leviticus 17:2) to provide some kind of covering for human sin. Of course, these sacrifices had to be repeated over and over, because an animal sacrifice is incomplete to cover a human sin. When Yeshua finally came and offered Himself up for fallen humanity, a permanent covering became available. In fact, according to the author of Hebrews, Yeshua’s sacrificial work is tied directly to His priestly work, and the inauguration of the age of New Covenant (cf. Hebrews 8:7-13; 10:14-18; and Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27):
“But when Messiah appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance…For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves…with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you’ [Exodus 24:8]. And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Messiah did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Messiah also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him” (Hebrews 9:11-16, 19-28).
In this passage from Hebrews, the author talks about entrance into the Holy of Holies and the blood that is required to cover sin. He uses the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices as a point of comparison and contrast for the Melchizedekian priesthood and sacrifice of Yeshua. Twice within his treatise, he interweaves the reality of the New Covenant now being available by the Messiah’s work (Hebrews 8:7-13; 10:14-18). Yeshua’s obedience to offer Himself up as the sacrificial Lamb, initiated the permanent atonement and forgiveness promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34:
“‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’”
When you read the Messianic Scriptures, you realize that the Apostles were very much aware of the serious, salvation-historical impact of Yeshua’s death. They understood that His shed blood was critical for the salvation of human beings and the inauguration of the New Covenant and the permanent atonement and forgiveness it entails. By reading their epistles and knowing what parts of the Tanakh they either were quoting from or alluding to, you can conclude that they definitely knew how the New Covenant also involved the Lord writing His Law onto our hearts.
While thinking through this in light of Acharei Mot, it dawned on me that the principles discussed in our Torah portion were also referenced at a crucial and important juncture in the development of the early Body of Messiah. In the early years after the ascension of Yeshua into Heaven, the gospel was going forth in power and people from a diverse array of backgrounds and cultures were coming to knowledge and acceptance of the gospel. A contention arose among the early Believers, because in certain areas as the good news went forth, some of the Jewish Believers demanded that the new, non-Jewish Believers become circumcised as proselytes in order to be considered “saved” (Acts 15:1).
When was the last time you read through Acts 15? From the testimonies we see recorded by Luke, if the controversy over the inclusion of non-Jews as equals into the fledgling ekklēsia was not resolved—it would erupt into a divided Body of Messiah. The non-Jewish Believers were saved the same way as Jewish Believers, by the grace of the Lord Yeshua (Acts 15:11), but not all agreed. The mixed assembly at Antioch, Paul and Barnabas’ hub of operation, seemed to not really have any problems until some highly conservative Jewish Believers from Judea came to make a visit. They insisted that without the non-Jewish Believers becoming ethnic Jews, they could not be saved (Acts 15:1-2). Knowing how the gospel was spreading out into the Mediterranean, a fair-minded solution to a potential crisis would have to be found. Paul and Barnabas are sent to Jerusalem to determine what should be done (Acts 15:3-4). The Jerusalem Council that was convened, was presided over by James, the half-brother of Yeshua, and Peter, who was the first Jewish Believer to share the good news with a non-Jew (cf. Acts chs. 10-11; 15:7-11).
If you follow the proceedings that are described in Acts 15, you will note that James seemed to sit back and listen to the different testimonies and arguments that were presented (Acts 15:7-12), before he issued his ruling. There is no doubt that James understood—as well as many of his contemporaries—that Yeshua had inaugurated the New Covenant with His sacrificial death. James would have certainly known that the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 was to be made with a restored people of Israel, and that God’s salvation was to go forth to the nations. He agrees with the testimony of Peter, and confirms how “God…concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name,” and “With this the words of the Prophets agree” (Acts 15:14-15).
James recognized the Biblical reality that the salvation of the nations was a part of the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. A specific Tanakh passage he appealed to was Amos 9:11-12, from this week’s Haftarah selection. This appears within a larger prophecy detailing the restoration of all Israel:
“‘In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by My name,’ declares the Lord who does this” (cf. Acts 15:16-18).
There is a noticeable difference with what James says in Acts 15, as Luke narrates his quote with, “so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name” (Acts 15:17). James does not follow the Hebrew text in Amos which reads sh’eirit Edom (~Ada tyrav), but the Septuagint which reads with hoi kataloipoi tōn anthrōpōn (oi kataloipoi twn anqrwpwn). The LXX Jewish translators understood Edom (~Ada) to be connected to adam (~da), the Hebrew word for “mankind, people” (HALOT, 1:14), and they rendered it into Greek as “the remnant of men” (Apostle’s Bible), referring to God’s faithful remnant that would come forth out of humanity’s masses.
James recognizes that by the work of the Messiah, the Tabernacle of David has been rebuilt—representative of the prophetic/charismatic worship ministry that King David had once established (cf. 1 Chronicles 25). Such a ministry was now manifested in the gospel going forth and changing lives, and was going to affect far more than just the First Century Jews. People from the world at large were going to be impacted with the salvation of Israel’s Messiah. And, not only would they come to welcome the gospel, but the Prophets of Israel recognized how they would seek being taught from God’s Torah (Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2). Even though there were more details to be considered in the wider selection of Amos 9:7-15, and James makes a specific appeal to “the words of the Prophets” (Acts 15:15)—meaning that there are many more Tanakh passages he could have affirmed—Amos 9:11-12 itself is quite loaded.
The Jewish Apostles and leaders of the early ekklēsia had a great command of the Scriptures. There is every reason to believe that James could have had the entire Torah, and large parts of the Tanakh, memorized. After all, both he and Yeshua grew up in the same home together. Here, Yeshua was instructed, in all truth and righteousness, by His Earthly father Joseph. The other siblings received the same instruction from their Torah obedient parents (cf. Jude 1). As James presided over the Jerusalem Council, listening to all of the arguments made, you will note by his conclusions how three of the four specific things James concludes must be adhered to by the new, non-Jewish Believers, are derived from this week’s Torah portion. While circumcision and proselyte conversion were not required of them for inclusion in the faith community, there were some things that the non-Jewish Believers had to do which were non-negotiable. The decree issued by James was,
“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:19-21).
James listed four sinful activities that he knew needed to be immediately stopped in order for the new, non-Jewish Believers to be allowed to come in among Jewish Believers for fellowship and instruction. Three of these restrictions are considered in Acharei Mot, and the fourth is mentioned and further discussed in the next Torah portion, Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27). According to the conclusions agreed upon by those at the Jerusalem Council, the four things that had to be adhered to in order to minimize the possible tension between the Believers included:
1. Abstinence from pollutions of idols
2. Abstinence from fornication
3. Abstinence from things strangled
4. Abstinence from blood
As the non-Jewish Believers would follow these four prohibitions, each of which is rooted within the Torah, they would be able to fellowship with Jewish Believers. James’ concluding statement in Acts 15:21, “For from the earliest times, Moshe has had in every city those who proclaim him, with his words being read in the synagogues every Shabbat” (CJB), implies that these new Believers would need to be instructed in the godly principles of God’s Torah, accessible at the local synagogue. They would have to submit to some kind of Torah teaching simply to know what the four prohibitions were, and as a result, they would learn more about the kinds of changes that the God of Israel required of them.
These four requirements would help take the pagan culture out of the lives of the new, non-Jewish Believers. In time, as they would become familiar with the Torah’s instructions, these former idol-worshipping pagans would begin to receive further understanding about how God’s Torah is to guide Messiah followers in holiness (cf. Matthew 5:16). By the power of the New Covenant supernaturally writing God’s commandments onto the heart—and not some demand of Torah-keeping for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5)—would the early, non-Jewish Believers learn to appreciate Moses’ Teaching.
What are some of the things these new Believers would learn from the Torah? Simply consider how three of the prohibitions delivered by James are specific negative commandments seen in Acharei Mot (and the fourth is talked about in Kedoshim).
(1) The first, and most obvious of the prohibitions that James issued, regarded the practice of idolatry. In Acharei Mot, the Torah addresses the problem of sacrifices to goat demons, which God commanded the Israelites to stop. In Kedoshim, the idols of molten gods are mentioned. James’ instruction would have prohibited any of the non-Jewish Believers from participating in social and civic events at the local shrine, where people could have conducted business activities, seeking the favor of the gods, or participated in some kind of festal rites. This section of Leviticus, the Torah commands,
“They shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations” (Leviticus 17:7).
“Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:4).
(2) The second admonition from James related to sexual immorality, a major theme of Leviticus ch. 18. While temple prostitution could definitely be in view, a whole host of sexual sins from fornication to adultery to homosexuality and bestiality are included. Acharei Mot lists many vile acts of sexual sin. The consequences of these sins for the Ancient Israelites was ejection from the Promised Land. For Believers, James could have considered violation of these commandments as grounds for excommunication from the assembly:
“Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you” (Leviticus 18:24-28).
(3) The third prohibition James issued regarded strangled meats, or animals that were killed by either choking or suffocation, with the specific intent of keeping large quantities of blood coagulated within the meat. He knew how serious the warnings were against consuming blood, as seen in the Torah, as animals killed for human food were to be properly respected (cf. Genesis 9:4). The non-Jewish Believers were expected to eat properly butchered meat, and by implication a kosher-style of diet, for fellowship with Jewish Believers. As our parashah this week details,
“And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people…For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.’ When any person eats an animal which dies or is torn by beasts, whether he is a native or an alien, he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening; then he will become clean” (Leviticus 17:10, 14-15).
While there were many areas of the Torah where the Jewish Believers recognized that the new, non-Jewish Believers would not change instantly—and they needed time—James’ decree in Acts 15:19-21 listed four prohibitions where the Jewish Believers could not be forbearing. Change was required. With the agreement of the others gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 15:22), the admonitions of James were made a “standard policy” during the early stages of building the Body of Messiah (Acts 21:25). But, the testimony of the Apostolic Scriptures indicates that such a policy, with just four areas requiring mandated change, was not always easy.
We read later about problems that arose in Corinth from eating meat sacrificed to idols. The Apostle Paul, confronting a Corinthian assembly who had people claiming “Everything is permissible for me” (1 Corinthians 6:12, NIV) and committing a wide variety of sins (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1), notes to them: “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). This was pretty serious, not only because they could bring meat sacrificed to idols to fellowship meals—but also because many of the Corinthians were still engaged in the social circle of the pagan temple! The Apostolic decree of Acts 15:19-21 was precisely designed for the non-Jewish Believers to be cut off from the social sphere of the pagan temple, and for them to be associated with their fellow Jewish Messiah followers or at least those who recognized Israel’s One God.
Of all of the things that the new, non-Jewish Believers would have doubtlessly been exposed to, as they began submitting themselves to a weekly hearing of Moses’ Teaching, is the role that blood plays as a covering for sin. They would hear the Torah’s instructions on how animals were to be sacrificed at specific times and in specific ways to provide a temporary atonement for human transgression. This might have been different from the sacrificial offerings made in Greco-Roman temples, often provided to just appease the gods or curry their favor. The non-Jewish Believers, seeing how the Levitical priesthood would have to offer sacrifices over and over again, would hopefully realize how the most important blood shed was that of the Messiah Yeshua. In hearing the Torah read, they would understand how His shed blood offered permanent atonement for all humanity.
Today’s Messianic community has attracted many evangelical Christians wanting to embrace their Hebraic Roots. They are not like the first non-Jewish Believers, who were originally raised in paganism. They already know Messiah Yeshua, and they have a basic idea about the Bible’s morality. But they do need to learn more about the Torah and the Tanakh, in an effort to appreciate why Yeshua has come and died for our sins. We all need to learn to appreciate—non-Jewish and Jewish—why He came and shed His blood for us. For, it is only by His sacrifice, that permanent atonement and forgiveness are truly available! Only by what He has accomplished, can we have eternal life and restored communion with the Father!