Revelation and Response In Torah-based Festivals – Part 2

[I finished the last post with two important questions my Theology of Christian Worship paper was intending to answer.The first is “what overarching revelatory themes should a liturgy convey?”  And the second is “what constitutes properly reverent obedience?”  The final part of my 2005 paper follows here. ]

Toward a New Covenant Liturgy of Revelation and Response: Marking Time

What overarching revelatory themes should a liturgy convey?  The main theme should be that God is Creator and Redeemer.  As noted above, God supplied humanity with a purpose and mission at creation.  Whatever else redemption accomplishes, it presumably should provide for humankind to fulfill that purpose.  This is probably why the Eden imagery is so prominent in Rev. 22.  Jesus comes therefore not only to free us from the penalty for sin, but to enable us to become a new creation that will finally be restored to God’s will of human dominion over the world (Rom. 8:20-25 cf. Gen. 1:26).  A liturgy that seeks to enable God’s revelation to his current people will need to balance these “already” and “not yet” aspects of eschatology.  Witvliet puts it this way, “Does worship induct participants into a cosmology in which God is at work faithfully in continuity with past divine action?  Does worship convey a sense of hope for the future grounded in God’s faithful action in the past?”[1]  How could such a liturgy be constructed?

Marking Time for Revelation

One possibility is to begin with a liturgy calendar that God constructed and supplied to his covenant people at Sinai.  Its special focus was a Tabernacle constructed to remind the Israelites about the lost garden, including guardian cherubim woven into the partition and the tree-like lamp stand representing the Tree of Life.  There was an altar for sacrifice with a fire that God had started miraculously.  The temporal foci were a weekly and yearly festival calendar as well as a 50-year cycle that culminated in an announcement of freedom[2] from economic and other forms of oppression.  There was a weekly rest to remind the people of God’s rest at creation and human participation in restful living under God’s Sabbath blessing.  There were covenant documents to be read out loud during the Feast of Tabernacles in the Sabbath year.  These were intended (along with moral and civil laws) to display God’s wisdom to the nations (Deut 4:6-8).  Is there anything of value in this curriculum for a New Covenant people?

There is no doubt that Jesus has fulfilled and is fulfilling all of these “shadows” (Col. 2:17).  This leads many, including John Frame to suggest things like, “the literal observance of these rites would distract us from the final accomplishment of salvation in Jesus.  Therefore God no longer requires our participation in these ceremonies.”[3]  Does this mean that the significance of the salvation events foreshadowed by and fulfilled on those dates needs to go unnoticed?  This is not necessarily the case.  New Testament Christians did seem to participate in many, if not all, of those ceremonies at least until the Temple was destroyed, and some observed gatherings on the festival dates even longer[4].  Paul’s last act before his arrest in Acts was to participate in a Temple ritual cleansing ceremony precisely to prove that he was not against the law as such (Acts 21:21-24).  Furthermore, if the “shadows” should be avoided lest they distract from the reality of Christ, what about later accretions that have no direct biblical warrant?  Are Easter eggs and Santa Claus less distracting to the reality of Jesus than remembering that there had once been animal sacrifices on the Day of Atonement?  Can dates and customs that are not even “shadows” be more effective at communicating the gospel than those which God himself ordained?

In arguing for the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper Eugene Peterson attempts to decouple it from the priestly system[5].  It is certainly true that the Passover meal as originally instituted did not involve Priests and temple ritual.  The Passover did, however involve a yearly pattern of repetition, not a weekly one.  Jesus clearly identifies his meal with a Passover celebration in Luke 22:15.

Liturgically, Jesus is signaling the initiation of an exodus.  That exodus is from sin and death.  The first is realized in full, while the second is inaugurated in Jesus’ own resurrection.  He deliberately chose a symbol that was a recapitulation of one that God gave great meaning to in Israelite salvation history.  Paul even suggests a proper response to Jesus’ paschal significance (1 Cor. 5:6-8) by commanding, “Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (v. 7, NRSV).  This hints at the possibility of a Feast of Unleavened Bread surviving in some (perhaps spiritualized) form.  At a minimum, Paul seemed to expect Gentile Corinthian Christians to understand the allusion.  The exodus symbolism may be easier to grasp if the Lord’s Supper is not decoupled from its yearly Passover association.

Hill notes that the Church year seems to be rooted in the Hebrew calendar[6].  Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Pentecost, though now calculated according to the Gregorian calendar, were all originally observances God gave to ancient Israel.  It seems odd to create a season called “Lent” when there already exists the notion of giving something up in the season of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (A giving up of something is more appropriate as an act of response to salvation remembered than as a preparation for remembering.) A Day of Atonement service would be a natural place for ritual confession of sin and pronouncement of absolution. It would also be a natural place for a theme about true liberty and social justice (Jubilee Year themes).  The Feast of Tabernacles would be ideal for a sermon series about the stipulations and promises of the New Covenant.  It could end with the theme of God “tabernacling” among his people, first as a pillar of cloud/fire, then as Jesus, and currently as the indwelling Holy Spirit, but culminating in His perpetual presence among all human beings who have trusted in Jesus.

Incorporating these festivals would go a long way toward integrating the narrative of the Old Testament into the consciousness of New Covenant Christians.  God chose those particular observances to reveal both a past and a future.  It would be good for churches to explain how Jesus uses these God-given times as types of his own salvation work.

Marking Time for Response

There is no real dichotomy between Yahweh and Jesus.  What we now call the Old Covenant was a wonderful gift from God to a people He saved.  A New Covenant became necessary because human beings were unable to live up to its holy and grace-filled demands, and therefore they broke covenant with God.  We Gentile Christians are grafted by grace into the rootstock of a remnant of Israel (Rom. 11:17-21).  Paul even warns Gentile Christians not to become proud of having “displaced” natural-born Israelites.  Reverent obedience to God is still a covenant requirement.

A reintroduction of the autumnal festivals into church worship rhythms could forge within Christians a greater, more coherent appreciation for the long-range work of a God who gave good gifts to the people of both covenants.  As we remember the past, present and future aspects of Jesus’ salvation work, it would be good to be taught about the Sinaitic/Deuteronomic Covenant by churches in a way that does not deprecate the work of God in that era of salvation history.  Fulfillment of the symbols embodied within it does not somehow render it unworthy of remembrance.  Its worship space, times and rituals were formative of a remembered salvation for a newly-freed nation and, later, of Messianic expectations for an exiled people who had broken covenant.  The apostles and early New Testament writers found in them Messianic realization and inauguration[7].  The worship space was destroyed by Roman armies.  The sacrifices were rendered obsolete by Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.  Holy times may be in a separate category.  Paul seems to be open to holy days, and refuses to let Christians set boundaries for others in this area[8].

This is good counsel for a post-modern era church.  It also leaves open the possibility of remembering the history (and future aspect) of salvation through reconnecting with the messianic symbolism that is built into the holy times God gave to ancient Israel.  This is a part of God’s revelation to his people that has been perhaps underappreciated in the church over many generations, contributing to an unnecessarily negative view of the law of the Old Covenant.

If such a reintegration is done well and non-legalistically, better appreciation for the grace of God throughout the Bible will result.  This could result in better-informed answers to questions about the seeming harshness of God in the Old Testament.  The God of the Bible has always been a God of forgiveness and fresh starts.  As examples, God rightfully objects to the neglect of the liberating aspects of his law (e.g. refusal to implement sabbatical year or jubilee) as well as the use of His delegated authority to oppress others (e.g. kingship of Ahab).  Meditation on the principles of the Old Covenant could also spark more creative ways of responding to social justice concerns than have been the norm for Evangelical Christians.

What is potentially attractive about these festivals is that their source is God.  They are to be found in the actual biblical narrative.  When the Bible reader who is aware of these festivals and their meaning encounters passages in which Jesus fulfils them, they have a context for being in awe of the great God who both foreshadowed and fulfilled that image in Jesus.  For instance, even a weekly Sabbath rest is directly connected in Hebrews 3-4 to God’s creation purpose (Hebrews 2:5-15, cf. Gen. 1:26-28) and future hope for humanity.  That future hope is none other than the purpose for which we were created: to fully have dominion with Jesus over a beautiful world that is teeming with life.

As followers of Jesus they will be aware that Jesus came to inaugurate an exodus from sin and death.  A proper response is to follow Jesus until we have fully entered into the Promised Land of eternal life.  As a follower of Jesus who is aware of the Feast of Tabernacles, one will understand that this life is a mere camping trip until real life becomes fully realized.  A proper response is to live a life entirely devoted to Jesus as an anticipation of full living.  It will also be a response of valuing treasure in heaven over treasure on earth.  Yearly reminders of the Day of Atonement may bring a response of awe and gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice.  It may also lead to a response of wanting others to experience true liberty from sin and fear of death.  It may further lead (if well understood) to a commitment to help others in tangible ways that maintain or restore their dignity, such as helping them find ways of earning a living as self-employed people rather just feeding them in soup kitchens.  There truly is a picture of freedom from the oppression of working as slaves of others in the Jubilee proclamation of this day.  Perhaps we can recapture the vision of providing for human dignity and worth that is inherent in the picture of each family being allotted a piece of land forever.

These are responses that can go beyond the normal evangelical desire to see people “saved” spiritually.  Jesus became human and was resurrected bodily to show that He desires to save not only the spirit, but also the flesh.  Remembering Jesus’ acts of salvation, past and future, via these festivals is one way to keep the tension between the already and the not-yet in liturgical view.

Potential Problems

There is always the possibility, however, that a legalistic approach could enter any attempt to reconnect with the Jewish roots of the Christian church.  Such an approach is not unknown within Jewish Messianic Christian movements.  Paul certainly insisted that Gentile converts need not become Jews in order to be saved.  He also refuses to teach his Gentile converts that keeping the Old Covenant law is required for salvation.  (Even in the establishment of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, salvation preceded covenant-obedience.  How much more is this so in the New Covenant!)  Every effort must be made to keep it from degenerating into an exclusive club of nitpicky rule-makers.

While legalism is a genuine possibility with this idea, it is also not unknown among Christians who eschew visible evidence of Jewish roots in their faith-walk.  Roman Christians endured centuries of prescribed menus and Latin worship.  Baptists would not dance, play cards or imbibe any alcohol.  All have “biblical” arguments for their rules and regulations.[9]  As a theological category, legalism cannot be limited to Jewish ways of looking at the Bible.  Festivals of any kind only reveal God’s person and will if the worshipper has a context in which to receive the revelation.  Any “holy time” imposed upon an unwilling person becomes a burden.  The solution is to make it clear, both at the outset and on a regular basis, that this should be time voluntarily set aside rather than a command.  Days that were commanded for ancient Israel are only one of many possibilities for a New Covenant people.  In an age where people are looking for coherence between what is believed and what is done, they may well be worth bringing back into the life of the church.

Conclusion

Reintroduction of the festive cycle of the Old Testament into the church in a non-legalistic way can provide occasions to meditate on the overarching themes of God’s original purpose for humanity and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  If the form and memorial function of the festivals in a liturgical year can be brought back into closer alignment with the biblical text, it may be possible to integrate better biblical understanding into the lives of church members.  This alignment could give believers better symbolic tools with which to comprehend and explain biblical revelation.  It could also potentially generate more imaginative, insightful and even truly helping-oriented responses in the lives of hearers and readers of the Divine Word.

Notes:

[1] Witvliet, p. 56.

[2] The Jubilee year pronouncement during the Day of Atonement in the 50th year of the land Sabbath cycle of Israel (Lev. 25:8-10).

[3] Frame, p. 29-30.

[4] Hill, p. 100.  Hill points to church history as suggesting that some Christians observed Jewish festivals until well into the fourth century A.D.

[5] Peterson, p. 124.

[6] Hill, p. 93

[7] See especially the book of Hebrews.

[8] Rom. 14:5-6a

[9] Howard, pp. 12-14. A fair treatment of Evangelical taboos, pointing out the ubiquity of taboos in human cultures.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allen, Ronald and Borror, Gordon. Worship: Rediscovering The Missing Jewel. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1982.

Best, Harold M. Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003.

Brueggemann, Walter. Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988.

Burkhart, John E. Worship: A Searching Examination of the Liturgical Experience. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1982.

Carson, D.A. (Ed.), Worship By The Book. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.

Dawn, Marva J., A Royal “Waste” Of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. 1999.

Dawn, Marva J. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture., Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1995.

Frame, John M. Worship In Spirit And Truth. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishers, 1996.

Hayford, Jack, Killinger, John and Stevenson, Howard., Mastering Worship. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1990.

Hill, Andrew E. Enter His Courts With Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993.

Horton, Michael S. A Better Way: Rediscovering The Drama of God-Centered Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

Howard, Thomas. Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship Of God In Liturgy And Sacrament. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1984.

Keifert, Patrick R.  Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.

Liesch, Barry. The New Worship: Straight Talk On Music And The Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001.

Lind, Millard C., Biblical Foundations for Christian Worship. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973.

Long, Thomas G.  Beyond The Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship.  Bethesda, MD:The Alban Institute, 2001.

Longman, Tremper. Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship.  Series: The Gospel According to the Old Testament.  Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001.

Old, Hughes Oliphant., Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1984

Morgenthaler, Sally. Worship Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1995.

Peterson, David. Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Plantinga, Cornelius J. and Rozeboom, Sue A. Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2003.

Saliers, Don E. Worship as Theology: Fortaste of Glory Divine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Segler, Franklin M. (revised by Randall Bradley)., Christian Worship: Its Theology and Practice. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Pub.,1996 .

Webber, Robert E. Worship Is A Verb: Eight Principles for Transforming Worship. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub., 1992.

Webber, Robert E.  Ancient Future Faith; Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999.

Webber, Robert E.  Worship Old and New. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1982.

Wiersbe, Warren. Real Worship: Playground, Battle Ground, or Holy Ground. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.

Witvleit, John. Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows Into Christian Practice. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003.

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Revelation and Response In Torah-based Festivals – Part 1

Last time I ranted about what I perceive to be a trend toward mysticism in Evangelicalism that was promulgated in the classrooms of seminaries I attended. One might well wonder what views of my own I was formulating about worship and whether I was going along with that trend at the time. The following is the first part of the major paper I wrote for the Theology of Worship class I took in 2005, while I was still attending the Worldwide Church of God. Other parts will follow. (The footnotes refer to books that appear in the Bibliography that will follow in the last installment.)

Revelation and Response In Torah-based Festivals

Introduction

 The Worldwide Church of God has undergone an unprecedented paradigm shift in its theology and practice that has freed its membership to throw off the shackles of its bondage to the cultish practices of its founder.  This freedom provides both the opportunity and the challenge of reformulating worship theology and practice in the denomination and at the local church level.  Local churches are free to worship in a style and at times best suited to them, so long as they teach that salvation is by grace alone, and is in no way dependent on works (and especially not on keeping the Old Testament Law, including the 10 Commandments).  One WCG practice that is currently under review is that of observing the annual festivals found in the Torah.  This paper will study overarching themes revealed in the Bible and discuss whether these festivals and their symbols can be useful in assisting believers in responding to God’s self-revelation in Jesus in an appropriate manner.

 

The Self-Revelation of God and Human Response in Scripture

 Primeval Revelation

How does God reveal himself and what his will is?  In the Adamic and Patriarchal ages he seems to have either directly spoken to or appeared to human beings.  At the Exodus he manifests his presence to Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  He speaks to them from a smoking, thundering mountain, and they move away in fear (Ex. 20:18). He feeds them miraculously, six days out of seven, as an indicator of when they are to observe Sabbath.  He gives Moses two tablets of stone containing the words of the covenant, written “with the hand of God” (Ex. 31:18).  Moses becomes the first of a long line of prophets, men and women who speak on God’s behalf.  The actions of God and his messengers, kings and priests are chronicled in various books, songs and poems.  Many of these are eventually collected into a series of scrolls that come to be considered sacred writings in Israel.  Jesus bases all of his teaching during his earthly ministry on the meaning and fulfillment of these writings.  His teaching, activity and those of his disciples eventually also end up written down as an additional testimony, and are collected into what comes to be known as the New Testament.

Basic Content of Biblical Revelation

The primary source of revelation about God that is available to the Church today is this testimony, by a believing people, comprised of narrative, poetry, legal code, and song (as well as other genres) that is called the Holy Bible.  In its pages God is revealed as Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  Where the revelation of God begins to impinge on humanity is that he is also described as the maker and companion of the first human beings (Gen. 1:27; 3:8).  He has a purpose in making them (1:26), and communicates it to them in a blessing (1:28-31).  This theme of human dominion over the world is important enough to be taken up directly in Ps. 8:3-8, and Heb. 2:6-10 and indirectly in Gen. 9:1-3 and Jas. 3:7.

God reveals that to remain in this blessed condition of dominion they must obey the injunction to rule over the creatures (Gen. 1:28) and to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17).  Instead, they obey the creature by eating the forbidden fruit.  For this dual sin they inherit death, a life of working hard just to eat (food literally grew on trees in the garden) and ejection from the land of blessing (3:22-24).  For subsequent generations of humanity, there was no going back (Rom. 5:14).  Even then, God’s revelation required an appropriate response – one based in obedience to God’s revealed will.

The remainder of the Bible is about God’s work to bring humanity back to the state of dominion in a blessed land.  In God’s search for a people who would follow him, he finds Abram.  Abram was apparently a person whose life embodied following God’s instructions.  In response to Abraham’s faithfulness in leaving Ur and traveling to a foreign land, God makes promises (Gen. 12) to him about nationhood, greatness and blessing that are further elaborated in Gen. 17 and 22.  Centuries later these promises culminate in the salvation of the nation of his descendents from Egyptian captivity and their formation into a nation which enjoyed a covenant with God.[1]

God reveals instructions in a Teaching (torah) at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20-23).  Following these teachings would allow them to remain in the land and to enjoy the fellowship of Yahweh in their midst.  This law prescribes all aspects of life, including acceptable worship modes and gatherings, cultic life, moral legislation, social justice and civil legislation.  Its intent is to proclaim God’s wisdom to all nations (Deut. 4:5-8) as a positive witness.  Strangers (except for certain specific enemies) are to be welcomed (even in worship) and treated fairly (e.g.: Deut. 24:14-21 and Num. 15:14).  Nowhere are non-Israelites considered “unclean.”[2]

The covenant is ratified with a blood sacrifice, a reading of the Law and the liturgical response, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:7).  They almost immediately break covenant (Ex. 32), which must then be renewed (34:8-31). This establishes another pattern that would characterize Israel’s relationship with Yahweh: covenant-breaking and covenant renewal.  God shows himself to be a faithful covenant-partner and also a punisher of covenant-breaking.  Eventually the covenant breaks down completely due to Israelite disobedience, and they are exiled from the land.

Even in the dying days of the Israelite kingdom, God looks ahead to redemption.  He repeats and elaborates on promises made to Moses (e.g. Deut. 30:1-6) through prophets like Jeremiah (e.g. Jer. 31:31-37) and Ezekiel (e.g. Ezek. 37:15-26-28).  He speaks to them about restoration and a renewal of covenant with the remnant (leftovers) of his people Israel.

Centuries later, God begins to act on the promises by sending his divine Son Jesus to redeem Israel and all of humanity (Jn 3:16-17).  Jesus proclaims Jubilee[3] (Lk. 4:16-20) and announces the terms and conditions of a new covenant (Matt. 5-7).  Jesus ratifies the new covenant in his own blood, fulfilling the death-requirement of the Law (for all sin) and all the symbolism of Israel’s cultic worship.  Jesus dies during the Passover sacrifice, is presented alive to God at dawn on the Sunday[4] during the Passover week festival, and provides the Holy Spirit (the new, interiorized Law) during Pentecost[5].  Eventually it is decided that Gentiles are not required to become Jews to be baptized (Acts 15), but may remain members of their own diverse cultures, worshipping Jesus and his Father appropriately (though not idolatrously).  The Kingdom has broken into the world!  Eschatology is not yet fully realized, however.  Jesus will return to establish a new Eden (Rev. 22:1-5, cf. Gen. 2:8-10) on a new earth (Rev. 21:1).  Jesus, the new Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-58), comes to restart humanity’s dominion on earth with a people he has purchased from death.

How is this content imparted to the people?  The basic way is through public reading of the Scriptures.  Explaining the meaning is often necessary, so some sort of exposition or preaching will usually accompany the reading (e.g. Neh. 8:8).  The biblical story is told, and the reader is left with choices.  The reader can accept the narrative and choose to join his story with that of Jesus, or he can choose to reject it and Jesus’ claims.

Response

The basic response God seems to want from human beings in the above is one of reverent obedience[6] to his words and will.  For Noah, the only acceptable response was building an ark.  God cites Abram’s immediate departure from Ur as a pleasing response.  Human response is not adequate until the work requested by God is done (Jas. 2:20-26) or unless the conditions he requires are met (such as the injunction not to eat of the forbidden fruit).  The first important characteristic of worship, therefore, is that worship involves obedience (either in doing something or in refraining from doing something) to God’s revealed word.  All of the exclamations or gestures[7] involved in what we today call corporate or personal worship are symbolic of bending our will in submission to God’s will.  To say, as the Israelites said, “All that the Lord has commanded we will do”, and then stop short of the doing is false worship.  In reality, it is not worship at all.

Hearing the story of God and responding faithfully to it are acts that set apart a people for the service of God.  Each person constructs a mental map of their personal reality, and responds to circumstances congruently with that world view.[8] After studying the work of Mowinckel and other pioneers, Walter Brueggemann concludes, “For the community gathered around Jesus, however, it is precisely the act of worship that is the act of world-formation!”[9]  The community believes, then acts in a way consistent with belief that Jesus is Lord.  How do others see that Jesus is Lord? They see the praise of the believers toward Jesus and their obedience to Jesus’ will.

Gestures or ritual actions alone will not do (Jas. 1:26-27), nor will obedience that does not flow out of reverence (Matt. 7:21-23).  As Andrew Hill suggests, “True worship must be a response of the whole person to the God of creation and redemption.”[10]  Many of the recent books about worship rightly emphasize the importance of enthusiasm in response to various aspects of revelation in liturgy.  There are two good questions to ask at this point.  The first is what overarching revelatory themes should a liturgy convey?  And the second is “hat constitutes properly reverent obedience?  All other questions of style and responsiveness must necessarily wait until these important issues are addressed.

[1] Note that the order is promise, salvation, then covenant.  This order is important in understanding Paul’s teaching on law and grace.  Obedience to covenant-law is based on an already-accomplished salvation.

[2] This is useful in understanding Peter’s vision in Acts 10.  God has never called Gentiles “unclean”, so Jews are going beyond their authority by doing so.

[3] The language of the Isaiah passage he is reading is modeled on the Jubilee year pronouncement during the Day of Atonement on the 50th year of the land Sabbath cycle of Israel (Lev. 25:8-10).  This proclaims freedom to return to ancestral lands that have been sold and freedom from the oppression of being required to work for others.  It also represented a rest from the toil of earning one’s living from the sweat and toil of raising a crop (a picture of Eden).

[4] Longman, p. 192.  The WCG followed the same view of the count to Pentecost. The most natural reading of Lev. 23:15-22 suggests a weekly rather than an annual Sabbath.  This would make the offering of the “wave sheaf” on the Sunday morning during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost would also always be on a Sunday seven weeks following.  The “wave sheaf”, offered at dawn, symbolizes the “firstfruits” of the harvest offered to God.  Jesus becomes the “firstfruits” (1 Cor 15:23) of a resurrected humanity faithful to God.  This allows Pentecost to function as the beginning of the harvest of believers in Acts 2.

[5] According to Jewish tradition Pentecost was the time of the delivery of the Ten Commandments (as well as the covenant) at Mt. Sinai during the Exodus.

[6] Hill, p. 3, referring to the Hebrew word yare, as in “fear of the Lord”.

[7] Hill, p. 2-9.  Hill notes that the Hebrew words rendered “worship” in English mean things like “seek/inquire”, “fear/obey”, “serve”, “minister”, “bow down”, “prostrate oneself”. “grovel” or “approach the King”.  Every one of them seems to have, at its root, the sense of obeisance – a fealty to the Great King.

[8] Brueggemann, p. 26.

[9] Brueggemann, p. 27.

[10] Hill, p. xxx.

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Mysticism, Evangelical Style

Several of the most confusing classes I encountered in my Bible College and Seminary training were related to worship and spiritual formation. Terms like “authenticity” and “experiential” were buzzwords thrown around to signify what traditional Evangelical church services are missing. I got the impression that intense, sappy emotion generated by hypnotic music was the primary indicator of an “authentic” religious experience.

At the time of my Bible College education I was about twice the age of the average student, so I was given more leeway in being required to attend student chapel services, etc. After several experiences during which I felt that students were being emotionally manipulated I opted out of the services. The rationale behind intense emotion and mood-setting music in worship was explained in classes about worship.

It seems that a mind cluttered with distracting thoughts makes it difficult for God’s Spirit to penetrate to the level of our hearts. Hypnotic music (my term, not theirs) plus repetitive lyrics equals clearing of the mind to receive God’s inspiration.

In addition to all of this, symbols, imagery, tactile sensations and even aromas (incense) may “enhance” the “experiential aspect” of worship. The idea seems to be to get the mind off of the earthly and into the heavenly. Old Testament-based worship postures and gestures also contribute to “authentic” worship. They help worshippers to “focus” on “experiencing the presence of God.”

In Seminary, many of the same practices were recommended, along with styles of worship recommended by writers referred to as “the New Evangelicals” or leaders of “the Emergent Church.” What I found particularly surprising is that the personal “spiritual disciplines” recommended by both seminaries I attended were developed by Roman Catholic mystics from the Third Century onward.

Some of the New Evangelical writers even speak highly of Protestants who “convert” to Roman Catholicism along their journey into the modes of worship now on offer in Evangelical churches.

As a former Roman Catholic myself, I found the whole thing somewhat disturbing.

Even more disturbing to me is that my call to a personal relationship with Jesus began with Jesus freeing me from an occultism that began with similar practices of emptying my mind to “get in touch” with the “spiritual realm.”

Needless to say, “stilling my soul” or “clearing my mind” is not a practice I will be engaging in any time soon. For me, that would be very dangerous.

I’m not convinced that it is any less dangerous for other Christians.

As I recall from one class on spiritual formation even the Desert Fathers who started the whole tradition of “Christian” mysticism pepper their writings with warnings about intense spiritual encounters with evil spiritual beings or forces (or their own “darker side”) during meditative times. This seems to me to be a very arduous and dangerous way to be in touch with a God who is only a prayer away in Jesus Christ.

It was while doing a paper in an undergraduate class about the history and thought of the denomination of the Bible College I was attending that I encountered a seminal paper online about the phenomenology of mysticism. Evelyn Underhill’s book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness  notes the many similarities between Eastern meditative mysticism and the Christian variety in both practices and the resulting feelings of closeness to (or alienation from!) the spiritual entities encountered or invoked. It was quite an eye-opener. A quote from her chapter about mysticism and theology should illustrate the point.

Because it is characteristic of the human self to reflect upon its experience, to use its percepts as material for the construction of a concept, most mystics have made or accepted a theory of their own adventures. Thus we have a mystical philosophy or theology—the comment of the intellect on the proceedings of spiritual intuition—running side by side with true or empirical mysticism: classifying its data, criticizing it, explaining it, and translating its vision of the supersensible into symbols which are amenable to dialectic.

Such a philosophy is most usually founded upon the formal creed which the individual mystic accepts. It is characteristic of him that in so far as his transcendental activities are healthy he is generally an acceptor and not a rejector of such creeds. The view which regards the mystic as a spiritual anarchist receives little support from history; which shows us, again and again, 96 the great mystics as faithful sons of the great religions. Almost any religious system which fosters unearthly love is potentially a nursery for mystics: and Christianity, Islam, Brahmanism, and Buddhism each receives its most sublime interpretation at their hands. Thus St. Teresa interprets her ecstatic apprehension of the Godhead in strictly Catholic terms, and St. John of the Cross contrives to harmonize his intense transcendentalism with incarnational and sacramental Christianity. Thus Boehme believed to the last that his explorations of eternity were consistent with the teaching of the Lutheran Church. The Sufis were good Mohammedans, Philo and the Kabalists were orthodox Jews. Plotinus even adapted—though with what difficulty—the relics of paganism to his doctrine of the Real.

The inner reality that the Hindu or Buddhist mystic seems to correspond to that which the “Christian” mystic experiences. It doesn’t matter which religion one holds in theory, the mystical experience is essentially the same. This suggests an underlying “experience” of God that is not Christian at its core, as noted further in the same chapter:

Unless safeguarded by limiting dogmas, the theory of Immanence, taken alone, is notoriously apt to degenerate into pantheism; and into those extravagant perversions of the doctrine of “deification” in which the mystic holds his transfigured self to be identical with the Indwelling God. It is the philosophical basis of that practice of introversion, the turning inward of the soul’s faculties in contemplation, which has been the “method” of the great practical mystics of all creeds. That God, since He is in all—in a sense, is all—may most easily be found within ourselves, is the doctrine of these adventurers;

In my view, the degeneration into pantheism or panentheism is inevitable. This is why Christian mysticism is not for me. My Lord is not the same as the Hindu or Muslim or pagan gods. Jesus is not reached through mantras or “inner stillness.” Whoever the mystics reach, it is not the God who came to be with us in the flesh. Our God is knowable through his revealed word, the Bible and through his Holy Spirit, who reveals Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.

Worship that leads to a trance-like state or to a state of receptiveness to whatever the pastor is preaching strikes me as going overboard. Paying attention to the actual message and comparing it to the Scriptures strikes me as more profitable than just going along with a music-generated mood and calling it “spiritual.”

If the pastor’s theology and reasoning are sound, he is probably preaching God’s word, that is, if he preaches the gospel message that Jesus died for our sins and offers salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. (Remember that faith includes faithfulness to Jesus as Lord.)

That message does not need to have an audience that is lulled into a “receptive” state. In fact, most of Jesus’ disciples were killed because of that message.

If Jesus is Lord, let him speak when it suits him to speak, and not just because we want him to. Maybe we should get back to reading the Bible and letting his Spirit interpret the meaning and message for us. Filling our minds with the faithful words of the Scriptures strikes me as much more productive for hearing God’s “voice” than emptying our minds in the hopes that God (and not some other spirit!) will enter.

Replacing the message of the cross of Jesus with an alternative way of “feeling God’s presence” via emotion or sensory experience strikes me as a definite trading of authentic worship for a cheap substitute. For me, it represents more than just a “dumbing-down” of the church. It suggests a false gospel. Jesus isn’t a feeling. Jesus is Lord.

I am not saying that emotion has no place in worship. Of course it does! What it shouldn’t do is replace thought in worship. And it certainly shouldn’t replace the Jesus who died to take on our sins with a Jesus who loves everybody so much that he will not punish for sin or condemn anyone in a final judgment.

The Jesus who died for our sins and who is now alive again is the one and only true Lord.

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Jesus and the Unclean Things

It seems strange to me for Christians to have a negative view of the law that God gave to ancient Israel. One of the claims that Jesus makes is that he came, not to abolish the law, but rather to fulfill it. To claim that Jesus came to fulfill it must indicate that it is somehow necessary that it be fulfilled. If it must be fulfilled it must have a necessary place in God’s plan of salvation. This post will touch on one aspect of that law that had to be “fulfilled” in Jesus.

The law contained in what Christians call the “Old Testament” has regulations about many things that we modern people find strange, obscure or downright primitive. One concept that can be difficult for us to get a handle on is the idea of the “unclean.” It is a wide-ranging concept that can apply to everything from bodily discharges, clothing and building materials to food.

As a general rule, people who come into contact with “unclean” items become ritually defiled, which means they could not participate in rituals at the Tabernacle or Temple grounds. In some extreme cases, they must even stay away from other people or even leave the main camp of the Israelites.

One of the extreme examples is the disease usually translated as “leprosy” in the Bible. Years ago I read an article by a Christian physician who suggests that the symptoms are different from what we currently call leprosy. He suggests that it was probably a highly infectious disease like smallpox that produces the symptoms described in Leviticus 13. Notice what the sufferer is supposed to do to protect others in Lev. 13:45-46.

Lev. 13:45 Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

The requirement to warn people away and keep their mouths covered is consistent with the idea of a public health measure to prevent the spread of an infectious disease. If that was the intent, this is a law that was well ahead of its time.

Leviticus 15 details a somewhat less serious way to become ritually defiled involved bodily discharges, including blood. Coming into contact with blood usually involved a need to bathe and remaining unclean for community worship until the sun goes down. (In Israel, the day officially ended and the next one began when it got dark.)

People with weeping sores or bloody discharges were considered unclean until they were healed of the condition and went through a ritual involving an examination by a priest and an offering. Anything the person with the discharge sat on or came into contact with also became unclean and had to be washed. This was also likely, at least in part, a public health measure, but with the added element that blood was considered to carry the life of the person. The spilling of blood is seen as a very negative thing.

For the latter reason, Israelites needed to avoid worship at the Tabernacle when defiled by blood. The section on blood and bodily discharges ends with the following warning.

Lev. 15:31 ‘Thus you shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness when they defile My tabernacle that is among them.

There were other ways to become too defiled or unclean to worship at the Tabernacle or Temple, as listed in Leviticus 21.

Lev. 21:1 And the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘None shall defile himself for the dead among his people, 2 except for his relatives who are nearest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; 3 also his virgin sister who is near to him, who has had no husband, for her he may defile himself. 4 Otherwise he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself… 10 ‘He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes; 11 nor shall he go near any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother;

Lev. 22: 1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy things of the children of Israel, and that they do not profane My holy name by what they dedicate to Me: I am the Lord. 3 Say to them: ‘Whoever of all your descendants throughout your generations, who goes near the holy things which the children of Israel dedicate to the Lord, while he has uncleanness upon him, that person shall be cut off from My presence: I am the Lord.

Priests bore a heavy responsibility in service before God. The high priest was required to abstain from touching any corpse, even those of the closest family members. Other priests were allowed to touch only the corpses of immediate family in mourning. Of course that prevented them from doing their priestly duties until they had washed and the sun had gone down. Because the high priest was always “on call” for God, he could not afford even that luxury.

There were, of course, other ways beyond these three to become “unclean” for purposes of gathered worship at the appointed place. I chose these three to illustrate how Jesus’ interactions with the “unclean” can radically transform our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do. In order to do that we need to become familiar with the principles of what happens when holy, clean and unclean interact in the scheme God built into Israel’s worship. There is a passage by the prophet Haggai that illustrates these principles.

Haggai 2: 10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, 11 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Now, ask the priests concerning the law, saying, 12 If one carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and with the edge he touches bread or stew, wine or oil, or any food, will it become holy?” ‘ ” Then the priests answered and said, “No.” 13 And Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?” So the priests answered and said, “It shall be unclean.” 14 Then Haggai answered and said, ” ‘So is this people, and so is this nation before Me,’ says the Lord, ‘and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean. [NKJV]

Of course, the main point of the passage is to tell the remnant who had returned to Judea that their works were not pleasing to God, but that God would work with them anyway and eventually redeem them for his supreme purpose.

Notice, however, what happens when the holy touches the ordinary or “clean.” Basically nothing. The holy doesn’t become ordinary and the ordinary doesn’t become holy. What happens when the “unclean” touches the clean is that the clean becomes unclean.

The lesson is that “uncleanness” is contagious. It spreads by contact. By analogy, a person or people contaminated by sin is considered “unclean” by God. Unfortunately, they cannot clean themselves up on their own.

Old Testament scholars that I have read speculate that for the unclean to directly contact the holy would produce a catastrophic reaction analogous to mixing matter and antimatter, which is why Leviticus warns the “unclean” to stay away from the Tabernacle in Lev. 15:31, lest they be destroyed as a people.

By the time Jesus appears on the scene about 400 years after Haggai, not much has changed spiritually among that people. They are still as “unclean” in God’s eyes as when Haggai spoke. Gospel writers Luke and Mark record many instances of Jesus interacting with those who had become “unclean” according to the laws above. Three of those interactions are listed below. Some implications of those interactions will follow.

Luke 17: 12 Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. 13 And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed. 15 And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, 16 and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. 17 So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? 18 Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Mark 5: 22 And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name. And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet 23 and begged Him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter lies at the point of death. Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live.” 24 So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him. 25 Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, 26 and had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment. 28 For she said, “If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well.” 29 Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction. 30 And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My clothes?” 31 But His disciples said to Him, “You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, Who touched Me?’ ” 32 And He looked around to see her who had done this thing. 33 But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. 34 And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” 35 While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” 36 As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not be afraid; only believe.” 37 And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James. 38 Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly. 39 When He came in, He said to them, “Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping.” 40 And they ridiculed Him. But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying. 41 Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, “Talitha, cumi,” which is translated, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” 42 Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age. And they were overcome with great amazement. 43 But He commanded them strictly that no one should know it, and said that something should be given her to eat.

We are not told whether Jesus has physical contact with the ten lepers, but they walk away from the encounter healed of their leprosy. ”Jesus is touched by the woman with a flow of blood, and she is healed. He touches the dead girl’s body, and she comes back to life.

Is he unclean? A prominent New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop whose work I admire greatly believes that it does make him so, for purposes of substitutionary atonement.

As much as I believe in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ and as much as I admire this Bishop’s writings, I suspect that the results suggest something else.

The answer has to do with who Jesus is. Jesus is not an ordinary man. He is, somehow, able to reverse uncleanness. In Jesus, the holy has united with the ordinary as “God in the flesh.” As mortal, he can come directly into contact with the unclean without catastrophic consequences. As God, his holiness can “rub off” on the unclean and make them whole again.

Not only is his cleansing of the unclean a clue as to Jesus’ identity as God-in-the-flesh. It is also a clue to his mission: restoration of humanity into a proper relationship with God. Just as Israel’s remnant was considered “unclean” by God because of their sinful nature and actions, so are all of us before God forgives us. We also need to be cured of the desire to sin, or forgiveness will not help much.

Jesus heals the cause of the uncleanness, whether it is illness or loss of life. When it comes to the uncleanness of sin, he can cure the cause of that, too.

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What Would God Have Us Do?

[This message is inspired by Ava Pennington’s post titled “Three Messages Pastors Should Not be Afraid to Preach.]

Within the overall perspective of God redeeming the creation through his Son Jesus’ ministry, death, resurrection and heavenly intercession there are consistent themes that run through the Bible. One of those themes is the answer to the question, “What does God want from me?” or “What does God want me to do now that I have been saved?”

The answer is first mentioned in Deuteronomy 10:12-21 at the time Israel was about to enter the Promised Land. It has a threefold punch. The first and most important aspect is the fear and love of the one true God with all our heart and soul. Along with that comes a requirement to “circumcise” their hearts and to cease being stubborn. Because God is great, mighty and also happens to be their liberator, a certain humility and cooperation with him is a good starting place.

The next two aspects flow out of God’s desire that they “walk in all his ways.” He introduces himself as the God who is not partial and who takes no bribe. He also “executes justice for the widow and orphan.” In other words, he is a God of unswerving justice who does not tolerate using the judicial system to oppress the helpless.

The idea of God protecting and helping the helpless of Israel is extended to the “stranger” in the very same verse. God “loves the stranger,” and it behooves the people of God to also love the foreigner among them. Immigrants to any country may be among the most vulnerable people due to a lack of support mechanisms of family and friends. It would be easy to take unfair advantage of them in terms of lower wages or lack of access to jobs. God wants his people to be kind to the disadvantaged by providing the sustenance, shelter and clothing they desperately need. Kindness and mercy are important aspects of “walking in his ways.”

Centuries later both kingdoms had wandered far from God. A chief symptom of that wandering was the evil of the strong preying on the weak. In the works of the prophet Micah,

Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. [Micah 2:1-2 NRSV]

Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” Therefore Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. [Micah 2:9-12 NRSV]

God reminds them through this prophet of the reason for the anger and disgust with his people.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly before your God. [Micah 6:8]

Once again God gives them a threefold response. Justice, kindness and a humble walk with God are what God expects of his people. It is interesting that he expects them to “love kindness.” Kindness is not intended to be a grudging aspect of character, but a matter of strong and willing desire.

By the time of Jesus the religious establishment in Judea (the “remnant” of Israel under Roman domination) had decided that obedience to the ceremonial laws would be enough to gain God’s favour. Jesus has this to say about the prevailing view,

Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! [Matt. 23:23]

It is easy to see what Jesus considers to be the most important aspects of what God expects of anyone who would follow Jesus. Those three words, justice, mercy and faith are elaborated on in the Deuteronomy passage above. This message is consistent throughout the Bible.

I recently had an experience that, for me, underscored how difficult “faith” as described in the Bible is. A humble and obedient “walk with God” is not easy at all. Faith is not just a matter of mental belief. It is more a matter of “being faithful” to God.

I have what is referred to in seminary as a “bi-vocational ministry.” In other words I am not a paid minister. I have a day job, like most other people. My employer contracts services to other business and government organizations.

In my desire to be helpful to both our client and their customers I sometimes overlooked restrictions our client placed on my work. Naturally I had all manner of justification in my mind for doing so, such as helping with the smooth flow of work at the site. In the end, however, I was simply doing what I was not allowed to do.

My employer received an official complaint from our client about my activities in that regard, and had the unpleasant task of officially reprimanding me. No matter what my rationalizations, the fault was entirely mine. By violating my conditions I was not being faithful to my employer nor to our client.

It would have been perfectly just for them to fire me for the breach, but they graciously allowed me to remain after a stern official warning on my work record – as long as I stop violating the conditions.

That was a wake-up call for me on more than one level.

If it is so easy for me to be less-than-faithful on the “secular” plane, how hard is it for me to be faithful in my “walk” with God? Of course, keeping faith with my employer is part of my walk with God, so repentance and acceptance of consequences is part of the package.

In retrospect, my life at work has become easier and more productive since I stopped doing what I was not supposed to do. That has also been the case for every area of my life in which I have turned from sin.

Fortunately, God is even far more gracious than my employer. Softening a hard heart is a specialty of his Son and his Spirit. I know I’m in good hands as I discover the myriad ways that my “walk” with him needs to change in order to more closely match his ways, and not my own.

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“You Shall Read This Law”

[Bible references in this post are from the New Revised Standard Version]

One of the clues that the so-called old covenant follows a fairly standard ancient covenant format is that ancient covenants usually have what the experts refer to as a “document clause.” This is a statement that specifies how often and when the parties are supposed to read the covenant documents. The following quote from the end of the book of Deuteronomy does exactly that.

Deut. 31: 9 Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 Moses commanded them: “Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths,   11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people—men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns—so that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, 13 and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”

Several things are interesting or unusual about the above “document clause.” As one example, normally only a nation’s king would need to read it at the specified times. In this case, not only all men and women are to hear it read to them, but so are resident aliens and even children. Everyone is to be exposed to the law of God in that nation.

Another interesting thing about this clause is that it occurs during the Feast of Tabernacles (or booths) each seventh year – the year of land Sabbath and release from debts. Israelites and resident aliens were to be reminded of the privileges and responsibilities of living in God’s Promised Land at the time of debt-release, when it mattered most.

This reading of the law was intended to produce an effect on the hearers. They were to learn to fear God and diligently observe that law as a result of hearing it.

Their time in the Promised Land was to start on the right foot by reminding Israel of this law, starting the clock running for their seven-year cycle.

Josh. 8:30 Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, 31 just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the Israelites, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, “an altar of unhewn stones, on which no iron tool has been used”; and they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord, and sacrificed offerings of well-being. 32 And there, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33 All Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, blessings and curses, according to all that is written in the book of the law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the aliens who resided among them.

2 Chronicles 2-7 chronicles another important event that occurred during the Feast of Tabernacles. The timing of the events is indicated in the following passage:

2 Chr. 5:2-5 Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the people of Israel, in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion. 3 And all the Israelites assembled before the king at the festival that is in the seventh month. 4 And all the elders of Israel came, and the Levites carried the ark. 5 So they brought up the ark, the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent; the priests and the Levites brought them up.

As the brand-new Temple is being dedicated God himself makes an appearance, just to let everyone know that he approves of his new home.

2 Chr. 5:11-14 11 Now when the priests came out of the holy place (for all the priests who were present had sanctified themselves, without regard to their divisions), 12 all the levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their sons and kindred, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with one hundred twenty priests who were trumpeters. 13 It was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, 14 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.

2 Chr. 7:1, 1 When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.

8-10 8 At that time Solomon held the festival for seven days, and all Israel with him, a very great congregation, from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. 9 On the eighth day they held a solemn assembly; for they had observed the dedication of the altar seven days and the festival seven days. 10 On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their homes, joyful and in good spirits because of the goodness that the Lord had shown to David and to Solomon and to his people Israel.

Even with all the hoopla and worship at the Temple something seems to have been missing. Generations later, after a 70-year exile from the land, a small remnant had returned to resume worshipping in the land (though still under foreign domination.) Upon looking through the law, they discovered a few things that they needed to do.

Neh. 8:14 And they found it written in the law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month, 15 and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” 16 So the people went out and brought them, and made booths for themselves, each on the roofs of their houses, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them; for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. 18 And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the festival seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.

It would seem that even Solomon’s Feast of Tabernacles was not as spiritually uplifting as the one in Nehemiah’s time. What was missing? We can’t be absolutely sure, but my guess would be something not mentioned in 2 Chr. 5-7 – a reading of the law.

After the reading of the law, something amazing happened. Something that resulted in an extra meeting to conduct necessary spiritual repairs. Hearing the ancestral law helped them realize that their relationship with God needed to be healed with a strong dose of repentance and obedience.

Neh. 9:1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads.   2 Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. 3 They stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth part of the day, and for another fourth they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God.

They somehow knew that God wants more than professions of obedience. In addition to repentance, he looks for what John the Baptist called “fruit worthy of repentance.” This involves a change in how one lives. Professions of obedience must lead to actual obedience, or they are worthless to God.

A similar story from earlier in Israel’s history demonstrates a similar effect from reading the law. A rare righteous king decides to follow God and repair the Temple. As workmen clear the rubble they make an astonishing discovery and report it to the high priest, who then approaches the king’s personal secretary.

2 Ki. 22:8 The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. 9 Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord.” 10 Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” Shaphan then read it aloud to the king. 11 When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. 12 Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, 13 “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” 14 So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. 15 She declared to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, 16 Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. 18 But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. 20 Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.” They took the message back to the king.

King Josiah’s reaction saved an entire nation for the duration of his lifetime. (Unfortunately for the nation he met a self-inflicted untimely end, but that is a story for another day.)

Another component of ancient covenants is called the “historical prologue.” In that part of the document is the story of how the current relationship between the parties came to that point. The book of Deuteronomy (which means “repeat of the law” in Greek) has a very extensive review of the history of the people of Israel, from Abraham to the exodus from Egypt and the 40 years in the wilderness.

Even the Ten Commandments has a historical prologue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

In preaching about Jesus’ new covenant in Acts 2, Peter’s sermon includes a history of how Jesus fulfils both prophecy and the provisions for redemption in the law. The reaction to it is interesting: an intense need to know what to do about it. When Peter replies that repentance and baptism are necessary, they quickly are moved to become Christians.

The writings of the New Testament function in the same way for Christians and for those who are being called to follow Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day” (John 6:44). On the other hand, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1-2).

If reading the words of Moses and the ancient prophets was intended to bring people back to God, how much more should reading the recorded words of God’s own Son.

Of course, modern Christians can sometimes forget that the Old Testament was the only Bible available to the first generation of Christians. The words of the original disciples served as a witness to how Jesus fulfilled the promises of Moses and the Prophets. Eventually some of those disciples and their helpers wrote histories and letters about Jesus and the early Christian heroes. It is those writings, of course, that make up what we now call the New Testament.

Within those writings we can see how that first generation of Christians saw and related to Jesus. They also provide glimpses of how they interpreted the writings of the Law and the Prophets. This is why reading and understanding the entire Bible is important. If you miss the Old Testament, you miss a lot of context.

Of course, missing the New Testament is a sure way to miss the whole story of how a down-and-out nation of Israel begins to be redeemed in a way that also includes the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed by Abraham’s “seed.”

As we were singing the closing hymns of our service a passage in Isaiah 11 came to mind (though I could not remember chapter and verse at the time). It connects with the reading of the law during the Feast of Tabernacles. Speaking of a time of universal peace and abundance, the passage speaks of the earth being “filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the seas.”

The reading of the law to Israelite and Gentile residents at the festival points ahead to a time when everyone will know the Lord.

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Feast of Tabernacles: Get Into the Flow

[Note: The material in this post may seem familiar because it has appeared in other forms in previous posts on this website.]

The book or John organizes Jesus’ ministry around different “Jewish” festivals, many of which were ordained by God for Israel in the days of Moses. The events chronicled in John 7-10 take place during the autumn Feast of Tabernacles. This was an eight-day festival that celebrated, among other things, the larger fall harvest of wheat.

Kevin Howard and Marvin Rosenthal describe an important Feast of Tabernacles ritual. Each morning of the festival, a procession would begin from the Pool of Siloam, where the high priest would scoop up a pitcher of water and walk back to a corner of the altar at the Temple. In the meantime another procession had gathered willow boughs from a nearby location and placed them on the sides of the altar to form a leafy canopy above it. A crowd would joyously follow the high priest back to the Temple. As he entered the aptly-named Water Gate, the assembled priests would quote Isaiah 12:3, “Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” [As quoted from The Feasts of the Lord, p. 138] Afterward, the high priest would pour out the water into a basin at the altar, which emptied at the ground at the base. Simultaneously, a pitcher of wine was poured into another basin on the other side of the altar.

While this was happening, the priests would play musical instruments and sing Psalms 113-118 (praise psalms collectively called the Hallel). The priests circled around the altar while a set of three trumpet blasts filled the air. “At the proper time, the congregation waved their palm branches toward the altar and joined in singing: “Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity’ (Ps. 118:25).” [Howard and Rosenthal, p. 138] (This is exactly what the palm-branch-waving crowds were doing on what is now referred to as Palm Sunday when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. “Hosanna” is Hebrew for “save now.”)

On the seventh day of the Feast, the intensity of this ritual increased, with sevenfold trumpet-blasts and seven circles around the altar. Around 30 AD, a thirty-ish Galillean surprised the crowds by shouting out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38 as quoted by Howard & Rosenthal, p. 141). John notes that it cause no small stir.

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee?”

At this particularly Messianic moment of the festivities, Jesus was telling them that He is the source and cause of their salvation. According to Howard and Rosenthal, “Ancient Jewish theology connected the water-drawing ceremony with the Holy Spirit… The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in relation to salvation was a much-repeated theme of the Old Testament prophets (Isa. 32:15; 59:21; Ezek. 11:9; 36:27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29)” [Feasts of the Lord, p. 147].

The idea of rivers of living waters has ancient roots, and is represented in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, which was watered by a river whose waters in turn became the source of every other major river in the world. These were rivers that flooded their banks once a year in order to fertilize the surrounding soil, producing bumper crops that sustained the highest civilizations of the day.

The symbolism reappears in Ezek. 47:1-12, where a river begins at the south side of the east face of the altar, and proceeds east, healing rivers and seas wherever it goes. It supports fruit trees on either side which bear fruit all twelve months of the year. Ezekiel’s river imagery is picked up by John in the book of Revelation, where the trees are identified as trees of life, just as in Eden.

The prophet Zechariah also writes of that time.

Zech 14:8 – On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.

One of our members noticed that Jesus ends his confrontations at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (10:22-30) with the declaration that he is the “good shepherd.” (This seems to have occurred on the Eighth Day, considered a different, yet related feast by the Jewish community.) Knowing the Feast of Tabernacles background of this statement helped her understand what Jesus meant better. According to Psalm 23, David’s shepherd led him to green pastures beside the “still waters” or “waters of rest.” Jesus had not changed the subject. He was just telling them (and us!) to follow Him to the waters of rest in His Spirit.

Whether or not Ezekiel and John are also talking about literal waters under a new heavens and earth, we can’t go wrong by following Jesus. We do know that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit because John tells us what he meant. Have you come to Jesus for the living water that only he can lead you to?

Living waters have an amazing effect on the surrounding land, as noted by the prophet Isaiah.

Is. 35:1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

Based on the descriptions above, living water seems to bring life to all the land it touches. Living water brings what Isaiah describes as “joy” and “gladness” to the desolate places. It decorates the surroundings with lush growth by creating conditions for growth. Like the Nile, Tigris or Euphrates rivers, it overflows its banks at just the right time of the year, spreading fertile soil and moisture to ensure a marvelous, sustaining crop along its flood plain.

There must be an analogy here somewhere, as there is so often in Jesus’ teaching. If Jesus provides us with streams of living waters coming out of our innermost being, how is that reflected in our lives and in the lives of those whose lives we touch?

Do we bring life, health and joy to those around us?

Do we radiate the peace of Christ to those who are near us?

Or do we bring shame, condemnation and fear to those around us? Are we the downer in the lives of our neighbours? Are they afraid to talk to us because of what they know we’ll say about their way of living?

I think Jesus calls us to let His streams of living water flow out of our hearts and into the hearts and lives of others around us. He gives us living water to refresh and bring joy to others, not to hoard it for ourselves or even for the church. It overflows our banks, spreading hope, life and joy and growth wherever the water reaches.

Let’s ask God to let the living, healing streams flow unhindered through our lives.

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