Back when Herbert W. Armstrong was alive and we members of his church tried to live as if the Law of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy applied to Christians I was confronted by a man who was very close to me.
I had been stuck in a dead-end job for about six years, in part because I wanted to keep the Sabbath. We were in financial straits and Wanda’s health was very unstable, and our ministers seemed to be blaming me for it. Nothing seemed to be going well for us at the time. A man I love and respect greatly (who wasn’t in the WCG) wondered if my life was becoming seemingly a train-wreck due to a misplaced or incorrect faith.
I told him that, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I was living my life according to the best principles I could understand from the Bible at the time. I search and research, and if I discover any misunderstanding on my part I change accordingly. I couldn’t think of any better way to proceed in life, but if he could think of a better way he was free to share it with me. What I did then I did not do for wealth or opportunity or promise of a pain-free life, but rather because it seemed to me to be the right and proper thing to do, based on my research and life experience. (Note: He did not share a better way with me.)
Eventually circumstances changed. Out of the blue I was blessed with a much better job. With research I began to understand Wanda’s illness better and handle it in better ways. (Among other things I began seeing limits to pastoral advice about matters they had no expertise in – which helped.) The man who had confronted me earlier, noticing the changes, told me that I should keep on doing what I am doing, because it was obviously working out right after all. Oddly enough, I was still doing the same things – but not because they were now working out for my benefit.
Eventually the church changed both doctrines and practices, offering me an opportunity to question my previous assumptions about festivals, Sabbaths, foods and Christian traditions we had previously labelled pagan. I could see that modern Christian practices, though often pagan in practice, often had roots in good theology. It was then that I decided to go to Bible College to check out theology and church history and see what the larger Christian world had to offer.
I began to note a hostility on the part of pastors and their leaders in our church to the Old Testament Festivals that was not present among Bible College and Seminary students and faculty. One faculty member even began convening a Christian Seder meal on campus grounds.
I began to read the Old Testament with fresh eyes. I remember shocking a fellow church member by explaining to him that the law never refers to Sabbath as a time for a church gathering, but was rather a time of rest and recreation for a family. The law only required gathering to worship during the three annual festival seasons of Unleavened Bread, Weeks/Pentecost and Trumpets/Atonement/Tabernacles. This is when I began to see holes in the teaching of Herbert Armstrong about how to celebrate these days.
It was during the final Feast of Tabernacles held in Winnipeg that my thoughts about the festivals began to come together in a more New Testament fashion. We were bunked down with the Wayne Hart and some of his family in a mutual friend’s home. We had been told that there would be no more such festivals in Western Canada because we were now New Testament Christians, and the old law no longer has a hold on us. Wayne and I talked far into the night about the law and how we had been keeping it.
A realization dawned on us that the issue was completely moot. The Worldwide Church of God had not been keeping the law of Moses from the very beginning. It had only deluded itself into believing it had been doing so. For instance: no male in the WCG had ever been required to be circumcised! That disobeys the law right there! We did not require it because the Apostle Paul did not require it of Gentile converts, so the Apostle’s teaching trumped that law immediately. We weren’t keeping ceremonial or sacrificial laws (rightly so!). We were not going to Jerusalem to keep the Festivals. And in no way was abstinence from work or attendance at services required during any but the first and eighth days of the festivals according to the Law.
What Wayne and I did that night is embrace the freedom we realized that we already been exercising in Christ to follow our conscience with regard to days and foods. Now we would do so without letting others set those boundaries for us. We embraced the concept of “let each be fully persuaded in his own mind” with respect to those matters. (I’m sure Wayne was way ahead of me there.)
From then on I sought to understand how to embrace the wider church in a “middle way” that avoids legalism, yet has respect for the ancient Mosaic law. The Apostle Paul somehow found a way to observe feasts and Temple rituals himself while teaching non-Jews to follow Jesus without trying to become part of a nation that had already failed to keep that ancient covenant (and was therefore under its “curse” provisions). He never hid his Torah-observance from Gentile Christians, yet never imposed it on Gentiles. On the other hand, he had no difficulty circumcising Timothy while on his way to bring a message from Jerusalem to all Gentile Christians. That message told them that they were not required to become Jews by circumcision and obey the law fully in order to be followers of Jesus Christ.
So, if he is against the law… why is he comfortable circumcising Timothy? Timothy has a Jewish mother, so he is considered Jewish by that society. So why not take that final step?
Somehow Paul knows it is possible to be Jewish and Christian without falling under the curse. He also knows it is possible to be Gentile and Christian without being outside the people of God. Somehow he knows it is possible for the church to function with both Jewish and Gentile believers in harmony and in worship together without hiding their brand of Christianity from each other or from their respective societies.
Because of this I knew it must be possible for any Christian to respect the law and find wisdom in it without falling under the curse of the law. So, how is it possible to find and observe some elements without rigorously applying every aspect? Do we just throw away the law and make up our own rules and observances? Do we abhor and denounce any innovations in worship if they are not mentioned in the Bible?
In Deuteronomy 30 Moses the prophet tells the Israelites preparing to enter the Promised Land that they will eventually fail to keep covenant with God and will inherit the curses in Deuteronomy 28 until a time when they repent, are given a new heart and then are gathered again from all the nations into His presence as His loyal subjects.
The Apostle Paul puts the Gentile church in perspective in chapters 9-11 of his letter to the Romans. He tells them that the unbelief of the majority of the Israelites is what allows Gentiles to be grafted into the promises made to Israel through Abraham. The promise of restoration in Deuteronomy 30:1-10 therefore applies to Gentile believers. One would hope therefore that Gentile believers would have the same deep and abiding respect for the ancient law as the Israelites in captivity were intended to have. After all, the consequence to Israel of that law is what enables Gentiles to inherit salvation along with the Israelites.
Jesus, knowing all of this in advance, approaches a woman at a well in Samaria. [John 4:1-39](Samaria was the capital of a rival religion to Judaism that had similar observances and the same law but a also separate priesthood and temple in Samaria.) She accepts Jesus as a prophet, but is concerned about which temple and priesthood he represents. The law specifies only one place of worship, so getting it right seemed vitally important to both Jews and Samaritans.
Jesus tells her that the time has come for worship not to be confined to places. But rather worship is now done “in spirit and in truth.” [4:21-25]
I had not put it together in this way before, but the events of the day of Pentecost confirm that the holy fire is set upon individuals rather than the Temple, which was located in that very city. Fire from God had appeared at both the dedication of the original Tabernacle [Lev. 9:24] and the original Temple [2 Chron. 7:1]. This fire indicated God’s choice of place of worship.
When the fire alights on the disciples, the inference is that God’s place of residence is within His disciples, rendering a Temple or Tabernacle redundant. This is why Jesus can say that the geography of worship is no longer important.
This is also why the Apostle Paul can categorically state that foods times in worship belong to the conscience of the believer. That is also why Paul is concerned that arguments among those who choose different foods and different times are pointless. We are believers in one Saviour and Lord. We must, for the sake of our Lord, resist imposing our conscience upon that of fellow believers and “let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” [Romans 14:5]
I find it interesting that the very event that proves this point – the manifestation of the Holy Spirit – takes place on Pentecost. Pentecost is one of the Old Testament festivals that Jesus’ death and resurrection had theoretically rendered redundant according to many theologians. Is God really finished with ancient Israelite festivals? Should they be cast away in favour of more “Christian” festivals and holidays?
We will explore that question in a future post.