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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About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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