Monday, April 29, 2013

Positioning Passover Pronouns

What amazes me about language is how one simple pronoun can change the meaning in an entire text. 

Imagine if I told my daughter, "Bring a necklace downstairs."  Using that pronoun, I'm likely to get anything from broken Mardi Gras beads to her church-only bling.  However, if I said "bring the necklace," this implies a specific piece we've already discussed.  If I change the pronoun again, saying "bring your necklace," my daughter would know not to raid my jewelry cabinet.

While this is a rather meaningless comparison, sometimes in Scripture, understanding God's true intent seriously comes down to a pronoun, or, rather the pronoun God chose.

Consider His instructions in Exodus to the Israelites concerning how they were to prepare the lamb for that first Passover sacrifice so the death angel passed over their household, leaving their firstborn sons untouched.  God said:

Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household.  Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons in them; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb. Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats" (Ex. 12:3-5).

Note the progression of pronouns--"a" to "the" to "your," working from general to specific.  It is a picture of what would have happened in this lamb selection process and, more importantly, a picture of Christ as our sacrificial lamb. 

For the Israelite, the lamb would initially be a lamb, merely one chosen for being without blemish from a thousand or more others in the fleecy flock .  Tradition shows this lamb would have then been brought into the household, living with the family from the tenth until the fourteenth day of the month.

Once selected, a lamb became the lamb the family would sacrifice at Passover.  For those Israelites back in Egypt on that first Passover, it was not a way of salvation from the curse of the firstborn's death but was the only way.  

Then, in five days' time, the lamb became your lamb, one that knew and responded to your voice, one that had come to trust you so that when you led it to slaughter at twilight on the fourteenth day, it went willingly with you.  

Imagine what this must have been like.  Place one hand on that lamb as its lifeblood pours out.  Take this active part in its death.  It is impossible to think of the animal as anything but your lamb since you are the cause of, the reason for, its death.  Its sacrifice saved you and your family.

Compare this symbolic series of actions with Jesus, whom John the Baptist referred to as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn. 1:29).

When He began His ministry, many believed Him to be merely a prophet.  Yet, He soon declared Himself not to be a lamb of God but the lamb, the door, the gate--the only way into heaven.

Gentle, meek, and mild, Jesus would have made His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem with thousands of other lambs headed towards their Passover slaughter.  Yet, even in the midst of all those other lambs who would be sacrificed for the various families, He was the once-in-all-time perfect, spotless Lamb to be sacrificed for all mankind.

And in that instant, He became your lamb, dying for your sins, saving your soul with His sacrifice.

His Sacrifice became personal.  It wasn't just for mankind in general.  He died for you and you and you.

Just a few simple pronouns...yet, such a powerful message of what Jesus becomes to each of us who seek His face, repent, and accept His gracious, merciful gift of salvation.  He becomes our lamb.

Other Articles in this Jewish Feasts Series:
Preparation Day: 'Go to Church' or Worship
Reorienting Our Lives: 50 Days From the Cross
Understanding the Jewish-ness of Jesus
The Truth About Passover

Monday, April 22, 2013

Preparation Day: 'Go to Church' Or Worship?

Each Saturday evening while my three children slough off a pound of farm dirt from the day's hard play and labor, I begin my routine of preparation for the following Lord's day.  This night-before gathering to meet the next morning's mad dash started when the twins were infants.  With diapers, burp cloths, blankets, loveys, chew toys, an extra set of clothes, bottles, cheerio puffs, and pacifiers (all times two), I quickly learned this preparation made all the difference in whether our family arrived to worship or merely arrived at church.

Experience taught me it wasn't enough just to wake up early.  No matter how early I set the clock, Sunday morning would always exude a tinge of madness and, usually, more than a little chaos.  If milk is spilled, clothes are soiled before breakfast, or something essential is misplaced--this is the day it will happen.
That is why each Saturday before I slip my aching arches beneath the sheets, three sets of small shoes line up across the foot of the treadmill, each with matching shoes and stockings tucked in the toes.  Two crisply ironed shirts, two pairs of pressed dress slacks, and one equally wrinkle-free little lady dress swing back and forth immediately above those foot-covers.

By the back door sit a bag of after-church play clothes for dinner at Grand mama's house as well as a second bag filled with the lesson and necessary craft supplies for my four-year-old Sunday School class.

Without such preparation, I would either arrive at church in a foul mood or would throw up my hands in defeat.

As I've been working through the seven Biblical feasts, I've noticed a similar pattern in what God's chosen people did for many of these annual times of worship.

They prepared.  

In essence, preparation was the key to proper worship.

Consider the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread, which begins the day after Passover.  Before its celebration, the Jewish people obeyed the command in Deuteronomy 16:3-4, which required the community to clean their homes of any products containing leaven: "Let no yeast be found in your possession in all your land for seven days." 

Such an action symbolized God's people separating themselves from sin, literally "removing" sin from their homes and, by extension, from their hearts.  That means any packaged foods in the house containing yeast, baking powder, baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate had to be removed.  Imagine going through all your cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer, and reading all the labels to determine if a leavening agent were in the pre-packaged food.  It's a bit like Spring Cleaning, and we all know how long that can take if done properly.

That's preparation for worship.

Even Jesus, Himself, spoke of the importance of preparation when discussing the Feast of Passover. He instructed Peter to "Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover,"  and Peter replied, "Where do you want us to prepare for it?" (Lk. 22:8-9).

Scripture records Jesus giving a series of instructions that concluded with the words, "Make preparations there.”  The disciples then "left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover" (Lk. 22:12-13).

Four times in this short passage, Luke emphasized the preparation necessary for a proper celebration of this Feast of remembrance, this Feast of worship.
Another Feast that emphasizes preparation is the Feast of Trumpets, more commonly known in modern terminology as Rosh Hashanah.  This one-day Feast importantly announces the coming of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) in ten days.  With the blast of the trumpet, the Jewish community begins to prepare their hearts for God's judgment.

As Rabbi Derek Leman says of this Holy Day, "The sins of the nation would be judged for another year on Yom Kippur.  On that day the high priest would bring blood into the holiest place that no one else entered.  And every year the question was the same: Would God receive Israel's offering?  Would He grant mercy and grace another year?...Traditionally the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement] is called 'The Ten Days of Awe.'  That week and a half is a time for self-reflection, to repair relationships, and to pray in light of one's own standing before God.  These are days of repentance" (p. 57).

Again, the Feast and Holy Day emphasized preparation for worship.

Do you see a pattern here in God's call for His people to worship?

It wasn't just a "Hey, mark your calendar and show up on X day" kind of event.  Instead, each Feast, each Holy Day was about preparing one's heart (and home, by extension) for worship.

Compare this to our generation.  As a general rule, we don't prepare for worship.  Instead, we waltz in on Sunday morning, expecting to receive God's blessing, to receive an enlightened message from His Word, to feel His Spirit move within......and all without really preparing our hearts for worship.

Worship isn't just about showing up at a certain place and time.  True worship should involve us continually preparing our hearts for meeting with God.

He is holy.  He is worthy of such preparation.

Other Articles in this Jewish Feasts Series:
Reorienting Our Lives: 50 Days From the Cross
Understanding the Jewish-ness of Jesus
The Truth About Passover

Source: Leman, Derek. Feast: Finding Yourself at the Table of Tradition. Nashville: Lifeway P, 2008: p.57.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Reorienting Our Lives: 50 Days From the Cross

Last week, I concluded with the thought that "We need to know the Jesus of Scriptures.  However, to understand Him fully, we must not reject His Jewish-ness but must, instead, seek to understand what it has to teach us more about this Savior whom we serve."

In an effort to learn more about Jesus Christ, this blog is working through a series on the seven Feasts the Jews of Moses' day were commanded in Leviticus 23 to observe.  The whole purpose is not to burden anyone with more rules and regulations concerning their walk with the Lord but, instead, to reveal to us the care God took when creating those Feasts and how He was foreshadowing Messiah through the Feasts' symbolism.  

Over the past few weeks, we have looked back to Passover and two Pentecost celebrations in Exodus and Acts.  This week, I want to look at two interesting (and symbolic) commands concerning the celebration of Pentecost. 

First, according to Scripture, The Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) holds no specific date on the calendar.   In fact, it's the only Feast with no set date.  Instead, God said to Moses, "From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.  Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath" (Lev. 23:15-16).

If one wished to celebrate Pentecost, he had to count forwards fifty days from Passover.  For fifty days, God's people were to be looking back to the sacrifice of the lamb and the ensuing redemption of life through that sacrifice.  

Think of the symbolism!  For those of us who understand Christ to be Messiah, our once and for all sacrificial lamb, God is showing us that our lives literally "begin" with Christ's sacrifice at Passover.  

There can be no Pentecost without Passover--both literally and figuratively.  There can be no Pentecost harvest of souls or gift of the Holy Spirit (as happened at in Acts 2) without Messiah's sacrifice at Passover.

Eternal life begins with death on the cross.  Pentecost begins 50 days earlier with Passover.

In essence, the Passover sacrifice is the very foundation of life, itself as opposed to death found in sin. God's plan in making His people count forward fifty days was for them to "reorient" themselves to Messiah's sacrifice at Passover by looking backwards.

How beautiful a picture of how our lives should be, reoriented to where we are constantly looking back to the cross as the start of our new life in Him.

A second interesting command concerning Pentecost was the sacrifice the people were to bring to God. The people were to "bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the Lord" (Lev. 23:17).

This seems odd, especially since in Scripture, Leaven (yeast) is typically symbolic of sin.    Jesus  warned His disciples of the Pharisees' sinfulness: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matt. 16:6).  Paul even later uses the image of leaven as sin, warning his readers, "Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Cor. 5:6-8).

Yet, for the wave offering of Pentecost, God called upon His people to give two loaves made with leaven.

Here, too, the symbolism is important.  Through the bread, God is giving a picture of us, as people full of sin despite our best attempts at righteousness.  Just as He asked the people of Israel to bring their leaven-filled loaves to Him, He beckons us to come as we are to Him.  Full of sinful leaven and in a completely hopeless state, He accepts us with our sin...but only because we are looking back to Messiah, only because we are covered by that sacrifice fifty days earlier at Passover.

Additionally, Professor Sam Nadler argues that the required sacrifice of two loaves (versus one) also provide a symbolic picture of us in Christ, as well.  Nadler says the two loaves represent Jew and Gentile together in the body of Christ, both united but still diverse.  Thus, there is unity but not uniformity in Christ.*

I don't know about you, but I find God's attention to detail in these Feasts comforting, humbling, and awe-inspiring, all at the same time.  Seeing His promises fulfilled over and over shows just how much He loves me.  Honestly, it's baffling.  But it makes me love Him all the more.


*Feasts of the Bible. Video. Torrance: Rose P, 2011.
Image: Breathtaking "Pentecost" frontal at Wells Cathedral in the U.K.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Understanding the Jewish-ness of Jesus

Many Christians know the story of Passover; some even choose to celebrate it each year as a part of Easter.  Yet, the Passover is only one of seven feasts Jews were commanded to celebrate each year, feasts God carefully planned to reveal a part of the story and character of Messiah to come.

In Leviticus 23, God presented His plan for these festivals, saying of each, "This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live" (Lev. 23:14).  Whether they were living as slaves in Egypt, as wanderers in the Wilderness, as exiles in Babylon, or as victors in the Promised Land--these feasts were to be celebrated always.

Coming from a devout Jewish family who presented him at the temple eight days after His birth, Jesus, Himself, would have celebrated these feasts; in fact, several New Testament Scriptures actually document Him doing just that.

As non-Jewish Christians, though, most of us have little to no understanding of these feasts, nor do we have a good working understanding of the Jewish culture in Jesus' day.  As such, we can't understand the "Jewish-ness" of Jesus. Let me tell you--we're missing out!  

The end result of not understanding the culture Jesus lived in is that we often don't understand what His original audience would have understood when they heard His specific word choices, word pictures, or analogies through the parables.

Much as the pieces of the tabernacle reveal Jesus' Christ's true nature, the God-appointed feasts do much the same.  They were God's way of revealing His son to His favored people long before Messiah's birth. 

The seven feasts are a public testimony, a witness to the world of Jesus Christ.

Two weeks ago, we discussed Passover pointing to Jesus Christ as our own Passover Lamb, the one whose blood sacrifice would take cover the sins of all mankind once and for all.  He was crucified on the day and hour that lambs were being slaughtered for the evening's Passover meal.

Two more feasts were also fulfilled at the time of Christ's death and resurrection.

First, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread points to "the Messiah's sinless life (as leaven is a picture of sin in the Bible), making Him the perfect sacrifice for our sin.  Jesus' body was in the grave during the first days of this feast..."1

A second feast, the Feast of First Fruits, points to Messiah's victory over death in His resurrection.  This feast occurred on the day Jesus rose from the grave, which is why Paul says, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:20).  Literally, Jesus is the "first fruit" from the dead.

Fifty days after the Feast of Unleavened bread comes Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, a celebration of the wheat harvest.  This feast, though, is more commonly known by its Greek name--Pentecost.

Three important festivals revolved around harvests--"at Passover the barley was just beginning to ripen. At Shavuot, the wheat was just ripening. At Sukkot, the crops were all in, including grapes, olives, figs, almonds, and more"2

Hosting these yearly harvest celebrations may seem inconsequential to those of us who can find grapes or apples year round at our local supermarket, but for the Israelites, the festivals were a reminder that they "were always one disaster away from hunger." God continually reminded them through the festival tradition that they were completely dependent upon Him for the harvest.

The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), though, came to represent something different to the Jews.  

Exodus 19:1 says "In the third month, on the same day that the Israelites had left the land of Egypt, they entered the Wilderness of Sinai." Since the Hebrew word for "month" is the same as the Hebrew word for "new moon," the Jewish rabbis concluded the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai on the first day of the third new moon.  

Add to this fact the knowledge that "Moses spent time talking with God [on the mountain].  Then the people had to ritually purify themselves for three days. The great rabbis of history figured it must have been about Shavuot [Pentecost] by the time God got around to giving the Ten Commandments to Moses."3 

Thus, to a Jew in Jesus' day, Pentecost was about celebrating life-giving bread (the wheat) and the Torah (God's law).  To the devout Jew, both were equally necessary for life.

After Jesus' death, the Feast of Pentecost came around again, only this time, God poured out not the law but His Spirit on believers: "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them" (Acts 2:1-3).

Compare this to the scene 1400 years earlier atop Mt. Sinai.  In Moses' day, the people saw "thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled....Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently."

At their Feast of Weeks/Pentecost celebration, Moses' generation heard a sound like trumpets; they saw thunder, lightening, smoke...and a mountain-top lit afire.  Now, at this Feast of Weeks/Pentecost, there was a sound like a violent wind and flames of fire lighting atop each believer's head.

Here, on the same day God gave the law, God also gave the Spirit.  Why?  Because both are needed for the great harvest of souls into the kingdom of God--the law to tutor us unto salvation and the Spirit to sanctify us.

As Rabbi Derek Leman says, "Shavuot is about wheat, Torah, and Spirit.  It fits together if you talk it out. Bread [wheat] alone cannot sustain us.  Bread and the Word of God [law] is better, but we still need something more.  We need a power inside helping us do what the Word says [Spirit].

The Feast of Weeks.  Pentecost.  It reminds us that God gave us the Law and His holy Spirit to dwell in us to the great harvest of souls to come, which would build God's Kingdom.

Amazing, right?

To say we want to know our Savior but choose not to learn His religious or cultural upbringing is like saying I want to know everything about you but nothing about your culture or religion.  It's impossible to separate the two and get a full picture of a person.  Yet, that's what we've done.

We need to know the Jesus of Scriptures.  However, to understand Him fully, we must not reject His Jewish-ness but must, instead, seek to understand what it has to teach us more about this Savior whom we serve.

1.  "Jesus and the Jewish Feasts."
2.  Leman, Derek. Feast: Finding Yourself at the Table of Tradition. Nashville: Lifeway P, 2008: p. 38
3. Leman, p. 41.
4.  Leman, p. 45.