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.

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