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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Christ Didn’t Abolish the Law, He Fulfilled It!

In the Gospel According to Matthew, we read that Christ told his disciples: “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So, if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (5:17-19, New Living Translation here and throughout this post unless otherwise indicated)

Unfortunately, a few folks have suggested that these words of Jesus prove that Christians are still obligated to observe the tenets of the Law of Moses, and that a majority of the writings of the Old Testament prophets are still awaiting fulfillment. In reality, however, Christ was speaking about his mission in coming to the earth. Notice that he said that he “came to accomplish their purpose” OR In the words of the old King James Version, “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

In this connection, it is instructive to note that the Hebrew word translated into “fulfil” meant “to make full, to fill up, i.e., to fill to the full, to render full, i.e., to complete, to consummate, to carry into effect, bring to realization, realize, to fulfil, i.e. to cause God's will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God's promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfilment” see Blue Letter Bible's entry for "pleroo" In other words, Christ came to literally fulfill the requirements of the law and the prophecies contained in the Hebrew Scriptures.

It is also interesting to note that the entire New Testament is written in such a way as to demonstrate that Christ was the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament prophecies related to the Messiah, kingdom, and salvation. For instance, the accounts of Christ’s genealogy (although clearly different) in Matthew and Luke were obviously intended to demonstrate that he was a descendant of David (clearly meant to harken back to God’s promise to David and the prophecy recorded in the eleventh chapter of the book of Isaiah). And, take just a moment to consider just how many times the gospels refer to Christ fulfilling a particular prophecy (see Matthew 2:15, 23, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14, 35, 26:54, 27:9, Mark 4:12, Luke 4:21, 8:10, 22:37, 24:44, John 13:18, 15:25, 19:24). Over the centuries, Christian theologians have also recognized numerous other Old Testament Scriptures that clearly refer to Christ (e.g., Genesis 3:15).

There were also numerous features of the Torah which clearly symbolized and/or foreshadowed Christ and his work. In my recent post on “The Lord’s Appointed Festivals,” I underscored how the Holy Days pointed to Christ and his work. For instance, we know that the Passover Lamb was symbolic of Christ, and we talked about how he was a kind of “firstfruits.” Evangelist Ron Dart wrote about how Christ’s offering of himself was foreshadowed by the Wave Sheaf Offering. Likewise, it has been pointed out that Trumpets foreshadowed the coming/return of the king (Jesus). In times past, this blog has also explored how the symbolism of the Day of Atonement pointed to Christ and his work – the removal of our sins and the reconciliation of man to God. In similar fashion, we have also explored the deep symbolism inherent in Christ’s tabernacling in the flesh, and what that means for our own sojourn in these temporary dwellings which we currently inhabit. Finally, from the perspective of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we know that both the Temple and the High Priest pointed to Jesus Christ.

And there is the matter of the post which immediately preceded this one, “Christ As An Offering and Sacrifice,” which discussed how all of the sacrifices and offerings outlined in the Torah pointed to the death of Jesus Christ as payment of the penalty for our sins. In other words, Christ’s offering represented the ultimate expression of the sacrificial system and satisfaction of the requirement that all things be cleansed and sanctified by the shedding of blood. Indeed, Christ’s sacrifice comprehended ALL of the different kinds of offerings/sacrifices contained in the Law. Moreover, in this connection, it is interesting to note that Christ’s sacrifice rendered those other offerings/sacrifices UNNECCESSARY. It wasn’t that Christ abolished those sacrifices. In fulfilling their purpose, in meeting God’s requirement, they were made superfluous! It’s like meeting the requirements for obtaining a Driver’s License – Once you’ve met them, you receive your license. You have satisfied the state’s requirements - NOT negated or done away with them!

As relates to the other demands of the Law, there is yet another sense in which Christ filled it to the full. Through his teaching, Christ expanded both the application of the Law and underscored the greater spiritual principles which underpinned it. Going forward, it was no longer just enough to refrain from physically murdering someone – Christ demanded that his followers not harbor anger and resentment toward each other (see Matthew 5:21-26). In the same way, he expanded the reach of the Torah’s teachings on adultery, divorce, vows, revenge, and the obligation to love our enemies (see verses 27-48). In fact, Christ even focused on expanding the application of the Ten Commandments (like the Sabbath – see Matthew 12:1-12, Mark 2:23-28, 3:2-4, Luke 6:1-9, 13:10-16, 14:1-5, John 5:1-18 and 7:21-23) and summarizing them as two great principles – Love for God and love for neighbor (see Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:25-37). Thus, we can see that Christ’s teachings fulfilled the Law.

Finally, Christ also fulfilled the Law by keeping it perfectly himself! Remember, the prophet Isaiah had predicted that the Messiah would be completely innocent – without sin (see Isaiah 53:1-11). Paul wrote to the saints at Corinth that Christ had “never sinned” (II Corinthians 5:21). Likewise, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote that Christ had been tempted in all the ways that are common to humans “yet he did not sin” (4:15). Also, the First Epistle of Peter refers to Jesus as “the sinless, spotless Lamb of God” (I:19). Hence, by always obeying the precepts of the Law, Jesus Christ once again filled it the full/realized its potential/consummated or completed it. In other words, Jesus Christ did what no other human has been able to do: He observed the Law and fulfilled all of its requirements without ever violating any of its precepts. Indeed, one of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that he did this on our behalf – for us. In this way, as a complete innocent, he could take the penalty for our sins (our lawbreaking) onto himself and make us righteous before God (something our own attempts at obedience could NEVER accomplish).

Thus, we can see that Christ really did fill the Law and Prophets to the full. He didn’t abrogate, destroy, nullify or do away with the Law. Jesus Christ simply fulfilled it – which renders our imperfect attempts to fulfill its requirements superfluous/unnecessary/meaningless/vanity! As with sacrifices and offerings, Christ didn’t do away with them. Instead, he became THE ultimate sacrifice/offering. Likewise, Christ didn’t do away with the Sabbath and festivals, he achieved their realization! And, when we understand these things, it gives new meaning to Christ’s final words on the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). In that moment, Christ knew that he had fulfilled everything that God had commanded him to do, and what God had caused others to prophesy about him!

Hence, I ask again: Do any of us (Christians) really believe that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. was a coincidence? In other words, why would God allow that to happen (an event which rendered it impossible to fully obey and implement the requirements of the Torah) if “He” intended for folks to continue to implement those standards?

Some folks like to debate the whole Law vs Grace thing, but wouldn’t it be a much better idea to look at this issue from the perspective of what Jesus Christ actually accomplished during his lifetime on this planet? After all, if Christ really did fulfill the Law and the Prophets, what else do we really have to talk about?

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Christ As An Offering and Sacrifice

A Prophecy About Jesus Christ

Who has believed our message? To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm? My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier, because he exposed himself to death. He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels. --Isaiah 53, NLT (here and throughout unless otherwise noted)

Many Twenty-First Century Christians seem to have forgotten that the only scriptures available to the earliest practitioners of our faith were those which we now refer to as the Hebrew Old Testament. Indeed, for many modern Christians, outside of a few favorite stories and the occasional psalm or proverb, the Old Testament is largely ignored. Sure, there is also a small group of saints who are obsessed with eschatology and are consequently interested in the Old Testament prophets. Still, outside of a few Christian theologians, for the majority of Christians alive today, most of the Old Testament is a complete mystery and mostly considered by them to be irrelevant.

Nevertheless, Jesus Christ did say: "I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose." (Matthew 5:17) Now, while this obviously encompassed almost the entirety of the Hebrew Old Testament, Christ's words are probably no where more meaningful than in the realm of the sacrifices and offerings required by the Torah.

Of course, the first such sacrifice that comes to mind is the most obvious one related to the Passover Lamb. We read in the book of Exodus that "The animal you select must be a one-year-old male, either a sheep or a goat, with no defects" (Exodus 12:5). Continuing, they were to "Take special care of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. Then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter their lamb or young goat at twilight. They are to take some of the blood and smear it on the sides and top of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the animal" (verses 6-7).

This language calls to mind several things related to Jesus Christ. In the gospel of John, we read that "The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29, 36) Likewise, in the Revelation, we find Christ portrayed symbolically as the Lamb of God throughout the book. Indeed, the apostle Paul even wrote to the saints of Corinth about Christ being "our Passover" who was sacrificed on their behalf (I Corinthians 5:7). And, finally, in the various accounts of the Last Supper, we have Christ's disciples symbolically eating his flesh (Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22). 

In the first seven chapters of the book of Leviticus, many of those sacrifices and offerings are outlined and summarized. We read there about the burnt offering, grain offering, peace offering, sin offering and trespass or guilt offering. What do these sacrifices and offerings have to do with Jesus Christ? The short answer is: a great deal!

Of course, one of the most obvious ways in which the burnt offering related to Christ was the designation of what kind of livestock was considered appropriate in this instance. We read there that "it must be a male with no defects" (Leviticus 1:3, 10). Another obvious feature of these sacrifices, and this one applied even to birds, was that the blood of the animal had to be spilled (Leviticus 1:15). It is also interesting to note that the Israelites were instructed to place their hands on the head of the animal prior to killing it. In this way, the Lord would "accept its death in your place to purify you, making you right with him" (verse 4). The language employed here and in Exodus was obviously on the mind of the author of the first epistle of Peter when he wrote about "the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (I Peter 1:19, NIV).

The grain offering took the form of an unleavened bread which was offered to God and consumed by the priests (Leviticus 2:4-10). This, of course, calls to mind the bread partaken of by Christ's disciples in the Lord's Supper or Communion service. And, in both the case of the burnt offering and the grain offering, we are told that they were "special" gifts with "a pleasing aroma to the Lord" (Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17 and 2:2). In this connection, it is interesting to note what Paul wrote to the saints at Ephesus. Speaking of Christ, he wrote: "He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God" (Ephesians 5:2).

The peace offering could be a male or female animal, but it still had to be without defect (Leviticus 3:1, 6). Like the burnt offering, the Israelites were instructed to lay their hands on the head of the animal prior to killing it (verses 2, 8, 13). As the name of the offering implies, it was intended to symbolize being at peace with God. In the New Testament, we read in the book of Acts that part of the good news for Israel was the fact that "there is peace with God through Jesus Christ" (Acts 10:36). Paul also wrote to the saints at Rome: "Therefore, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us" (Romans 5:1). Likewise, he wrote to the saints of Corinth that God had reconciled them to himself through Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 5:19).

The sin offering was presented to God for the unintentional sins of the priesthood and the people (Leviticus 4), and some scholars have noted that it seems to refer to the first five commandments. The guilt offering, on the other hand, could be intentional or unintentional and may have referred primarily to the commandments related to the treatment of their brothers/sisters/neighbors. At any rate, both offerings were made to elicit God's forgiveness for the offense and involved laying hands on the head of an animal without defect (symbolically transferring the sin and guilt to the offering) before slaying the beast and sprinkling its blood on the altar (Leviticus 5, 6 and 7). And, as we will see when we look at several New Testament scriptures toward the end of this post, the forgiveness of sin was the primary motivation behind the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, in addition to these sacrifices and offerings, we know that there were other special sacrifices and offerings  related to harvests and the Holy Days. We've already mentioned Passover, and we know that there were a number of offerings associated with the beginning of the harvest (Leviticus 23:9-14). There was also a special "wave sheaf" offering where the firstfruits of the grain harvest were symbolically presented to the Lord by the priest waving the sheaf in the air, and these were also combined with various animal sacrifices (Leviticus 23:15-21). In this connection, it is interesting to note that Paul wrote to the saints of Corinth that Christ was a kind of "firstfruits" (I Corinthians 15:20, 23).

In the same vein, we know that there were special sacrifices/offerings associated with the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). And we know that the New Testament book of Hebrews has a great deal to say about how those things related to Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8, 9 and 10).

Indeed, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews was convinced that all of these sacrifices/offerings pointed to Jesus Christ! We read there: "So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant." (9:11-15)

The author of the epistle went on to underscore just how important this sacrificial system was to the Old Covenant: "That is why even the first covenant was put into effect with the blood of an animal. For after Moses had read each of God’s commandments to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, along with water, and sprinkled both the book of God’s law and all the people, using hyssop branches and scarlet wool. Then he said, 'This blood confirms the covenant God has made with you.' And in the same way, he sprinkled blood on the Tabernacle and on everything used for worship. In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness." (verses 18-22) He then went on to point out how those sacrifices were offered over and over again, and how that stood in stark contrast to the work of Christ. We read that Christ "has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice" (verse 26).

Moreover, the thought continued into the following chapter. We read there: "The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world, he said to God, 'You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer. You were not pleased with burnt offerings or other offerings for sin. Then I said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will, O God— as is written about me in the Scriptures.’ First, Christ said, 'You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them' (though they are required by the law of Moses). Then he said, 'Look, I have come to do your will.' He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time." (10:1-10)

Hence, we see that the sacrificial system within the Old Covenant pointed to the work and person of Jesus Christ, and that it finds its ultimate fulfillment in him! Under the terms of the New Covenant, only one sacrifice/offering was required - that of Jesus Christ himself. It is a sacrifice which is sufficient to remove all of the sins of humankind and reconcile the entire world to God!


Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Lord's Appointed Festivals

Over the years, I have written extensively about "the Lord's appointed festivals" (Leviticus 23:2, NLT), and their relevance for New Covenant Christians. In this regard, I have often voiced my opinion that Ronald L. Dart's The Thread: God's Appointments with History represents the very best work on this subject ever produced by any of the Armstrong Churches of God. Indeed, I believe that Mr. Dart's understanding of the symbolism behind the Holy Days is far superior to anything that Herbert or Garner Ted Armstrong ever produced on the subject! However, while Mr. Dart's understanding of the ways in which these days symbolized the ministry of Jesus Christ was profound, like Herbert Armstrong before him, he made the mistake of insisting that Christians were still under obligation to observe them.

In The Thread, Mr. Dart wrote an appendix entitled "In Defense of the Holy Days" in which he acknowledged and attempted to answer some of the objections to requiring Christian observance of the days. Mr. Dart identified four basic arguments against Christian Holy Day observance: 1) They were intended for Israel and apply only to them, 2) They were part of the Levitical ceremonial system and were rendered irrelevant at the cross and/or at the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, 3) They were only to be observed at the Temple in Jerusalem, and 4) They all symbolized things which Christ fulfilled and were consequently "no longer binding on Christians."

Now, in beginning to answer these objections, Mr. Dart opened his apology with a question: "Whose days are they?" Unfortunately, it has been the practice of most Armstrongites to only quote a portion of the scriptures which actually answer that question. In the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus, we read: "The Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. These are the Lord’s appointed festivals, which you are to proclaim as official days for holy assembly." (verses 1-2, NLT). Yes, they are "the Lord's appointed festivals," but also notice that these were "instructions to the people of Israel." Yes, we read in the sixteenth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy that these days were to be celebrated "in honor of the Lord your God." (verse 1, NLT), but we also read there "Each year every man in Israel must celebrate these three festivals: the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Harvest, and the Festival of Shelters." (verse 16, NLT) Hence, while it is clear that these festivals belonged to God, it is also very clear that they were specifically intended for the people of Israel (and it is more than a little disingenuous to pretend otherwise).

In similar fashion, from a Scriptural perspective, there is simply no denying the fact that these Holy Days were an integral part of the Levitical ceremonial system. Indeed, throughout the Torah, it is made clear in a number of places that the Levitical priesthood was tasked with specific responsibilities relative to these days (there were sacrifices and offerings associated with them). Moreover, these same scriptures make very plain that there was only one place that would be appropriate for these things to be observed - Jerusalem! Notice that, in speaking of the Passover celebration, "it must be sacrificed to the Lord your God at the designated place of worship—the place he chooses for his name to be honored." (Deuteronomy 16:2, NLT) A little later, in the same chapter, we read: "You may not sacrifice the Passover in just any of the towns that the Lord your God is giving you. You must offer it only at the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored." (verses 5-6, NLT) Likewise, the Festival of Harvest (Pentecost) was to be celebrated "before the Lord your God at the designated place of worship he will choose for his name to be honored." (verse 11, NLT) Also, the Festival of Shelters (Tabernacles) was to be celebrated "at the place he chooses." (verse 15, NLT) And, finally, just for emphasis, we read in the second portion of the verse quoted above from this chapter: "On each of these occasions, all men must appear before the Lord your God at the place he chooses..." (verse 16, NLT)

Indeed, the designation of a single place of worship was foreshadowed in the twelfth chapter of that same book. We read there: "Do not worship the Lord your God in the way these pagan peoples worship their gods. Rather, you must seek the Lord your God at the place of worship he himself will choose from among all the tribes—the place where his name will be honored. There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks. There you and your families will feast in the presence of the Lord your God, and you will rejoice in all you have accomplished because the Lord your God has blessed you." (Deuteronomy 12:4-7, NLT) Continuing, we read: "you must bring everything I command you—your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, and your offerings to fulfill a vow—to the designated place of worship, the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored. “You must celebrate there in the presence of the Lord your God with your sons and daughters and all your servants. And remember to include the Levites who live in your towns, for they will receive no allotment of land among you. Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings just anywhere you like. You may do so only at the place the Lord will choose within one of your tribal territories. There you must offer your burnt offerings and do everything I command you." (verses 11-14, NLT) And, once again, just so there could be no room for misunderstanding, we read: "But you may not eat your offerings in your hometown—neither the tithe of your grain and new wine and olive oil, nor the firstborn of your flocks and herds, nor any offering to fulfill a vow, nor your voluntary offerings, nor your sacred offerings. You must eat these in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose. Eat them there with your children, your servants, and the Levites who live in your towns, celebrating in the presence of the Lord your God in all you do." (verses 17-18, NLT)

In other words, all serious students of the Hebrew Old Testament understand that the "Law of the Central Sanctuary" was an important component of the Torah. It was made very clear to the Israelites that YHWH would not tolerate numerous places of worship (as was the practice among the pagan nations which surrounded them and then occupied the land which God was about to give them). The principle was initially illustrated to them in the form of the Tabernacle, which eventually came to be associated with Shiloh. However, even first year Bible students understand that the ultimate and final place which God designated for central worship was the Temple at Jerusalem. This principle, along with the eventual designation of Jerusalem, is NOT disputed by any serious student of the Bible! Hence, the question naturally arises: What happens when that Temple and Jerusalem ceased to be available to them as a place of worship?

After King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Solomon's Temple and Jerusalem and carried Judah into exile, we know that festival observance ceased for a while. We read in the book of Lamentations: "Jerusalem, once so full of people, is now deserted. She who was once great among the nations now sits alone like a widow. Once the queen of all the earth, she is now a slave...Judah has been led away into captivity, oppressed with cruel slavery. She lives among foreign nations and has no place of rest." (Lamentations 1:1-3, NLT) Continuing, we read: "The roads to Jerusalem are in mourning, for crowds no longer come to celebrate the festivals. The city gates are silent, her priests groan, her young women are crying— how bitter is her fate!" (verse 4, NLT) In the following chapter, the devastation is even more vivid. We read there: "Yes, the Lord has vanquished Israel like an enemy. He has destroyed her palaces and demolished her fortresses. He has brought unending sorrow and tears upon beautiful Jerusalem. He has broken down his Temple as though it were merely a garden shelter. The Lord has blotted out all memory of the holy festivals and Sabbath days. Kings and priests fall together before his fierce anger. The Lord has rejected his own altar; he despises his own sanctuary." (Lamentations 2:5-7, NLT) Nevertheless, we know that some of the exiles eventually returned, rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple and resumed the observance of God's festivals (see Ezra and Nehemiah).

Scripture also makes clear that Jesus, his apostles, and the early Church continued to observe those festivals in Jerusalem. However, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, the observance of those festivals by the Jews and Jewish Christians ceased once again. As a consequence, they were faced with the same question which had troubled the Jews of the Babylonian Captivity before them: What happens when the Temple and Jerusalem are no longer available as the place to observe the festivals? And, for Christians, there was another question: Was it a coincidence that the Temple and its rituals ceased to exist within forty years of the death, burial and resurrection of their Savior?

For Jews, the historical evidence suggests that the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and God's Temple had profound consequences for their religious practices. In his article The Temple and its Destruction: A look into the psyche of ancient Judaism, Rabbi Irving Greenberg recounts the story of how many Jews spent the next sixty-plus years trying to reassert their independence and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. However, with the defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt, he noted that "hopes for an immediate restoration of the Temple were set back indefinitely." Hence, if the Jewish religion was going to survive, they were going to have to modify their religious practices (including festival observance) to accommodate their new reality.

In her article JEWISH LITURGICAL RESPONSES TO THE ROMAN DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE, Ruth Langer traced the development of some of those modifications of Jewish religious practices. She began by reminding her readers about the status of the religion prior to the destruction of the Temple. Langer wrote: "Until its destruction, the Jerusalem Temple was the religious center of Jewish life. It was there that hereditary priests and Levites offered the daily elaborate, covenant-maintaining sacrificial worship commanded by God in the Torah (Pentateuch). Individual Jews, even from afar, participated vicariously through their annual half-shekel tax (Ex 31:13-16) and by local gatherings when “their priests” took their turn (m. Taan. 3). Crowds gathered for the three annual pilgrimage festivals; others offered personal sacrifices when possible– in thanksgiving, or for purification, including from sins."

Nevertheless, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple rendered the continuation of such practices impossible, Langer skillfully traced the development of three major ritual responses to that disaster: "salvage, ritualized mourning, and eschatological hope." She wrote: "The third-century rabbinic texts record that one of the first acts of the surviving rabbis after Temple sacrifices ceased was to determine possible points of continuity. Which non-sacrificial Temple rituals could persist, at least with some modification?" Langer went on to observe: "The rabbis taught a liturgical system that fulfilled the most important functions of Temple rituals but in new, purely verbal forms."

She then went on to cite a specific example of how this was implemented with regard to the observance of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Langer wrote: "Atonement for sins was a Temple function that transferred easily to this rabbinic, non-sacrificial context. While still evoking memories of the day’s elaborate Temple rituals, the day came to focus on confession and penitential prayer. Atonement for many sins, though, could be sought every weekday, through the regular liturgy. Thus, the most significant Temple functions were modified or transferred, providing Jews with ritual continuity."

In speaking of the ritualized mourning which was incorporated into the Jewish religion, she wrote: "Rabbinic texts recall that after the destruction, pietists sought to implement an all-pervasive mourning, banning consumption of meat and wine and even marriage and procreation. The rabbis argued this was unsustainable: not only would people openly rebel, resulting in outright disobedience to God’s Torah, but this path’s full logic would complete the Roman’s goal of wiping out Israel. Total, paralyzing mourning was logical, but it was not feasible. Instead, they advocated, a constant low-level of mourning should pervade Jewish life. One should leave an obvious patch unplastered in one’s house, something should remain uneaten at a meal, and a piece of jewelry should remain unworn (t. Sot. 15 end; b. BB 60b.)."

Likewise, in her discussion of the impact of eschatological hope, Langer observed: "Liturgical expressions of this hope for restoration appear constantly. The rabbinic weekday prayer petitions God to provide all the necessary elements of the messianically restored state, including its place of worship. The additional services of festive days not only recall the day’s sacrifices, but also pray for their restoration. For the last half-millennium, 'Next year in Jerusalem!' has concluded the Passover Seder. In some synagogues, it concludes the Yom Kippur fast as well." In these ways, Langer informs us the rabbis who survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple sought to effect "a major rethinking of the way the Jewish community stands before God."

In a real sense, Herbert Armstrong sought to do the same thing for Christians - to rethink how these festival practices could be applied to Christians in the Twentieth Century. The problem with this reasoning will be readily apparent to anyone who is trying to scrupulously follow the Scriptural formula for observing these festivals - It is currently impossible to do so! In other words, in order for anyone (whether they be Jew or Christian) to "observe" these days, significant alterations of the original instructions are necessary to make that happen.

Now, we come at last to what Mr. Dart characterized as the fourth major argument against Holy Day observance by Christians: "All of the holydays are types which are fulfilled in Christ and are therefore no longer binding on Christians." In response, I would say that The Thread makes this point more eloquently than I ever could! In that book, Mr. Dart meticulously makes the case for how each one of the festivals symbolically portrayed different aspects of Christ's work. And, if his musings in this regard are correct (and I believe they are), we are forced to conclude that ALL of the Holy Days find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Hence, Paul's statement to the Colossians that these things "were shadows of the reality yet to come...And Christ himself is that reality" (2:17, NLT) makes much more sense. In other words, the reality is always more meaningful than that which pictures/portrays it!

Nevertheless, I also share Paul's view that we shouldn't ever allow anyone to judge us with regard to whether or not/how we (Christians) choose to observe these festivals. I can also say without equivocation that my own experience of Christ has been enriched by my familiarity with (and observance of) these days. Are Christians required to observe them under the terms of the New Covenant? Absolutely NOT! However, I believe that it is possible for Christians to gain a much better insight into/understanding of the work and person of Jesus Christ by familiarizing themselves with these festivals which the Lord appointed for Israel. And I can think of no better work to explain them than the one contributed by Mr. Ronald Dart and referenced in this post!

Sources:

The New Living Translation of the Holy Bible

Dart, Ronald L. "The Thread: God's Appointments With History," Wasteland Press, 2006.

Greenberg, Irving. "The Temple and its Destruction: A look into the psyche of ancient Judaism." My Jewish Learning, Accessed 16 September 2021.

Langer, Ruth. (2021): “Jewish Liturgical Responses to the Roman Destruction of the Temple,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 3, Accessed 16 September 2021.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Devil made me do it!

Herbert Armstrong taught that Satan is ultimately responsible for all of our sins. In his Pagan Holidays - or God's Holy Days - Which? booklet, he wrote: "The devil is the real author of all sin." Hence, for Armstrong and his associates, justice demanded that our sins must ultimately be placed on the head of the one who was really responsible for them. In that same booklet, Armstrong summarized his thinking thus: "The real cause- the actual author of those sins-was Satan the devil. Is it justice for Christ to bear guilt that is not His, while the devil goes off scot-free? Do you not suppose GOD'S great plan will finally work full justice by placing that original blame and guilt right where it belongs?"

To be sure, this notion that Satan is the one who is actually culpable for our sins has enjoyed widespread acceptance in our society. The comedian Flip Wilson used to say, "The Devil made me do it!" When caught in sin, Mother Eve told God that the serpent had deceived her (Genesis 3:13). And my Armstrongist friends are quick to point out that Jesus said that Satan was the father of lies (John 8:44), and that Satan has deceived the entire world (Revelation 12:9). But does that make Satan the one who is ultimately responsible for all sin?

Does Satan play a role in our sins? Does "he" cause us to sin? Does "he" make us sin? What exactly does Satan do? Scripture informs us that Satan's modus operandi is to deceive and tempt people. Scripture informs us that Satan can appear as an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14) and attempts to make sin appear to be reasonable and/or good (Genesis 3:1-7). The Bible informs us that Satan harassed Job in an effort to get him to sin (Job 1 and 2), and that he tempted Jesus Christ to sin (Matt.4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). However, in all of these instances, it appears that Satan did not have the ability/power to force these people to sin. In other words, in each of these examples, the individual in question had to make their own decision to sin or to refrain from sinning.

In the book of James, we read that "God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:12) Hence, the logical conclusion is that it is possible to "patiently endure testing and temptation" - it is not a forgone conclusion that we will succumb to those tests and temptations. Indeed, later in this same epistle the author encourages his readers to "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." (James 4:7) In fact, in describing the process of sin, James doesn't even mention the devil! He described that process in the following terms: "Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death." (James 1:14-15).

Moreover, if "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), then why on earth would humans be required to pay a penalty which they had not earned? If Satan is indeed responsible for all of our sins, then why did Christ have to die for those sins? Why must we all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and God if someone else is the real perpetrator of those sins? (Rom.14:10,12; 2 Cor.5:10; Rev.20:11-12)

Finally, the notion of personal accountability for our behavior is explicitly laid out in Scripture in a number of places, but probably no where more powerfully than in the book of Ezekiel. We read there: "For all people are mine to judge—both parents and children alike. And this is my rule: The person who sins is the one who will die. “Suppose a certain man is righteous and does what is just and right...Anyone who does these things is just and will surely live, says the Sovereign Lord. “But suppose that man has a son who grows up to be a robber or murderer and refuses to do what is right. And that son does all the evil things his father would never do—he worships idols on the mountains, commits adultery, oppresses the poor and helpless, steals from debtors by refusing to let them redeem their security, worships idols, commits detestable sins, and lends money at excessive interest. Should such a sinful person live? No! He must die and must take full blame. “But suppose that sinful son, in turn, has a son who sees his father’s wickedness and decides against that kind of life...Such a person will not die because of his father’s sins; he will surely live. But the father will die for his many sins—for being cruel, robbing people, and doing what was clearly wrong among his people. 'What?’ you ask. ‘Doesn’t the child pay for the parent’s sins?’ No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness." (Ezekiel 18:4-20)

In other words, Satan may be the father of lies and sins; but his parental role will not excuse or justify the sins of his offspring! The Devil cannot make us do anything. God has given us the ability to choose to obey "Him" or to sin. And, while it may be funny in the mouth of a comedian, "the devil made me do it" won't carry much currency with God on the Day of Judgment! Christ paid the penalty for your sins and mine - not Satan's. To be sure, Satan has enough sins of his own to answer for someday, but that event has/will have NOTHING to do with our AT-ONE-MENT or reconciliation with God - that was/is accomplished entirely by Jesus Christ!    

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Our Duty As Christians To Be Good Stewards of God's Creation

The Pope, Patriarch and Archbishop of Canterbury issued a joint statement on climate change which can be found on the following websites related to each of their faiths:

From the Vatican: A Joint Message for the Protection of Creation

From the Anglican Communion: A Joint Message for Protection of Creation

From Orthodoxy in Dialogue: A Joint Message for the Protection of Creation

This remarkable document from the leaders of the three largest denominations of the Christian Church (Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Anglicans) is excerpted below. However, I encourage my readers to click on one or more of the links above and READ the entire document.

First, the leaders provided a justification for their joint statement:

For more than a year, we have all experienced the devastating effects of a global pandemic—all of us, whether poor or wealthy, weak or strong. Some were more protected or vulnerable than others, but the rapidly-spreading infection meant that we have depended on each other in our efforts to stay safe. We realized that, in facing this worldwide calamity, no one is safe until everyone is safe, that our actions really do affect one another, and that what we do today affects what happens tomorrow.

These are not new lessons, but we have had to face them anew. May we not waste this moment. We must decide what kind of world we want to leave to future generations. God mandates: ‘Choose life, so that you and your children might live’ (Dt 30:19). We must choose to live differently; we must choose life.

September is celebrated by many Christians as the Season of Creation, an opportunity to pray and care for God’s creation. As world leaders prepare to meet in November at Glasgow to deliberate on the future of our planet, we pray for them and consider what the choices we must all make. Accordingly, as leaders of our Churches, we call on everyone, whatever their belief or worldview, to endeavor to listen to the cry of the earth and of people who are poor, examining their behavior and pledging meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the earth which God has given us.

Next, the problem was concisely summarized by them:

Today, we are paying the price. The extreme weather and natural disasters of recent months reveal afresh to us with great force and at great human cost that climate change is not only a future challenge, but an immediate and urgent matter of survival. Widespread floods, fires and droughts threaten entire continents. Sea levels rise, forcing whole communities to relocate; cyclones devastate entire regions, ruining lives and livelihoods. Water has become scarce and food supplies insecure, causing conflict and displacement for millions of people. We have already seen this in places where people rely on small scale agricultural holdings. Today we see it in more industrialized countries where even sophisticated infrastructure cannot completely prevent extraordinary destruction.

Tomorrow could be worse. Today’s children and teenagers will face catastrophic consequences unless we take responsibility now, as ‘fellow workers with God’ (Gn 2.4–7), to sustain our world. We frequently hear from young people who understand that their futures are under threat. For their sake, we must choose to eat, travel, spend, invest and live differently, thinking not only of immediate interest and gains but also of future benefits. We repent of our generation’s sins. We stand alongside our younger sisters and brothers throughout the world in committed prayer and dedicated action for a future which corresponds ever more to the promises of God.

Finally, these Christian leaders offered some general observations about our collective responsibility to do something about climate change:

These crises present us with a choice. We are in a unique position either to address them with shortsightedness and profiteering or seize this as an opportunity for conversion and transformation. If we think of humanity as a family and work together towards a future based on the common good, we could find ourselves living in a very different world. Together we can share a vision for life where everyone flourishes. Together we can choose to act with love, justice and mercy. Together we can walk towards a fairer and fulfilling society with those who are most vulnerable at the center.

But this involves making changes. Each of us, individually, must take responsibility for the ways we use our resources. This path requires an ever-closer collaboration among all churches in their commitment to care for creation. Together, as communities, churches, cities and nations, we must change route and discover new ways of working together to break down the traditional barriers between peoples, to stop competing for resources and start collaborating.

May God bless Francis, Bartholomew and Justin for their efforts to shepherd God's people to take care of "our common home."



Tuesday, September 7, 2021

God's Perspective on Fear and Freedom

If you actually stop and listen to the folks who are opposed to mask and vaccine mandates, the two rationales that you will most often hear put forward to justify their opposition are fear and freedom. "I don't think fear is a good motivation for wearing a mask or getting vaccinated - that's an emotional reaction, not a logical one," I've heard them say. OR They are just as likely to say something like: "It is an infringement of my personal freedom to force me to wear a mask or receive a vaccine!" Moreover, if those of us who support mask and vaccine mandates are completely honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that fear and authoritarian measures are NOT the best justifications for what we support! And it is certainly true that emotion-based arguments are inferior to those based on logic and reason.

Unfortunately, the same folks who are quick to point out the fearmongering and authoritarian impulses of the proponents of mask wearing and vaccination are very often guilty of using the exact same tactics to oppose them! Let's take just a moment to consider some of the commonly heard objections to wearing masks and getting vaccinated: "Mask wearing can actually be detrimental to your health," "Requiring someone to wear a mask or receive a vaccine violates their freedom to choose what an individual feels is in his/her own best personal interest," "Anyone who receives an mRNA vaccine will be dead within a year or two," "These vaccines are unproven and untested, and their use will lead to catastrophic future health problems," "The NEW mRNA vaccines will change your DNA or render you unable to have children." Talk about fearmongering!

Over at The Conversation, an article was posted by Amy Fairchild and Ronald Bayer titled "Why using fear to promote COVID-19 vaccination and mask wearing could backfire" In the article, the authors recount the long history of how public health officials have used fear to motivate people to do things in times past (e.g. "lifestyle diseases," anti-tobacco campaigns, anti-obesity campaigns, etc.). In other words, the thinking has often been the old notion that "the end justifies the means." The authors, however, go on to suggest that this may not be the best approach for the issues related to the current pandemic. They observed: "Health officials have faced armed protesters outside their offices and homes. Many people seem to have lost the capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood. By instilling fear that government will go too far and erode civil liberties, some groups developed an effective political tool for overriding rationality in the face of science, even the evidence-based recommendations supporting face masks as protection against the coronavirus. Reliance on fear for public health messaging now could further erode trust in public health officials and scientists at a critical juncture."

Nevertheless, from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, it is clear that fear and personal freedom are NOT the kinds of things which should be motivating Christian behavior. Paul wrote to the saints at Rome that they had not received a spirit of bondage and fear, but one that enables us to reach out to God the Father (Romans 8:15). Likewise, in the second epistle to Timothy, we read: "For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline." (II Timothy 1:7) In John's first epistle, he wrote: "God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear." (John 4:16-18) And, with regard to Christians looking out for their own interests, Paul wrote to the saints at Philippi: "Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too." (Philippians 2:4) Finally, Paul wrote to the saints at Corinth about the freedom which they enjoyed in Christ on this wise: "you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble." (I Corinthians 8:9)

Hence, using Scripture as a window into God's perspective on the appropriateness of fear and freedom as tools for motivating "His" people, we can see that God doesn't think much of them! Unfortunately, humans have proven how very stubborn/willful and selfish they can be, and we can certainly understand the temptation to use fear and intimidation to motivate them to do the right thing. However, Scripture makes very clear that Christians should scrupulously avoid using these tactics - the end does NOT always justify the means. Frankly, if love for others and a desire to do what is in the best interest of the wider community is not enough to motivate someone to do the right thing, I don't hold out much hope of anything being able to penetrate their stony hearts!

Monday, September 6, 2021

All the Light We Cannot See

Earlier this year, Darlene and I read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. The novel is set in Germany and France during World War II and follows the parallel stories of a German soldier and a blind French girl. As the title suggests, the premise of the book is that: In the midst of so much darkness and ugliness, there are always little beacons of kindness and light that often go unnoticed by the larger world. And Doerr does an excellent job of pointing out all of that unseen light.

After finishing the book, however, it occurred to me that the same thing could be said of the actual light in our world. In fact, when we consider the entire electromagnetic spectrum, we realize that the light which is visible to our eyes is only a small fraction of the total that is out there. Indeed, from ultraviolet and infrared light and beyond, the amount of the available light which we can see is a rather insignificant part of the whole.

In terms of God and Scripture, the fact that most light is invisible to our eyes is critical to beginning to comprehend the greatness of Almighty God. After all, this awareness of our limitations helps us to better appreciate God's majesty and the complexity of "His" plans. In short, this knowledge demands humility and patience. For, if we cannot see everything that God is doing, how can we possibly claim to completely understand "His" will or have the audacity to condemn "Him" based on the very limited data which is available to us?

In this connection, it is also interesting to note just how much God is associated with light in Scripture. In Genesis, we have God speaking light into existence before anything else was created. In the gospel according to John, we read that Jesus Christ is THE light of the world! Likewise, in the first epistle of John, we read that "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." Paul also told Timothy that God dwells in the midst of "unapproachable light." Paul refers to Christians as the "children of light" and underscores the fact that they have been called out of darkness. In similar fashion, Peter told the saints of his day that God had called them "out of the darkness into his wonderful light." Even so, Paul also warned the Christians of his day that they were then only able to "see through a glass, darkly."

It behooves all of us then to be aware of the fact that there is much light which we cannot currently see. In a real sense, this is where FAITH comes into the equation. Because God created light and IS light, we must ourselves come to see that God is able to see the entire electromagnetic spectrum - not just the small portion of light which is visible to our eyes. Hence, in both a literal and a figurative sense, God is able to see more than us. And, when we see God in this way, we can begin to accept the superiority and reliability of our Creator and "His" plans for us. Thus, we can finally get to the place where we can rest assured that God can see the end of all things - even when we can't!   

Thursday, September 2, 2021

You Have Direct Access to God!

Unfortunately, there are more than a few folks in the religious realm who would have us believe that they are God's representatives and/or are somehow acting in the capacity of an essential link to the Divine. In fact, many of them claim to be acting in some official capacity (e.g. an apostle, evangelist, prophet, etc.). The clear implication being (when it isn't explicitly stated) that God is using them to communicate with us or to somehow facilitate our relationship with Him.

Could this be true? Is it possible that God is actually using one or more of them in such a way? Do we need someone to facilitate our relationship with God?

During the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, the gospel according to John informs us that Christ told Thomas: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (John 14:6) In other words, Jesus appears to have been very explicit in his declaration that we can only have access to God through him.

The gospel according to Matthew informs us that the curtain that concealed the most Holy place in the Temple was ripped open at the moment of Christ's death (Matthew 27:50-51). Symbolically, of course, this signified that everyone then had direct access to God - that there was no longer any veil between us and the place where God lived.

Paul told the saints at Rome that they had been "reconciled to God by the death of his Son" (Romans 5:10). He wrote to the saints at Corinth that God had "reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ" (II Corinthians 5:18). Likewise, the epistle to the Colossians states that God reconciled everything to himself through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:19-20).

In the first epistle to Timothy, we read that there is "one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." (I Timothy 2:5) Likewise, in the epistle to the Hebrews, Christ is identified as THE mediator of the New Covenant (see Hebrews 8:6, 9:15 and 12:24).

Finally, we must not forget that those who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as an offering for their sins have also been given access to God's Holy Spirit. In fact, Scripture informs us that the Holy Spirit actually dwells within Christians (see Acts 2:4, 33, 38, 4:31, 5:32, 8:17-19, 10:44-45, 11:24, 13:9, 52, 15:8, 19:1-6, Romans 5:5, 15:13, 16, I Corinthians 6:19, II Corinthians 13:14, Hebrews 6:4). Christ himself had told his disciples that God would send them a "Comforter" (John 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7). Notice too that Christ never said that this gift would be restricted to the leadership of the Church. In other words, ALL Christians have access to this Divine spark! 

Hence, from the perspective of Scripture, it appears that Jesus Christ has given us direct access to God. In other words, because of Christ, we don't need anyone else to act as a go-between for us. We can go directly to God in prayer. Christ has given us right standing with God, and we don't need anyone else to mediate or facilitate that relationship for us! Moreover, Scripture makes clear that ALL Christians have received the gift of the Holy Spirit - a very personal, real and direct connection to God.  Let's all try to remember this the next time we hear someone suggest that they can introduce us to God or act as his ambassador to us!