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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Monday, July 31, 2023

The Gospel of Herbert Armstrong vs The Gospel of Jesus Christ (Part 2)

When Nicodemus revealed to Jesus that the religious elite knew that he was sent from God, Christ told him: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [or 'from above'] he cannot see the kingdom of God."(John 3:3) This, of course, perplexed Nicodemus, and he asked Jesus how someone could be born a second time (verse 4). Christ replied: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." (Verse 5) In other words, unless this happens, you aren't getting into God's Kingdom! Now, without getting into a theological debate about what being "born again" entails, Christ's statement makes clear that only folks who have God's Spirit even have a shot at being in God's Kingdom!

Nevertheless, still skeptical, Nicodemus asked him "How can these things be?" (Verse 9) Christ replied: "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (Verses 10-18) So, clearly, salvation through Jesus Christ is an integral part of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God!

Next, we will look at what Christ said to Pontius Pilate when the Roman governor was going to decide his fate. In the account of that event found in the Gospel of John, we read: "So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?' Jesus answered, 'Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?' Pilate answered, 'Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?' Jesus answered, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.' Then Pilate said to him, 'So you are a king?' Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.' (18:33-37)

Once again, we see that Pilate was looking at this whole issue from a human perspective. Indeed, this is reflected in the charge hung over Christ's cross, "King of the Jews." Christ statement that his Kingdom is NOT of this world suggest a great deal more than it simply being from heaven. Once again, it suggests that the Kingdom of God is the antithesis of human notions about government. Notice also, Christ said that he was born and came to this world "to bear witness to the truth," and that only those who listened to him were part of the truth. In short, once again, Christ is CENTRAL to the Kingdom of God!

Finally, before we leave Christ's take on the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, there are a number of other statements that he made which are pertinent to a comprehensive (but not exhaustive) treatment of this subject. For instance, Jesus once said that "if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." (Matthew 12:28) Reinforcing, again, that Christ viewed himself as being synonymous with God's Kingdom. Later, in the same Gospel account, Christ told his disciples that: "only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." (19:23-24) Again, refuting the human notion that wealth equals power. Next, let's take a close look at one of Armstrong's favorite passages about Christ preaching the Good News.

In the Gospel of Mark, we read: "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'" (1:14-15, NKJV) Now, we will ignore that some manuscripts leave out the word "kingdom" in describing the gospel (In other words, the "Gospel of God"). Notice, that Christ instructed his audience to "REPENT, AND BELIEVE." This, obviously, reinforces the notion that the Gospel was about much more than the establishment of a literal kingdom on this earth.

Also, in the same Gospel account, we read: "And he said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.' And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.' For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, 'This is my beloved Son; listen to him.' And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead." (Mark 9:1-9) Notice that, in this vision of God's Kingdom, Christ is pictured conversing with Moses and Elijah, NOT sitting on a throne; and God tells his disciples to listen to his beloved Son! A little later in the account, Christ said that folks must "receive the kingdom of God like a child," or they wouldn't be permitted to enter God's Kingdom (10:15)

Now that we have a fairly comprehensive treatment of Christ's teachings about the Kingdom of God, we turn our attention to the messaging of his apostles as they are recounted in the canon of the New Testament. In his sermon to the Pentecost gathering of Christ's disciples, Peter talked about Jesus (Acts 2:22-36). When he was finished, we are told that those who had been listening to him "were cut to the heart" and asked Peter and the other apostles what they should do (verse 37). Peter responded: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Verse 38) So, once again, we can see that the message was centered on Jesus Christ and his redemptive work. In other words, the message was focused on salvation through Jesus Christ!

Later, in the same book, we read that a small crowd "believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women." (8:12) Notice that the message of the Kingdom was linked with the name of Jesus Christ and resulted in the baptism of the folks who heard it. Later, when Paul went to Rome, we read that: "From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets." (28:23) Notice, once again, that the message about the Kingdom was inextricably linked to the person of Jesus (and that Paul used Torah and the Prophets to preach about him). Moreover, this is reiterated in the final two verses of the book. We read that Paul "lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance." (28:30-31)

Likewise, in his epistle to the saints at Rome, Paul wrote: "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ." (1:1-6) In verse nine of that same chapter, he referred to his message as the Gospel of God's Son. A little further down, we read: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith.'" (Verses 16-17) So, it is clear that Paul equated the Gospel with Jesus Christ and the salvation which he made available to humankind.

Later, in the same book, Paul wrote: "Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." (14:13-19) This passage makes plain that salvation is the goal of the message which Christ preached, and it also destroys Herbert Armstrong's contention that Christians are bound to obey the dietary laws found in Torah.

In his first epistle to the saints at Corinth, Paul wrote: "Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1:17-18) He went on to say: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (Verses 22-24) Later, in the same epistle, Paul said that wicked people will not inherit God's Kingdom (6:9-10, and he told the Galatians the same thing, 5:21).

Paul also summarized his message in the fifteenth chapter of the epistle. He wrote: "Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (Verses 1-4) Clearly, Paul's Gospel message was focused on Jesus Christ, and what he had done for humanity. Finally, he wrote: " I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable...For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (Verses 50, 53) Somewhat reminiscent of what Christ told Nicodemus, isn't it?

In this context, even one of Armstrong's favorite prooftexts takes on a new and completely different meaning from the one assigned to it by Herbie and his allies. Paul wrote to the saints of Galatia: "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed." (1:6-9) And, what was that Gospel? Paul continued: "For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ... But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles." (Verses 11-12, 15-16) Once again, Paul's conception of what the Gospel of the Kingdom entailed was VERY different from the one espoused by Herbert Armstrong and his followers!

The Gospel of Herbert Armstrong vs The Gospel of Jesus Christ (Part 1)

In his booklet Just What Do You Mean...Kingdom of God? Herbert Armstrong wrote: "Revelation 11:15 states it in these words: 'The kingdoms of this world are become THE KINGDOMS OF OUR LORD, AND OF HIS CHRIST; and He shall reign for ever and ever!' This is THE KINGDOM OF GOD. It is the END of present governments - the governments that rule Russia, China, Japan, Italy, Germany - yes, and even the United States and the British nations. They then shall become the kingdoms - the GOVERNMENTS of the Lord JESUS CHRIST, then KING of kings over the entire earth. This makes completely PLAIN the fact that the KINGDOM OF GOD is a literal GOVERNMENT. Even as the Chaldean Empire was a KINGDOM - even as the Roman Empire was a KINGDOM - so the KINGDOM OF GOD is a government. It is to take over the GOVERNMENT of the NATIONS of the world. Jesus Christ was BORN to be a KING - a RULER!" So, for Armstrong, Christ's message was about the establishment of a literal kingdom on this earth. In that same booklet, Armstrong insisted that it wasn't a message about Christ, grace, or salvation through him.

That, however, is NOT the GOOD NEWS which Christ and his disciples proclaimed to the world in the First Century! Indeed, as we will demonstrate in this post, the TRUE Gospel was just about everything that Herbert Armstrong said that it wasn't! In reality, Scripture makes very plain that God's Kingdom is the ANTITHESIS of the Chaldean/Babylonian and Roman Empires! In fact, those empires are held up in Scripture as the symbols of everything that is wrong with man's conception of governance! In those kingdoms, military power and conquest were exalted and worshipped. The state and its ruler were worshipped and regarded as supreme. The people and territory of the realm were there to serve the state and its ruler. Indeed, all lives and resources were considered the property of the state and were in the ruler's hand to use or sacrifice as he saw fit. Everything was geared toward the accumulation of wealth - the collection of tribute and taxes - all meant to enrich the ruling elite and support the military with very little thought or concern for the people.

To be fair to Mr. Armstrong, his followers, Jehovah's Witnesses, and most of Christ's First Century disciples also misunderstood the true nature of his Kingdom! Scripture makes clear that they expected the immediate overthrow of the Roman Empire and the reestablishment of the Davidic Kingdom. In the account of Christ's encounter with Zacchaeus, after Christ told them that he "came to seek and save the lost," we read that: "As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, 'A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.'" (Luke 19:11-12, ESV) Later, even after he was resurrected from the dead, we read: "So when they had come together, they asked him, 'Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?' He said to them, 'It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.' And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. " (Acts 1:6-9)

Now, to truly understand the kind of Kingdom which Christ was talking about, we have to take a closer look at his "Sermon on the Mount," parables, and what he told Nicodemus and Pilate when he had an audience with them. It is also essential to look at how Paul, Peter, James, John, and the anonymous author of the epistle to the Hebrews interpreted the Gospel message. Likewise, all of this must be understood within the context of Torah and the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, it is only when we take a comprehensive look at all of these Scriptures together that a true picture emerges of the nature of God's Kingdom.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we have a detailed account of what is popularly referred to as the "Sermon on the Mount." We read there: "Seeing the crowds, he <Jesus> went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.'" (5:1-12) So, according to Jesus, God's Kingdom will be composed of folks who have been downtrodden in this life, persecuted, and who have experienced sorrow and loss. He also underscored the fact that the Kingdom would be inherited by those who are humble, and that those who are merciful, innocent, and peacemakers would be rewarded by God in his Kingdom. In other words, those who have experienced power and wealth in this life, been prideful, been unforgiving, and caused dissension and strife will have no place there! Notice too, that these are the very traits most often observed in the leaders of this world!

In this same sermon, Christ went on to say that he came to this planet to fulfill the Torah and the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible (5:17). Jesus accomplished this in a number of ways. First, throughout the New Testament references are made to numerous Scriptures which pointed to Jesus (e.g., the sacrificial system, Sabbath, Holy Days, Messianic prophecies, etc.). Second, he obeyed the precepts of Torah perfectly (I John 3:5, I Peter 2:22, II Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, Isaiah 53:9). He did this for us, because everyone else has sinned - violated the provisions of Torah. Thus, Christ's righteousness is imputed to us and his sacrifice paid the penalty for our sins - death (Isaiah 53:4-6, 11, Romans 5:19, II Corinthians 5:21). Third, he expanded the application of Torah in our lives by addressing God's intent and that which motivates the individual (Matthew 5:21-48, 6:1-34, 7:1-20). Fourth, by summarizing the Law into two great commandments which would comprehend ALL of the other commandments and enable his followers to internalize those principles and apply them to every situation which they might face in this life (Matthew 22:34-30, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28). Scripture contrasts this application of the "Spirit of the Law" with those who are obsessed with obeying the "Letter of the Law" (Romans 7:6, 8:2, Galatians 5:18, Jeremiah 31:33). In this way, the righteousness of Christ's followers would surpass that of the Jewish religious leaders of the First Century and make them fit for God's Kingdom (Matthew 5:20).

Next, we also see the nature of God's Kingdom in Christ's many parables which were intended to give his disciples some insight into what it would be like. Moreover, there is no other more comprehensive account of the parables of Jesus than that which is found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Likewise, the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-24) is probably the most comprehensive of all of the parables in describing the nature of God's Kingdom. Christ said: "A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear." Later, Jesus explained the meaning of the parable to his followers. He said: "Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty." Moreover, this parable underscored the fact that "the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven" would only be understood by his disciples.

Continuing in that account, Jesus gave his disciples a number of other parables which shed more light on God's Kingdom. The Parable of the Weeds Among the Grain (Matthew 13:24-30) was intended to demonstrate that bad people will eventually be removed and dealt with by God. The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32) was intended to demonstrate the process of the Kingdom - that it would start out small and grow into something that would benefit everyone. Likewise, the Parable of the Leavening (Matthew 13:33-34) was meant to show that God's Kingdom would eventually encompass everyone everywhere. Christ also compared the Kingdom to a hidden treasure and a pearl of great value (Matthew 13:44-46). In the Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-50), Jesus compared the Kingdom to a net catching many different kinds of fish - some good and some undesirable - suggesting the need for a sorting.

Later in the same Gospel, Christ told a number of other parables related to the Kingdom. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14), we are reminded that God is "not willing that any of these little ones should perish" (sounds an awful lot like he's talking about salvation, doesn't it?). In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35), the Kingdom is likened to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One of the servants, a man whom he had forgiven a large debt, refused to be merciful to a man who owed him a small amount. The point of the story? We must forgive each other because of what God has forgiven in each of us. In the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), the lesson is that many of the people who are last will be first, and those who are first now will be last in the Kingdom. In the Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-44), Jesus used the story to bring attention to the fact that the religious leaders of that day were rejecting the foundation of the Kingdom, Jesus Christ.

In the Parable of the Marriage Feast (Matthew 22:1-14), we read: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come." Eventually, the servants succeed in bringing some guests into the feast, but one of the guests is caught without the proper attire. The king then had the man ejected from the banquet, and we are told that "many are called, but few are chosen." Likewise, in the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), we have a story about ten brides who each took an oil lamp out to meet their bridegroom. Jesus said that five of them forgot to bring any oil for their lamps and were, consequently, unprepared when the bridegroom finally showed up for the wedding. The moral? "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

Finally, in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), we read: "For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them." Thus, we are told that two of the servants were profitable - they increased what had been entrusted to them, but one of the servants was unprofitable (there was no growth). In the end, the unprofitable servant had his talent removed, and he was cast into "outer darkness."

Hence, from these parables of Jesus, we (Christ's disciples) learn a number of things about the nature of God's Kingdom (OR, as the Gospel of Matthew repeatedly characterizes it, the Kingdom of Heaven). First, Jesus is central to the Kingdom - the KING! Second, that the Kingdom starts out small and within the Church/Ecclesia and will gradually expand to encompass everyone everywhere. Third, there will be a sorting of the good from the bad, and the bad folks will not be permitted to be a part of it. Fourth, the Kingdom will be composed of folks who have been saved and made righteous by Jesus Christ. Fifth, the Kingdom will be composed of folks who are willing to forgive each other - just as God has forgiven them for Christ's sake. Sixth, we must regard our invitation to participate in the Kingdom as something to be treasured/valued/respected. Seventh, if we want to be a part of that Kingdom, we must remain prepared for it and live a life of growing what has been entrusted to us. Once again, none of that sounds like what goes on in a human kingdom.

(To be continued)

Friday, July 28, 2023

Where are all of the trees God planted?

As I traveled across the United States on a recent family vacation, I was struck by the number of dead trees I observed along the way. Unfortunately, I think that most of us take trees for granted and rarely think much about them. They are, however, one of God's/Nature's true miracles. In addition to the shade, beauty, food, building materials, and fuel which they provide for us, they also absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, provide homes and food for the other creatures which share this planet with us, and prevent soil erosion. Indeed, it is hard to imagine life on this earth without them!

Even so, as agriculture, commerce and industry have expanded, the footprint of our woodlands has receded. Moreover, the introduction of alien species into the American ecosystem has had a devastating impact on our forest lands. In the last century, we lost the American Chestnut and the American Elm. In this still young century, we are witnessing the demise of our Ash and White Oak. In some of our Coniferous forests, the Pine Beetle is wreaking havoc and destroying beautiful stands of trees. And ALL of this devastation can be laid at the feet of the creature created in the image and likeness of God!

In the book of Genesis, we are told that God planted a garden in Eden and placed the humans there to tend and watch over it (2:8, 15). We are also informed there that "God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." (Verse 9) We know, however, that the humans not only abused/neglected the symbolic trees, but they also neglected to take care of the trees which God had made available for their benefit and nourishment! It is sad to see this failure of our ancestors perpetuated by their descendants. Some things never change!

Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Truth

Faith is NOT a confidence that you have a handle on things. Rather, it IS a conviction that God does!

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Weightier Matters of the Law: Justice, Mercy and Faith)

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that Jesus reprimanded the religious leaders of his day for their misplaced priorities in the way which they applied Torah to their lives. We read there that he said: "What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!" (Matthew 23:23-24, NLT) Now, thanks to the attention of their ministers, many Christians are intimately familiar with what Torah has to say about tithing; but how many of them are aware of what Torah has to say about justice, mercy and faith?

Justice: In the Greek of the New Testament, the word is krisis, and it is indicative of a righteous decision in the way that it is employed in this passage describing Christ's remark to the Jewish religious leaders. The Hebrew equivalent indicates righteous judgment - a fair decision or sentence (see mispat). The first mention of the word is found in the eighteenth chapter of Genesis. We find there that God knew that Abraham would direct his family to do what was "right and just." Later, in the same passage, when God told Abraham that he was going to destroy Sodom, Abraham had the temerity to say: "Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?" Hence, in the very first book of Torah, the sense of the word is established.

In terms of specific instructions, we read in the book of Exodus: "In a lawsuit, you must not deny justice to the poor. Be sure never to charge anyone falsely with evil. Never sentence an innocent or blameless person to death, for I never declare a guilty person to be innocent. Take no bribes, for a bribe makes you ignore something that you clearly see. A bribe makes even a righteous person twist the truth." (23:6-8) Likewise, in the book of Leviticus, we read: "Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly." (19:15) And, a little further down in the same chapter, we read: "Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight, or volume. Your scales and weights must be accurate. Your containers for measuring dry materials or liquids must be accurate." (35-36) Hence, once again, we see the notion of fairness and truthfulness associated with this term.

The principle of fairness is also reinforced in a number of other passages in Torah. After enumerating a number of just punishments, we read in the twenty-fourth chapter of Leviticus: "This same standard <mispat> applies both to native-born Israelites and to the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God." (22) In the book of Numbers, we read: "The same instructions <mispat> and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigners living among you." (16) Likewise, in the instructions given to Israel's judges, we read: "At that time I instructed the judges, ‘You must hear the cases of your fellow Israelites and the foreigners living among you. Be perfectly fair in your decisions and impartial in your judgments. Hear the cases of those who are poor as well as those who are rich. Don’t be afraid of anyone’s anger, for the decision you make is God’s decision. Bring me any cases that are too difficult for you, and I will handle them.'" (Deuteronomy 1:16-17) Once again, the emphasis is on impartial justice for those who seek it.

Later, in the same book, we read: "For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt." (10:17-19) Also, "Appoint judges and officials for yourselves from each of your tribes in all the towns the Lord your God is giving you. They must judge the people fairly. You must never twist justice or show partiality. Never accept a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and corrupt the decisions of the godly. Let true justice prevail, so you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you." (16:18-20) And, we read: "True justice must be given to foreigners living among you and to orphans, and you must never accept a widow’s garment as security for her debt. Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from your slavery. That is why I have given you this command." (24:17-18) Interestingly, God tied the concept of fairness and justice to their own former experiences. Finally, in the curses delivered from Mt. Ebal, we read: "Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows.’ And all the people will reply, ‘Amen.’" (27:19)

We should also note in connection with this topic of justice and judgment that the same Hebrew word is applied to ALL of the Lord's commandments, judgments, and statutes in Torah. In other words, it reinforces the notion of God's inherent fairness and justice and commitment to doing the right thing. Indeed, this is reinforced by the words of the Psalmist: "The laws <judgments - mispat> of the Lord are true; each one is fair." Hence, this also applies to Christ's summary of Torah - the commandments to love the Lord with our whole hearts and to love our each other as we love ourselves. After all, justice is all about how we treat each other, and we hear in these passages the echoes of Christ's Golden Rule.

Mercy: Again, in the Greek of the New Testament, the word is eleos, and it is indicative of mercy, kindness, and compassion toward others. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word is hesed, and it is indicative of mercy, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. Of particular interest to us, in the Hebrew Scriptures, mercy and judgment are often mentioned together (Psalms 89:14, 101:1, Isaiah 16:5, 30:18, Hosea 12:6, Zechariah 7:9). In other words, Jesus was drawing upon an old tradition when he made his remarks to the Jewish religious leaders of his day - a connection which would not have escaped the attention of those leaders (who were, of course, very familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures). Indeed, after we have finished discussed mercy and faith in the Torah, we will examine an even deeper connection between all three of the elements which Christ identified as the weightier matters of the Law.

In Torah, we read in the book of Genesis that God showed mercy/kindness to Joseph when he was taken to Egypt (Genesis 39:21). Likewise, in Exodus, we see that in his mercy, God led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness (Exodus 15:13). In connection with obedience to God, we are informed that God stated that he would show mercy to those who loved him and kept his commandments. (Exodus 20:6, Deuteronomy 5:10, 7:9). Also, God's mercy is clearly linked with the forgiveness of sins in Torah (Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18). This sense that mercy is inextricably linked with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in Torah is underscored by the writings of Christ's disciples included in the New Testament.

Faith: Interestingly, the word "faith" only appears two times in the King James English translation of the Hebrew Scriptures! Nevertheless, the word is prominently featured in the collection of writings which we refer to as the New Testament. The original Greek word is pistis, and it is indicative of a conviction that something is true - a belief. This sense of the word is further reinforced by the famous definition of faith found in the eleventh chapter of the anonymously authored epistle to the Hebrews. We read there that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (ESV) Moreover, in the examples of faith in action which follow this definition, the connection to Torah becomes more obvious. Indeed, most of the heroes of faith listed in that epistle were drawn from the writings which constitute the Torah (e.g., Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses)!

In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, after God had made some important promises to Abram (1-5), we read that the one who became Abraham "believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness." (6) Unfortunately, however, most of his descendants only believed God when he performed some miracle that accrued to their benefit (Exodus 4:30-31, 14:31). Indeed, even God's many miracles were very often not enough to convince them to believe and trust in God (Numbers 14:11, Deuteronomy 1:19-33, II Kings 17:14). Hence, we can see that the Old Testament clearly equated faith with righteousness and disbelief with rebelliousness and sin.

Now that we have established that justice, mercy, and faith are such an integral part of Torah and the characterization of God's character in those writings, we will take a closer look at why Christ focused on those three elements as being so important. First, we should note that the first two elements (justice and mercy) are obviously concerned with how we treat other people. Indeed, a determination to always be fair and to do the right thing and to be kind, compassionate, merciful, and forgiving toward others goes to the heart of those two commandments which Christ identified as the greatest of the Torah and comprehending the whole: love for God and each other. Likewise, throughout his ministry, Christ stressed the importance of faith in God and him to a person's reconciliation to God and his/her ultimate salvation.

Indeed, the Gospels make very plain the centrality of the role which faith was to play among Christ's disciples. In Mark, we read that Christ instructed his followers to repent of their sins and believe the good news (1:15). On numerous occasions Christ also tied healing and the performance of miracles to faith (Matthew 9:28, 17:20, Mark 2:5, 5:34, 9:23-24, 10:52, 11:24, 16:17, Luke 7:50, 8:50, 17:19, 18:42, John 14:12). Also, the Gospel of John focuses a great deal of attention on the importance of faith in Christ. That gospel also informs us that John bore witness to Christ so that everyone would believe in him (1:6-7). Later, in the same chapter, we read: "He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." (11-12). And then there is that most famous of all passages in the Judeo-Christian Bible: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (3:16-18) A little later, in the same chapter, this truth is reiterated: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." (36) Later still, Christ said: "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." (5:24) In fact, John is literally full of these references to the importance of faith and belief to the people of the New Covenant (6:35, 40, 47, 7:38, 11:25-26, etc.)

Finally, the writings of Paul and the other apostles support the importance of faith in the life of Christ's disciples. In his letter to the saints at Rome, Paul wrote: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" (Romans 1:16-17) Later, in the same letter, Paul wrote: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." (3:21-28) Also, in the fourth chapter of the same epistle, Paul pointed to the fact that Abraham's faith had been attributed to him as righteousness, and that he was thereby made the father of the faithful. Likewise, in the thirteenth chapter of his first epistle to the saints at Corinth, Paul wrote that the primary gifts of God's Holy Spirit were faith, hope, and love. There are also numerous allusions to the centrality of the role of faith in his epistles to the Galatians and Ephesians.

And, if Paul's writings were not enough to reinforce the importance of faith in the life of the Christian, there are a lot of references to the essential role that faith plays in the life of Christ's disciples in the other writings of the New Testament. Of course, we have already talked about the eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews. Even so, in verse six of that chapter, we are told that without faith it is impossible to please God - "for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." In the general epistle of James, we read that a "faith without works is dead." (2:18-20) In the first epistle of Peter, we read that the end of our faith is the salvation of our souls (1:9). John wrote that our faith is what helps us to overcome the world (I John 5:4). Finally, in the book of Revelation, we read: "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus." (Revelation 14:12) And, yes, that is a lot, but it is certainly NOT an exhaustive list of all of the Scriptures in the New Testament related to faith.

Thus, we begin to see why Christ singled out justice, mercy, and faith as constituting "the weightier matters of the Law." In fact, these were the very principles upon which his own teachings were founded. We see this in his identification of the two greatest commandments of Torah - the two commandments which summarize/comprehend the intent of the law and serve as the means for writing the law on their hearts - for them to internalize God's law. And, along with the emphasis on the essential role of faith in Christ, we see the commandments of Christ emerge - the commandments which Jesus Christ expected/expects ALL of his disciples to follow: To demonstrate our love for God by treating others with compassion, kindness, fairness, forgiveness, and to believe in God and the one whom God sent to this world to save all of us - Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, when we consider Christ's statement to the Scribes and Pharisees about "the weightier matters of the Law," the entire context of Scripture makes more sense (at least it does to me). What do you think?

Sunday, July 9, 2023

The Law Has Changed

From the seventh chapter of Hebrews in the New Living Translation:

11 So if the priesthood of Levi, on which the law was based, could have achieved the perfection God intended, why did God need to establish a different priesthood, with a priest in the order of Melchizedek instead of the order of Levi and Aaron?

12 And if the priesthood is changed, the law must also be changed to permit it. 13 For the priest we are talking about belongs to a different tribe, whose members have never served at the altar as priests. 14 What I mean is, our Lord came from the tribe of Judah, and Moses never mentioned priests coming from that tribe.

15 This change has been made very clear since a different priest, who is like Melchizedek, has appeared. 16 Jesus became a priest, not by meeting the physical requirement of belonging to the tribe of Levi, but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. 17 And the psalmist pointed this out when he prophesied,

“You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”

18 Yes, the old requirement about the priesthood was set aside because it was weak and useless. 19 For the law never made anything perfect. But now we have confidence in a better hope, through which we draw near to God.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Do the ACOGs really obey God's Law?

Among the followers of Herbert Armstrong's teachings, the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus is critical. According to them, not only does their observance of the commandments outlined in this chapter distinguish them from traditional Christians, it also distinguishes them from other Sabbatarian Christians (like Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Day Baptists, and the Church(es) of God Seventh Day). For them, these festivals not only provide the perfect contrast to the "pagan" holidays of Easter, Halloween and Christmas; they also stand or fall with Sabbath observance!

For the sake of argument, let's assume for a moment that Christians are obligated to observe these festivals - that the ACOG's theology is sound on this point. Are their observances and arguments consistent with what is revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures? Let's take a closer look.

In the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus, NINE festivals are outlined: the weekly Sabbath, Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Booths, and the Eighth Day. In connection with the annual festivals, it should be noted that there were specific rituals, sacrifices, and offerings associated with each one of them. Again, for the sake of argument, for the moment, we will ignore the instructions about sacrifices and offerings (even the ACOGs acknowledge that Christ's sacrifice makes those no longer necessary).

We are, nevertheless, left with a number of undeniable discrepancies between ACOG observances and what is outlined in this passage. For example, in all of the years that I was associated with them, I don't remember ANY specific observances related to Firstfruits. To be fair, an occasional sermon would mention the fact that Christ was our wave sheaf offering, but there was no specific observance associated with that festival. They would even read aloud the passage: "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb a year old without blemish as a burnt offering to the Lord. And the grain offering with it shall be two tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, a food offering to the Lord with a pleasing aroma, and the drink offering with it shall be of wine, a fourth of a hin. And you shall eat neither bread nor grain parched or fresh until this same day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings." (Leviticus 23:9;14, ESV) Now, I suppose we could say that Firstfruits/wave sheaf was symbolic and pointed to Christ - a shadow of the reality found in him; but isn't that the very argument which other Christians use to "do away with" all of these festivals?

In similar fashion, the Feast of Trumpets was to be "proclaimed with blast of trumpets" (verse 24). Now, I do remember a couple of occasions when a trumpet was employed in the singing of "God Speaks to Us" on this feast day, but I don't recall this as having been a formal or regular part of the worship service. And, as far as this festival being celebrated as a "memorial" (same verse), most of the sermons and literature which I remember being associated with this day focused on the second coming of Jesus Christ. If my memory is faulty on this point, I'm confident that someone will correct me!

In terms of the Feast of Booths, we read: "And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." (Verses 40-43) I don't remember any of this being associated with the "Feast of Tabernacles" celebrated by the ACOGs (at least, not the ones with which I was associated). Indeed, instead of temporary shelters constructed by the celebrants, most of us had reservations in very permanent hotels and campgrounds - a temporary stay!

We could, of course, talk in some detail about the ACOG's flawed understanding of the symbolism associated with these festivals. After all, the ACOGs claimed that the meaning of these days was an important part of observing them! We could talk about how the Day of Atonement pointed to Jesus, NOT Satan the Devil. We could also talk about Jesus Christ and humankind tabernacling in the flesh, and Christ's sermon on the "Last Great Day," but we will focus instead on the physical observance of these days by the ACOGs.

In this connection, another favorite passage of the ACOGs comes immediately to mind - the sixteenth chapter of Deuteronomy. Of course, within that culture, the principal role of this passage was to enjoin the membership to cough up generous offerings on each of the Holy Days! Even so, this passage conveys a number of other imperatives which those folks conveniently ignored.

For example, although ACOG folks were scrupulous about removing all leavening from their dwellings, they completely ignored the passages related to the ONLY acceptable place for the observance of these days. In that chapter in Deuteronomy, we read: "You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, but at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, at the time you came out of Egypt." (Verses 5-6) Likewise, in connection with the Feast of Weeks, we read: "And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there." (Verse 11) In similar fashion, with regard to the Feast of Booths, we read: " For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful." (Verse 15)

Notice that ALL three of these festivals were to be observed "at the place the Lord your God will choose." Moreover, so that there wouldn't be any room for misunderstanding of God's intent in this regard, the passage concludes with: "Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you." (Verses 16-17) In other words, Torah mandated THREE pilgrimage festivals - where the Israelites were required to come to JERUSALEM to properly observe these festivals! After all, any serious student of the Hebrew Bible understands that JERUSALEM is the ONLY place which God ever chose for His name to permanently rest. Moreover, students of the New Testament understand that Christ and his apostles ALWAYS celebrated the festivals at Jerusalem! Also, doesn't Zechariah suggest that JERUSALEM is where the Feast of Booths will be observed in the Millenium? (Zechariah 14:16-19)

What has been the practice of the ACOGs in this regard? The Worldwide Church of God and most of its successors have designated various "feast sites" around the world where their members gathered to observe the Feast of Tabernacles. On the other hand, Passover and the Feast of Weeks were usually observed locally - within the various congregations of the Church. Now, having personally been to many of these sites, I can attest to the fact that places like Wisconsin Dells, Jekyll Island, Saratoga Springs, Biloxi, Pensacola, Johnson City, Myrtle Beach, etc. are very nice vacation spots. They are, however, NOT JERUSALEM! Also, are the ACOGs suggesting that the choices of a "Festival Coordinator" (or church administrator) reflect God's choice? And, what about the Scriptural designation of the other two festivals (Passover and Weeks) as pilgrimage festivals? Finally, if the "offerings" on these occasions were binding on members, why weren't the other offerings designated for those days still binding on them?

What about ACOG justifications for their divergence from these plain Torah instructions? A favorite of theirs is found in Christ's instructions to his disciples recorded in the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. We read there: "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." (Verses 18-20) Let's ignore the fact that these remarks were delivered within the context of dealing with disagreements among Christ's disciples within the Church (verses 15-17). If this passage justifies ACOG practices regarding the festivals, why can't it be employed by traditional Christians to justify their observances of Sunday, Christmas, and Easter? Let's not forget, too, that this passage was used to justify their observance of Pentecost on Monday for many years! What's that old saying? "What's good for the goose is good for the gander!"

Now, while this post does not disprove that Christians are obligated to observe the festivals (that's a subject for another post), it does demonstrate that ACOG observance of those festivals is NOT in line with Torah instructions regarding them! Hence, the answer to our original question: "Do the ACOGs really obey God's Law?" has to be answered with a resounding NO!

Monday, July 3, 2023

Jesus Christ and the Holy of Holies

In the twenty-sixth chapter of Exodus, we find the specifications for the Tabernacle and the first description of the Holy of Holies (the place where God's presence was most palpable). We read there: "And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. And you shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, on four bases of silver. And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in there within the veil. And the veil shall separate for you the Holy Place from the Most Holy. You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place." (Verses 31-34, ESV) This area was restricted to the High Priest (Exodus 28), and he was required to always wear special sacred garments when performing his duties there (Exodus 35:19).

Torah was also very explicit that Aaron and his successors would only be permitted to have access to the holiest place once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). We read there: "Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering." (Verses 2-5)

Later, when Solomon ascended his father's throne, we are informed that he constructed a permanent Temple at Jerusalem. We read: "So Solomon built the house and finished it. He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar. From the floor of the house to the walls of the ceiling, he covered them on the inside with wood, and he covered the floor of the house with boards of cypress. He built twenty cubits of the rear of the house with boards of cedar from the floor to the walls, and he built this within as an inner sanctuary, as the Most Holy Place. The house, that is, the nave in front of the inner sanctuary, was forty cubits long. The cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and open flowers. All was cedar; no stone was seen. The inner sanctuary he prepared in the innermost part of the house, to set there the ark of the covenant of the Lord. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high, and he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid an altar of cedar. And Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, and he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. And he overlaid the whole house with gold, until all the house was finished. Also the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold." (I Kings 6:14-22)

In both the Tabernacle and the Temple, the Holy of Holies was the place where God was, and access to it was strictly controlled. In other words, the vast majority of the people did NOT have access to that place - did not have access to God. The High Priest and the Levitical priesthood served as a kind of intermediary between them and their God.

Of course, in the New Testament we read the story of how Jesus Christ reconciled people to God - ending the alienation and separation which their sins had created (Romans 5:10, II Corinthians 5:18, Colossians 1:21). Indeed, when Christ died on the cross, we read that the veil (a kind of curtain) which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was miraculously ripped from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45). However, the text which gives us the most insight into how Jesus related to the Holy of Holies is found in the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews.

In understanding this relationship, that book informs us that Jesus is our High Priest (Hebrews 3-8). Then, in the ninth chapter, we read: "Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation." (Verses 1-10)

The author of the epistle then went on to make very plain that ALL of this had pointed to Jesus and his work. We read: "But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God." (Verses 11-14) Next, the epistle made very clear that Christ's blood and death had inaugurated a New Covenant (verses 15-22). The thought then concluded with this statement: "Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." (Verses 23-26)

So, according to the author of this epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ has given us access to the Holy of Holies - the Holiest Place - the place where God is. Indeed, this is reiterated in the very next chapter of the book. We read there: "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (10:19-22)

Thus, the Holy of Holies found in the Tabernacle and Temple were symbolic of the place which Christ opened to us. This is made clear at the beginning of this chapter. We read: "For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?" (10:1-2) Once again, we see that Torah pointed to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment and reality of its rituals and commandments.

This is why Paul wrote to the saints at Colosse that "you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him." (Colossians 1:21-22) Christ has reconciled those who were alienated from God to God. Through him we have access to the Holy of Holies and understand that place in a way that the children of Israel NEVER did. Now, that's New Covenant Torah!