Posts from the ‘God’ Category

It’s Going To Be A Beautiful Tent

Five years ago, when I left full-time ministry and began working again in the secular world, I don’t really know that I anticipated what I was in for. I’ve worked a number of jobs since then, some of which I hated every moment of, others of which were bearable, and others of which I truly felt sad when my season of work there was over. My heart has never stopped yearning to be back in full-time ministry, but on most days I feel like I’m living out Acts 18:1-3.

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together–by trade they were tentmakers.

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On my worst days, when I would come home from a job that was paying the bills but felt like it was crushing my soul, my wonderful wife would take one look at me and see how much I was hurting. Sweetly she would say to me, “It’s going to be a beautiful tent.” While I’ve always appreciated her  efforts to try and cheer me up and put things in perspective, I don’t always believe that “the tent” is going to be anything resembling beautiful. I believe   it will be large — because I’ve spent so long on it. But on most days, it seems  to me that it’s going to be more functional than beautiful, and likely to be stained with dirt and blood and sweat.

I do what I must for us as a couple, and I must provide housing and food and other essentials. I am grateful daily that God has provided these things. Yet I have to admit that I struggle mightily with spiritual dryness and discouragement. I am called to be a pastor, I am in the process of my studies for ordination, and yet … and yet it sometimes seems as if the goalposts never get closer. I want to be faithful, I want to bear into the words of the prophet Isaiah:

those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

Have you ever struggled, caught between the knowledge of what God wants for you, and the reality of your present location on the journey towards that place?

From the Archives: To Lay Down The Sword

The following post was originally published on September 20, 2010. As I am currently working on a second post on the subject, I thought I would revisit this one.

Carson T. Clark’s latest blog post has helped to crystallize some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for a while, particularly this portion:

“I specifically have in mind childhood conflict. (Isn’t this the reason Lord of the Flies  is so powerful?) A college friend of mine recently put up a facebook status about how  his kindergarten daughter defended herself by slugging a bully right in the eye on the playground. As a loving father, his gut response was to be delighted that she stood up for himself. “That’s my girl!” But he later got to thinking about whether or not it’s right to encourage that. He didn’t say it publicly, but I suspect he got to thinking about the incongruity of his response with his professed theological beliefs.”

These thoughts that I’ve had rolling around center on the idea that a devoted follower of Christ has received a call to lay down the sword. This can particularly be seen in Christ’s statement in Matthew 26:52,

“Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

As I work through some thoughts on pacifism, let me start by addressing several things.

1) I have nothing but the utmost of respect for those who serve our nation through military service. My father and uncle both served in the Navy, as did my brother-in-law.  My wife’s grandfather was a decorated Naval officer who dove into the water during the attack on Pearl Harbor to swim out to his ship, and didn’t see his family again for close to two years. One of my best friends currently serves in the Army. Whatever conclusions I may personally come to regarding war and Christians will in no way diminish the respect I have for the courage and convictions displayed by the men and women who serve in our armed forces. I am very mindful that they are risking their lives for my right to even write this blog post and that Jesus also said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

2) The Church, since the time of Augustine, has struggled with the concept of “just war.” The Church’s struggle has been to find a balance between the simple truth that Christians should not take part in a war that is obviously plainly wicked versus the fact that some wars are considered justified even by Christians in order to prevent greater evils.

3) In the United States, church denominations such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Hutterites, and (at least up until World War II) the Churches of Christ have historically maintained pacifist positions. The cost of their convictions for some members of these denominations should be troubling to all Christians. During World War I, around 2000 conscientious objectors from these denominations were imprisoned in Federal prisons, where they received solitary confinement, short rations, and in a couple of cases physical abuse severe enough to result in death. Conscientious objectors fared slightly better in World War II, when the Civilian Public Service was established as an alternative to military service (although the cost of the program was placed on the conscientious objectors and their congregations).

One of the difficulties I have personally had in sorting out my thoughts at what I see as Jesus’ command to lay down the sword is that defining pacifism can be a bit like nailing Jello to a tree. There are those who approve a nation going to war, but not participation by Christians. There are others who would approve participation in a war that resists invasion. Then there are those who call themselves pacifists who might agree to a non-combat support role in a war, but would refuse to kill an enemy soldier. Going even further than this are those who object to any violence, whether by police or military personnel. Still others might say they would agree to participate in a just war but not an unjust war. Traditional Christian thought holds that no Christian should participate in an unjust war, but it seems to me that this is something more honored in thought than practice.

As I share my thoughts, I’d love to get a dialogue going. What are your opinions and thoughts on this? Do you agree that Jesus calls us to lay down the sword?

Book Review: A Shot of Faith (To the Head)

Let me make a couple of confessions right away about Mitch Stokes’ A Shot of Faith (To the Head):

Confession #1:  I get the giggles from the book’s subtitle, “Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists.” Cranky is just a funny word.

Confession #2:  Some of the arguments Stokes presents make my head hurt. A lot. I felt better when Stokes noted that David Hume — one of the Enlightenment philosophers whose work Stokes dissects — also apparently recognized how headache-inducing some of his logic was, as Stokes says,

“After thinking such thoughts, Hume was known to clear his head with a game of billiards amongst his friends. My guess is that he was also amongst beer.”

This being a Nazarene blog, I am endorsing neither billiards nor beer, but this statement simultaneously makes me feel less of a moron and makes me laugh.

All humor aside, A Shot of Faith is an interesting and useful book. Stokes addresses the arguments of the new atheists, those who are not merely disbelievers but are militantly anti-religion and anti-Church — names such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Stenger, and Harris. The purpose of the book is to provide Christians with the intellectual tools to address the common arguments of atheists. This is done in three sections, each of which tackles a prime atheistic argument.

Section One addresses the chief objection to belief in God, an objection which Stokes identifies as the notion that religious belief is irrational because of the utter lack of evidence for God’s existence.

Section Two addresses the atheist claim that science has shown that God doesn’t exist. Stokes reviews the numerous ways that this claim is supported, and addresses the most significant ones. This section is well-done and if nothing else, Stokes demonstrates that science actually gives us some very compelling reasons to believe in a divine Designer.

Section Three deals with one of the most difficult-to-handle objections to belief in God: the claim that the existence of evil and suffering show that He doesn’t exist. Stokes answers to this are some of the parts that make my brain work very hard to keep up, but here is the gist of it:

  • “There are two versions of the problem of evil, the logical problem and the probabilistic problem.
  • In the case of the logical problem of evil, the existence of God and the existence of evil allegedly result in a full-blown logical contradiction. This problem was solved by showing that there is a logically possible situation in which God and evil exist simultaneously. In particular, it is possible that God couldn’t make free creatures who refrain from evil.
  • In the case of the probabilistic problem of evil, the existence of evil makes it highly unlikely (but not impossible) that God exists. After all, we can’t think of any good reason that he would allow evil. But even though we can’t think of a reason, for all we know, God has very good ones.”

As you might be able to tell from the preceding quote, some of what Stokes has to say is going to be beyond the casual reader. Stokes has a doctorate in philosophy and it shows; much of the book concerns itself with the root philosophical basis of modern atheistic thought and its origins in the Enlightenment period. Yet he has done an excellent job in demonstrating the fallacies that are part and parcel of modern atheist claims. In his conclusion, Stokes is careful to note,

“… the notions of design, rationality, and absolute standards cannot exist in a naturalistic world, the world of the atheists. Without absolute standards — of which there must be many — their worldview would entirely collapse.

And this poses a serious problem for any atheist who claims that belief in God is irrational. In fact, it takes the legs right out from under such a claim. If there is no designer, then there is no proper function, and therefore there is no such thing as irrationality. But then there’s no such thing as rationality either. There’s only a sterile, impersonal “desert landscape. Beliefs are neither rational nor irrational. They just are.

But if the Christian story is true, then there is such a thing as irrationality. And as we saw, those who don’t believe in God are suffering from it. After all, unbelief is caused, in part, by the malfunctioning of the sensus divinitatis.”

This last bit, the mention of the sensus divinitatis, is a significant theme for Stokes. Sensus divinitatis means “sense of the divine,” the term that Calvin used for the inborn tendency to believe in God; Stokes explains that Thomas Aquinas set this in terms of a proclivity to believe in God that was “implanted in us by nature.” While Stokes touches on the reason this innate sense doesn’t function as it ought to in humans — the ravages of sin — he unfortunately doesn’t explore what re-awakens the sensus divinitatis in humans. From a Wesleyan perspective, such an explanation might lead to discussion of prevenient grace, and one of my few real criticisms of the book would be that while Stokes does make clear that restoration of the sensus divinitatis only comes by embracing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he fails to so much as mention the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit.

Lest one might think that A Shot of Faith is nothing more than an attack on atheists disguised as apologetics, be assured that Stokes reveals his heart in the final words of the book:

” … all of us are damaged goods. Sin has caused some degree of irrationality in us all. And given the extent of the damage, it’s no wonder atheists don’t believe. The real wonder is why anyone believes. The explanation of course, is that God has begun to repair humanity, at an unimaginable cost to himself. And this is really good news.”

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Sowing Seeds, Sowing Hope

There’s been some exciting things happening in my life, ministry-wise, recently. The chief among these is that I took a position as an associate pastor at Madison Church of the Nazarene in Madison, TN. The church is located in a community with a lot of brokenness and a lot of needs, and both I and my wife are very excited about helping to grow the Kingdom and the church.

Other exciting things happening outside of ministry include a project I started. Anyone in my family can tell you that I am fairly vegetable crazy, especially when it comes to cucumbers and tomatoes. This year I decided I was going to have a good supply of both by growing my own. I turned for advice to my dad, Brook, who is an expert on gardening, especially when it comes to heirloom varieties. In fact, if you are traveling near or live close to Lexington, Kentucky, I encourage you stop at Fort Boonesborough State Park and say hello to him. He maintains the garden at the Fort — make sure you tell him I sent you!

Recently, as I was asking Dad some questions about the seeds I planted, he stunned me with something he said. Dad is not a person of great faith of any sort, so I took particular note when he said,

“Watching a seed sprout and grow is an affirmation of faith, because to plant a seed is to believe that tomorrow will come.”

There’s a whole world to be mined there, from the perspective of this pastor. Naturally, when we’re talking seeds, I think of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-9.

“And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, 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 brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

The application of the parable is pretty obvious when it comes to planting seeds of the Gospel into people’s lives. That is the job of every Christian to do, regardless of whether they are “in ministry” or not. And just as the parable says, when we plant seeds they will sometime take deep root in peoples’ lives and other times those seeds will wither away without the Gospel taking root. But when I consider Dad’s statement about believing that tomorrow will come, it leads to think about Hope, which gives me cause to remember one of my favorite verses in the Bible.

“I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Planting a seed is indeed the affirmation of faith my dad labels it as. To believe tomorrow will come is certainly to hope. But to believe that your future Hope lies in Jesus is to trust in the promises of God.

Question: Who has planted seeds in your life?

Blogging Hiatus

Lamentation at the Tomb, 15th century.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lent season, which begins a 46-day countdown to Easter Sunday. Although many associate Lent with Roman Catholicism, it is also celebrated by Protestant denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene, Methodists, and Lutherans. Lent is traditionally marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As someone who grew up in a Jewish household, I find these traditions familiar. They remind me of the practices which Jews engage in during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as we daven (pray) and fast; they also bring to mind the Jewish practice of tzedakah, obligatory acts of charity.

Lent is more than simply traditions. Lent is a time which spiritually prepares us to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Spiritual preparation can often come through exercising spiritual disciplines, practices which aim at bringing Christians into a state of holiness and purity. I think it is safe to say that throughout the history of the Church that such practices have not been necessarily easy to engage in, nor have they always enjoyed popularity. My friend David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, has for years engaged in the spiritual discipline of reading one chapter from Psalms each morning and meditating upon it. I have tried this discipline myself on and off over the years since he first shared it with me, and cannot say that I have had the discipline to maintain it.

Growing to maturity as a Christian requires more than simply proclaiming oneself a Christian. One must engage in spiritual disciplines designed to focus one on Christ, rather than on the things of this world. John Wesley devoted his life to the practice of such disciplines in his personal life, and to teaching others to engage in such practices themselves. Among the spiritual disciplines Wesley practiced and taught were: public worship of God, regularly searching the Scriptures, regularly participating in the Lord’s Supper (communion), private and family prayer, fasting or abstinence, feeding the hungry, welcoming in strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and sheltering the homeless.

I think it’s interesting to note that some of these disciplines directly benefit us in our walk with Christ, while others of the disciplines seem to directly benefit others (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, etc.). Perhaps the message in that is that it isn’t about us, rather that it is about Jesus and doing the things He did, and treating others the way that He did. As Lent begins, I am beginning a fast from social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as placing this blog on hiatus. God has laid some exciting ministry opportunities (or may they are challenges) before me recently, and I choose to take Lent as a time to remove distractions in order that I might focus fully on Him, and on preparing myself to celebrate the Resurrection of His Son.

Whether you fast during Lent or not, I pray you too will engage in some sort of spiritual preparation. See you after Easter!!

Christmas Eve Reflections

It’s Christmas Eve, and so many of my fellow Christians are engaged in traditions that have been part of their families for years: decorating the tree, wrapping presents (or, heaven forbid at this late hour, buying presents), baking cookies, maybe mixing up some holiday punch. There are smells of cinnamon and citrus, ole Bing is crooning out “White Christmas,” and family members who might only see each other once a year are wrapping each other in warm embraces.

I am a man of two worlds. Being a nice Jewish boy who is Christian but continues to celebrate his Jewish heritage, tonight is not only Christmas Eve, but for me it is the fifth night of Hanukkah. Growing up in a Jewish household, I was pretty proud of the fact that we celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas. I loved the foods. Who could resist the greasy deliciousness – with just a hint of onion – of latkes, the traditional potato pancakes? My dilemma as a child was whether to drown my latkes in sour cream or applesauce! Then there was the dreidel game, in which parent-approved gambling could lead to a wealth of gelt, or foil-covered chocolate coins. I recently discovered that there are now dark chocolate gelt, to which I can only say, “where have you been all my life?!”  Aside from the food, and the games, and gifts, there was also the STORY of Hanukkah, which was a far sight better than any of the comic books I read as a kid. For those unfamiliar with the tale, I present a summary.

In the 2nd century BC, the Jewish people were oppressed by the forces of a Syrio-Greek king, one Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus forbid the Jewish people to practice their religion, and began forcing Greek culture and religion upon the resistant Jews. The final blow came when Antiochus desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by slaughtering a pig upon the altar. As Antiochus proclaimed that the Temple was now dedicated to the Greek god Zeus rebellion broke out, led by the sons of a priest named Mattathias. The eldest son, Judah, led the rebellion after the death of Mattathias and was given the name Yudah haMakabi, or Judah the Hammer. His followers were known as the Maccabees.

Although vastly outnumbered by the Syrian armies, the Maccabees successfully drove their enemies away and reclaimed Jerusalem and the Temple. Judah ordered that the Temple be cleansed and rededicated (hence the name Hanukkah, which means “dedication”). As they built a new altar and new holy vessels for the Temple, a terrible discovery was made. There was only a single container of consecrated ritual olive oil, which was required in order to keep the menorah (the seven-branched candelabra) in the Temple burning through the night. According to tractate Shabbat 21b in the Talmud, this one container of oil miraculously burned for eight days, precisely the amount of time needed to press and consecrate more oil. Jewish sages hence instituted an eight-day holiday commemorating this miracle, customarily celebrated by lighting candles for eight days.

In my child’s mind, all of this made Hanukkah a vastly superior holiday to Christmas. Where else was I going to find a holiday which celebrated the Jews kicking some serious heiney??? I even wrote a play to be performed for my synagogue. Unfortunately, “The Bloody Maccabees” was far from a success; the special effects involved copious amounts of stage blood, scandalizing the members of my synagogue. Nevertheless, my love for the holiday was not weakened. The custom that developed much later – probably in response to Christian celebration of Christmas – of Jewish parents giving their children presents on each night was just another point of which I could boast. “Sure,” I would say to my Gentile friends, “you guys get a big day of presents… but I get EIGHT DAYS of presents!”

As I got older, I began more and more to meet Christmas and its trimmings with rolled eyes and positively Scrooge-like comments. I would complain to friends that Christmas would be easier to handle if popular Christmas music wasn’t so lame and repeated ad nauseum. “Speaking of nausea,” I would remark, “what’s with the decorations at the mall? It looks like Christmas just threw up in there!” I can remember making my college girlfriend furious when I mocked Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, one of her cherished childhood memories. “What does this horrible Claymation travesty have to do with Jesus? I thought that was the reason for the season??!” I shouted at her.

Even after I had placed my faith in Jesus as my Messiah, it was years before I was able to overcome the idea in my mind that Christmas was rank with hypocrisy. Would Jesus have approved of the focus on decorations, trees, and presents, I asked? If not, why did my Christian brothers and sisters continue to celebrate it with such materialism and greed, rather than focusing on Messiah? It wasn’t until I began dating my future wife that I experienced for myself a Christian family whose focus during Christmas was on celebrating the birth of our Savior. I began to get my first taste of this after being invited to spend the holidays with my wife’s family and being told that we would all be going to an 11:00 PM Christmas Eve service, so that we could worship and praise God for sending us His Son. At long last, I began to see that Christmas had depths beyond sugar cookies and brightly wrapped packages!

As I write this, I am getting ready to go to another Christmas Eve service at 11:00 PM, and I am reflecting on how my life in Christ has made both Christmas and Hanukkah important to me. Both holidays represent the Lord’s faithfulness in keeping his promises, and both holidays show us how the Lord brings light into darkness. During a very dark period for the Jewish people, God kept His promise to defend and preserve the children of Israel. Through Judah Maccabee, the Lord drove off those who would destroy the Jewish people. The miracle of the oil is symbolic of the light of God’s glory shining forth.

And what is Christmas, what is the Incarnation but the ultimate example of God’s light shining forth in the darkness? For those who trust in Jesus, the darkness in their heart is driven away, and they become the temple in which God’s Spirit abides. As my wife and I continue to celebrate Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, I remember the words of Jesus Himself as He declared,

“I am the Light of the World.” John 9:5

and as we welcome Christmas, I will remember that we are celebrating the birth of our promised Savior – the ultimate rescue mission by God on our behalf!

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

From the Archives: The Day of Atonement

This is a reposting from a post originally published on September 14, 2010. Astute readers may notice that Yom Kippur this year also falls on a Saturday. This is coincidence. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, and days are calculated as being from sunset to sunset. Yom Kippur actually begins this year at sunset on Friday, October 7.

I’ve posted previously on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. This Saturday, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, marks the holiest day in the Jewish religious year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day that God set aside so that the people of Israel could atone for their sin as a nation.

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. Neither shall you do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your Sabbath.” Leviticus 23:26-32

Now you’ll notice that that there are two words in the passage which are repeated three times: atonement and humble (which carries the context here of denying oneself). This is the one day when the children of Israel were invited by God to consider their lives before Him and to confess their sin. It was the one day a year that only one man in all of Israel – the high priest – could enter into the one most holy spot, the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem. There he would offer a blood sacrifice first for his own sin, then the sins of the nation of Israel. The children of Israel would be gathered around the courts of the Temple, watching and waiting to see if the sacrifice would be accepted by God.

Yom Kippur was tied into the very purpose of the Mosaic Law. God had required that His people to be holy and He had given them the Law at Mount Sinai so that they could be instructed in righteousness. Yet God knew that His people could be not become holy on their own, so He gave them a means to be reconciled to Himself: a sacrificial system. The culmination of this system, by which sinning and rebellious Israelites could have their sin covered over, was Yom haKippurim: the Day of Atonement. On this day the High Priest of Israel would enter into God’s presence where He dwelt within the Holy of Holies, first in the desert Tabernacle and much later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The preparations that the priest had to make in order to purify himself before entering this holiest of places were exacting. Should he make an error it would be doubly disastrous, for the descendants of Aaron would be slain by God should they attempt to stand before Him in an impure state. Even worse, the priest would die without the sins of the nation having been atoned for.

In the Biblical period, rigorous requirements were made of each Israelite on Yom Kippur. They were commanded to humble their souls and present offerings of fire for their sins, or be cut off from the people of Israel. They were asked to set aside their earthly appetites and needs, by fasting from sundown to sundown. They were not allowed to do any work, or risk being completely destroyed. These were far harsher strictures than an ordinary Sabbath rest, and served to point out the absolute seriousness of the Day of Atonement.

Very special offerings were made before God on Yom Kippur. These consisted of incense, a bull, and two goats. Four times the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, beginning with the incense offering. As the incense burned, it formed a cloud which obscured the Ark of the Covenant; between the outstretched wings of the seraphim on its lid was the Mercy Seat, where God’s Shekinah (His glorious Presence) rested. This cloud was not just and offering but was for the protection of the high priest, since no man could see God and live. Next was the sacrifice of a bull. The priest would lay his hands on the bull, acknowledging his own personal sin and that of the priesthood. This process of laying on of hands was the symbolic means by which those sins were transferred to the bull, allowing its death to serve as a substitute for others. The bull was then slain, and its blood taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.

Finally came the climax of Yom Kippur: the sacrifice of two goats. Two goats were brought before the high priest and lots were drawn. One goat would be for the Lord, and one would be for the sins of Israel as a nation.

The first goat was to be an offering to the Lord, and once more the priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of this sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat. Then he symbolically laid his hands upon the second goat, known by the Hebrew term Azazel, or scapegoat. It was then led from the camp – and later the Temple – into a deserted place, where it would be forced off of a cliff. Jewish tradition holds that people would line the path of the scapegoat and curse at it, strike it, spit at it, and pull out its hair, to encourage it to depart with their sins as swiftly as possible.

Although today Yom Kippur is still considered the holiest day in the Jewish year, modern Judaism observes the day in a radically different fashion. Jews continue to fulfill the command to humble themselves by severe fasting. There is no Temple now, and no sacrifices are offered. Modern Judaism teaches that blood sacrifice is not necessary, and that through prayer, repentance and mitzvot, good deeds, that one’s sins will be forgiven. Yom Kippur is a day on which the practice of charity is encouraged. Observant Jews spend the day praying in the synagogue, where the confession of sin is the high point of the service. The congregation confesses in unison, naming only general sins that cause all men to stumble. There is no mention of specific sins committed by individuals. White clothing is worn to symbolize a contrite and humble heart and confidence in God’s ability to forgive sin. The shofar is blown at the end of the synagogue service to symbolize the closing of the Books of Judgment, and the congregants will gather in one another’s homes to break the fast and share a meal.

In my previous post on Rosh Hashanah, I discussed the sound of the shofar — the ram’s horn — as God’s wake up call for us, calling us to turn away from focusing on the physical world in which we live, and to contemplate the holiness of God and our relationship with Him. If Rosh Hashanah was the wake up call, then Yom Kippur is a day of preparation. Preparation for what? Very simply, preparation to be in God’s presence.

God instructed Moses concerning the Shalosh Regalim, three major festivals when every adult male Israelite would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple.

“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover]; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest [Shavuot] of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering [Sukkot] at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” Exodus 23:14-17

“You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread … You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.” Exodus 34: 18, 22-23

“Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths …” Deuteronomy 16:16

If Rosh Hashanah woke us up to point us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, then Yom Kippur is to prepare us for the last of the fall feasts of Israel: Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. As the name of Sukkot implies, we’re preparing to have God tabernacle among us. The Israelites would go up to God’s house, up to the Temple.

But if you’re going to go up to God’s house, you have to get ready. Therein lays a problem. You see, God is holy, and He hates sin. He cannot even look upon us because we have sin. Luckily for us, God took care of this problem. God made sure that Yom Kippur took place before Sukkot, in order that His people could be cleansed of sin and stand before Him. Yom Kippur allowed His people to know that their sin had been forgiven, so that they could go up and enjoy being in the house of God with a free conscience and a clean heart. When Sukkot arrived, they could truly participate in the rejoicing that God commanded for that festival.

Believers in Jesus Christ have received atonement once and for all through His sacrificial death on the cross. The blood of God’s own Son, Himself sinless in nature, was the only sacrifice sufficient to make final atonement for sin. Interestingly enough, we have confirmation of this from an extra-biblical Jewish source. The Talmud records that on the Day of Atonement a scarlet thread would be hung outside of the Holy of Holies. If the scapegoat, the sacrifice for sin, was accepted by the Lord the thread would turn from scarlet to white, making real the words that the prophet Isaiah had written 700 years before:

“Though your sins are scarlet they shall be white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18

The Talmud goes on to record that each year on the Day of Atonement the thread might turn white or might not, reflecting the changing spiritual state of the nation of Israel. This continued for many years, until 40 years prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after which the thread never turned white. It remained scarlet every year, until the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. This tractate of the Talmud bears evidence to the fact that somewhere around 30 A.D. – the approximate date when Jesus was crucified – the animal sacrifices offered by the high priest of Israel were no longer accepted by God! This is because the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for sin for more than a short time. They were only shadows of a final sacrifice, a once and for all atonement for sin – the sacrifice of our Messiah Jesus on the cross. Jesus is the fulfillment of Yom Kippur, as both our great high priest and a sacrifice for all of our sin. In Him our sin is truly forgiven and our conscience cleansed.

This Saturday my wife and I — as we have done in years past — will observe Yom Kippur. In our own way we’ll follow the tradition of fasting, albeit not a fast from food. Since neither of us are allowed to fast from food for 24 hours due to health issues, we will be fasting from some other normal aspect of life, such as the use of the computer (which is a sacrifice for two people who can’t seem to go an hour without checking email). Why do we do this, if we know that we’ve already achieved atonement? We do it to honor my Jewish heritage, and we do it to acknowledge and honor what Christ went through to atone for our sins. The solemn gravity of Yom Kippur has taken on for us a great joy as well, because we know that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life through Jesus.

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