Posts from the ‘Judaism’ Category

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

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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.

And Now For Something Completely Different …

HOW A NICE JEWISH BOY FOUND JESUS IN THE YELLOW PAGES

This is the 100th post on A Heart That Burns, so I thought I would memorialize that by a different sort of post. I’d like to share my personal testimony of how I came to follow Jesus, and came to be involved with the Church of the Nazarene. May it give glory to God.

I was born into a Conservative Jewish household, and while I was still just a toddler, my family moved to Northern Illinois. There I spent most of my childhood. We attended a Conservative synagogue, and both my older brother and I went to Hebrew school and had bar mitzvahs (a rite of passage into manhood) at the age of 13. But oddly enough for all that, I don’t ever remember a single discussion my family had about God.

The year after my bar mitzvah we moved to Kentucky — not exactly known as a hotbed of Jewish cultural life — and as a result I had little further practice of my Judaism. As I entered high school I began to rebel against my parents and most other authorities in my life. By the time I was a sophomore I was in full-scale rebellion. I acted very tough, and looked it too — with long hair and a leather jacket. Inside I was scared. I hung out with the “wrong crowd”, and I was soon drinking, smoking, and doing as many drugs as I could. Through high school and college I continued to struggle with substance abuse and alcoholism, finally getting clean and sober right before graduation from college . I drifted from one thing to another, trying to find some focus for my life. I felt only confusion, rage, and turmoil inside of me. I was desperately unhappy, and in complete denial of that unhappiness.

By my mid-20’s something had to change. I had been out in the workplace for several years and had just taken a new job in a new city. I felt an urge to reconnect to my Jewish roots, so I decided to find a synagogue. Not knowing the city well, I opened up the Yellow Pages to see if I could find one that I felt able to locate easily. The one I picked said in its ad, “Messianic” and “Proclaiming Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah.” These things meant nothing to me at the time, but I sure had a surprise coming. Little did I know that I had just found Jesus in the Yellow Pages!

I still remember the first night at that synagogue. Imagine how shocked I was to find that I had ended up at a Messianic congregation — a place where there were Jewish and Gentile people who worshiped Jesus together! They called him “Yeshua,” his Hebrew name. The people I met on that very first night were like none I had ever known before. They were so warm and welcoming. They seemed to really be happy to meet me, and they were obviously at peace within themselves. I compared this to my own inner turmoil, and I wanted what they had!

I began attending the synagogue and studying the Bible. One day I was shown some verses from Isaiah 53. The words seemed to point clearly to Jesus. That night, for the first time ever, I got on my knees and prayed.

“God, ” I asked, “can this be true? Can Yeshua be the Messiah?” I prayed for almost two weeks, and then He answered my prayer. A few days later, in November, 1997, I prayed once again, this time to receive Jesus as my personal Savior and Lord. At last I had peace within, for the first time. I grew swiftly in my newfound faith, and continued to devour the Word. I soon felt that God was calling me to serve Him, and that it wasn’t enough merely that I as a Jew had come to know my Messiah — the Lord wanted me to tell other Jewish people about Jesus.

In late 1999 I began to pursue this call as a domestic missionary with the ministry of Jews for Jesus, the largest mission to Jews worldwide. For eight years I did street evangelism, led bible studies, discipled individual Jewish people, spoke frequently in churches on subjects such as the Feasts of Israel and Jewish evangelism, and traveled as a member of the ministry’s music/evangelism team. At the end of this time, due to the illness of a family member, my wife and I left Jews for Jesus.

We began to attend the local Church of the Nazarene, where the pastor strongly urged me to seek God as to whether His call on me was finished. Acknowledging that His call hadn’t ended, but the form of the call had changed, I began my current journey towards ordination as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene. I continue to praise Jesus daily for all He has already done in my life, and all that I know He will accomplish in the future.

Passover and Holiness, Part 3

In Part 2 of this series, I talked about the significance of the matzah, the unleavened bread which is eaten as part of the Passover seder, or meal. This third post will examine the importance of the matzah for what it can tell us about God.

One of the items that is found on the Passover table is called the matzah tosh. This is a pouch, separated into three layers, into which three sheets of matzah are placed. During the seder, the middle layer of matzah is removed from the pouch, and after a blessing is recited it is broken in half. One half is set aside and the other half is given a special name: afikomen. The word is a Greek term which means “that which comes later,” which is an excellent description, since that is exactly what happens. The afikomen doesn’t get eaten at that point; it is kept for later. At that  point in the seder, it is hidden away, or buried.

Much later in the seder — usually after a fantastic meal has been consumed — any children present are sent to search for the afikomen. That which was broken and buried is brought back, and in this customer of the afikomen we can see a picture of Christ. He too was broken, buried, and brought back.

And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.” (Mark 16:6)

The matzah itself — being unleavened, and therefore symbolizing a sinless nature — speaks to us of Jesus. Jewish rabbis long ago set forth the regulations by which matzah is acceptable for use at Passover. One of these is that matzah must be pierced. Jesus was pierced. God spoke through the prophet Zechariah, saying:

“And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”  (Zechariah 12:10)

Wondering what any of this has to do with the matzah tosh? Read on!

Judaism has always had a fair bit of disagreement about the meaning of the pouch, and its nature as three in one.  Some rabbis and sages have taught that the matzah tosh symbolizes the three Patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This is plausible, but fails to account for why the middle matzah is broken, buried, and then brought back.  Other teachers within Judaism have said that the matzah tosh represents three divisions of worship in the ancient kingdom: the priests, the Levites, and the people of Israel.  This too is plausible, but again fails to explain the middle matzah is  broken, buried, and then brought back.  Yet other Jewish sages and scholars have taught that the matzah tosh symobolizes three crowns: the crown of learning, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship.  Once more, this gives no explanation as to why the middle matzah is broken, buried, and then brought back  In contemporary Judaism, there is no recollection of the origin of the traditions of the matzah tosh and the afikomen.  Thus we can see numerous and sometimes competing explanations.

There is, however, an explanation whose roots go back to the 1st century. The matzah tosh contains three layers that form a unity — the matzah tosh is triune.  There is a Hebrew word, echad,  which can be used to describe just such a unity. In Scripture, it is found in some important places, such as the central prayer of Judaism, the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai echad

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” 

The word used for “one” in the Shema sentence is “echad” –a unity.  During the Passover celebration, the middle layer of this unity — this echad — is made visible to us, while the other two remain hidden from our view. This should resonate with Christians when we consider the New Testament’s statement of the Godhead:

“In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1,14)

 The  unity of the matzo tosh can bear testimony to the triune nature of the one God who has revealed Himself  to mankind in three persons:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy  Spirit.  The explanation of  the  middle matzah being broken, buried, and then brought back is as  a symbol of Jesus, the Son, who was    broken, buried, and then brought back. We have just memorialized this glorious Resurrection, as we do each  year at Easter.

Passover and Holiness, Part 2

In Exodus 12, we read of the institution of the Passover feast. In addition to the lamb, we see  another item that the Lord commands to be eaten during the celebration of Passover.

 “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven  from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the  seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a solemn  assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those  days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread.” (Exodus 12:5-20)

The eating of unleavened bread — in Hebrew matzah — is a separate holiday called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Today the observation of the two feasts are not seen as separate, with the Feast of Unleavened Bread beginning on the first night of Passover. Exodus tells us that the Israelites left Egypt in such haste that their bread had no time to rise — in other words, it was not leavened.

In Scripture, leaven is often used to symbolize sin, such as in Paul’s admonition to the Galatians.

“A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.” (Galatians 5:9)

Leaven is what caused the dough to rise. In the same fashion, sin causes us to rise in our own estimation. When the leaven of sin is in our lives, we become unable to make Jesus our primary focus. Leaven is the enemy of holiness. During Passover, ceasing to eat leaven is a way of saying we wish to remove sin from our lives. In fact, when Orthodox Jewish families prepare to celebrate Passover, they often spend up to 6 weeks prior to the holiday cleaning their house and ensuring there is no leaven within. Perhaps this is why Paul wrote to the Corinthian church,

“Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)

Is there leaven in your life? If so, what will it take to clear it out?

Passover and Holiness, Part 1

 It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it carries great meaning to me. The Jewish  holiday of Passover falls during Holy Week this year. I was born and raised in a Jewish  family, came to faith at a Messianic Jewish congregation, and spent eight years in Jewish  missions prior to my involvement with the Church of the Nazarene. I believe many of the  biblical feasts carry great significance for Christians, so in this and the next couple of  posts, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on why Passover should mean something to holiness  people.

Passover celebrates God’s redemption of the Israelites from slavery in the land of Egypt, as  told in the book of Exodus. Part of the story involves the ten plagues which God sent  against Egypt, in order to convince the Pharoah to let the children of Israel go.

  • The Plague of Blood
  • The Plague of Frogs
  • The Plague of Gnats
  • The Plague of Wild Beasts
  • The Plague of Pestilence
  • The Plague of Boils
  • The Plague of Hail
  • The Plague of Locusts
  • The Plague of Darkness
  • The Death of the Firstborn

It is during the last plague, the death of the firstborn, that the Passover feast was instituted. According to Exodus 12, God commanded Moses,

“This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. ”
 (Exodus 12:2-14)

Note that it is the blood of the Passover lamb which protects the Israelites from the consequences of the final devastating plague which is visited upon Egypt. The lamb was without any blemish, and its bones were not to be broken. Its an amazing picture of God’s grace and redemption towards His chosen people, but it is merely a shadow of an even greater redemption: the Messiah Jesus. It was Jesus of whom John the Baptist declared,

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

The Passover event foreshadowed a greater sacrifice, in the death of Jesus. Christ was without the blemish of sin, and none of His bones were broken in His death — just as none of the original Passover lambs’ bones were broken when they were sacrificed. Just as the blood of the lambs saved the Israelites, the blood of the Lamb saves us all from death. Those first lambs redeemed the Israelites from the physical death which the tenth plague brought, yet Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was for something far greater: redemption of the whole world from sin. For a Christian to miss this is to miss the entire meaning of Holy Week : what took place on the cross was an atonement greater than any animal sacrifice, a gift that gives eternal life to those who place their faith in Him.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

This is what the focus of all who claim to follow Jesus should be during Holy Week.

In the next posts, I will discuss the symbolism of special foods eaten during Passover, and how they can point us to holiness and an understanding of the nature of God.

The Identity Crisis of December

As I write this, I marvel that it is already the beginning of December. The start  of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, is just a few hours away. The month of December often presents an identity crisis for Jewish believers in Jesus like me. For many Jews, December is a time of year in which they are flooded by Christmas imagery, music, and decorations – a parade of foreign religious symbolism without surcease. Prior to coming to faith in Jesus, I had some of the same reactions that many of my Jewish brethren will have  this year: I just wanted Christmas to go away. I saw Christmas as a threat to  my very identity as a Jew.

 

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 (foil-covered chocolate coins). But 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 nauseau,” 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!

Being part of an intermarried couple, I now have a commitment to honoring the traditions of both of our families. Soon to occupy the corner of our living room is a small Christmas tree, unobtrusively decorated. We’ve talked about finding some chrismons for decorating it next year, to highlight the importance to us of Christ’s life and ministry. In the window is a menorah, and a string of Hanukkah lights in the shape of menorahs, dreidels, and Stars of David. This is a house where the identity crisis has been laid to rest. As a Jew, I am comfortable with my faith in Christ, and I am comfortable with expressing it with both Jewish and Christian symbols. As a Gentile, my wife insists that we honor my Jewish heritage and her Christian upbringing equally.

As I ponder December, I’m struck by something about both Christmas and Hanukkah. 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 prepare to celebrate Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, we will remember the words of Jesus Himself as He declared,

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

and as Christmas comes, we 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

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