Posts tagged ‘Israel’

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

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Three

Having dealt in Chapter Two with what the Jewish beliefs about Hell were that would have influenced Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, Francis Chan moves on to exploring what Jesus actually said about Hell. Chan gives the reader a reminder of what he labels a sobering reality: this is a subject which is not just about doctrines, but about destinies. He urges that anyone who reads the book and is wrestling with what the Bible says about Hell should not let it be merely an academic exercise.

“You must let Jesus’ very real teaching on hell sober you up. You must let Jesus’ words reconfigure the way you live, the way you talk, and the way you see the world and the people around you.”

As I wrote in my last post, Chan’s description of the 1st-century world Jesus inhabited is one in which the Jewish people saw hell as a place of punishment for the wicked after they faced God’s judgment. They described hell with images of fire, darkness, and lamenting; some believed the wicked would be annihilated after they were cast into hell, while other Jews believed hell to be a place of never-ending torment. Given this milieu, Chan notes the importance of understanding that if Jesus rejected these widespread Jewish beliefs in hell, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against them.

Chan is insistent that what Jesus Himself actually said about hell stands in line with the dominant views of hell in His 1st-century Jewish world. He examines Jesus’ teachings on hell using the same three categories he discussed in Chapter Two to demonstrate that Jesus believed:

  1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment
  2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
  3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.

HELL IS A PLACE OF PUNISHMENT AFTER JUDGMENT

Chan notes that Jesus used the word gehenna (hell) twelve times in the Gospel, employing imagery of fire and darkness to demonstrate that a horrific place of punishment awaits the wicked on the day of judgment. Chan cites Matthew 25:31-46 as the clearest example of this.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Chan is careful to admit that this is actually an instance where Jesus actually does not use the word gehenna, but that He communicates the concept of hell by phrases such as “everlasting fire” and “everlasting punishment.” The point that is important here is that this is a passage in which Jesus is clear that the wicked will be awarded everlasting punishment on the day of Christ’s return, judgment day. He singles out another instance, in Matthew 5:22, where Jesus does use gehenna passage concerning judgment, stating,

“… here the Judge has the power to sentence you to the “hell [gehenna] of fire” (Matt. 5:22). This is not a vague reference to hell and certainly not a reference to a garbage dump. The legal context of this statement ensures that Jesus is referring to the consequences of judgment day.”

According to Chan, this legal context is the indication that Jesus means that hell is a literal place, where punishment occurs after judgment.

HELL IS DESCRIBED IN IMAGERY OF FIRE AND DARKNESS

Chan moves on to demonstrate that — like his Jewish contemporaries — Jesus described Hell using images of fire and darkness. He turns to the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13.

“Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:30)

Chan notes that this is a verse that doesn’t say much on its own, but comments that Jesus’ explanation of the parable and what He means by the burning weeds is of significance.

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:40-43)

Chan unswervingly calls these statements of Jesus “terrifying,” and puts forward the image of the wicked being cast into hell — and the weeping that follows — as common belief among 1st-century Jews (an argument he supported well previously). In the light of some of the Jewish writing on hell that Chan shared previously, he is successful in making the case that Jesus is right in line with Jewish thought on Hell. Jesus was using an established vocabulary to communicate a message that no one who heard Him speaking would have had any doubts about: Jesus was speaking of gehenna (hell) as “a place of punishment for all who don’t follow Jesus in this life.” Chan tackles some contemporary stances on hell (and by “contemporary” some would almost certainly say “Rob Bell”) by asserting,

“The hell that Jesus describes here is not a hell-on-earth that accompanies our bad decisions during this life, and it certainly isn’t the never-ending party that AC/DC describes in their song.”

Lastly, Chan gives examples of Jesus’ use of the imagery of darkness to refer to hell as a place of punishment for those of Israel and the nations who do not follow Jesus.

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)

“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:13)

“And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:30)

HELL IS A PLACE OF ANNIHILATION OR NEVER-ENDING PUNISHMENT

Chan concludes Chapter Three by addressing a seeming dichotomy: Jesus seems in some passages give the implication that Hell will not last very long, while in other places He refers to Hell as a place in which unbelievers are punished with horrifying, agonizing pain that never ends.

This section of Erasing Hell is one in which it seems that the voice of Preston Sprinkle could possibly be rising above Francis Chan’s, as there is a very scholarly exploration of the precise meaning of Greek words and grammar. Chan believes this is beneficial but acknowledges that it may be more technical than some might be used to. He leads into this discussion of Greek grammar with the following:

“In almost every passage where Jesus mentions hell, He doesn’t explicitly say it will last forever. He speaks of torment, and we get the impression that hell is terrible, that it’s a place to be avoided at all costs, but He doesn’t clearly tell us how long it will last.

Jesus’ most suggestive statement–perhaps His only statement–about the duration of hell comes in Matthew 25. In this passage, Jesus speaks of the final judgment that will take place at His second coming (v. 31). The sheep (believers in Jesus) and goats (unbelievers) are divided in two camps, and Jesus decides who’s who based on what they’ve done in their lives. The sheep have served Jesus by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and so on, while the goats did none of these things. Jesus then gives His verdict:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the  devil and his angels.’ ” (v. 41)

Jesus reviews their behavior on earth and finds convicting evidence for their condemnation (vv. 42-44) and then concludes:

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (vv. 45-46)

The vital point Chan wishes to make revolves around the phrases everlasting fire and everlasting punishment. Those who believe that Hell is of limited duration, he states, argue that the Greek aionios kolasis which is translated “everlasting punishment” does not meant that punishment is without end. Rather they argue for aionios meaning “a period of time,” with kolasis being a horticultural term referring to “pruning” or “trimming.” Here Chan is very deliberately going on the offensive against Rob Bell’s Love Wins, in which Bell stated:

“An aionios of kolasis. Depending on how you translate aionios and kolasis, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.”

The argument of Bell and others, Chan relates, is that the purpose of this pruning or correction is to improve something — in this case, to correct the wicked of their ungodly behavior until they have ceased to be wicked. According to this, Jesus is referring to a time of correction that will result in those who suffer punishment being eventually saved. In Rob Bell’s view, this then refers to “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.”

Chan is honest enough to admit that this is an appealing argument, on the basis that it appears to reconcile the love of God with the bleak statements Jesus makes about hell. However, Chan refutes the argument on the basis of kolasis in no way referring to correction, only to punishment. He gives three reasons for this, the first being that in the three other appearances of the word in the New Testament, it refers only to punishment. Kolasis as used in Jewish literature of the first century refers to punishment.

Secondly, the everlasting punishment referred to is the same location as “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” in verse 41. This being the case, Chan notes that to argue that unbelievers endure a time of suffering for a period, which results in salvation, then the same must be true for the Devil and his angels. Chan labels this as a huge stretch, especially in light of Revelation 19-20, where it is stated that the Devil and his angels will be tormented forever and ever. Chan contends that Jesus is actually saying that unbelievers will share the same fate as the Devil and his followers. In other words, unbelievers will be tormented forever and ever.

The third reason Chan presents for kolasis referring to punishment instead of correction is that in other verses or passages in which Jesus refers to hell with phrases such as “the fiery furnace” or “everlasting fire,” He is speaking of a place of retribution, a place where sinners receive the punishment for their sins. He does not speak of correction, notes Chan, in other passages such as Matthew 13:41-42 and 49-50. He observes that the consensus of biblical commentators from diverse theological backgrounds, using diverse translations of the Bible (in numerous languages), translate kolasis as meaning “punishment.”

Chan’s final thoughts for Chapter Three contain his recognition that while he strongly favors the argument that Hell is everlasting, he is not ready to claim that with complete certainty. He concludes with this fervent admonition:

“We are bound by the words of the Creator, the One who will do what is right. The One who invented justice and knows perfectly what the unbeliever deserves. God has never asked us to figure out His justice or to see if His way of doing things is morally right. He has only asked us to embrace His Word and bow the knee, to tremble at His word, as Isaiah says (66:2)”

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.

Lifting Up the Hood: A Sermon on Revelation 12

The following is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on Sunday, August 7 at Faith Community Church of the Nazarene in Ashland City, TN. The actual sermon as preached had some slight deviation from this text.

“I am haunted by waters,” Norman MacLean wrote, as he spun the tale of his family’s life and tragedy in Missoula, Montana in the early 20th century. His was a family who shared a passion for fly fishing, especially on the waters of the Big Blackfoot River, and their tragedy was the brutal murder of MacLean’s brother. As he grappled with loss and pain, MacLean reflected on how the river played a central role in his family story, remarking: “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

In any era, stories do more than just entertain. They can teach us right behavior, correct values, and proper morals. Our stories can show rather than tell the difference between good and evil, paint a picture of what makes a hero, give an avenue for catharsis, and inspire hope in the midst of helplessness. There are stories we remember our entire lives because they reach deep down inside of us and touch something in our innermost being. Such stories stay with us because they speak to us of truths greater than ourselves.

  • The orphan farm girl is stranded in a land so very far from where she belongs, traveling with three odd companions. She’s just trying to get to the wizard who can send her home while her partners want respectively, a brain, a heart, and some courage. In the end all four will find that within each of them is enough wisdom, love, and bravery to conquer any challenge.
  • With the destruction of the ship imminent, the science officer exposes himself to a lethal dose of radiation so that by his sacrifice, the rest of the crew can make it to safety. Blinded and dying, he tells his best friend, the captain of the ship, not to grieve for him, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.
  • The young woman stole her crippled father’s armor and weapons and left in the middle of the night, pretending to be a son so her father wouldn’t have to answer the Emperor’s call to fight the invaders. Learning to be a soldier almost killed her, but she somehow survived. With luck, ingenuity, and the help of the other soldiers who came to respect her, she defeated the invading army and saved her whole country.

Today let’s explore a story that you and I are already a part of. It’s a story that began an eternity before any of us were born, and is cosmic in scale. Its ending has been written, but no one knows when it will happen.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.  (Revelation 12:1-17)

I wonder, have any of you have ever had car trouble while taking a long trip? I recall such a trip, during one of my summers off in college. I was on my way to a conference for the music fraternity I was involved with as a music education major. It was about a five-hour drive, and after the first couple of hours I began to notice that my car seemed to be a bit underpowered when I was taking some of the larger hills. Shortly after that, a strange noise began to emanate from the engine: fuh flup. Fuh flup flup flap flap fuh flap flap CLONK. With the engine dead, I had to pull over to the side of the road. I knew before I even got out of the driver’s seat that whatever this was, it wasn’t good, but as with any car trouble, I couldn’t know for certain how bad the situation was until I lifted up the hood and saw what was underneath.

In Revelation 12, we find the author John lifting up the hood of the car so that his audience – brother and sister Christians in the churches of Asia Minor – could find out just how bad the situation they were in really was. Mind you, they already knew it wasn’t good. They knew they were in trouble. John’s audience lived in the midst of the Roman Empire at a time when being a Christian wasn’t just frowned upon – it was illegal. The seven churches of Asia Minor, whom John had named earlier in Revelation, were experiencing suffering and persecution due to their faith in Jesus Christ, because they refused to worship the Emperor of Rome as divine.

Listen. Can you hear the signs of trouble? Fuh flup. Fuh flup flup flup.

These churches in Revelation daily faced a flood of images and propaganda that were intrinsic to the Roman worldview, to Roman imperial power, and to pagan religions. They were suffering for their faith, and they were suffering economically as well. The cult of emperor worship acted like a trade union, and you couldn’t get membership in the union unless you worshipped the emperor. If you didn’t belong to the union, you couldn’t even do business. It was economic exclusion. The Christians to whom John wrote were grappling with the grim reality that the famed pax Romana – the peace of Rome – came at great cost to the mass of people in the Empire. Rome was controlling and oppressing every aspect of their lives, from the economic to the spiritual.

And the problems they faced were going to get a lot worse: fuh flup. Flup flup flap flap.

The Revelation was meant to give hope to faithful believers in the midst of persecution and suffering. John needed his readers to get a look under the hood of the car, and to see what the situation really was. He needed them to achiever a greater perspective, and see that their suffering on earth was part of a bigger picture, which spanned the heavens and the earth alike.

John did this by weaving together images and stories that were familiar to his audience in Asia Minor, in order to demonstrate superior Christian truths. He began with a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, crying out in the agony of birth. Her child is described as one who will rule the nations with a rod of iron, which was a very well known Messianic reference from Psalm 2:9. It would be easy to conclude from this that the woman must be the Messiah’s mother, and it’s true that the passage contains elements of the birth narrative of Jesus, which we find elsewhere in the New Testament. Jesus’ mother Mary had to flee from those who sought her infant son’s death. John has something more than just Mary, the mother of Jesus in mind, in order to help his readers understand their own place in the order of things.

His description of the woman dressed in the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and twelve stars in her crown hearkens to Genesis 37:9, where Joseph describes a dream in which sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. Although the image of the twelve stars in the woman’s crown would have been familiar to John’s original readers as pagan images corresponding to the 12 zodiac signs, the symbolic connection he makes is to Joseph and his eleven brothers, the twelve children of Israel. The twelve sons – later the Twelve Tribes — represent all of Israel, God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets described Israel as a bride, and the Lord as her husband, as when the Lord told Hosea, “I will betroth you to me forever.” (Hosea 2:19) It was out of this Chosen People that Jesus the Messiah came, through whose work in the past God birthed the Church itself. John wanted the Christians of Asia Minor to remember that they too were part of the universal community of God’s people.

The tribulations that the brethren faced were part of a battle that was being waged not just on earth but also in the heavens themselves. John identifies the chief opponent in this battle as a great red dragon, which menaces the woman – the people of God – and threatens to devour her child, the Messiah. This image of the red dragon is taken from Babylonian mythology and was familiar to the churches of Asia Minor, coming as they did from backgrounds steeped in pagan religions and legends. With this image of the dragon tied to Satan, the serpent in the Garden, the message is that the power that threatens the people of God is not the earthly authority of Rome. Although Rome is a tireless promoter of its own glory and supremacy, the Empire is ultimately merely an agent and tool of that power. That power is Satan; the Word of God tells us that he waged a war in heaven and that he was cast down to the earth.

The engine, people, is screaming now: FLUP FLUP FLUP FLAP CLONK!

The dragon was thrown down to earth, and he pursued the woman. In his anger, the dragon came after the people of God, after the Body of Christ. Everything that the Christians of Asia Minor had patiently endured – the persecution, the economic and social marginalization – was a measure of something more vast. The apostle Paul was very explicit about the nature of this battle, writing to the church in Ephesus: “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)

John was drawing the attention of the brethren to awareness of a more immense and supernatural reality outside of their everyday lives. Their pain and distress was a consequence of a cosmic battle, a battle that Satan lost in the heavens but continued here on earth. Revelation is very clear that the devil has come down to earth with great wrath, and that all those who keep the commands of God and who give testimony of the salvation of Jesus Christ are the targets of his anger. Now that is awful news. I can imagine that faced with such tidings the temptation for those churches must have been strong to simply pack it in, join the union, and assimilate into the wickedness of the culture around them.

But John didn’t just lift up the hood and tell them the obvious, “guess what, the engine is seized on the car, people!” The engine was seized, just like the engine of my car seized during my trip to the conference. Yet John had fantastic news for his brothers and sisters. Beginning in verse 10, a loud voice in heaven announces that the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God have come, that the authority of His Messiah is proclaimed! Yes, there was suffering and pain, but that suffering and pain was the last desperate lashing out of an enemy who was already conquered.

Do you understand what it means when the text tells us that Satan was conquered by the blood of the Lamb? It means that when Christ died on the cross, the wily old dragon thought he had scored a victory, but it was the furthest thing from it. The very act that had all the powers of evil chuckling and gloating was the means by which evil was vanquished, for when Christ died on the cross and ascended to Heaven, He prevailed over anything that sin and evil could ever do.

It is not just Christ victorious over Satan that Revelation depicts, but Christ’s people victorious as well. That victory comes first and foremost through His death and Resurrection, but in sharing in His resurrection, John says that their testimony of His salvation has helped to conquer Satan. John points his readers to the victory achieved by the shed blood of Christians who would not renounce their faith in the Lord Jesus even when the price for that was their own life. These are Christian martyrs whom John describes, men and woman who placed fidelity to Christ above worldly peace, financial security, or personal safety. They have conquered Satan’s sway over them through their loyalty to a principle laid out in John 12:25, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Do you understand the significance of the good news that John was sending to Asia Minor? Yes, the engine of the car has seized, and it feels like you’re stranded all alone by the side of the road. But you have the best roadside assistance you can get – you have the Lord Jesus Christ, who will not only never leave you or forsake you, but he is going to replace your engine with a new engine, one that will never stop running!

I wonder, sometimes, if we don’t have difficulty placing ourselves into stories. I wonder if when it comes to a passage like this, we get so focused on understanding what it says that we miss that the story hasn’t ended yet, and that we’re part of it. You and I ride in the same car of which John lifted up the hood. It’s true, John was writing to specific Christians in specific churches, but we too are his brothers and sisters. We too are part of the Body of Christ, united together across all the centuries by the saving grace of God expressed through the death of Jesus on the cross.

It’s perhaps hard for Christians today, particularly Western Christians, to relate to the idea of being persecuted for their religious faith. In this nation, Christians have been blessed in that as a body we have never been prevented from following Jesus. It might be even harder for us to relate to economic exclusion or social marginalization due to Jesus. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is not real suffering and pain among Christians today, as many grapple with a poor economy and high unemployment.

As holiness people, I do think that we can relate to being excluded or marginalized due to our beliefs. As a church in the Wesleyan tradition, we Nazarenes strive to be holy people in a world that does not value holiness. This often prohibits us from full participation in popular culture. We have historically taken a stance of abstinence due to the harmful consequences on human life that alcohol can have, setting us apart from a dominant culture in which social drinking is an accepted norm. As Nazarenes, we desire to choose what our Manual calls, “the high road of holy living” when it comes to entertainment. This excludes us from watching many movies or television shows, due to their glorification of violence, sensuality, and the profane. The cost of giving in to what our culture says is OK is the same cost the churches of Revelation faced: to turn away from God and His standards.

What’s your story today, my friends? Are you suffering, haunted by the memory of tragedies in your lives? Or are you facing obstacles right now that seem insurmountable and hopeless? Take heart. You are part of the same battle, and facing the same enemy today that the Christians of Asia Minor faced in the first century. Satan continues to focus his wrath on all who follow the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. Revelation 12 tells us that Satan knows that his time is short, and his wrath is directed against us until Jesus returns, hoping to turn as many away from Christ as he can. Be encouraged by the same words that John used to encourage his afflicted fellows: we have conquered by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of the testimony of those who will not be turned from Jesus Christ even though it cost them their lives. For now have come the salvation and the power and kingdom of our God and the authority of His Messiah, who died to give you eternal life.

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.

Back to Blogging

I’m back! I’m happy to report that both the move and my surgery went smoothly. Thanks to all who were praying … I felt the prayers covering my wife and I throughout.

I don’t have much to say in this first post back, other than to direct my reader’s attention to Psalm 122:6 and suggest that this might be a good time to heed its directive.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Chosen People Ministries — a mission to reach Jewish people with the Gospel — has reminded people in a recent newsletter that peace in the Middle East is possible with prayer. They quite rightly suggest that knowing more about current Israeli and Palestinian leaders can help us pray more effectively for them.

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