They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Feast of Sukkot: Part 3

Note: Please read John 7:1-43 before reading this final post on the Feast of Sukkot

The background given in our previous two posts on the Jewish Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles) has set the stage for the story of Jesus that we now turn to in John 7. Remember that this feast, ordained by God in Leviticus, is in the fall and is one of the three that every Jewish male is required to attend. It celebrates not only God taking care of the Israelites during their forty year wandering, but also celebrates the fall harvest. A half a million people or more (Josephus says two million) crowded into Jerusalem for this important holiday. Every morning for seven days, starting at daybreak, people would try to secure their spot to watch the upcoming daily ceremonies in the Temple Courts. Well before the 9:00AM ceremonies would begin, the Temple grounds would be completely full of worshipers. At 9:00AM, the shofar blew to announce the beginning of the day’s ceremonies. The service began at the steps in the Women’s Courts, in front of the Nicanor Gates. The crowd would begin by chanting Psalm 113-118, called the Hallel. The Levitical choir would be up on top of the steps where everyone could see and hear their voices. There was no silence in Jewish Temple worship – they were loud and passionate! Rabbinic sources say you could hear the crowd from Bethlehem, several miles away. Spontaneously, the crowd would chant almost continuously from 9:00AM to 3:00PM, while various ceremonies were undertaken.

The Feast of TabernaclesEvery day for seven days there was a special ceremony performed just before the 3:00PM sacrifices, called the “Water Drawing Ceremony”. This ceremony had its origins in 1 Samuel 7:2-6 where Samuel poured out water on the ground and asked God to forgive and save the Jewish people. The ceremony also drew off Isaiah 12:2-6, where it says, “with joy, draw water from the well of salvation”, and Zechariah 14:8-11 that says, “on that day, living water will flow out from Jerusalem (which referred to the Messiah). Let’s take a look at what took place in the water drawing ceremony. Just before 3:00PM, a shofar would blow to announce the start of the ceremony and the crowd would begin chanting the Hallel. When they got to Psalm 118:25, they would chant it over and over. The high priest would come out of the Temple and go down the steps to the water gate. He would be carrying a large golden ceremonial pitcher. Fighting his way through the crowd, the priest would proceed to the Eastern Gate and exit the temple grounds. Then he would turn right, down the Kidron Valley, to the Pool of Siloam that contains water from the Spring of Gihon, Jerusalem’s water source. The priest would then dip the golden pitcher into the water and take the full pitcher back up the hill to the Temple.

When the crowd spotted the priest coming with the pitcher of water, they would begin to chant even louder and with more fervor. “Save us, Save us, Save us” they would say, over and over. As the priest approached the altar, the shofar again would sound. The priest would climb the ramp of the altar and pour the living water before the Lord. When the pitcher was empty, the priest would hold the empty pitcher high in the air to the roar of the crowd. The huge menorahs in the Temple were then lit and the worshipers filed out of the Temple and the services were over for the day.

The water drawing ceremony was done every day of the Feast, but on the last and greatest day called Hoshanah Rabbah, the ceremony was a little different. When the priest arrived with the golden pitcher and climbed the altar, the crowd would be ecstatic. Slowly, the priest would walk around the altar seven times, carrying the pitcher full of water (this was probably done to repeat what had happened at Jericho, with the promise of the Promised Land). Seven times the priest would hold up the pitcher and on the seventh time, the shofar would sound and the crowd would go deathly quiet in anticipation of him pouring out the pitcher of living water on the altar.

Now, let’s refer back to John 7. Jesus was in the crowd, on this last, greatest Feast Day, chanting and praising God and waving His lulav. When would he have shouted, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said (What scripture? See references above), streams of living water will come from within him.” His speech had to be during the water drawing ceremony and at the time the shofar blew to quiet the crowd before the priest raised the pitcher to pour out the living water! This would have been the only time that he could have been heard above the noise of the crowd! What did the people think? What would you have thought? Jesus was saying, “I am the fulfillment of Zechariah 14! I am the promised Messiah, the living water the scriptures have spoken of!”

Doesn’t knowing about the Sukkot Festival and the Water Drawing Ceremony make this passage of Scripture in John mean so much more? We can draw at least two faith lessons from this interesting story. First, we can learn something from the Jewish people about being able to celebrate and rejoice. We are so reserved, so stoic in our approach to God. There is a time and place to be ecstatic in our love for God! Secondly, the whole theme of the Feast of Sukkot was to petition God to ask Him to send the living water (rain) and to forgive us of our sins, so that we can prosper. After Pentecost, we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit and as the prophecy proclaims, living water will flow from us to other people. God give us a taste of Sukkot, so that we may be Sukkot to others in this dry and thirsty world!

Of Wool and Linen: Deuteronomy 22:11

Credit to Lois Tverberg for the original idea behind this post

TzitzithAs you read through the Book of Deuteronomy you quickly discover that God was very detailed in the laws for living that He gave the Israelites. Every subject under the sun is covered, from personal hygiene, dietary laws, marriage, sexual conduct, and even what type of animals to plow with. As you ponder these laws often they don’t seem to make much sense. For example, in Deuteronomy 22:11 it says, “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together.” Why would God prohibit something like this? On the surface it not only seems odd, but makes you think God was way too involved in the minute details of life. However, if you do some research, this law in its ancient Hebrew context had a very interesting and legitimate reason for being required of the people of Israel. Furthermore, when we discover the lesson that comes out of this unusual law it will even speak to us about our responsibility as Christians in today’s world. Let’s take a look and dig a little deeper into the Scriptures and see what God was requiring.

priestThe reason God prohibited the Israelites from mixing wool and linen together in their clothing had to do with the priesthood and tabernacle system that God had previously set up. The priestly garments and the tabernacle weavings were made of a combination of wool and linen. Also, the priest’s undergarment was made of linen and his brightly covered vestment was made of wool. God wanted His priests to be set apart and noticeably different in their looks than the lay person. By using this command against mixing wool and linen, God was forbidding them to dress and look like His priests.

This law takes on an even more interesting turn when you look at the command the God gave the Israelites concerning the wearing of tassels (tzitziot) on their clothing in Numbers 15:38 (See also Jewish Dress and Custom). These tassels that God instructed them to wear actually seem to violate the command to not mix wool and linen together. Several ancient sources, dating back to Biblical times, indicate that one cord in the tassel was to be royal blue or purple and was to be made of wool while the other white cords were made of linen. This was supposed to be a holy mixture reserved only for priests. What was God doing? The Hebrew people understood the significance of God allowing them to wear this forbidden mixture on the corners of their robes. They saw it as God’s attempt to encourage and remind all Israel to aspire to be holy like the priests. Leviticus 19:2 says, ”You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.” Also, in Exodus 19:6, God told the Israelites, “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The fact that one cord was both woolen and royal purple makes it a symbol of both the priesthood and kingship in order to show that all Israel was supposed to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The whole nation of Israel was to be a nation of priests, not just the leaders, rabbis or scholars. The robe of the priesthood was to be the uniform of all Israel. Even though they could not actually serve as a priest, they were to strive to be like the priests; holy and set apart for God’s service. These tassels served to remind and encourage the people of Israel to aspire to a degree of holiness comparable to that of the priests.

In summary, the seemingly small and odd command by God not to wear wool and linen mixed together has a deep and fascinating complexity hidden within its words. The picture portrayed in this obscure passage is a powerful one of His children being His priests to a world that doesn’t yet know the God of Israel. Christians today are also called to this same task. 1 Peter 2:5-9 repeats the same words and theme of Exodus 19:6. Then, in 1 Peter 2:12, we are told to live such holy lives among the pagans that they will be drawn to our God. We are to be to our world, what Israel was to theirs, a billboard to draw attention to their God. The next time you read one of these unexplainable portions of Scripture, do a little research. You may find a hidden gem!

God is Good? The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Note: I borrowed heavily and received the inspiration for this post from listening to a sermon from Andy Hein of the International Justice Mission.

feeding5000breadfishes400The phrase, “God is Good”, is a slogan that is frequently tossed around in Christian circles. It is a slogan you often see on bumper stickers and lapel buttons. As Christians in America we can certainly attest to this statement that God indeed is good. We live in the most plentiful country during the most plentiful time period in history. Advances in food, clothing, medicine, doctors, machines, equipment, and technology make life in America so much less strenuous than at any other time. Our tendency is to assume that everyone knows the obvious – God is Good! Everywhere we look it seems as though He has bountifully blessed His children.

However, if we look beyond our own little circle, problems arise. There are people in our own country and certainly all over the world that don’t have the things that we take for granted. Listen to just a few statistics:

  • 25,000 children under the age of five die every day because they can’t get medicine
  • Two billion people in the world have no access to any medical care. They are not discussing which doctor or which plan to be on, they just don’t have any doctors or care.
  • Most of the world’s population lives on less than three American dollars per day for everything they need.
  • Hundreds of thousands of teenagers are abandoned on the streets across the world to fend for themselves.

How do all these people know that God is Good? We know God is good, but do they? How will they ever experience God’s goodness? What is God’s plan to show these less fortunate people that He is indeed good? Our first thought is that the needs are so great and we are so unqualified that it seems utterly impossible to make any difference. How is this all supposed to work? The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, found in all four gospels, sheds some light on how God wants us to approach these seemingly insurmountable odds. Let’s take a look at this age old story that is so familiar to us and see if we might have missed something that Jesus was saying.

In a summary of the gospels of this story, Jesus had been preaching to a crowd of five thousand for a long time and they had not had anything to eat all day. The disciples looked around at the great need and advised Jesus to send the people home so that they could get something to eat. Jesus told the disciples, “No, you feed them – give them something to eat”. The disciples immediately tried to throw it back in Jesus’ court by saying, “What? There are five thousand men here plus women and children. It would take eight months wages just to get enough bread for each person to have one bite! There is no way we could possibly fill this need” – back to you, Jesus! Then Jesus asked them, “What do you have?” The disciples could only round up five small loaves of bread and a couple of fish. “But what is this among so many”, they said. The disciples looked at the magnitude of the problem and saw the huge lack of resources to fill the need. Jesus didn’t ask the disciples what was needed to try to meet the problem, he just said, “What do you have?” Then Jesus took what they had in the way of food and had the people sit down to eat. With the paltry amount available, He fed everyone and had twelve baskets left over! What can we learn from how Jesus handled this situation with his disciples?

First of all, if the people were hungry, why didn’t Jesus just rain down manna from heaven and feed everyone at once? Why did he use a little boy’s lunch instead? Jesus told this story to show us that He doesn’t really need the stuff that we have, he just needs us to show up and be willing. He purposely had the disciples go through the process of coming to the conclusion that there was no way they could meet the need with their own resources. But Jesus used what they had to provide a lot! He doesn’t need us to do the providing, He just needs us to give what we have. We are just supposed to show up with our lunch and watch what He can do with it.

The answer to our question, “How do the hurting people of the world know that God is good?”, is that they will only know if we show them. If we will just show up with what we have and be available, God will take care of the solutions to the problems. 2 Corinthians 5:20 says,”Therefore you are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God was making His very appeal through us.” For the past two thousand years, since Jesus commissioned His disciples, His followers have been going out and trying to show the world that God is good. We are to be the agent that brings the food, medicine, and comfort to the people that don’t have it and they get to experience the body of Christ and understand firsthand the goodness of God. As God’s ambassadors, we have already tasted His goodness and we are the vessel that He will use to show that goodness to others. The next time you hear that well known phrase, “God is Good!”, remember that we are supposed to be the bearers of that great news to the people that don’t already know it.

Tapestry

Rug_weaver_250x364While we were in Turkey studying the Seven Churches of Revelation, we spent an evening touring a large Turkish factory that made exquisite hand woven rugs. Turkish rugs are generally thought of as the finest quality rugs in the world. The intricate and laborious process used to make these rugs was fascinating to learn about. It also revealed a wonderful life lesson in the process.

This factory made their rugs out of wool, cotton, and silk. However, the the silk process was by far the most costly and labor intensive. The first step in making a silk rug is to obtain the huge amount of silken thread that is required. The silk comes from the silkworm and this factory raised their own silkworms. The silkworm only eats mulberry leaves and uses that food to make a silk cocoon that contains a single thread of silk from one to three thousand feet long. It takes two to three thousand cocoons to make just one pound of silk! The single threads are entwined together to make a larger, stronger thread. Then the thread has to be died and dried for each color necessary in the pattern of the rug. It was amazing to see how much time and effort it took just to get enough silk for a single rug.

The rug itself was constructed on a loom, which was a large wooden frame standing upright with horizontal rails to push the threads down tight on the rug. The loom served as a framework for the threads that were woven in both horizontally and vertically to complete the design. The master weaver stands in front of the loom and carefully places each thread in the place for the design that he has envisioned. Each thread is carefully tied and wound into the next one in order to complete the overall pattern. Close attention is paid to every thread and every detail to make sure that every cord stays in its proper place. Weaving a silk rug can take months or even years, depending on the size and quality. The more knots and the more thread count, the more expensive the rug. No two rugs look alike; they are unique in their pattern and detail.

Now consider the image of our lives as the rug being woven by the master weaver, God himself. The weaver has a design in mind, even before he starts the rug (Psalm 139:14-16). He then carefully begins the tapestry pattern, weaving in both dark threads and light, tying them all together to form the desired pattern (Lamentations 3:37-38, Job 3:10, and Romans 8:28). Each individual thread has a predetermined length and place (Psalm 90:12). Each individual thread has value as it relates to the whole pattern and no one thread is more valuable than the others. All together they make up the pattern the master weaver has planned (Psalm 139:14). The rug must be stretched and pulled and each thread beaten down to make the rug tight and secure. Many knots are used to keep the threads in place (Hebrew 5:8). Paying careful attention to every detail, the weaver pours his heart into making the rug come out exactly as he had planned (Psalm 139:17-18, 1 Peter 1:6-7). Only when the tapestry is finally completed can the full pattern in all it’s beauty be seen and appreciated (1 Peter 2:9). Many more analogies can be made comparing our lives in God’s hands to these beautiful rugs, however the following poem written by an anonymous writer seems to say it perfectly. Corrie Ten Boom often used this poem when she spoke about her life during WWII and the trials that she had been through.

Tapestry
My life is but a weaving between my Lord and me,
I cannot choose the colors, He worketh steadily.

Ofttimes He weaveth sorrow, and I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper and I, the underside.

Not till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly
Shall God unroll the canvas and explain the reasons why.
The dark threads are as needful in the Weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver in the Pattern He has planned.

Where Heaven and Earth Meet – Part 2

We finished our first lesson with God creating a new space where He could dwell with His creation. After the Fall, God and man were separated from each other by sin. The tabernacle would be the new place and the new space where God could reunite with His people. As the intersection of heaven and earth, the Tabernacle was a constant reminder to the Israelites that God was with them as they traveled the wilderness and entered the Promised Land.

Later, God had them build Him a permanent space when they constructed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. However, the prophet Jeremiah prophesied that in the future there would be a time when all of this would change. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, it says that God would change the old sacrificial system that was outward and put it in the hearts of the believers. Verse 34 finishes by saying that God will forgive their sin and remember their iniquity no longer.

In both the Tabernacle and the Temple, God said through the Temple ceremony sacrifice, “Your sins are forgiven”. Only God could forgive sins; forgiveness was only found at God’s house, the Temple. Fast forward nearly one thousand years until the time of Jesus’ coming. Jesus was with His disciples in the Galilee, ninety miles from Jerusalem and the Temple. Mark 2:1-12 tells the story of a lame man that four of his friends brought to see Jesus. They couldn’t get to Jesus because of the crowds, so they cut a hole in the roof and let the lame man down into the room in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven”. Immediately, the teacher of the law said that this was blasphemy, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They were saying, you can’t do that! Only God can do that and then only at the Temple.

Can you see the paradigm shift here? Jesus said to the teachers of the law, “The Son of man (Jesus) has authority on earth to forgive sins. I am the new Temple – I can forgive sins! I am where heaven and earth meet!” There are several other places in the gospels where Jesus told his listener, your sins are forgiven (e.g. Luke 7:48-49, where the listeners said, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”). In fact, what ultimately led to Jesus crucifixion was that He was messing up the Temple system. He was doing what the Temple was supposed to do and that was a huge threat to the Sadducees and Temple authorities.

God never intended for the Temple in Jerusalem to be the final answer to God dwelling with His people! Jesus was resurrected and went back to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, so where is the Temple now? Where is that space that God inhabits and where heaven and earth meet? Where do people come to have their sins forgiven? Because of what happened at Pentecost, we, the body of believers (1 Corinthians 3:16), are the New Temple (also Ephesians 2:19-21)! God came out of His old house at Pentecost and is now dwelling in His new one! We (the church) are where heaven and earth now meet! He wants His presence to be us! We are the body and bride of Christ! There are a lot of people out there that need forgiveness of sins and the church should be the place where those sins can be forgiven. We can say with authority from Jesus himself, to someone, “Your sins are forgiven if you believe on the name of Jesus Christ” (John 20:23). In our churches and in our daily lives we are supposed to be creating a space where God lives, so that when homeless, abandoned or hurting people come in they find the presence of God. When your grandkids come over, is there a little slice of time and space where heaven and earth meet; where they feel loved, protected and forgiven? In our church meetings, do the unclean and the unforgiven find welcome, acceptance, and absolution? We are the New Temple and we are the place that God wants to inhabit! He wants us to be the place where heaven and earth meet. Our heart is that space that God inhabits, where He dwells with His people. What God began in the Garden of Eden, with his desire to dwell among (tabernacle; John 1:14) His creation, He completed by sending His Son and His Holy Spirit to dwell within us.

Additional reading:

  1. Discussion on “shakan” in Mount Sinai & The Mount of Transfiguration
  2. Creation Story in the Tabernacle

Hinds’ Feet on High Places

Nubian ibex

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer (hind KJV), he enables me to go on the heights
— Habakkuk 3:19

This verse, found in the last chapter of Habakkuk, was a repeating of the psalmist’s writing in Psalm 18:33 and was probably a section of the Temple prayers that were chanted with the accompaniment of instruments during Temple worship. What was the psalmist and the writer of the Habakkuk trying to say in this poetic and oft quoted verse? Immediately, a mental picture comes to us as believers; we are standing on a lofty place, surveying the valley below, with God by our side. Learning something about the land of Israel, it’s topography and it’s wildlife, will reveal a picture and a life lesson perhaps at first you didn’t see in this verse.

First of all, although much of Israel is very arid, the topography is extremely rough and rugged. The wilderness, which covers the eastern and souther parts of Israel is the most rugged of all. In a distance of 40 miles, the topography changes from 1300′ below sea level near the Dead Sea to 4000′ above sea level around Jerusalem. This was the Judean Wilderness that was home to most of the Old Testament Bible characters. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were wilderness dwellers that made their living in this harsh environment.

IbexThe main animals that inhabit these remote and rugged areas are the gazelle, which is a small antelope, and the much larger Nubian ibex which is a species of goat. Although at home in the mountainous areas, the gazelle prefers the gentler terrain and smaller slopes. Conversely, the ibex lives in the roughest, steep terrain that it can find. Their hooves are built almost like suction cups to help them to traverse the steep rocky cliffs they call home.

What then is the hind or the deer that some translations have for these verses? A hind is a female red deer that is native to Europe and there are no deer species native to the land of Israel. Could it be that something is missing in the translation of this word? If, as many scholars believe, the ibex is the animal being referred to in these Biblical passages, then a great Bible life lesson begins to unfold.

When we pray about the future, we always ask God for smooth paved paths, with curb and gutter, no rocks, and plenty of park benches for resting along the way. We don’t want to face the trials and tribulations that are often a very real part of this life on earth. A sign of maturing in the Christian faith is realizing that God often puts us in wilderness situations where the going is tough and the path strewn with rocks, to teach us to trust Him, when our strength and scheming won’t get it done.

Now, can you picture the ibex working through the steep terrain, with his feet giving him sturdy footing on the cliffs? Could this be what this verse is alluding to? God, give me strength, give me the feet of the ibex so that I can hold on and make it through the rough places that you are having me walk through? Our prayers should not necessarily be for smooth paths, because we know that there is not much of this life that is flat and smooth. Our prayer should be, “give me the feet to walk the path that you’ve put me on today. I trust you to take me through the high and rugged places where the footing is treacherous and a fall would be ruin”. This is the cry from the writer of Habakkuk and Psalms, “give us the feet to traverse the rough patches of life that God is sending us through to mold us into the person that can completely trust in Him.”

The next time you find yourself in a rough and rugged patch of life, instead of asking God for a way out, ask him for the feet needed to walk the path He chose for you.