Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Camo-Clad Angels: A Poem for Soldiers

Lest terrors and evils eclipse freedom’s sun
Our camo-clad angels wield missile and gun.
Their plowshares they beat into death-dealing swords
To battle for peace ‘gainst tyrannical lords.
The blood in their veins pulses red, white, and blue,
And shed it they will, for their country, for you.
So hallow the memory and honor the name
Of all those who fight to keep freedom aflame.

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O Father, at Creation: A Wedding Hymn

O Father, at creation You made a man and wife,
To have, to hold each other throughout their earthly life.
Your image and Your likeness they bore in holy love,
Reflecting to all creatures Your perfect love above.
The blessing of our parents in Paradise impart,
Upon this man and woman till death these two does part.

O Jesus, Guest at Cana, You gave a wondrous sign,
Transforming simple water into the richest wine.
Perfecter of creation, Your Word makes all things new,
The darkness turns to daylight, and gloom to joy in You.
Perfect this wedded union, transform these two as one,
That no man put asunder the wondrous work You’ve done.

O Spirit, by the water and blood from Jesus’ side,
The Church is bathed in beauty, the Holy Virgin Bride.
No stain or wrinkle mars her, no hint of sin or shame;
His righteous robe adorns her; He gives to her His name.
The saving blood of Jesus on bride and groom bestow,
And robe them, as His Body, in raiment white as snow.

*I wrote this hymn ten years ago, for the wedding of Matthew and Cara Jeffords.  On this day when Stacy and I are joined as husband and wife, I offer it up as a prayer for the two of us as we begin our life together.

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Call Me Lazarus

I’ve hunkered down in a dark place, where light is not only absent, but banned. The darkness is loved, almost worshiped, for it is a sanctuary in which to hole up and lick one’s wounds without fear of having even more inflicted upon you. God is unwelcome there, as are his phantasms of hope and love and tenderness and fidelity and all other mirages that slake one’s thirst with a mouthful of sand. Going there are those who flirt with a pistol to the head, whose veins flow with whiskey, whose child lies under six feet of soil, who curse the day of their birth, who spend every waking and sleeping hour playing and replaying the nightmares of their past. I’ve been to that dark place, and some of you reading this have, too. Maybe, in fact, you’re there now.

Today I stand in the light. There is one reason, and one reason only: because the God I once hated, never stopped loving me; the God I screamed at until my voice collapsed in on itself, never interrupted me; the God I damn well knew had become my worst enemy, never stopped being my compassionate Father. I blamed him for my sins, the sins of others, for just about everything wrong in my life. I did trust God, but I trusted that if I asked for a fish, he’d give me a snake; or if I asked for medicine, he’d give me poison. I was angry at heaven, at earth, and everything in between, for my life and my love and my hopes had all gone wrong, terribly, irreversibly, wrong.

But it was I who was wrong, terribly, but not irreversibly, wrong. I’m not here to tell you that God had some grand plan for my life, and I finally discovered it, and now everything is sweetness and light. I do still struggle with my past, and I probably always will, to an extent. The present is almost always charged a certain tax by the past.

What I will tell you is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what you think and feel and imagine, God is indeed in that dark place. You don’t know it, but he’s licking your wounds, too. And he’s keeping the deeper, blacker darkness at bay. And he hears, on the other side of your angry screams, the cries of a hurting child begging for help, but not knowing how to ask for it.

Today I stand in the light, and—miracles of miracles!—this week a woman will stand beside me in that same light, to take my hand in her own, look into my eyes that once beheld only darkness, and tell me, before the witness of heaven and earth, that she will be my wife. I would have believed the blind would receive sight, the lame walk, and the deaf hear, before I would have believed that I should be so blessed as to be as happy as I now am.

But therein is the love of God revealed, a love that gives us gifts beyond anything we could imagine or comprehend. Why, O why, am I surprised, for if God did not spare his own Son, but lovingly gave him up for us all, how will he not, along with him, graciously give us all things?

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Out of the Depths

Out of the depths have we cried unto Thee, O Lord. Out of the rubble of our shattered lives, our unfound children, our fiery tears and lacerated hearts. Out of the grave into which we have plummeted, alive yet dead, the dirt of a thousand decimated hopes spilling down into that black, hopeless pit. Out of these depths have we cried unto Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear our voice. Let Thine ears be attentive to the voice our supplications.

Yet though attentive he be, though every petition lofted heavenward land within our Lord’s open ears, alas, that is not enough. It is not enough to have a God way-up-there who hangs on our every word. It is not enough that he hears or even that he pities our predicament. We need something more.

Out of the depths have we cried unto Thee, O Lord. And below us a Voice resounds, “Out of the depths have I answered thee, my child. Hear my voice. Out of the depths of Joseph’s pit, cast there for you by my brothers in the flesh. Out of the depths of Jonah’s fish, cast there for you by the hands of Gentile men. Out of the depths of the mocking and stripping, the whipping and nailing, the bleeding and dying – out of the depths of the grave, have I cried unto thee. Hear my voice. Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of My love.”

For since it was not enough that the Lord of heaven and earth hung on your every word, his Word was made flesh and prayed among us, a priest in the order of Melchizedek, “offering up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save Him from death,” (Heb 5:7). Out of the depths of his humiliation, out of the depths of his suffering, out of the fathomless depths of his love for you, he cries: “I am enough.”

Where is God in tragedy? Where he always is: in the crucified Christ, where he displays his cosmic love that enfolds all humanity; makes their griefs and sorrows and sins his own; and brings them through death to resurrection.

For no matter how deep you go, out of the farther depths the crucified God of love speaks forth a word of life and hope and healing for you.

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Razing Babel: A Pentecost Poem

There is a unity of men which is not of God
When tongues univocally intone disharmony
When a shared voice is in concert with evil
When men build on earth a mockery of heaven.
But there is a Spirit who hovers o’er every tongue
Building a city of words whose tower is a cross
Scattering discord by the utterance of a name
That razes Babel hearts in a violent wind of grace.

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What I Learned from a Buddhist Monk: Doing Everything is Doing Nothing

When a visitor to a Buddhist monastery commented to one of the monks that all they seemed to do was eat and drink and walk about, the monk replied, ”Yes, so it appears. But when we eat, we eat; when we drink, we drink; and when we walk, we walk.” His point was that, whatever activity in which they were engaged, they did it with full attention to that activity. As they ate, they tasted and savored each bite. As they walked, they felt the ground beneath their feet, the multiplicity of muscles in their legs moving them forward. They were doing what I like to call mono-tasking, fully doing one thing at a time.

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While there may be nothing overtly religious about what the monk said, his words have remained with me as a key religious insight, and one which has implications for how we live, how we pray, and how we lead thankful lives before our Creator.

If all of life is a gift—and it most certainly is—then all the gifts that make up what we call life should be received and treasured as presents from the Creator. But it is not so. We may thank the Lord for the food upon our table, but do we taste it, do we savor the gift, or are we in such a rush to get on to “things that matter” that we are no different than swine at the trough? We may thank God that we have a job, but while we are engaged in our vocation, are we really engaged, or are our hearts and minds already on the drive home, the next vacation, the fight we had with our spouse that morning? We go to church, where God himself is present, talking to us, beckoning us into his presence, feeding us the feast of heaven, but we are surreptitiously checking our cell phone, noting the extra short skirt in the fifth pew, wondering who will win the football game that afternoon, or just praying the preacher will sit down and shut up already. We eat, but not really. We work, but not really. We go to church, but we are anywhere but in the presence of our Father in heaven, who has come down to earth…to be ignored. If all of life is a gift, we all too often unwrap it unthankfully, with our attention pulled so many directions, that the gift itself is mocked.

Some weeks back, while I was driving, I was listening to the book of Psalms on my iPod, trying to pray along with the ones I had memorized. Traffic was heavy that day, and, suddenly, a driver cut me off. I swerved at the last second and narrowly escaped a disastrous wreck. As “Bless the Lord, O my soul…” entered my ear, out of my mouth spewed, “You f—ing idiot!” And in that instant, I heard hell laugh and heaven sigh at the fool I was. There I was, praying the Psalms, but I wasn’t praying. I was just going through the motions, and multitasking my way to a humiliating moment of self-discovery.

There is something to be said for simplicity, for doing one thing at a time, and doing that thing in such a way that you do it with all your heart. I daily fail in this, but I strive to do better, to live in such a way that every day, every activity, is received as a gift that is worthy of all my attention for it comes from a God who has given me, and still gives me, his all.

 

There’s a Bad Man in Everyone: Gosnell Is No Exception

It is easy to hate Kermit Gosnell. It’s always easy to hate a murderer, especially one who slaughters babies. It is far harder to see, believe, and hate the murderer that lurks inside you. I overheard these lyrics from the American folk punk band, Andrew Jackson Jihad, this week.

“But there’s a bad man in everyone
No matter who we are
There’s a rapist and a Nazi living in our tiny hearts
Child pornographers and cannibals, and politicians too
There’s someone in your head waiting to f—ing strangle you.”

Those words ring true. I’ve seen the “bad man” in me, plenty of times, and, quite frankly, it scares the hell out of me. So as disgusted as I feel toward men like Gosnell, I try to feel just as disgusted at the greed, lust, anger, hatred, falsehood, and selfishness lurking inside me, and all too often, oozing to the surface. For in the end, it’s not only Gosnell who must stand before the judgment seat of God. So must we all.

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The Spirit of the Old and New

The Spirit, who hovered over the primeval waters, as a dove over her young, broods over the children of God, who nest within the altar of Christ’s sacrifice.

The Spirit, who endowed the tabernacle architects with wisdom from on high, overshadows Mary’s womb, the new holy of holies, where Wisdom is incarnate below.

The Spirit, whose flight from the ark betokened a purged creation fit for life, departs from the pierced ark of Jesus’ body, to signal the death that betokens the new creation of life.

The Spirit, who was upon the messianic servant, to announce the jubilee of release and freedom, is poured out upon his messengers at Pentecost, who proclaim the cancellation of debt, for the price has been paid by the Servant’s blood.

Why Christ Poured out the Spirit on Pentecost: The OT and Rabbinic Roots of Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks

Of the 364 other days of the year upon which Christ could have poured out His Holy Spirit, why did He do so on exactly the fiftieth day after Easter? What was so important about this day? It was, indeed, already a holy day, the OT Feast of Weeks. But why choose this feast day? What makes Weeks so fitting a time for Jesus to give His Holy Spirit to the church? In this post, I’ll try to answer that question. We’ll look at the OT roots of Pentecost, what the rabbis and other Jewish writers had to say about it, and connect all the dots between the old festival and its new counterpart. What you’ll see is that, of the 364 other days of the year, none was more perfectly fitted for the day of the giving of the Spirit than Pentecost.

The OT Feast of Weeks

The second major festival of the Israelite liturgical calendar was Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot [Hebrew]). Such nomenclature is indicative of the temporal connection between this feast and Passover—a connection that expanded over the course of Israelite history. The designation “feast of Weeks” is more exactly the feast of seven weeks, for beginning on the day after Passover (the 16th of Nisan), the Israelites counted forty-nine days, then commenced the celebration of the feast of Weeks on the following day (Lev 23:15-16; Deut 16:9-10). Because it fell on the fiftieth day after Passover, Weeks was also called “Pentecost”, that is, “fiftieth” (e.g., Acts 2:1; 20:16; 1 Cor 16:8).

Unlike Passover, which is explicitly connected with the salvific activity of YHWH in history, Pentecost is described in the Scriptures almost exclusively as an agricultural festival. During this feast, believers rendered thanks to the Creator for the blessings he had bestowed upon their fields, especially those in which wheat was grown. On the fiftieth day after the seven weeks, believers presented to YHWH two loaves of bread, made from fine flour, and baked with leaven, as the first-fruits of the wheat harvest. In addition to the grain offering, they offered one bull, two rams, seven lambs, along with a sin offering of a male goat, and two male lambs for a peace offering (Lev 23:15-19; Num 28:26-31). Since the first sheaf of the barley harvest was presented to YHWH on the day after Passover (Lev 23:11), and the first sheaf of the wheat harvest was offered fifty days later (23:15), Passover and Pentecost marked the beginning and end of the grain harvest.

Pentecost and the Giving of the Law at Sinai

In the rabbinic period, and probably earlier, Pentecost came to be celebrated as more, much more, than an agricultural festival; it was the anniversary feast of the giving of the Law or the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. The tractate Shabbat (86b) in the Babylonian Talmud records the opinions of teachers from the 2nd and 3rd c. AD (e.g., R. Jose) to this effect. Drawing upon biblical and extra-bibical writings, one can say with some certainty that this tradition linking Pentecost with Sinai predates the NT. Let us examine the evidence.

The chronological association of Passover and the giving of the law is based on the Exodus travel narrative. In Exod 19:1, Moses writes that the Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Sinai “in the third month” (i.e., Sivan) after they had left Egypt. Since they left on the day after Passover, in the middle of the first month (Exod 12:2, 6), the fiftieth day after Passover would have fallen within this third month. Although the biblical account does not specify on what day the law as given, when Jews later celebrated Pentecost on the sixth day of Sivan, they understood it as the day on which God spoke the “ten words” to Israel from Sinai.

The rabbinic focus upon Pentecost and the giving of the Sinai covenant is attested both in Jubilees (c. 1st c. BC) and possibly the Scriptures themselves. In the former, the author seems to understand the “feast of Weeks” to be the “feast of oaths,” (6:21). According to Jubilees, Pentecost was celebrated from creation onward in connection with the various covenants made with Adam and the patriarchs. Though forgotten for a time, it was celebrated once more when Moses “renewed it for [the children of Israel] on this mountain [i.e., Sinai],” (6:19). This connection between Pentecost and the covenant in Jubilees finds a possible echo in the historical books. In 2 Chr 15:10-15, the Chronicler describes a celebratory gathering that took place during the reign of Asa: “[10] They assembled in Jerusalem in the third month of the fifteenth year of the reign of Asa. [11] On that day, they sacrificed to YHWH seven hundred oxen and seven thousand sheep from the spoil which they had brought. [12] They entered into the covenant to seek YHWH, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul. [13] But all who would not seek YHWH, the God of Israel, would be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman. [14] They swore an oath to YHWH with a loud voice, with shouting, with trumpets, and with horns. [15] All Judah rejoiced concerning the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart and sought him their whole desire, and he let them find him. So YHWH gave them rest on every side.” This covenant celebration or renewal falls within the month during which Pentecost was celebrated. Indeed, the Targum to Chronicles says expressly that the Israelites gathered in Jerusalem during the festival of Weeks. So both in Chronicles as well Jubilees, the feast of Weeks is linked to covenant remembrance. Therefore, although we cannot say with certainty that by the time of the first Christian Pentecost, the Jews had already begun to celebrate the giving of the Sinai covenant during this festival, it seems very probable that they had. At the very least, we know that there were groups with Judaism that understood Pentecost in this light. The importance of this will be explained below.

Pentecost and the Jubilee Year

Before comparing the OT Pentecost with its antitype, one more feature of the festival needs to be noted: the relationship between Pentecost and the Jubilee Year. To understand the theological message of Weeks, it is imperative that one not miss the close connection it has to the year of the Jubilee. The Israelites celebrated the latter during the fiftieth year following every “seven sabbaths of years” or forty-nine years (Lev 25:8-55; 27:16-25; Num 36:4). The Hebrew name for the festival is literally “the year of the ram’s horn,” for an instrument made from a ram’s horn was blown on Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year to announce the beginning of the year of release (Lev 25:9). During this year, any ancestral land that Israelites families had sold was given back to them. Also, any Israelite who, induced by poverty, had sold himself (or been sold) into slavery to a fellow Israelite regained his liberty. Not only the people, but the land itself was “freed” from being worked, for no planting or sowing, harvesting or reaping took place during the fiftieth year. Like unto the sabbatical year (every seventh year), the jubilee year was a great sabbath or rest for the people of YHWH and the land that belonged to him. Therefore, because of the Jubilee Year, the number fifty is closely associated with the remission of debts, emancipation of slaves, and rest within God’s protective care.

What connections are there between the OT Pentecost or Weeks and the Jubilee Year? Every Feast of Weeks was a kind of annual preparation for the Feast of Jubilees, just as every Sabbatical Year was a sort of mini-Jubilee. The temporal connection between the two is manifest in the way they are described: Pentecost is celebrated on the fiftieth day after “seven sabbaths” of weeks (Lev 23:15) and Jubilee is celebrated on the fiftieth year after “seven sabbaths of years,” (Lev 25:8). Also, every year, at the festival of Weeks, the Israelites gave their first-fruits of the grain harvest to YHWH. This action testified that God was the true owner of the land, as is expressly noted in the laws governing the Jubilee year: “for the land is mine,” God says (Lev 25:23). Pentecost was also a day of rest, for on it people were “to do no laborious work,” (Lev 23:21; Num 28:26). Again, this echoes a major theme of the Jubilee year, in which the Israelites rested from agricultural labors and the land enjoyed a sabbath as well. In Deuteronomy, Moses proclaims that Pentecost was to be a day of rejoicing before God for all the household, including children, servants, Levites, strangers, orphans, and widows (Deut 16:11). Why? He explains in the next verse: “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; you shall be careful to observe these statutes,” (16:12). In this admonition we see that a chief function of Pentecost was to recall the fact that God had freed the Israelites from servitude in Egypt, a message that forms the heart of the Jubilee year as well (Lev 25:42-43, 55). Therefore, both calendrically and theologically, Pentecost and Jubilee were kindred festivals. Like the festival held every fifty years, so the festival held every year on the fiftieth day proclaimed the following: (1) God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; (2) he had fulfilled his promise to give them the Holy Land; (3) he provided rest for them from their labors. As we shall see momentarily, this has profound implications for the Christian understanding of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The First Christian Pentecost

Every generation of Israelites, beginning with those who stood alongside Moses at Mt. Sinai, had counted those fifty days that led from Passover to Pentecost. As we see in Acts 2, even those who lived in the Diaspora gathered in Jerusalem for this second major feast of the year. Present were “devout men from every nation under heaven,” for there were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs,” (2:5, 9-10). This throng of pilgrims was unaware, however, that what awaited them that year was not a mere repetition of the ancient liturgies of Pentecost. For as Luke describes, “[1] When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. [2] Suddenly, there came a sound from heaven like the rushing of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. [3] There appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, which rested upon each one of them. [4] They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, just as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” The crowds were understandably “bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (2:6) of the magnalia dei, “the mighty acts of God,” (2:10). As inquisitive murmurs arose from the multitude, some asking, “What does this mean?” and others accusing the preachers of being full of different spirits (the intoxicating kind!), the apostle Peter raised his voice to address the assembly (2:12-14). Drawing upon the prophecy of Joel (2:18-32 [H 3:1-5]) and a psalm of David (16:8-11), he declared that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, who, having been crucified and resurrected, had now poured out the Holy Spirit, as he has promised (Acts 2:14-40). Extraordinary was the result of this Pentecost sermon, for on that day “three thousand souls” believed and were baptized “upon the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of [their] sins,” (2:38, 41).

The Christian Pentecost as the Fulfillment of the OT Feast of Weeks

The question is this: Of the 364 other days when Christ could have sent the Spirit, why did he choose to do so on the 50th day after Passover, namely, during the Feast of Weeks? What was it about this Israelite feast day that it made it peculiarly fitting for this outpouring from above? In our discussion above, we have already adumbrated some answers to these questions. Now, let us proceed to explain more fully how the Christian Pentecost is an antitype of the OT Feast of Weeks.

There is, first of all, a thematic connection between the two, namely, that this fifty-day period is one of waiting or anticipation. For the believers under the old covenant, the days between Passover and Pentecost were symbolic of the forty (plus) years of waiting between their departure from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land. Only then could they finally offer to God the first-fruits that sprang from the sacred soil of Canaan. For although Passover could be, and was, celebrated in the wilderness (Num 9:5), the Festival of Weeks, properly speaking, could not be, for to be able to sow, reap, and offer the first-fruits of wheat to YHWH, the Israelites had to be settled in the land. Thus, until their wandering years were wrapped up, Canaan conquered, and seed sown into that sacred soil, Pentecost was anticipated but not realized. Similarly, the days between the Passover of Jesus (i.e., his crucifixion and resurrection) and his sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost were days of waiting. As Luke records at the beginning of Acts: “[1:1] The first account I wrote, O Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began to do and to teach, [2] until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. [3] To them he presented himself alive, after his suffering, by many proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the matters concerning the kingdom of God. [4] And gathering them together, he commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, “which,” [he said], “you heard from me, [5] for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Similarly, at the end of his gospel, Luke records Jesus instructing his disciples to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” (24:49). Everything was to take place in its proper time. Following the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, he would send forth the promise of his Father, the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost. That day would bring to fulfillment the salvific plan of YHWH, in a way analogous to how the entry into the Promised Land brought to fulfillment God’s saving plan for the Israelites. Until the promised Spirit came on that promised day, however, the disciples had to tarry in the city, awaiting the celebration of Pentecost. Then, and only then, would they receive “the first-fruits of the Spirit,” (Rom 8:23).

Speaking of first-fruits, this brings us to another link between the OT and NT Pentecost. This link, however, is one in which the contrast between the two highlights the superior nature of the antitype. Like under the old festival, during which believers presented to YHWH the first-fruits of their wheat, at the new Pentecost first-fruits were presented as well, though these first-fruits were the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, these “fruits” were not man’s offering to God, but Christ’s promised gift to his church. Rather than the fruits of earth being lifted up to heaven, the fruits of heaven are rained down upon the people of earth. The Apostle Paul likens the gift of the Spirit to first-fruits in his epistle to the church in Rome: “Not only this, but also we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, we ourselves groan inwardly, eagerly awaiting our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body,” (8:23). Not only does Paul describe the Spirit as first-fruits, this gift is connected with the resurrection, as a sort of guarantee of the “redemption of our body.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks similarly of the Spirit: “[1:13] In [Christ] you also, having heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, in which you also have believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, [14] who is the pledge of our inheritance, until the redemption of [God’s] possession, to the praise of his glory,” (cf. 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5). In viewing the first-fruits of the Spirit as a pledge or guarantee of the resurrection, Paul is reflecting the OT understanding of the first-fruits of the field. By offering to YHWH the first-fruits of grain, the believer bore witness that whole field and crop belonged to God, whose continued blessing was importuned through the sacrifice itself. Similarly, Christ places the Spirit within the believer as a pledge that the whole person, body and soul, belongs to him. He will continue to care for that person in whom the first-fruits of the Spirit are present until the “full harvest,” as it were, of the resurrection of the flesh.

As was demonstrated above, one can say with relative certainty that by the time of the fulfillment of Weeks in the pouring out of the Spirit, at least some (if not most) of the Jews had begun to celebrate Weeks as the liturgical commemoration of the institution of the Sinai covenant and the giving of the law. If so, what happened in Acts 2 should be viewed both phenomenologically and theologically in relation to the Sinai theophany.

Let us begin with the phenomenological. When YHWH descended upon Sinai, his presence was visibly and audibly manifested in manifold ways. He appeared in a “thick cloud” (Exod 19:9); at the sound of a “ram’s horn” (19:13); with “thunder and lightning flashes” (19:16); and in “smoke…like the smoke of a furnace,” (19:18). In Deuteronomy, recounting what happened forty years earlier, Moses says that “the mountain was burning with fire unto the heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud, and thick darkness,” (4:11). Then the Lord spoke to the Israelites “from the midst of the fire,” (4:12, 15, 33; cf. 5:22-26). He “showed [them] his great fire and [they] heard his words from the midst of the fire,” (4:36). At Jerusalem, on the other hand, there was the “rushing of a violent wind” from heaven (Acts 2:2); “divided tongues, as of fire, which rested upon each one of them,” (2:3); and the apostolic proclamation(s) of the Gospel in unlearned languages.

Though the theophanic elements at the Jerusalem Pentecost were not as diverse as those at Sinai, there is one prominent commonality between the two: divine speech out of divine fire. As just noted, a prominent refrain in Moses’ description of the Sinai theophany is that YHWH spoke “from the midst of the fire.” Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, when commenting upon this revelation, takes it a step further and explains that God created an invisible sound that gave “shape and tension to the air and changing it to flaming fire, sounded forth like the breath through a trumpet an articulate voice so loud that it appeared to be equally audible to the farthest as well as the nearest,” (Decalogue, 33). Similarly, he comments, “Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear them,” (46). Two points of Philo are noteworthy. First, the celestial fire at Sinai was transformed into divine speech. Secondly, this speech was given “in the language familiar to the audience.” This second point was expanded in the early biblical interpretations of the rabbis. Whereas Philo urges that the Sinaitic revelation was uttered in speech recognizable by the Israelites (which, of course, it was), rabbinic tradition held that the revelation was heard by all peoples. In an effort to demonstrate that the law had been offered to the whole world, but only accepted by Israel, the rabbis taught that when YHWH spoke from Sinai, his voice was divided into seventy languages, so that all the nations heard the law spoken in their own tongue, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 88a).

It is possible, indeed probable, that many of the Jews who present in Jerusalem at Pentecost were aware of these traditions recorded by Philo and the rabbis. If so, those who viewed the Sinai theophany as the historic event upon which Pentecost was based, how would they have interpreted the sign of the fiery tongues upon the heads of the preaching apostles? Moreover, what would it have meant for them to hear the proclamation miraculously voiced by the apostles to “every nation under heaven,” (Acts 2:5)? Were not these the theophanic signals that once more God was speaking “from the midst of the fire,” this time truly to all nations, though at this Pentecost uttering a far different message than at Sinai? These questions take us from a phenomenological comparison of the two theophanies to a theological contrast.

At Sinai, YHWH identified himself as the one who had led them out of the land of Egypt, then laid upon them the “ten words” of the covenant. The rest of OT history, however, is, as it were, Israel’s “rap sheet”, divine documentation of how the people repeatedly and oftentimes flagrantly broke this covenant. Indeed, even before they departed from Sinai, they rebelled against the First Commandment by attempting to worship YHWH under a bovine icon, thereby inciting Moses to smash the two tablets of the law (Exodus 32). The Father, however, in his grace, did not reject Israel but promised to establish a new covenant with them, “not like the covenant [he] made with their fathers, when [he] took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, [the] covenant with they broke,” (Jer 31:32). This new covenant Jesus established with his church as he gave them his body to eat and his blood to drink (Luke 22:20). It is the covenant built upon his life, passion, and resurrection; Jesus himself is, in fact, the embodiment of it, as Isaiah prophesied: “I will give you [i.e., the messianic Servant] as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” (42:6; cf. 49:8). What the apostles announced in their preaching at Pentecost was this new covenant. Once more, Christ spoke to Israel from the midst of the fire, namely, the fiery tongues resting upon the heads of his apostles. But he laid upon the listeners not the “ten words” for them to fulfill; rather, he proclaimed the fulfillment of the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms in himself (cf. Luke 24:44). Betokening the fact that this Good News was for all people, the Spirit enabled the apostles to preach in languages unlearned by them. Whereas rabbinic tradition held that the law was spoken in every language under heaven at the first Pentecost at Sinai, at the first Christian Pentecost in Jerusalem the fulfillment of the law was truly preached to all those “devout men from every nation under heaven,” (Acts 2:5). Therefore, if for many Jews, Pentecost was the anniversary of the giving of the law and the Sinai covenant, for Christians, Pentecost is the anniversary of the perfect keeping of the law by Jesus and the new covenant established by him with his church.

One final observation is in order regarding the antitypical nature of Weeks. As explained above, there is a very close association between Weeks and the year of Jubilee. Both of them were celebrations of YHWH’s emancipatory deeds, his gift of the holy land, and his provision of rest from the people’s labors. All three of these benefactions were anticipatory of the greater blessings Christ bestowed upon his church through the Spirit at Pentecost. In his Nazareth sermon (Luke 4), Jesus read these words from the prophet Isaiah as descriptive of his ministry: [Luke 4:18] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the Gospel to the poor; he has sent me to preach release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, [19] to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” The Spirit who anointed Jesus to work these deeds is the same Spirit who came upon the apostles at Pentecost. Through their ministry, Christ continued to act and speak. As he had once brought Israel out of Egyptian bondage, so he preaches release to captives who are bound either physically or spiritually or both. As he gave Israel the Promised Land, so the Son of God proclaims the good news of a non-terrestrial kingdom, where the poor are enriched, captives emancipated, blind see, and the oppressed are liberated. This kingdom is both the church and the heavenly fatherland, the antitypes of Canaan. Likewise, as in Jubilee Year (of which Weeks was an annual mini-celebration), debts were forgiven, ancestral property restored, and Israelites in servitude freed, so too in the messianic Jubilee and messianic Pentecost—only better and on a grander scale! For, as Peter admonished the crowds at Pentecost, “[2:38] Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [39] For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.” Baptism into Jesus Christ is a washing into the ongoing Jubilee of grace. The debt of sin is forgiven. Man is restored to the image of God. Those in bondage to death are emancipated. All this the Spirit gives to “you and your children and [to] all who are far away,” all who are united with Jesus via the washing of water with the word of God.

As with Passover, so also with Pentecost, the Lord ordained this festival to be celebrated as a foreshadowing of what he was yet to accomplish for his people. The final “Amen” in the liturgy of the Feast of Weeks would not be sounded until that momentous day in Jerusalem when the Spirit came in wind and fire to announce the new covenant of grace to every nation under heaven. The church saw fit to continue the celebration of this OT festival, only now in its perfected, messianic form. So yet today, in Christian churches around the world, fifty days after Easter, the faithful gather not to offer first-fruits to God, but to receive the first-fruits of the Spirit—and with that gift, all the blessings of him who perfected the law for us, emancipated us, and made us citizens of the kingdom of God.

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If Cows Had Gods

If cows had gods, their gods would look like cows. So speculated the ancient philosopher, Xenophanes. They would fashion a lord in their own likeness, a projection of the divine bovine, one whose face would launch a thousand stampedes. And I suppose one could say the same about horses, or dogs, or snakes. Or humans. As has often been said, in the beginning, God made us in his own image, and ever since we have been returning the favor.

That brings two truths to mind. One is that if humans had a god, he would look like a human. And, at least for the Christian, he does. For we have no other God except Jesus Christ. He is the image of the invisible God, who has become as fully human as a human can be, while remaining as fully God as God can be. In the beginning God made us in his own image, and in the fullness of time, he made that image his own.

The second truth, however, is that just because God has become a man does not mean he thinks, desires, or speaks as man generally does. For this man, Jesus, is love incarnate, and love lives according to the ways of heaven–ways that often leave earthly man bewildered, furious, or stuck in adamant disbelief. He who says, ”I’m sure that God wants…” or ”I think God would…” but does not base his words on God’s words, but on mere human speculation or his own life experience, is in grave danger of putting words in God’s mouth that he himself would spit out in disgust. He who speaks for God must speak only as God has spoken.

If you want to know what God thinks about something, or what he would say about this or that, and you look outside Jesus Christ for the answer, or outside his Word, you may speak your thoughts eloquently or convincingly, but all they remain are verbalized idolatry.

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