Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Festival of Pentecost

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Holy Spirit

Photo: “The seven Species of the Land of Israel are listed in the biblical verse Deuteronomy 8:8: a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and [date] honey.” WikiMedia Commons רוליג

Often when we hear the word “Pentecost” we immediately jump to the episode with the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2. Pentecost, however, was a Jewish festival before it was a Christian event.

Leviticus 23:15-22 describes the appointed festival: 15 And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. 16 You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord. 17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering, each made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord. 18 You shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, along with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord. 19 You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of well-being. 20 The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord, together with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. 21 On that same day you shall make proclamation; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations. 22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival known as Shavuot. Shavuot was “one of the three pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach [Passover] and Sukkot [Booths]) that attracted many Jews to Jerusalem” (Gary Gilbert, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 201). Shavuot, also called the Feast of Weeks because you had to count seven weeks, took place 50 days after Passover and was a celebration for the wheat harvest. Later it came to be associated with the giving of God’s covenants: the covenant with Noah, but especially the Torah as given through Moses.

Here is an description of how some Jews celebrate the feast of Shavuot today:

How is God doing both a new thing and continuing an old thing in the Pentecost scene of Acts 2? Similar to how Jesus reinterprets Passover at the last supper in the gospel of Luke, now Peter is reinterpreting Shavuot for the church. Shavuot was meant to foster an attitude of thanksgiving at the time of harvest. “Then you shall keep the festival of weeks to the Lord your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:10). The gratitude for harvest was meant to overflow to the most vulnerable members of Israel’s society (see Leviticus 23:22 above). Prompted by Peter’s speech at Pentecost, the new converts fulfill the purpose of Shavuot: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Everyone had enough because of the just and equitable distribution of goods.

The scene in Acts 2 can also be interpreted in another way connected with the history of Israel: the reversal of the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). At Babel God confused the language of the people because of pride in their technological advancements. In Acts 2 the people that God scattered are reunited and able to understand in their own languages. God was doing a new thing connected to a very old thing.

Here is a reenactment of Shavuot from a Jewish group in Jerusalem:

For further study check out:

 

 

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Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Introduction

Some have suggested that the Book of Acts is mis-titled. I guess the question would be whom do you consider the main character of the story? Some say it is the Apostles, others say it is the Holy Spirit who shines as the star, or maybe even Jesus. I would suggest Acts is the second half of the gospel of Luke, or an account of Christ’s body in the Spirit. Acts is still Jesus’ story, just the story of his body in growth and action.

The Book of Acts

The Book of Acts in the New Testament is partly a historical account of how the church came to be. As Powell puts it, “It’s got earthquakes (16:26), shipwrecks (27:41-44), avenging angels (12:23), harrowing escapes (9:23-25; 21:30-36), riots (19:23-41), murder plots (9:23; 23:12-15; 25:1-3), political intrigue (16:35-39; 22:24-29; 24:26-27), courtroom drama (23:1-10), and so much more” (Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament, 191). It tells the story of how the gospel of Jesus spread after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. But the Book of Acts isn’t just about new beginnings. The content of Acts also carries the narrative of God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel. Acts is set up to continue the work of the gospel of Luke in connecting Jesus’ ministry to the history and mission of Israel.

If you haven’t read Acts recently you should to refresh your memory. If you don’t have time to read the whole book of Acts but want to get the gist of it, I would like to submit…

For the people of Israel, covenant relationship with God had always been a way of life. It was engrained in the fiber of their lives. The yearly observance of Passover recalled and renewed the release from captivity in Egypt through God’s faithful deliverance. The laws and rituals that guided their daily lives were expressions of holiness, intended to set Israel apart for God’s purposes, to be different from the rest of the world. As the church grew out of this Jewish perspective all of these preexisting conceptions of God and spiritual practice had to be reckoned with.

Is God only doing a new thing in the Book of Acts or is God continuing an old thing? Strangely enough, Acts tells of the people of God being community in totally new ways that are also entirely consistent with things from the past.

I think the central message of Acts is that God is bigger than Israel, yet inclusive of Israel. God is both doing a new thing and continuing an old thing. This is a great reminder for our day and time because God is bigger than the church, yet inclusive of the church. In the next post I will describe how Acts wasn’t the first time the Holy Spirit made an entrance…

Weekly Worship Thought – Changing God’s Mind

Next Sunday (Sept. 24) I will have the opportunity to preach at church. This is something I have done before, although not very often. As a seminary student working toward being a pastor, these are opportunities that I really look forward to. Preaching a sermon is like exploring an undiscovered territory. There is so much to learn, try, and experience.

The first lesson for 16 Pentecost A is the end of the book of Jonah (3:10-4:11). Since I’m planning on spending some time there, here are some of my first thoughts on this well-known story:

  • Jonah is a whiny brat. His behavior reminds me of my children when they are at their most unpleasant.
  • Do I think that there was a real person named Jonah who was swallowed by a fish for 3 days? No. This story is more of a prophetic parable. Besides, it doesn’t matter if it really happened or not, because the story contains truth.
  • Everyone knows that Jonah fled from God’s plan. But the truth behind Jonah’s 180° turn is less obvious: he hated the Assyrians. His prejudice against them ran deep. Jonah’s preference would be for the whole city of Nineveh to be damned. And it makes sense. Assyria had invaded and defeated Israel.
  • Jonah fled from God’s plan because he knew that God was too gracious. Jonah knew God’s love was bigger than Israel and he didn’t want Nineveh to know it.
  • I love how the book ends, “and also many animals?” Whereas Jonah’s prejudice against Assyria won’t even allow him to acknowledge they are worthy to receive God’s mercy, God’s concern is so profound that it reaches past the Assyrians all the way down to the animals. It’s that deep.
  • The lesson picks up with God changing God’s mind. It reminds me of another time when God changed God’s mind. Moses was receiving the 10 commandments on the mountain and the people were at the bottom making idols. God, insulted by the idolatry, tears down the mountain after them, ready to teach them a lesson. But Moses stops God, and intercedes for Israel. And it says that God changed God’s mind. Maybe Jonah had that merciful episode in mind when he decided to go the other way?

Weekly Worship Thought – Pillar of Cloud

photo-1446857985102-74988d169c8cLast week I started a reflection on the text from the hymn “Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer.” The text was written by William Williams in the 18th century (read more about him here). The second stanza reads, “Open now the crystal fountain where the healing waters flow; let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through.” The biblical imagery is stark. The fire and cloudy pillar refer to the symbolic objects that God used to lead Israel in their exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 13). You might not realize it, but the Paschal candle in our sanctuary (the tall, white candle with the cross on it, near the baptismal font) is designed to recall this biblical image. It is a tall, white pillar, like the cloud that led Israel. Just as the cloudy pillar symbolized God leading Israel into their liberation from Egypt, so does the Paschal candle stand at the baptismal font, reminding us of God’s endless provision for our freedom in Christ.

A Warning Against Careless Worship

I was reminded of the story of Cain and Abel today.

3In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. (Genesis 4:3-5)

the-offerings-of-cain-and-abel-1429.jpg!BlogAbel offered his sacrifice of meat. Cain offered his sacrifice of grain. God found one of them pleasing and the other not. Why?

The text suggests that Abel’s offering was accepted because of the sacrifice that accompanied it. The firstlings were the oldest, most developed, most favored of the flock. They were most costly. Cain’s offering appears to have been nothing special, just a portion of the crops he cultivated.

The text doesn’t suggest that the style of offering was what God found offense with. This story is a precursor to the sacrificial practices of Israel’s worship (perhaps a model for both grain and animal offerings). God was not pleased with the heart behind the offering that Cain brought. Abel offered his offering out of a place of grateful thanksgiving for what God had done. Cain offered his offering out of a place of manipulation of power.

Cain believed in power and wanted to manipulate God to be on his side and offer him favor. Cain’s true motives come to the surface after he murders his brother. We see the kind of power Cain is driven by.

The warning is to not offer careless worship (careless=not giving sufficient attention or thought to avoiding harm). How does this story relate to modern worship in the church today? What reason do you come to worship? What is the motive behind your offering? Cain wanted something out of his worship. The error of his offering was that he wanted God to do something for him. How does our worship seek to get something out of God? How does our worship manipulate God? How does our worship fail to give something (everything?) back?

How does our worship become the pure offering that Abel offered? By being full of care in what we offer to God. The church should take care, too, in setting the table for worship that unleashes the good and humble offering of all gathered. Perhaps asking what I want out of worship is more akin to Cain than Abel.

(artwork is Jan van Eyck, The Offering of Cain and Abel, 1429)

How to Use an Advent Wreath at Home

advent_wreath-1An Advent wreath is a great opportunity to ground yourself or your family in a spiritual practice throughout the hectic holiday season.

The tradition (which dates back to the early sixteenth century) involves placing four candles on a wreath and a fifth in the center of the wreath. One candle is then lighted each Sunday during the Advent season with the fifth candle being lit on Christmas Eve.

The symbolism of the Advent wreath is beautiful. You may choose to place additional decorations on the wreath. Various evergreens, signifying continuous life, can be placed around the circle of the wreath. Pinecones, nuts, or seedpods also symbolize new life and resurrection.

There are several interpretations of the specific meaning of each candle relating to Christ and the Advent season. Those meanings are further enhanced by the colors of the candles. The first, second and fourth candles are purple/lavender (symbolizing expectation and royalty), the third candle is rose/pink (symbolizing the joy of reaching the midpoint of the Advent season), and the last candle is white (symbolizing Christ, the Light of the World).

The Advent wreath can be placed in the center of the meal table or another prominent place in the home. On each Sunday of Advent, the candle can be lit at dinnertime after the blessing of the food. A brief devotion (provided below) can be a great introduction to each week’s candle. Allow your children to have an active role in reading, praying, and lighting the candles.

First Sunday of Advent – December 1 (Candle of Hope – purple)

  • Reading – Isaiah 9:2
  • Prayer – “Jesus, we welcome your presence now with the lighting of this candle, whose flame brings warmth to winter and fills this place with the glow of hope. Amen.”

Second Sunday of Advent – December 8 (Candle of Love – purple)

  • Reading – John 3:16
  • Prayer – “Jesus, we welcome your presence now with the lighting of these candles, whose flames bring warmth to winter and fill this place with the glow of hope and love. Amen.”

Third Sunday of Advent – December 15 (Candle of Joy – pink)

  • Reading – Luke 2:10
  • Prayer – “Jesus, we welcome your presence now with the lighting of these candles, whose flames bring warmth to winter and fill this place with the glow of hope, love, and joy. Amen.”

Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 22 (Candle of Peace – purple)

  • Reading – Luke 2:14
  • Prayer – “Jesus, we welcome your presence now with the lighting of these candles, whose flames bring warmth to winter and fill this place with the glow of hope, love, joy, and peace. Amen.”

Christmas Eve – December 24 (Christ Candle – white)

  • Reading – John 1:14
  • Prayer – “Jesus, we welcome your presence now with the lighting of these candles, whose flames bring warmth to winter and fill this place with the glow of you. Amen.”

Resources:

Hold Our Gifts Loosely

HandI try my best not to be snarky on Facebook. Honestly, I do. But sometimes I’m caught on an off day and my inner snark-beast is awakened. By the way, you can always tell when I’m joking or having fun because I’ll add a winking smiley face with my comment. 😉

So a colleague of mine posted this on their Facebook page several weeks ago:

“Rest easy my friends, to think that the Holy Spirit would pour out gifts on the church only to steal them back a few decades later is just plain ridiculous. Even half decent people don’t work like that, why would we even consider that God would?”

I had a sort of immediate, knee-jerk reaction to this post. To clarify, the post was referring to spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit imparts to us such as artistry, teaching, administration, hospitality, and discernment (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4). These would be different than the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc., Galatians 5:22-23) that are produced in us through the Holy Spirit. It goes without saying that God gives us good gifts (Matthew 7:11). Obviously God’s spiritual gifts are good for us and are ultimately good for the body of Christ.

I have two difficulties with this thought. One, that we assume to know what God will and will not do. Two, that instead we should hold our gifts loosely.

First, only God is God. We are not. God can do whatever God wants. To assume that we know what God will and will not do is fundamentally troublesome. I would confess a reluctance to say I have a certain understanding about how God works. We can know what God will do as much as we can know what a consuming flame or torrential wind will do. There is an untempered quality to God. This is the major point of the book of Job in the Old Testament (one of my favorites). Job loses every good gift God had ever given him. Job questions God’s motives and why bad things are allowed to happen to good people. God’s response? “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, since you are so well-informed!” (Job 38:4) God lets his own snark fly with a, “Who do you think you are?” (my translation)

Then we have stories that Jesus told like the parable of the talents that prepare us for how the economy of the kingdom of heaven works. Matthew 25:29: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The one who hid his gift had it taken away.

Second, we should hold our gifts loosely. A quote from Nancy Beach:

An_Hour_On_Sunday_Zondervan_large“We aim to ‘hold our gifts loosely.’ Such an attitude grows out of a deep awareness that I did not choose my gifts, and they really don’t belong to me. A gracious heavenly Father distributed the gifts, ‘just as he determines’ (1 Corinthians 12), and intends for us to use these gifts to build up the church. My gifts – and yours – actually belong to the local church. As we learn to hold our gifts more loosely, we become far more open to feedback that helps us not only improve our skills and contribute more effectively but also grow closer to one another and advance Christ’s cause. It’s not all about me; it’s all about the church!” (An Hour On Sunday, Zondervan, 2004, p. 112)

All Are Saints

 

All Saints’ Day is a widely celebrated event in the Christian world. In the Roman Catholic Church it is officially called the Solemnity of All Saints. It is also known as All Hallows or Hallowmas (from which we get the word “Halloween,” from “All Hallows Eve”). All Saints is celebrated on November 1 by parts of Western Christianity, and observed the first Sunday thereafter in our church. It is a day to honor all the saints, known and unknown, who have gone before us in the faith.

Among the people of God, those who possess extraordinary faith have always been looked upon highly. From faith-confessing martyrs in the first century to compassion-filled servants in the twentieth century, it would seem that some believers have been given an extra portion of Christ-like strength and humility. But how does the Bible define the saints? The term often used by Paul in the New Testament to identify the church is hagioi. This term indicates separation for and dedication to God.  It is not, however, the amazing accomplishments of one’s devotion that allows entrance into sainthood. It is the singular redemption obtained through faith in Jesus Christ that creates saints out of all believers. All believers, great and small, are saints.

When Paul used the word “saint” in his writings (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1) it was rarely used to describe individuals. It is primarily used as a picture of the elect people of God who are sanctified and redeemed in Christ.  There is also confusion as to the final destination of the saints after this earthly life. Do some experience the fullness of God’s presence while lesser ones are left out? Roman Catholic dogma and a blend of other religions have left some believing in a hierarchy of saintliness in heaven. The biblical account leads us to believe otherwise. All God’s people, or saints, are assured of a restful paradise until the renewal of all creation. Joining God in paradise is not the final destiny for the saints – the bodily resurrection is our essential hope in eternity.

There are also several passages that clarify that it is not personal accomplishment that achieves sainthood. The dying criminal hanging on the cross near Jesus confessed faith in him (Luke 23:39-43). Jesus promised him entrance into paradise that very day. Similarly, the church in Corinth is addressed as the sanctified in Christ who are called to be saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). From the content of Paul’s letters we see Corinth was laden with immorality and factions. However, these spiritual troubles do not preclude the church from being a collection of the saints of God. The understated truth is that sainthood is less about achieving personal piety and more about simple faith in the redeeming work and power of Jesus. It is enough to be found in Christ and covered by his grace.

A saint is not a higher-order Christian. Through baptism, we have joined with Christ in his death and resurrection, making us saints now and saints to be in paradise. Our goal on earth is to join with Christ in the recreation of the world now, which anticipates the ultimate recreation of heaven and earth and the bodily resurrection of Christ’s faithful followers.

Fourth of July – Mark 9:33-35

Every third week or so, I get to teach the lesson at our Day School at Faith Lutheran. It’s a lot of fun to attempt to teach 80 preschoolers about Jesus. It makes it easier knowing my 2 kids are out there. I just write like I’m talking to them. Here is the “Fourth of July” chapel talk I gave the kids yesterday:


Who knows what holiday is tomorrow?

That’s right tomorrow is the Fourth of July, which is a holiday in our country – the United States of America. Sometimes we also call the Fourth of July “Independence Day” because it is the day that our country decided to be its own nation.

Tomorrow is a holiday for most people. Your parents probably don’t have to work. You might get to have some fun tomorrow, maybe see some fireworks, or have a BBQ with hotdogs.

Our country is a very special country. We have lots of things that other countries don’t have. We can freely go to parks, and swimming pools. We can go to school and learn. We can go to doctors when we get sick and they can help us feel better. And your parents get to pick the people who lead our country.

But every country is special! There are lots of countries all over the world. And they are all made up of different people. Some countries have people with dark colored skin, and some countries have people with light colored skin. Sometimes people have medium colored skin too. And God loves all countries the same! God made all the people in the world, and he loves them all equally. God does not love some countries more than others. God cares about all the people of the world. And we should too.

One time Jesus’ disciples were having an argument. One disciple said, “I’m the best.” Another disciple said, “No, I’m the best.” And the other disciple said, “You are not! I am.” Jesus heard them arguing and said, “Why are you arguing?”

The disciples’ faces turned red, they looked down at the ground. No one said anything, because they knew it was wrong to argue about being the best.

Jesus stopped, sat down, and invited the disciples to sit down with him. He wanted to teach them about being the best. He picked up a child onto his lap. Jesus said, “If you want to be the greatest, then you have to serve and help everyone else.” Jesus told them, “This little child believes in God and can serve others. It doesn’t matter how big or strong or smart or fast you are. Anyone can serve and help others if he or she tries. Then you are truly great.”

Let us pray:

Dear Jesus – thank you for America – and for all the countries of the world – help us to serve others – in everything we do. – Amen.

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Andrew Jones: 'Mighty to Save' and other worship songs that annoy me

From Tall Skinny Kiwi:

The line that bugs me is this one:

“Saviour, he can move the mountains”

It’s not that the statement is untrue because actually, God can do whatever he wants, including the relocation of mountains. It’s just that the particular idea of moving mountains, which occurs most strongly in Isaiah, the minor prophets and later in the Gospels, is almost exclusively in relation to people moving mountains and not God. Jesus told his disciples that they could move mountains. The Isaiah passage [Remember Godspell’s “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”], as Jesus enlightens us, was in reference to John the Baptist who would level the mountains and fill the valleys. 

Mountain moving is the job of God’s people!

Yes, our Saviour could move the mountains if he wanted to, but he has commissioned us to move them so let’s get on with it, not in our own might or by human power, but by God’s Spirit (Zech 4:6-7)

The idea behind this lyric, in my opinion, is the same lazy “let go and let God” philosophy that inoculates the people of God from doing anything practical or hands-on because we assume if we just sit back and sing some more songs then God, who is somehow energized by our inaction, will stand up, bare his almighty arm and get things done.