Thursday, April 17, 2014

Truly Unleavened, Resting in Christ

I'd like to wish a meaningful spring Holy Day season to any readers who are celebrating the Days of Unleavened Bread (DUB). Especially at this time of year, we should remember the great sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us and the hope His resurrection gives us. I hope you find some quiet time to reflect upon both of these amazing truths. On a physical level, I hope you find some quiet time, period.

For me, there was not much rest around the DUB. I spent most of my spare waking moments cleaning crumbs from every nook and cranny of my house. I'd meditate on my spiritual state while wiping down the pantry, only to get distracted moments later. I'd try again later that evening and dose off, drained from the extra housework. This cycle continued until Passover, where I was almost thankful for the cold water in the footwashing basin that jolted me into alertness.

Afterwards, I'd race home to start preparing for the Night to Be Much Observed - because everyone knows only Laodiceans pay a restaurant to cater a meal on the Sabbath. Later that week, when I finally got a chance to sit, I'd realize that I failed once again. I got so caught up in the physical preparations that I glossed over the spiritual ones. I hoped God was merciful enough to consider me worthy to take the Passover, because I certainly didn't think I was. Maybe you've found the balance between spiritual and physical aspects of the DUB. If so, I commend you. I readily admit I did not. And I know I wasn't the only one.

Please know I'm not criticizing anyone for keeping the DUB or questioning their sincerity. I kept it for decades, and most of my family still does. I know that the majority of people who keep the Holy Days of Leviticus 23 believe they are obeying and honoring God by doing so. Who could blame them for that? Not me.

In more recent years, some ministers admonished us not to go crazy cleaning our homes, since the physical act was only symbolic of the spiritual. I understood what they meant, but it just didn't seem logical. If removing leaven was a command, and if it symbolized putting sin out of our lives, then was it possible to go overboard? God would never tell us to give less than our best efforts at removing sin. Deep down, I knew God didn't really expect me to find every crumb. But how much was enough? After all, these same ministers also warned us that we might not "make it" into the Kingdom if we didn't eradicate sin from our lives.

Really, my struggle with the DUB reveals the COG's faulty salvation model on a smaller scale. We believe that, by grace, our past sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ's sacrifice. And we rightly believe there is nothing we can do to earn that forgiveness. But after that, as UCG explains it, "to remain justified after being forgiven, one must behave in a righteous or just manner from that time forward" (from The New Covenant - Does it Abolish God's Law?). This sounds good on the surface. Scripture instructs us to do things like flee temptation and overcome sin. Besides, we have the Holy Spirit - the power of God - as a tool to help us! And who would argue that refraining from sin is a bad thing?

Here's a question that no COG minister has been able to answer for me: how much sin do I have to overcome to "make it?" Most agree God doesn't expect me to become 100 percent sin-free. So how righteous do I need to be? I'm not playing games like Paul's opponents in Romans 6:1. This is a deadly serious question - your eternal destiny hangs in the balance. If God doesn't expect you to be perfect, what percentage do you need to achieve - 98 percent righteous? Is "C" a passing grade for the Kingdom? And does God grade on a curve?

Rod Meredith, LCG's presiding evangelist, sets the bar pretty high in his booklet, Who or What is the Antichrist: "When we accept Christ's sacrifice we must also make a literal covenant with our creator to quit sinning in the future." In the same passage, Meredith explains that we abide in Christ and the Father "by obeying God and living as Jesus actually did - by every word of God."

How do you define "every word of God?" That's important to know if we've promised God that we will quit sinning in the future, presumably by the end of our physical lives. Is it every command ever given in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments? Including observing new moons and swearing off clothing made from mixed fabrics? Is it every instruction Jesus gave? Must we completely root out every impulse of lust? What about snapping at someone who's hurt us, or even just wanting to do so? Is it the list of do's and don't-s that Herbert W. Armstrong intuited as he developed COG doctrines? Is it the ones that Meredith carried forward to LCG? Or maybe to be on the safe side, we should stick to Gerald Flurry's more conservative restrictions. Hope you didn't like spending time with those non-member grandkids. I apologize if I sound irreverent, but I'm just trying follow these doctrines to their logical conclusions. Because if you accept them, you believe that your behavior factors into your salvation.

Underpinning the COG's doctrines about salvation is the related teaching that, in this lifetime, believers are like fetuses who will be born into God's Family at Christ's return. If we don't achieve a proper, yet undefined, level of righteousness in this life, God aborts us. Think that sounds horrific? Don't blame me, I didn't come up with it. You can thank Herbert W Armstrong. Check page 45 of his booklet, "Just What Do You Mean... BORN AGAIN?". I can't post a link directly to the paragraph containing this statement, but electronic versions of the publication are easy to find online.

Most COG splinters still embrace Armstrong's fetus analogy, although they conveniently leave out the part about God aborting His own children. Splinter groups can edit and sanitize their literature all they want, but this is the foundation of their doctrines, directly from the man who created them.

So back to God's grading scale. Righteous behavior is a pass/fail proposition, according to James 2:10-11. Would God have accepted Jesus' sacrifice if He had sinned even once? LCG's Meredith tells us we are to live by every word of God. Well, in His his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that sin is about the attitudes in our hearts, not just our physical behavior. I don't know about you, but my Passover examination always showed me how badly I was failing in this area. I might as well have been dusting crumbs off of a bakery counter covered with doughnuts. Just "trying harder" to be more patient with my kids, or to avoid silly spats when someone hurt my pride wasn't working. That approach wouldn't change my heart if I lived to be 250 years old.

Yet ministers like UCG's Darris McNeely would have us believe it's possible - in fact, it's the reason God created the DUB, he says. In a recent episode of Beyond Today (What Easter Doesn't Tell You), co-host McNeely tells us we can become a new creation in Christ "as a result of our putting sin out, by working on our lives and living a righteous life, and God helping us to accomplish that."

That's absolutely false. He blatantly twists 2 Corinthians 5:17, which directly states that anyone who is in Christ IS a new creation. Not he WILL BE a new creation, or that he is in the process of becoming a new creation. He is one now.

Even worse, McNeely makes this transformation about our efforts. But, oh, yeah, God helps us do it. The very next verse, 2 Corinthians 5:18, tells us that this change is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ. We are not a new creation because of what we do; we are a new creation because of what He did, both at the Cross and in our lives each day once we place our faith in Him alone for salvation. Our righteousness is nothing more than filthy rags.

It's an incredible blessing that our eternal destiny doesn't depend on just "trying harder." It's based on grace through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-24). And it includes all of our sins, not just those committed before we accept Jesus' sacrifice. It's ridiculous to teach that His sacrifice almost 2000 years ago paid for my past sins but did not cover my future sins as well. That it paid for the future sins of my unborn, unconceived grandchildren, but only until they officially accept His sacrifice. Jesus died once for all, covering our sins completely. We must let go of any dependence on our own efforts or goodness for salvation and place our faith in Christ alone. When we do, His righteousness is reckoned to us, just as it was to Abraham (Romans 4:18-5:1). Just as all our sins are credited to Him (Romans 5:17-19, 2 Corinthians 5:21), His righteousness is credited to us (Romans 5:17). Protestants call this doctrine imputed righteousness.

COG leaders like Rod Meredith malign this doctrine. In fact, he ridicules the teaching in the booklet I quoted earlier, Who or What is the Antichrist: "Now we just 'accept Christ' and His righteousness is somehow imputed to us - without any requirement for righteous works?".

In a word, yes. Rod Meredith's Bible must not include Ephesians 2:8-9, because that's exactly what it says. Salvation has nothing to do with our works. If it did, we could boast about what we've done. Instead, if we boast, it's supposed to be about what Jesus has done (Galatians 6:14).

The "works" part, which Ephesians 2:10 mentions, comes after we repent, accept Jesus' sacrifice and receive the Holy Spirit. Good works are part of a Christian's life, as the book of James states. They are evidence of our conversion, proving we didn't just utter idle words. That's evidence, not cause. If we are truly converted, our hearts are regenerated (Ephesians 2:1-6 and other verses describe this, which some call being "born again"), making us a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17, 1 Peter 1:23). Then God begins the process of sanctification - or making us more and more like Christ. Our lives outwardly will reflect this change within us. How could it not? But this is an effect of sanctification, not a cause.

Yes, we have a part to play in the sanctification process. It's our job to follow Jesus' example (1 Corinthians 11:1), live an obedient life of sacrifice (Romans 12:1), live at peace with others (Hebrews 12:14), avoid covetousness and coarse joking (Ephesians 5:3-4) as well as other behaviors that do not bring honor to God. It's our duty to obey the commands of Jesus and His apostles. But our responsibility is to cooperate with God, not to lead or guide the process. God is the one who transforms us into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18) through discipline (Hebrews 12:10), the truth of His word (John 17:17, Ephesians 5:25-27) and His Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13). It may seem like a trivial distinction,  but it makes all the difference in the world when we put it into practice in our lives.

Remember, Christians who accept this doctrine don't believe it gives us Jesus' character instantly, as COG ministers claim. The imputation of Christ's righteousness simply changes our legal standing with God from "guilty" to "not guilty". This justification (Romans 3:20-25), or covering of our sins, is foreshadowed in prophetic passages like Isaiah 61:10. (I plan to discuss justification, regeneration and sanctification in detail later this year. If you have questions now, please feel free to email me at marthacog@gmail.com)

We are the clay, not the potter. We can't change just by committing to trying harder. We can't just grab hold of the Holy Spirit and use it as a tool to shape ourselves. Trying to do so either leaves us with a self-righteous sense of accomplishment or a hopeless sense of despair, depending upon how honest we are with ourselves. Either way, Satan wins. Our focus is taken from Christ.

Sure, it's possible that God intended for the DUB to teach Israel about sin. Instructions about the festival urge Israel to remember God's deliverance from Egypt, though, not to purge sin. Other scriptures talk about leaven in both negative (Matthew 16:5, 1 Corinthians 5:6-7) and positive terms (Matthew 13:33), although they refer to leaven's ability to permeate, not to puff things up. I don't know if the Israelites found DUB preparation overwhelming. Maybe only modern-day crumb traps like toasters and child car seats show the total futility.

Anyway, doesn't 1 Corinthians 5 tell us to keep the DUB? There's no doubt Paul used leavening as a metaphor for sin here. But notice that 1 Corinthians 5:7 tells the church that they already are unleavened. This likely means that God sees them as officially sinless, not that their houses are deleavened. We know many Jews exiled from Jerusalem were living in Corinth. On a related note, one major concern in Acts and Galatians is that Jewish converts were pressuring Gentile believers to follow physical observances from the Sinai Covenant. So the Corinthian church might have been keeping the DUB, but Galatians 4:21-31 reminds us it was not required for gentiles, to put it mildly. (Nor was it required of Jews who accept the New Covenant, if there is no longer a difference between Jews and Gentiles). For more information, please visit the post Were gentiles in Corinth observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread?

So if Jewish believers and some Gentile Christians kept the DUB, is it OK to do so today? I can't say for sure. Many in the COGs say they do it because they want to obey God, and that certainly is a commendable reason. But if we believe that NOT doing so will cost us our eternal life, then it logically follows that we are keeping it, at least in part, to ensure our salvation. Which is a problem, according to Ephesians 2. To me, it seems like a slippery slope, tempting those who do it to think they are more obedient and righteous than those who don't. That line of reasoning encourages us to look to ourselves and our efforts, instead of Christ, for our salvation - comparing ourselves to others instead of to Him. And that definitely is sin.

In Galatians 3:24, Paul tells us that the law was our tutor - our teacher - to bring us to Christ. For me, the DUB was exactly that. Not as the COGs explain it - as an annual cycle teaching me the way to live - but as a teacher that showed me my own efforts were in vain. That placing my full faith in Jesus and His finished work on the cross was my only hope. The purpose of the Sinai Covenant and the prophets was to point us to Christ - that is what Paul meant when he wrote that Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4). One doesn't continue practicing elementary addition drills when they are enrolled in college algebra.

God loves you. He loves you so much that He willingly suffered a brutal death on the cross for you. He wants you to live a happy, abundant life - not brimming with self-righteous pride or wallowing in depression. Step into the New Covenant and enter into His rest - into a life that's humble yet secure in your salvation. A life, not just a week, that's truly unleavened.   


************
It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11
************

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Matzo or the Egg?

Hi, it's me again. You may remember the borderline nervous breakdown I had going through my first Christmas season after leaving the Churches of God. So I'm sure you'll be shocked to read this. I know I'm shocked to type it.

I'm really looking forward to Easter.

Why not? It's all about candy, right? I mean, I've been seeing UCG promotions featuring a chocolate-smeared toddler for weeks. Easter means chocolate. I'm a girl. What more is there to explain? This is pretty much how COGWA bigwig Clyde Kilough explained people like me in a pre-Easter article last year. Yeah, Clyde, you figured it out. Evangelical Christians talk a good game, but we're really in it for the jelly beans.

COGWA literature gives me a migraine, so I decided to read the transcript for the UCG promotion instead, a Beyond Today episode titled "What Easter Doesn't Tell You." The hosts' main criticism against Easter, aside from the alleged paganism, was that "obscures the truth" that Jesus suffered, died and was resurrected that all might have the opportunity for eternal life. Why? Because it only focuses on the resurrection.

I'm sorry, but that's one of the most ignorant things I've ever heard. I'd wager almost anything that Christ's life, sacrifice, suffering and death will be discussed at my church's Easter service. They have in every leading up to it so far! They never stop talking about it! Our pastor always discusses our sin and the penalty Jesus paid for it. Even on Christmas Eve! Saying Easter (also known as Resurrection Sunday) doesn't give the full picture is like criticizing Pentecost because it, in isolation, doesn't discuss Jesus Christ's return to earth. Oh, by the way, the criticism that many of these "so-called Christians" only go to church on Easter says more about those individuals than the observance itself. You know, my COG congregation always had to set up more chairs on the Holy Days than on the weekly Sabbath, too.

Anyway, to read the banter between the hosts, you'd think we deceived Protestants believe Jesus died in a car crash and then celebrate His resurrection in a meaningless vacuum. Trust me, they know how and why He died. If anyone is leaving something about of the story, it's the COGs. They observe Passover, then throw a lavish party while His body lay in the tomb, loosely adapting Sinai ordinances through HWA's interpretative lens. They hold their annual golf scramble on Easter, where they make fun of all the pagans who skipped tee time to celebrate Tammuz rising. And then we get together on the last DUB to compare notes on who found stray goldfish crackers where.

Here's the thing. Jesus' resurrection is important. It is the entire reason we Christians have hope. That's not me talking, that's Paul (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, especially verse 19). It's what proved Jesus was the Son of God (Romans 1:4-5). And if He was who He said He was, then we know that our sins are forgiven (1 John 2:2) and we can have eternal life by placing our faith in Him (John 11:25-26). If that's not worth celebrating, then I don't know what is.

But it doesn't matter what you think, you say. We're not commanded to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. You can't just make up your own holidays for what YOU think is important. Well, the Jews did. They weren't commanded to celebrate Purim or Hannukkah, but John 10:22-23 shows us that Jesus was at the temple during Hanukkah (Festival of Dedication). It seems God gave this man-made celebration tacit approval. So if it's ok to create annual observances of the miraculous oil in the temple or Esther's triumph over Haman, it would seem that Jesus' victory over death qualifies as worthy of celebration.

I wanted to share the most compelling reasons I will be celebrating Easter guilt-free this year. The more experienced writers here at ABD did all the heavy lifting, I just want to point you to the places where you'll find background on topics where you might have questions, misinformation, or not even know whether you have all the information.

The COGs try to trace the "change" from Passover to Easter to the Quartodeciman Controversy of the late 2nd Century. They describe it as a decisive turning point for Christianity, in which rogue church leaders prevailed over followers of the apostles by replacing the Passover with Easter celebration.

In reality, the debate was about whether to observe Passover on the 14th of Nisan or on a static date, not whether to introduce pagan worship practices. Some wanted to stick to the Jewish date. Others argued that the Jewish calendar (with its postponements and such) made the observance disruptive and unpredictable. Paul's writings made it clear that gentiles were not required to observe specific calendar dates from the Sinai Covenant, so they found no reason to keep their calendar in flux. Apparently their argument had some merit, since the Jews scrapped their entire calendar system just a few decades later. Today, the timing of Easter is still based on the Hebrew lunar calendar, not pagan equinox worship. There's nothing wrong with taking the bread and wine on Nisan 14. But there's also nothing wrong with doing it on a different date instead.


Writers aren't usually known for their math skills, but I can count to three, so I always believed the COG chart showing how Matthew 12:40 disproved traditional Christianity's belief about the timing of Jesus' resurrection and crucifixion. So I was shocked to have Luke 24:21 pointed out to be, in which the disciple Cleopas describes Sunday as the third day since Jesus was crucified. Many more gospel verses alternately predict Jesus would rise "on the third day," "in three days" and "after three days". What if Jesus used a Jewish idiomatic phrase (figure of speech) that's lost on us Westerners? Might Hebrew scholars know something about how the Jews marked time using inclusive reckoning? If you're still reading this, it's at least worth considering.



Did those 2nd century leaders also push to ditch the name "Passover" in favor of "Easter"? No. They kept on calling it by its Hebrew/Aramaic name, "Pesach." Those who spoke Latin called it "Pascha." The name "Easter" wasn't used until centuries later, when Germanic tribes were introduced to Christianity. English, which is heavily influenced by the German language, adapted the name.
Even today, in countries where Romance languages are spoken, the name for Resurrection Day celebrations are reminiscent of their Aramaic roots. Spain has "Pascua." Portugal has "Pascoa." The French call it "Paques." In Italian, it's "Pasqua." You get the picture.

Arguing the suspect name "Easter" taints the resurrection celebration makes about as much sense as claiming keeping the Sabbath is pagan since Saturday is named for the Roman god Saturn. Reading paganism into Easter because Germanic tribes gave it a pagan-sounding name seems symptomatic of an the unfounded belief that history revolves around the Anglo-Saxon people. We are not the center of the universe. We came to the table pretty late as far as civilizations go.


Wait, didn't the holiday name come from the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar? Probably not. COGs connect Ishtar to Easter through her consort, Tammuz, who died and rose from the dead each year in Babylonian mythology. Several Easter traditions supposedly come from this vegetation god - Lent is really the weeping for Tammuz mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14 and sunrise services marked his resurrection.
The problem is, mythology places Tammuz' resurrection long after the Passover - during the summer month both the Hebrew and Babylonian calendar call "Tammuz."

And the Germanic goddess Eostre? There's little proof she ever existed. Ostara? Chances are good she was made up, too. The name came from Charlemagne, who renamed the months when he conquered western Europe. Resurrection Sunday occurs during the month he named Ostarmonath. Where did he get the name? Experts say it's unlikely that Charlemagne, a warrior against Germanic paganism, named a month after a goddess. Days of the week were traditionally named after deities but, in that culture, months were named for weather events, calendar events or customs that occurred during them.

Well, the word "ostar" means "east," and originates from the same high German word from which "Austria" gets its name. Austria was long known as the "Osterreich," or "Eastern Kingdom." The root indicates a movement toward the rising sun, which always occurs in the east. Professor Ronald Hutton, a well-known historian in British paganism and occultism, suggests the name simply meant "the month of beginnings" or "the month of openings," an appropriate name for a time of year when trees budded and flowers bloomed. The theory that many months were named for weather events seems to support this explanation (although my personal favorite still is Solmanoth, or Mud-Month, which was roughly the equivalent of February).


So even if there's some relation between possibly non-existent goddesses and the word Easter, it's a problem to deem a millenia-old observance pagan because a goddess was stapled on after the fact. The same goes for fertility symbols like eggs and rabbits, which weren't associated with the resurrection celebration until Christianity spread to the Germanic tribes. And in case you are still hung up on Ishtar, her symbols were lions and eight-pointed stars, not eggs and bunnies.

Eggs were associated with the resurrection celebration in the Eastern Orthodox church, where Christians fasted from eggs during Lent as a means of sacrifice. Once the fast was over, children went out into the bushes to look for eggs to feed the family.


Now please understand, I'm not trying to talk you into doing anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. You don't have to go get your kids' picture taken with the Easter bunny (I'm not).
Don't get up to pray at sunrise on April 20. I plan to be asleep then, and I pray my kids cooperate. But there is nothing inherently sinful about doing either of these things, as Romans 14:14 tells us.

All I ask is that you don't let your Bible reading end with John 19 and its parallel passages the night of Passover. Take some time to read the resurrection account during this season when we all agree it happened, whether it's on the first Day of Unleavened Bread, on Resurrection Sunday or on a random Tuesday. There is no wrong day to read the scripture and thank God for the events that make our salvation possible. Jesus' resurrection is just as significant as His death, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. He is risen, indeed, and it's the reason we have hope.


************
It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11
************