Thursday, June 9, 2016

Paul and Pentecost

Well, Pentecost is almost here. Have you finalized your travel plans to keep the festival in Jerusalem?

You haven't? Well, you'd better get cracking, if you want to be like Paul. I mean, we're supposed to imitate Paul as he imitated Christ, right? Both of those guys celebrated Pentecost in Jerusalem.

Speaking of which, COGWA recently quoted Paul in its Daily Bible Verse blog, titled “I Must By All Means Keep This Coming Feast.” In this blog entry, COGWA writer Mike Bennett cites Acts 18:21 as evidence that Christians should keep the Hebrew holy days listed in Leviticus 23.
“As we saw in Acts 20:16, the apostle Paul planned his journeys around the biblical festivals,” Bennett writes. “Here he also explains his need to get to Jerusalem for one of the festivals.
Is this true? Did Paul plan his travels around biblical festivals? Further, did he need to go to Jerusalem to keep Pentecost? Or is this just another COGWA proof-text?

Let's take a look at one of the passages in question, Acts 18:19-23:

And he came to Ephesus, and left them (Priscilla and Aquila) there; but he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to stay a longer time with them, he did not consent. But took leave of them, saying, 'I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem, but I will return again to you, God willing.” And he sailed from Ephesus. And when he had landed at Caesarea, and gone up and greeted the church, he went down to Antioch.

It's probably safe to assume that Paul made it to Jerusalem for Pentecost in this particular case. Caesarea was the port nearest to Jerusalem – it was only about 75 miles away. But an assumption is the best we can do, because scripture doesn't even mention what Paul did there, other than greeting the church.

Now let's read COGWA's other slam-dunk passage, Acts 20:15-16:

We sailed from there, and the next day came opposite Chios. The following day we arrived at Samos and stayed at Trogyllium. The next day we came to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.

IF POSSIBLE? If Paul planned his travels around the Holy Days; if it was imperative for him to be there, shouldn't he do a little better than “if possible?” Once again, we never learn whether or not Paul actually made it to Jerusalem for Pentecost. Acts 21:17 tells us that he finally arrived, and the rest of the chapter details his meeting with the apostles and subsequent arrest.

So, does the Bible give us evidence that Paul always plan his travels around the Holy Days? Did he always feel compelled to be at Jerusalem for Pentecost? The answer to both questions is NO.

A few verses before the first Pentecost mentioned, we learn in Acts 18:11 that Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and six months. There is no indication he left the city for any Holy Day. Could he have celebrated them with Crispus; the converted ruler of the Corinthian synagogue? It's possible. But he certainly didn't make any trips to Jerusalem. The Expositor's Bible Commentary tells us this 18-month stay at Corinth most likely began in the fall of 50 AD and ended in the spring of 52 AD.

Furthermore, Paul's desire to travel to Jerusalem may have been compounded both times by external factors. Prior to the first Pentecost we're discussing, we learn in Acts 18:18 that Paul had taken a vow (possibly Nazirite)  that he needed to fulfill in Jerusalem. Some scholars believe that Paul came to Corinth dejected from his opposition in Macedonia, and took this vow to ask for God's intervention in both his emotional state and his ministry. Once the period of his vow ended, he needed to return to Jerusalem to fulfill his vow.
“Such a vow had to be fulfilled at Jerusalem, where the hair would be presented to God and sacrifices offered. Some have proposed that Paul cut off his hair at the beginning of his vow. But there is no evidence for this, and much in the literature about Nazirite vows speaks directly against it,” according to the Expositor's Bible Commentary. 
“Evidently at some time during his residence at Corinth—perhaps at its beginning when he was depressed—Paul had taken a Nazirite vow to God as he asked for his intervention," according to the Expositor's Bible Commentary. "And now having seen God's hand at work in Corinth and a thriving church established there, Paul was determined to return to Jerusalem to fulfill his vow by presenting his hair as a burnt offering and offering sacrifices in the temple. The vow could only be fulfilled after a thirty-day period of purification in the Holy City."
Prior to the second Pentecost in question, Paul had been gathering offerings from gentile congregations to bring to the impoverished brethren at Jerusalem. Though COG readers are familiar with this passage for other reasons, we see in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 that Paul asked the Macedonian brethren to set aside gifts for the saints in need. In verse 4, he specifically states that, if possible, he could take them to Jerusalem personally. In Romans 15:25-26 Paul writes:

“But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem.”

In Acts 24:17, we see Paul recounting his testimony to Felix and detailing that after many years he brought “alms and offerings” to his nation. This undoubtedly refers to the offerings mentioned in 1 Corinthians, which he delivered to the Jerusalem brethren at Pentecost. Some scholars believe the offering was the main reason Paul wished to get to Jerusalem. I wouldn't go that far, but don't doubt their assertions that Paul was eager to get the offering to Jerusalem to build solidarity between himself and his gentile congregations and the ethnically Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, whom the Jews were trying to turn against him.

Next, let's look at Acts 19, which details Paul's travels between these two Pentecosts in question. Acts 19:9-10 tells us that, while in Ephesus, Paul taught daily in the school of Tyrannus. Scripture doesn't tell us much about this school, but it DOES tell us that Paul taught there daily for two years. There is no biblical evidence that Paul left Ephesus to keep Pentecost either year.

In fact, 1 Corinthians 16:9 tells us Paul planned to stay in Ephesus for one of the intervening Pentecosts. We know that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians while in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:19 sends the Corinthian brethren greetings from Priscilla and Aquila, who hosted the Ephesian church in their home). We don't know whether Paul may have changed his mind after devotees of the goddess Diana stirred up in a riot in Acts 19 (Paul references his conflict with these men in 1 Corinthians 15:32). 1 Corinthians 16:5 discloses Paul's intention to travel through Macedonia,  and Acts 20:1 tells us Paul departed for Macedonia shortly after the riot. Some sources tells us that a festival to Diana/Artemis occurred in early May, which would fit the understood timing that the book of 1 Corinthians was written shortly after the Days of Unleavened Bread.

At any rate, these scriptures indicate that Paul's travel to Jerusalem for Pentecost was inconsistent. And they cast reasonable doubt that his travel plans were set in stone and revolved around the Holy Days.

What does all this mean? In case you're more of a big-picture person, here is a rough outline of Paul's post-conversion timeline:
  • Paul was converted around 36 AD
  • He subsequently preached in places like Tarsus and Antioch and met with the apostles at Jerusalem 
  • His first missionary journey started around 48 AD
  • He was imprisoned for the first time in Jerusalem around 58 AD and spent the next 10 years in various states of confinement and release
  • He died around 68 AD 
And here's what we know based on scripture:
  • Paul mentions going to Jerusalem for Pentecost twice during this estimated 32-year time span
  • Both times, Paul had additional compelling reasons to travel to Jerusalem
  • On one occasion, Paul stated his intention to stay in Ephesus until after Pentecost 
That's it.

Here's what we else we learn from reading these scriptures in context, without COG eisegesis:
  • Not once, not even once, did Paul tell any converts to go to Jerusalem for Pentecost, with or without him. When he went, he was presumably accompanied by his traveling companions, but that's it. It's no shock that Paul kept the holy days. We know that even late in his ministry, he still considered himself a Jewish Christian, as we see in 2 Corinthians 11:22, Acts 23:6 and Acts 26:5. Peter similarly abstained from food the Sinai Covenant declared unclean. But they never forced these practices on gentiles who were not party to the Sinai Covenant in the first place. 
  • Not once did he TELL any converts to celebrate Pentecost. It's safe to assume that some did, since he references it in his letters. We know that many early Christians kept the Hebrew holy days because they were coming into a community largely made of ethnic Jews who still held to their traditions. Most notably, we see Paul referencing leavening with the Corinthian brethren, whom we know met in the home of the synagogue leader at Corinth and therefore had exposure to the Hebrew holy days. Although the context of 1 Corinthians 5 indicates that Paul was admonishing the Corinthian brethren to break fellowship with a brother who was sinning, not giving them direction in how to keep a holy day. Most COG and non-COG sources agree that the Days of Unleavened Bread had just passed when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. He was hardly instructing them how to celebrate the festival. Further, he states that they are "already unleavened."
  • Not once did Paul teach that keeping Pentecost nor understanding its part in a “holy day plan” was necessary for salvation. He taught just the opposite – that salvation was not something that could be earned or maintained through actions. And that the works – or evidence – of that salvation manifested itself in the works of the Spirit, not in understanding and keeping a Gnostic-like code of mysterious observances. And if it did, what does that portend for those listed in Hebrews 11 – the “faith” chapter – men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph; who died before the holy days were ever delivered at Mount Sinai?
In a way, the Hebrew holy days do point to God's plan for salvation. Because that plan was salvation by faith in Jesus. The holy days, as well as the other tenets of the Sinai Covenant, made plain the inadequacy of law to change men's hearts as well as the need for a Savior.

How does Pentecost do this? Well, COG and non-COG sources agree that the Sinai Covenant was given on Pentecost.
“By the time of the first Christian century, however (Pentecost), it was considered the anniversary of the giving of the law at Mount Sinai (as deduced from the chronological note at Exodus 19:1) and as a time for the annual renewal of the Mosaic covenant; and it was therefore looked upon as one of the three great pilgrim festivals of Judaism,” according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary.
 This covenant spelled out in minute detail exactly how God's chosen people were to live in God's chosen land. If they followed it, they would be blessed beyond measure. If not, well, not so much.

As we all know, they failed miserably. The lesson from Israel is clear. If God's chosen people in his chosen land couldn't maintain their standing with Him, what hope do we have? The Sinai Covenant – which New Testament writers refer to as “the law” - was incomplete. It could not make man follow God. But the indwelling Holy Spirit could, and this was made possible at Pentecost.
“Now no one who had been a companion of the apostle Paul (or, for that matter, even a distant admirer, should Lukan authorship of Acts be denied) could have failed to have been impressed by the fact that it was on the Jewish festival of Pentecost that the Spirit came so dramatically upon the early believers in Jerusalem," according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary. "It is this significance that Luke emphasizes as he begins his Pentecost narrative; viz., that whereas Pentecost was for Judaism the day of the giving of the law, for Christians it is the day of the coming of the Holy Spirit.” (Expositor's Bible Commentary)
“By his stress on Pentecost as the day when the miracle took place, he is also suggesting (1) that the Spirit's coming is in continuity with God's purposes in giving the law and yet (2) that the Spirit's coming signals the essential difference between the Jewish faith and commitment to Jesus, for whereas the former is Torah centered and Torah directed, the latter is Christ centered and Spirit directed," according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary.
So what's wrong with keeping Pentecost? Nothing, in a vacuum. Paul did it, The early church did it. Who on earth would argue that keeping the Hebrew holy days jeopardized their salvation? No one.

But celebrating Pentecost keeps us mired in a physical system that was not meant to last. In order to keep it as the Sinai Covenant mandated, we must look for new moons, focus on an obsolete observance and then meticulously count the proper number of days past that point. And, of course, travel to Jerusalem. In all of this watching and counting, we overlook the very thing we are counting from - the day of our Savior's resurrection! In some ways, Pentecost is the very picture of the problem with the Sinai Covenant - why the New Covenant was needed. The Holy Spirit promised under the New Covenant does not enable us to properly keep the Sinai Covenant. It something new. The very fact that the priesthood established by the Sinai Covenant has changed is evidence that these were not the unchanging laws that God promised to write in our hearts.

(Hebrews 8:7-9) For if the first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: "Behold, the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in my covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. 

(Hebrews 8:9-11) For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their mind and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."

(Hebrews 8:13) In that He says, "A new covenant, He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away."

Physical observances can never make us right or keep us right with God. We cannot add to Jesus. Rather than counting days and focusing on the shadows of Sinai, we should give thanks for the coming of the Holy Spirit and live each day walking in the the Light of the World.

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Feasts of the Old Testament were given progressively and not all at once.

Furthermore, all the Feasts and holydays required the priests to make animal sacrifice -- it probably isn't possible to keep the holydays as intended in the Old Testament because of the requirement for animal sacrifices -- which were done away in the New Covenant.

Moreover, there is a question of whether or not holydays really picture the plan of God. What is God's Plan? According to the New Testament, it is that all come to God and have redemption. The Gospel is the good news that humanity can have salvation so that everyone can be part of God's People.

The feasts and holydays simply will not last and cannot be 'kept forever' since without a sun and moon, there can be no times and seasons to establish when the feasts really are. In fact, those who have studied the calendar and been honest can conclude that it is impossible to know exactly when the feasts and holydays really are and it is most likely that Herbert Armstrong never really had the dates right for the year -- the dates established are wrong and even more wrong (by a month) in a postponement year, such as is 2016.

There are also questions about the 'Lunar Sabbath' and the Sabbath Day may not be at all what the Armstrongists think it is.