Thursday, October 20, 2016

When Your Feast Fever Breaks

By now, those of you who observe the Feast of Tabernacles are several days into the festival. Are you having the best Feast ever? Were you able to find enough palm fronds and willow branches to build your booth? You don't have any bugs in it yet, do you?

Wait, you didn't build a booth? Why not?  Couldn't find enough palms in Victoria, British Columbia? And I won't even bring up the fact that you're keeping the Feast in Victoria, British Columbia and not Jerusalem.

I know, I know, He didn't come to change one jot or one tittle. Like the jots and tittles about three times a year and Jerusalem and building a booth from particular trees and then staying in it rather than a condo. Ok, maybe just a couple jots and tittles. But certainly nothing more.

Anyway, we're sure some out there are having the best Feast ever. But they probably aren't the ones who read blogs like As Bereans Did.

Maybe you feel guilty that you're failing to rejoice as well as everyone around you. Maybe you wonder why God let your original LCG site in Hilton Head, South Carolina get washed out by Hurricane Matthew. Maybe God was sending a message when He allowed the remains of typhoon Songda to lash your booth, er, hotel, in British Columbia. Is God punishing you? Is Satan angry with you?

Or is it simply that man was never intended to celebrate a Hebrew harvest festival in hurricane-prone North American cities? Yes, I know, He didn't come to change one jot or tittle. Right.

The Feast is a tough time of year for those beginning to question Armstrongism. We know, we've been there. If you're out there and feeling bad because your "Feast Fever" broke - or maybe you didn't catch it at all this year - please stop. It doesn't necessarily mean there's something less righteous or spiritual about you. Maybe it means you are on the right path. You are growing up, spiritually speaking. Why?

Few new people are coming into "The Church," which means that most of us grew up here. The Feast was super hyped for us as children. And it was an easy sell.  A road trip, new toys, the one time of year we got to eat Lucky Charms for breakfast... what's not to love? The same goes for teens. Dances, new clothes, hanging out on the beach... why would anyone question the Feast? You'd have to be nuts.

You may coast on your childhood feelings about the Feast even into adulthood. This is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, people! You are practically commanded to snorkel or ride a camel or go parasailing, if it's what your heart desires. Second tithe can buy you a steak dinner, a new iPhone and a Coach handbag. But it can't buy you spiritual fulfillment. Even Solomon eventually found these kinds of things to be vanity.

(Ecclesiastes 2:10-11, NIV) I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

But the Feast isn't about things, Martha. It's meaningful because it pictures the Kingdom and time spent with our spiritual brothers and sisters! Spending time with family and our far-flung friends!   That's really what makes the Feast great!

Yes, your kids will treasure their memories of that trip to Dollywood with their cousins. When they meet up with them after attending COGWA services in Pigeon Forge with God's real "true church," of course. With cousins who finished up services in Gatlinburg with God's Laodicean "true church," UCG. Later, the innocent children will be the only ones to ask the lamentable questions you are all thinking - why do grandma and grandpa meet them for dinner but not for church?  Shame on the "leaders" whose pride and ambition puts families in these situations, dividing you among scores of organizations and more than 227 Feast sites, often in adjacent cities or hotels.

And those friends... enjoy them while you can. If statistics are any guidance, you will lose at least half of them in your next church split. And we won't even talk about what happens when you leave. What happened to the friend who sticks closer than a brother?

Well, there's your problem, Martha. You're counting on men to make the Feast meaningful. Only God can provide that. That's why Solomon felt empty. He wasn't pursuing God.

Are you sure you are? I empathized with Solomon for years. It was only when I dared question the narrative I had been handed that I could understand the hollowness of the Feast. The funny thing is, I think that's what God wants all of us to see.

Though many groups try to read the Hebrew holy days into Genesis, the Bible does not mention them until they were given to Israel at Sinai. They contained imagery that pointed to the Savior, and demonstrated why the Sinai Covenant and its observances were incomplete. It was a fleeting, shadowy celebration intended to dissipate in the Light of the World.

Ethnic Jews like Paul continued to observe these festivals after the New Covenant was established, but there is no command for gentiles like you and me to observe them. There is nothing sinful about marking them, but they are shadows that were components of an obsolete covenant that has been replaced with one that's much better. They often set us on a slippery slope toward pride, spiritual confusion and faith in our own works. They give us a form of godliness, but deny its power - the power of Jesus Christ -  to remove our sin and reconcile us to God. Instead, we focus on a shadowy, multi-step plan of salvation intuited by a man. A multi-step plan that hints our path to the Kingdom depends upon our steps, not His.

(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, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with 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 8:13) In that He says, a "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

A new covenant. Not according to the covenant God made after he led Israel out of Egypt. Not according to the Sinai Covenant. That one is obsolete, and that includes its worship practices, like the holy days. So if the Feast is starting to ring hollow for you, consider the reason might not be something you are lacking. It might be something the Feast is lacking.

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Just what do you mean... ATONEMENT?

One of my children recently learned about compound words. It was fun to see the lights go on and the connections made. Sunshine is the light that the sun shines. The mailman is the man who brings the mail.

I can remember a similar light-bulb moment in my life, when a deacon in the Worldwide Church of God explained that the Day of Atonement is when believers will finally achieve at-one-ment with God. It sounded good. Of course, back in elementary school, I didn't know that the Bible wasn't originally written in English.

To be fair, this wordplay is a connection that some even outside the Churches of God try to draw out of Leviticus 23. Unlike other arguments that have come out of Armstrongism, the idea that "atonement" allows sinful man to be reconciled with a Holy God makes sense. But just what is atonement, and what does the Day of Atonement picture?

COGWA, one prominent Armstrongist splinter, calls the symbolism of the Day of Atonement "unique, intriguing and often misinterpreted."
"But considered in conjunction with with the prophetic timeline in Revelation, the meaning becomes clearer," COGWA posits
ABD's translation: Traditional understandings of the Day of Atonement are misinterpretations. You probably misunderstand it yourself. But when you marry our correct interpretations with our brand of speculative prophecy, the meaning is clear and rock-solid.

COGWA's explanation gives low-billing to Jesus Christ in its article about the Holy Day plan of salvation, mentioning only that event the Day of Atonement pictures is after His return. According to COGWA, this day is all about breaking Satan's hold on humanity. Not surprisingly, the sacrificed goat gets little more than a mention, despite the fact that at least half - if not more - of the holy day ritual focused on goat whose blood is shed. (Since COGWA mostly focuses on the meaning of "atonement" and the symbolism of the goats, I will do the same. I assume that those who are reading this are familiar with the Old Testament rituals of fasting, the high priest's individual sacrifice, his entrance into the Holy of Holies, etc.)

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, let's make sure we understand what's meant by "atonement."

Some sources say that the English word comes from the idiomatic phrase "one-ment"  (an idiom is commonly-used expression whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of the individual words in it) that can be traced back to the 13th century. Others believe it came about in the 16th century and owes its origin to the Latin word adunamentum, or "unity." William Tyndale's 1534 New Testament uses the word in 2 Corinthians 5:19 to express the idea of reconciliation and restoration, concepts which the original Greek text encapsulates. Just a few decades after Tyndale, William Shakespeare used the term "atonement" to explain reconciliation of characters in his play "Richard the Third."

This is all good background information to keep in mind, but if we are really going to understand what the Day of Atonement pictures, we need to go back to the Hebrew language of Leviticus 23. This book was written about two thousand years before the earliest traces of English and several centuries before the earliest forms of Greek language appeared on the scene.

Looking at Leviticus 23:27, we see the word used in "Day of Atonement" is the Hebrew hakkipurim. It is derived from the Hebrew words kopher and its close relatives, koper, kapar and kippur, which we see reflected in the Hebrew name for the day, Yom Kippur. These words communicate the concept of ransom or "price of a life."

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament expounds further. Kopher, for example, is parallel to the word "redeem." It is occasionally used in the negative to describe the concept of bribery. The Theological Wordbook states that the verb is always used in connection with the removal of sign or defilement, except for 3 instances where it refers to appeasement with a gift.
"It seems clear that this word aptly illustrates the theology of reconciliation in the OT. The life of the sacrificial animal specifically symbolized by its blood was required in exchange for the life of the worshiper," according to the Theological Wordbook (p. 453). "This symbolism is further clarified by the action of the worshiper in placing his hands on the head of the sacrifice and confessing his sins over the animal which was then killed or sent out as a scapegoat." 
Right. About that scapegoat. What did it symbolize? And why was it sent into the desert rather than killed?

The United Church of God, another splinter, aptly explains the symbolism Herbert Armstrong attached to the Day of Atonement through the lens of speculative prophecy, for which he was famous. Armstrong claimed that the scapegoat released in the wilderness pictured Satan being be bound and thrown in the bottomless pit, as described in Revelation 20. Removal of the devil would allow man to achieve "at-one-ment" with God, they say.
"This sending away into the desert is part of the reason for translating Azazel as scapegoat, or goat that escapes. But many scholars identify Azazel as the name of a demon inhabiting the wilderness," UCG explains. "It stands to reason that Azazel is one in stark contrast to the Lord—indeed, the ultimate enemy Satan the devil."
This explanation sounds good until you examine the context and timing of Leviticus versus the literature that names Azazel as a demon. The primary source scholars use to support the Azazel theory is the Book of Enoch. Scholars believe the Book of Enoch was written between the 300s B.C. and the first century A.D. because it includes late Aramaic names not present until that time period, according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary. It is likely that the Book of Enoch used Leviticus, which is believed to date to the 1440s B.C., as a source. Not vice-versa. The demon of the wilderness likely got its name from lore related to this ancient ritual, according to both Expositor's and the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon. The ritual did not borrow a name from a figure that appears in literature at least a thousand years later.

Further, the COGs have traditionally rejected non-canonical sources such as the Book of Enoch. In fact, the Living Church of God disfellowshipped members last year for reading and discussing the Book of Enoch. So the Azazel teaching puts the COGs in the precarious position of placing faith in a book that it tells its own members is heretical.

COGWA, UCG and LCG put forth several other arguments about the Day of Atonement, the Azazel goat and Satan. But all depend upon Armstrong's speculative prophecy regarding the Hebrew holy days and the relatively modern designation of Azazel as a demon. Unless the Book of Enoch really did come from Noah's great-grandfather, unless it was preserved on the Ark, AND unless Herbert Armstrong's prophetic speculations have been shown to hold water, there is no point in discussing them further.

The Expositor's Bible Commentary offers an explanation that avoids time travel. Many biblical translations do not alter Azazel - they translate it as one word. But literal, word-for-word translations like the King James Version and New American Standard Bible, based in the Septuagint, explain the concept as the "goat of departure."
"The first part (`az) can mean "goat" and the last part ('azel) is from a verb that means "go away," Expositor's explains. "Compound nouns like this are rare in ancient Hebrew, but new evidence for them is turning up in Ugaritic. It is simply the designation of the goat to be taken away, the escape goat."
Expositor's notes that Numbers 29:11 also describes the scapegoat as "the sin offering for atonement." But how is this possible? This goat was not slaughtered.

The goats were opposite sides of the same coin. Both goats pictured both pictured aspects of Jesus' sacrifice. One goat was killed as a sin offering. The other one took the Israelites' sin out of their presence.
"The two goats thus symbolized both propitiation for sins by death and complete removal of the sins for which atonement was made," according to Expositor's.
Many believe that the Hebrew holy days were given as a picture of what Jesus Christ would accomplish for humanity. This is what Colossians 2 means when it discusses observances as shadows. These shadows have value in that they teach us about the Savior, but we are meant to embrace Him, not the shadows. The Day of Atonement - the priest, the sacrifice, the goats and the mercy seat - pointed to what Jesus would do - die in your place and remove your sins.

Theologian John MacArthur concurs.
"This goat pictured the substitutionary bearing and total removal of sin which would later be fully accomplished by Jesus Christ" (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 154).
Psalm 103:12 gives us a poetic picture of what the Azazel goat accomplished.

"As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us."

Remember, the priests confessed the sins of Israel over the goats. But the goat charged with the sin was falsely accused - just like Jesus. Satan would would not be falsely accused, especially according to COG theology.

"In contrast, Satan bears the blame for sin as he was the first to lead mankind astray in the Garden of Eden and continues to deceive humanity today," UCG states.

False Armstrongist teachings about the Day of Atonement subtly prop up HWA's teachings about
man's tabula rasa nature. This theory, which originated with Aristotle, contradicts multiple scriptures by teaching that man is born morally neutral. According to HWA's teachings, Satan broadcasts his evil, subversive thoughts through the air like radio waves, silently influencing mankind to sin.

Now, I'm not going to argue that Satan doesn't influence mankind. He clearly does, as both the Bible and anyone who spends a day observing news outlets can see. But HWA claimed that humans were capable of changing their "tuning" back to God's if they just tried hard enough. Oh yeah, you somehow use the Holy Spirit to do it. And you must do it to an acceptable degree to maintain the justified state that Jesus' sacrifice bought for you. And if you don't do a good enough job, God will abort you.

This teaching has led to scores of suicides in the COGs and has landed even more members in lifestyles of despair and depression. On many levels, it is what keeps many of you in your seats, even though you no longer believe what Armstrong taught or his ministers perpetuate. It is what keeps you in fear. It is what allows the ministry to keep on dividing you from your friends and family - fear that following the wrong splinter will land you in the Lake of Fire. And it is what leads you to continue to hand in your tithes and keep their dying organizations on life support.

The symbolism of the Day of Atonement - the substitutionary sacrifice and removal of sin pictured by the two goats - did produce "at-one-ment" with God, in both the ancient Hebrew and the modern English sense of the word. Fasting denoted the symbolic gravity of the solemn day that the Savior died.

But that day, the day of the atonement, is finished. Jesus rose victorious. He paid our ransom. We are redeemed. We are reconciled to God now. We have no reason to remain in the shadows of mourning.

(Psalm 30:11-12) You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

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