Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Feast: Celebrating the Coming Kingdom of Law

Last time I wrote, I said that I would talk about the biggest reason I believe that many who are struggling in Armstrongism might not feel like rejoicing at the Feast of Tabernacles. In that post, I poked fun at a handful of smaller annoyances that many experience. But I believe there is a bigger problem with the Feast - an underlying cause for the feelings of emptiness.

The Kingdom of Law

I noticed that, this year, COGWA created a shareable “Feast of Tabernacles” social media guide that the group encouraged its members to share with their friends.

It explains what the Feast is, includes references from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, tells how to choose a site, talks about meeting friends and celebrating a foretaste of God's Kingdom, and concludes by encouraging readers to go home, plan for next year and learn more about the holy days.

Anybody notice something missing? Something kinda important? Um, maybe something, ANYTHING, about the king who returns to rule this kingdom?

On this explicitly sharable, social-media ready statement to the world, we have little indication that this document came from a Christian organization. The only oblique reference to Jesus Christ comes in point 3 of 5:

“We look forward to the time when all who have not had an opportunity for salvation will be resurrected to physical life and have a chance to live life according to God's plan in the world created by Christ during His millennial rule. God will then judge all people by their actions.”

Sure, it's not exactly vintage Herbert W Armstrong:

“Then I stated with all the power God gave me that I was the representative of the Great God, and that I was there to warn them that the 6,000 years are just about up, and that God would very soon supernaturally INTERVENE, and send the Messiah, Christ, in supreme power and
glory to SET UP THAT WORLD-RULING GOVERNMENT, to rule with GOD'S GOVERNMENT – and His Laws that will CAUSE peace, happiness, and universal well-being, for the next thousand years on earth. That the nations would FIGHT against Him, but that God will FORCE a rebellious humanity to have PEACE, prosperity, and happiness. This, I said, is the Message of the Kingdom of God.” (HWA Co-worker letter, 11/26/73, courtesy of Banned by HWA). 

Rather, it's a kinder, gentler translation of HWA's words. COGWA's message may be carefully cloaked in millennial language and allusions to “Christ,” but the underlying message is the same. The Feast of Tabernacles - as celebrated by the COGWA and the other Armstrongist Churches of God – has the same basic theme as its other observances and messages - living by the Sinai Covent law of Israel; and being judged for salvation on how good of a job you do.

Thank I'm exaggerating? I took some time to listen to the featured Feast sermon on the United Church of God's member web site. Now, UCG is often criticized by more hardline Armstrongist groups for being the most evangelical splinter group to come out of the Worldwide Church of God. Can you guess upon which book the speaker, longtime pastor Jerold Aust, based this keynote Feast of Tabernacles sermon?

Nehemiah. Yup, some of the classic millennial, gospel-centered, forwarding-looking chapters of the Old Testament right there. (imagine sarcasm font here).

So, according to Aust, God sent Israel into captivity because they didn't celebrate His feasts. To be fair, that may have been a part of it. But Jeremiah 25 tells us specifically that God sent Judah into captivity because of their idolatry. Verses 5 and 6 tell us that the Jeremiah warned Judah: “saying, turn now, every one of you, from his evil way and evil deeds, and dwell upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers from of old and forever. Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, or provoke me to anger with the work of your hands. Then I will do you no harm.”

Judah did not listen to the prophets and continued to worship false gods, so the Lord used Nebuchadnezzar to defeat them and put them in captivity. But I digress.

Anyway, Aust noted that Ezra and Nehemiah read the book of the law to the Israelites, and then reminded them not to weep, because it was a feast day to the Lord and they were commanded to rejoice. And so instead, the people made booths and feasted, and the heads of the households came together to study the law. Happy Feast!

But rejoicing isn't just for the Old Testament! Aust then scripture-flips forward to Philippians 4:4, which reminds us to always rejoice in the Lord. Now, Philippians doesn't mention the Feast of Tabernacles or any millennial reign. In fact, it appears that Paul is writing from prison and spends his letter recounting many of his trials, exhorting his brothers in Christian living and talk about the fact that he has learned to rejoice and be content in any situation, including his current imprisonment. But...he says to REJOICE! So it must jive with Nehemiah and the Feast of Booths!

If that isn't enough evidence, Aust then turns to Romans 5:2, which breaks in mid-thought: “Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”  

Now that MUST be millennial! Paul is rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God!

Yes and no. Mostly no, but a little bit yes. Paul has just finished a treatise on justification by grace through faith, and is talking about our standing before God in Jesus. We can have hope of being glorified because God promises it to those who place their faith in Jesus, according to the verse that immediately precedes it. Immediately after, Paul talks about rejoicing in our suffering because it builds character, and that character produces hope – a hope that is bolstered by God's love and the Holy Spirit.

But wait, Mr. Aust mentions the Holy Spirit, too! It is, after all, the down payment we receive on our eternal life. And if we are able to try hard enough to foot the rest of the bill, well, then, God will make good on His promise!

In fact, Aust says, it is our responsibility to do so, including keeping the Feast! After all, the Bible says God will shorten the tribulation for the sake of the elect. Then, once we have fulfilled our responsibility by qualifying through keeping the law, we can get back to rebuilding the earth and teaching the generations who are still alive and are resurrected how to keep the law. Which brings us full circle back to COGWA's social media campaign.

In summary: we keep the Feast of Tabernacles in order to obey the law. If we do a good enough job keeping the law, we will qualify to be in God's Kingdom, where we will teach others how to keep the law, so that they can also eventually be judged on their ability to keep the law.

But this isn't earning our salvation, the COGs tell us.

Veiled Hearts and Minds

This whole discussion reminds me of the spiritual blindness that mixing the covenants seems to promote in the COGs.  Specifically,  2 Corinthians 3. Here, I'll throw in a few for free.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? (v. 7-8).

Indeed this is the case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that has surpassed it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. (v. 10-11). 

But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day
 whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. (verses 14-16). 

In fact, many COG articles I've read spend so much ink demonstrating to us that Jesus kept the Feast that they barely have time or space to explain why Jesus really matters.

Let's get this straight. Yes, Mr. Aust is correct. The New Testament writers discuss topics like hope and joy quite a bit. And their hope and joy came from the fact that they stood justified before God through Jesus Christ's sacrifice, not in their keeping of the law. They were grateful that they no longer had to fear eternal punishment when they fell short of this law, the law which they themselves stated they were unable to keep:

“Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith...” Philippians 3:4-9.

Let's be clear, because I know many claim Paul is just talking about circumcision, just like they claim he is talking about circumcision alone in Acts 15. Not true. The use of the Greek conjunction “te” in Acts 15:5 indicates the Judaizers were stating Gentiles must both be circumcised AND keep the law of Moses, not be circumcised in keeping with the law of Moses. This same law which, as Peter states in verse 10, neither he nor his fathers could bear? Circumcision wasn't the yoke of bondage. The Law of Moses was the yoke of bondage.

Here are some other statements the New Testament writers - those guys whom Aust seems to think are all about rejoicing over the law - made about the law:

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by Him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39). 

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law, there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring – not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the  father of us all.” (Romans 4:13-16). 

For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions around by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:2-6). 

For if the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. Hebrews 8:7

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:13). 

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and now by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16). 

In Galatians 3:2-3, Paul could just as easily be asking Jerold Aust, or Jim Franks, or Gerald Weston, or Stephen Flurry: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Mixing Wineskins

The Feast of Tabernacles, as taught and observed by the COGs, try to do just that: they celebrate a theology in which the “down payment” of the Holy Spirit is gained by repentance and confession of faith, then grasped onto for dear life by observing cherry-picked tenets of the law. If you hit an unquantifiable, unmeasurable threshold of obedience to that “law,” you qualify for eternal life in God's Kingdom, where you will teach survivors of Armageddon, and eventually the whole world, how to keep the law well enough to qualify for eternal life.

(I am not getting into an argument about the Great White Throne judgment in what is already a ridiculously long post. Suffice it to say that most Christians believe the book of Hebrews when it says that it is appointed for all men to die once and then be judged, and the book of Romans when it says that there is no condemnation in the judgment for those who are found in Christ).

However, the Bible describes things a little differently for those who accept grace through faith, but return to law-keeping to maintain their right standing with God.

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:2-4). 

Again, I remind you, this is not just circumcision we are talking about. Acts 15 clearly tells us, unequivocally in the Greek, that Gentiles were being pressured to be circumcised AND keep the law. So, if you are keeping components of law in order to have right standing with God, then Galatians states that Christ's sacrifice does nothing for you.

You are probably asking, how do I know whether I am keeping the festivals in order to maintain my standing with God? Well, let me ask YOU a question: what do you think would happen to you if you stopped?

Do you believe you would be forfeiting your eternal life? If so, there's your answer.

So, that's why the Feast begins to feel hollow to those who see the cracks in Armstrongism. You are mixing wineskins. You are seeking the joy, fulfillment and peace of the New Covenant as described by Paul, Peter and John, but trying to grasp it - told you it is possible to obtain it – told you MUST qualify for it or else - through the practices of Israel. You are searching for light among the shadows.

If you are part of the bride of Christ, you can only be party to one covenant at a time – the Sinai Covenant or the New Covenant.  The Sinai Covenant can't help but leave you feeling empty. It was specifically designed to do so, in order to point to future fulfillment in Christ. Feeling that hollowness isn't an indication that there's something wrong with you. It's an indication that there's something right, and that God is calling you into that better covenant with better promises. You've learned the lesson. Maybe it's time to leave the tutor behind.

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

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