The Messianic Feast, Part 2

Saturday, 27 Sep 2014

Continued from The Messianic Feast, Part 1

You may recall that as the people of Israel sojourned through the desert, they often failed to trust in God’s provision. They frequently grumbled, whined and complained about their situation as though God would fail to provide for the very people he just rescued. Ps 78 recounts this period, as this unbelieving generation forgot God’s wonderful works:

He divided the sea and let them pass through it…In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a fiery light. He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep…Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?…[T]hey did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power…Yet the Lord commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance…In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe…How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert! They tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel (Ps. 78: 13-15, 17-19, 21-25, 32, 40-41).

Did you notice the similarities between Adam and Eve in the garden, and the people of Israel in the wilderness? Both demanded the food they craved, rather than trusting and relying on God’s provisions. But in contrast to both these events in redemptive history, our Lord, when he was tempted in the wilderness said, “Man does not live by bread alone.” As a result of their disobedience, the unbelieving generation led by Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land, which flowed with milk and honey. And this becomes a kind of living parable for us all, indicating that we cannot enter the promised land by means of obedience to the law. We’re all members of a wicked and unfaithful generation, which means that the law of Moses cannot make us holy, but merely ends up showing us all our own sin, and the extent to which we have offended an infinitely holy God. In order to enter the land of rest, we must become members of a new generation, and we must be led by a greater Joshua. “Behold,” says Isaiah, in chapter 32 of his prophecy, “A king will reign in righteousness.” This messianic king, says the prophet, will provide “a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.”

Clearly, this text is echoing events that we find described throughout the writings of Moses. In fact, in Exodus 5:1 Moses says to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, Let my people go that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.” Notice that it does not say, “let my people go that they may begin a fast in my honor.” Again, the ultimate goal of redemption is feasting, not fasting. Listen to the words of Zechariah as he unpacks this theme in chapter 7:

The word of the LORD of hosts came to me:  “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?’…Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.’ But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.  They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts.  As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear…and the pleasant land was made desolate” (Zech. 7:4-5, 9-13).

God’s criticism of his people was that even their own spirituality had become self- centered. Because they were fasting for themselves, as Jesus taught, they had already received their reward. Like Pharaoh in the Exodus account, their hearts had become diamond-hard. But in later chapters of Zechariah’s prophecy God completely turns things upside down by saying that he will turn their fasting into feasting as the messianic day begins to dawn. Think about how these themes come up in the New Testament. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it’s Pharisee who trusts in his own righteousness and pats himself on the back for fasting twice a week. But the tax collector, who knew he was spiritually bankrupt, ended up “going home justified.” Similarly, at the end of the parable of the prodigal son, it’s the elder brother, who is left standing outside in the vineyard, demanding his wages, while the younger brother, whose sins have been forgiven, is reunited with his father, and is wearing the best robe at a rich and wonderful feast.

The ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist can be contrasted along these lines as well. John’s ministry was one of preparation and fasting, whereas Jesus’ ministry was all about feasting. In Mt 11:16-19, Jesus says, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

In John chapter 7, Jesus arrives at the Jerusalem Temple in the middle of an eight-day feast, which the Jews call Sukkoth, or the feast of booths. And as we mentioned in a previous post, this very festival was designed to commemorate God’s provision for his people during the wilderness wandering. God provided not only the freedom from Egyptian bondage, miraculous rescue, and atonement for sin, but he also provided live-giving water from the rock, along with bread from heaven in order to provide for the people’s temporal needs. All this is being commemorated during this feast which took place at the end of the seventh month. In other words, it’s a kind of annual Sabbath rest which the people are called to participate and rest in. It was designed not merely to look back at god’s provision for his people throughout Israel’s past, but it was also designed to look forward to God’s future deliverance, to the great messianic feast yet to come.

So Jesus is teaching in the temple during the final days of this festival, and on the last day of this feast he calls out saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:37-38). According to Jewish scholar and convert to the Christian faith, Alfred Edersheim, during the feast of booths, “while the morning sacrifice was being prepared, a priest, accompanied by a joyous procession with music, went down to the Pool of Siloam, whence he drew water into a golden pitcher…and returned [through the] ‘Water- gate,’ which obtained its name from this ceremony.” The priest would then ascend altar and pour the water into two silver basins. On the last day of the feast, “after the priest had returned from Siloam with his golden pitcher, and for the last time poured its contents to the base of the altar, the people sang the Hallel,” which was a composed of a selection of verses from Psalms 113 through 118. This Jewish prayer began with the words, “Adonai, please save us! Adonai, please prosper us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Again from Edershiem: “Just when the interest of the people had been raised to its highest pitch, that, from amidst the mass of worshippers who were waving towards the altar quite a forest of leafy branches as the last words of Psalm 118 were chanted—a voice was raised which resounded through the temple, startled the multitude, and carried fear and hatred to the hearts of their leaders. It was Jesus, who ‘stood and cried, saying, ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink.’”

Notice the response of the people. John writes that when the crowd “heard these words, some of them said, “This really is the Prophet.”  Others said, “This is the Christ” (Jn 7:40-41). In other words, what Jesus said was not merely received as general uplifting religious sentiment, but his words were particularly meaningful to this 1st century Jewish audience. When this crowd heard these words at this particular setting, many began to ask the question, is this the long awaited messiah? But of course, not everyone was convinced. According to John, some said, “But is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?  So there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, ‘Why did you not bring him?’” (Jn 7:42-45). You might have glossed over the word “officers” as I have over the past 30 years. But these particular men are actually the guards of the temple. In verse 46 these officers tell the Pharisees why they didn’t arrest Jesus saying, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees then replied,  “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (Jn 7:47-48). Here the Jewish leaders, likely the rulers of the Jewish Sanhedrin, are at odds with the crowd, and even with the officers of the temple itself. Something Jesus said during this holy festival struck a deep and rich messianic chord. And if, when you read this text, those same chords are not resonating within you, then you’re likely reading this like a Gentile, and not like a first century Jew would have received these words.

The crowd at least understood what Jesus did and said, and this caused a great controversy as many began to question, “How can this be?” But notice that they weren’t questioning whether Jesus was able to provide secrets of a highly effective marriage. They weren’t arguing whether Jesus was a good moral instructor. They were debating whether he was the divine messiah promised throughout the Old Testament. This was the question that got to the heart of the matter. It’s the question that Jesus asked his own disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” The questions we bring to the Bible are often trivial questions and trivial pursuits. But this is the really important and fundamental issue that gets to the heart of the book, indeed, to the very heart of life itself.

In 1Cor 10 Paul writes, saying “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (2-4). Recounting the events of the Exodus, Paul explains that God was the provider and protector of his people. He had sheltered them from the desert heat under the cloud, and brought them safely through the Red Sea unharmed. He fed them with the bread of heaven and gave them water to drink from the rock in the wilderness. Again, all of this rich history is what Sukkoth was commemorating. But then Paul says, and “that rock was Christ.” When we read this as Gentiles, admittedly, it all gets a little strange and bewildering. But in light of all that Jesus said and did in John chapter 7, I believe that all this begins to make a little more sense. Jesus was the rock in the same way that he was the lamb of God. Sacrificial lambs merely pointed toward the the ultimate sacrifice yet to come, and in the same way, the temporal water in the wilderness pointed to the ultimate life-giving sustenance that Jesus would provide for his people.

David proclaimed this same message in Ps. 36 saying, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!,” he wrote, “The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (7-9). Is it any wonder then that Jesus came proclaiming himself the light of the world, the bread of life, the fount of living water?  In Isaiah chapter 25 we are told of the great messianic feast to come. “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever” (6-8).  Later in his prophecy, Isaiah again invites us to this great feast at the end of the ages saying, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (Is. 55:1-3).  Think about how similar these passages are to the parable of the wedding feast, which Jesus relates in Mt 22. A king is celebrating a great feast in honor of his son, and sends his servants to invite everyone he can find on the highways, whether good and bad. Come, they were told, come to the wedding feast of the son of the great king, where you may eat your fill and drink well-aged wine, come and buy wine and milk without money or price.

Even now, Christ is inviting us to participate in this great feast at the end of the ages. Whether good or bad, rich or poor, we are invited to drink from the fountain of life, and to dine with him at the richest of all feasts, full of unimaginable splendor. It’s not offensive to come without any money, for this particular host is wealthy beyond all measure. The only offensive thing is to come offering to pay for your meal, as if we really could afford to be seated at this kind of table. Here we are invited to sit with princes and kings, to eat the finest food, and to drink the rarest of wines, all without cost. Yet thought it is free to us, it was not without cost to our host. For on one particular Friday, He paid the price of our admission. We drink the cup of blessing, of wine well refined, because he first drank the cup of God’s wrath on our behalf. In the last moments of his life, our savior cried out from the cross saying, “I thirst,” and he was given a sponge full of sour wine. “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished.”

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,! I cannot look upon thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them;
Let my shame Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Love III, by George Herbert


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