The High Holy Days and Christian Faith
The High Holy Days and Christian Faith
by John D. Garr, Ph.D.
The system of praise, worship, and service which God, himself, gave to the Jewish people, known by the time of Christ as Judaism, included daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and generational reminders that summoned the Jewish people to celebrate the magnificent works of God in their behalf. These remembrances constituted a major part of the worship which Yahweh prescribed for his people. They included three hours of prayer daily, the weekly Shabbat, monthly new moon celebrations, and the festivals of Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles.
God knew full well that the all-too-human beings he had created were inclined to forget their connection with the Divine. For that reason, he instituted a system of remembrance, using the calendar that he had designed in the beginning when he flung the stars, sun, moon, and planets into space and ordained them to be for “signs, seasons, days, and years” (Genesis 1:14). One seventh of God’s creation was the institution of a day of rest which God never personally needed! Enervation? The Omnipotent never experienced it! God instituted Shabbat as a weekly marker in time to remind man that the universe had been “created” by God and that man, himself, did not evolve from some primordial ooze.
Only one of the Ten Words that were thundered at Sinai by the Word of God’s shofar concerned remembrance: ” Remember the Sabbath,” God commanded, and he immediately explained, “for in six days God created . . . and on the seventh day he rested.” The mitzvot (commandments) concerning festival observance are subsets of the fourth word of the Decalogue that sanctified time and enjoined remembrance. As such, they are vital to all believers in God who recognize the need to “remember” and celebrate his mighty acts of history.
It is simply central to the worship of God that his children remember and reenact the events of salvation history lest they forget the Lord God and his abundant provision. Each of these daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and generational markers in time are semaphores demanding that we stop on our precipitous dash through time. Cease and desist! Remember!
The seven Torah festivals have been pejoratively labeled “Jewish festivals” by a clearly supersessionist, Judaeophobic church which has consigned to its Jewish wastepaper basket this major part of the system of worship designed by God for his chosen people. They are among the many biblical practices that Christian theologians have nailed to the cross of Christ, “liberating” the church to substitute on its liturgical calendar sanctified pagan holidays that connect the greatest events of Christian history with often dubious practices.
But, are these just “Jewish” festivals? Who has legitimate title to them? The reality is that these seven times of memorial are clearly described in Leviticus 23 by God himself as “my festivals.” And, God has never disowned them: they still belong to him and to his eternal system of praise, worship, and service. Jesus said it well, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy but to fulfill. For until heaven and earth pass away, not one yod or one crown of the Torah text will pass away until all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17, 18). Jesus was a Jew, and he has never changed his religion!
While the seven Torah festivals were, indeed, given to the Jewish people, those Gentiles who have been engrafted into God’s family tree of salvation and covenant relationship by faith in the Rabbi from Nazareth have also been attached to this part of the root system that provides richness and fatness to God’s chosen people. Having been included by naturalization in the commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2), Christians also have become entitled to this part of their inheritance with the saints in the faith of God. These are “God’s Feasts,” and all his children, including both Jews and Christians, are entitled to celebrate them with him.
Pictures of a Greater Reality
While most Christian theologians have posited that God’s remembrance system was destroyed in Christ, this was never Paul’s contention. As a matter of fact in I Corinthians 5:7, 8 we find him encouraging Gentile believers to celebrate the festival of unleavened bread (Passover) because “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” This statement, coupled with Colossians 2:16, 17 (where Paul declares that “holy days . . . or sabbath days . . . are shadows of things to come, but the body [reality] is of Christ”), should help us to understand that the festivals of Judaism are very much a part of the Christian heritage and speak profoundly to us of the Jewish carpenter whom we recognize as Messiah and Lord. Quite simply, the Jewish festivals are pictures (shadows) that help us understand the life and work of Jesus more clearly.
The festivals of Judaism were closely connected with the events of the agricultural year. Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits are celebrated at the beginning of the barley harvest. Pentecost commemorated the beginning of the wheat harvest. Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles focused on the time of ingathering when all of the harvest had been reaped and God was thanked for his bountiful provision. That these festival times had prophetic significance is clear in Jesus’ parable of the sower and the kingdom of God in which he said that “the harvest is the end of the age.”
The “last days,” which Peter declared began with the advent of Jesus as Messiah, featured the ushering in of the new dimension of the kingdom of God, the harvest of the righteous of the earth as the golden grain gathered by the angels into God’s kingdom. The biblical festivals, then, are rich in prophetic insight into the plan of redemption that God devised before all time and that have been played out on the stage of history, continuing to the present day and scheduled for completion with the advent of the Messianic Age to come.
The festivals that occur in the spring most clearly point to Jesus: Passover is a picture of his death as “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.” Unleavened Bread manifests his death and entombment and the resultant removal of the leaven of sin and death from the lives of believers. The fact that Jesus was resurrected on the very day of the Festival of Firstfruits confirms to us the fact that he is the firstfruits of the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:23). Pentecost calls us to remember the empowerment of the church through the gift of the Holy Spirit when “the day of Pentecost was fully come,” just as Israel had been given the Torah on the same day centuries before in similar manifestations of tongues and fire.
What Christian would not want to continue to remember these important seasons and the miraculous events which occurred in history at God’s appointed times both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament.
For the Jew the autumn festivals of Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles are commemorations of their ancestors’ sojourning with God and being fully subject to his will and his hesed (tender mercy). They represent a time of introspection, followed by the teshuvah of genuine repentance, and concluded with the time of greatest joy in the year. This is the time for anticipating the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. To the Christian the fall festivals are shadows (pictures) of events yet in the future. Many believe that they tell us much about the advent of the Messianic Age. For the Jews, this season speaks of the coming of Messiah. For Christians, it besepeaks the return of Messiah Yeshua. The fall season certainly illustrates the truth that Martin Buber noted when he observed that Christians and Jews “share a Book and an expectation.”
But, beyond the eschatological speculations, the Jewish celebrations of the fall festivals of Rosh Hashanah (new year or Festival of Trumpets), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Succot (Tabernacles), can teach Christians great lessons that will enhance their faith. These “forever” festivals are both for celebration and rehearsal for the climactic event of the ages.
Beginning and End, The Sound of Renewal
Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the seventh month of the sacred Jewish calendar; however, it is also the first day of the first month of the civil calendar. It is a time of beginning and ending. Called Yom Teruah , “the day of blowing,” it signals the call of Israel to the final ten days of the forty “Days of Awe” that began with the new moon of the month of Adar. With some one hundred piercing blasts of the shofar, reminiscent of God’s substitute for Isaac in the vicarious atonement to which Israel harks soteriologically, the Feast of Trumpets summons Jews around the world to introspection and repentance. What has been taking place for thirty days already is merely intensified over the Ten Days of Awe in preparation for the highest and holiest day of the Jewish liturgical calendar.
Rosh Hashanah (literally, “the head of the year”) is both a beginning and an ending. Many of the sages believed that the universe was created by the trumpet blast of God’s Word on this day. It is the beginning of the year. And, it clearly signals the end of the sacred year that ushers in the Festival of Tabernacles, the prototype of the Messianic Kingdom when all the righteous of the earth will be gathered into one in the hand of Messiah.
Atonement, Reconciliation with God and Man
After ten days of deep self examination to uncover even the hidden sins that impede one’s progress toward completion, Yom Kippur offers a believer the opportunity to turn from the sin which he has recognized and for which he manifests Godly sorrow. He is afforded the opportunity to make restitution both to God and man for any perceived transgression. Then, he is able to resolve never to be overcome in that temptation again.
In ancient times, the high priest with great and solemn preparation made that timorous trek into the Holy of Holies in the sanctuary for the only time in the year to make atonement for himself, for his family, and for all Israel. This most solemn day of the year also witnessed the selection by lot of two goats: the Yahweh goat whose blood would be offered in the Temple and the scapegoat ( Azazel ) that would be cast off a cliff in the desert after having had all the sins of Israel confessed upon his head. A scarlet thread tied between his horns would miraculously turn white when God accepted the sacrifice and forgave Israel’s sins. What rejoicing would resound in Jerusalem when the report of acceptance of the atonement sacrifice came!
The Day of Atonement speaks to both Jew and Gentile of the tender mercy of God who has always understood man’s frailty and his evil inclination and has made provision by which he can be restored to the graces and communion of God. All that is required is faith, faith in God’s provision, and faith to act in fulfillment of his commandment for repentance and renewal.
Gathering In for Ingathering
Tabernacles is such a great time of festivity that it is called in Jewish tradition simply, “The Feast.” In agrarian Israel, it was a time for celebrating the bounty of the harvest when all the fruit of the earth had been gathered into the barns. It was also an opportunity to implore the continuing grace of God that would bring the rains to provide the harvest of the following year.
In Israel, this was a time for unbridled, ecstatic celebration of God’s goodness. The Temple compound was filled with the blazing light of the menorahs. The sages and wise men of Israel danced before the Lord with all their might in a manner reminiscent of King David’s ecstasy when he returned the ark of God’s presence to Jerusalem. Some of the feats of dancing and gymnastics were simply amazing! But, all were performed in sincere joy that the God of Israel reigns.
The High Priest made his annual trek to the Pool of Siloam for the “sent” water that was taken with great ceremony to the Temple altar and poured out with wine before the Lord. All the people shouted with one accord: ” Hoshanah ,Hoshanah ,” both honoring the triumphant King of Israel, the Lord himself, and imploring God, “Save us” by sending the former and latter rains.
During all this time of pomp and circumstance, of ecstasy and emotion, the people dutifully performed the mitzvah of living for one week in huts, sukkot , the booths or tabernacles which gave the festival its name. It was an annual demonstration of Israel’s utter dependence upon God for their very lives. It was a statement that all in Israel were equal before their Maker, living the evanescence of human existence, submitted to God’s sovereignty. They left the security of their houses and palaces to live in the flimsy huts with roofs so simple that they, like their ancestors in the Sinai desert, could see the stars. As they looked heavenward, they anticipated with great expectation the appearing of the Star who would rise out of Jacob, the Sun of Righteousness who would come with restoration in the corners of his tallit . “Could this be the year of Messiah,” each generation wondered.
The Joy of God’s Torah
The concluding time of the liturgical year was Simchat Torah , the rejoicing over the Law of God in which all of the great ones of Israel, including King David, delighted. It was also the time of Hoshanah Rabbah , the great shout of praise. Rather than considering God’s commandments onerous, Israel rejoiced that they had been chosen by God to receive his Ten Words and his ordinances that were designed by the Lawgiver to be a guardian that would keep Israel in faith, celebrating the goodness of God and seeking an ever-intensifying face-to-face relationship with their Maker.
The final day of the liturgical year is a fresh commitment to the Word of God, a renewal of the vows that espoused Israel to God at Sinai when they said, “All that you have said, we will do.” It represented a completion of the reading and contemplation of the Torah and signaled the beginning of a new cycle of dependence upon the words of the Instruction Manual that God had given Moses.
Profit For Christians in Judaism?
What Christian could not profit from the yearly call to repentance that Rosh Hashanah signals with the clarion call of the shofar on the first day Tishrei? And, what Christian would count of little value the opportunity to share with the Jewish people the ten “Days of Awe,” the time for introspection to see if they have sinned against God or man? Could not the Day of Atonement on Tishrei 10 be a time for Christians to renew themselves in the repentance that is the product of Godly sorrow? At the very least Christians could use this season as a time for praying for the peace of Jerusalem and for the well being of the international Jewish community.
Then the festival of Tabernacles could be a time for Christians to join with the Jewish people in remembering that Yahweh is a God who delivers from slavery and brings “joy unspeakable and full of glory” to his people. Since Zechariah 14:16-19 predicts that all the nations will celebrate this festival in the Messianic Age, could we not get a head start on this celebration and join with our Jewish brothers and sisters in remembering God’s deliverance and his abundant provision?
Christians have been denied a great legacy through centuries of ecclesiastical Judaeophobia, anti-Judaism, and anti-Semitism. Isn’t time that we reclaim our Judaic heritage that we have inherited through the Jewish Jesus, our Lord and Messiah? If the Holy Spirit is dealing with about restoring the Hebrew foundations of your Christian faith, along with a right and biblical relationship with the international Jewish community, why not begin by examining the liturgical calendar which the earliest church used to worship God and to understand more clearly their Savior and Lord.
Dr. John D. Garr, founder and president of Restoration Foundation, has pioneered research, writing, and teaching on the Hebrew foundations of Christian faith for more than thirty years. His international ministry has enlightened believers of numerous communions, teaching them the historical and theological emergence of Christianity from the matrix of biblical Judaism. John, his wife Pat, and their sons, John, Timothy, and Stephen, are working to promote Restoration Foundation. Dr. Garr’s web site is: https://www.restorationfoundation.org/.