Meeting Jesus At The Feast Rehearsing Rest: The Sabbaths—Chapter 1 Leviticus 23:1–3

A few years ago, a Christian friend who is a film producer shared an insight with me that changed the way I watch movies. He observed that most good stories—those that resonate with an audience—seem to have similar plot elements. They open by portraying life lived in happiness and joy. All is well. Conflict soon intrudes, though, in the form of changing circumstances or with the arrival of a new character, and the result disrupts life and brings a dissonance you can feel in your gut. Key to the story is how the conflict is resolved: redemption comes, usually at great personal cost, and it is this cost that is the heart of the story. It is this cost that connects with the viewer.1

I’ve watched films through that lens ever since. I’d bet my friend’s observations are true for your favorite films as they are for mine. I have always been a Tolkien fan (my wife would use a stronger word), and although Peter Jackson’s films do not do justice to Tolkien’s books, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is wonderful, bigger than life in its scope, and complex in its plot, language, and characterization. What makes it so compelling is that it is a story of redemption that comes at a shockingly great cost; it is that cost that makes the end so satisfying.

Of course, redemption stories are not the only popular genre. Quite different is the genre of tragedy, a form of literature, theater, or film as old as the Greeks. In tragedies, it is not redemption, but the misery of a sinful or broken world that is under close view. In tragedies, the chief character typically meets a disastrous fate, the broader ills of society often exposed in the tale. I recently viewed No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ film based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. There is barely time after the opening credits to start the camera before gut-wrenching violence fills the screen. The senseless brutality dominates the film to the end. All the good people die while the wretched murderer survives to destroy another day. The lives of simple people in rural West Texas are depicted as meaningless activity, as they scurry about like ants, seeking to survive, but all the while their lives are actually controlled by a cruel chance. It alone drives their fate; the flip of a coin—several times—is the sole determiner of life or death. Redemption? None comes. The film leaves viewers devoid of hope as the screen snaps black. Everyone in the theater in which I viewed the film sat in stunned silence for several minutes after the film ended, refusing to believe it had ended as it did.

While tragedies have always been an important literary genre, captivating the audiences of the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, and the Coen brothers today, they feel less satisfying because they tell an unfinished truth. Ugliness and evil abound in the real world, to be sure, and their power is horrid. No one is exempt from their reach; good people feel the pain as much as the bad guys. But our souls desperately want to believe that there is more to life than the tragic.

Redemptive themes satisfy us more deeply, not only because we prefer to feel good when we leave a theater, but, suggested my friend, because such movies reflect the fuller truth of God’s story. God’s story isn’t stuck on the tragic; he pursues redemption relentlessly. The movement of redemption is not only nice, it is normative, shaping our understanding of life because it is the movement of life.

The Plot

On my mother’s knee, I memorized a rhyme that would serve me well as a guide whenever I picked up the Bible. To explain the plot of redemption running through the Bible’s two covenants, she taught me, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is by the New revealed.” Behind this saying lay her conviction that the Bible is one story, its narrative like a golden thread that wound its way through the pages of history. The golden thread, of course, is the coming of Jesus the Christ.

The plot of the Bible is dramatic and is set forth in three acts: Creation—Fall—Redemption.2 The first two acts are very short and, in fact, are presented in just a few pages in the Bible’s first book, Genesis. But their brevity does not belie their significance: understanding creation and fall correctly is essential to a proper understanding of the rest of the Bible, the divine act of redemption.

Creation

In the opening chapter of the Bible, we read that God “created the heavens and the earth.” No mere polemic against evolution—Darwin was, after all, a long ways off—the issue in the opening words of the Bible is not whether or even when God created the heavens and the earth, but who he is and what the world is in relation to him. God is Creator, and creation—“the heavens and the earth” together in harmonious unity—is presented as his domain, his kingdom, and he its sovereign king.

Under his rule, creation has a dynamic character: God assigned active dominion responsibility to the sun (the greater light) “to govern the day” and to the moon (the lesser light) “to govern the night” skies. He established limits for the reproductive processes in the plant and animal kingdoms (“according to their kinds”). God, the greater King, also gave dominion responsibility to Adam, the lesser king, mandating him to subdue the earth and to rule over everything (Genesis 1:28).

Adam was not granted divine permission to do what he wanted with creation; he was to exercise responsible dominion, always under God, the Sovereign (Genesis 1:26–28). Under his care, creation was to bring praise to God in new ways. Adam’s identity was that of image-bearer of God; his work would also image God’s. As God had “separated” light from dark, atmosphere from planet surface, and land from sea, so Adam’s cultural mandate called him and his seed to separate—to differentiate and develop—the creation entrusted to him. Minerals gathered from the ground would be studied, understood, and combined to produce pigments that would one day, in the hands of Da Vinci, create the Mona Lisa (and in mine, paint the garage). Antonio Vivaldi, in hearing, capturing, and reproducing the sounds of the wind and the rain in the changing seasons of the weather, would ultimately give us another kind of Four Seasons with which to praise God.

Creation, when God finished it, was perfect. When he surveyed his realm, he spoke with royal voice: “It is very good!” He rested the seventh day (Genesis 2:2–3). He wasn’t tired; Sabbath makes its first appearance in the biblical narrative to mark God’s joy, his celebration and delight that creation was just the way it was supposed to be, that it enjoyed shalom.

Fall

But the joy was short lived. Sin slithered in through a rebel who challenged the authority of the King of creation by inciting doubt in his royal word (“Did God really say . . . ?”). Corrupting everything God made with horrible effectiveness, sin warped all that had been very good so that it is now “not the way it’s supposed to be.”3 Theologians call this the fall, but the word hardly does justice to the devastation. A marriage that had begun with a “Wow!” became cloaked in a clumsy leaf-shroud of shame, while a delightful evening garden walk between God and his right-hand man morphed into a guilty game of hide and seek. In a rapid-fire series of judicial pronouncements, God cursed Satan, sentenced Adam, and then his wife. The woman, created to rest in the tender love of a husband and rejoice in the life-affirming gift of birth, would instead groan in labor and chafe under his dominance. The man, created to be happy and productive in his labor and to rest in the sweet weariness that comes at the end of a long day of work, would now taste the bitterness and frustration of toil. God’s gleeful delight in a colorful creation that was deemed “very good” gave way to a bleak wasteland of human hopelessness, rendered now only in shades of gray.

Redemption

But wait! Peeking up from the rubble of a world gone bad, a fragile light flickered, all the more noticeable because of the strange timing of its appearance. God simply couldn’t wait to redeem; his promise of redemption was spoken in the same breath as his curse, the flame of hope lit even before the pronouncement of sentence. Juxtaposing hope over against the cold horror of long warfare, the Royal One declared his intent: he will crush Satan; he will win victory through the “seed of the woman.”

God will make right all that sin has made wrong. God will restore shalom and give his people rest again. Because of sin, creation had become—and still is—restless. Once thrilled that his creation was “very good,” God no longer delights in what is; he, and all creation with him, yearn now for what should be, for what will be.

Restoring joy and bringing rest would involve conflict. In Genesis 3:15, God had promised Satan “enmity between you and the woman.” The long war would be for man’s benefit: we must know the cost of our sin and learn in faith to long for God’s redemption. But the outcome was never in question. God assured that he would triumph through “the seed of the woman.” His promise would allow the fragile candle of hope to flicker, despite the winds of war in a world that would witness fratricide (4:8), terrorist threats (4:23–24), and ethical anarchy: “every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time” (6:5).

Rehearsals, Types, and Shadows

Once, when my children were small, we vacationed near the Pea Ridge Civil War battlefield in northwest Arkansas. The day was beautiful and the site well preserved. I was not prepared for the frustration we would experience for a full morning. Simply put, we had no clue what we were viewing. The park was enormous, and without a map that showed us what the key locations were and how the battle had progressed, we would remain frustrated.

On the way toward God’s rest, his people needed help too. Struggling each day with the tension of enmity, they would easily lose the big-picture perspective of faith. Through the centuries, God sometimes intervened directly with his mighty hand to stimulate their faith, acting in ways both mighty and tender: crushing a mighty foe here, opening a closed womb there. But he also worked in ways more subtle. To shape the daily routines of the people of Israel, a people whose history began well over a thousand years before Messiah and whose faith would therefore need serious staying power, he established festivals that would both structure life and serve as portraits of redemption. These festivals are prescribed in Leviticus 23 and reveal from varying angles the wonder and grace of his redeeming work.
God called his festivals “appointed feasts” and “sacred assemblies” (Leviticus 23:1–2). Several Hebrew words lay behind these English translations. The first of these—the Hebrew word mo’ed—defines all the festivals as “set feasts” established by the Lord and regulated by his commands. Among these set feasts were the haggim, three pilgrimage festivals requiring Israel to travel annually to a central location. The name is appropriate; the singular hag evokes movement and suggests a joyous dance.

In the book of Leviticus, another term nuanced all the festivals. The term miqra qodesh—usually translated “sacred assemblies”—suggests a convocation that had a religious purpose, one shaped by hope.4 To Israel, camped at Sinai at the dawn of her life as a redeemed people, God’s sacred assemblies were not established merely to commemorate past acts of redemption but also to serve as “rehearsals” of what was to come.5 When Israel was summoned to one of the pilgrimage festivals or when her families gathered in homes or village streets to celebrate the others, her eye—and her faith—were to be fixed on the future. Israel was not like the nations around her whose cultic gatherings were attempts to pacify the demands of pagan gods, angry for last year’s failures, in a desperate form of bargaining for next year’s blessings on crop and womb. Israel’s feasts would not require her to barter with God. They were established after she had been delivered from bondage in Egypt, already freed by God’s amazing grace, redeemed by that grace to be his special people. The feasts were designed to lean forward, to give life a future tilt, pointing her relentlessly to the Messiah who would fulfill all that the feasts portrayed.

Each festival was a type of Messiah. Derived from the Greek word tupos, type is commonly understood to refer to the use of the Old Testament to provide models, human figures whose lives serve as examples of Christian virtues or character traits. Thus, Daniel is said to be a type of Christian courage, David a type of godly friendship (Jonathan narratives) or of true repentance (Bathsheba narrative). The word tupos is even translated as “example” in most contemporary versions of 1 Corinthians 10:6.6

But such a use of type is thin. The word actually connotes something much richer, the notion of a foretaste, an advance presentation of the whole.7 An example of tonight’s dinner could be milk and cookies, arranged by a four-year-old and presented with dramatic flair on downsized plastic dinnerware to a gathering of dolls seated neatly around a cardboard dining table. It is a play meal, different in substance from tonight’s family dinner. Not so a type. Last Christmas, impatient for the holiday feast still fifteen minutes away, I sneaked into the kitchen like a cat burglar to pilfer a tasty morsel of the standing rib roast that would anchor our family meal. It had just been removed from the oven and was sitting on a rack while the rest of the feast was being prepared. Knowing I’d be alone for just a few ticks of the clock, I activated both hands in my nefarious plot. With my right, I quickly sliced a not-too-thin corner of the succulent beef—redolent in spices, crusty with caramelized fat, and brimming with roasting juices—and with my left soaked an end piece of crusty sourdough bread in the meat drippings just before using it as a scoop for garlic mashed potatoes—perfectly seasoned and steamy hot—which delivered to my nostrils and my mouth the beginnings of ecstasy. Rudely apprehended by the cook, who shooed me irreverently out of the kitchen, I was shamefully unrepentant. I consumed the evidence slowly, like chewing cud, lost in the reverie and longing for more.

A children’s play party may give an idea of food and drink. A type—like my samplings of the beef and potatoes—makes your mouth water because it is an early taste of the actual feast to come. That’s how the ancient feasts of Israel served the people of God. More than religious play acting, they gave God’s people a real and authentic taste of the redemption Messiah would bring centuries later, a taste that would make them long in faith and hope for the fuller revelation of the gift of God.

Speaking to a different culture a thousand years later, the apostle Paul used another metaphor to make the same point. He called the festivals shadows (Colossians 2:17). Think of a man walking westbound on a brilliant sunny morning. As the rising sun warms his back, his shadow stretches out before him, reaching the corner well before he does. His shadow is not merely an example of him but is inseparably connected to his very person. It announces that his arrival is at hand. More, his shadow provides many real and telling clues about him, clues like size and shape and the speed with which he walks. The clues may be indistinct, but since they are cast by a real person, they are authentic.

The story of the Bible is the story of Jesus the Messiah. He is the main character, the One who cast shadows as he moved relentlessly through history toward his incarnation in Bethlehem of Judea. That shadow appeared to ancient Israel in her sacrifices and festivals, each one awakening expectations about the promised Messiah and the redemption he would bring. Somewhat indistinct, not easily identified in a single glance, always requiring faith and constant explanation, his shadow was nonetheless the promise of him, a very real portrayal of “the reality” which “is found in Christ.”
            
1. I am indebted to Gregg Easterbrook for this insight.

2. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen further divide redemption into initiation (Old Testament Israel), accomplishment (Christ’s earthly ministry and that of the missionary church), and completion (Christ’s return). The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004).

3. Plantinga, Cornelius, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1996).

4. Swanson, James, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament), electronic ed., s. v. “miqra,” #5246.

5. Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, electronic ed., s. v. #4744.

6. Notably, the older RSV renders the word as “warnings.”

Dr. John R. Sittema is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church (PCA) of Jacksonville, Florida

Questions for Further Study and Discussion

1. God established Sabbaths (plural) that blessed animals, servants, and even the land itself with rest. How does this fact shape your thinking about the redemption Christ brought?
2. Re-read Matthew 11:28–12:13. How does the healing of the man with a shriveled hand bring him Sabbath rest?
3. Hebrews 4:9 speaks of a Sabbath rest to come. Will it be a rest tied to a Saturday (Old Testament Sabbath), Sunday (called by many the Christian Sabbath), or neither?
4. Do you rest well in the cross and resurrection of Christ? Does your church? Explain.
5. The chapter refers to the “relentless movement of history from     restlessness to rest.” How does this movement affect the way you  read the daily news reports? Does it shape the yearnings of your heart? Does it influence the mission strategy of your local church to bring rest to the restless in your community?

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