April 2, 2015

Gethsemane and the Olive Press

After the Savior had finished the Last Supper with his disciples, which was probably around 10 pm on Thursday night, the Lord took His disciples down the Kidron Valley and then up the Mount of Olives. Only five days previous, on what we now call Palm Sunday, the Savior had come down this same mount to the shouts of praise by the Jews who hailed Him as King of kings, as the anointed Messiah. Yet, now He went with no fanfare into a garden where He would take upon Him the sins of the world.

Gethsemane comes from the Hebrew words 'gath' meaning press, and 'shemen' meaning oil. The fact that Christ chose a garden called Gethsemane is significant for many reasons. Olive oil was considered one of the most important substances for life. This rich golden oil was used to light the home of every family in Judea. Oil was also used to light the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was used to cook most food and in particular was used in the process of making bread, the very staff of life. Olive oil was also used to help create many ointments that were used for both the living, for healing purposes, and for the dead, to anoint the body prior to placing it in the tomb. Oil was also used to anoint kings, priests, and prophets. In short, olive oil played a central part of Jewish religious and daily life.

Iron age courtyard with olive press (from Atlas of the Bible, page 80)
The very process by which olive oil was produced is also very significant and symbolic. To produce the oil, you had to first crush the olives with a huge stone wheel that turned the olives into a pulp like mush. Large woven bags were then filled with the pulp and placed under the gethsemane, or olive press. "The mash sacks were placed towards the front of the beam under a round pressing board. Large stones were used to weigh down the beam pressing upon the mash sacks." [1] Additional weight was added until the olive oil began to spill from the woven bag into the collecting bowls. Because of the crushed rinds of the olives, the oil was actually brownish red in color, giving it the appearance of blood. [2]

Note how the olive oil is reddish-brown in color (from Satterfield)
The symbolism of olive oil and the suffering that Christ endured in this garden of the press is laden with significance. Christ in the Gospel of John states that He is the Light of the world (see John 8:12). It is through His precious blood that our way has been illuminated. Christ is the ointment that will not only heal our souls, but give a sweet fragrance to the bitter difficulties we face in life. It is through His precious blood that our wounds are healed. Christ also stated that He was the bread of life, a critical ingredient of ancient bread being olive oil. It is through His precious blood that we can have the bread of life, and live forever (see John 6:51). Even the very name Christ in Greek and Messiah in Hebrew mean anointed. [3] Thus, Jesus was the anointed one in every aspect, the great King of kings, the High Priest, the holy Prophet.

Christ alone paid the price for sin. He had the weight of the world press down upon Him, crushing Him until He bled from every poor. How grateful I am that on this night the Christ would be willing to bear the burden of my sins, that I might be healed.

In 2007 I had the chance to sit in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. As I sat there in the Church of All Nations (the Catholic Church located in the garden), I felt a great pain for the suffering that Christ suffered on my behalf. I sat there completely alone in the church and thought of when He was completely alone in the garden. I sat there in dark (the chapel is intentionally dark to represent night) as I thought of how the Messiah knelt in darkness, pleading on my behalf to the Father. As He bore my burden, blood came from every poor. As these thoughts filled my mind, I was then filled with the most joyous happiness I have perhaps ever felt. I did not feel guilt for His pain, I felt peace. I did not feel anxiety for the suffering I caused Him, I felt forgiveness. I did not feel sadness for causing such anguish, I felt pure love.

I love my Savior, and will be eternally grateful for that which He did for me, in a garden called Gethsemane. In a garden that by its very name symbolizes the freedom, life, and light that has been brought into my life through His precious blood.

[1] Gethsemane, by Bruce Satterfield of BYU-Idaho
[2] For pictures showing entire process of making olive oil see Gethsemane, by Bruce Satterfield
[3] See Mashiach (Hebrew) and Christos (Greek) in Strong's Concordance

The Last Supper and the Passover Feast

Each year, Christians throughout the world celebrate Holy Week, the most significant period in the Christian calendar. Holy Week commemorates the last week of the life of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and his resurrection from the tomb.

During this same time each year, Jews around the world celebrate Passover, the most significant festival in the Jewish calendar. The Jewish holiday of Passover commemorates the redemption of the ancient Israelites from bondage in Egypt after being slaves for 300 years.

The Bible records the Lord’s command to celebrate the first Passover: "And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb...without blemish, a male of the first year…and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it....For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt." (see Exodus 12:1-13)

For 3,500 years Jews have celebrated Passover, and have used the symbolism of the meal to remember the captivity and redemption of their fathers, and to look forward to the Messianic age and their own final redemption.

The Betrayal by Marilyn Todd-Daniels
Jesus, himself a Jew, likewise used the symbolism of the Passover meal to teach His disciples about His mission, as He prepared them to understand the spiritual redemption that would come from his suffering and death. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the homes of faithful Israelites had saved them from the power of the destroying angel, so the blood of the lamb of God, shed for all on Calvary’s cross, would save all who would come unto Christ from the power of sin and death.

Though it is difficult to know exactly how the Last Supper took place, the gospel writers refer to several Passover symbols during the meal and discourse that followed. Understanding this sacred holiday in its Jewish context will help us appreciate the Last Supper and the Savior's redemption on this Passover night.

Tradition tells us that the day was Thursday, the first day of the Passover feast. As the evening approached, Jesus and His disciples gathered in a large upper room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. His disciples had made preparations beforehand and the table was set with all of the necessary elements for the Passover.

According to Jewish tradition, a roasted lamb would be served as the main dish, in remembrance of the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of the homes, which protected their ancestors from the destroying angel. Alongside it, bitter herbs, representing the bitterness of slavery, and a mixture of chopped apples and nuts, called haroset, representing the mortar used by slaves to build the wonders of Egypt. Salt water was used to recall the salty tears shed by the Israelites in slavery. Into the salt water they dipped greens, such as parsley, representing springtime, the season of Passover, the season of hope.

Passover symbols: haroset, salt water, parsley, wine, and bitter herbs
Central to the Passover feast was the unleavened bread, or matza, which reminded the disciples of the haste with which Israel left Egypt--their ancestors not having even enough time to allow their bread to rise. This was the bread which Christ blessed and broke and gave to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you, this do in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).

“After the same manner also he took the cup...saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do...in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25). In instituting this sacramental emblem, Jesus used one of the four cups of wine which was consumed during each Passover meal, each cup representing a unique aspect of God’s promise to redeem Israel.

During the meal, the question was asked by the youngest member: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Whereupon, the story of the redemption of Israel from captivity was told. Passover is different from all other nights, but this Passover night was truly different, for on this night, Christ would redeem all His children from the slavery of sin, and the bondage of death.

After completing this symbolic meal “And when they had sung a hymn, [Jesus and his disciples] went out into the mount of Olives” into a garden called Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30). Jesus’ atoning journey had begun. The true Passover Lamb had come.

The text of this script comes from a  youtube video I produced back in 2011 with the help of Amy Grigg. With over 8,000 views I decided to update the video to HD and widescreen.

March 30, 2015

Leaven and the Cleansing of the Temple

Just prior to Passover every Jewish family begins the process of cleansing their home of all leaven products. This ritual dates back to the time of the Exodus when the Israelites fled Egypt, who in their haste to leave captivity, did not have time to allow their dough to rise. To commemorate their haste, just prior to Passover, families scour their home until they have removed all traces of leaven. The Bible states, "seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt in haste: that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life." (Deuteronomy 16:3). The seven days without leaven began the day after Passover, and was called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. [1]

Cleaning the home of all leaven products
This cleansing ritual also represented the importance of purifying our homes of all corruption and sin prior to celebrating this important feast in the presence of the Lord. Leaven, or what we would call today sourdough, was created by allowing a mixture of flour and water to ferment over several days. Over time the dough would begin to rise and bubble, helping to create a leaven start. This fermented dough was then added to more flour and water, left to rise, and then baked. Because only a small portion of leaven was needed to leaven an entire loaf of bread, it became a symbol of corruption because likewise, only a small portion of sin is needed to corrupt our entire soul. [2]

The timing of this cleaning is significant to the events of Holy Week, because at the same time that thousands of Jews were cleaning their homes of all leaven, Jesus entered his Father's house, the temple, and cleansed it from corruption. According to Mathew and Luke, the cleansing took place on Sunday, just following the triumphal entry (see Matthew 21:8-12). According to Mark, it took place the day after on Monday (see Mark 11:12, 15-19). How significant that Jesus would choose to cleanse his Father's house of the money changers and vendors, during the same period when all Jews would be cleansing their own homes.

"a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6)
Paul, seeing the connection between our own need to cleanse our souls, and the sanctifying power of Christ said, "Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

Let us this Holy Week determine to cleanse our lives of sin, and start anew, by accepting Christ the true Passover Lamb, and by seeking to follow his example in every way.

[1] The Feast of Unleavened Bread... Wait - Isn't it Passover?
[2] See Matthew 16:6 and 1 Corinthians 5:6

March 21, 2015

Events of Holy Week: Palm Sunday

For anyone who has studied in-depth the last week of the Savior's mortal ministry, you know there are some, well, inconsistencies. Did Jesus really cleanse the Temple on Sunday (as Matthew and Luke describe), or did it happen on Monday (as Mark's gospel records)? Were there two women who anointed the feet/head of Jesus (one on the Saturday before Palm Sunday as John records, and one on Wednesday), or was it just one woman? Was Jesus actually crucified at 9:00 AM or at noon of Good Friday? Or perhaps the most perplexing of all, was the Last Supper an actual Passover feast, or did Jesus celebrate the feast a day early?

The simple answer, no one really knows. Scholars disagree on how to resolve the inconsistencies, however, when you study Holy Week as four separate stories, a beautiful tapestry of depth and meaning arises. In searching for timelines of Holy Week, I never found one that really addressed all of these intricate issues. So, I decided to make my own. Hopefully, this timeline of the events of Holy Week will help you appreciate the beauty of this most significant week in history. Hopefully, it will help you understand that the Gospel writers most likely were more interested in preserving the profound symbolism of Holy Week, and not so much an hour-by-hour chronology of events.

Over the next week, in an attempt to show the hidden meaning of the events of Holy Week, I will share several of the most precious gems I have discovered over the years. To begin, I will start with Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday

Each of the four Gospels records the events of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. According to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the event took place on the 10th day of the month of Abib, the same day when all Jews were choosing their Passover lambs. According to the Law of Moses, the Israelites were to select their lambs on the 10th day of the month, five days before Passover (see Exodus 12:3). Once selected, the lamb was then taken into the homes of the families of Israel where it lived for the next five days (see Exodus 12:3-6). On the fourteenth day of the month, the family was then to take the lamb to the temple, kill it without breaking any bones, and then take the carcass back to the home for the Passover feast. During the first Passover, when Israel was still in Egypt, the blood of the lamb was then dabbed on the doorposts, protecting their home from the destroying angel. This made for a poignant lesson for the children, who after living with the lamb and becoming fond of it, would see it killed and eaten, so that they could be saved.

The significance of the timing is that on the very same day that all Jews were choosing their Passover lambs, Jesus (the true Lamb of God) rides into Jerusalem and is chosen by the people as their Messiah (Matthew 21:1-11). It is also significant that during the same time period that the Passover lambs were being taken into the Jewish homes for the next five days, Jesus is found teaching in his Father's house, the Temple of God (Luke 19:47). According to John, five days later, at the same time when thousands of Passover lambs were being sacrificed, the true Passover lamb, Jesus Christ, died on the cross. Truly, it was the blood of the Lamb of God, that was shed on the cross, that protects us from the destroying angel of death and sin. It is because of Him, that we can live.

March 14, 2015

The Anointing of Jesus by Mary and the Unnamed Woman

In the events of Holy Week, there are two different recorded occasions when a woman anoints either the feet or head of Jesus. Many scholars combine both events because of their similarities; however, by studying them as two separate events, we are able to learn of some powerful symbolism in the possible timing of these events. [1]

The first anointing, as recorded by John (John 12:1-8), took place on Saturday, six days before the Passover, in an unnamed home in Bethany by Mary, the sister to Martha and Lazarus wherein she anointed only the feet of Jesus. The second anointing, as recorded by Matthew and Mark (Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9), took place on Wednesday of Holy Week, two days before Passover, in the home of Simon the leper in Bethany by an unnamed woman who anointed only the head of Jesus. Both women used ointments valuing 300 or more pence, and both women were criticized by a disciple for their acts of service towards Jesus.

Chart comparing the two anointings (adapted from Brown, page 450)
To understand the significance of these anointings, we first must understand that the word Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek both mean ‘the anointed one.’ In other words, Jesus Christ would actually mean Jesus the anointed. [2] In the Old Testament, there were three groups of people referred to as being anointed, that of prophets, priests, and kings.

By following the chronology of John and placing the anointing on Saturday, it may be that John was trying to foreshadow how Jesus, being anointed the day before the triumphal entry, was symbolically being anointed as the king of Israel. [3] Remember that one of the reasons it was so significant that Jesus rode in to Jerusalem on a donkey was because when Solomon was recognized as the king of Israel, he likewise rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (see 1 Kings 1:32-34). [4]

If we follow the chronology of Mark and Matthew and place the anointing by the unnamed woman on Wednesday, the day before his Last Supper, it may be that Mark and Matthew were trying to show that Jesus was being anointed as the great High Priest, who would intercede on our behalf as he entered the garden of Gethsemane. [5] The high priest wore a breastplate with 12 stones, and two shoulder stones engraven with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel representing that Israel was always to be near his heart, and that he was to carry the burdens of Israel upon his shoulders at all times (see Exodus 28:29 and 28:12). What a perfect description of Christ while in Gethsemane when he took our sins and sorrows upon himself.

It is also interesting to compare the anointings by the two women and the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus during the Last Supper (see John 13:1-17). All three took place during a dinner. All three events are criticized; in the Gospel of John Judas criticizes Mary, in Matthew and Mark an unnamed disciple criticizes the woman, and in John during the Last Supper, Peter criticizes Jesus for washing the feet. I can’t help but wonder that if while Peter’s feet were washed, he thought back five days before of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. Perhaps he protested, in part, because he did not feel worthy to have a similar honor bestowed upon him.

Was there only one woman that anointed Jesus during Holy Week? We simply cannot tell from recorded scripture. [6] What we do know is that Mary, and perhaps this unnamed woman, will always be remembered for the incredible service they gave to their Lord and Master. A service, that perhaps, pointed to the Savior’s most often used title, that of Christ, the anointed one.

[1] See Eric Huntsman, God So Loved the World, page 133
[2] See Mashiach (Hebrew) and Christos (Greek) in Strong's Concordance
[3] Huntsman, page 133
[4] See Why would a king ride a donkey instead of a warhorse?
[5] Huntsman, page 133
[6] For an argument for only one woman anointing Jesus during Holy Week see Raymond E. Brown The Gospel According to John page 449-452

March 7, 2015

The Raising of Lazarus

One of the most powerful examples of the Savior's love is that of the raising of Lazarus from the grave after four days. The event took place just before the triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus and his disciples were traveling to Jerusalem for the last time when a messenger was sent to them with word that Lazarus was sick. Jesus, however, tarried for several days, instead of rushing to heal Lazarus. When Jesus and the disciples arrived, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb for four days (see John 11:1-45).

Often the first question that is asked is why Jesus waited to come heal Lazarus. Why would he prolong his coming when he knew that the hearts of Mary and Martha would both be broken. First, by raising Lazarus from the dead after four days, Jesus demonstrated his true power over even the worse enemy, death. Up to this point Jesus had raised several from the dead, however, in each case, they had only been dead for a few hours. Dissenters could easily claim that those who had been raised, had only been sleeping. Yet in the case of Lazarus, there was no question as to the magnitude of Jesus' power.

Second, it taught of Jesus' pure love for others, despite his omniscience. The shortest verse in scripture simply states "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Volumes could be written about these simple, yet powerful two words. Jesus knew that he could raise Lazarus, he also knew that in only moments the two sisters, Mary and Martha would again be embracing their brother. Yet Jesus was in the moment, and felt their pain, even though he knew the power of the future.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus performed this miracle to help prepare his followers for his own death (an even more tragic death than Lazarus). One of the reasons Jesus may have wept is because he knew of the sorrow that they soon would feel when they saw their Lord and Savior nailed to the cross. Just as Jesus knew that Lazarus would live again, Jesus also knew that he himself would be resurrected. Yet for a short time, his followers would weep and not fully understand why their Savior had died. It seems to me that the most powerful message of his love was that he allowed this event to happen (the death and raising of Lazarus) so it could give them hope. Hope for the impossible. Hope, when all was lost. He raised Lazarus to instill faith. He raised Lazarus because he loved them.

He could have just as easily come and healed Lazarus. After all, in only about a week they would see the most powerful sign of his divinity, when Jesus would be resurrected from the dead. There would be no question of his power then, yet Jesus decided to instill in his disciples a belief beforehand that truly nothing is impossible for the Lord. He gave them hope, even though he knew what the future held.

I have seen this time and time again in my life. Despite the fact that the Lord knows how things will turn out in the end, he still provides tender mercies to buoy me up. To instill in me faith. To give me hope when all is dark. Just yesterday I was struggling with some personal issues. I had many questions, and I felt that I had not received answers to my prayers. I did not know why things were going the way they were and I felt little or no direction. Then as I was washing dishes (of all things) I felt a calming reassurance for the future.  Peace filled my soul, and though my problems did not disappear, the Lord provided for me a moment, like when he raised Lazarus, a moment that would help me continue the fight. A moment that helped me know that he loves me, and to know that he wants me to have hope. Hope in Him!

February 21, 2015

Spices, Gnats and Camels

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their hypocrisy of strictly obeying the minor aspects of the law, while completing ignoring the more significant parts, and failing to understand its true purpose. Jesus states, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24 ESV).

The Law of Moses commanded that a tithe, or ten percent of all goods, produce, flocks and cattle, be given to the Lord to sustain the Priests, Levites and the poor (see Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:21-28) [1]. The Pharisees, however, in their desire to be overly zealous in their obedience, seemed to take this law to an extreme by paying a tithe on even the smallest of personal belongings, that of spices.

The spices mint, dill, and cumin as mentioned by Jesus
The tithe was designed to help Israel look outwards by giving back to God, and giving to those who were in need. However, when you are more concerned about counting every grain, seed and spice, you will be wasting your time and efforts on something that really does not bless the lives of others. Jesus did not condemn them for paying tithing, he condemned them instead for focusing their efforts on pointless aspects, and then forgetting about more important things like 'justice and mercy and faithfulness.'

To further teach his point of focusing on the minute level of obedience, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their act of straining out gnats and other insects from their wine before drinking, while symbolically eating a camel instead [2]. The Law of Moses prescribed that most insects (besides locust, grasshoppers and crickets) were considered unclean, along with many other animals including pigs, lizards, frogs, and camels, to only name a few [3].

The Pharisees strained out gnats and other insects from wine before drinking
Jesus, in comparing these two unclean animals, gnats and camels, names the smallest and the largest of the unclean animals. In essence, Jesus was teaching that they were so worried about the small things, that they missed the bigger, more important things. It is also possible that Jesus was criticizing them for only obeying those parts of the law that would most likely be noticed, as straining the insects from your drink would be seen by others every time they ate, making their level of obedience very visible to others.

How do we obey the Laws of God? Do we see them just a long list of checkboxes and dos and don’ts? Do we only obey the commandments that others will see? Or do we seek to understand the true purpose of the law by looking to better understand how the law draws us towards God, and towards serving, helping, and loving others.

[1] What Does the Bible Say About the Tithe or Tithing? - Christian Bible Reference
[2] See Pulpit Commentary for Matthew 23:23
[3] Unclean animal - Wikipedia

February 19, 2015

Holy Week Study Resources

One of the things that has helped me better prepare for Easter each year is to take up a study of Holy Week about a month before the actual holiday. Christian Lent (the forty-six days before Easter Sunday) is a great time to begin, and gives you plenty of time to read at least one book and to review each of the four Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus' life. Adding this to my study during the month before Easter, makes this special day become all the more holy. Below are a few of the books I have enjoyed reading to prepare for Holy Week:

God So Loved the World by Eric D. Huntsman
One of my favorite books on the Holy Week. Written by BYU professor Eric Huntsman, this book examines each of the days of Holy Week. The book is designed to read one chapter, each day of the week; Palm Sunday on Sunday, Maundy Thursday on Thursday, etc. Also, includes recommended music to listen to during the week.

A Lively Hope by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel
Excellent book about the last days of the life of Jesus Christ. The book is broken into chapters for each of the four Gospels, and discusses the unique aspects of each Gospel. Great resource if you are wanting a deeper study into the suffering, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ.

The Last Week by Marcus J. Borg & John D. Crossan
In-depth study of the Gospel of Mark in relationship to the Last Week of Christ's life. Very detailed and scholarly look at the shortest version of the four Gospel narratives.

A Crucified Christ in Holy Week and 
A Risen Christ in Eastertime by Raymond E. Brown
Written by one of the most recognized Catholic Professors in the world, Raymond Brown goes into great detail discussing each of the four gospel narratives as it relates to the Passion of Christ. Though written for Catholic priests, it is a wonderful, short resource for Holy Week.

His Final Hours by W. Jeffery Marsh
Easy to read and understand, this resource by BYU Professor Jeffery Marsh covers the last hours of Christ's life. This book covers the events by chronological event, Last Supper, Gethsemane, etc. instead of by discussing the Passion in the context of each of the four Gospel narratives. Great resource for those who are not very familiar with Holy Week, and want a more basic overview.

Gethsemane, Golgotha, and 
The Garden Tomb by Andrew C. Skinner
Three short volumes written by BYU professor Andrew Skinner. Each volume discusses historical background, and insights into the importance of Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb.

February 17, 2015

Ash Wednesday - A Time of Preparation

Tomorrow is what most Christians celebrate as Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent, which is a time of reflection, repentance, self-denial, fasting, and preparation for the coming Easter. Many Christians will mark the season of Lent by giving up something in their life that draws them away from the Savior. To commemorate the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday each member of the congregation will come before the priest to have a small cross marked upon their forehead. The ashes are from the burned palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday, and are mixed with a small amount of oil or water. The ashes symbolize the ancient custom of repenting in sackcloth and ashes (see Daniel 9:3), and the sign of the cross foreshadows the crucifixion. These 40 days before Easter (46 days minus the six Sundays) are to call our minds to the 40 days when Jesus fasted in preparation for his own ministry, and our own preparation for the most sacred time of the year.

As I have been preparing for Holy Week this year, I thought of how the Savior prepared his own disciples for his final week of life. In the weeks and months leading up to the crucifixion Jesus prophesied of his impending death on three separate occasions. Each of these prophecies were used to help the disciples prepare for the tragic, yet glorious coming events.

The first prophesy took place six days before the Transfiguration (generally dated from about six months to only a few weeks before Jesus' final week). Just before Jesus uttered the prophecy, he asked his disciples "Whom do men say that I am?" (Mark 8:27). The disciples each told the Savior of whom others said that he was, and Jesus then asked them "But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ” (8:29). Immediately following this confession of faith, Jesus then gave the first of three prophecies: "And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (8:31). One of the powerful lessons of these prophecies is the responses given by the apostles to the Savior. On this first occasion, Peter takes Jesus and rebukes him, after which Jesus censures Peter by calling him Satan and says unto him that he "savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men" (8:33). One can only image the sting that Peter must have felt. Only moments before he had expressed his devotion and belief, only to be given the most harsh rebuke that he had most likely ever received.

A short time after this first prophecy (perhaps only a few weeks later), as they began the trek towards Jerusalem, while still in the Galilee, Jesus spoke the next prophecy. “For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day” (Mark 9:31). The response of the disciples is in stark contrast to the first, in that they “understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him” (9:32). After the stinging rebuke of Peter, it is understandable that none of the disciples would want to respond in any way.

As they continued their travels to Jerusalem, and just before they had reached Jericho (only a short distance from Jerusalem), Jesus uttered the third prophecy saying, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles: And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again” (Mark 10:33-34). The response to this last prophecy by the disciples is marked by utter silence. Not even their inner-most feelings are recorded in the Gospels. Only days later, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem with shouts of acclimation on what now is called Palm Sunday.

Why then would Jesus make these three prophecies to his disciples in the weeks before his crucifixion? It seems to me that he wanted to prepare them not only for the tragic events of Holy Week, but to teach them of who he truly was. To teach them that he would not be the Messiah that they thought he was, a political leader who would free them from the chains of Roman control, but instead a suffering Messiah who would free them from the greater chains of sin and death. Each of these three responses of the disciples teaches us of how the disciples truly saw Jesus. Likewise, we too should ask ourselves the same question: “But whom say ye that I am?”

During this Lenten season, perhaps the most important thing we can give up is the misconceptions we hold of who we think Jesus is. Let us see him as he is, and fully accept his sacrifice on our behalf. When faced with the awful cross, let us accept his death, and not work to impede the power of the atonement in our lives. Instead let us meekly, and humbly accept the Savior for who he is, the true Messiah who came to suffer, die and rise again for our sakes!

February 14, 2015

Phylacteries and Tassels

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their desire to obey the law only to be seen of men, rather than truly obeying God’s law for the purpose of serving others and becoming better people. Jesus says, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (Matthew 23:5 ESV).

The phylacteries refer to the command of the Lord given to Moses when he said, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 11:18 ESV).

Modern-day tefillin (black) compared with ancient tefillin from Qumran
A phylactery, or tefillin in Hebrew, “is one of two leather boxes bound by a leather strap to the left hand and to the forehead during prayer and containing four scriptural passages (Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21).” [1]  Each of these four passages commands Israel to bind the law to their heart and mind, symbolizing that the law should not just be route actions, but instead part of our very soul.

The head tefillin has four small compartments, each containing a scroll with one of the four passages of scripture mentioned, and is bound to the head to symbolize that the law of God is always on the forefront of our minds. “In the scriptures ... the forehead represents what a person’s thoughts dwell on and therefore what he loves or desires. ... For the same reason, the Mosaic high priest wore an engraved gold signet on his forehead that read ‘Holiness to the Lord’ (see Exodus 28:36-38). This was a reminder that his thoughts should always be holy, with the result that his actions would follow suit.” [2]

Modern-day tefillin showing the scroll compartments (head-left, arm-right)
The arm tefillin contains only one long scroll, with the four scriptural passages written one after another, and is bound so as to be near, or pointed towards, the heart, symbolizing that we do not just know the words of the law, but that the law has been revealed to our spirits through our heart. [3]   Modern arm tefillin are bound around the arm seven times, and also around the hand and middle finger, representing that the law is to proceed from our hearts, to our arms, down to our hands, becoming our actions in all that we do.

The fringes or ‘borders of their garments’ or tzitzit in Hebrew, refers to blue tassels tied to the four corners of their garments and were meant to be a constant reminder of God’s commandments. The Lord said unto Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, ... that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord” (Numbers 15:38-39).

It is significant to note that in condemning the Pharisees for their tefillin and tzitzit, the Lord does NOT condemn them for wearing them, or for even having larger tefillin or longer tzitzit than others! The reason he condemns the Pharisees is because they wear these “to be seen of men” (see Matthew 23:5)

Replica of a Dead Sea Scrolls tefillin compared to an ancient coin
I think this teaches us several valuable lessons. First, be slow to judge on things of outward appearance. If someone seems to be a certain way because of their clothing, the circumstances of their birth, upbringing, size of home, status of life, or whatever it may be, remember that even Jesus only judged men for what was in their hearts, not for their outer appearances.

Second, on a more personal level, we must be careful about the reasons we obey the laws of God, especially the more outward and noticeable laws, such as church attendance, honoring the Sabbath, or dress and grooming standards. Do we obey the laws of the Lord only so that others can see how good we are, or do we obey them because we truly have God’s law bound to our heart and mind?

I can’t help but wonder if God specifically gave us some of these more “outward” laws so that we can prove to Him that the law is actually more inward. To prove that the law is deeply rooted into our souls, and that we show our religion not just by what we wear or by how we look, but by how we love, serve and care about others. For this is the true purpose behind the law.

[1] Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, page 48
[2] The Lost Language of Symbolism, page 39 (see Forehead)
[3] The Lost Language of Symbolism, page 45-47 (see Head and Heart)