December 21, 2023

Who Were the Wise Men?

Almost every Nativity scene features three wise men, each wearing a golden crown, and arriving from the east riding heavy-laden camels. But what do we really know about the wise men? Were there really even three? What was the significance of their gifts and what does their story teach us about our own journey to seek the Savior?

For centuries Christians have sought to learn more about the wise men. Some traditions even give them names, for example Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. While we often picture three wise men, the scriptures don’t actually tell us how many came. The only reason there so often are three magi is because they brought three gifts. Because of the dangers of traveling for long distances in a caravan, it is likely that there were more than just three wise men.

We also don’t know where they even came from, only that they came from the east. While there are many theories on their origin, some scholars have suggested they came from Babylon and were of Jewish descent. In 587 BC the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried away many Jews into slavery. Seventy years later, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. However, tens of thousands remained behind, creating in Babylon a thriving Jewish community.

The wise men being of Jewish descent living in Babylon makes logical sense because who more likely would be studying ancient Israelite prophecies about the coming Messiah? We can envision faithful Jews whose ancestors remained in Babylon, continuing to search and celebrate God’s sacred word. When a star appeared in the night sky revealing that prophecies of the coming Messiah were about to be fulfilled, they left everything and traveled to Jerusalem.

So what about the wise men being kings wearing crowns and adorned in royal robes of wealth? It seems later Christians, in an effort to fill in the missing details, went searching in the Old Testament. Isaiah prophesied, “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising…. The multitude of camels shall cover thee … they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:3, 6). From these verses later Christians presumed the wise men must be gentile kings arriving on camels from faraway lands. While these verses may have partial fulfillment in the story of the wise men, the primary context of this prophecy seems to describe the last days and is yet to be fulfilled. This means our wise men were almost certainly not wearing crowns!

After traveling a long distance from their homeland, the magi arrived in Jerusalem in search of a new born king. They first thought to visit the palace of King Herod, but this visit greatly “troubled” him. Herod had been placed upon the Jewish throne by Rome shortly after he had conquered Jerusalem around thirty years earlier. Because Herod was not of the royal family of King David, and wasn’t considered of true Jewish lineage, most Jews simply saw him as a Roman puppet king whom the Lord would someday overthrow. Because of this, Herod often went to extreme measures to retain his power.

Remarkably, when Herod consults his chief priests and scribes about the sign of the star, they are able to confirm the prophecies. It appears they took two prophecies, one from Numbers and another from Micah, to identify where the infant king would be born: “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, And a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Number 24:17). “But thou, Bethlehem … out of thee shall he come forth … to be ruler in Israel.” (Micah 5:2). While Herod’s scribes and chief priests were able to correctly interpret the ancient prophecies, they themselves were not even looking for the Messiah! The wise men had possibly journeyed for more than a thousand miles to find the newborn king of Kings. Yet Jerusalem’s priests and scribes seemed unwilling to even travel the short distance of approximately six miles, or ten kilometers, to the village of Bethlehem. This story reminds us that it isn’t enough to just know and understand the scriptures. We must be willing to go the distance to find the Savior so that we too can kneel before him and worship him.

Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem, imploring them to report to him after finding the infant King, supposedly so he too can worship him. Imagine the scene as these foreign visitors from distant lands began asking around the neighborhood to find the birthplace of the young king. Many locals might have laughed and scorned the visitors for their peculiar request. We are not told how long they had to search, but eventually they did manage to find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Matthew records that by this time, Jesus was a “young child,” suggesting that they had been on their journey for several months, if not longer.

It would have been a breathtaking moment for these faithful visitors who had traveled so far to find the young child. As they fell to the ground to worship him, they laid at his feet their precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But why these particular items? What is the significance of these gifts? Obviously such things would not be at the top of any child’s gift-list today. Powerfully, all three gifts were connected to temple worship, seeming to foreshadow the redemptive and sacrificial mission of Christ.

While jewelry, coins, and gold bars might come to our minds today when we think of gold, an ancient Jew would likely first think of God’s Tabernacle and Holy Temple. The Lord commanded Moses to cover much of the Tabernacle, including its walls, and all of its interior furniture with gold. During the time of Jesus, King Herod was in the process of renovating the temple and he had plated the entire facade and interior with large sheets of gold. If indeed these wise men were of Jewish origin, they would have seen gold as a most fitting and appropriate gift for Israel’s Messiah King who would be enthroned in the heavenly Temple.

Anciently, frankincense was more valuable by weight even than gold! The odors of human sweat, spoiling food, dung, smoke, and death would have dominated virtually every setting of daily life! Because of this, spices and incense like frankincense and myrrh were highly prized and quite valuable as they helped in masking unpleasant odors. Both of these incenses came from certain trees that mostly grow in southern Arabia. The incense is actually just tree sap, and is harvested by gouging the bark and letting the sap bleed out. After the sap dried, it was collected and brought by caravan to areas such as Jerusalem. The difficulty in harvesting and the long distance required in transport made the product extremely valuable.

During the morning and evening prayers, frankincense was burned on the altar of incense at the Temple. The smoke rising to heaven before the veil represented the prayers of the saints ascending to God. The gift of frankincense is an appropriate gift for the Savior, for it is because of his sacrifice that our prayers can be answered by God. 

Myrrh was similarly used to mask unpleasant odors and was often used as part of the burial process. John records that Nicodemus provided large quantities of myrrh which were used for the burial of the Savior. Myrrh was also melted down and added to the anointing oil for Aaron and his sons and all future priests before they could serve at the Temple (see Exodus 30:23). Myrrh is a fitting gift for the Savior who would die yet rise with healing in his wings, and as the Great High Priest who intercedes on our behalf!

Perhaps we cannot afford precious gifts like gold and incense. Still as we celebrate this Christmas season, what are some gifts that we might give to parallel the gifts of the wise men in significance and meaning? Like the wise men, let us give the Lord the gift of our time in studying and understanding His sacred word. Not just so we can understand the prophecies and revelations, but so that we can then go the distance, leaving behind every worldly thing to find the true king of Kings. Let us give to our Savior the gift of temple worship, laying our sins and self-serving desires on the altar of sacrifice, allowing the atonement of Christ to take effect in our lives. Let us give Jesus the gift of frankincense in the form of offering humble and meaningful prayers morning and evening. As we kneel, let us pray for the strength and courage to serve others. Then let us rise to our feet and do the works of Christ.

Perhaps most importantly, let us remember that the most significant gift ever given is the gift of our Father in Heaven. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). Let us remember this gift, and accept it from the Father by repenting of our sins and embracing the Savior’s example in all we do. This is the best Christmas gift we can give this season and throughout the year! The gift of Jesus Christ!


December 7, 2023

Jesus and Hanukkah

Every year, Jewish families around the world celebrate Hanukkah, the joyous festival of lights. Children light the menorah and for eight nights families remember the remarkable story of deliverance that Hanukkah commemorates. With all the conflicts, not only in Israel, but around the world, we long for true deliverance–light that can bring peace to a world darkened by war, hatred, and conflict. Many Christians are familiar with Hanukkah, but did you know that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah? In fact, the Savior gave a powerful sermon during this festival of lights helping us better understand his divine role as Messiah, Deliverer, and Redeemer!

The story of Jesus and Hanukkah begins shortly after He traveled to Jerusalem for the Feast Tabernacles–or Sukkot (see John 7:2). Tabernacles celebrates the final harvest at the end of each year and clearly foreshadows the final harvest of God and the coming Messiah. Jesus appears to have afterwards remained in Jerusalem until the time of Hanukkah which, depending on the lunar calendar, occurs anywhere from late November to the end of December. [1] During this period Jesus often taught in the temple, declaring to listeners, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.” (John 10:9). and “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep.” (John 10:14). “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, … and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (John 10:16). Why so many metaphors about sheep? Well, we’ll get to that later.

John’s Gospel records that shortly after the Savior made these powerful statements, Jesus was worshiping within the temple complex at a place called Solomon’s porch (John 10:22-23). Jerusalem’s majestic temple was undergoing a massive renovation started four decades earlier under Herod the Great (see John 2:20)--yes, the same Herod who’d tried to slay Jesus as an infant. This project doubled the area of the Temple grounds, [2] adding three expansive porches or colonnades, and many other impressive changes.

Solomon's Porch in Herod's Temple looking towards the south east

The easternmost colonnade, however, or Solomon’s porch, remained mostly unaltered because of the steep valley upon which it was built. It was so named likely because this porch dated to the original Solomonic Temple. Compared to a grand new porch like the imposing Royal Stoa with its coffered ceilings and large apse where the priestly counsel, or Sanhedren could meet, Solomon’s porch was far simpler in design. [3] Nevertheless, it provided ample shade and also would have served as a windbreak against the cold easterly winds coming off the Kidron valley. [4] Jerusalem only receives snow every few years, but winter conditions could still be harsh and this porch likely gave Jesus and his listeners welcome protection. 

The Royal Stoa with the apse where the Sanhedrin met

This location also featured a stunning view of the whole temple grounds with the gold-covered facade of the temple and the intricately carved stone of the surrounding courts and chambers. From this vantage point, Jesus and His listeners likely would have observed the many sheep being led through various gates of the court of the women, providing a fitting backdrop for His timeless metaphors wherein He declared Himself the gate and the Good Shepherd.

Hanukkah was a time for Jews to commemorate the dramatic events of almost two centuries earlier. About 170 BC, the Greeks under Antiochus IV captured Jerusalem and desecrated God’s temple. A statue of Zeus was erected inside its precincts and pigs sacrificed on the altar. Jews were understandably furious. Under the leadership of  a priestly family known as the Maccabees, Jerusalem and God’s temple were recaptured in 164 BC. Both temple and altar were rededicated and sacrifices to the Lord renewed. For this reason, the Gospel of John calls Hanukkah the “feast of dedication” (see John 10:22).

Priest lighting menorah

According to later tradition, as priests tried to relight the temple menorah, only enough consecrated oil remained for the lamps to burn for a single day. Yet, its flames lasted eight days, enough time to consecrate new oil. Even into modern times, Jews celebrate this miracle by lighting the menorah for eight nights. We don’t know exactly when this tradition started, but the most significant and celebrated Hanukkah event in Jesus’s day would have been the rededication of the temple and altar.

Knowing this background, let’s review the story of Jesus and His Hanukkah message. As He taught at Solomon’s porch, the people started inquiring in earnest, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:24 NIV). Especially at Hanukkah, the Jewish people would have yearned for a messianic figure who would free them from Roman oppression. The Hebrew word Messiah, like the Greek word Christ, means “anointed one.” In the Bible three main groups were viewed as messiah-like: prophets, priests, and kings. Jews saw these select individuals as sent from God. Anointing them with oil physically symbolized the authority God had poured down upon them. Figures such as King David, Solomon, and Aaron the high priest became inseparably connected with ideas of power and deliverance. So we can understand why during the festival of Hanukkah, the people were again seeking a new messiah.

Jesus teaching in Solomon's Porch

Notably, Jesus does not respond to their question directly. According to John’s Gospel, He replies, “I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.” (John 10:25-26). In other words, Jesus doesn’t offer a simple yes or no if He was the promised Messiah. Instead, He tells His listeners that they ought to already know the answer because His works done in His Father’s name already bear witness of this fact. He then states, “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30). This was more than many listeners could take and they took up stones–perhaps rubble from ongoing construction–to kill him. Jesus then asked why they wanted to stone him? The answer was quite simple. He had claimed to be one with God. It was one thing to claim he was the anointed one, similar to kings  and priests of the past. But Jesus was claiming to be the son of God, and one with the Father!

Jesus’s next words bring it all back to Hanukkah. He announces that He is the one “sanctified” or “consecrated” by the Father (John 10:36). The word used in this instance is the same Greek word that is used when referring to the dedication of the Tabernacle of Moses. [5] In essence, because Hanukkah was a feast commemorating the rededication of the desecrated temple, Jesus had announced, “God has dedicated me!” The scriptures tell us that the ancient Tabernacle and later temples were the literal dwelling place of God’s presence. At these holy sites, Israel communed with and became “at-one” with God. Jesus had boldly asserted that He was now that consecrated place! He was the Anointed One where people could come to become one with God.

Throughout this interchange Jesus repeatedly insists that He does His Father’s works to show that He truly is the anointed Messiah, having God’s authority. His works and the Father’s are the same, much as the servant of a landowner is authorized to act in the landowner’s name as a demonstration of unity, power, and authority. By doing His Father’s works, Jesus represents the exact same unity, power, and authority. 

It might have been easier if Jesus had simply declared Himself the Messiah. But, in this instance, He chose to teach by example–reinforcing over and over that he was one with God because he did His Father’s works! In essence, Jesus declares, “I’ll tell you who I am by how I live, not by just what I say!” 

How can we follow the Savior’s supreme example of oneness with the Father? Just as Jesus said, it is by doing God’s works. Christ’s unity with His Father doesn’t seem to mean a physical unity as much as a unity in purpose. His example powerfully emphasizes that we, too, must strive to become one with God by humbly doing God’s works.

As we ponder these sacred lessons from Hanukkah, let us look past the labels of Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Evangelical, or any other label we might give and focus on the all-encompassing title of being a true Christian. One anointed by His Holy Spirit to act, not just in name, but also in deed. Let us do the works of the Father by serving our neighbor, feeding the poor, empowering the powerless, and lifting the widow and orphan. Doing the works of the Father brings power into our daily lives. Power that helps us overcome all things, bringing light into our lives, through Christ Jesus.

November 19, 2023

What Jesus taught about Thanksgiving and Gratitude

Many cultures around the world have a day of Thanksgiving where families gather together, often at the end of harvest season, to thank the Lord for their bounteous blessings. Thanksgiving is a time for us to remember how gracious God has been to us—an opportunity to acknowledge that all we have comes from the Lord. Giving gratitude, obviously, should not be limited to just once a year. The Savior taught by example that giving gratitude should be a part of our everyday lives and that significant power can come to us through giving thanks.

To better understand how to give true thanks, let’s review a few memorable moments from the Savior’s ministry. It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t often talk about giving thanks. Not directly. Instead, He seemed to prefer to teach this principle through example. Here are five stories that exemplify His approach.

The disciples feeding the multitude by James Tissot

First we’ll examine the account of the feeding of the 4000 as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (see Matthew 15:29-39 and Mark 8:1-10). Jesus had been teaching a multitude near the shores of the Sea of Galilee for several days. As he looked out upon the people, he had compassion on them and asked his disciples to feed them. The disciples, of course, hesitated, reminding Jesus that they lacked any means to purchase a sufficient amount of bread to feed this large multitude. The Savior then asked for all that the disciples had, which was a mere seven loaves and a few small fishes.

Here is where the Lord, by example, demonstrated the sacred power of gratitude. Matthew records: “Taking the seven loaves and the fish, He gave thanks and broke them” (Matthew 15:36 BSB). After He offered this prayer of thanksgiving, the hungry multitude was miraculously fed. The Gospels do not mention if Jesus also blessed the bread. Perhaps He did. But in both Gospel accounts of feeding the 4000, the core idea emphasized is the Lord giving thanks. Jesus seemed so confident this miracle would occur, that instead of requesting a blessing, he simply offered thanks! The Savior’s example appears to stress the idea that instead of focusing all of our energies asking for blessings, we ought to express gratitude for our blessings, including for blessings we may have not yet even received!

Jesus and the ten lepers by Gebhard Fugel

Next, let’s examine the account of the Savior’s healing of the ten lepers (see Luke 17:11-19). As Jesus journeyed with his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem, they encountered ten lepers who cried unto the Lord to heal them. Jesus instructed them to show themselves to the priests at the temple. As they went, they were all healed of their infirmity. One of the ten who had been healed hurried back to the Savior, fell to the ground and expressed sincere thanksgiving. Christ then gave these potent words: “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18 NIV).

Note that Jesus, who performed the miracle, does not condemn the other nine for not expressing humble thanks to Him or for acknowledging the Savior’s divine power. Instead, he rebukes the other lepers for not giving praise and thanks to God! Jesus might have easily drawn the focus to himself for the miracle he had wrought, but instead he pointed to the Father as the true source of that power. From this we can learn that we should always give praise and glory to God for all he does, instead of seeking praise for even the great things that we might think we have done.

Our third example of giving thanks is found after Jesus had been teaching in Galilee. Perceiving that his disciples and the people were understanding his words, he stops, seemingly in mid-thought, to declare, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 11:25). It’s as if the Savior could not even contain his gratitude and felt he should immediately give thanks to God for revealing his message to the hearts and minds of those who were listening. [1] Likewise, we should also be quick to give glory to God whenever his words penetrate the understanding of those we teach and minister. We should recognize that, while we may be his instruments in conveying his word, it is ultimately the Spirit of God that reveals truth.

Raising Lazarus from the dead by Anton Robert Leinweber

Fourth, let’s turn to the miraculous account of the Savior raising Lazarus from the dead. As Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem for the last time prior to his final week in mortality, he had been informed that his friend Lazarus was very sick. Still, he delayed his coming for several days. At last when the Savior arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead and lying in the grave for four days. Lazarus’s devout sisters, Mary and Martha, were deep in mourning, telling Jesus that if only he had arrived sooner, their brother, Lazarus, would have been healed.

Here again Jesus uses this moment to emphasize the eternal significance of gratitude. After arriving at the tomb, the Savior asked them to roll away the stone. John records, “Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” (John 11:41-43 NIV). Did you catch that? Again, Jesus didn’t request this miracle. Rather, he offered thanks because, as he says, God had already heard him. It was as if the miracle had already transpired. This is how certain the Lord was that Lazarus would, indeed, be raised!

The Last Supper by Andrei Mironov

The final story is from the Last Supper. Only days after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus sat down with his disciples to celebrate the Passover. As part of the meal, the Gospel of Luke declares, “And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves…. And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them.” (Luke 22:17-19). This must be regarded as the most meaningful, consequential moment of gratitude from any of the four Gospels. 

Here is our Savior Jesus Christ, fully aware of the heart wrenching events that await him over the next 24 hours. In his moment of greatest trial and hardship, Jesus does not turn to bitterness, but instead he turns to gratitude! Even in these very tokens, the bread and wine, which foreshadow his coming suffering and death, he thanks God for his blessings! While we can only speculate on why the Savior gave these words, it would seem that through gratitude, Jesus received the additional strength and power he needed to overcome all things. As we gather each Sabbath to remember the emblems of his sacrifice, let us follow Christ’s example in giving gratitude to God for the extraordinary gift of his son, even Jesus Christ!

Everything we have, all that we are, and everything we may become, is in direct consequence of our Heavenly Father, whose greatest joy is reflected in the reality that he so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son here to earth. Why did he send him? To save us. To perform the ultimate sacrifice that forever bridges the impassable gulf of death and hell so that we can be received into his kingdom and inherit his eternal glory, if we will just receive the Savior.

This season, and all the year round, let us follow the example of the Savior, who on so many occasions, instead of seeking blessings, chose to express gratitude. Who recognized God in all things. And who, even in his darkest moments of life, gave thanks for the blessings he had been given. As we follow the Savior, may we learn to “seek and expect miracles” [2] knowing that the Father also always hears our prayers because of his son, Jesus Christ!

Script written by Daniel Smith and Chris Heimerdinger

November 12, 2023

Finding Christ in the Ark of the Covenant

 

The Ark of the Covenant is perhaps one of the most sacred and well-known artifacts from the pages of the Bible. Countless movies and documentaries have been made discussing its mystical power and supposed whereabouts. While we won’t attempt to answer what may have happened to the Ark over the centuries, we will discuss why this holy object was so significant and how it can teach us about the atoning power of Jesus Christ.

First, it may be helpful to give a bit of context about the ancient Israelite Tabernacle, where the ark was first placed. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, the Lord appeared to him and gave him tablets of stone, upon which were engraved the Ten Commandments. These essential laws represented God’s covenant with Israel. If the people would obey God, he would provide for them, give them his priesthood power, and allow all who were worthy to enter his presence. They would become a “kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

Moses with the Ten Commandments (photo by Appian Media)

However, seeing the thunderings and lightning on Mount Sinai, the people were fearful and instead asked that Moses speak with the Lord on their behalf (Exodus 20:18–21). In other words, because of doubt and fear, they rejected the opportunity to enter God’s presence. As a temporary solution, the Lord commanded that Aaron, the high priest, would go on their behalf, acting as a mediator between the people and their God.

To facilitate this process, the Lord commanded Moses to build a Tabernacle in the wilderness. It served as a prototype for returning to God’s presence, showing Israel how to symbolically enter into sacred space through the mediation of God’s appointed priests. As worshipers approached the Tabernacle, they could only enter through the colorful gate on the east side. It taught Israel that there was only one entrance to begin their journey back to God. Next was found the altar of sacrifice, where Israel was taught that it was only through the shedding of blood that they could become reconciled with God. In front of the altar was the bronze laver, where the priests ritually washed their hands and feet before entering the Tabernacle, symbolizing the need for spiritual purity.

Upon entering the main structure into the room called the holy place, the priests encountered the beautiful golden menorah, the table of showbread with its twelve loaves of bread, and the golden altar of incense. These objects represented light, nourishment, and the ability to pray and address God before the veil. At the far end of the room was a large veil embroidered with cherubim, or angelic beings, who guarded the presence of God. Only the high priest could go beyond the veil, and only on one day a year, called the Day of Atonement.

 After passing through the veil, the high priest encountered the Ark of the Covenant at the center of a room called the Holy of Holies. This most sacred space is where the Lord would commune with his people, and where the high priest would ritually intercede on their behalf. 

The high priest entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement

With this background, let’s now talk about the actual Ark itself. The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box made from acacia (or shittim wood) overlaid with gold. The acacia tree is one of the few trees that grow in the deserts where the children of Israel wandered for 40 years. Because of the harsh climate with little moisture and scorching heat, the acacia wood is extremely durable and is an excellent choice for such a precious piece of furniture. Some writers have suggested that the durable desert acacia wood overlaid with gold could be a symbol of the Savior, who was raised in the dry land of Israel (see Isaiah 53:2) yet overlaid with the divinity of God. (David Levy, The Tabernacle, 26).

The box was rectangular in shape and around the size of a hope chest or seaman’s chest. On the top was the mercy seat, a solid gold lid that had two beautiful cherubim hammered and shaped from the gold. On the sides were four gold rings where two poles could be inserted to carry the ark. These staves, unlike the poles for the other Tabernacle furniture, were never to be removed from the rings (Exodus 25:15).

The Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle

The placement of the Ark at the center of the Holy of Holies hints at its supreme importance. As part of the sacred ritual for the Day of Atonement, the high priest would select two goats, and draw lots on each of them. One, called the scapegoat, would have all the sins of Israel symbolically placed on its head, and then the goat would be driven into the wilderness to die. The other goat was sacrificed, and its blood was taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant seven times. The word atonement comes from the Hebrew word, kaphar, which means to cover or blot out. The ritual taught Israel that it was only through the shedding of blood that one could enter the presence of God.

Inside the box was stored a bowl of manna, the stone tablets, and the rod of Aaron that had blossomed (Hebrews 9:4). It was called the Ark of the Covenant, because these three sacred relics reminded or commemorated the covenant made between the Lord and his people.

The tablets of stone, bowl of manna, and rod of Aaron inside the Ark of the Covenant

The bowl of manna symbolized God’s providence. It was a physical reminder that the Lord had given daily bread to Israel during their time in the desolate wilderness. The Savior, after feeding the 5000, taught that while God had provided manna for Israel, they all had died. He then identified himself as the true and eternally enduring manna from heaven, stating, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger.” (John 6:35). 

The two tablets of stone contained the Ten Commandments, as given to Moses by the Lord. As mentioned, God promised that if Israel would obey his laws, then he would protect them. Recall, however, that these laws—which everyone but Jesus Christ has broken to some degree or another—were covered by the mercy seat. It is almost as if the stone tablets are to remind us that while God’s laws of justice are enduring, they can be superseded or overpowered by his mercy. This was symbolized by the high priest sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat, representing the blood of Christ which mercifully protects his true followers from the full punishment of the law. 

The rod of Aaron was placed inside the ark to remind Israel of the priesthood power that came through Aaron. When Israel had questioned the authority of Aaron and the tribe of Levi, God commanded that a staff from every tribe was to be brought to the Tabernacle. Each rod was placed before the ark, but only the rod of Aaron blossomed. It was a powerful witness, showing that only the tribe of Levi, who Aaron represented, was authorized to perform priesthood rituals on behalf of the people.

The rod of Aaron with the other tribal rods placed before the Ark of the Covenant

In a way, the Ark of the Covenant can almost be seen as a type of safety deposit box. It held some of the most significant historical relics of Israel’s past, providing an enduring testament of his covenantal promises. These physical objects, situated at the center of the Holy of Holies, reminded them of God’s law and teachings, of his appointed priesthood authority to govern his people, and of his promise to nourish and protect them if they would only keep their covenants. Perhaps most important of all is that these items were covered by the mercy seat, showing that God’s laws, ordinances, and blessings are all facilitated through the merciful and atoning blood of Jesus Christ—the true Lamb of God. 

In the book of Hebrews, the writer describes in great detail the Tabernacle and ancient rituals. He explains that the high priest had to enter the Holy of Holies each year to make atonement for sin. This showed that this ordnance was not permanent or final, but had to be repeated on a regular basis. He then explains how Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest, who only had to enter once and for all (see Hebrews 9:12). When the Savior gave his life, there was no more need for animal sacrifice. Atonement had been made and will cover all who repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ. The writer of Hebrews then gives these powerful words regarding entering the Holy of Holies, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

How grateful we all can be, that we have a Great High Priest, even Jesus Christ, who has taken the sins of the world upon him. Like the ancient high priest, the Savior mediates between us and God, and because of his blood that he shed in Gethsemane and on the cross, we can all return to the presence of the Father, purified and without fear!

May 21, 2023

The Widow's Mite

The story of the widow’s mite is widely viewed as a model of true and meaningful sacrifice. This woman’s example teaches us that it is far more important where our heart is when we give than the amount of our gift. If we give or serve out of love and devotion to God, then even a small gift can be a great sacrifice.

To more fully appreciate the significance of this widow’s donation, let’s explore its historical setting.[1] First, we’ll look at where the story took place: the temple in Jerusalem.

During the time of Christ, the temple was in the middle of an over 80-year reconstruction project that began under King Herod and was thus known as Herod’s Temple.[2] As one of the largest structures in the world at that time, its beauty and grandeur was beyond comparison. High on the hilltop of Mount Moriah it could be seen for miles round about Jerusalem. 

While the temple itself stood at a majestic 150 feet tall, the temple complex was also massive, totaling about 37 acres, or approximately the equivalent of 26 football fields. Understandably, a project this extensive was quite costly, requiring significant donations and taxes from the people. 

Court of the Women in the temple of Herod

Towards the center of the temple complex was the court of the women, also known as the treasury (see for example Mark 12:41 and John 8:20). Thirteen collection boxes were placed here, each chest labeled for the various types of offerings that could be given.[3] On top of each box was a trumpet-shaped receptacle where donations could be made. As one can imagine, the coins falling down the shaft of the trumpet made a noise loud enough for others to hear. The larger the donation, the louder the sound. When teaching his followers about almsgiving, Christ may have been referring to these money boxes when stating, “do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do ... that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” (Matthew 6:2).

The trumpet shaped donation boxes in the Court of the Women

The temple was meant to be a place where God’s people could come to worship, make sacrifices, and learn to serve others. Instead, it was being corrupted by pride and hypocrisy—especially among the wealthy and religious elite. 

With this temple setting in mind, let’s now consider when the widow’s donation occurred. 

The Savior’s observance of this woman took place during the last week of his life, now known as Holy Week. At this time, Jews from all over came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. And for many pilgrims, this involved paying taxes and making donations at the temple. 

While anyone could freely donate any amount into the designated boxes, all Jewish males were required to pay a half-shekel once each year. The temple authorities, however, required that inferior Jewish coins be exchanged for Roman coins which had a higher percentage of silver. In order to make an exchange, the people were charged about an 8% fee, which was most likely pocketed by the corrupt temple priests along with a portion of the collected donations.[4]

When Jesus encountered this type of corruption at the temple, he overturned the tables where the money was exchanged, proclaiming they had made his Father’s house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:13). 

Yet this isn’t the only money-related teaching leading up to the story of the widow’s mite. There’s also the account of a rich man named Zacchæus (Luke 19:1-11), the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:12-26), and Christ’s teachings about taxes (Luke 20:20-26). And then just before the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus gives this powerful rebuke: “Beware of the scribes, which desire … the highest seats in the synagogues, … which devour widows’ houses, and for a shew make long prayers: the same shall receive greater damnation.” (Luke 20:46-47 KJV).

Together these teachings make it clear that Jesus wasn’t happy with the attitudes towards wealth and status that were being promoted by the religious leaders of the day. 

Decorative opus sectile floors under the porch of the Court of the Women

With this context in mind, let’s take a closer look at the story of the widow’s mite. As Jesus was teaching at the temple during his final week, he looked up and saw rich men casting their coins noisily into the donation boxes. But then he noticed another coming to make her own donation. She was a poor widow. Surrounded by the beautiful grandeur of the temple, she approached the court of the women and offered all that she had. But it was only two mites—what an average wage earner would receive for just about 12 minutes of labor.[5] Unlike the repeated and noisy clanking of larger coins made by wealthy patrons, her meager donation would have been almost imperceptible as it fell into the box below. 

Yet Jesus taught that this widow had put in more than all the others. For they “gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:3-4 NIV). In other words, it isn’t the worldly worth of a gift that matters, but rather the degree of personal sacrifice and devotion involved. Whether we are a poor widow or a rich young ruler, God wants us to be willing, if needed, to give up everything to follow him. The irony is that the law of Moses teaches that widows are to be cared for, but it is this woman who is freely giving to the very ones who should be caring for her. 

The widow giving her two mites in the temple treasury by Milo Winter

There’s more to the message, though, for Jesus knew that despite the efforts being made to renovate the temple, in only a few decades it would be destroyed. Directly following His teachings about the widow, He prophesied of the temple that “the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:6 NIV).  

For his listeners who were marveling at that very moment at the beauty and splendor of the temple, this must have been a shocking and disturbing message. How could such devastation come to such a holy place? And why would God allow it? The answer, at least in part, may be that it wasn’t nearly as holy as the people thought. 

Unlike this widow, who humbly consecrated all she had towards establishing the house of the Lord, the Scribes and Pharisees were making unacceptable offerings. In their pride and greed, they were desecrating the temple and using it to their personal advantage. So, God would eventually take the temple from them, much like they were defrauding poor widows out of their property. This prophesied destruction took place nearly 40 years later by a Roman army, who indeed dismantled the temple block by block.

As typified by the destruction of the temple, attitudes of pride and greed have a tendency to destroy the very things they are trying to lift up. In the end, God is simply not impressed by those who loudly proclaim their generosity while ignoring those suffering nearby. 

The poor widow who cast in her two mites may not have thought much of her meager offering. Perhaps she thought no one noticed. But Jesus did. Our Father in Heaven sees every good thing we do. He knows our hearts and minds. He sees our sacrifices and efforts, no matter how small or unimportant they may outwardly seem. Buildings may be destroyed, legacies may be forgotten, leaders may fall, but our humble service rendered to others will always be seen and remembered by the Lord.

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack and edited by Ryan Dahle

________________________________________

[1] The terms “mite” and “farthing” are used in the King James Version as they are British terms to denote a coin with low value. During the time of Christ, the widow would have donated a lepton or two lepta, a small, crude coin used in Judea. 

[2] The construction of Herod’s temple began in 20 B.C. and was completed before the Jewish revolt in 66 A.D. It was destroyed by Romans in 70 A.D. 

[3] The boxes were used for various donations such as new shekel dues, wood, bird offering, frankincense, gold for the mercy seat, and six for free-will offerings. 

[4] Richard Neitzel Holzaphel, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, pg. 122.

[5] Lesson of the widow’s mite, Wikipedia.

March 30, 2023

Jesus Heals a Lame Man at the Pool of Bethesda

In John chapter 5, we learn of the story of Jesus healing a lame man at the Pool of Bethesda. According to some Bible translations, an angel stirred up the waters which allowed whoever entered them first to be miraculously healed. Yet, the earliest copies of the Gospel of John only mention the movement of the water and say nothing about the angel. So, what caused this troubling of the waters, and, more importantly, what can this story teach us about becoming whole through the atonement of Jesus Christ?

The story begins with Jesus traveling to Jerusalem during one of the Jewish feasts (John 5:1). While John doesn’t mention which feast it was, some scholars suggest it might have been the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost (Brown, 206). Before a pilgrim could enter the temple, they had to become ritually clean by immersing in what is known as a mikvah filled with living water. Living water came from a natural source of moving water such as a spring, rainwater, or a stream. If even just a small amount of living water was added to water that was stagnant or not moving, all of it would then be considered “living,” and thus suitable for purification.

With tens of thousands of Jews coming to Jerusalem during such feasts, many ritual bathes or mikvot were constructed around the temple to accommodate the large crowds. The Pool of Bethesda is believed to be one of these ritual washing areas. Bethesda had two large pools surrounded by porches on all four sides, with a fifth porch, as referenced in John 5:2, dividing the two pools. Both pools were massive in size and together were about the dimensions of a standard soccer field. The pools were located at the bottom of a small valley north of the temple. During the rainy season, runoff water would funnel down the valley and collect into the northern pool. Today the northern pool has been mostly covered by centuries of soil and later structures making it almost impossible to visualize.

The southern pool had large steps and landings that led down to the water level. It was likely on one of these landings where the lame man rested. Visitors today can still see at least some of these steps, which have been exposed by archeologists. The steps are surprisingly tall as one climbs up them, making it understandable why the lame man was unable to easily climb down them.

The thick wall dividing the two pools, or the fifth porch, has a shaft that goes down to the bottom and connects the two pools. One could climb up and down the shaft because of small footholds that had been carved in the side of the wall, creating a sort of ladder. Climbing down, a person could open recesses in the shaft, allowing the water to drain from the northern pool to the southern pool. This would bring the “living” rain water from the north pool in contact with the stagnant water in the southern pool, making it usable for ritual purposes. As Jewish pilgrims came to Jerusalem, they could come to this pool, or one of the many others, and climb down the steps until they arrived at the water level. Once they had been immersed in the water, they were then considered ritually clean to worship at the temple.

Thus, rather than being the result of angelic power, the moving of the water seems to have been caused by water coming from the northern pool, bubbling up as it came through the drainage tunnel. With this setting in mind, let’s now dive into the story of the healing of the lame man by Jesus.

The day was the Sabbath. Many people with physical illnesses had gathered on the steps and large landings, where they waited for the movement of the water. Apparently, they believed that whoever was able to get into the moving waters first would be healed. As Jesus entered Bethesda, he was drawn to a particular man whom Jesus somehow knew had been afflicted for many years. We don’t know this man’s age, but for 38 years he had suffered, longing for a miraculous healing that never came.

Jesus walked up to him and asked, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6 NKJV). Instead of answering with a simple yes or no, the man replied that he had no one to help him into the pool when the waters were troubled. In essence, the man focused on what he perceived as the main obstacle that stopped him from being healed. In great power, Jesus simply stated, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk” (John 5:8). 

The man was instantly healed and took up his bed to leave as commanded by the Savior. Yet as he proceeded on his way, he was confronted by Jewish leaders who accused him of breaking the Sabbath. The Law of Moses didn’t actually prohibit the carrying of a bed on the Sabbath, but later Jewish traditions apparently did. As Jesus did so many times, he seemed to have purposefully healed this man on the Sabbath day, as it provided him an opportunity to teach about the true purpose of the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath is not about obeying contrived lists of dos and don’ts. Rather, the Sabbath should be a day for spiritual and even physical renewal and healing. It should be a day where we focus on reaching out to heal and lift others.

The occurrence of this miracle during a Jewish feast should also not be overlooked. Around this time, thousands of pilgrims would have been ritually bathing in these pools after a long journey toward the temple. We may ask ourselves, where did this man first go after he was bid to rise and walk. Perhaps it was to the temple, where, for the first time in nearly four decades, he would be able to participate in its sacred rituals (Razafiarivony). 

For those who have struggled for years with heart-wrenching physical or spiritual challenges, for those who feel no one is there to assist or heal them, the words of Jesus to the man at Bethesda can offer powerful comfort and encouragement. As Isaiah so beautifully wrote, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31).

This story teaches that Jesus is the true source of living water. No matter how long we have to endure hardships, we can trust that he will never forsake us. He can pick us out of any crowd and knows precisely what we need most. Whatever’s keeping us from progressing on our journey towards God’s presence, Jesus can lift us up and help us on our way. If it’s the stagnant or corrosive elements of sin that are keeping us down, the healing waters of Christ’s atonement can make us clean and whole. 

Even death itself can’t conquer us, seeing that through Christ all will someday rise up, walk, and live forever! “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). In a way, no matter our circumstances, Jesus is bidding each of us to take up our beds and walk—to walk with him, to walk for him, to walk and follow him. As we act in faith, we’ll find that we have the power to do whatever he commands, because he has lifted us up and made us whole.

February 16, 2023

Finding Christ in the Altar of Incense

The golden altar of incense was placed before the veil of the Tabernacle of Moses. Every morning and evening the priest burned incense there, offering prayers on behalf of all Israel. Through the symbolism of this sacred altar, we can learn of the powerful connection between the power of prayer and the Savior’s suffering and sacrifice.

The altar of incense, which was located in the Holy Place, shared many characteristics with the altar of sacrifice, situated in the courtyard. Both were made from acacia wood and overlaid with metal (the altar of sacrifice in bronze, the altar of incense in gold). Both were square in shape, had horns on each of their four corners, and had rings and staves for transporting. These similarities suggest there was a connection between these two altars. (Compare Exodus 30:1-10 and Exodus 27:1-8).

Each morning and evening, at the time of prayer, the priest, who represented all of Israel, would first wash his hands and feet at the bronze laver (Exodus 30:20-21), and then he would offer a lamb as a burnt offering on the altar of sacrifice (Exodus 29:38-41). He would then wash again before entering the Holy Place, taking with him a coal from the altar in the courtyard. Originally, the fire at the altar of sacrifice was lit by God when He first accepted the Tabernacle (Leviticus 9:24), and it had continued burning uninterrupted, because of the maintenance of the priests (Leviticus 6:9, 12, 13). This means that each day the incense was ignited from a coal that was originally lit by the Lord himself. 

Pillar of fire lighting down on the altar of the Tabernacle of Moses

With the incense burning on the altar in front of the veil, the priest would then offer a prayer with raised hands, requesting blessings and redemption for all of Israel. The rising smoke represented the prayers of the saints ascending to God before the veil. The Psalmist wrote, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2; see also Revelation 5:8 and Revelation 8:3).

The substance burned at the altar was to be made from a combination of spices and incense, including frankincense, one of the gifts later given to the young Jesus by the wise men. These ingredients were to be finely ground down to a powder, which produced a sweet-smelling fragrance when burned at the altar (see Exodus 30:34-36). The grinding down of the incense can be seen as a symbol of the Savior, who was ground down and burned in the fire of affliction, that our prayers might be answered before the throne of God.

A priest praying with raised hands at the altar of incense at the Tabernacle

As we study these morning and evening rituals enacted by the priests, we can learn several valuable lessons that can help us as we seek to approach the throne of God through prayer. First, just as the priest had to symbolically wash and offer a lamb as part of the daily prayers, we should seek daily repentance as we petition the Lord. Moreover, as we place our faith in the Lamb of God, we become spiritually clean through his atonement. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).

With the offering of the lamb on the altar, the priest could then enter the Holy Place, having been washed, clothed, and permitted to proceed to this sacred room. Here before the presence of the Lord, he could offer prayer for all of Israel. The similarities between the altars of sacrifice and incense show a progression of sacredness in the offerings given. In the outer courtyard, the sacrifice of an animal can be seen as a symbol of our sins and iniquities that must be placed on the altar. The death of this innocent animal is a type and shadow of the suffering and death of our Savior. In contrast, the burning of the finely ground incense and spices can represent a sweeter savor and a more sacred offering to the Lord. The pleasant aroma rising towards heaven could symbolize our prayer, service, devotion, and consecrated efforts to build the Kingdom of God. It focuses our attention on praying for others and lifting and serving those in need. 

Smoke rising in front of the veil from the altar of incense

In our own daily prayers, we can follow this pattern by first seeking daily forgiveness of our wrongs as if at the altar of sacrifice. This gives us the chance to have a new start each day. Once washed and cleansed through the blood of the Lamb, we then symbolically approach the throne of God and pray for those around us who might be in need of the Lord’s comfort or support. After we finish our prayers, we then allow the Savior to work through us, as we serve and bless the lives of others through acts of kindness and love. 

Just before the birth of Christ, the priest Zacharias was chosen to offer the incense and pray on behalf of Israel in Herod’s Temple. While he prayed an angel appeared on the side of the altar and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son. The angel then prophesied that this son, John the Baptist, would prepare the way for the coming Messiah. For hundreds of years, priests had offered countless prayers at this altar, petitioning for blessings upon Israel. Now, those prayers had been heard, the Messiah would come! Redemption for Israel was near! This can teach us that answers to prayers don’t always come when we might hope, but answers will always come in the timing of the Lord!

We each have the opportunity, like the ancient priests, to offer our prayers before the Lord, morning and evening and throughout each day. As we find our own sacred and holy space, we can symbolically be washed through the blood of Christ, and then enter the holy presence of the Lord to request blessings for ourselves and others. How glorious it is that our Father in Heaven allows us to approach Him in prayer, and that because of the sacrifice of his Son—the Lamb of God—we can find the answers, comfort, and blessing that we seek!

February 2, 2023

Jesus and the Synagogue

 

Shortly after Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days, He came to Nazareth, His hometown, and entered the synagogue to declare that He was the promised Messiah (Luke 4:16–30).

Understanding synagogues at the time of Jesus can help us better visualize this pivotal moment, when, according to Luke, Jesus began His ministry. Several ancient synagogues dating to the time of Christ have been excavated in Israel, giving us a remarkable view of what it might have been like to worship and hear the Savior’s words as He taught on this occasion.

Synagogues were the main civic and religious center of Jewish life. The main worship area was generally rectangular in shape with stone benches around the sides where people could sit. Unlike most religious churches today—with pews facing one direction towards a pulpit—these stone perimeter benches allowed for more of a discussion or debate. Pillars within the chamber held up the ceiling, and thus blocked the view of some of the participants. This suggests that the building was designed primarily for hearing instead of seeing the speaker. Both men and women were allowed to attend, though women possibly sat in a separate area from the men and likely had minimal involvement except to listen to the teachings. 

As the townspeople entered the synagogue, the best seats were reserved for the higher-ranking officials (see Matthew 23:6). These were likely on one of the lower benches, or a single bench against the wall. These would have provided more space while separating them from the commoners. In addition, these reserved benches were likely not placed behind any of the pillars, allowing an unobstructed view of the reading and study of the Torah.

Synagogues were normally quite plain in design. The floors would have been made of packed dirt or plaster. The walls would also have been plastered, though we do find some examples of colorfully painted frescos. 

The Magdala synagogue is one of the best-preserved synagogues from the time of Jesus. While still fairly modest, some of its floors were decked with beautiful mosaic tiles, including in the main worship area around the perimeter of the room and also the room where the torah scrolls may have been stored. The walls had beautiful frescoed panels. Several of the original remains still show the vivid colors of the original paint, and even the pillars themselves were plastered and painted in red.

In the center of the main room stood an impressive stone-carved bench or podium, depicting one of the earliest examples of the tabernacle or temple menorah. The stone also portrayed other temple-related objects, including the table of showbread, the altar of incense, and the holy of holies with the presence of God. It’s thought that this stone served as a base for a wooden stand, upon which the torah scroll could be read. Others have suggested that it also could have been used as a bench for sitting, or as a table for offerings brought to the synagogue, such as the offering of the first fruits.

Some synagogues also had secondary rooms which were likely used for small study groups. At the Magdala Synagogue, this type of room features a large rectangular stone with two carved notches. This stone may have been for holding open a torah scroll as it was studied. Because the stone is low to the ground and surrounded by benches, it would have allowed multiple students to gather around the scroll as they learned to read and study the scriptures. It was also common to have a small storage room off the main room for holding the torah scrolls. 

Each Sabbath, as the townspeople gathered at the synagogue, one person was assigned to read from the torah. An attendant would retrieve a scroll from the torah room or from a portable storage box and place it on the table at the center of the room. The book of scripture and specific passages would already have been likely selected beforehand, so the reader would simply open the scroll to the designated location and begin to recite its words. Once finished, he would return to his bench and sit down to expound on what he had just read. It’s been suggested that standing while reading showed respect for the sacred text of the scriptures, while sitting signaled that the individual was no longer reading the word of God, but instead giving his own interpretation.

With this background, let’s now study the story of Jesus as He taught in the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth. No doubt, the people there had heard about his profound miracles and were possibly hoping for some type of spectacle! Jesus certainly stirred things up, but probably not in the way they expected. After entering the synagogue, Jesus stepped to the center of the room, was given the scroll of Isaiah, and began to read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18–19).

Jesus then returned the scroll to the attendant and sat down, stating, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21). This bold declaration shocked his listeners, and for good reason. Jesus had just declared that He was the promised Messiah! The word often translated as Messiah or Christ in the New Testament comes from a Hebrew word meaning “anointed.” While prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed in ancient times—thus making them all types of a messiah—this passage from Isaiah was thought to refer to the promised Messiah, who would come to save or redeem Israel.

Sadly, the people who had watched Jesus grow up in their midst could not see him as anything but the son of Joseph (see Luke 4:22). How could He be more than a common carpenter, like his earthy father! In rage, they took hold of Jesus, thrust him out of their village, and then attempted to kill him by throwing him off a cliff. However, his time had not yet come, and Jesus miraculously escaped through the crowd. (Luke 4:28–30).

If only the people of Nazareth had been more patient, they may have seen that each of the prophecies that Jesus read from Isaiah were fulfilled during His earthly ministry. In his sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the gospel to the poor, saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). He healed the brokenhearted, not only by blessing and curing the masses, but also as He ministered to the one. On the cross, Jesus proclaimed deliverance to the thief who hung next to him, stating, “today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NKJV). Lastly, of all the miracles in the Bible, the only person that is claimed to restore sight to the blind was Jesus himself, which he did on several occasions. So there’s no question that his personal ministry adequately fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy.

Yet, perhaps even more meaningful today, is that Jesus Christ is still fulfilling Isaiah’s words. In one way or another, we are all spiritually poor or weak. We’re all blind to important sacred truths. And we’re all in spiritual captivity or bondage, due to sin. The question we must ask is how do we see the Savior of the world? Do we see him just as a common man, a carpenter, the son of Joseph? Or do we see him as the promised Messiah!

As we come unto Christ and recognize him as our personal Lord and Savior, Isaiah’s words will be realized in our own lives on a daily basis. Jesus is the only one who can deliver us from spiritual poverty, captivity, sickness, and death. He truly is the Christ, the Anointed One—the Messiah foretold by ancient prophets.

April 28, 2022

Finding Christ in the Golden Menorah

 

The menorah is one of the most recognized objects of the Jewish faith. It is a sacred lampstand used for worship and remembrance. Within the Tabernacle of Moses the only source of light was the oil-lit menorah. The symbolism of the menorah can teach us about our true source of light, even Jesus Christ, who lights our path as we make our journey back to the presence of God.

As the priest entered the Tabernacle, the first thing that would likely draw their eye was the beautiful golden menorah. The menorah was to be made of a talent of pure gold, or about 75 pounds or 34 kilos. This means we know the weight of the menorah, but we don’t know its dimensions. Unlike the recognizable Hanukkah menorah with 9 branches, the Tabernacle menorah had 7 branches. The number seven often represents perfection or completion. When one considers the story of the creation, for example, it was not perfect or complete until the Sabbath day when God rested having finished His work. Likewise, our week is not complete without the Sabbath day.

The menorah arms were decorated with almond buds, blossoms, and flowers reminiscent of an almond tree, the first tree in Israel to blossom in springtime. This could be symbolic of Christ, who was the first fruits of the resurrection. The rod of Aaron within the ark of the covenant was also flowered with almond blossoms. According to Jewish tradition, the decorated menorah also represented the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Thus, as the priest entered the holy place, he would find several symbols of Eden, the menorah, representing the tree of life and the cherubim on the veil, which guarded the way back to the presence of God. In Solomon’s temple, the room also had beautiful flowers and palm trees engraved on the walls, again connecting this sacred space with the symbolic journey back into the garden where God dwells.

The Bible teaches us that these beautiful tree-like details of the menorah were to be hammered into shape. This likely happened first by pouring the molten gold into a mold to get the general form, and then hammering the gold into shape. Through the hammering and beating of the gold, the beauty of the menorah came forth. Likewise, it is by the beating from the whip and the incredible suffering, bruising, and anguish of the Savior, which brought forth the resultant beauty of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

At the top of each of the seven branches was an oil lamp, which provided the only source of light for the Tabernacle. Only the purest of olive oil was used as fuel for the lamps to light the Holy Place. Olive oil was made by harvesting olives from an olive tree and then crushing the olives with a huge rolling stone. The mash of the olives were then placed into flat sacks and stacked beneath the olive press. A large beam with weights was cinched down, applying an incredible amount of pressure, causing the oil to run. The first oil to emerge was colored a dark red, almost the color of blood. The oil was then allowed to sit, the clean and clear oil rising to the top. Only the first pressing, which was the highest of quality, was used for lighting the temple menorah and anointing the priests. This pure oil would burn clean and clear because it had very few contaminants that would cause smoke. The next pressed oil, which was accomplished by adding more weight to the press, was used for cooking and for healing purposes. The last pressed oil was used for lighting the everyday Israelite home. This means that only the purest of the pressed oil was used to light the house of the Lord.

Beautiful symbolism that points to the Savior, can be found in the use of olive oil within the Tabernacle. Just before his crucifixion, the Savior prayed in what we often call the Garden of Gethsemane. The word gethsemane in Hebrew actually means an olive press, meaning that Jesus prayed in a garden that had an olive press. When describing this prayer, Luke wrote of the Savior, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Similar to the pressed down crushed olives, the Savior was pressed down by the sins of the world, the weight causing him to bleed from every pore. Just as the incredible pressure of the olive press is used to bring forth light, healing and anointing power, so too the suffering of the Savior brought forth the power of the atonement that gives light to those in darkness, healing balm from the sins and sorrows of the world, and anointing power to sustain us on our journey back to God.

Every morning and evening, these oil lamps were to be cared for to ensure that they were always burning. Aaron, the first high priest, was the first to have this responsibility. Aaron would trim away the blackened, burned portions of the wick and replace the spent oil. This twice daily service to trim, fill, and tend to the menorah coincided with the morning and evening prayers and sacrifices. Later, other priests were assigned to help with this duty. Just as the high priest Aaron tended daily to the oil lamps to keep them lit, we too must allow Christ, the Great High Priest, to tend to us each morning and evening so that we may  have His light. 

Just as the menorah was the only source of light for the entire Tabernacle, Jesus Christ teaches us that He is the one true source of our light. “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). Each of us has the daily opportunity to not walk in darkness by drawing near unto God in prayer every morning and evening and always. This simple yet powerful act can allow the Savior to trim the black-sooted parts of our lives as we experience sin, grief, and pain. He can refill our lamps with the essential oil needed in every aspect of our life. Our path back to God is lit by the Light of Christ, only made possible because of the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Savior. 

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack and Daniel Smith

Special thanks to Elder Alex Ducos, Ethan Fullmer, Elder Ryan Sampson, and Brian Olson for their help with creating the 3D model of the Tabernacle.

April 13, 2022

Finding Christ in the Table of Showbread

 

Within the Tabernacle main structure was the beautiful table of showbread. Every Sabbath the priests would partake of the twelve loaves on this table, representing a communal meal with God. The bread was to be placed before the presence of the Lord and can be a reminder of our own need to partake of the true Bread of Life, even Jesus Christ.

The table of showbread was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. Four golden rings were attached to the legs where wooden poles overlaid with gold could be inserted used for transporting. The table also had a golden crown molding and what appeared to be some sort of ledge that kept the objects on the table from sliding off as it was transported (see Exodus 25:25). Two stacks of six loaves, for a total of twelve, were placed on the table, likely representing the twelve tribes of Israel. This bread was called the showbread, bread of the face, or the bread of the presence because it was placed before where the presence of God would dwell. Surprisingly, each loaf was made from approximately 5-6 pounds of finely ground flour (see Leviticus 24:5), about the amount of a standard bag of flour! This would mean that the total weight of all the twelve loaves of bread would be around 60-75 pounds. The table also had a pitcher of wine that was used for the drink offering (Exodus 37:16). 

Before we study the meaning of the table of showbread, it will be helpful to first understand the importance of bread in the Bible. Anciently, bread was a highly significant part of every meal. Because bread was one of the cheaper items that could feed a family, large quantities of bread would be used. For this reason, bread was often called the bread of life, or the daily bread (see Matthew 6:11), because it literally sustained life. The task of making bread lay mostly with women, who would spend many hours each day grinding and sifting the wheat, then making it into small flatbread, and then cooking it over a fire. In addition, to being life-sustaining, the breaking and eating of bread could symbolize becoming at peace with your enemy. Inviting someone into your home to share a meal signified that you trusted them and also that you would protect them while they were under your roof. It was a sign of fellowship and unity. Bread also represented God’s provision to the people.

With this in mind, let’s now return to the meaning of the table of showbread. Though only the priests could enter the Tabernacle proper to partake of the showbread each Sabbath, because the priests represented all of Israel, it was as if all the twelve tribes were partaking of the bread. Included on the table were also two bowls of frankincense that would be burned on the altar of incense each Sabbath, as a “memorial” or “offering made by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 24:7). In essence, the Lord partook of His portion of the bread, symbolized by the burning of the frankincense, thus sharing a meal with the priests. After eating the bread, the showbread would be replaced by new loaves of bread which would stay on the table till the next Sabbath, meaning the bread would be week-old bread!

Though the scriptures do not directly relate the partaking of the showbread with the sacrament or communion, the symbols are too strong not to mention. Each Sabbath Christians around the world partake of broken bread and wine or water, to represent and remember the flesh and blood of Christ. Just as anciently, the priests are the ones who break and bless the bread, but today all followers of the Lord, not just the priests, are able to participate in the meal. Similar to ancient times, the partaking of the broken bread—a symbol of the broken flesh of Christ—symbolizes that we can become at peace with God through the sacrifice of the Savior. During His mortal ministry, Jesus taught “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). As we enter our sacred places of worship each Sabbath, just like the priests entering the Tabernacle each Sabbath, we become at one with God, or at peace with Him, through the breaking of bread. Through this symbolic meal, we are nourished and strengthened, the bread literally becoming a part of us giving us life. So too the atonement of the Savior carries us from day to day, allowing us ultimately to have eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Another fascinating connection is that each loaf of showbread was to be made of two-tenths of an epha of flour–about two quarts or two liters (see Leviticus 24:5). This was the same amount of manna the children of Israel were to collect in preparation for the Sabbath day (see Exodus 16:22). This showbread would thus connect the collected Sabbath manna, with this symbolic meal. During the mortal ministry of Jesus, after he miraculously fed the multitude, the next day the people listening to Jesus asked for manna from heaven. In response, the Savior taught, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever:” (John 6:51). Just as ancient Israel had to daily gather manna, we must daily feast upon the Word so that we can be nourished and strengthened. As we prepare for the Sabbath, we too should collect a double portion of this “living bread” so that we might be able to come into the presence of the Lord and feast with Him!

It is noteworthy that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means the “house of bread.” Just as the showbread was finely ground and placed in the fire to cook, so too our Savior was ground down under the weight of our sins and sorrows and placed in the fiery furnace of affliction for our sakes. Truly it is through His suffering that we receive the true bread of life. Bread that if we will partake of, we will have eternal life!

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack and Daniel Smith

Special thanks to Elder Alex Ducos, Ethan Fullmer, Elder Ryan Sampson, and Brian Olson for their help with creating the 3D model of the Tabernacle.