The answer is an unequivocal... Yes; and No!
Symmetry - An exact correspondence of form and constituent configuration on opposite sides of a dividing line or plane or about a centre or an axis.
We live in a world of the instant: internet banking, microwave dinners, and instant messaging; and we expect God to be part of our instant response world. Christians need to step back and recognise that the God we worship is actually a God of process. Creation took time to accomplish and continues to take time; salvation is about being saved in the past, being saved today, and being saved in the future. God orders the world in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years.
Throughout the Bible, the God who is outside of time, steps into time to deal directly with mankind. The Bible is filled with examples of the timeless, formless Spirit of God entering the physical human world to bring His order to our chaos. The pinnacle of those acts of entering time is the incarnation - the ultimate physical manifestation of God as man in Jesus.
When God enters our world he uses raw materials that already there to achieve his objectives; He created man from the dust of the earth, he chose a representative people, the Jews, from an existing collection of related tribes; He established a system of worship of Himself based on principles that were already known the people. When Jesus healed people it was with local water from a healing pool at Siloam, or with local mud and his own spit; when he taught the crowds he illustrated his stories using familiar local people like fishermen and shepherds and scenes of wheatfields, flat-roofed houses and the nearby desert.
Let us look at the process that helps us to understand one of the most amazing events in the Bible; the Day of Pentecost. Without understanding the context we cannot begin to understand what the Day of Pentecost was all about. As Christians we probably think of Pentecost as the day of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and praise God for the gifts He brings us and the fruits he cultivates in us. That is not wrong. We might think of it as the birthday of the Church. That is not wrong either; but neither of these observations present the full picture. Pentecost didn’t just happen on a random day. It fulfilled the requirements of an ancient Biblical Jewish festival, Shavuot.
In the Pentateuch, that bit of the Bible Jewish people call the Torah, in the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy we find God’s instructions on how to celebrate Shavuot.
The name comes from the Hebrew number Sheva; seven. The plural becomes Shavuot - sevens which in turn becomes the Hebrew word for weeks. The Israelites were told by God to count seven sevens of days or seven weeks from the Festival of First Fruits (the barley harvest festival that occurs the day after Passover) and then to celebrate the wheat harvest with special grain offerings. The festival was to be known as Shavuot - weeks.
By the time of Jesus, contemporary writings like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Jubilees show that the Rabbis had included in the harvest celebration a reminder about the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Although the exact day that God gave the Law to Moses is not specified in the Bible it certainly occurs in the third month as we read in Exodus 19:1. Jewish commentators brought the harvest festival and the Law giving together.
Because the Law (God’s word) is considered to be milk and honey to God’s people - Song of Songs 4:11, it became a tradition to eat dairy products, cheesecake being a favourite, but also kreplach a kind of cheese filled ravioli. The triangular shape is an important memory aid. Kreplach reminds people of an ancient blessing thanking God for giving the Bible (Torah, the Prophets and the Writings) to a people of three classes (Priests, Levites and Israelites) through a third-born child (Moses born after Miriam and Aaron) in the third month. As we will see there is another deeper implication for the number three in the Festival, but more of that later.
Just as in some of our churches, a regular Bible reading cycle is followed in the synagogue. The system was already well established by the time of Jesus.
In this reading cycle as the instructions for celebrating Shavuot are read from the Torah. Accompanying portions from Ezekial (1:1-28 and 3:12) and Habbakuk (2:20 - 3:19) are also read. Both Prophets try to describe the indescribable presence of God.
The whole book of Ruth is also read because the story of Ruth occurs at the time of the barley harvest. The story is that Ruth, a woman from Moab, a land east of the Jordan river whose people were excluded from “the assembly of the Lord until the tenth generation” as a result of their ill-treatment of the Israelites. (Deut 23:3)
After marrying an Israelite man who subsequently dies, the widowed Ruth now has no social standing. She throws her life and her lot in with the Israelites, when she tells her mother-in-law Naomi that now “your people are my people and your God is my God”. (Ruth 1:16)
So Ruth is a gentile woman who enters into a covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So just to remind you, all this background is not for showing off our knowledge, but for demonstrating how God works through the process.
Now back to Exodus 19. The Hebrew Bible and the English Standard Version has two mentions of ‘camping’ in verse 3. The first mention of camping is in the plural and the second is in the singular. Is this significant, and if so why? Jewish people would certainly see some significance in two campings. There is a very old and persistent rabbinic interpretation of the verse that says in the first camping the Israelites are acting as a group of individuals hence the plural form of the verb. Remember the Israelites are made up of around 800,000 people - families from 12 tribes, descended from 12 brothers of very different temperaments. We can only begin to imagine the diversity of character amongst the Israelites. So the Israelites camped disparately and individually. Moses goes up the mountain and meets with God who tells him how the Israelites must prepare themselves for what is about to happen. In the second camping, the verb is singular and the rabbis say that this must indicate that the people are now one. They have stopped squabbling amongst themselves. There is no more “what shall we eat”, or “why can’t we have garlic ad cucumber” or “why is your tent so close to mine?” For the first time since they left Egypt, there is a sense of oneness and unity. After his first communication with God on the mountain, Moses relays God’s commandments through the elders to the gathered people, and they respond with “we will do everything the Lord has said”. At the time when the people are in unity, God appears on the mountain speaking personally with Moses in the midst of thunder lightning, thick clouds and a trumpet blast. Moses is the catalyst and the mediator between God and the people of Israel. As we’ve seen Ezekiel also talks about a stormy wind and fire flashing forth continually and heavenly voices. Habbakuk speaks of the glory of the presence of God in terms of bright lights and other physical phenomena. These events and the scriptures all point to something. They are preparing the Jewish people for something as yet, unknown. All the signs are there but how to interpret them?
Before we look at the signs let us consider Moses for a moment; Moses is important. Moses is a prototype of the Messiah and some of the things that happened to Moses happened to Jesus - both were banished to Egypt,
Moses prays and God gives manna, Jesus prays and God gives loaves and fishes,
Moses brings water from a rock, Jesus provides living water.
Now let us fast forward to the feast of Shavuot just after Jesus’ death. Remember, Jesus has already been described by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God; a reference back to both the Passover sacrifice that was made at the time He was being crucified and the Lamb of God to come, that was promised to Abraham. He also described Himself as the bread of life. Paul says in I Corinthians 15 that “He became the first fruits of resurrection”. In Luke 24:49 the disciples are told to “Wait in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”. The interpretation of the signs is about to be given. God is about to do a new thing. He manifests His presence to His people once more.
Just as at Sinai, He appears with fire and wind and voices, this time with Jesus - the greater Moses, being the catalyst. What state were the disciples in? The text clearly and deliberately says they “were of one accord in one place”. Just as the Israelites were in unity at Sinai, so were the disciples in Jerusalem. God bases his new work on an old one. In a glorious act of divine symmetry God the Father, sends the Holy Spirit to Jerusalem to reflect and compliment the giving of the law at Sinai. This time Jesus, that greater prophet promised by God in Deuteronomy 18, and not Moses, is the mediator and the Kreplach/Trinity picture is completed. The triune God makes manifest His presence in a way that most of the people there that day would understand. He really did nothing new; He used familiar people, places and images to achieve His objective. A short sermon, reminding the people about God’s salvation plan is preached by Peter and 3,000 people were saved and baptised; an inspiring story that makes preachers jealous!
So if the key is unity what is this unity about?
Did the Israelite’s submerge their diversity at Sinai? Did the disciples all suddenly think and act the same in Jerusalem? You will already know that the answer must be no! Unity is not a theological or idealogical state based on homogenous lowest common denominator theology, it is a behavioural state. We have to say to others “in spite of our disagreements and diversity, I am going to get on with you because we agree on the fundamentals of our faith”.
It is an act of will. When the people of God are in unity the presence of God comes in power.
If we want to experience God’s presence we must act in unity.
The church today desperately seeks revival and yet the people who make up the ‘called out ones of God’ cannot overcome their diversity and their disagreements. As we’ve seen, we don’t have to agree on every level but we do have to be united in our desire to seek God and obey His commandments. We cannot obey His commandments unless we have a firm foundation of trust in our relationship and the Bible consistently tells us that a firm foundation is built upon rock.
Isaiah 51 tells us that the rock from which we are hewn is Abraham, the father of people of faith and of the Jewish people. The whole of they passage is relevant to our current study. Without an understanding of our foundation, we are doomed to disagree and miss the presence of God. Paul tells us that we, the church are indebted to the Jewish people for the patriarchs (including Abraham), the scriptures, the prophets and indeed the Messiah. Debtors need to understand what their debt consists of. *Again Paul tells us gentiles in Romans 11 that our salvation is a blessing that arises from the general Jewish rejection of Jesus. But when the Jewish people finally recognise the Messiah there will be an even greater blessing to the world. It will be like “life form the dead”. That means revival. I believe the revival the church seeks will only fully materialise when we gentiles take up the baton that Peter ran with on the day of Pentecost and preached the good news about Jesus, the Jewish Messiah to the Jewish people. As a matter of unity we the church need to be zealous in our desire to see people become followers of Jesus. Part of that zealousness comes from understanding our roots in biblical Judaism and being ardent in our desire to see Jewish people coming to know Jesus as their personal Messiah. Paul says the Gospel is “to the Jew first and also the Gentile” if we preach only to gentiles we miss an opportunity to win those who are called the apple of God’s eye!