As I write this, Passover, the festival of freedom, has passed. Now we are counting the seven Sabbaths to Shavuot (Pentecost), the anniversary of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The rabbis say that Passover isn't completely over until Pentecost. Why? Because freedom without law is anarchy. After God redeemed the children of Israel by the blood of the Passover lambs and freed them from Egypt, He did not tell them they were now free to do whatever they pleased. No, He brought them to Mount Sinai and told them "I am Yahweh thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex. 20:2). Then He gave commandments, starting with the "Top Ten," to instruct His redeemed people how to live in freedom.
Deuteronomy 6:23 says that Yahweh brought them out from Egypt so that He might bring them into the Promised Land. God's call to leave one place is always followed by God's call to go to another place. God called Father Abraham to leave Ur and go to Canaan, setting an example and a pattern for us to follow. As the old children's song says, "Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you, so let's all praise the Lord."
So let's all follow Father Abraham's example and leave Ur and Babylon. And Egypt. And Sodom. And let's leave behind the things that should be left behind. Let's leave behind the sexual perversion of Sodom, the pagan idol worship of Ur, the mixture and confusion of Babylon, and the bondage of Egypt.
When the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, they left Egypt behind. Or did they? In body, yes, but in spirit, no. They left Egypt in a physical-geographical sense, but their hearts remained in Egypt. In the wilderness they yearned and pined for the pleasures of Egypt. "We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick. But now there is nothing at all, besides this manna, before our eyes" (Num. 11:5).
But the children of Israel did something even worse than lusting for better food and despising God's provision of manna. When they left Egypt, they brought the abominations and idols of Egypt along with them:
"In the day that I lifted up Mine hand unto them, to bring them forth of the land of Egypt into a land that I had espied for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands, then said I unto them, Cast ye away every man the abominations of his eyes and defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt: I am Yahweh your God. But they rebelled against Me, and would not hearken unto Me: they did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt" (Ezk. 20:6-8).
Someone once remarked that it took only one day for God to get the people out of Egypt, but forty years to get Egypt out of the people. But before we criticize that generation of Hebrews too harshly, perhaps we should remind ourselves that the Church has historically followed a very similar and equally disappointing pattern. Just as it took only one day to get the people out of Egypt but forty years to get Egypt out of the people, so it took only one generation to get Gentiles out of paganism, but it has taken nearly 2,000 years to get the paganism out of Gentile Christianity. If you are a Gentile Christian who doesn't have a clue what that statement means, that only proves my point. Let me elaborate.
After the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 10), the first century Messianic Jewish Community opened the door for God-fearing Gentile believers to come into the Messianic Community as full-fledged members, without needing to undergo a formal conversion to Judaism (Acts 15). As a result of this open door, many Gentiles left behind their pagan idolatry and came to the God of Israel through Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel. Their faith in Israel's Messiah made them a part of the commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:11-14).
At the Jerusalem Council, James stated that God's obvious plan was "to take out of them [the Gentiles] a people for His name." Then James immediately added, "And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom My name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things" (Acts 15:14-17).
James' final words at this Jerusalem Council was his remark that "Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day" (Acts 15:21). From this statement it is clear that the Apostles' obvious expectation was that Gentile disciples would learn the Torah as they continued attending synagogue every Sabbath, and that they would begin obeying the commandments as they learned them. James and the other Apostles did not say, "You Gentile followers of Jesus go meet somewhere else on a different day of the week, ignore Moses, and develop a new religion called Christianity."
Such a suggestion would have seemed ludicrous and unthinkable to the Apostles. From James' own words it is obvious that the Apostles expected Gentile believers to continue learning Torah "in the synagogues every sabbath day" (Acts 15:21).
So the plan was to free Gentile disciples from their pagan superstitions and pagan traditions. The Gentile disciples left behind their pagan idolatry in a physical sense. They quit doing things like bowing down to idols, offering human sacrifices, fornicating with temple prostitutes, and other external perversities of paganism. But just as the Hebrews took the abominations and idols of Egypt with them when they left Egypt and went into the wilderness, so did many Gentiles take pagan ideas and pagan traditions with them and brought these things into the Church. How do we know this? From history, but even more importantly, from the New Testament.
Paul was writing to Gentile Christians in Galatia. We know they were Gentiles, because they were seeking justification through physical circumcision, which amounted to a formal conversion to Judaism. Paul mentioned the Galatians' former service to false gods and their former bondage to the elements: "Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?" (Gal. 4:8f). The very next verse tells us that the form of pagan bondage they were lapsing back into was the pagan superstition which was forbidden in Leviticus 19:26 and Deuteronomy 18:10, the superstition called "observing times": "Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years" (Gal. 4:10). We might compare these Galatians to modern-day Christians who look to their horoscope for guidance. (The irony here is that the devil uses this single verse, divorced from the previous two verses and divorced from the rest of the Galatian context, to make Christians think that Paul, who was a Sabbath-keeper and Feast-Keeper, was rebuking the Galatians for Sabbath-keeping and Feast-keeping! This would be funny if it were not so tragic.)
Another New Testament passage that refers to the infiltration of pagan superstitions into the Church is Colossians chapter 2. Paul does not describe in great detail exactly which superstitions were at work in Colosse, but historians see hints of Gnosticism. Paul mentions men beguiling "with enticing words," "philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men," men beguiling others to practice "worshipping of angels," men using their man-made traditions to judge how others celebrate holy days, new moons, and sabbaths, and men pressuring others to base their diet on "the commandments and doctrines of men" rather than on the Scriptural commandments concerning food. (Just as the devil uses Galatians 4:10 to make Christians think that the Galatians were being rebuked for Sabbath-keeping and Feast-keeping, here too the devil twists Colossian 2 to make Christians think that Paul was rebuking the Colossians for keeping the Sabbath, holy days, and dietary laws.)
Many other New Testament passages show evidence of pagan ideas starting to infiltrate the Church: 2 Thessalonians 2:7 ("the mystery of iniquity [anomias, 'lawlessness'] doth already work"); 1 Timothy 4 ("seducing spirits and doctrines of devils...forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats which God hath created to be received...for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer." Yet another verse the devil twists, making Christians think that the dietary laws which were prescribed by God Himself (!) are "doctrines of devils," thus putting God in the role of a devil, by ignoring the qualifying phrases "created to be received [i.e., received as food]" and "sanctified by the word of God [i.e., permitted by God in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14]"); 2 Timothy 4:4 ("they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables"); 2 Peter 2 ("false teachers...and many shall follow their pernicious ways...Spots they are, and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceivings while they feast with you"); 1 John 2:4 ("He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar"); 1 John 4:1 ("many false prophets are gone out into the world"); 2 John 7 ("many deceivers are entered into the world"); 3 John 9 ("Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence...neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church"); Jude 4 ("there are certain men crept in unawares...turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness...these are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you"); Revelations 2:6 ("the deeds of the Nicolaitans"); Revelation 2:9 ("them which say they are Jews, but are not, but are the synagogue of Satan"); Revelation 2:14 ("them that hold the doctrine of Balaam"); Revelation 2:15 ("the doctrine of the Nicolatians"); Revelation 2:20 ("that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce My servants to commit fornication and to eat things sacrificed unto idols").
Because of the "certain men crept in unawares," Jude urges us to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). In our generation, there is a remnant of disciples who are willing to leave behind the sexual perversion of Sodom, the paganism of Ur, the mixture and confusion of Babylon, and the bondage of Egypt, in order to return to that "faith which was once delivered unto the saints."
When a remnant of Jews left Babylon to return to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah's day, their prayer of repentance included an acknowledgement of the sins of their forefathers: "they were disobedient, and rebelled against Thee, and cast Thy law behind their backs" (Neh. 9:26).
The Church would do well to likewise acknowledge this same error, and admit that the "Church Fathers" were wrong to cast away God's Law--at least a significant portion of it. Disobedience hinders prayers from being answered: "whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:22). But casting God's Law behind your back does even more than just hinder your prayers; it actually turns your very prayers into an abomination to God: "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination" (Prov. 28:9).
Our heavenly Father knew what He was doing when He gave His commandments. His commandments are instructions for living. Christians sometimes point out that every lost sinner has a God-shaped void that only God can fill. If God is not there to fill that void, the lost sinner will try to fill the void with something else. This is true. But it is equally true that every saved child of God has a need--a void if you will--for instruction to tell him how a redeemed child of God should live. The commandments of God are the perfect fit for that void. If the commandments of God are not there to fill that void, the child of God will try to fill that void with something else.
Why do I say that the commandments of God are the perfect fit for that void? Because man was designed to operate in harmony with God's laws. How else do you explain the fact that for nearly every law of God that Christians have cast behind their backs, they invent a similar tradition or custom to replace the commandment they discarded? For instance: They cast away the commandment to wear fringes as a reminder to behave like a child of God, and replace this commandment with "WWJD?" ("What Would Jesus Do?") bracelets to remind them to behave like Jesus. They cast away the commandments to affix God's Word to their doorposts (mezuzahs), and replace this commandment by affixing Bible verses to plaques, coffee mugs, clothing, and other merchandise. There's nothing wrong with wearing "WWJD?" jewelry or printing Bible verses on merchandise. But why not simply do things God's way instead of inventing a man-made substitute? If you want to wear "WWJD?" jewelry and buy merchandise with Bible verses, that's fine. But do it in addition to obeying the commandments of God, not as a substitute for God's commandments.
Some other Christian traditions that men have invented to replace commandments of God are those concerning food and fasting. God gave His dietary laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Christians cast these laws behind their backs and make up different dietary laws: No meat on Fridays. Abstaining from certain foods during the forty days of Lent. Among some Fundamentalists, no wine. Instead of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) fast commanded by God, fasting in the mornings on those days when communion is going to be taken.
Of course the most obvious Christian substitutions for the commandments of God are seen in the calendar. Yahweh gave His calendar with His Feasts, His appointed times, in Leviticus 23: the weekly seventh annual holy days. These appointed times commemorate God's creative and redemptive acts in past history, and they are also a shadow of things to come. Colossians 2 says that the Messiah is the substance that casts that shadow. But Christians have cast Yahweh's calendar behind their backs and invented a different calendar, one based on ancient pagan superstitions and the worship of false gods. So instead of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits, Christians celebrate Easter, a holiday whose name, date, and customs come from the spring festival of the pagan fertility goddess Astarte/Ishtar/Asherah. Instead of counting the fifty days between Passover and Pentecost, they count the number of shopping days ‘til Christmas, a holiday whose date and customs come from the pagans' winter festival that celebrated the rebirth of the sun god. Instead of keeping the seventh day holy, one of the "Top Ten" commandments of God, they substitute Sunday, the day that was set apart by the ancient pagans to honor the sun god.
Some people ask, "But what's wrong with borrowing old customs that the pagans used in their worship of their gods, and using them in our worship of the true God? Can't we take a custom or ritual that pagans used for their worship of false gods, and modify that custom or ritual for Christian worship? Can't these pagan customs and traditions be Christianized and used for the worship of Yahweh?"
That's a legitimate question, and that question is answered in the Bible. Yahweh says, "Learn not the way of the heathen" (Jer. 10:2). He makes it very clear that He does not want worship that is patterned after the religious customs of the heathen: "Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Ye shall not do so unto Yahweh thy God" (Deut. 12:30f). Then Yahweh immediately says how He wants His people to serve Him: "What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. (Deut. 12:32).
These instructions in Deuteronomy 12 are not just forbidding the worship of pagan gods; they are forbidding the use of pagan religious customs, even if the worshipper is directing his worship to Yahweh. When the Israelites made the golden calf, they claimed that their worship was being directed to Yahweh. Aaron built an altar before the calf and proclaimed, "Tomorrow is a feast to Yahweh" (Ex 32:5). It was not a feast to any of the gods of Egypt, but to Yahweh, they said.
There are many sincere Bible-believing Christians who truly know the Lord Jesus Christ, yet they still feel a void. Even though they have forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life, they sense that something is missing from their faith. If you are such a Christian, ask yourself if you have truly left behind the things that should be left behind. If you are holding onto any idols of Egypt or Babylon or Sodom or Rome, discard them and embrace what things soever Yahweh commands, and observe to do it, without adding thereto nor diminishing from it. You will find that the commandments of our heavenly Father will fill that Torah-shaped void in your heart.
Learn more about leaving Egypt behind.
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"Many Christians aimlessly wander in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, fluttering like a butterfly from one Christian fad to the next, never crossing over into their Promised Land."
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Image Source (Middle): Hebrew Slaves in Egypt 2 by Daniel Botkin from his Exodus Gallery on his art website, www.danielbotkin.com