A striking contrast is evident in the meanings of two biblical festivals that occur just five days apart in the middle of Tishri, the seventh Hebrew month. The tenth day of Tishri is the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), a day of prayer and fasting, reflection and repentance (see Lev. 16:29-34; 23:32). But just five days later is the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), a time of great rejoicing (Deut. 16:13-15) that looks forward to the coming of a future messianic kingdom (Zech. 14:8-19).
What is the significance of such an unusual juxtaposition of festivals? In part, it is a reminder of the age-old difference between human actions and intentions, the continuing chasm between the way things are and the way they ought to be. This gap is a major biblical theme.
Consider, for example, the instruction given by Moses to the children of Israel as they came to the end of their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness and prepared to occupy the land of Canaan. In Deut 15:4-6, Moses described what life in the Promised Land could be like if the Israelites were obedient to God. "But there will be no poor among you," he declared, "for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess [...]."
Moses then added that the Israelites should always give freely to the poor (vv. 7-10). He concluded, "For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'"
Notice that verse 4 says "there will be no poor among you," while verse 11 counters that "there will never cease to be poor in the land." Did Moses contradict himself? No, he was trying to accomplish two important goals simultaneously. On the one hand, he wants them to catch the vision of the abundant life that could be theirs if they followed God's way. At the same time, though, he was realistic about the problems they would face on account of human weakness. Most likely there will be a discrepancy between the real world and the ideal world, so he urged them to make every effort to close that gap!
The importance of bridging the gap between the real world and the ideal world is one of the messages of the Day of Atonement. Isaiah 58, a passage traditionally associated with this day, teaches that the fasting of Yom Kippur is not to be an end in itself. Instead, it should be a springboard to biblical behavior, like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked (vv. 6-7, 9-12).
In Jewish tradition, the process of making the world a better place is called Tikkun Olam (literally, "repairing the world"). Participation in this process is a fundamental duty in Judaism. It is also a hallmark of Christianity.(1)
The early Jewish Christians of Jerusalem viewed themselves as a righteous remnant of Israel, a group for which the messianic age had arrived. They set out to create an ideal community, establishing relationships characterized by mutual love in obedience to their King's command (John 13:34-35). Luke reports in Acts 4:34-35 that, "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."
In verse 34, the Greek phrase for "there was not a needy person among them" is an almost exact quotation of the Septuagint's rendering of the phrase "there will be no poor among you" from Deut 15:4. This connection indicates that the early Christians hoped to form a society that would reach the standard articulated by Moses in Deut 15.
As we read further in the book of Acts, we find that the Christians faced many obstacles in trying to build such a society. Even though the Messiah had come, his disciples still wrestled with problems posed by sin, Satan, and surrounding cultures as they prepared for his return. For example, the utopian conditions described at the end of Acts 4 are followed immediately by the account of the deception attempted by Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).
But with the guidance of the Spirit of God, Christianity quickly began to make a significant difference in the world as more and more people were attracted to the loving communities established by the followers of Jesus. Sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that these communities were a key factor in the explosive growth of Christianity during its first three centuries. In his book The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996), Stark points out that life in the Roman Empire, by all accounts, was often short, unpleasant, and filled with fears and uncertainties. The large cities of the empire—e.g., Antioch, an early center of Christianity—were very densely populated, even more so than today's most crowded cities. Without the presence of adequate sanitation and infrastructure, filth, disease, fires, crime, and riots characterized life in ancient cities.(2) Into this cruel and chaotic world, Christianity brought a new way of being human; loving communities offering support and a purpose for living.
Historically, Jesus and his people do not get the credit they deserve for making the world a better place for so many through the ages. The forces of the Enlightenment claimed the improvements as their own, calling them progress under the banner of a humanist agenda that proudly wears the label secular. Regardless, Christianity continues to play this role today. In many parts of the world, life is still very short and filled with poverty, disease, and chaos. Where civil governments have difficulty addressing the needs of their people, Christians have stepped in to give help and hope to millions. One recent example is the success of Christian organizations fighting human trafficking in Cambodia.(3)
Our reality is that as Christians, we live in the gap—in the space somewhere between the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles. Our Savior has come bringing deliverance from sin, the joy of his presence, and the promise of an ideal world to come. He has also given us an example of selfless love for the world and the Spirit-power to live accordingly. It is equally important to keep in mind that the fullness of new creation reality remains an ideal until he comes again. While we wait for his return, our task is clear. Following his example and that of the saints who have come before us, doing all we can to bridge the gap by extending the influence of the Kingdom of God.
(1) See Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith by Marvin R. Wilson (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1989), pp. 332-333.
(2) The Rise of Christianity, chapter 7.
(3) See "Bringing Light to the Trafficking Fight" by Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today, June 2017, pp. 26-32.
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