As we approach Pentecost, the first of a two-part look at the significance of a feast the church has largely forgotten
The terrible, heart-breaking tragedy at Mount Meron in northern Israel, which claimed 45 lives with many more injured in the crush, is not new among religious festivals. Muslims have suffered far worse disasters at Mecca over the years. And it’s clearly not a punishment from God, though, as with all tragedies, it serves as a warning that, unless we too repent, we will all perish likewise – a point Jesus made in Luke 13:4.
But there is, I believe, misplaced devotion in the Lag B’Omer festival, where some 100,000 Orthodox Jews gathered to celebrate ancient sages who appear to have assumed a virtual god-like status. This strikes me as coming dangerously close to breaking the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). Certainly, such worship seems to me something of a substitute for the real thing.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year, when the Lag B’Omer festival at Mount Meron was cancelled due to the coronavirus, Israel Today reported on how some Orthodox Jews rejoiced because they likewise view it as a form of idol-worship. See: Who is Practicing Idolatry in the Land?]
The mountain in question is not far from Mt Hermon, Israel’s highest peak straddling the border with Syria, reckoned by Bible teacher Simon Ponsonby to be the locality for the transfiguration of Jesus referred to in the gospels, where he was revealed in his glory in the company of Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets. After all, he had come to fulfil the law of Moses and the word of the prophets, and a voice from heaven declared: “This is my beloved Son… listen to him!” (Matt 17:5)
According to Ponsonby, there is evidence that Mt Hermon had been cluttered with pagan shrines, and that Jesus deliberately chose the venue for revealing his glory so as to challenge Satan on his own turf. So is it surprising that a substitute gathering has since gained a great following in the neighbourhood?
Nevertheless, Lag B’Omer is linked to Shavuot (Pentecost) in that it is seen as part of the countdown to the spring feast which, while also an occasion for rejoicing in the early harvest, traditionally celebrates the giving of the Law at Mt Sinai.
Shavuot thus became the perfect fit for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit when the law originally written on tablets of stone came to be written on the tablets of human hearts in fulfilment of the prophecies of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer 31:33, Ezek 36:26f).
So what is traditionally thought of as the birth of the Church is actually a Jewish feast, which explains why Jews from throughout the known world were gathered on the Temple Mount to hear Peter’s stunning sermon that led to the repentance and salvation of 3,000 people in which he explained, among other things, the strange phenomenon of speaking in tongues. The apostle had realised that the miraculous outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples, causing them to declare the wonders of God in all the languages of those present, had been prophesied by Joel, who said that all who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Joel 2:28-32).
My prayer is that our Orthodox friends would abandon substitutes and put their trust in the true Messiah, who came for the lost sheep of the House of Israel as well as for the Gentiles who were to believe in him through the witness of these and other faithful first century Jews.
Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). Only then would they be ready to preach the gospel beyond the city – in Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
But Jesus also said that the devil comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). The Lord, on the other hand, wants us to taste life in all its fullness. I think of the mountains around Cape Town, one of the most beautiful places on earth where I was privileged to have been born.
Among the landmarks in the shadow of the famed Table Mountain is Devil’s Peak. However, this was apparently not its initial name, which was ‘duif’ or ‘duiwe’ (plural), meaning ‘dove’ in Afrikaans, after the symbol of the Holy Spirit. But the word was so close to ‘duiwel’ (devil) that it was stolen for posterity.
Thankfully, Christians are reclaiming the original name (in spirit at least) as part of the restoration of the city’s godly heritage. But too many people, including our Orthodox friends, are being robbed of the inheritance for all who accept the free offer of eternal life in Christ, the Jewish Messiah, who also died for the sins of the whole world.
Indeed, they have been robbed of the essence of life that can only be found in Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus), who alone can take us to our Father in heaven (John 14:6). But how will they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? asks the Apostle Paul in a passage baring his heart’s desire for the salvation of those of his own race who have rejected Jesus (Rom 10:14).
He then asks: “Did God reject his people? By no means!” (Rom 11:1) For the answer to the dilemma of both religious and secular folk seeking deeper meaning in life is on another mountain range – probably those on which Jerusalem is built – as Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah, who foresaw this need long before the revered rabbis came on the scene.
Speaking of the gospel, Isaiah wrote: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa 52:7)
It seems to me very much like a prediction of Gentiles bringing good news of their Messiah to the ancient people of God.
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International; and King of the Jews, also available from Christian Publications International.