Bringing greater balance in understanding the sabbatical year
In recent years among some Christians there has been a revived interest in the Hebrew calendar, which Moses described in his Five Books as also being God’s calendar: “YHVH spoke again to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, “YHVH’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations/gatherings – these are My appointed times” (Leviticus 23:1-2).
As believers around the world are rediscovering the Jewish roots of the apostolic faith, there has been rejoicing and celebration over the Hebraic richness of the Scriptures and the Jewishness of the Messianic faith. But along with an unearthing of long-lost treasures, occasionally some confusing imbalances have also surfaced. Regretfully, these imbalanced perspectives have the potential to catalyze fear and fatalism among followers of Messiah Yeshua.
Date setting and false alarms
Like the case of the famous boy who cried wolf in Aesop’s Fables, if false alarms are sounded regularly, people will stop believing the boy who sounds the false alarms, and people will not prepare for the real dangers when they manifest. As Paul says, “For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8).
Many people are afraid of apocalyptic events and are stampeded and panicked at the prospects of economic and political chaos.. Hollywood has exploited these fears on many occasions to break box office receipts. In the Christian world there have been events over the past thirty years where a few have ‘prophesied’ panic and set erroneous dates for judgment. One can think of such examples as the date-setting of the Rapture in 1987-88, the Y2K panic in 1999 resulting in stockpiling of instant coffee and toilet paper, or the blood-moon controversy (see my article of April 10, 2014 – http://davidstent.com/blood-moons-and-prophetic-confusion/).
Each one of these imbalanced declarations boldly advanced into the public forum and then ashamedly slunk away. But there was unintended blowback, and ramifications included an upsurge in mocking against any prophetic declarations, as well as a herd-instinct shying away from anything connected to the prophetic. “Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3-4).
Balance is so important here. Every sensationalized spin can spin off into distortion and lead people to paint the whole of prophetic ministry with a negative aura. In a similar fashion history shows how Christian anti-Semitic attacks against the Jewish people tarnished the gospel message, and tainted the testimony about Israel’s Messiah to Yeshua’s own people. Though this did not invalidate the gospel, it is created huge stumbling blocks that the enemy of Israel’s salvation continues to fan into flame even in our day.
With an appeal for biblical care and brotherly love, I would like to set out some basic principles on how to understand and use God’s biblical calendar in a kosher way. The Scriptures can help us to embrace these feasts and calendar events in the spirit that YHVH Himself intended.
God’s calendar remains a Hebrew calendar
Moses, Yeshua, Peter and Paul all used the same biblical calendar, and it was Hebrew. James the half-brother of Yeshua (his original Hebrew name was Jacob), described the gathering of Messianic Jewish believers in the 1st century as ‘believing synagogues’ (the Greek in James 2:2 “If a man comes into your assembly” actually reads ‘synagogue’ – ἐὰν γὰρ εἰσέλθῃ εἰς συναγωγὴν). The original foundations of the Messianic faith were Jewish, and the original calendar of the Apostle Paul was the Hebrew calendar.
For Paul had decided to sail pastEphesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost (Hebrew, Shavuot; Acts 20:16)
We sailed fromPhilippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and came to them at Troas within five days; and there we stayed seven days (Acts 20:6)
And onthe Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled (Acts 16:13)
Yet as the amount of Gentile believers in Yeshua within the Roman Empire grew significantly, Roman paganism’s influence darkened the theological schools of Christianity. A concerted effort was made by anti-Jewish Gentile theologians and preachers to anathematize the Hebrew calendar and make its use illegal. Replacement theology came on the scene, teaching that God has rejected the Jews, their land, their customs, their gifts and calling – and their calendar.
Whereas Yeshua had celebrated the Passover seder with His disciples, earnestly desiring to eat the Exodus 12/Leviticus 23 meal with them immediately before His crucifixion at the hands of Roman soldiers (Luke 22:15), later Church Councils actually forbade followers of Messiah Yeshua from memorializing that event in connection with Passover and the 14th day of Aviv/Abib (Exodus 12; 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; Deuteronomy 16:1). Anyone who chose to remember “Messiah our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7) on the actual Feast of Passover would now be considered a heretic, anathema, excommunicated or even in mortal danger (http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/eusebius_quartodeciman_controversy.htm; https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/heresy-in-the-early-church-timeline/).
The Apostle Paul’s warning to Gentile believers not to boast against the Jewish olive tree branches and not to be arrogant toward them (Romans 11:18-19, 25) was rudely ignored by these Church Councils, as anti-Semitism established itself firmly on the earthly thrones of Church Councils. Hatred and suspicion toward anything Jewish became part of Christian theology and tradition (see James Parkes’ The Conflict of The Church and The Synagogue for the historical documents involved – https://archive.org/details/conflictofthechu012717mbp).
The Mark of Zorro
In the popular Hollywood legend, Zorro would mark his presence by slashing a “Z” at the scenes of his exploits. In a similar fashion, in Bible days the God of the Hebrews marked His exploits and His calendar with two of the three lines of a “Z” – He used the number “7” to indicate that ‘YHVH was in the House’ revealing His mighty outstretched arm. Seven is the number that the Bible repeats many times in relation to God’s works and His calendar. It is understood by most Bible students as being God’s peculiar and holy ‘identifying number,’ His divine ‘calling card.’
At the dawn of Creation, the God of Israel sanctifies the seventh day, the Sabbath, and stamps it as a memorial day – His special day. He rests on that day and in doing that, sets it apart as an exceptional and unusual day (Genesis 2:1-3). He set this day apart long before Moses was born, long before the Torah of Moses’ Covenant was ratified.
In Leviticus 23, YHVH lays out seven holy times, seven feasts, and in doing so marks the entire calendar year as belonging to Him, as set aside by Him for His purposes. His times and seasons were to seize the attention and capture the imagination of His chosen people Israel. Their daily, weekly, monthly and yearly life was to be marked by His pace, His rhythms, His approval and His feasts – His ‘sevens.’
Man does not live by bread alone
In the burning desert sands YHVH invited the Jewish people to trust in Him and to depend on Him. The God of Jacob supernaturally supplied water from a rock on a daily basis, and had manna fall from the skies six days a week. He challenged Israel not to collect manna on the Day of Rest (the Sabbath) but to trust Him to supply a double portion on Friday – a portion which would last through the Sabbath (Exodus 16). God’s provision included providing enough for His beloved people to take a day of rest, to tune their lives so as to fit in with His divine symphony. The rest of the seventh day was a gracious gift and a call to trust.
- Though disobeying His Shabbat commands could bring judgment (Exodus 16:20; Number 15:32-41), the purpose and focus of the seventh day rest was to bring not judgment or ominous warning. It was to bring joy, refreshment and grace to the Jewish people
The sabbatical year
The God of Israel took the weekly Sabbath pattern, and extended it to the sabbatical year (or shnat shemittah in Hebrew). Every seventh year the entire Land of Israel would be able to rest and be restored and refreshed. The entire land would be allowed to lie fallow, when nutrients would be restored to the Israeli soil, invigorating its yield for the years to come (Leviticus 25:1-7).
Again, here was a call to faith and trust. YHVH declared that He would supply enough produce in the sixth year to serve as a bumper crop in the seventh fallow year, and even cause the overflow to extend into the eighth year (the first year of the new seven-year cycle).
This very real expression of personal faith and trust in YHVH was quite a challenge to many in Israel. Scripture says that for over four hundred years the majority of the Jewish people shied away from fully trusting God by obeying His calendar. As a result the God of Isaac exiled His people to Babylon for 70 years to give the Land of Israel its 70 years of skipped sabbatical rest (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10; Daniel 9:2; 2 Chronicles 36:21).
The Jewish people had violated an important clause in a legal document, a legal covenant, that they had sworn to uphold before YHVH. Their external violation expressed their internal lack of trust and faith. After seventy years of Babylonian exile, God had mercy on them and restored them to their land – as He had promised.
Another further application of the Sabbath principle is found in Leviticus 25:8-16. This is a “super-seven” feast called the Jubilee. Seven years multiplied seven times (with one year added to the 49 years) brings Israel to a 50 year Jubilee celebration where all debts are forgiven, all the Hebrew slaves are set free, every man returns to his tribal inheritance and the whole country rejoices. The Jubilee year was inaugurated not on the Feast of Trumpets (what is now called the Jewish New Year or Rosh Hashana) or on the 29th of Elul (the 6th month), but on the tenth day of the seventh month – the Fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 25:9). Based on this passage and this context, it is likely that the sabbatical year was also inaugurated on that same Hebrew calendar day, Yom Kippur.
The Sabbath principle was meant to be a source of joy, celebration and refreshment for the Jewish people. It was supposed to shape their lives, their personal calendars and their economy. It was not seen as a portent of doom or as an omen of evil
The future role of the Hebrew calendar
The Hebrew prophets spoke of a day when the entire world will gather to Jerusalem to worship YHVH on Jewish feast days, and when the entire world will live their lives according to the Hebrew calendar (Zechariah 14:16-19; 8:22-23; Isaiah 2:1-4; 66:2-23; Ezekiel 44:24; 45:17; Psalm 102:21-22, etc.)
This will be a future time when there will no longer be disputation about the ‘two-state solution’ or about boycotting Israeli produce. The entire world will bow down and accept God’s sovereign wisdom and joy in choosing Israel the people and Israel the land – as well as in His choosing of the Hebrew calendar! True forerunners will rejoice in this biblical truth, and will ask God what He would have them do to incorporate these future realities into their present experience.
God still uses His Hebrew calendar in the affairs of men
God always has the prerogative, the freedom and the sovereign power to use His own biblical calendar as He works with the nations and not simply adapt to the Western secular calendar. The modern Western calendar is a solar (sun-based) calendar with pagan trimmings, using the name of Roman demons and kings for months, and the names of Norse demons and warriors for days of the week. Even the modern Jewish Rabbinic calendar has been influenced by Babylonian paganism: it uses the names of Babylonian demons for months, and has moved the original Jewish New Year from Aviv in the Springtime (Exodus 12:1-2) to Eitanim (1 Kings 8:2) in the Fall. Most Jews today use the name Tishrei (a Babylonian idol) for that month, and hold their New Year celebration at that time (at the same time as the Babylonian New Year).
Some significant events in Jewish history have transpired on important days in the Jewish calendar. Enemies of the Jews have even chosen certain significant and tragic dates to bring further calamity on the Jewish nation. But YHVH promises that He will one day turn many of those ominous days into celebrations when He returns (Zechariah 8:18-19).
Here are a few points to remember and to meditate on:
The Hebrew calendar (which is God’s calendar) was given as an irrevocable gift to the Jewish people (Romans 11:29). It is that nation’s peculiar gift, though God uses it as an international benchmark as well
There is no question that the majority of the world’s nations are moving speedily further and further away from submitting themselves to God and His ways. Innocent blood cries out from the ground, while the family foundations established in the Garden of Eden are mocked and violated. Israel is being treated with disdain, insult and threat, and world anti-Semitism is rising. These are sobering days
The majority of the words of the Hebrew prophets were written in Hebrew and directly addressed to the nation of Israel. These prophetic words have their greatest power when they are used accurately and exposited correctly, relating directly to the destiny and calling of the Jewish people. One needs to show care when applying specific Jewish prophecies to modern Gentile super-powers. One should always differentiate between God’s biblical words to Israel, and how God might want to apply those principles to Gentile nations in our day. The teaching in Leviticus 25 regarding the shemittah year was not a hidden prophecy about America; it was an agricultural and lifestyle commandment for faithful Jews in the Land of Israel
The primary purpose of the Hebrew calendar is to reveal to both the Jewish people (and to all who honor YHVH) God’s heart, God’s grace and God’s priorities – and to call us all to come back into alignment with His heart, His ways and His rhythms
Some are using the controversy regarding shemittah and possible judgment to mock concept of using the Hebrew calendar (or even to discount the likelihood that YHVH will judge national sins). To do that would be to mock the Hebrew God who gave that calendar to Israel through the hand of Moses, and who gave us His standards of sin, righteousness and judgment. In our day God is restoring the Jewish people, the Jewish land and the Jewish calendar. So let’s get with the plan. Let’s learn what it means to honor YHVH’s ways. Let’s not boast against the branches or be arrogant toward them. Don’t diss the calendar!
One should make use of the Hebrew calendar with care and honor, and not use it to shoot from the hip. The Hebrew calendar is essentially not a tool to spice up oracles of judgment, or an instrument to add energy to a fear-producing apocalyptic threat. These tactics could easily miss the heart of why God gave the Jewish people His calendar. The Hebrew calendar is God’s temporal template, guiding Israel and mankind through the ages, while simultaneously keeping the Jewish people as His priority focus (Isaiah 43:3-7). In days to come, the Hebrew calendar will be the world’s calendar as well as Israel’s calendar.
The spirit of prophecy is to bring testimony of who Yeshua is, and to glorify Him and His ways (Revelation 19:10). The spirit of prophecy is not given so that people who panic will know how to shelter assets and prepare for economic collapse, or to establish hidden retreats and camps so that they and their own families can avoid persecution or troubles. “God has not given us a spirit of fear or timidity, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7)
How shall we then pray?
As the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar approaches (which the Bible calls ‘Eitanim’ – ‘the strong ones’ and which most Jews today call ‘Tishrei’), let us ask God for His trumpet-call to sound over Israel, calling her back to trust in Him, to bow before their Messiah Yeshua, and to receive YHVH’s atonement through Yeshua’s blood
Pray that God will raise up greater balance and accuracy among teachers regarding Hebrew roots, the Hebrew calendar, the Covenant of Moses and the amazing Hebrew New Covenant’s offer of atonement and new life to both the Jewish people and the nations of this world
Pray for believers to turn their backs on a spirit of fear regarding days ahead, but instead to turn to YHVH with all of their hearts, and to seek His provision and favor not only during sabbatical years, but for every day of our short lives
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,