and Physical Ordinances
NCW 75, April-June 2002
Q. Why are there so many rituals and ceremonies in the Law of Moses? Does ritual indicate a lack of spirituality? And if so, why are there any at all in the New Covenant?
A. There are many interesting and important concepts tied up with these questions. To begin with, let it be said that rituals are not needed by God but by man, and with that in focus we can arrive at some useful understandings. But because Yahweh has instituted rituals and ceremonies which He expects men to obey, issuing them as commandments, disobedience to them gives Satan legal grounds to harass and attack Yahweh's people.
Firstly, though, let's look at why humans need ritual. The two most important spiritual reasons are (a) it creates an outer discipline and pattern which in time become internalised, giving the spirit of man a rail line down which to travel in a meaningful and purposeful way; (b) in the case of covenants such as baptism, the ordinance of marriage, or the laying on of hands for ordination, it is a visible means for the Christian community to hold others accountable and to be accountable itself. The principle of witness is crucial. To these two may be added, (c) ritual is a symbolic dramatic way of conveying deep spiritual truth which would otherwise require much labour in the written word, symbol being (as, for instance, in visions and prophetic dreams, parables and other kinds of scriptural imagery) the principal means of communication of Deity.
Aversion to ceremony may come under a number of circumstances: (a) where the ceremony/ritual is not God-ordained and therefore conveys spiritual untruths, such as the sprinkling of infants in certain traditions instead of proper adult immersion (baptism); (b) where ceremony/ritual loses its spiritual focus and content and becomes no more than a theatrical performance - invariably, where true spirituality is absent, ceremony multiplies proportionately; (c) where there is an excess of ceremony, which has the tendency to quench the Spirit in all but those who have a particular disposition towards such things.
But what about scripturally-ordained ritual/ceremony? What shall we say of a person who is repelled by such? Is it because they are too "spiritual" for such things? In my experience those who refuse to, for example, accept water baptism are simply uneducated in Yahweh's will or just plain rebellious if they are. There is no human being who is so spiritual that he is absolved from obedience to the ordinances of Yahweh. If he thinks he is, then there is likely an element of pride and perhaps laziness involved.
Having said this, it is perfectly true that as a believer matures in Christ he progressively senses less and less need for outer symbols, rituals, ceremonies, and the like. But like the Messiah (Christ), who accepted water baptism at the hands of John the Baptist even though He had absolutely no need to repent and be born again (since He never sinned), we are to submit to Yahweh's ordinances (a) for righteousness' sake, and (b) to set an example if we really have transcended the need for them within because the Law of Christ is so thoroughly written with the pen of the Ruach (Spirit) on our hearts and minds. Recognising the carnal nature's tendency to arrogance and an inflated sense of its own importance, we should, even if we think we have reached such a state of spiritual excellence (and frankly I have never met anyone who has reached such an exalted state), remember humility and patience, and set a good example for those who are growing in the faith.
There are many (mostly Protestants) who believe that the New Testament faith is denuded of almost all ceremony except for baptism, the Lord's Supper, and marriage (many omit the first two of these) and yet they demonstrate the soul's hunger for patterning ritual by observing substitute pagan customs like Christmas and Easter which have assumed almost idolatrous proportions. Whether we like it or not, and no matter how spiritual we may think we are, so long as we are in a mortal, physical sphere we need to mark the passage of time and to constantly be reminded of spiritual labour undone. Sanctification is a process that does not end until death.
The New Covenant Assembly of Yahweh has many ordinances and rituals - much fewer than in the Old Covenant (because most of these were pointers to Messiah now fulfilled) - which gives His people a sense of continuity with the past, deep spiritual education, the hope of the future, a means of deep and intimate fellowship with the Family of Yahweh, and opportunities for worship and praise. We have the seven (nine if you like) compulsory annual Festival Observances - Pesach, Chag haMatzah, Yom haBikkurim, Yom Teruah, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, Succoth (Hanukkah & Purim), all rich in ceremony. We have been given the weekly Sabbath and Lord's Supper, the once-in-a lifetime baptism by immersion, Chrism (confirmation), ordinances to priesthood offices, marriage covenants, and so on. All these things we need, the young and the old, the immature and the mature, for the purposes aforementioned. They confer spiritual vitality to individuals and congregations once their proper meaning has been apprehended. Hence the importance of careful and accurate education as to what all of these symbols and rituals mean.
What changes is not the need for rituals but the way we view them as we mature spiritually. In our Gospel youth, with the uncertainty that comes in new belief, the ordinances of Yahweh bring structure, certitude, and comfort. Though initially accepted mostly on the basis of faith, their deep inner wisdom becomes more apparent with the passing of the years. And whilst for those observing them for the first time there may appear to be an excess of outer formality where perhaps there has been nothing previously in their earlier tradition, they become more natural with time and patience. The key to making all of Yahweh's ordinances work spiritually for you is a right heart, faith in God's wisdom and purpose, and patience.
As we get spiritually older we begin to see the ordinances as mirrors into our own soul, allowing us to see ourselves as we really are and hopefully, as we repent, showing us real growth in Christ. They also enable us to get a glimpse into the infinite heart of the Almighty, to know Him as He really is. The annual festivals alone convey a picture of God radically and substantially different from the ones of the god of false tradition.
But what of the Old Covenant? We rightly feel a little trepid when we look back at the former blood sacrifices which are so distant from our own New Covenant experience and sensitivities, and I know that there are not a few who even wonder whether there wasn't something "wrong" with them because of that felt revulsion. But such had their purpose in their time, and the fact that Yahweh ordained us to be born in the period following its abolition, indicates that in fact we need not be unduly occupied with it, using it simply as a means of understanding the newer covenant which is more real for us. What the ancients once longed for, we now have the privilege of partaking in.
This page was created on 15 June 2004
Last updated on 15 June 2004
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