By Dr. Doug Redford
The arrival of a new year is celebrated around the world in a variety of ways. In the United States, different sections of the country mark the New Year by eating certain foods. My wife’s family established a tradition of preparing milk shakes as the coming of the New Year approached—a tradition that (thankfully) she has continued with our own family. (This certainly beats, in my opinion, sauerkraut which was also considered a new year’s tradition in the part of the country where she grew up.)
In the Old Testament, God’s people marked the arrival of their (civil) new year with a series of trumpet blasts (Leviticus 23:23, 24). Jews today refer to this occasion as Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew for “head/beginning of the year”), though that term is used only once in the Old Testament; and even there (Ezekiel 40:1) it is used in dating an event and not in reference to celebrating the New Year. The term “Day of Teruah” (or sounding of trumpets) is used in Numbers 29:1.
Observances and Traditions
This year the observance of Rosh Hashanah will begin at sunset on Wednesday, September 20, and will end at sunset on Friday, September 22. Today its observance is marked by the blowing of the ram’s horn, or shofar. Special synagogue services are held. Many Jews participate in a practice known as Tashlich (from a Hebrew verb meaning “to cast away”), in which an individual casts an object such as bread crumbs (representing one’s sins) into a flowing body of water. This highlights God’s promise in Micah 7:19 to cast all of our sins into the depths of the sea.
Such a time of personal reflection and introspection is believed to prepare one for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which will be observed just ten days after Rosh Hashanah. The period between these two “High Holy Days” is considered a time for repentance and returning to God.
In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is believed to be the day on which God created Adam and Eve. It is also commemorated as the day when Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice but was prevented from completing the act when an angel of the Lord spoke from Heaven and stopped him. The New Testament has nothing to say about the observance itself (in contrast to Pentecost) or about any kind of fulfillment in the New Covenant era (in contrast to Passover).
In Jewish teaching, Rosh Hashanah includes the thought that just as the head controls the body, so one’s actions on Rosh Hashanah have a significant impact on the remainder of the year. As with any new year, a key theme with Rosh Hashanah is hope—a hope expressed by one of the foods eaten during its observance: apples dipped in honey, symbolizing the hope for a “sweet” new year to come.
Yet real hope, biblical hope, transcends any observance on a calendar, whether our frame of reference is the Jewish New Year or the annual January 1 celebration. The basis of genuine hope is found not in a relationship to time, but to the Timekeeper. “My times are in your hands,” David acknowledged in Psalm 31:15, and he concluded with the exhortation, “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord” (v. 24). The Psalms resonate with the theme of hope and make clear that genuine hope is found only in the Lord (Psalms 25:3, 5, 21; 33: 20, 22; 37:9; 39:7; 42:5, 11; 71:5, 14; 130:5, 7; 147:11) and in his Word, a theme of Psalm 119 which is devoted primarily to paying tribute to that Word (verses 43, 49, 74, 81, 114, 147).
The prophets of the Old Testament reinforced this same message of hope, even in the most despondent of times. One of the great pictures of hope comes from the prophet Isaiah, who heralded God’s message to the people of Judah when it appeared that the Assyrians, who had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., were threatening to do the same to the south some 20 years later. Isaiah was not fazed by the delegation from the Assyrian king Sennacherib who came with their boastful threats. The prophet was the ambassador of a King far mightier: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
Jeremiah spoke the Lord’s word while the Lord was carrying out his judgment upon the southern kingdom by means of the Babylonians. Some of the people had already been exiled to Babylon when the prophet penned a letter to them, recorded in Jeremiah 29. The eleventh verse of that chapter is often quoted and used on greeting cards, banners, jewelry, and other forms of expression. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
But the context of these words must not be overlooked. The hope that the prophet offered was given in the midst of demoralizing conditions. The letter’s recipients were approximately a thousand miles from home, torn from their families and from the temple in Jerusalem. Jeremiah specified the length of their captivity: 70 years (v. 10), though there were false prophets like Hananiah (chapter 28) who were trying to buoy the spirits of the people with their own brand of “fake news,” claiming a much briefer, more manageable two-year captivity. Don’t be fooled, says Jeremiah. Trust the Timekeeper.
In the New Testament, with the gospel being carried throughout the world and into a wide range of cultures, we should not expect the specifically Jewish calendar to be a required observance any more than we would expect the Old Testament food laws to be a required observance. The gospel’s focus is primarily on the creation of new people in Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). Those new creations will then express their commitment through a lifestyle that transforms every day into a “high holy day” lived to God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). The hope of the believer is not necessarily for circumstances that are “sweet”; it is a sense of anticipation that whatever a given day, week, month, or year may bring, God remains in control and fully committed to the good of his people (Romans 8:28).
Perhaps no one illustrates this perspective better than Paul, writing from a Roman prison to Timothy what becomes his final chapter, chronologically speaking, in the New Testament. But it is not the final chapter of his life. Paul speaks of his coming “departure” (2 Timothy 4:6), using a word from the Greek world that described a ship being loosened from the dock so it can set sail. Many times during Paul’s missionary travels, he had watched a ship set sail from its moorings so he could begin another adventure for Christ. Now with death imminent, the apostle sees himself poised to set sail on his greatest adventure of all: a journey to be with Jesus.
At the same time, Paul is realistic about serving Christ in a broken world. He describes the bleak conditions that lie ahead for the church (2 Timothy 4:3, 4). He mentions individuals who have disappointed him or frustrated him (Demas in v. 10, Alexander in v. 14). He appears to regret leaving Trophimus ailing in Miletus (v. 20). But one should not imagine Paul languishing in self-pity and regret, his head buried in his hands in despair. There is Timothy, his “dear son” in the faith (1:2). There is Luke, who remains near (4:11). There is Mark, who has proven himself a dependable servant of the Lord (v. 11).
And of course, there is the Lord himself, the same Lord whose promises stirred hope within the hearts of David, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. He has remained faithful through the ups and downs of Paul’s ministry and will award Paul the “crown of righteousness” (v. 8). Some people may have disappointed Paul; the Lord never will.
We’ve all heard the slogan “The End Is Near.” Perhaps we’ve seen someone carrying a placard with those words on it or we’ve seen it written on a sign by a country road. Hope in Christ acknowledges something else even more important: The End Is Clear.
Dr. Doug Redford serves as minister with Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.