On December 31, millions of people stay up until midnight to celebrate the New Year. Celebrations often include festive gatherings and setting resolutions for the year ahead. But often, our enthusiasm for those resolutions fades. We settle back into familiar routines, and our desires for new habits or new lives get lost in the grind.
Wouldn’t it be easier if we could simply become new people when we woke up on January 1? Imagine how easy it would be to instantly have the motivation to go to the gym, to be perpetually kind to your neighbor without even thinking about it, to automatically have compassion for your city, and to see that destructive habit completely gone. That would be quite a dream, right?
But is the point of a New Year’s resolution to become a new person or to change your life? What if a New Year's celebration wasn’t about enforcing the next popular self-improvement plan but about rediscovering who you already are? Within Judaism, this rediscovery event is called the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah. It’s a prominent day on the Jewish calendar, but is there any connection to Jesus? To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at the holiday and the biblical story.
What Is Rosh Hashanah?
Rosh Hashanah, meaning “head of the year,” is the Jewish New Year celebration (usually in September or October, the first of Tishri) according to the Jewish calendar. Today, synagogues around the world celebrate Rosh Hashanah by reflecting on the year they’ve had, eating sweet tasting foods, such as apples and honey, and blowing a ram-horn trumpet called a shofar. The rabbi blows the horn 100 times to signal the beginning of the new year. Each blast of the shofar becomes louder than the last to create a sensory-overloaded experience that’s hard to ignore.
The first mention of Rosh Hashanah in the Bible is in Leviticus 23:24 (BibleProject Translation), where it is called the Festival or Feast of Trumpets.
“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you must have a complete rest, a remembrance of loud horn blasts, a holy gathering.”
What do the loud horn blasts mean? And why is Rosh Hashanah celebrated?
Israel Was Chosen to Reign Like God Does
Imagine you’re an Israelite recently freed from enslavement in Egypt. You were exuberant after the escape through the Red Sea. But now you’re scorching in the desert, feeling alone, and wanting some kind of guide through the unknown wilderness. Then you arrive at a towering mountain where Moses declares that the Lord God is the new King, and he has delivered Israel to make them his special possession out of all humanity. The people thunder back, “We will do all the Lord has commanded!”
But this wasn’t the only thundering voice of the ceremony. God, the King, wanted to speak with his people.
“When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice. …And God spoke all these words: ‘I, the LORD, am your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
Exodus 19:19, 20:1-2 (BibleProject Translation)
God reminds the people that he brought them out of the house of slavery. But for what purpose? Why did God rescue this marginalized people group? Notice what God says just a few verses earlier:
“... and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Exodus 19:6 (NET)
In one way, this event marks a coronation day for God. Israel recognizes that neither Moses, nor Miriam, nor Aaron (nor Pharaoh!) is the sovereign ruler of Israel. In another way, it is also a coronation day for each Israelite.
When God gives the Ten Commandments at Sinai, the people are reminded of their deep, true identity: Human beings are God’s beloved humans made to reflect him and live in his merciful, generous, life-giving way toward all creation. Living like that is co-ruling with God, as if the people are being crowned the kings and queens of the world, chosen to reign like God does. But this royal ceremony is not the first of its kind in the Bible. The first coronation ceremony happens in a garden on the first pages of the Bible.
The First “Rosh Hashanah”
In Genesis 1, God creates humans in his image. To be made in the image of a god is an ancient Near East title and job description reserved exclusively for a king or queen—for royalty. The first humans’ instructions to “keep and work” the garden flow out of their royal designation. As God reigns by bringing forth life, humans reign by harnessing the potential of creation to bring life.
Much like the Ten Commandments at Sinai, the garden of Eden acts as the first “Rosh Hashanah.” It’s the creation of the heavens, earth, and all that inhabit them, and it’s the celebration of a place where God and humans make contact. This is certainly why the rabbis saw the celebration of Rosh Hashanah as a divine reminder of Sinai and the garden of Eden.
Rosh Hashanah takes place just before the harvest festival (September-October) in Israel when the growing season is complete. What better way to celebrate the creation of the world and the role of humanity than to rehearse Genesis 2:1 (NET)?
“The heavens and the earth were completed with everything that was in them.”
A Reminder for Israel to Remember Who They Are
Rosh Hashanah becomes a signpost for Israel. It’s like an invitation to turn away from the voices of the world that shame and threaten and, instead, to turn our attention toward God to remember who we already are—beloved, beautiful, and very good (Gen. 1:31). Like a compass pointing to humanity’s true north, Rosh Hashanah says that the way to full and real life is not about perfect resolutions or anxious attempts to get somewhere better; it’s about returning home—back to Sinai, back to Eden, back to the one who creates you and loves you.
But at some point, we realize that the compass can’t stop our hair from graying, or violence from raging around us, or death from stinging, right? So where is the hope in this celebration, and how does Rosh Hashanah connect with the story of Jesus?
Jesus Invites Us to Celebrate Every Day
“Repent,” Jesus says. “For the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” (Matthew 4:17) At first glance, this hardly looks like a solution to the problem of gray hair, violence, or death. Or so we think.
To repent means to return; to begin anew by turning back to the source of life. Remember that the sound of the shofar blast (or God’s voice) is a reminder of the coronation ceremony at Sinai and Eden. It’s a reminder about who we already are, not the people we wish we could be. Jesus is saying that the New Year is here, and he’s here to re-establish the kingship of God himself.
Instead of waiting for the new year to begin, Jesus acts like every day can be treated like Rosh Hashanah! Imagine having a friend say to you halfway through the year, “Happy New Year!” You might be confused, but you also might be thinking, “Should I renew my gym membership? Should I make some new goals? I suppose I could do this differently.” Jesus sends out the RSVP and hosts the coronation ceremony at the same time. His message is that the King has arrived, and humanity’s royal-priestly role is real. It's a timeless invitation to cast our memories to Sinai and Eden and realize that this is a new Sinai, a new Eden, and a new chance to embrace what is most true about ourselves.
Jesus saw his earthly ministry as a way to remind people of who they are but also as an invitation to live as if it were true. This is why Jesus envisioned communities practicing forgiveness, generosity, and love. This is God’s strategy for healing the world.
Participating in Whole-World Restoration
We all tell ourselves a story about who we are and what kind of world we live in. Often this story gets influenced by what happens around us: the loss of a loved one, the fear of rejection, the desire to be a certain kind of person, and so on. Jesus' invitation to look back and remember our true identities is an invitation to transfer our citizenship from the fading empires of our world to the Kingdom of God.
Instead of securing one's identity through wealth, popularity, or power, we can recognize the fraudulent nature of human kingdoms, promising far more than they can deliver, and we can remember our intended purpose and royal calling from the garden. Rosh Hashanah is a reminder that the story of God is aimed at a whole-world restoration, and humans are invited to participate.
The apostles Paul and John, being Jewish, understood this participatory nature of Rosh Hashanah. And they saw how the life and death of Jesus fulfilled this Hebrew New Year festival. It's a counterstrike against the pain, poverty, and death that deceives us every day. Paul sees Jesus’ kingship most clearly in his defeat over death.
“Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep [die], but we will all be changed—in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
1 Corinthians 15:51-52 (NET 2nd ed.)
The last trumpet rings, the eternal New Year begins again, and humans start inhabiting a new existence where death will no longer get the last word. This is the finish line of living as the royal priesthood from Genesis 1, Exodus 19, and 1 Peter 2. John writes about the same idea.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.”
Revelation 11:15 (NET 2nd ed.)
The Original Truth of Creation
Year after year, generation after generation, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated by countercultural groups of people who resist the thundering, punitive voice of the pharaoh who tries to reduce their identity to enslaved producers: “More bricks! More bricks!” Instead, it commemorates our existence as human miracles, not human resources.
Rosh Hashanah says that we are already built to be loved by God and remain safe in his presence. Instead of asking us to please God (or others) by becoming more than we are, Jesus invites us to see who we already are. It’s a different story, one that scraps the notion of “human resources” or “human failures” by embracing the original truth of creation: Humans are miraculous creations of God, made for life and love with him and each other in this generous, flourishing, and good creation.
What if this year we take the chance to pause and ask, “What story am I being told? And what story do I truly want to be a part of?”