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what does the Bible say about Juneteenth?

(Note: This article was originally published on June 17, 2021. It has been updated with a video.)

The apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome is one of the most widely-studied books of the entire Bible. Whether it’s the so-called “New Perspective of Paul” or questions about Paul’s primary purpose in writing the letter, the debates are far-reaching and, frankly, never-ending. It is one of the richest and most magnificent books of the New Testament, though the focus is often on the first eleven chapters. Through these eleven chapters Paul beautifully illustrates and proclaims the gospel of Jesus. Chapters 12–16 are often skimmed over, filled, as they are, with instructions that may not seem so very connected with chapters 1–11. This is a mistake for 12–16 are also filled with rich and wonderful theology as the foundation for the various instructions.

Chapter 12 begins with an instruction to offer to God our spiritual sacrifices, for the death of Jesus ended the need for God’s people to go to the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he sat down at the right hand of the Father, indicating his work was finished—and so was the need for more flesh-and-blood sacrifices. Rather than bulls and goats, we now offer our lives to God. We are “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1–2).

Paul then instructs the Christians in Rome to offer themselves as living sacrifices in practical ways by using their spiritual gifts in service to one another (Romans 12:3–8). These are gifts of grace, the very same grace that offers mercy and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We don’t often think of spiritual gifts in this way but spiritual gifts are truly grace gifts. The word for grace is “charis” and the word for spiritual gift is “charisma”—things freely bestowed by God. Just as Jesus Christ has been given for his church, so each one of us has been given to the church. While each follower of Jesus has spiritual gifts, these gifts are actually given to the church through the individual.

Then Paul describes the right behavior of those who follow Jesus:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.

Romans 12:9–17 ESV

As I read through these various commands from the apostle, I understand why John Piper spent eight years preaching through this book and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously (infamously?) took thirteen! Each one of these instructions is a rich demonstration of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Let’s focus on just one: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

The gospel of Jesus unites his people together in love in a way that nothing else can. A shared ethnicity can unite people, but it does not create love and commitment to one another. Being around those with similar interests or similar educational backgrounds or similar socio-economic statuses make for less awkward interactions, as it offers many shared perspectives, but these similarities do not produce commitment to one another. Our common confession does, in fact, produce love and commitment to one another: Jesus is Lord.

What does it mean to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep? Quite simply, it means that the joy of our brothers and sisters in Christ is our joy, and the sorrow of our brothers and sisters in Christ is our sorrow. We hurt with one another and we celebrate with one another. Because we are a transformed people, when our family hurts we hurt and when our family celebrates we celebrate. Let me offer a concrete example.

The United States has made “Juneteenth” a federal holiday. On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” became the law of the land and by executive order all slaves were freed. However, this legal declaration did not mean slaves were suddenly able to enjoy their new legal status as free men and women; a war was being fought over this very issue. Two and a half years later, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with his Union troops. He arrived on June 19, 1865 and issued General Order Number 3, which read in part,

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.

Major General Gordon Granger, General Order Number 3

As news of their new-found freedom spread, so did the celebrations. The former slaves in Texas began to commemorate this day every year on June 19—often called “Juneteenth”. These original celebrations were often community celebrations as many would gather together to share dishes, with many get-togethers centered around barbecue pits. Just as many of Israel’s holy days centered around feasts, so Juneteenth is a celebration centered on feasting, and these celebrations continue today and are, in fact, growing in popularity.

So what does this have to do with Romans 12? We should rejoice with those who rejoice and we should weep with those who weep. We must acknowledge the injustices perpetrated both historically and presently and we must celebrate the advances in freedom. Romans 12:9 tells us to abhor what is evil. We must have a vehement dislike for—hate—what is evil, and chattel slavery and systemic injustice are evil.

It would be unloving to ignore the ignominies of the past and present and it would be unloving to fail to rejoice that all men and women are free to work and prosper as they are able. We must not rejoice blindly as many injustices are still being overcome, but we can and should as followers of Jesus be aware of and even celebrate days like Juneteenth.

A couple years ago I preached a sermon in our “Ancient Faith / Modern Church” series called “We Believe in the Holy Catholic Church“, for Jesus is present in his fullness in our gathered assembly, which makes us the whole church, or the catholic church. In that sermon I mentioned that since there are 10,080 minutes in a week and since we gather together for just 100 of those minutes, we only honor Jesus in that assembly. I said that we can and even should honor others for their service or for their sacrifice, etc., during those remaining 9,980 minutes. In our gathered assembly we observe Easter and Christmas and Pentecost, etc., but we reserve our national and cultural holiday observance for the remainder of our week.

What this means is that it is good for us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and that includes recognizing the significance of Juneteenth. There is no biblical requirement to celebrate the Fourth of July or Memorial Day or Labor Day or Thanksgiving Day, yet as part of our shared cultural heritage we often do. Slavery and the abolition of slavery and the struggle for freedom is also part of our shared cultural heritage, so it is good for us to celebrate the news of freedom.

Feasting is a significant part of celebration. Just as Israel feasted at Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Weeks, etc., we feast on our nation’s holidays such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving. For followers of Jesus feasting is a significant reminder of what is to come: the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”

Revelation 19:6–9 ESV

The work for justice in this world continues yet we celebrate the justice that is already here, for slavery has long been abolished. So, too, God’s work of salvation continues yet we know we will celebrate its fullness when the Lord Jesus returns. The truth is that in this life we live in an “already/not yet” reality. Our salvation is already here, yet it is not here in its fullness. Jesus is already Lord but not everyone recognizes this—yet. We must celebrate both the already and the not-yet and for us as followers of Jesus, this means we celebrate the abolition of slavery and we recognize the fullness of freedom is not yet here. One day we will celebrate the Holiday of holidays when our Lord returns and we feast with him as he brings the fullness of our salvation, but let’s not forget the smaller celebrations along the way.