As I write, millions of Hindus in India are celebrating Kumbh Mela, the largest single religious gathering in the world. The Purna (Complete) Kumbh Mela is celebrated every twelve years in one of four cities, depending on the relative positions of the sun, moon and the planet Jupiter in Indian astrology. Between January 14 and April 28, 2010, at least 50 million pilgrims will have visited the ancient and (to them) holy city of Haridwar on the Ganges River.
Why will so many people brave severe winter weather in January and days with highs of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the festival? At the risk of gross oversimplification (because Kumbh Mela is so complex in mythology and ritual), Hindus believe that taking a dip in the Ganges during this "auspicious" time will cleanse them of their sins.
Many, many religious people of all kinds make a similar mistake. Whatever their actual concept of God, they think that they can establish a relationship with God, and have their transgressions against God's law forgiven, by what they do. Many (like the pilgrims going to Kumbh Mela in its various forms) go through tremendous physical hardships thanks to such a belief.
The American author Mark Twain rightly wondered why people would afflict themselves so. Could it be that such people have figured out (however dimly) that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and thus will do anything in their power to escape that penalty? And all in vain – for humans are powerless to save themselves (Job 40:1-14).
When God brought Israel out of Egypt, He took the initiative to establish a relationship with His people. In order to help maintain that relationship, He also gave Israel the Tabernacle (later the Temple) and the sacrifices associated with it. Yet the Apostle Paul rightly pointed out that the blood of the bulls and goats sacrificed year by year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) could never take away Israel's sins (Hebrews 10:1-4). The sacrificial system offered "forgiveness" to Israel (as in Leviticus 4:27-31), but it was temporary. The system actually pointed to something future – and eternal.
God gave to Israel a way of life that is good – one based on the Ten Commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath as a sign that He sets Israel apart as holy (Ezekiel 20:10-12). But Israel would not walk in this way of life (verses 13-24). God also gave to them statutes – the sacrificial system with its food and drink offerings, various washings and regulations for the body (Hebrews 9:9-10). These statutes were limited because they could neither forgive sins nor empower people to live by God's spiritual law! Yet they had a lesson which was very important: they taught those few with eyes to see how much Israel and all the world needs a Savior!
The Passover lamb, the means by which God redeemed Israel from Egypt before He gave the sacrificial system, points to that Savior, Jesus Christ the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 35-36; 1 Corinthians 5:7). He has a master plan, by which not only all humans who are willing, but the whole creation, will be reconciled to Him (Ephesians 1:3-10). Thanks to Jesus Christ, God the Father will offer to those observing this year's Purna Kumbh Mela, and everyone else who has ever lived or ever shall live, the opportunity to become part of His Family. It is only a question of when He makes that offer to everyone.