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GN Cover March 1996

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March 1996 - Volume 1, Number 2

1996, United Church of God, an International Association


FEATURE ARTICLE
Are the Biblical Holy Days for New Testament Christians?

by Larry Neff

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Although I do not remember the exact event, I know that the first time I heard about God's Holy Days was in August of 1951. I was seven years old, and my parents were attending a religious service in Portland, Oregon.

Our family had observed Christmas, Easter and Halloween throughout my short life. I remember observing those holidays and that I did not want to give them up.

I also remember that as I began to experience God's true Holy Days, they were much more meaningful and enjoyable - even to a young boy. Eventually, I came to understand why this was so. I also came to understand that the days our family had observed earlier are not commanded in the Bible, and that the Holy Days described in Leviticus 23 are commanded in both Old and New Testaments.

The days labeled by many as "Old Testament Jewish days" are very much a part of the legacy left to us by Jesus Christ and the apostles. It has always puzzled me that people observe "religious" holidays not commanded or observed by God's servants in either the Old or the New Testament, while at the same time ignoring those days that are commanded in the Bible.

Common sense

Even while I was still in high school, I discovered that in the King James Version the word translated "Easter" in Acts 12:4 was an erroneous translation of the Greek word pascha, a word clearly meaning the Passover (described in Leviticus 23:5). Later, I learned that it was not until the second century, long after the New Testament was written, that people began to replace the Passover observance with Easter.

It became more and more important to me to look to the Bible to see what it said, and what Jesus and the apostles did. I was not so interested in what other people did later, people who adopted the practices of those who observed celebrations involving false, non-existent gods.

Common sense told me that to associate the name of Jesus with such days did not make them any more acceptable. Christ said, "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:8,9).

What days are not commanded by our Savior? And which ones does He command? What does His example of obedience to the Father reveal (John 15:10)? Does it please God when we take to ourselves the right to decide how to worship him, while bypassing His example and the instructions of the Bible?

We have all been instructed to walk as He walked (1John 2:6). And the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles, along with the prophets and Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone. Let's consider the New Testament evidence for the Holy Days. Let's see that the evidence overwhelmingly points to the need for Christians today to observe these days. The rich spiritual meaning of some of these days is discussed in other articles in this issue.

Christ observed the Holy Days

It is certainly clear that the Messiah did not observe Christmas, Halloween, Easter or any similar days. Instead, He and His family observed the Holy Days given by God in the Bible. "His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast" (Luke 2:41,42). This included the entire festival, which involved the Days of Unleavened Bread (Luke 12:43; Leviticus 23:5-8).

About 18 years later, we find Jesus Christ still observing this same festival. "Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem" (John 2:13). It is called the Passover of the Jews because the Jews observed it; whereas Gentiles did not. In reality, God gave all the Holy Days as His days, saying "These are My feasts" (Leviticus 23:2).

A little after this, in John 5:1 we see Jesus' involvement in another of the biblical feasts, although John didn't specify which. Then, in John 7, He is shown keeping the Feast of Tabernacles and Last Great Day (described in Leviticus 23:33-36): "After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him. Now the Jews' Feast of Tabernacles was at hand" (John 7:1,2).

In spite of the threat of bodily harm, Jesus the Christ still attended this feast (verse 10), and also explained the true spiritual significance of the Last Great Day (verses 37,38).

Christ's personal example

Finally, as most have read, the end of the gospel accounts record Jesus observing the final Passover leading to His death. He kept all of the annual festivals, not only because He was a devout Jew, but because God commanded it and because He was setting an example for us.

When we are instructed to walk in His steps (1John 2:6), that cannot refer only to the 40 days He was here on earth following the resurrection. There is little description of that time period. Those who say He abolished the law through His sacrifice ignore the significance of His example.

Some believe Jesus Christ kept the law and the Holy Days to please the Jews, and just because He was a Jew and was under the law. In reality, Christ rebuked the Jews when they were in error. He firmly stated, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work" (John 4:34).

He was not concerned about doing what the Jews wanted but was deeply concerned about pleasing the Father and doing His will. He observed the biblical Holy Days to please the Father, and castigated the Jews for their hypocrisy, self-righteousness and wrong application of the law.

Is love all you need?

In Matthew 28:19,20, Jesus made a powerful statement that we should consider. In verse 20, He commanded His followers to "(teach) them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." The Greek word for "observe" means "to watch" or "to keep." Did He command us to keep Christmas or Easter? If we follow in His footsteps, we will "keep" what He kept - and Jesus Christ kept the biblical Holy Days.

To keep these days implies we will "watch" the calendar to anticipate and prepare for them, which is exactly what is done by those who observe the Holy Days. There is great joy while we eagerly await each of the festivals.

Some believe we don't need to observe any days, and only need to have love. But how does one "observe" love? Holy Days are observed, but one does not observe love. The way to love God and our neighbor is explained in 1John 5:2,3: "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome."

Paul's practice

Many theologians today believe Paul removed the obligation to observe these days. Yet, Paul made his personal practice plain: "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1Corinthians 11:1). The New Testament shows that Paul kept the Holy Days.

Let's see how these days were observed following Christ's ascension.

First, consider the very day the Holy Spirit was sent. "When the day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place" (Acts 2:1). Christ had just been with them 40 days following His resurrection; He had obviously not told them they didn't need to observe Holy Days or it is doubtful that the 120 would have been gathered together on this day.

If anything, this historical account shows the biblical Holy Days were being emphasized through the giving of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the New Testament Church. God chose to begin His Church on this special day, yet many claim He had already abolished it, but just didn't tell anyone. To the Church, Pentecost was still a "holy convocation," a commanded assembly (Leviticus 23:15,16,21).

Gentiles observed biblical feasts

About 13 or 14 years later, Luke wrote about James' martyrdom and Peter's arrest. Luke was a gentile, and was writing to Theophilus, who is also considered to have been a gentile. Luke related the time of James' murder and Peter's imprisonment to the Days of Unleavened Bread (Acts 12:2,3). Both men clearly understood when the Days of Unleavened Bread occurred and the timing of these events.

Luke repeatedly mentioned the biblical Holy Days throughout the book of Acts, knowing that his readers would understand what he meant - understanding they would have only if they observed these days.

Next, note what Paul said in Acts 18:21, "I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing." It would appear this was the Feast of Tabernacles. (Some translations, such as the NIV and NRSV, do not include the clause about the feast.)

Other verses in Acts show the time of events being referred to by the biblical Holy Days, not Roman or Greek festivals. Two of these references are to the Days of Unleavened Bread in Acts 20:6, and the Day of Atonement in chapter 27:9. This day, "the Fast," according to virtually all biblical scholars, refers to the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 23:27-32.

Paul wanted to hurry to be at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, as we read in Acts 20:16. It would make no sense for him to hurry to get there if he did not observe the biblical Holy Days. But since Paul did observe the Holy Days, he had a real reason to be there by the time the day arrived.

Not spiritually unleavened

More than 20 years after the crucifixion of the Lamb of God, about the year A.D. 55, the apostle Paul gave some important instruction to the church at Corinth, a Gentile city. Most church members there were Gentile, though some were probably Jewish.

This church had serious problems. A man was involved in an immoral relationship. The rest of the church knew about and some may have even condoned this sin. Paul instructed them to expel this man from the church in order to stop the contagious spread of sin.

Then notice what Paul told them: "Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1Corinthians 5:6-8).

Just as leaven spreads throughout a lump of dough, so sin, if it is not stopped, will spread throughout the Church. We put physical leavening out during the seven days of Unleavened Bread to drive home the spiritual lesson that we need to put sin out of our lives.

In a similar way, wine and unleavened bread at the Passover remind us of Christ's sacrifice (1Corinthians 11:23-29). We are physical beings and we learn spiritual lessons through physical acts. The Corinthians had put out the leaven, but they had failed to learn and apply the spiritual lesson.

Spiritual lessons missed

When Paul commented, "since you truly are unleavened," he was not saying the Corinthians were unleavened spiritually. This account clearly shows they were anything but spiritually unleavened. They were full of sin. Paul, by mentioning the sacrifice of Christ, our Passover, is not saying they were spiritually unleavened through the sacrifice of Jesus. The blood of Jesus Christ does not pay for unrepented-of sin! And, up until this point, there was no repentance on their part.

Paul is saying in effect that they should stop slapping Christ in the face and spurning His sacrifice. They were condoning sin while putting out leaven, but making no move toward expelling the spiritual leaven. These Gentiles did put leavening out and were going through the motions of keeping the physical aspect of these days, but they also needed to carry out the spiritual meaning.

Paul said to these Gentile and Jewish Christians, "Let us keep the feast." Then he emphasized the importance of the spiritual aspect of putting sin out. Paul's intent was not to spiritualize away the Days of Unleavened Bread, but to magnify them. He did not suggest removing the physical symbolism of the day.

Keeping the feast can only be understood in the light of what the Bible instructs. The instruction to put leavening out as covered in Leviticus 23 is not abrogated. The New Testament builds on the foundation of the Old by emphasizing the spiritual intent of these days. This passage is truly a strong assertion that the annual festivals of God were being observed by and taught to Gentile Christians. If Paul elsewhere abolished these days, he did not practice what he preached, and he contradicted himself.

Not Jewish feasts

God's Holy Days have tremendous meaning-not just the Passover, but all the days God made holy are relevant to us. God does not apportion to us the right to decide what is holy and unholy, or what is right and wrong. It is His prerogative. Our choice is whether we will obey.

The annual festivals are also mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. In 1Corinthians 11, Paul reiterates and reconfirms the New Testament Passover, as well as reproves the sinful church at Corinth for abusing the true purpose of the occasion. Some sought to be satiated to the exclusion of others who were poorer. This attitude was hardly compatible with the dire need to recognize the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ for their sins. This is another example of where the Corinthians misunderstood or ignored the spiritual lessons they should have learned from observing these days.

Toward the end of this epistle, Paul states, "But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost" (1Corinthians 16:8). If he were only gauging time by Pentecost, there would have been no need to wait. He waited so he could observe Pentecost at Ephesus with God's people before continuing his travels.

"Love feasts" in early Church

God is love (1John 4:8). The annual festivals are His feasts (Leviticus 23:2), or "love feasts." They are alluded to in Jude 12 and 2Peter 2:13. The early church kept "love feasts." Is there anything that would label them as some of the quasi-religious festivals of today? The only feasts of God described in the Bible are the ones we have been reading about throughout much of the New Testament. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate they could have been anything else.

Commentaries say these days continued to be kept from the second to the fourth centuries. Then, as Adam Clarke says in his commentary, they began to be prohibited. But by that time, the "faith which was once for all delivered" (Jude 3) had already been diluted. By the fourth century, those in control of the popular churches undoubtedly found even these distortions of the original "love feasts" to be too Jewish. Easter had long since replaced the Passover and Sunday had crowded out the seventh-day Sabbath.

The annual festivals are the only feasts God ever gave! They are an expression of God's love and a delight and joy to those who observe them.

Holy Days confirmed, not condemned

Though it is not within the scope of this article to elaborate extensively on several New Testament passages erroneously used to discredit the Holy Days, a brief mention would be in order. Colossians 2:16,17 is perhaps the most oft-quoted: "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ."

Do you think Paul meant we don't have to keep the festivals? Did he observe them, while at the same time express God's desire that they be abolished? This would have been inconsistent and hypocritical.

Why would Paul be telling the Gentile Colossians not to follow practices of asceticism on these festive days? Because they were following the commandments and doctrines of men, not God (verses 18-23). By no stretch of the imagination could one find anything in the Bible labeling the annual Holy Days as doctrines of men. They are God's feasts.

Quite obviously, the Colossians were being led away from the proper observance of the Holy Days. If anything, these verses corroborate the practice of God's true Church in the first century to observe these days, following the examples set by Christ and Paul. Paul here cautioned the Church not to be dissuaded by the condemnation of others regarding these festivals, which are a shadow of things to come.

Some people like to say they were a shadow of Christ, and once Christ came, the shadow disappeared. That's not what the scripture says. They are a shadow of things yet to come in God's plan. This was stated many years after Christ was crucified.

Other observances condemned

Another misunderstood text is Galatians 4:10: "You observe days and months and seasons and years." Nothing in these scriptures identifies these as God's Holy Days. The Galatian Christians were Gentiles who were going back to what they had come from (verse 9). They were returning to pagan observances. God nowhere made any months holy, and He condemned the observance of times in Deuteronomy 18:10, so these could not refer to biblical festivals and Holy Days.

Verses 8 and 9 of Galatians 4 refer to the practices of the Galatians before they knew the true God. Then they are shown to be returning to the weak and beggarly elements. To say that God's laws are weak and beggarly elements is blasphemous. These "days and months and seasons (times) and years" were the pagan practices of men-possibly similar to astrology today.

When understood, these "problem" scriptures actually succeed in pointing us toward the true days God established for His people. They are days that are filled with meaning and spiritual significance-days that teach us and remind us of the various steps in God's wonderful plan.

Biblical record clear

The record of what Christ and the apostles did is clear. When a person looks into the commands and examples in the Bible to determine which religious festivals to observe, there is only one choice to be found: the annual festivals and Holy Days of God.

If we are to build on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and on the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ, we will be faithful to these days as they were. And, as we do, we will learn more and more about God's plan every year. I have observed these days for 44 years, and each year brings deeper understanding of their meaning and significance. It's not a process I intend to halt. GN




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