Were the festivals given to ancient Israel intended only for the Old Testament and abolished by the New? Which days, if any, should we observe today? Here's the truth, straight from the Bible!
"Why do you observe all those strange festivals?" members of God's Church are often asked. "Weren't those Old Testament Holy Days abolished by the New Testament Church? I thought the Holy Days were just for the Jews." "Why don't you keep the same holidays the other churches keep?" Good questions! For centuries, critics have challenged God's annual Sabbaths and disdained His Church for observing them (Acts 20:29-30). Yet, as this article will show, the true Church of God's basis for observing the festivals of God outlined in Leviticus 23 — the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles and the Last Great Day — is rooted firmly in the New Testament as well as in the Old. The plain truth is that God's Holy Days were actively observed by Jesus Christ and the New Testament Church, and true Christians are to be actively observing them today.
The role of anti-Semitism
Attacks on God's Holy Days are nothing new. Early in the history of the New Testament Church, some of the Church's gentile membership began to disparage God's Holy Days. Eventually, most such gentiles came to consider the Holy Days merely Jewish observances. Those who retained the Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles were labeled "Judaizers." Why was this line of attack successful? For the simple reason that two ill-fated Jewish revolts against Rome, in A.D. 66-73 and A.D. 132-135, made Judaism extremely unpopular throughout the Roman Empire. After these two bloody and protracted struggles, the Romans held everything Jewish in contempt, especially the characteristic earmarks of Judaism — the weekly Sabbath, Passover, the Jewish New Year (Feast of Trumpets) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Only a decade after the death of the apostle John (about the end of the first century), Ignatius of Antioch wrote, "If we are still living according to Judaism to this day, then we are admitting that we have not received grace" (The Early Christian Fathers, page 43). Anti-Jewish bias, then, became a catalyst for false teachers to encourage the abandonment of the Sabbath and the Holy Days (Acts 20:29-30, II Corinthians 11:13). Early in the second century, the spurious "Epistle to Diognetus" denounced "the superstition of the Jews." Thus, the Bible prophecies foretelling that the Church would be betrayed from within (Matthew 7:15, II Peter 2:1, II Timothy 4:3) came to pass. Anti-Semitism was an excuse for Latin Christianity to jettison the Sabbath and God's feast days. By the A.D. 90s Victor I, Bishop of Rome, threatened to excommunicate whole churches in Asia Minor still holding to the Passover. By A.D. 154 Polycarp of Smyrna, John's disciple, disputed with the bishop of Rome about keeping the Passover on the 14th of Nisan. Rome was busily implementing Easter Sunday as an annual commemoration of the resurrection, in place of the Passover, which commemorated the death of Jesus. When Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-337) allied himself with the Roman church to use it as a politically unifying force, state pressure compelled any "Judaizers" in the empire to abandon Passover and the true "Lord's Day" (the seventh-day Sabbath). Thus, 1,260 years of constant persecution began for those remnants of God's Church still keeping the Holy Days (Revelation 12:6). Those who would keep God's festivals were driven underground. Only a precious few knew the essentials of God's plan of salvation, which can be fully understood only through observing the Holy Days. For more information on the individual Holy Days and their meanings, read our free booklet Pagan Holidays — or God's Holy Days — Which?
To whom — to what authority — should a Christian turn for enlightenment on the issue of which days to observe as religious festivals? Why not begin with the very founder of Christianity? Some forget the obvious fact that Jesus Christ was a Jew (Hebrews 7:14). He was reared in a home faithfully obeying the Old Testament commands: "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). From earliest childhood Jesus Christ kept the Passover and the seven-day Feast that followed, called Unleavened Bread (verse 43). These Days of Unleavened Bread were first observed by the Israelites immediately after escaping the slavery of Egypt. (By the way, if you think one has to live in Jerusalem to celebrate God's Holy Days, see Exodus 12 and 13 and Leviticus 23. The Israelites were nowhere near Jerusalem in either case.) So we see that the Bible tells us plainly Jesus Christ observed the Holy Days during His early life. But did Christ annul these Holy Days during His ministry? Did He supersede them with new days like Good Friday, Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday? Notice: "Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover.... And He sent Peter and John, saying, 'Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat'" (Luke 22:1, 8). Here was Jesus' perfect opportunity to cancel the Passover and introduce Easter or some other festival. But He did not! Jesus commanded His disciples, the foundation stones of the Church of God (Ephesians 2:20), to prepare the traditional Passover the Jews always observed. "And when the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them, 'With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God'" (Luke 22:14-16). Not only did Jesus, observe every detail of the Passover on the 14th of Nisan, the first month on God's sacred calendar, but He clearly taught that the Passover would be observed in the Kingdom of God! What an amazing, eye-opening truth! All Jesus changed were the Passover symbols. Now Christians take bread and wine that night instead of eating a lamb. The bread-and-wine ceremony is part of the New Testament Passover, an ordinance of remembrance — a commanded memorial of the death of our Savior (Luke 22:17-20). All four gospels command this Passover observance as an act of obedience to Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Matthew 26:19-29, Mark 14:12-25, John 13:1-17). What about the other Holy Days? What about the Feast of Tabernacles, the annual family highlight of God's Church today? Is this also binding on the New Testament Christian? Yes indeed. John's gospel proves this beyond a doubt.
Evidence from John
The fourth gospel dates to about the last decade of the first century. Internal evidence indicates it was composed after the Roman clampdown in Judea in A.D. 70. For instance, John uses the Roman manner of counting time common after A.D. 70, and only he of all the gospel writers labels the Sea of Galilee the "Sea of Tiberias," another Roman innovation. The early church historian Eusebius records that John governed the churches in Asia Minor "after the death of Domitian." Domitian was assassinated in A.D. 96 (Ecclesiastical History, 3.23.1). At that time, in the late first century A.D., heresy abounded. Doctrinal aberrations about the nature and authority of Jesus Christ proliferated. Some teachers urged adopting Sunday and abandoning the Saturday Sabbath to escape the stigma attached to everything Jewish. All of this John, the last remaining apostle, counteracts in his gospel. John mentions "the Jews" almost 70 times. It is John who records Jesus' statement, "Salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22). John's book pivots around Christ's last Passover; eight of his 21 chapters narrate the events of Jesus' last day on earth, the 14th of Nisan. Now you can understand why John, in several places, carefully records Jesus Christ, Head of the true Church, scrupulously observing the festivals found in Leviticus 23. "Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem" (John 2:13). "Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name" (verse 23). "After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem" (John 5:1). "Now the Jews' Feast of Tabernacles was at hand" (John 7:2). John painstakingly records Christ's dedication to observing the Holy Days! At the time of His last Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus could not go up publicly, because He knew that His enemies would be watching for Him. Nevertheless, He did attend the Feast, traveling there in secret, and His enemies sought to take Him (verses 8-11). How did Jesus observe the New Testament Feast of Tabernacles? "Now about the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and taught.... Then Jesus cried out, as He taught in the temple … on the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out" (John 7:14, 28, 37). (Be sure to read the article entitled "The Last Day, That Great Day" beginning on page 29 of this issue. It explains God's seventh annual festival, the Last Great Day.) Jesus Christ, active Head of His Church (Colossians 1:18), kept the Feast of Tabernacles by instituting powerful preaching services. Even His adversaries were impressed. "No man ever spoke like this Man!" they exclaimed (John 7:46). God's Church keeps the Feast of Tabernacles in the same way today. The Feast of Tabernacles in particular revolves around convocations where God's people listen to inspired preaching from God's ministers.
In spirit and truth
Those who argue against keeping God's Holy Days sometimes claim that Levitical law specified that the Holy Days could only be kept in Jerusalem. Yet Jesus said, "Believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father … But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:21-24). How Satan would like to ensnare us (Ephesians 4:14)! The important thing for New Testament feast observers is not to observe the festivals in Jerusalem, but to observe them in spirit and in truth — in other words, drinking deeply of the awesome significance of these Holy Days in the plan of salvation. The Church of God's Feast sites at the Festival of Tabernacles — of which there are more than 80 around the world — do indeed portray the spiritual truth of God's plan for all people everywhere (Malachi 1:11). Jerusalem is not the only place to celebrate the Holy Days. God's Holy Days were actually first celebrated, as far as we know, in Egypt while the Israelites were coming out of bondage (Exodus 12:1-2). How obvious that God's Church may meet in any geographic region for the festivals. The restriction to Jerusalem only applied under the Levitical priesthood. We worship under the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 5:5-10). "I can see that," some have argued. "Obviously Jesus kept the Holy Days, but didn't He only do that to fulfill the law as the prophecies said? How can we know if these festivals are for the Church today?" Remember two things: 1) Jesus Christ is our example, our standard, our pattern (I Peter 2:21). What He did, we must do. 2) Jesus commanded His own disciples to observe the Passover, Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Tabernacles (Luke 22:8, John 7:8, 14:15). These men were part of the very foundation of the New Testament Church. What were they supposed to teach us? Jesus Christ's last command to His disciples tells us: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus commanded His disciples to observe the Holy Days. The disciples, in turn, taught Holy Day observance to the Church (I Corinthians 11:23-28), the same Church that still exists in this end time. Has Jesus changed His mind on doctrine? No. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).
The early Church's practice
The book of Acts documents that the early Church observed the Holy Days. Luke's inspired account of the young Church in action shows how faithful the early Christians were to God's annual festivals. Acts 2:1 says: "Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place." Pentecost is a Greek word meaning "count 50." It refers to the counting of 50 days beginning with the Sunday that falls during the Days of Unleavened Bread. At this precise time during that spring festival, firstfruits were offered in the Temple (Leviticus 23:15-17). Fifty days later was the Feast of Firstfruits, at the end of the early summer barley harvest in Palestine. That is the same 50th day, Pentecost, that we find Christ's disciples observing in Acts 2:1. Years later, around A.D. 57, Paul, whom many assume opposed God's laws and "Jewish" festivals, "was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16). He even wrote to his gentile converts in Corinth, "I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost" (I Corinthians 16:8). What powerful testimony that the gentile Christians in Corinth knew the exact time for Pentecost. Of course, as we have seen, the wave-sheaf ritual directly connects Pentecost with the Days of Unleavened Bread. It is significant, then, that the book of Acts clearly documents the early Church observing the Days of Unleavened Bread. Notice: "Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread" (Acts 12:3). "But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread" (Acts 20:6). Yet the plainest evidence that the early Church observed the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread is embedded in that same epistle cited earlier for its mention of Pentecost, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Paul, rebuking the Corinthians for their spiritual shallowness, writes: "Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?" (I Corinthians 5:6). Any Jew would have understood the reference to leaven. After all, they observed seven days of eating bread with no leaven (Exodus 13:6). Yet the Corinthian church was primarily a gentile church, founded by the "apostle to the Gentiles" himself (Romans 11:13). Paul admonishes these same Greek converts, "Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump" (I Corinthians 5:7). This analogy is easily understood by those keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread — "since you truly are unleavened." Paul is explaining that although the Corinthians had de-leavened their houses physically, they had to also purge themselves of spiritual leaven — sin.
Christ kept and was the Passover
Paul continues, "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us." Yes, that same Jesus Christ who kept the Passover became the perfect Passover sacrifice, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). "Therefore let us keep the feast," Paul commands in I Corinthians 5:8, "not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." "Let us keep the feast," the apostle to the gentiles told his gentile converts. Could anything be clearer? By contrast, professing Christianity cannot find even one clear scripture to command Christmas, Easter or Lent. (Information on the true origins of these observances is available in our free booklets The Plain Truth About CHRISTMAS and The Plain Truth About Easter.) In I Corinthians 11:23-26 Paul gives a succinct review and outline of the Passover service, showing that Christ's death must be commemorated at night, "when the hour had come," as Luke 22:14 shows. Yet why do professing Christians observe a bread and-wine ceremony on Sunday mornings instead of "on the same night in which He was betrayed" (I Corinthians 11:23)?
Fall festivals kept, too
Luke, in Acts 18:21, records Paul as saying, "I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem." Paul was probably referring to the Feast of Tabernacles in A.D. 52. Luke also records Paul's active awareness of another Holy Day when he notes, "Much time had been spent, and sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was already over" (Acts 27:9). Even the staunchly Protestant Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary admits that "the Fast" here refers to the Day of Atonement, first commanded in Leviticus 23:27. It is Paul, after all, who explains the ultimate meaning of the events performed on the Day of Atonement. Check it in chapter 9 of Hebrews. Even the one festival of Leviticus 23 not directly named in the New Testament — the Day of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24-25) — is obliquely referred to in Colossians 2:16, where Paul counsels gentile Christians to ignore critics accusing them of misconduct on "a festival or a new moon or sabbaths." The outstanding "new moon" of the Jewish calendar was the first of Tishri, the beginning of the Jewish civil year, known today as the Jewish New Year (Psalm 81:3). This new moon was a vital key to calendar computation in Judaism, and still is. Incorrectly observing or noting the new moon of Tishri could cause the other Holy Days to fall on the wrong days, too. The Day of Trumpets was such an obvious and significant part of the calendar — part of the "oracles of God" committed to the Jews (Romans 3:2) — that the other festivals hinged upon it. How could the early Church have missed it? They observed all the others!
In force now
Obviously, the Church of God need not feel defensive about so called Jewish festivals. The evidence is unanimous. The gospels, the book of Acts (the main inspired account of early Church history) and the epistles — the bedrock title deeds of the Church of God — teach and reiterate the Holy Days of Leviticus 23. It was Christ's custom to observe the Holy Days (John 5:1), and Paul said to imitate him as he imitated Christ (I Corinthians 11:1). Paul clearly observed the Holy Days (Acts 24:14) and taught them to the gentiles (I Thessalonians 2:14). Peter knew that Christ set the example and that the Church of God "should follow His steps" (I Peter 2:21). Peter condemned the hypocrites in the first-century Church who corrupted themselves "in their own deceptions while they feast with you" (II Peter 2:13). What feasts did Peter, James and John, Paul, Andrew and Jude grow up observing? None but those mentioned in Leviticus 23 (II Timothy 3:15-16). Years later, Jude referred to the heretics in his day as "spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you" (Jude 12). Surely we know by now what feasts these were! They are to be kept by God's true people today!