Ask Pastor Dave: Why Don’t Christians Celebrate Jewish Festivals?

q-aWe can answer this question quite similarly to a previously asked question about the remembrance of the Sabbath. Since Christ is the fulfillment of the law the various elements of the Old Covenant have transformed and are no longer applicable, at least not in the same way, to contemporary believers. Christ makes the celebration of Old Testament Jewish festivals void of meaning.

It should be stated at the start that not all Christians understand this and there has been something of a “revival” in the celebration of Jewish festivals among Christians today. In fact there are even whole movements advocating for their continuance. These are minority views, and there are theological reasons, not merely cultural ones, for not celebrating these holidays.

Paul makes abundantly clear that the celebration of these Old Covenant festivals is no longer binding on believers. He writes the Colossians saying:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col. 2:16-17)

Paul is fairly pointed about the uselessness of these “festivals,” which is a reference to the Holy festivals of Leviticus 23 (Passover, Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Lights). These holidays are “shadows,” empty of meaning now that the substance of their meaning has come in the person of Christ. There are several important reasons for this pronouncement from Paul, they are rooted in the meaning of these sacred celebrations.

The sacred festivals of the Jews served first and foremost to commemorate their relationship with Yahweh. So, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were intended to celebrate and remember God’s rescuing Israel from bondage in slavery to Egypt. This is the very celebration that Jesus chose to transform, and He gave it new meaning in the New Testament with the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is celebrated differently now, among believers, because it has a different referent. Even when Paul mentions the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread in 1 Corinthians 5:8 he spiritualizes it within the New Covenant context and the approaching eschaton. The point now is not the bread, but the unleavened bread of “sincerity and truth.” It’s not about the actual celebration of the Old Testament feast, rather the feast is a fitting analogy for living in the new life of Christ.

The Feast of First Fruits or Pentecost, likewise has a new meaning in the New Testament. Celebrated annually by Jews at the end of their cereal grain harvest the feast was an expression of gratitude to God for all the He provided and their dependence upon Him (Lev. 23:9-14). In the New Testament we find Peter giving new meaning and new life to this celebration. Now it is about the harvesting of people in the pouring out God’s Holy Spirit. At the Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 Peter quotes the prophet Joel. Joel had described the ravaging of the crops by locus, but assured the people that if they would repent and return to God that He would pour out His rains on them. That they would reap a new harvest, one produced by His Spirit. Peter says this has been fulfilled in the giving of the Holy Spirit. The feast of Pentecost is not celebrated in the fashion of the Jewish festivals because it has new meaning, meaning granted by the very Spirit of God.

The feast of Trumpets was the next annual feast. The first day of every month was a new moon and was marked by the blowing of trumpets. This signaled a new beginning. L. McFall notes:

Trumpet blasts also signaled the beginning of a new era, such as the reign of a new king (1 Kgs. 1:34).The Feast of Trumpets was a signal to Israel that they were entering a very sacred month. The agricultural year was at an end. It was a time to take stock, not only of their farm produce, but also of the sins that had accumulated over the previous year. (“Sacred Meals” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 752)

In Matthew 24 Jesus speaks of a different trumpet blast that announces the beginning of a whole new era. Paul says that a trumpet blast will announce the day of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16). The introduction of the New Heaven and the New Earth are the only new age, new era that we await as believers. There is no more celebration of this festival because the great trumpet blast to come has not yet been heard.

Finally we may speak of the Feast of Tabernacles. This was the feast associated with the Day of Atonement and the restoration of fellowship with God. They were to live in tents for seven days in remembrance of Israel’s wilderness wanderings after Egypt, and in an effort to sanctify themselves. This Feast too finds new meaning in the New Testament. McFall clarifies it helpfully:

On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles a priest would draw water from the pool of Siloam and carry it in a solemn procession to the altar where, it is suggested, he poured it out. This ritual apparently lies behind Jesus’ statement that if anyone would come after him, that person would experience streams of living water flowing from within (John 7:37-39), a reference to the promised Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17; 16:7). (753)

Throughout the Old Testament the water pouring rituals are often a foretaste of the eschatological rivers of living water foreseen by Ezekiel (47:1-9) and Zechariah (13:1). D.A. Carson observes:

Thus in addition to the numerous ‘water’ passages in the Old Testament, some of them associated with this Feast (Is. 12:3…), the water rite itself symbolized the fertility and fruitfulness that only rain could bring…These specifically connect the eighth day with great jay in the light of God’s faithful provision of rain, and also interpret the day as a festive anticipation of God’s promises to pour out spiritual ‘rains’ in the messianic age. (The Gospel According to John, 322)

In the New Testament the Spirit has come, the messianic age has dawned, making the celebration of this feast pointless.

The fundamental reason Paul can call these festivals “shadows” is because they have had their original meaning and purpose fulfilled in the coming of Christ and the sending of the Spirit. They no longer mean what they did, and thus can no longer be celebrated with that intent. In fact, to continue celebrating these feasts as they were originally designed we are denying Christ’s fulfillment of them. Christ has changed and transformed them such that Paul can say, “let no one judge you” for not celebrating them. Ancient Israel was expected and required to celebrate these feasts. You most definitely should have judged your brother back then for not celebrating them, but not any longer. Christ has transformed them such that they no longer have their meaning in the life of God’s people.

There are other festivals mentioned in Israel’s history that are even less important to modern believers. There are some that are nowhere commanded in Scripture, and some, like Purim, that are debatable. For lack of space I won’t go into those here.

Other places throughout Scripture delineate the fulfillment and passing of the Old Covenant. In Galatians 5 Paul describes the freedom from the law that belongs to the believers and says that to submit again to a “yoke of slavery” is to be “severed from Christ.” In Hebrews 7-10 the author goes to great length and with great detail to show readers that the Mosaic law is no longer applicable in original intent and form to believers. Finally we might observe that the breaking down of the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14) meant that the Jerusalem council refused to impose the Old Covenant mandates on new believers (Acts 15). You do not have to be a Jew, live like a Jew, or celebrate the obsolete Jewish festivals to be a follower of Christ. Once again we see that Jesus changes everything.

Christians do not have to celebrate the Old Testament Jewish festivals. In fact, I would go so far as to say those who celebrate them in their original design and intent undermine what the New Testament says about the fulfillment of Christ. Perhaps there are some who celebrate these festivals with new meaning, referencing the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Perhaps such a thing can be done and appreciated, but it is not mandatory in the New Testament. These festivals are only a shadow, the substance is found in Christ himself.

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