God ordained seven annual festivals and seven annual holy days, or sabbath days, in the Old Testament. Should God's Church observe those days today?
This post will explore this issue and try to answer the question of whether the Church should observe the annual feasts of God.
I will assume that the reader understands that the seventh-day Sabbath is still in effect for the Church. This is very easily proved, and I will not take the space to prove it here. This paper explores the issue of the annual holy days, sabbaths, and feasts given by God to Moses in the Old Testament and whether those days should be observed by the Church today. For there are many people who accept and observe the weekly Sabbath who do not observe the annual holy days.
Before going further, I want to thank everyone who has contributed ideas, information, and questions on this or related topics in my blog or via email. I have been helped by all those who agree with me on this issue, those who disagree with me, and those who have asked questions.
PAUL'S EPISTLES ARE NOT CLEAR ON THIS
I will not start with Paul's epistles in doing this Bible study. Peter warns that there are things in Paul's writings that are hard to understand, and a principle I follow is letting clear scriptures interpret unclear and difficult scriptures. I have found no scriptures in Paul's writings that definitely and specifically discuss the holy days by name, either individually ("Pentecost", "Day of Trumpets", etc.) or as a group ("the feasts of the Lord") in the context of whether we should keep them or not. Every passage from Paul used by those who oppose holy day observance is a general reference to "law" or to "days" without being specific as to whether we should or should not observe God's ordained feasts. I will cover some of those passages later.
But I will start with the teaching of Jesus Christ in the gospel according to Matthew.
Jesus said that till heaven and earth pass away and all things are fulfilled in the law and the prophets (the "law" in this case is a common reference to the books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy, and the "prophets" includes the books that make up the major and minor prophets, Isaiah through Malachi), nothing would pass from the law (Matthew 5:17-18). When will this be? When the prophecy in Isaiah 65:17 is fulfilled and the old heavens and earth have passed away and there is a new heaven and earth - see also Revelation 21:1. This has not yet been fulfilled.
This shows that we need to be very cautious about assuming that anything in the law has been abolished without strong scriptural evidence that it has been abolished. The law commands observance of God's annual feasts and holy days (sabbaths) in Leviticus 23. God's feasts and holy days continue unless we can clearly prove from the New Testament that God has ended them for the Church.
Some people think that these annual days must end because they are shadows of Christ, and to keep a shadow is to deny Christ. These people often quote Colossians 2:16-17 in this regard. But Paul is not saying that all shadows are obsolete. He is simply pointing out that the reality of what a shadow represents is always more important than the shadow. This passage used the Greek word skia, Strong’s Concordance number 4639, translated "shadow". It means shadow, the image of something made on a background from a source of light. What Paul mean by a shadow? It is a representation of something, such as a ritual, a ceremony, or a symbol. It is a physical act whose value lies in what it represents.
Animal sacrifices are a shadow of the sacrifice of Christ, and they have ended for the Church. But not all shadows have ended. The New Testament itself ordains rituals, ceremonies, and symbols that are shadows of something else.
A ritual, ceremony, symbol, or "shadow" can point backwards to remind us of what has been fulfilled or can point forward to teach us about something that is yet to be fulfilled.
The New Testament ordains ceremonies, rituals, and symbols, which are shadows. The New Testament symbols of bread and wine representing the body and blood of Christ, baptism, the laying on of hands for the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 6:2, Acts 8:16-17), foot washing (John 13:3-17), and the anointing of the sick with oil (James 5:14-15) are all examples of New Testament rituals, ceremonies, and symbols which are shadows of things.
Why does God use shadows? To teach us and to remind us of things.
A shadow is not wrong, nor do all shadows end when they are fulfilled. If you want to know if a shadow ends, you have to look to the scriptures to see if that particular shadow or ritual has ended. For example, there are clear scriptures that show that physical circumcision is no longer required for the Church. There is no such scripture saying that holy days have ended.
God's seven annual feasts and holy days are indeed shadows, because each one of these seven represents or is an image of a greater reality. Each one represents something different. Some have been fulfilled and some have not yet been fulfilled, but they all continue. Those which have been fulfilled remind us of what has been fulfilled and those which have not been fulfilled teach us about what is to come.
Yet the annual sabbath days are more than a shadow. They are commanded days of rest and assembly that provide opportunities for drawing closer to God in prayer, Bible study, and assembling for instruction and fellowship. God wants us to spend time with Him on these days just as on the weekly Sabbath.
Likewise the weekly seventh-day Sabbath is also a shadow of something to come. It is a symbol of the coming 1,000 year millennial reign of Christ after 6,000 years of mankind ruling himself. But it is more than a shadow, because we use that time to draw closer to God.
If a shadow does not necessarily end when it is fulfilled, why do we not offer animal sacrifices?
We do not offer animal sacrifices because only the priesthood of Aaron is authorized to offer the sacrifices and do priestly duties (1 Samuel 13:7-14, 2 Chronicles 26:16-210. It would be a sin for anyone else to do it. The Church is not represented by the priesthood of Aaron, but by the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
The priesthood of Aaron was a national priesthood and was strictly limited to the Old Covenant. It required a national system of the twelve tribes, each with its own farmland, supporting the tribe of Levi with their tithes, and the tribe of Levi supporting the priesthood of Aaron. When the priests offered animal sacrifices for the annual feasts and holy days, they did it on behalf of the nation. The Church of God is not a nation. We are an assembly of Christians living among the nations of this world. The rules of the Levitical priesthood do not apply to the Church. Likewise we do not stone people for murder, return to our inherited land every 50 years, etc. Those were national laws for the nation of Israel. Those things associated with the priesthood of Aaron do not continue today for the Church.
But the annual holy days are not limited to the priesthood of Aaron. The common people from all the tribes did not offer holy day sacrifices - only the priests did that - but the people rested and assembled for services just as they did on the weekly sabbath, and just as the Church does today.
THE LAW HAS BEEN CHANGED
Although the law has not been abolished, it has been changed (Hebrews 7:12-14). This passage in Hebrews shows that the priesthood of Aaron has been replaced by the priesthood of Jesus Christ for the Church. The fact that the law has been CHANGED shows that it has not been abolished, because you do not change something if you abolish it.
Also, this passage give a guiding principle as to what changes and why. The law was changed out of NECESSITY. It is those things that must change out of necessity that are changed. There is no such necessity to change the law of the holy days, except that animal sacrifices are no longer offered.
It is clear in the New Testament that physical circumcision is not required for the Church. This is an example of how God makes it very clear that something is no longer required. Paul mentions circumcision very clearly and specifically by name (Acts 15:1, 24, Romans 2:25-29, Romans 4:9-12, 1 Corinthians 7:17-19, Galatians 5:1-2, 11, Galatians 6:11-15, Colossians 3:11) and says clearly that it is not required. There is nothing like that in the New Testament about the holy days and feasts saying we should not keep them, referring either to the general term "feasts of the Lord" or specific feasts such as "the Feast of Trumpets" or "the Feast of Pentecost".
Why is circumcision no longer required? Circumcision was given to Abraham, but in the time of Moses it came to represent being a citizen of the nation of Israel. When a Gentile wanted to become a citizen of Israel, he was circumcised (Exodus 12:48-49). Likewise, in the time of Paul, a Gentile could become a Jew and thus a citizen of the nation of Israel by being circumcised. By so doing, he could be represented by the priesthood of Aaron, which was a national priesthood, and come into all the rules and regulations taught by that priesthood (Matthew 23:1-4, Matthew 15:1-3) as well as the promises made to the nation of Israel under the terms of the Old Covenant. But that is not necessary for the Church because we are under the terms of the New Covenant and are represented by the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
SUPPORTING EVIDENCE FOR THE HOLY DAYS
God sometimes shows the importance of something by the context in which He commands or teaches it. Thus, the importance of the weekly Sabbath is shown by the fact that God included it in the Ten Commandments along with commands to have no other gods besides God, to avoid using images in worship, to honor our father and mother, to avoid adultery, murder, stealing, etc. But God also shows the importance of the annual feasts and sabbaths by listing them with the weekly Sabbath in Leviticus 23. This puts the annual feasts in the same category as the weekly Sabbath.
Zechariah 14:16-19 shows that the Feast of Tabernacles will be kept after Christ returns.
There is evidence in the New Testament that Paul kept the holy days and instructed his Gentile congregations to keep them. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul wrote, "let us keep the feast". This seems to be in the context of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for it is here that God inspired Paul to teach what the Days of Unleavened Bread represent. Some object saying that "keeping the feast" here is figurative and it means living in Christ. But Christ is nowhere referred to in the Bible as "keeping a feast", and the contrast Paul paints is not between keeping the feast physically or spiritually as he would if this were a controversy. He is talking about literally keeping a feast, a feast his congregation already knew about and was keeping. He is showing them that they need to fulfill the spiritual meaning of the feast even as they kept it physically.
Acts 18:21 shows Paul telling those in Ephesus that he intended to keep a coming feast in Jerusalem. Some object saying that the words "I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem" is missing from some manuscripts. But the following word "but" is not missing, and it seems to me that it would make no sense for that word to be there except as a connecting word between two clauses. And if this clause is in some manuscripts but not others, then it was either added or removed. The Jews had no custody of the Christian scriptures. The Church of God would not change the Bible. The only groups that might try to change the original writings and had the power to do it are the large groups such as those that became the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and neither of these would have the motive to add this in support of Old Testament holy days. But they would have the motive to remove it.
These seven annual feasts and holy days have important symbolic meaning, meaning that ancient Israel never understood. They did not understand, for example, that Passover represented the future sacrifice of Christ. They did not understand that Pentecost represents the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church so that we are a kind of firstfruits of God's salvation. God gives rituals and shadows as a tool to teach. Common sense indicates that God would want us, who understand the meaning of these days, to keep them, even more than ancient Israel who did not understand what they meant.
SOME ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE HOLY DAYS
Some say that only the law written on tables of stone continues (the Ten Commandments) and not other law not written on stone. But Jesus said that the two great commandments are to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40), and these commandments are greater than the Ten Commandments because all the law and the prophets hang on them, including the Ten Commandments. Yet those two great commandments are not written on stone.
Some object to the holy days because there is no record of them in Genesis. But there is no record of any of the Ten Commandments being given as instructions from God in Genesis, yet the Ten Commandments continue. Silence in Genesis proves nothing.
Some say that because sacrifices were offered on the holy days that this means the holy days do not continue. But sacrifices were also offered on the weekly Sabbath, so the offering of sacrifices on a day does not mean the day is abolished when the sacrifices end.
Some point out Old Testament scriptures and prophecies where God seems to speak against feasts that Israel was keeping. These can refer to pagan feasts that Israel was keeping instead of God's feasts, or it could refer to Israel keeping the feasts with a wrong attitude or mixing God's feasts with sinful practices ("I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting" - Isaiah 1:13). Here are some scriptures some use:
Hosea 2:11 and 5:5-7 - This is referring to a prophesied punishment for sins. Israel and/or Judah would suffer the punishment of no longer being able to keep the annual days they were keeping. This is not necessarily God's rejection of the holy days, but His rejection of Israel who was sinning and was about to go into punishment and captivity. But also, these days are not even necessarily God's holy days. Jeroboam rejected God's ordained feasts days and set up different days, and the northern kingdom of Israel probably never returned to God's true feast days (1 Kings 12:25-33).
Isaiah 1:13-14 - God is rejecting Israel because of their sins. Verse 13 and verse 15 explain. They may have been keeping God's holy days, but their lives were full of sin and God could not endure their hypocrisy of appearing before Him in their sacred meetings while their hands were full of blood.
Amos 5:21 - This is a message to the northern kingdom of Israel (Amos 1:1). Jeroboam rejected God's ordained days and practices and started his own, in some cases on different days, and with different priests and with idols (1 Kings 12:25-330. If you read the history of the different kings of the northern kingdom of Israel, not one was righteous in God's sight, so it is unlikely that Israel ever returned to keeping God's true feasts and holy days as God ordained. They were no longer God's feasts but the feasts of men.
Some may feel that the holy days are not required because they are not commanded in the New Testament. But the weekly Sabbath is also not commanded in the New Testament, yet it continues. Silence in the New Testament does not changed what God has commanded in the Old Testament.
Likewise Acts 15 does not mention the holy days, but it also does not mention the weekly Sabbath, clean and unclean meats, etc. Acts 15 was an administrative decision on Church policy concerning what would be taught and commanded the Gentile members of the Church at that time, and is not intended to be an all-inclusive description of God's law.
Galatians 4:21-31, 5:1-4 - The Galatians had an attitude problem, some of them. Verse 4 of chapter 5 is the key. They wanted to be circumcised because they thought it was necessary and they thought they could be justified by law keeping rather than through faith in the sacrifice of Christ.
Ephesians 2:14-17 - Paul is not specific about what He is calling the "enmity", the "law of commandments contained in ordinances" as it is translated. There is absolutely no mention of the feasts of the Lord or annual sabbaths. In fact, by calling the "law of commandments contained in ordinances" the "enmity", this rules out that he could be talking about God's holy days, because there is nothing about those days that constitutes enmity of any kind.
Colossians 2:13-14 - "the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us" cannot refer to the holy days and feasts of God. I have kept them for about 25 years and I know from experience what a blessing they are and that they are not against me any more than the weekly Sabbath is against me. Probably Paul is referring the requirement of the death penalty for our sins, which was nailed to the cross.
Colossians 2:16-23 - Verse 16 seems to be saying, do not let any man judge you in how you keep the feasts and sabbaths. In the phrase "the body is of Christ" (KJV), the word "is" is not in the original Greek. The phrase is, "the body of Christ". So this could mean, it is the body of Christ, the Church, which is to judge these matters, not any man. There is also in verses 20-23 a rebuke of those who practice the commandments and doctrines of men. This cannot refer to the holy days which were given by God.
HOW ARE THE HOLY DAYS KEPT BY THE CHURCH?
Why are there not more explicit instruction in the New Testament showing us that we should keep the annual feasts and holy days of God, and how to keep them?
There are some things God wants us to seek and dig out of His Word and prove our zeal in doing this. He does not always cram His truth down our throats.
How does the Church know where to keep the feasts and holy days and how to keep them?
Just as God gave the priesthood of Aaron authority, so God has given the ministry of the Church binding authority to make certain decisions (Matthew 16:18-19). The ministry of the Church has the authority to make decisions, guided by God, in where these days should be observed and format of services and how they are to be observed for the members of the Church that they pastor.
In some cases a Christian may not be able to attend with a group that observes these days. In that case I would recommend that a Christian rest on the holy days and keep the days on his own with the wisdom and guidance God gives through the Bible and the Holy Spirit until such time as God provides the opportunity to attend with a Church that keeps these days. But it is better to keep these days with a church that keeps them whenever possible.
Some Christians have been wrongly taught for years that to keep God's holy days means to deny Christ, and these Christians may have a conscience problem with keeping these days. We should certainly pay attention to our conscience in matters that are optional as far as God's word is concerned (Romans 14:22-23), so for example if I feel guilty eating meat, I should not eat meat. But there is no commandment of God that I eat meat. In matters where God's will is clear in the Bible, God's word must override our conscience (Matthew 4:4).