Keeping the Feasts?

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies. There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD.” (Lev.23:1-3).

Should Christians keep (or celebrate) the feasts that were prescribed under the Old Covenant or have they become obsolete under the New Covenant? Is there any harm in observing the old covenant feasts even if there is no obligation to do so? What about observing the Sabbath? The command to keep the Sabbath day holy was one of the Ten Commandments.

There has been a growth in the number of so-called “Messianic” congregations which place particular emphasis on Jewish practices and which claim to keep, or to celebrate, the Jewish feasts. Even among regular Christian congregations many believers are “observing the feasts”.

It should be noted that “Messianic” and “Christian” are synonyms. Both adjectives describe that which is of or related to “the Christ” or “the Messiah” – whether it is describing followersof Christ, the good news of Christ, the kingdom of Christ or the faith and teaching of Christ. Both words mean ‘anointed’, the one derived from Hebrew and the other from Greek. Those who are related to Jesus the Messiah are those who are also anointed with the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead as is taught in the Scriptures:

“You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9).

“As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him” (1 John 2:27).

The apostle Paul laid great emphasis on the fact that there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile among the believers in Jesus Christ. It is recorded in the book of Acts that the disciples of Jesus Christ, (without distinction to their background) were called Christians first at Antioch (Acts 11:26). However, many who now identify themselves as “Messianic” (often from Gentile backgrounds) are actually averse to being identified with the term Christian and many Jewish believers in Jesus insist on being called “Messianic Jews” rather than “Christians.”

Many Christians have been stimulated and challenged by discovering more about the “Jewish roots” of the Christian faith. There are many so-called Messianic ministries which strive to enhance the understanding of the faith through teaching about the customs and traditions of the Jewish people and the ancient Jewish festivals which were a central part of the old covenant assembly of worshippers. There is, however, a vast difference betweenkeeping or observing the feasts and teaching about the significance of the feasts in how they foreshadowed the redemption in Christ.

The old covenant feasts and all the sacrifices and rituals pertaining to them were given to illustrate, by way of types and shadows, the anticipated redemption that was to come through the new covenant that the Messiah would unveil. They were, as the writer to the Hebrews taught, only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order (Hebrews 9:10). The apostle Paul wrote: ‘…do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ’ (Colossians 2:16-17).

In desiring to “observe the feasts” there is a danger that the emphasis is placed upon theexternal regulations and upon the shadows rather than on the reality, which is found in Christ. This is evident in Paul’s letter to the believers at Galatia who were being led astray from their ‘pure and sincere faith’ by the teaching of men who had come down from Judea and were insisting on maintaining the barriers that set Jews apart from Gentiles under the old covenant. Paul did not consider that the observance of Jewish customs and feasts would enrich the faith of the Galatian believers. On the contrary, he was concerned that having come to the reality of knowing Christ through the anointing of the Holy Spirit they would be enslaved by external regulations all over again:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you (Galatians 4:8-11).

The old covenant shadows and types are indeed useful in teaching how the reality of our redemption has been revealed in Jesus Christ. However, they may also be a hindrance if people are misled into thinking that the ritual observance of the types and shadows makes their worship more authentic. Scripture places the emphasis on worshipping in Spirit and in truth rather than on the observance of old covenant rituals in which Christ was still veiled.

It is, in any event impossible to keep the feasts according to the Law of Moses which required various animal sacrifices to be offered to the LORD by the worshippers. Some of the sacrifices were to be offered by the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem and in the case of the three harvest festivals the people were obligated to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts there.

“Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed: Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17).

Jesus put a complete end to all of the animal sacrifices by the once and for all sacrifice of himself. He also said that the time had come when true worshippers would no longer go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship (John 4:23-24). As the writer to the Hebrews taught, we have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem of which the earthly city was only a shadow under the old covenant (Hebrews 12:22).

Christians who profess to ‘keep the feasts’ thus do little more than a sentimental re-enactment of some of their essential features while very often the prophetic meaning of the feasts is not fully understood, i.e. their reality ‘that is in Christ’ has not yet been experienced. It is then a danger that these festive observances become a substitute for true spirituality as was happening with the believers at Colosse and Galatia.

The new covenant teaches a righteousness that comes by faith – and this faith only comes through the new covenant teaching of Jesus Christ and not by any effort to observe the Law of Moses. The Law makes people conscious of sin but it does not offer the remedy for sin. To bring people under the yoke of the Law – a yoke that no Jew (other than Christ) has been able to bear in perfect obedience (see Acts 15:10) – is to bring them under bondage to external rules and regulations, which invariably engenders religious pride.

True faithfulness to Jesus Christ is to put to death the sinful nature and to live a new life by the power of the Holy Spirit and this comes about through a changed and circumcised heart and is not always evident by outward religious rituals. Christian freedom from the old covenant law has often been abused – both by legalists (as in the example Paul referred to in his letter to the Galatians) and by people who change the grace of God into a license for immorality (referred to by Jude verse 4). Genuine faith does not come through observing old covenant laws, but nor is it possible to have genuine faith yet remain enslaved to sin.

The desire to return to observances of the old covenant may, in some instances, be a response to the lawlessness of some who call themselves “Christians” while they brazenly continue to indulge the sinful nature. In wanting to distance themselves from this they look to “the Jewish roots” which seems to provide more structured worship through the legalistic observance of rules and of special days and months and seasons and years(Galatians 4:10). This appeals to the religious side of human nature and to human pride but does not ensure genuine faith according to the freedom we have in Christ under the new and better covenant. As Paul noted: Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col.2:23).

The reality of the Holy Spirit living within us who enables us to look with spiritual eyes to the things which are unseen is far superior to the worship under the old covenant which were shadows and types applying until the time of the new order.