To those of us who have been keeping
the holydays for years – in some cases, for all of our lives – the practice
seems so natural, so right. The Scriptures supporting the practice seem
so obvious. Why, we wonder, doesn’t everyone observe the holydays?
There are Christians, however, who have studied the holydays carefully, and have arrived at a conscious decision not to observe them. Why? What is the rational, philosophic, theological or scriptural basis for this decision?
There are two broad categories of people who believe it is not necessary to keep the holydays: those who keep the Sabbath, and those who do not. Among those who do not keep the Sabbath, there are various other categories. There are some who believe that all the Old Testament was abolished and is irrelevant to Christians. There are others who believe the ceremonial law was abolished but the moral law was retained. Some believe none of the law was abolished, but it is the right of the church to interpret the law and even change the law if necessary.
This latter group recognizes that the early church kept the Sabbath, and even the holydays, but they chronicle the change that took place in the church from Sabbath to Sunday and from the holydays to Easter and Christmas and conclude that the church had the right to make those changes.
The arguments on this subject fall into certain identifiable patterns, and it is quite instructive to examine them. A few basic premises advanced against the holydays may be listed as follows:
1. The holydays are essentially the national days of Israel. They apply only to Israel and not to other nations.
2. The holydays are essentially Levitical and ceremonial. All such laws passed away either at the cross or at the destruction of the Temple.
3. The holydays could only be observed at the Temple in Jerusalem and nowhere else.
4. All of the holydays are types which are fulfilled in Christ and are therefore no longer binding on Christians.
In the August, 1979, Bible Advocate, an article appeared titled, Should We Keep Israel’s Holydays? by D.L. Prunkard. The Bible Advocate is a publication of the Seventh Day Church of God, a denomination that observes the seventh day Sabbath, but not the biblical festivals. The article is useful in that it includes an exhaustive collection of the arguments advanced against the observance of the biblical holydays. The author felt the need to deal with this in great detail, because there has been an ongoing discussion in his denomination over this very issue. It is a problem for them because of the difficulty in maintaining the weekly Sabbath while dismissing the annual Sabbaths. Shortly after the article appeared, I wrote and published a review. What follows is derived from that review. My apologies to D.L. Prunkard (hereinafter called "the author") for dredging up his work nearly 30 years later.
Any debate is apt to place on display an array of logical fallacies, and religious debate is not immune. Most people do this without realizing it. Should We Keep Israel’s Holydays? (Hereinafter called "the article") serves to illustrate.
The author asks, "Did Jesus command Christians to observe the national days of Israel?" This is called "begging the question." 1 If they are merely the national days of Israel, then why are we having this discussion? If you have read this book from the beginning, you will already know that the argument is on an entirely different plane. These days are not merely the "national days of Israel," but "Jehovah’s appointed festivals." There is a difference.
The statement is also a "straw man" argument.2 I point this out, because you are almost certain to encounter it if you discuss very much theology. It sets up the issue in terms that those who argue for the observance of the holydays don’t advance.
Also, the question, "Did Jesus command?" is misleading. Jesus did not attempt to create a new body of law, but he certainly validated an existing body of written law:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19 NIV).
What you need to know about this passage is that in speaking of letters and strokes of the pen, Jesus is affirming the written law as opposed to the oral law. He is emphasizing this, because he is about to reject many aspects of Jewish law, i.e., the traditions of the elders, also called the Oral Law.
When people set out to dispute the continuing observance of the festivals, they too often use loaded words to make their point. Words like "rituals," "obligatory," "ceremonial bondage," "rigorism," "legalistic religion," "Judaism," all serve to cloud the issue and all are used in the article. No one wants to be involved in rigorism or legalistic religion. And we surely want to avoid "ceremonial bondage," whatever that is.
But it’s important to know how a person uses his terms. What, for example, does the author mean when he uses the term, "Judaism"? Judaism, as practiced in the 20th century, involves almost as much variety as Christianity. There are Orthodox, Reformed, and Conservative synagogues scattered all across the United States. There may be as many sects of Judaism extant today as there are Protestant churches in the United States.
So, when the article states that "Paul reacted in Galatians to infiltrating Judaism," we have to ask what the author means by that. Does he mean the religion of Israel as expressed in the law of Moses, or does he mean Judaism as expressed by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or the Essenes? By "Judaism" does he mean the religion which God delivered to ancient Israel, or that Judaism which Jesus rejected while He still observed the law of Moses?
Whose Days Are They?
The article begins by outlining the holydays with their scriptural references and a brief sketch of the supposed meaning of each day. Unfortunately, scant attention is given to the Christian meaning so evident in all the festivals. It is, after all, an important question to ask. How do these holydays relate to Christians? Do they have any meaning for Christians? If they don’t, then the rest of the discussion is mostly irrelevant and would then have to turn on purely legalistic arguments. If they do have meaning for Christians, then we are off into an entirely different discussion, and that discussion forms the basis for this book.
The author proceeds to develop a concept you may encounter elsewhere, so it is useful to study it here. It has to do with a critical theory of the structure of the Old Testament:
The Pentateuch’s third book was a manual of law for the priests, having to do with the cleansing, worship and service of the redeemed people. The manual contained priestly laws, not transferable to Gentiles. They were administered only by the sons of Aaron. Much of the manual is mutely prophetic typifying Christ, and was, along with other aspects of Moses’ economy, operationally annulled at Golgotha. (Emphasis his throughout.)
Thus is the book of Leviticus dismissed as having any application apart from Old Testament Israel. Now I am certain the author is familiar with the book of Leviticus and this argument is all the more puzzling. Consider, for example, the way Leviticus begins:
The LORD summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them . . ." (Leviticus 1:1-2 NRSV).
To be sure, the instructions had to do with sacrifices, but they were not exactly a "manual for the priests." The first three chapters of Leviticus continue with instructions to the people as to what they are to do about burnt offerings, meal offerings, and peace offerings.
Chapter 4 begins the same way: "Speak to the children of Israel, saying . . ." Yes, there are instructions to the sons of Aaron and the priests, but the book can hardly be called a "priestly manual." Those instructions are imbedded in a work addressed to all the people.
In chapter 11, Jehovah instructs both Moses and Aaron to "speak unto the children of Israel," concerning certain dietary laws. These are not priestly laws having to do with sacrifices, but laws for the people concerning what they should and should not eat. And, more to the point of the issue at hand, is the chapter about the festivals, where the Lord spoke unto Moses saying, "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my appointed festivals" (Leviticus 23:2 NRSV). The instructions on the festivals were not merely given to the priesthood, but to the people.
One suspects the argument that Leviticus is a "priestly manual" has its origins in the higher critical schools and the theory that Moses did not write Leviticus at all. They place it much later. According to one school of literary criticism, Leviticus is a "legal fiction" and should be dated after the construction of Solomon’s Temple. I don’t think so, and there is no hint that the writers of the New Testament thought so either.
Also misleading is the statement: "the manual contained priestly laws, not transferable to Gentiles"? The author goes on to argue: "Gentiles were disallowed from the Israelite system and not permitted to enter the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. Gentiles observing the days was illegal and unconscionable."
His overall approach to this question is legalistic, but here he climbs out on a limb. The limb he is on is one of the more widespread misconceptions about the Law of Moses. The first thing we have to do is to be sure what the words mean, and the word "Gentile" is a much abused example. The word comes from the Latin gentillis, which means "of the same clan or race." As used by the Jews, it means one of non-Jewish faith or race, and as used by Christians it means one not a Jew.
The Hebrew word translated "Gentile" in the Old Testament is goy and means nation or nations (as it is often translated). It is not used of a single individual, as in "He is a Gentile." Among the Hebrews the individual of a Gentile nation would be called "a stranger" (Hebrew, ger), one who is not an Israelite. If you have a concordance, you can answer this question for yourself. Just look up all the passages in the Old Testament where the word "stranger" is used. It will take a while to run through all of them, because the Bible has rather a lot to say about strangers. For example, was it illegal for a stranger, a ger, to observe the holydays of Israel? Interestingly enough, the matter is specified on one particular Holy Day – the Passover.
And the Lord said unto Moses, and Aaron, this is the ordinance of the Passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof: but every manservant that is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. A foreigner and a hired servant shall not eat thereof. . . And when a stranger shall sojourn with you, and will keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: For no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourns among you" (Exodus 12:43-49 KJV).
This passage of Scripture is of singular importance for several reasons. First, it is the only holyday where any restrictions at all are placed on "Gentile" observance. No such inhibition is expressed on any other festival. We can only presume that the stranger who sojourned among the Israelites was perfectly free to keep the other holydays, even without being circumcised. If, indeed, these festivals were God’s expression to man of how, when and where he was to be worshiped, then no Gentile could worship God properly unless he did keep the holydays.
It is also important to note in this passage that the stranger could keep the Passover. Not only does the Bible fail to support the author’s allegation that is was "illegal and unconscionable for gentiles to observe the holydays," such observance is expressly permitted under certain circumstances.
But perhaps one of the most important statements made in this passage is the statement that there is to be one law for both the Israelite and the stranger that sojourned among them. There was only one way of worshiping God – one set of standards by which men would be measured. He did not have one religion for the Jews and yet another for strangers.
When you take a broader look at Leviticus you find a wide range of instructions for the stranger from a Gentile land.
This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you (Leviticus 16:29).
This is part of the instructions for observing the Day of Atonement. How can one argue, in the face of this clear statement, that the "Gentile" living in Israel who wished to worship the true God was not expected to fast and abstain from work on the Day of Atonement? There’s more:
Also you shall say to them: "Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer it to the LORD, that man shall be cut off from among his people" (Leviticus 17:8).
This will come as a bolt from the blue for many readers of the New Testament, because in the time of the Second Temple, this could not happen. But the Law of Moses explicitly allows that strangers could offer a burnt offering or sacrifice. Here are two more examples.
And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the stranger that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people (v. 10 KJV).
Speak unto Aaron, and to his sons, and unto all the children of Israel, and say unto them, Whosoever he be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers in Israel, that will offer his oblation for all his vows, and for all his freewill offerings, which they will offer unto the Lord for a burnt offering; Ye shall offer at your own will a male without blemish . . ." (Leviticus 22:18-19 KJV).
If you do your own study, you may be in for still more surprises. You will find, for example, that the stranger was obligated by the law of blasphemy. The stranger was obligated by the laws of restoration and restitution. The stranger was included in the laws of usury – an Israelite could not take usury of a stranger who lived near him and had fallen into poverty. You will find that the laws of the book of Numbers include the stranger as well:
And if a stranger sojourn with you, or whosoever be among you in your generations, and will offer an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord; as you do, so he shall do. One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourns with you, an ordinance forever in your generations: as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord. One law and one manner shall be for you, and for the stranger that sojourns with you (Numbers 15:14-16 KJV).
It would appear that God did not have one set of standards for the Jews and another for the Gentiles. The 15th chapter of Numbers continues with one law after another that applies to the stranger as well as to the children of Israel.
Later we even find that the matter of purification or separation made from the ashes of the red heifer was a law for the children of Israel and the stranger that sojourned among them (Numbers 19:10).
In Deuteronomy 5:14 the law of the Sabbath is applied to the alien. In Deuteronomy 14, the poor tithe is made available to the alien. Need we go on? I am puzzled as to why the article would declare that Gentiles were "disallowed" from the Israelite system, and that Gentiles observing the days was "illegal and unconscionable."
Actually, the statement is not entirely wrong if applied to the attitude of Jews toward Gentiles in New Testament times. The religion of the Jews in the first century bore some striking differences from the religion God delivered to Moses. The attitude of the Jews toward Gentiles in New Testament times can only be described as vile. They regarded Gentiles with extreme aversion, scorn, and even hatred:
They [the Gentiles] were regarded as unclean, with whom it was unlawful to have any friendly intercourse. They were the enemies of God and His people, to whom the knowledge of God was denied unless they became proselytes, and even then they could not, as in ancient times, be admitted to full fellowship. Jews were forbidden to counsel them, and if they asked about divine things they were to be cursed. All the children born of mixed marriages were bastards. That is what caused the Jews to be so hated by the Greeks and Romans, as we have abundant evidence in the writings of Cicero, Seneca and Tacitus. Something of this reflected in the New Testament (John 18:28, Acts 10:28; 11:3).3
What misleads some superficial commentators on the New Testament is the assumption that this attitude is a reflection of the law of Moses. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have already seen that the law of Moses permitted a stranger full access to the worship of God. The law even granted him the doubtful privilege of circumcision. To all intents and purposes, the Gentile could be the equal of the Israelite in every way. The only apparent discrepancy is the restriction against the uncircumcised stranger entering the sanctuary (Ezekiel 44:7). But, then, the uncircumcised Jew was not allowed entry either.
The laws, then, separating Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament times were not the Law of Moses or the Law of God, but the ordinances of men. This is an extremely important distinction.
The Wall of Separation (Ephesians 2)
With this background, we can now understand one of the more important texts often advanced in an effort to prove that the holydays need not be observed. Paul wrote the Ephesians:
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:14-15).
There are two major questions that arise out of this passage: (1) What is the middle wall of separation, and (2) What exactly is it that is "abolished" in Christ’s flesh? The context of Ephesians 2 is that salvation by grace is come to the Gentiles. Paul makes it clear that he is writing to a church primarily composed of Gentiles:
That at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation (Ephesians 2:12-14).
Two theories have been advanced as to what exactly the "middle wall of partition" might be. On the one hand it has been suggested that it is a wall between man and God (Ezekiel 43:8). On the other hand, it is said to be the wall in the Temple area between the Court of the Gentiles and the inner courts (included as a part of the sanctuary) immediately around the Holy Place. Josephus tells us that there was a sign placed in the Court of the Gentiles written in several languages saying that if a Gentile passed beyond this point he would be responsible for his own death, which would immediately ensue.
There is something to say for both ideas. Verse 13, for example, states that the Gentiles, "who sometimes were far off," are now made near by the blood of Christ. One might legitimately ask why it is enough. The latter half of verse 15 states, "For to make in Himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that He might reconcile both [Jew and Gentile] unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby."
What is described is a three cornered reconciliation. For, indeed, how can a Gentile and a Jew both be reconciled to God without being reconciled to one another? If they have both come to the same place – the cross – are they not now together? Then what is it that Jesus "abolished"? In the first place, the word "abolish" is a less than accurate translation. The word is katargeo and is found in another passage with rather a different sense:
He also spoke this parable: "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up [kartargeo] the ground?’" (Luke 13:6-7).
The fig tree can hardly be conceived of as "abolishing" the ground. The same word is translated "make void" in Romans 3:31, "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law."
We are left with an apparent contradiction between these two scriptures. On the one hand we have Paul saying to the Ephesians, "Having abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances," while he says to the Romans, "Do we then abolish the law through faith? God forbid: Yea, we establish the law." If the law, then, is not made void through faith, but rather established, what is it that Jesus "abolished" as described in Ephesians?
What is the "law of commandments contained in ordinances"? One thing is sure – Paul is not talking about the law of Moses, for we have seen that the law of Moses created no enmity between Jew and Gentile. It erected no walls. Under Moses’ economy the Gentile was allowed into full fellowship with Israel. He was, indeed, required to be circumcised in order to fully worship God – but, then, so was the Jew. There was no middle wall.
If it wasn’t God’s law, then, that created the enmity between Jew and Gentile, whose law was it? The answer is plain – it was the commandments, traditions and ordinances of men who rejected the commandments of God in order that they might keep their own traditions. (See what Jesus said about this at Matthew 15:1-9, and Mark 7:1-13.)
Speaking of a similar problem, Paul wrote to the Colossians, "Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?" (Colossians 2:20-22 KJV).
It is the commandments and ordinances of men which are to perish, not the law of God. Jesus Christ, then, broke down the middle wall of partition which the Jews, not Moses, had erected between themselves and the Gentiles, having swept aside the enmity with all its purely human prohibitions. Returning to the article’s treatment of the law:
Leviticus dealt with the personal relationship between God and national Israel, and was never intended for worldwide obligation, nor to be binding on twentieth century disciples. One chapter (23), delineating festivals and holydays, cannot be made holy today, ignoring the other twenty-six chapters as profane and abrogated!
Does this statement imply that it was possible to worship God apart from the relationship between God and national Israel? If, as suggested, there was no "worldwide obligation" to keep the law of Moses, did a different relationship involving a different set of laws exists somewhere else in the world? Or was the only way to worship God being revealed to Israel as God created a relationship (covenant) between Him and them? Was it possible for a stranger to have a relationship with God apart from God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc.?
There is no way to conclude from the law of Moses itself that it was not intended for worldwide obligation. In fact, we learn from the prophets that the law is intended for worldwide application. Give Zechariah 14 a careful read (see chapter 17 of this book). Having read that, what do you conclude? Were these the "national days of Israel," or were they the festivals of God to tell man how, when, and where God was to be worshiped?
Only in Jerusalem?
It is fair to say that God was not to be worshiped in a haphazard fashion. He was quite explicit in revealing to man how, when, and where He was to be worshiped. The where of that worship is a matter of particular interest. Contrary to assumptions, the law does not specify Jerusalem. The Israelites were told, "Three times in a year shall all your males appear before the Lord your God in the place which He shall choose; in the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and in the Feast of Weeks, and in the Feast of Tabernacles" (Deuteronomy 16:16). Once Israel had entered the land and the tabernacle was placed in Shiloh, the people went up to Shiloh to observe the three "pilgrimage festivals." Later, the Ark was in the City of David, and when the Temple was built it was moved to Jerusalem, and the festivals were held there.
For some unaccountable reason, most of those arguing against the holydays focus heavily on the "place" aspect of the holydays, attempting to show that the holydays could only be kept at Jerusalem. In their zeal, they often overlook the fact that the festivals were kept at Shiloh before the Temple was built in Jerusalem.
They argue that Israel was not allowed to sacrifice the Passover in any of their towns (Deuteronomy 16:5, 6), but that it could only be sacrificed at Jerusalem. The article goes on to argue:
Those keeping it in those days would need roasted lamb and bitter herbs (Passover), sacrifices and wave sheaf offerings (Unleavened Bread), sacrifices (Pentecost), sacrifices and trumpet blowing on new moon (civil new year), sacrifices, expiatory rites and two goats (Atonement), sacrifices, tree boughs and temporary dwellings (Tabernacles), sacrifices (Last Great Day), all taking place at Jerusalem, about the Temple!
If that is true, then how do the Jews manage to keep the festivals today? They have not ceased to observe the Passover since the destruction of the Temple. They, of course, recognize that they cannot sacrifice the Passover, but they can still observe it and they still do. It is quite true that the Jews cannot enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (only the High Priest could do that), but they can fast and abstain from labor wherever they are, and they still do.
Some who advance this rather legalistic argument seem to assume that only the males who went up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles had to abstain from labor, while those who stayed behind were free to work on the holydays. They seem to assume that those who lived in Galilee need not fast on the Day of Atonement. The fact is that devout Jews observed the holydays as far as they could be observed wherever they were. Merely because they lived in Alexandria, they were not relieved of the obligation to fast on Yom Kippur. Any festival could be observed by two or three people getting together for prayer and worship.
If the destruction of the Temple didn’t stop the Jews from observing the holydays as far as they were able, why should it stop Christians?
Christ did indeed make the offering of sacrifices obsolete. But the author continues: "Yet, oblations, ablutions, carnal washings and ritualistic sacrifices were part of the Mosaic system, and could not be omitted if any part of the system were retained (the days for their observance)."
But why not? They certainly had to be omitted after the destruction of the Temple. There was no choice. But how were the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem able to retain that part of the law of Moses pertaining to vows and purification, then, without retaining the entire system? (See Acts 21:18, explanation to follow.)
The whole argument seems to overlook the fact that relatively few people under the Mosaic system ever offered an animal sacrifice. People could bring sacrifices but only the Levites could "offer" the sacrifice. Many Israelites, even pious Israelites, lived and died without ever seeing a sacrifice offered. But the Levitical system of washing and sacrifices was played out on the stage of the Temple, and represented a very small part of the worship of God for the average man. The article rightly observes:
There was no justification or spiritual salvation in Moses’ law for national Israel! Neither is there any sanctification or spiritual salvation in performing God’s law by Christians! Such is attained only by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) in the accomplished fulfillment of Christ’s sacrifice. Keeping any law without accepting Him and all He stands for provides no spiritual benefit.
That statement is absolutely correct. And in emphasizing "any law" I presume the author intends to include the Ten Commandments with the Sabbath as well. But this is a landmine for anyone who believes the weekly Sabbath should be kept while the other Sabbaths need not be kept.
He goes on to say, "The law of Moses contained everything God gave in original form through that servant." In other words, all the laws contained in the first five books of the Old Testament are the law of Moses, but that includes the Ten Commandments.
In writing of the three pilgrimage festivals, the author notes "all three are harvest festivals and undoubtedly originated after Israel entered Palestine." This is revealing and suggests that he accepts the critical theory which considers Leviticus 23 a "legal fiction." That is to say that the book of Leviticus did not originate with Moses, but with the priesthood, much later. But in Leviticus 23 we are told, "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, Concerning the feasts of the Lord, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my feasts" (verses 1, 2). Here the holydays are specifically called Jehovah’s feasts and is stated that they were given to Moses. The Graf-Wellhausen school of criticism holds that many of these priestly laws originated much later – some of them in the time of the reconstructed second Temple – and were not written by Moses at all. They are a "legal fiction" in that they are represented as being given by Moses when they weren’t.
I prefer to accept the plain statement of both Leviticus and Deuteronomy that the law was given to Moses before Israel entered the promised land. The Graf-Wellhausen theory has faded in the light of later discoveries.
The Scriptures don’t seem to be concerned so much with where specifically the festivals are to be kept, but that the people come together to keep them. The implication of Deuteronomy 16:16 is that God could choose any place for the festivals. Jesus confirmed this in a rather interesting encounter with the woman in Samaria:
The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. 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 4:19-24).
Later, Jesus would tell his Apostles, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). Jesus thus revealed that it was possible to worship God anywhere, not just at Jerusalem.
This is not a new commandment. Israel was prohibited from offering their sacrifices in just any location in order to keep them from falling into idolatry. It was not because God could not be worshiped anywhere except Jerusalem. The superstition that grew up among the Jews that God could only be worshiped in Jerusalem was not the intent of the law of Moses. Nor was it God’s intent that the Gentiles would be barred from worshiping Him at His tabernacle.
The article includes the curious assertion: "When Rome invaded Palestine and Titus’ armies decimated Jerusalem (70 A.D.), the Levitical system collapsed, not to revive."
Surely he is aware of Zechariah 14 and Malachi 3, which point to a purified Levitical priesthood offering sacrifices after Christ’s return. The Levitical priesthood does not function now solely for the reason that there is no Temple. When the Temple is rebuilt, Levi will once again serve there.
The argument that there was a 40-year vacuum in which the children of Israel did not keep the holydays prior to their entry into the land is tenuous at best. It is true that no circumcision took place in the wilderness (Joshua 5:5-7), and that the Passover could not be observed by the uncircumcised (Exodus 12:48). But it is an assumption to conclude that those who were circumcised did not continue to keep the Passover until the last of them were dead. Joshua and Caleb, of course, provided a permanent link in that they were able to enter the land because they had not participated in the rebellion.
To be sure, certain other ceremonial aspects of the holydays could not be observed in the wilderness – such as the wave sheaf offering. This did not, however, preclude the observance of the days on the calendar (which was revealed much earlier, see Exodus 12:2), and the observance of the days by abstention from labor. We really know little of the details of this time, and it is a gratuitous assumption to argue that Israel did not keep the holydays through this 40-year period.
It may even be irrelevant since Israel’s failure to observe the holydays during much of their history is a negative comment on their character and not on the observance of the holydays.
The Temple Veil
Speaking of the sanctuary, the article continues, "The sanctuary was part of the old covenant, a figure to last only until the final sacrifice of Christ. It was then that the great curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place ripped asunder, from top to bottom. Temple services ended, as far as God was concerned. See Hebrews 9:1-12)"
When you are finished studying Hebrews 9:1-12 to see if it says that the Temple services ended when the veil was rent, you might turn back to the 21st chapter of Acts, where a most curious event is recorded. It would certainly seem that Jesus would have taught the Apostles plainly about any matter as important as the abolition of the law or any part of it. The problem is that the only statements he makes during his earthly ministry about the law are supportive (Matthew 5:17-20). Even his reinterpretation of the law is supportive for there is no need to reinterpret what is to be done away (see Matthew 5:27-48).
But if Temple services were to end as far as God was concerned, we would certainly expect this to be made clear by Jesus before His departure. Was this the case? How did James and the other leaders of the Jerusalem church see the Temple services "as far as God was concerned"?
Luke records the occasion of Paul’s return to Jerusalem after a prolonged absence. He went to see James, and all the elders of the Jerusalem church. When they had heard Paul’s report, they said to him, "You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20).
Which law? The Ten Commandments? The ceremonial law? The law of Moses? It must be borne in mind that the New Testament writers do not observe our nice distinctions of law. When they say "the law," they mean "the law of Moses," which to them is the same as "the law of God."
James and the elders continued: "But they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs" (verse 21).
But wait. Didn’t the Jerusalem conference (recorded in Acts 15) reject circumcision? Wouldn’t it be right for Paul to teach that they ought not to circumcise their children? Look at the verse again. It is not the Gentiles that Paul is accused of teaching to forsake Moses, but the Jews who are among the Gentiles.
Apparently many read this verse and assume that Paul did indeed teach the Jews among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, that they ought not to circumcise their children or walk after their customs. But read on.
What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come. Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law (Acts 21:22-24).
Now is the moment for clarification. Now is the time to tell them that the law of Moses is done away. Now is the time for him to stand firm in the liberty wherewith Christ has made him free and refuse to be under a yoke of bondage. We know that Paul is the kind of man who would have done exactly that. But what did he do?
Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification, at which time an offering should be made for each one of them (v. 26).
What a stunning example. It is one thing for a Christian to keep the holydays, but quite another thing for him to be involved in a Temple ceremony of purification involving holy water, the ashes of a red heifer, and the offering of an offering for every one of them. All this was done so that Paul could demonstrate to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem that these allegations made against him were "nothing."
It seems less than accurate to say that "Temple services ended as far as God was concerned" when the veil was rent in the Temple, for we see Jewish Christians, with the sanction of James and Paul, still availing themselves of the services of the Temple and the Levitical priesthood.
The Early Church Record
But what do we do with all those New Testament Scriptures that refer to the holydays? How do people get around them? Of course, some of these scriptures are simple references to the calendar and can be construed solely as a reference to current events. An example of this is Acts 12:3, where Herod arrested Peter during the days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This could be dismissed as a historical reference to the time of year in Jerusalem.
Acts 12:4 (concerning the Passover) falls into the same category, but the article curiously argues as though the Christians were not observing the Passover at all. There can be little doubt that the Christian church in Jerusalem observed the Passover at this time and for a long time thereafter. (See Chapter three of this book.)
Acts 18:21 is of special interest: "But Paul bade them farewell saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem." The article correctly observes that the latter clause in this verse is missing from major manuscripts of the New Testament. That said, it is also present in many manuscripts. It is left to the scholars to discuss whether the verse was present in original manuscripts and later deleted by copyists, or whether it was absent from the original manuscripts and added by copyists.
We may have no difficulty in discerning why some copyists might have deliberately (or accidentally) deleted the phrase, but the question as to why it might have been added is another matter entirely. Some have suggested that it was a marginal rendering – an explanation on the part of some copyist as to why Paul was going to Jerusalem. The marginal reading may have later found its way into the main text. We then, however, are left with a question as to why a copyist would have given this as a reason unless the holydays still loomed large in their faith. The fact remains that the phrase is present in many manuscripts.
If indeed the phrase was not in Luke’s original manuscript of the book of Acts, it must have been a very early addition to the text. For how could one make such an addition to the text without a strong oral tradition to that effect, or without a marginal note made by someone who knew what Paul’s reason might have been? The fact that the text is disputed may provide just as strong an argument for the observance of the holydays as it would if it were written by the hand of Luke himself.
There is another group of Scriptures which are indeed merely calendar references, but they are calendar references that have nothing to do with a Jewish cultural setting. In Acts 20:6, Luke says, "And we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread." The author asserts:
A time demarcation! Philippi was almost totally Gentile, with not enough Jews to build a synagogue (Acts 16:13). Nowhere does the New Testament say, ‘We kept the feast,’ or ‘We observed the Holy Day,’ or ‘We prepared for the festival.’ Legalistic, religious arguments come by silence, inference or analogy! Nothing is inferred, much less said, about the sanctity of these days or any sacred obligation to perform them. (Emphasis his).
Of course, Luke is not making a doctrinal statement; he is simply giving an account of their voyages. There is no reason to expect him to discuss the sanctity of these days. Indeed if, as we believe, the church was keeping these days, then they were taken for granted. There was no need for Luke to argue the point with his reader.
But unless his reader was acquainted with the Days of Unleavened Bread, why would Luke mention them? And if there was no synagogue in Philippi and the Days of Unleavened Bread were not observed there, what is the significance of Luke’s remark? Admittedly, we can only infer that they were observing the Days of Unleavened Bread from this Scripture, but it is of at least passing interest, especially in the light of other Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 5:7, 8.
Next the author turns his attention to Acts 20:16: "For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, in order that he might not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost."
What was the point of being in Jerusalem on Pentecost? The article suggests, "An additional opportunity to witness for Christ to thronging multitudes of Old Covenant Jews! A time for reunion with fellow ministers in the church!" He doesn’t explain why Pentecost would provide a special opportunity for a ministerial reunion, unless the ministers were expected to be there for Pentecost.
But why try to explain away the Feast of Pentecost? The majority of professing Christians down through all ages have observed Pentecost gladly as the birthday of the New Testament church! The suggestion that Pentecost should not be observed is a relatively late development. The Catholic Church and the Church of England as well as many other Protestants keep the Feast of Pentecost to this day. And, indeed, why not? If Jesus did not intend for the church to continue observing the Feast of Pentecost, it was a grave oversight for Him to give the Holy Spirit on that day. Why argue that the New Testament church didn’t keep Pentecost, with all that it meant to them?
In discussing Paul’s visit to Jerusalem on this occasion, the author commits a curious error. He cites Acts 21:21, which represents the allegation of the Jews that Paul "taught all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs."
Arguing from this, the author states flatly, "Paul taught not to keep the rites of Moses’ law, including festivals and holydays." What he seems to completely overlook is that this was the allegation of the Jews against Paul, and the whole point of the passage is that Paul needs to show the Judean Christians that these things were not true. He seems to completely overlook verse 24: "Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing."
And Paul went along with them! Mind you, this was not done by a meek, subservient, pliable man who was easily intimidated. This was the man who confronted Peter to his face and in public when he dissembled to impress a group of Jews who had come down from Jerusalem to Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14).
There is one other reference in the book of Acts which is also a calendar reference. Acts 27:9 mentions that sailing was now dangerous since the fast (Day of Atonement) was already past. It is quite correct that this simply shows a calendar demarcation, with nothing more intended.
However, it is a calendar demarcation which will be understood by Luke’s reader – Theophilus – a Greek Christian. It seems unlikely, if the traditional idea of the abolition of holydays were true, that Luke would have continued to use this type of expression. I think he
would have recognized how misleading it could be to his readers.
I Corinthians 5:7, 8
This Scripture is of particular interest, because, after a plain reference to the Days of Unleavened Bread and the symbolism of leavening, Paul says, "Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
What do we do with this? The author suggests, "Let us celebrate the feast in the Greek connotes the continual present tense, something that is being perpetually accomplished. Christians are in a position of continual unleavenedness, a perpetual feast."
Now, that is a neat bit of footwork, but it should be noted at the outset that there is no such thing as a "continual present tense" in the Greek language. The Greek word heortadzomen is the first person plural present subjunctive of the verb heortadzo, which means "to keep a feast, to celebrate a festival." The verb is derived from the noun heortee, which means "a solemn feast, public festival."
The reason for the suggestion of continuing action is that Greek tenses convey kind of action as well as time. The Greek present tense, for example, denotes linear action, whereas the aorist tense is not only past action, but punctiliar action – that is, action that takes place on an occasion or point in the past. Of course, no festival could be kept at a point in time for the shortest of them goes on for 24 hours and the Feast of Unleavened Bread continues for seven days.
There is nothing unusual, therefore, about Paul using the present subjunctive for celebrating the Festival of Unleavened Bread. We suggest that had Paul meant something else he would have said something else. The truth is that the Corinthian church was observing the Days of Unleavened Bread. (See the reference to Conybeare and Howson in chapter one.) So the present tense is quite apt.
Conybeare and Howson do not suggest that the festivals were "done away with at the cross." Rather they see that the church continued to keep them long after Christ’s ascension. The change, they suggest, took place well after Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians. The question is whether the church had the authority to make that change. Clearly Conybeare and Howson would not agree with Prunkard that it was somehow illegal to observe these feasts outside Jerusalem. They recognized that many Jews always have done so. One more calendar reference:
But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Corinthians 16:8-9).
The article argues that this is merely a time demarcation, but it is quite different from the time demarcations mentioned earlier in the book of Acts. One can dismiss Luke’s references as "after the fact" references simply to denote a time of year. But in this case the Feast of Pentecost is the limiting factor. It is a time Paul is looking ahead to while making the demarcation of his stay at Ephesus. Taken by itself, it cannot be considered final proof, but one still must ask, why Pentecost? Why not "spring," or "summer," or "until my work is finished"?
When we couple this Scripture with an awareness of how important Pentecost was to the early church and what it meant to them, why should we argue that they weren’t keeping it? What’s wrong with Pentecost? The answer is simple. If we accept Pentecost and Passover, then the holydays were not done away. We are "stuck" with the rest of them as well.
The Galatian Problem
It was Peter who observed that Paul wrote of things that were hard to understand and often misunderstood (2 Peter 3:16-17). Quite naturally, Paul becomes the focus of many arguments against holyday observance, especially in Galatians. Here is a common "prooftext" offered by those who oppose holyday observance:
But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years (Galatians 4:9-10).
Many commentaries suggest that the "days, and months, and times, and years" were the holydays of Leviticus 23 as well as the new moons and sabbatical years. Dummelow’s One Volume Commentary puts it this way:
Days (Jewish feasts or fast day). Months (new moons; compare Colossians 2:16). Times (Revised Version, seasons, such as Passover, Pentecost, etc.). Years (e.g., Sabbatic years). These observances are ‘weak and beggarly elements’ (verse 9), because they are matters of dry routine, customs which the Gentiles would adopt without understanding their meaning or catching anything of the spirit which lay behind them. They were of no avail for salvation.
But doesn’t it seem counterintuitive that Paul would refer to the holydays and other points of the law of God as "weak and beggarly elements"? Actually, the near context of this passage begins in verse 8: "But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served [Greek: were in bondage to] those which by nature are not gods." By this, Paul clearly identifies his audience as non-Jewish. They had previously not known God and had been in bondage, but it was the bondage of idolatry.
Now he asks them how it is possible for them to turn back again to the "weak and beggarly elements" unto which they had previously been in bondage. What are the "weak and beggarly elements"? It is those "which by nature are no gods," the idols of verse eight. But how would the observance of the biblical holydays place them in bondage to the weak and beggarly elements of the gods of this world again?
The book of Galatians has been a much misunderstood book. Not understanding the historical situation, we are left to grapple with a seemingly contradictory set of ideas. Nevertheless, there are some things that are abundantly clear in the book. The Galatians had fallen into a system of religion which involved attempts to justify themselves by their own works. And, whether it be the law of God or the laws of men, there is no law given which can make a man righteous (Galatians 3:21). The Galatians were attempting to achieve righteousness by circumcision and the law. It couldn’t be done and never could have.
But were they observing the holydays of God in an effort to achieve righteousness? Or were they observing pagan days, months, times, and years? The overall context of the book of Galatians implies that the problem was some form of Judaism. The near context of verses 8 through 10 implies Gentile observances. How can we resolve this?
First, is Paul saying that it is wrong to "observe" days, and months, times and years? If he is, then not only the holydays of God, but Christmas, Easter, Sunday and the Sabbath are all wrong because they are all days which men "observe." Not only that, but we are left with a strange contradiction. On the one hand, Paul exhorts the Corinthians, "Let us celebrate the Feast," while he chastises the Galatians for celebrating days.
Fortunately, we are not left with a contradiction, for Paul is not chastising the Galatians for celebrating days. The Greek word here translated "observe" does not mean "celebrate." Please bear with me through a technical explanation, for it’s important if we are to understand Paul correctly and not fall into the kind of error Peter described. We have already noted the Greek word heortadzomen from 1 Corinthians 5:8, which means "to celebrate a festival." In Acts 18:21 the Greek word is poieo, which means "to make," or "to do." Paul says that he must "make" or "do" the feast that is coming in Jerusalem.
The word in Galatians 4:10, however, is paratereo. The word is a combination of the Greek word tereo and the preposition para. Tereo means "to attend to carefully, take care of." Para in composition changes the word it is combined with to denote either a situation of motion from the side of or to the side of, or violation, neglect, aberration. It corresponds roughly to our beyond, aside or amiss (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).
The word paratereo, then, seems to imply an aberration of observation. It is a rare word, being used only six times in the New Testament, and nowhere does it imply a celebration of a festival. It is important enough for our understanding of this verse to list each of the scriptures in question for you to consider. The rendering of paratereo is italicized in each of the verses.
So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him (Mark 3:2).
So the scribes and Pharisees watched Him closely, whether He would heal on the Sabbath, that they might find an accusation against Him (Luke 6:7).
Now it happened, as He went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath, that they watched Him closely (Luke 14:1).
So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor (Luke 20:20).
But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him (Acts 9:24).
You observe days and months and seasons and years (Galatians 4:10).
When we look at all the references together, it is obvious there is something wrong with the Authorized Version of this last verse. It is clear enough that Paul is not discussing the celebration of the holydays. What, then, is he chastising the Galatians for doing? He is chastising them for the aberrant, pharisaical observance of religious customs as a means of salvation. Consider the Phillips translation of the passage:
At one time when you had no knowledge of God you were under the authority of gods who had no real existence. But now that you have come to know God, or rather are known by Him, how can you revert to dead and sterile principles and consent to be under their power all over again? Your religion is beginning to be a matter of observing certain days or months or seasons or years. Frankly, you stagger me, you make me wonder if all my efforts over you have been wasted!
Paul is not suggesting that it’s wrong to observe days. What he is saying is that it is wrong to observe days in order to achieve righteousness or justification before God.
We can argue as long as we wish about which days these were, and never come to a resolution all can accept. But we can agree that the observance of days – any days – does not justify us before God, nor does it achieve salvation. Most Christians will firmly unite around Ephesians 2:8, 9: "For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."
Dummelow was quite correct in saying that the holydays of God were "of no avail for salvation." They were never intended for that. They are, however, of great avail for understanding His plan, for the worship of God at His appointed times, and for growing in grace and knowledge of God’s purpose for man.
Merely because the Galatians abused the days does not justify their abrogation, and this is not what Paul suggests. Paul is arguing that the observance of days was not efficacious of salvation. He is not saying that the observance of days is wrong. If he were, his statement would include all days including Sunday, the Sabbath, Christmas and Easter – all are days, and all observed.
Those who argue against the celebration of holydays inevitably find their way to the 2nd chapter of Colossians, and especially to verse 16: "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths."
What is curious about this is that Paul doesn’t tell the Colossians that they were not to observe the festivals but simply that they should not let anyone judge them in respect to these matters.
A careful study of the verse, though, reveals some interesting points. First, there are three things in which the Colossians were not to allow themselves to be judged. In the simplest terms they are "meat," "drink" and "respect" (Greek: "part" or "division"). These three words in the Greek are brosei, posei and merei. All three are in the dative singular and are placed in parallel construction, making a play on words.
The article we are discussing suggests that the meat and drink in this passage are the meat and drink offerings of the law of Moses. The author isn’t thinking. How could the Colossians, Gentiles living in Asia Minor, be involved in meat and drink offerings? Weren’t these done at the Temple? In Jerusalem?
This interpretation won’t stand up on either a lexical or contextual study. The word brosei, here translated meat, means literally "the act of eating." The word posei, translated drink, means literally "drinking." But who would have been sitting in judgment of the Colossians for eating and drinking? Paul gives us the clue beginning in verse 20:
So if, through your faith in Christ, you are dead to the principles of this world’s life, why, as if you were still part and parcel of this worldwide system, do you take the slightest notice of these purely human prohibitions -- "Don’t touch this," "Don’t taste that," "And don’t handle the other"? "This," "That" and "The other" will all pass away after use! I know that these regulations look wise with their self-inspired efforts at worship, their policy of self-humbling, and their studied neglect of the body. But in actual practice they do honor, not to God, but man’s own pride" (Colossians 2:20-23, J.B. Phillips translation).
It was not the law of Moses that was causing a problem for the Colossians, but the various ascetic "ordinances of men" after the "rudiments of the world" that were creating the problem. The Colossians were being judged and condemned for eating and drinking, not for offering meat and drink offerings – how could they do that in Colosse?
But what do the holydays have to do with this? Take a look at verse 16 again. The Colossians were told not to allow any man to intimidate them in a handful of issues: eating, drinking, or in a part or aspect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbaths.
The truth is that what Paul is telling the Colossians is that they should not allow men to judge them in the food and drink aspect of their celebrations. Rather than being an abrogation of the holydays, the verse actually implies that the Christians in Colosse were observing them.
Notice also that, if this verse does away with the holydays, the Sabbath goes with them. The article attempts to avoid this conclusion by saying: "Note to what Paul referred: Food or drink (pertained to sacrifices); festival (of which there were seven); new moon (originated the Israelite calendar month, with particular emphasis to the day of Trumpets); Sabbath day (better rendered ‘Sabbaths,’ or the seven holydays of Leviticus 23)."
He doesn’t comment on the fact that he includes the seven annual Sabbaths twice in this listing whereas the verse in its construction is clearly dealing with five distinct sets, and separates each set with the word "or." Read Paul’s words very carefully. "Let no man therefore judge you for eating, or for drinking, or in part of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbaths." "holydays" and "Sabbaths" are not the same in this grammatical construct.
Forgive me for being technical, but, after all, words are intended to convey meaning. Paul’s choice of words in this verse is important to one set of arguments relative to the observance of the holydays. These arguments are advanced by those who believe that the holydays need not be kept, but the Sabbath – the weekly Sabbath – must be kept. Protestant commentators, on the other hand, freely include the Sabbath as among those things that are being done away.
We now pass on to Colossians 2:17, which says that the Holy Days, the new moons, and the Sabbaths "are a shadow of things to come." If we’re going to give attention to the tenses of the verbs, we must note at least in passing that this verse says holydays are (present tense) a shadow of things to come. If they had been abolished, we would surely have expected Paul to have said they were a shadow of things to come. Notice also that, if they are a shadow of things to come, then they have not yet been fulfilled. And, if they have not yet been fulfilled, then they have not passed from the law (Matthew 5:17, 18, assuming one takes that view of Jesus’ teaching).
Of course, the Temple was still there and the writer of Hebrews also notes in the present tense that there is still a functioning priesthood.
"There are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve under the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for see, saith He, that you make all things according to the pattern shown to you in the mountain (Hebrews 8:4-5).
What Paul is saying to the Colossians is that the Holy Days and the Sabbaths are shadows, types, images of things to come but that the real substance of these things is Christ. By the same analogy, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are shadows of things that have already taken place. They are not the substance of Christ’s body and blood, but the images or representations of it.
Merely because something is a "shadow" does not mean Christians should not observe it. It is just another way of saying that some of our observances are symbolic. But now let’s consider the wider context of Colossians 2:16.
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ (Colossians 2:8).
The New Testament church was beset early on by every sort of heresy. They were as many and as varied as fleas on a dog, and doubtless just as irritating. They ranged all the way from the heresies of Simon Magus and Cerinthus to such perverse doctrines as Gnosticism. Every sect of the Jews seems also to have been represented in the early church, and many of them, unfortunately, brought some of their old ideas with them. One thing is abundantly clear from the wording of verse 8. Paul is not talking about the law of Moses. He could not possibly describe Moses’ law as "philosophy," "vain deceit," "the tradition of men," or "the rudiments of the world."
The Greek religions were not without their ascetics, but this heresy was probably Jewish. Paul’s allusion to circumcision in verse 11 would lead us to that conclusion.
Nailed to the Cross
And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14 NASB).
The KJV calls this a "handwriting of ordinances" that was nailed to the cross. Was it the law of Moses? Was it the Holy Days? A simple study of the context renders an easy answer. "Having forgiven you of all your trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us." These are appositive statements saying the same thing in different words. How did He forgive us our trespasses? By blotting out the "handwriting of ordinances" that was against us. The NASB has this right when it calls this "the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us."
The law only became "against us" when we broke it. Paul asked, "Is the law sin? God forbid" (Romans 7:7). Elsewhere he said that the law is holy, good, spiritual, that he delighted in the law of God and served it (Romans 7:12, 14, 23, 25). God did not give man a law that was against him. How then does the law become "against" us?
Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin (Romans 7:12-14).
The law is "against us" when we break it. It was not the law that was nailed to the cross, but our violations of the law, our trespasses, our sins that were against us, that were nailed to the cross. If Paul had meant to say that the law was nailed to the cross, he would have said so in simple terms.
But what is this "handwriting of ordinances"? The expression is unique, being used nowhere else in the New Testament. The expression in the Greek is keirographon tois dogmasin. Keirographon is a combination of the word for hand and the word for write. In Greek writings it means specifically "a note of hand," a "bond of indebtedness," or promissory note. It was a "writing in which one acknowledges that money has either been deposited with him or lent to him by another, to be returned at an appointed time" (Thayer’s Lexicon). The only "bond of indebtedness" this could be referring to where Christians are concerned is the law’s promise to pay us the wages of sin when the note comes due.
Dogmasin, on the other hand, comes from the word dogma, which means "an opinion or a judgment as rendered in a court of law, a decree or an ordinance." The phrase "handwriting of ordinances," then, refers to the judgment of indebtedness against us as a result of our trespasses which Jesus nailed to his cross. It was, in a manner of speaking, our death warrant that was nailed there, not the law.
Those unfamiliar with the Old Testament will miss something important here. Paul’s choice of words is borrowed directly from an obscure Old Testament rite: the trial of jealousy. Paul knew the law so well that the words came naturally to mind.
Jealousy is a familiar emotion, and it is certainly not new. All too often, a man can become jealous of his wife with little or no evidence of wrongdoing. The jealousy can put a cloud over a marriage and even lead to a divorce that is without foundation in fact. In order to head this off, there was a simple trial to be conducted by the priest to put the matter to rest:
Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: "If any man's wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught (Numbers 5:12-14).
Thus is the predicate established. There is no hard proof of wrongdoing. But a lack of hard proof doesn’t establish innocence, nor does it ease the jealousy of the husband. Something had to be done to bring closure. The man was instructed to bring his wife to the priest with the appropriate offerings. The formal ceremony is described in detail.
And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD. The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. Then the priest shall stand the woman before the LORD, uncover the woman's head, and put the offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse (vv. 16-18).
The poor woman has to stand before God, holding a bowl of grain. The priest is standing before her with a bowl of holy water with a pinch of harmless dust in it. Guilty or innocent, this has to be an intimidating moment. Then, as always at law, an oath is involved and the woman must agree to it:
And the priest shall put her under oath, and say to the woman, "If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband's authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband's authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you," then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman; "the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot." Then the woman shall say, "Amen, so be it" (vv. 19-22).
This trial is very different from the trial by ordeal practiced in some societies. In those systems, there is a presumption of guilt. A witch, for example, is thrown into a river. If she drowns, she was innocent. If she floats, she is a witch and burned. There is nothing like that here. If there is no supernatural act, the woman will be just fine. And there is one other presumption of innocence here, and it the one to which Paul alludes.
And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water (v. 23 KJV).
Here is a handwriting of curses that are blotted out. It isn’t the law that is blotted out, but the curse upon the guilty sinner. Then the priest has the woman drink the water. If she is guilty, her belly swells and her thigh rots (whatever that may mean). If she is innocent, nothing happens. "But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she shall be free and may conceive children" (v. 28).
The words, "handwriting" and "blotted out" come naturally to Paul, a scholar in the law, and the comparison is deliberate.
In attempting to show that the Sabbath and the Holy Days do not "stand or fall together," The author attempts to draw a distinction between the Ten Commandments and the law of Moses. This is apparently essential to the argument, for nearly every argument on this subject addresses the question. Some also try to draw a distinction between the law of Moses on the one hand and the law of God on the other; or a distinction between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant in which they imply that the Holy Days were a part of the Old Covenant while the Ten Commandments were not.
It is curious that these questions are raised, because all one needs to ascertain the answer is an exhaustive concordance and the patience to look up the relevant Scriptures. Take Nehemiah, for example:
These joined with their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse and an oath to walk in God's Law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes" (Nehemiah 10:29).
That the commandments in question include the Sabbath is clear from verse 31, and yet it is "God’s law which was given by Moses," thus, it was also the Law of Moses. Also, compare carefully Nehemiah 8:1 with verse 8. Here the book of the law of Moses and the law of God are equated.
But what about Jesus? Did He observe the distinction between the law of Moses and the Ten Commandments? In a confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus asked, "Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go you about to kill me?" (John 7:19). Clearly Jesus saw "thou shalt not kill" as a part of the law Moses gave them.
If someone were to ask you to explain just what is meant by "the law of the Lord thy God," what would you answer? Try the definition given here:
Only may the LORD give you wisdom and understanding, and give you charge concerning Israel, that you may keep the law of the LORD your God. Then you will prosper, if you take care to fulfill the statutes and judgments with which the LORD charged Moses concerning Israel (I Chronicles 22:12, 13).
The New Testament writers simply don’t observe our nice distinctions in the law. When they say "the law," they mean "the law of Moses," and it includes all of the law given under Moses’ administration, including the Ten Commandments. Notice John’s succinct statement, "For the law was given by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." (John 1:17). "The law" is the law of Moses. It is also the law of God, for Moses was not the originator of the law.
Also note in passing that Jesus Christ did not come to bring a law. He was not a legislator or lawgiver. The world needed no new law. What was needed was forgiveness for the transgressions of the law and a new administration to interpret the law.
Another point in passing: When Paul was writing to the Corinthians defending the right of the ministry to be supported financially by the flock, what authority did he cite? "Say I these things as a man? Or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn" (I Corinthians 9:8, 9).
If the law of Moses was nailed to the cross, what business does Paul have citing it as an authority to a Gentile church? But why was this law given in the first place? Because God cared about animals? Paul continues: "Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope" (vv. 9-10).
But what about the argument that the Ten Commandments were not a part of the Old Covenant? First turn to Exodus 34:28, where Moses was back on the mountain with God to get the second set of tablets after the first had been broken: "So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments."
Exodus 24 records the actual ceremony of ratification of the Old Covenant. Prior to this time, God has given the Ten Commandments and a lengthy set of laws regarding slavery, manslaughter, kidnaping, bestiality, oppressing strangers, avoiding mob rule, bribes, the land, the Sabbath, etc. Finally, "Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will we do. And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord [including the Ten Commandments], and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel" (Exodus 24:3, 4).
Then follows the preparation of burnt offerings and the drawing of blood for sprinkling the blood of the covenant. Moses then stood to read before the people, and what he had written was called "The Book of the Covenant." When he had read the book to the people, they all affirmed, "All that the Lord has said will we do, and be obedient" (verse 7). So Moses then "took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words" (verse 8).
Note well that it was all the words of the Lord up to this point which had been recorded for the people to keep. There’s no way it could not have included the Ten Commandments. And it is called "The Book of the Covenant."
What is also worthy of note is that the tables of the covenant – the Ten Commandments – had not yet been written. They were engraved in stone by God only after the people had agreed to enter into the covenant with Him. Small wonder they are called "the tables of the covenant." They are quite literally the foundation of the law of Moses. Notice what is said elsewhere regarding the Ten Commandments:
And the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone (Deuteronomy 4:12-13).
Then the LORD delivered to me two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly. And it came to pass, at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant (Deuteronomy 9:10, 11).
These verses need no comment. Why, then, does anyone argue that the passing of the Old Covenant and its laws did away with the Holy Days while it left the Ten Commandments intact?
The length and breadth of this article are a tribute to the resourcefulness of men who seriously attempt to explain why they don’t observe the holydays. And yet one is led to wonder why the opposition is so intense. What is wrong with the festivals? We are not suggesting that they are efficacious for salvation. Only the blood of Christ can do that. The holydays were never intended to forgive sins, make men righteous, achieve entry into God’s Kingdom, or any such thing.
But they do play out, as it were, the plan of salvation for all men to see. The Holy Days are pregnant with meaning for the Christian – in fact, they may have more meaning for the Christian than they ever did to the Jew.
The reason for man’s resistance must fall in a larger "theology of law," which must be dealt with elsewhere. Which Old Testament laws should Christians keep, and which ones should they not keep? What is the relation of the New Covenant to the law? What is the relationship of the law to salvation? All these things belong to another book.
Meanwhile, we are left to consider certain fundamental facts regarding God’s Holy Days. They were not merely the "national days of Israel," but the holydays of God revealed to man. They are not efficacious for salvation, except as they portray the plan of salvation. They are a part of God’s instructions as to when and how he is to be worshiped. Since the New Testament is not a book of law, relatively little is said about the holydays in the New Testament. But, then, relatively little is said about the Sabbath or any other legislation in the New Testament. They are simply taken for granted.
Any argument against the holydays is going to have to deal with the established fact that the early church observed at least some of the holydays. (We have no record one way or the other about the Feast of Trumpets, for example.) Why would the early church observe the Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Pentecost if the holydays were abolished? It may well be that the holydays fell into general neglect in the church in subsequent centuries. Although it is by no means certain that the observance died out, we have no way of knowing. We do know that in later years we have encountered isolated groups of holyday keeping Christians in South America. We traced their origins back to obscure missionaries of the 19th century of whom we have no certain knowledge.
In any case, would the neglect of the holydays mean that a church had apostatized, or simply fallen into error? A careful study of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 will reveal churches with such appalling errors as the doctrine of Balaam, the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, fornication, and the eating of meats offered to idols. While the churches at Pergamos and Thyatira (Revelation 2:19-29) were in danger of having their candlestick removed, they were, for the moment, still considered a part of the Church of God.
Only God can judge how corrupt a church can become – how much error it can absorb – and still be the Church of God. Nevertheless, it is the obligation of all saints in all ages to "earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Those who argue against the holydays seem to overlook one important fact: The holydays of God are totally centered on Christ and His salvation. How could the church have ignored them?
One minister suggested that "anyone observing the Atonement day in the seventh month, and the tenth day, is surely not honoring Christ which is our atonement, Romans 5:11, who died for our reconciliation. He died and brought our atonement on the day of Passover. This leaves the old Atonement day void and empty of meaning."
The gentleman making this statement obviously has never observed the Day of Atonement. Christ is the center of the Day of Atonement and it is He who is honored on this day just as He is on the day of Passover. It makes just as much sense to say that anyone "observing the Passover on the 14th day of the first month is surely not honoring Christ as our Passover for He is already fulfilled the Passover."
When we partake of the symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we engage in one of the purest of rituals. It is a ceremony pregnant with meaning. Likewise, when we fast in humility on the Day of Atonement we acknowledge Christ as our Savior and look forward to His return, the binding of Satan, and the making of the whole world at one with God.
How could God possibly be angry with anyone who fasted and abstained from work on a day which he himself commanded? If we don’t believe that the holydays are required of Christians, let’s not engage in the absurdity of suggesting that they are harmful. To be sure, there are those who make the observance of law (including the holydays and the Sabbath) a substitute for the grace of Christ. But God forbid that we should be guilty of turning the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ into an excuse for ignoring the law.
If you’re still not sure, why not try the holydays? They can’t hurt you. Nothing God commanded is going to be harmful to man. It is only man’s misuse of God’s law that gets him into trouble. If you are not sure, why not give it a try? What do you have to lose? You have more to gain than you could ever imagine!
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