Comments Concerning Festival Terminology
Below is an edited version of a letter written to a member who objected to the terms that had been used for the festivals in a previous article:
I am sorry that you found some statements in a recent article to be offensive. You believe it is erroneous to call our historic celebrations "Israelite festivals" or "Jewish festivals." You rightly note, quoting Dan Rogers, that we have never truly celebrated the Old Testament celebrations. We did not keep the festivals in the way that they were commanded.
It might be better to call our festivals "our traditional festivals," but some members object to that wording, too, since it sounds like we just made them up, whereas they did have an Old Testament origin. Another problem with calling them traditional is that our traditions changed as time went on. We used to have church services on all seven days of unleavened bread, we used to stress temporary dwellings more strongly, we used to insist that Pentecost should be Monday, etc. But our traditions, especially the dates, had their roots in the Old Testament.
As you describe, we did something unique with those festivals. We required the dates (as best we understood them), but assigned new meanings — but even those meanings changed somewhat with time. Our festivals were based partially on the Old Testament and partly on our own traditions.
Messianic Jews (Jews who believe in Christ and worship in a Jewish way) also keep the festivals and assign new meanings to them. In some cases they assign the same meaning we have, in other cases they are different. But most Messianic Jews do not view these festivals as requirements for Christians today — they are options.
One of the unique things we did with our festivals is to require them, and that is an error we had to correct. The only place we find festival dates commanded is in the old covenant, and that covenant is now obsolete, so we cannot command these dates any more. Pastors and members are free to celebrate Christ on these days, and free to teach Christian doctrines on these days or any days.
You ask, Why must we find fault with celebrating Christian concepts on the annual festivals? We do not. Churches are welcome to do this. What we find fault with is teaching unbiblical ideas, such as it is more righteous or more obedient or more spiritually fruitful to keep these days. Christ should always get the emphasis, not the days, yet it seems in some discussions the days get more emphasis than he does.
You object to the statement that our annual festivals "require detailed explanation." You say this is not true for "the celebrations which we as a community of faith have created." Of course, after we created the festivals and assigned the meanings, wrote numerous articles and gave many sermons about these days, the meanings became "clear." And the basic Christian truths are also clear: Christ died and rose again so we ought to live for him by the power of his Spirit until he returns.
But any connection between the Christian truths and our festivals is less clear to people who do not have this background. They may ask, What is the connection between holy living and flat bread? What is the connection between holy living and these specific dates on a lunar calendar? How does flat bread picture Jesus Christ? Each of these questions requires some explanation. That is why we used to publish a whole booklet on the "meaning" of the Holy Days, and why we had sermons and articles about them: to give detailed explanations. And much of the "meaning" was not the meaning the Bible itself gives.
In contrast, the average person on the street — even a non-Christian — knows that Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The average person on the street knows nothing about the Feast of Unleavened Bread. They could ask questions about the historical origin of Easter and ask how the date is determined and whether a Sunday service is an appropriate way to celebrate this event, though very few bother with such questions. But most people would have to ask questions about Unleavened Bread. Easter has a well-known meaning, connected to Christ, but few people know the relevance of Unleavened Bread. That is why we said it has to be explained.
When we called the annual festivals "Israelite" as opposed to the "Christian" festivals, we did not want to imply that it is non-Christian or sub-Christian to observe the annual festivals. The problem is that we do not have a term that everyone can agree with. So what the terminology cannot convey, we have to explain in the text: We do not judge anyone's Christianity by whether a person observes one set of days or the other, or both or neither.
In our tradition, the date of the festivals was determined by our interpretation of the old covenant commands, but we must also understand that it is inaccurate to call the festivals we kept completely Bible-based, since we did not keep all of the biblical instructions regarding them. (Why did we choose the when, but not the who and the where and the how?) And the passages we cited did not include relevant passages in Galatians, Romans and Hebrews.
Nor does it help to call them the festivals that Jesus kept, since we do not keep them in the manner first-century Jews did. More importantly, Jesus did not go to the cross or rise from the tomb to preserve the religion and culture of the old covenant. It may even be misleading to call them God-given, since that implies that God has given them to us and not just to the Israelites, and again, we do not keep them in the manner in which God originally gave them. So every term has some weaknesses.
Some have an active dislike toward the old tradition; others have an active dislike for any other traditions. Some may give unwarranted emphasis to our traditional days; others may give unwarranted emphasis to other traditions. We have chosen to follow the principle of Romans 14 by making them all optional, and exhorting everyone to focus on Christ first. But since people ask about days, we have to talk about them.
Suppose we could just sit down and start with Christ first, and his gospel. What are the most important things about Christ, and how do we celebrate those? Perhaps the most important thing about Christ is not days at all, but the manner in which we treat one another. How can we celebrate his love for us? How can we keep his greatest commandment, and his second-greatest commandment? How can we preach his message more effectively to the world that needs it? How can we be less concerned about ourselves and more about others?
Thank you for your prayers, and your patience.