Seven Annual Sabbaths
1. As God was speaking the old covenant from Mt. Sinai, what kind of annual festivals did he command? Ex. 23:14-17. What other names were given to these festivals? Deut. 16:16.
2. What customs were included in the Passover festival? Ex. 12:1-14; Lev. 23:5; Deut. 16:1-2. Were these customs commanded for future generations? Ex. 12:14, 17. Were the lambs and the blood also commanded for all future generations? Verses 21-24. What was required for participation? Verses 43-44, 48.
3. What commands were given for the Festival of Unleavened Bread? Ex. 12:15-20; 13:3-10; Lev. 23:6-8; Deut. 16:3-8. What did this observance commemorate? Ex. 12:17; 13:3, 8-9; 23:15; 34:18; Deut. 16:3.
Comment: God commanded the Israelites to observe these festivals. He did not command gentiles to keep these festivals — he did not expect Hittites, for example, to commemorate the Israelites' exodus from Egypt. The early church recognized this when it agreed that gentiles did not have to be circumcised (Acts 15).
Because circumcision was a requirement for participation in the Passover celebrations, and gentiles did not have to be circumcised, the early church recognized that gentiles were not required to participate in the Passover commanded in the law of Moses.
The early church was not making an exception to the law, and it was not saying that gentiles did not have to obey God. It was recognizing that gentiles never did have to keep the Passover. God had never required such a thing. This law, like many laws of Moses, simply did not apply to them.
Of course, if gentiles were not required to keep the old covenant Passover, they were not required to keep the Festival of Unleavened Bread, either. The two festivals were commanded at the same time, for the same people, to commemorate the same event. Although gentiles were permitted to participate if they wished to, God never required them to.
Nevertheless, the Passover and Unleavened Bread festivals are educational customs. They were symbols that pointed to Jesus Christ, just as the sacrifices were. Hebrews 10:1 says that the sacrificial laws were shadows of "things that are coming." The sacrifices symbolized various aspects of the work of Jesus Christ. Colossians 2:16-17 uses the same Greek words to say that the food and drink regulations, festivals and Sabbath were also shadows of things to come. These customs symbolized what Christ would do.
Now that the reality has come, the shadows or imitations are not necessary, even though they still provide good illustrations for the Christian life. Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to be living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), but he did not expect them to maintain the practice of animal sacrifices in order to understand what he meant. Similarly, he called Jesus Christ our Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), but he did not suggest that the Corinthians should kill lambs every year in order to remember the symbolism that Jesus fulfilled.
When Paul exhorted the Corinthians to "keep the festival" (verse 8), he was not commanding gentiles to keep an old covenant festival commemorating Israelite history. Rather, he was using the festival as an illustration of Christian living, just as he used circumcision as a metaphor for conversion, without implying that people should be circumcised (Col. 2:11).
Paul did not command the Corinthians to put yeast out of their homes — he commanded them to put a sinful person out. Throughout this passage, Paul uses "yeast" in a figurative way to refer to sin. Paul talks about how the sinful man in the congregation is leaven. In verse 6, he urges them to put out that leaven.
We should put malice and wickedness out of our lives throughout the year, not just for one week, and we should have sincerity and truth instead. Paul urges us to keep the festival figuratively, with bread of sincerity and truth (he's not talking about real bread). We should do this throughout the year, not just for one week. When we put out malice and wickedness and live in sincerity and truth, then we are obeying the command Paul gave. In this way, Christians fulfill the symbolism of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. There is no need for gentiles to begin obeying an old covenant command that never applied to them before.
4. How was the Feast of Harvest (also called the Feast of Weeks) to be celebrated? Ex. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:15-21. What does the New Testament say about this festival? Acts 2:1; 20:16.
Comment: This festival was also commanded for Israelites. It was a harvest festival celebrating the end of the grain harvest in Canaan. The date was calculated from the beginning of the harvest (Lev. 23:10-16). The timing of the festival would not make sense in other regions, and people in other regions would be unable to observe the festival as it was commanded. Nor would they need to, because God did not command them to. The calendar by which the festivals were calculated was given to the ancient Israelites as part of the law of Moses (Ex. 12:1-2).
The early church, especially in Jerusalem, continued observing many of the old covenant customs. However, this does not imply a command for the church today to continue these same customs.
God performed a significant miracle on the Day of Pentecost, pouring out the Holy Spirit on the beginning of the New Testament church, but the Bible does not command us to commemorate this event, although we are free to celebrate it annually if we want to. (As a comparison, God also did something significant when he allowed his Son to die for our sins at the same time as Passover lambs were being killed in the temple. Although we commemorate the death of Christ, we are not required to do it at the same time of day Jesus died, or in the same manner as the old covenant festival.)
Actually, if we want to obey the old covenant command, we would have to keep the Festival of Pentecost "with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field" (Ex. 23:16). The New Testament does not authorize a change in the way this festival is to be celebrated. God commanded both the date and the manner, and we cannot of our own authority choose to require the date but not the manner. Either we keep it the way it was commanded, or we do not.
The truth is that Christians do not have to keep the festival of Pentecost at all. The only commands for it are in a covenant that is now obsolete. It is one of those laws commanded for Israelites in the land of Canaan, but not for gentiles in other countries. The early church did not require gentiles to observe this day. Although many Christian churches commemorate the Day of Pentecost (Whitsunday), it is an optional observance.
5. What was the next festival God commanded the Israelites? Lev. 23:23-25. And what came next? Verses 26-32. Were the people required to deny or afflict themselves? Verses 27, 32. What was the purpose of this self-denial? Lev. 16:29-30. Has Christ now provided atonement and cleansing? Rom. 3:29; Heb. 2:17; 9:14; 10:22.
Comment: Gentiles who lived among the Israelites were once required to fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29), but gentiles who lived elsewhere were not commanded to. But today, not even Israelites are required to fast on this day.
The Bible gives only one purpose for fasting on the Day of Atonement, and for Christians, this purpose has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In his death, Jesus fulfilled the spiritual meaning of the fast of Atonement, just as he also fulfilled the spiritual meaning of the Passover lambs. There is no longer any biblical reason to fast on this day.
Gentiles have never been under the old covenant, and Israelites are no longer obligated to it, either, because it is obsolete. It has been replaced by the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ, and the new covenant does not require fasting on the Day of Atonement — it doesn't require the Day of Atonement at all.
Of course, Christians may observe the Day of Atonement if they wish. Some early Jewish Christians did. Luke referred to it in Acts 27:9, but that verse is not a command, just as John 10:22 is not. The New Testament gives no ground for retaining the Day of Atonement in the new covenant.
6. In the old covenant, what was the autumn harvest festival? Lev. 23:33-42. Who was commanded to keep it? Verses 34, 42. Was the festival to be observed after the harvest? Verse 39. What customs were required? Verses 40, 42. What was the purpose? Verse 43.
Comment: Again, God tells us who the festival is for, how it should be observed, when it should be, and what the reason is. The festival simply did not apply to gentiles in other regions. It was designed to commemorate Israelite history and harvest seasons in the land of Canaan. God does not require us to select one part of the festival, such as the date, and ignore all the others. They are all equally part of a covenant that has been declared obsolete. (We can observe the date if we wish, but we cannot teach it as a requirement for others.)
7. Did Zechariah predict that gentiles would keep the Feast of Tabernacles after Christ returns? Zech. 14:16-19. What else did he predict? Verses 20-21. What other worship customs were predicted? Isaiah 52:1-2; Ezek. 20:40; 44:9, 25-27; 45:17; 46:1-4.
Comment: The prophets described an ideal time in which all peoples worship God. To communicate this concept to an old covenant nation, the prophets described old covenant forms of worship, including new moon observances, sacrifices in the temple, discrimination against uncircumcised peoples and avoidance of ritual uncleanness. But these are not religious requirements now.
Will sacrifices be part of worship after Christ returns? Some people think so, but whether or not, these prophecies cannot be used to prove the current validity of these commandments. Prophecies are not a reliable source of commands regarding Christian practice. Our doctrines must be based on scriptures that are applicable to this age, in which our relationship with God is based on the new covenant.
In our next section, we will examine some of the laws of ritual purity.