Jesus, the Sabbath and Old Testament Festivals

Should Christians follow Jesus’ example and keep the weekly Sabbath and the Old Testament annual festivals as holy time? We can look through the Gospels in vain for any indication that Jesus changed the Sabbath to Sunday or told his disciples that keeping the old covenant festivals was no longer necessary. On the surface, this seems to be a strong reason for believing that the church today should be keeping these days holy. But is this true?

Let’s see whether Jesus’ example and teaching about the Sabbath and festivals means we should be keeping them in an old covenant manner. To repeat, we do not find Jesus instructing his disciples to quit keeping the Sabbath or festivals. Nor did he tell them to meet on Sundays or to create new traditional yearly days of worship. During his lifetime, Jesus attended annual festival celebrations and the synagogue on the Sabbath.

However, these are not the only parts of the old covenant Law of Moses that Jesus upheld. Let’s now explore some other things Jesus did and told the Jewish people of his day to practice in regards to the Mosaic Law.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus told his hearers to obey sacrificial aspects of the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:23-24). He told a man he healed of leprosy: "Go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing" (Luke 5:14). If the animal sacrifices are the only part of the Law of Moses that are "done away," as some believe, then that idea contradicts Jesus’ actions and teachings—if we assume that we must follow his example in this area. Jesus did not tell people to stop sacrificing. In fact, as the Scripture in Luke shows, Jesus told people to offer the appropriate Mosaic sacrifice. But does this mean Christians should do so?

Let’s continue with that line of thought. Jesus worshipped at and upheld the sanctity of the temple (Matthew 12-13; Mark 11:15-17). He told his disciples and the Jewish people to obey the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, who sat "in Moses’ seat" (Matthew 23:1). What would these individuals have instructed people to obey? They would have taught obedience to the entire Law of Moses, as they understood it. But must Christians keep the Law of Moses because Jesus told people while he was alive to follow the teachers of the old covenant?

Jesus was circumcised according to the Law (Luke 2:21). His parents kept the precepts of the Law of Moses, including the purification rites (Luke 2:22-24, 39). Jesus kept the old covenant Passover from his early childhood and throughout his life (Luke 2:41-42; 22:11). He kept the annual festivals and other traditional Jewish festivals (John 7:2-10; 10:22).

To summarize, during his lifetime Jesus commanded sacrifices, obedience to the religious leaders who taught all of the Law of Moses, and temple worship, with all that this entailed. In short, by his example and words Jesus taught obedience to the ritual laws of Moses. We cannot assume that Christians must do everything that Jesus did.

Are Jesus’ remarks or practices regarding the Sabbath or annual festivals proof that Christians must keep these days as holy time? If that were the case, Christians would be obliged to offer sacrifices, participate in temple worship and follow those who taught obedience to the Law of Moses. Christian men would also have to be circumcised for religious reasons because Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21). Christian women would have to fulfill the specified Mosaic rites of purification after childbirth.

In short, if we say that Jesus’ remarks in the Gospels are proof that Christians must keep the Mosaic Sabbath or annual festival regulations, then we must accept all of the commands of the Law of Moses as being binding upon us (Galatians 3:10). Yet, we know that this conclusion is absolutely not correct. What Jesus did and taught in regards to old covenant rituals, including the Sabbath and the festivals, is not binding on Christians. Why not?

The answer becomes clearer when we understand that Jesus upheld for his lifetime the notion of a national covenant people. Jesus told his disciples to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, marking out Israel as the special nation and people of God (Matthew 10:6). He saw his own ministry as limited to this people (Matthew 15:24). However, after his death and resurrection, Jesus changed this in a fundamental way. His ministry and that of the apostles was also to Gentiles in all nations (Acts 1:8; 10:27, 34-35).

In the temple courts, Jesus told the chief priests and elders of the people that the "kingdom of God" currently belonged to them (Matthew 21:23, 43). But he also said that it would be taken away from them and "given to a people who will produce its fruit" (verse 43). While the religious leaders were scrupulous to observe such laws as the weekly Sabbath and annual festival rest commands, they did not bring forth spiritual fruit. The new people of God, the church, would produce such fruit.

These realities should help us understand Jesus’ example and teaching about the Sabbath and annual festivals in the right context. The point is that Jesus came as a Jew, to Israel as the covenant people of God. "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him," said John of Jesus’ ministry (John 1:11). In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul tells us that Jesus was "born under the law" (4:4). Jesus kept the old covenant and its law as a witness against the Jews. Unlike the nation, he had fulfilled the covenant of his Father that his accusers claimed to uphold, but had broken.

Since Jesus came as a Jew to his own people, we should expect that he would uphold the teachings of the Law of Moses during his lifetime. As stated above, Jesus observed the Sabbath and kept the other Mosaic regulations in order to fulfill completely the old covenant as a witness against the Jews. His actions also demonstrated that the Old Testament itself pointed to him as the Messiah. Jesus was the fulfillment and embodiment of the Holy Scriptures, or our Old Testament.

Jesus did not change anything in terms of old covenant worship until his redemptive work was complete. Of course, he did imply during his ministry that things would change in the future—and that is an important point. To repeat, the kingdom of God was to be taken away from those who represented the Law of Moses and given to a people in whose heart was the indwelling presence of God through the Holy Spirit. The people of God would no longer worship at the temple in Jerusalem, but they would worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24). They were no longer defined by a national covenant, but defined by faith in Christ. They would no longer keep the Law of Moses but the "law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).

In conclusion, Christians are not under the old covenant, which is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). Therefore, they need not keep the Sabbath or festivals in an old covenant way, as "holy time." They fulfill the purpose of these ritual laws through their faith in Jesus Christ, just as they fulfill the law of circumcision through faith (Colossians 2:11).

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