Archive for May, 2008
WHY I KEEP THE HOLY DAYS
In the King James Version of the Bible, the term Holy Day occurs in eight verses. In Exodus 35:2 it refers to the weekly Sabbath, in Nehemiah 8:9, 10, 11 to the Feast of Trumpets, in Nehemiah 10:31 to the weekly Sabbath and any annual Holy Day, in Psalm 42:4 to an annual Holy Day, not specified, in Isaiah 58:13 to the weekly Sabbath (maybe also to the Day of Atonement), and in Colossians 2:16 to any one of the Holy Days.
When someone asks me why I keep the Holy Days, I give the short answer: “Because they form the only worship pattern that God gave to mankind, Jesus and His followers lived by that worship pattern, and so did the early church”.
People will ask: what do you mean, God gave His worship pattern to mankind? Jesus answered that question when He stated: “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27), the word man describing all mankind. We only get to read about the time in history when He gave His worship pattern to ancient Israel through Moses, and if the Israelites had been faithful to God, neighbouring nations could have imitated their way of worshipping Him, as Moses pointed out to the Israelites: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say:, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Sadly, the Israelites by and by began to imitate the way in which the nations worshipped their gods.
Whenever somebody asks me to elaborate on God’s worship pattern, I begin by saying: “If you want to know how God wants to be worshipped, you read His book, the Bible, and you find that He wants people to rest from their daily chores and congregate on the seventh day of the week, called the Sabbath, and He also wants us to get together to worship Him on certain days during the year”.
To anyone who would like to see those days – the weekly day of worship as well as the annual days – I say: “Look at Leviticus 23, where you have the package” (as we put it nowadays).
The introduction to the package is in verses one and two: The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.I sometimes stress that these feasts are not “the feasts of the Israelites”, or “the feasts of Moses”, as some like to call them, but the appointed feasts of the LORD. The LORD calls them my appointed feasts.The first of the appointed feasts of the LORD is the weekly Sabbath, verse 3: ” ‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD.The annual Holy Days – when and how to keep them – are listed in verses 4-43, in the New International Version under the neat subtitles The Passover and Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement and Feast of Tabernacles. By way of emphasis, verse 44 again refers to them as the appointed feasts of the LORD.
Some – who have looked at Leviticus 23 – ask: What about all the rituals and sacrifices? Do you carry those out, too? My answer is: The early church we read about in the book of Acts and in the epistles, did not have those rituals and sacrifices. Before the Romans destroyed the Temple, the early Christians in Jerusalem would attend services at the Temple and witness the rituals and sacrifices, but after that time, from 70 AD onwards, they could only attend at synagogues – or in their own house churches – where neither the rituals nor the sacrifices took place. The early Christians understood the significance of Christ’s death, the one and only sacrifice that could atone for the sins of mankind, and a couple of verses in the letter to Hebrews (Jewish Christians) put it in a nutshell under the subtitle Christ’s Sacrifice Once for All: Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. (Hebrews 10:11-12).
Some – who are eager to learn more — I encourage to read the four Gospel accounts and find out about Jesus and His followers keeping the annual Holy Days.
Jesus grew up in a family that observed the feasts of the LORD: Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. (Luke 2:41-43). The expression Feast of the Passover would encompass the Passover day as well as the seven days of Unleavened Bread.
We read about Jesus going to Jerusalem for the Passover when He would have been in His early thirties: When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went to Jerusalem. (John 2:13). Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. (verse 23).
Luke recorded what we might call an exceptional Sabbath: One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. (Luke 6:1). That scenario brings back memories of my boyhood when I would roam about the fields with some friends during the early (northern hemisphere) summer holidays. Going through a field of grain that was still green meant following a narrow path through a crop of barley or rye, and we would do just what the disciples of Jesus did, pick a head – or ear – on either side, rub it in our hands and eat the kernels. We were always careful not to stray into the crop. That would have brought on the ire of its owner, who didn’t mind us helping ourselves to a few heads from the edge of the path. At 32 degrees latitude, in the Holy Land, a crop with green heads of grain would have been a couple of months earlier than in Central Europe. It would have been late March or early April when the disciples of Jesus picked the heads and ate the still tender kernels.
What’s so significant about that? Well, the King James Version features a reading of Luke 6:1 that is not found in a number of Greek texts: And it came to pass on the second Sabbath after the first, that he went through the corn fields; . . . Considering the time of year – the Passover season usually falls on what we call March or April – that second Sabbath after the first may well have been the seventh day of Unleavened Bread, one of the Holy Days. Luke gives us some fascinating clues on Jesus observing yet another Holy Day in the early part of the year, the Feast of Weeks, also called Pentecost: He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. (Luke 4:16). The first clue comes in what is rendered, here as in many other English versions, simply as on the Sabbath day. The Greek reads: on the day of the Sabbaths. For the timing of the Feast of Weeks, we read: From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, . . . (Leviticus 23:15-16), and as each one of the seven full weeks – 49 days – ends with a Sabbath, we are to count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, placing the Feast of Weeks on what we call a Sunday. Pentecost, appropriately, derives from the Greek for “the fiftieth day”. We discover the next clue when we read: The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: (Luke 4:17).
Ask any orthodox Jew who knows the history of his people, and he will tell you that the verses Jesus was about to read from the Isaiah scroll were traditionally read in the synagogues on the day of the Sabbaths, or Pentecost: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Verses 18 and 19, quoted from an adaptation of Isaiah 61:1-2).
Jesus stopped there and did not end the quotation: and the day of vengeance of our God, which looks ahead to the time leading up to Jesus’ return.
Verses 20 and 21: Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus was giving the people in the synagogue the present fulfilment of what the prophet Isaiah had foretold; it was now coming true. The one with the Spirit of the Lord was Jesus Himself, an era of God’s salvation had arrived.
The heading of John 7 is: Jesus Goes to the Feast of Tabernacles. Verse 10: However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. Under the next heading, Jesus Teaches at the Feast, verse 14: Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. Verses 37-39: On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in aloud voice, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. Again Jesus was telling people that He was fulfilling the scriptures.
While Jesus observed the weekly Sabbath, He was showing His generation that doing good on the Sabbath was the right way to keep it, though He was severely criticised by the religious establishment, who had made rigorous – and non-scriptural – rules for its observance. (Luke 13:10-17; The healing at the Pool, John 5:1-18, took place in Jerusalem on an unnamed feast of the Jews, which they referred to as the Sabbath. According to one of the Sabbath rules in the Mishna, a mat could only be carried if it had a man lying on it.)
Jesus never worked for money or reward on the Sabbath. Had He so much as picked up a saw or a hammer between Friday sunset and Saturday sunset (as we would put it these days), His detractors would have kicked up such a racket we would be reading about it in one of the Gospels at least.
The church we encounter in the Book of Acts was clearly observing the seventh day of the week, the weekly Sabbath:
In Acts 13:14-44, Luke writes about Paul and Barnabas in the synagogue in the Pisidian Antioch. A word for word translation of the last part of verse 14 reads: and going into the synagogue on the day of the Sabbaths, they sat down. Verses 42-44: As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. Neither Paul nor Barnabas asked the people to meet again on the day following the day of the Sabbaths (verse 14), maybe at another venue.
In Acts 15:19-21 Luke tells us that Gentile Christians were attending synagogues: For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those proclaiming him being read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.
In Acts 17:1-12 he writes that many Greeks in Thessaloniki and in Berea also believed when they heard Paul preaching in the synagogues on Sabbath days.
In Acts 18:1-11 he records that Paul during his stay of a year and six months in Corinth worked as a tentmaker – to make a living probably six days a week – and he lectured in the synagogue on every Sabbath; he persuaded both Jews and Greeks. Here we also read Paul’s famous “from now I will go to the Gentiles.”
In Acts 18:24-26 we read about Apollos, who began to speak boldly in the synagogue in Ephesus where two Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, heard him.
When Paul came to Ephesus, he entered the synagogue, over three months spoke boldly, lecturing and persuading concerning the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)
It should go without saying, but I stress it anyway: that Paul, Barnabas and Apollos were invited to speak in synagogues means that they were Sabbath-keepers. So were the Jews, the converts to Judaism (Greek: worshipping proselytes) and the two Christians mentioned by name, Priscilla and Aquila.
People have said to me that Paul never taught Sabbath-keeping. I told them that he didn’t have to reinvent the wheel so to speak; among the Jews, their adherents, and in the early church, the only weekly day of worship was the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath.
The same was true for the annual Holy Days: the writers of the New Testament didn’t have to stress their observance. The Christians of the first century knew all about them; they were part and parcel of their worship calendar. When they read the following verses mentioning the Passover and Unleavened Bread, they were wholly familiar with the terminology and its meaning:
Matthew 26:17 Now on the first day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to Him, “Where do you want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?“
Mark 14:1 After two days it was the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.Mark 14:12 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover lamb, His disciples said to Him, “Where do you want us to go and prepare, that You may eat the Passover?”Luke 22:1 Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover.
Luke 22:7 Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed.Acts 12:3 And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread.Acts 20:6 But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days joined them at Troas, where we stayed seven days.I Corinthians 5:7-8 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us..
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth
(Verses from The New King James Version)
Pentecost gets a mention in three verses:
Acts 2:1, When the day of Pentecost came, they were altogether in one place. Verses 2-40 tell of the dramatic and miraculous official beginning of the church, culminating in the baptism of about 3000.
Acts 20:16 tells us how Paul was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.In I Corinthians 16:8, Paul wrote: But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost. The largely non-Jewish Christians at Corinth knew this Holy Day and when it was observed.
Acts 18:21 in the King James Version has a sentence – not found in many other English versions – here underlined, and occurring in several Greek manuscripts: But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus.
A lengthy question I often hear is: What about the church after the first century, and why are there so few in this day and age that still keep the weekly Sabbath and observe the annual Holy Days as well?
Well, I found part of the answer in a book titled: Early Christian Fathers, by Cyril C. Richardson, Washburn professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, New York City.
Under the heading The Life of Irenaeus, who was a Greek and the bishop of Lyons late in the second century, I read on page 348 the following: In the Refutation and Overthrow, Irenaeus continues the list of Roman bishops down to Eleutherus, who was succeeded by Victor about 189 or 190. He thus dates approximately the composition of that work. His other preserved work, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, refers to the Refutation and is therefore later. Irenaeus last appears in history when he addresses a respectful but firm letter of protest to Pope Victor for his threatened excommunication of the Asiatic churches on account of their loyalty to the observance of the paschal feast on the Jewish date, the fourteenth of Nisan, instead of the following Sunday. Eusebius takes leave of him with the note that he was indeed a promoter of the peace, as his name suggested, both in this and in his other letters on the subject. Having been more than an infant when he knew Polycarp, Irenaeus was probably over sixty by the end of the second century. He would scarcely have been silent in the controversies that arose after the death of Victor (A.D. 198), and probably passed away himself about the same time. Instead of the Babylonian Nisan, I prefer Abib (Exodus 13:4 and five more passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy).
What particularly struck me was that as late as the end of the second century, the churches in Asia (Minor) were still observing the biblical calendar. I then couldn’t help deducing that, if they kept the paschal feast (pas-cha is Greek for Passover), they would naturally also have been Sabbath-Sabbatarians and would have been keeping all the other feasts, besides heeding God’s loving advice about clean and unclean meats, and how and when to enjoy various wines (Deuteronomy 14:26).
The above also seems to shed more light on Colossians 2:16, where Paul wrote: Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration (such as the Feast of Trumpets) or a Sabbath day.
On page 121, I read some more about Polycarp (his name means much fruit).
Under the heading The Letter of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, to the Philippians, Introduction: At the time of his martyrdom Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, confessed that he had been a Christian for eighty-six years. Since the date of his martyrdom can be fixed with reasonable certainty as occurring in A.D. 155 or 156, his birth could therefore not have been later than the year 69 or 70.On page 123: He is not versed, as he himself admitted, in the Scriptures, i.e., the Old Testament.
And yet Polycarp knew about and kept the Passover on the 14th Abib!
On the same page: Of his later years, we possess only a few reminiscences of Irenaeus, who as a young lad came under Polycarp’s tutelage. Only a year or two before his martyrdom the aged bishop made a journey to Rome to confer with Pope Anicetus regarding the disagreement between the Asian Christians and the church of Rome over the proper date for the celebration of Easter (or paschal feast, as above). Though neither bishop could persuade the other to change his own tradition they both maintained in amicable unity the fellowship of communion.On page 125: Irenaeus repeatedly states that Polycarp had received his tradition of faith from John, the disciple of the Lord, and other apostles, and that “apostles in Asia” had appointed him to his bishopric. For Irenaeus this was sufficient guarantee of the attribution of the corpus of “Johannine” writings in the New Testament to the apostle John, son of Zebedee. Yet he never, in so many words, made this identification. There is certainly no reason to distrust the information that Polycarp had enjoyed personal converse, as did also his contemporary Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, with companions of Jesus, including a disciple named John; though Polycarp himself never mentions his name.
While God seems to give us mere glimpses of what lies ahead, there is enough to show that His worship pattern will be around for a long time to come. All nations will eventually be keeping the Feasts of the LORD. The prophet Zechariah tells us about one of them, the Feast of Tabernacles. In chapter 14, under the heading The LORD Comes and Reigns, we read in verses 16-19: Then the survivors of all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The LORD will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.
The prophet Isaiah was inspired to give us a gleam of infinite time: “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me.” says the LORD. (Isaiah 66:22-23). These verses were written for Israel, yet God adds that all mankind will bow down before Him on the New Moons and Sabbaths – Holy Days – and when we read about a new heaven and a new earth in Revelation 21:1–12, we also read about twelve gates into the new Jerusalem with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel written on them, and they will be there forever.
The choice for individual Christians – who also study their Bibles – is a personal one that only he or she can make by asking: do I want to worship God as Jesus and His disciples and apostles did as described in the New Testament, as attested to by the early church, and as foretold for all eternity?
Well, about 45 years ago, I read an exhortation the apostle Paul had for the saints at Corinth (many of them probably wharfies) in I Corinthians 11:1, King James Version (the only one I had at that time): Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. When I learned that the Greek for followers may also be translated imitators, I wanted to become one, and that is why I keep the weekly Sabbath and the annual Holy Days.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.