Sunday, 6 September 2015

September Celebrations: Pointing to Christ

This month of September, I will be venturing into some unfamiliar territory in regards to the practice of my faith. In fact this whole year has seen me take up anew most of the biblical celebrations of God and His works known as the feast days, which have been lost to church history. The exceptions would be Pentecost (although it's focus and form is different) and Passover, which in recent years has seen a resurgence in practice by Christians with varying degrees of relevance (which I will address in a future post).

The feast days in September are often referred to as the fall feast days (primarily because they originated in the northern hemisphere) and consist of: The Feast of Trumpets (Yom Teruah), Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles (Sukkot). The natural question is, 'why am I doing this?' And it is a reasonable question too, considering the dominant perception is that they are Jewish and specific only to the Old Testament, neither of which applies to me. But is this understanding accurate?  As Berean Baptists, we need to be willing to test this traditional doctrine/understanding with scripture since the Bible, and not what other Christians do or don't do, is our authority for living. Understandably, if still applicable/relevant/binding, this has a number of implications all summed up in the chief 4-letter-word of the flesh: 'change.'  Change is difficult, especially when it might challenge something we have an emotional investment in. This is why witnessing to Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons is so difficult: they have a huge investment in belonging to their community so that even in the face of clear scripture, they hold onto their beliefs. Not that this matter falls anywhere close in weight to their heresies, it's just an example. I recognize this difficulty is true for us as well, and so I don't take challenging tradition and popular interpretation lightly. I know for myself, it was a couple of years before I became fully convinced. Moreover, I don't intend to be overly dogmatic about it either, as I know there are a number of valid arguments against it out there. So I'm not trying to say "here is the true interpretation", I'm just merely presenting a case for your consideration. So as you read this, and you find resistance to something that is written, I encourage you to be honest with that resistance. Challenge yourself: "why do I dislike this?" And test it out, revisit the scriptures that come to mind, and above all pray.

Are they Jewish?
I'd like to begin by saying that not one of the feast days are Jewish. While Independence Day is American, Oktoberfest is German, and Australia Day is, well, Australian, Yom Kippur is not Jewish. The feast days are in fact, God's days. It's just that traditionally they are the only ones who keep them. As God said through Moses: "These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts" (Lev 23:2).
One preacher explains it like this:
'If I have a birthday party, and I invite you, it's not your birthday party. I'm just inviting you to celebrate with me. It's the same with the feasts...' (paraphrase). I think it's important to maintain that idea of invitation. Although there was a commandment to observe his feasts, it's best to see them as an invitation to celebrate with Him, rather than "you better come to my party or else!" Also, they weren't given only to the Jews either. The Jews are the remnant of the southern kingdom of Israel who had come out of exile in Babylon. The feasts were given to all 12 tribes of Israel. In fact, God said that there was an expectation that the foreigner who lived among them would celebrate them too, with one law for the native born and the stranger. This is a foreshadowing of how Gentiles would be 'grafted into Israel' under the New Covenant (Jer  31:31, Rom 11:17-24, Eph 2:11-13).

Are they Relevant?
But what relevance does it have for the Christian today? What does Sukkot have to do with a 21st century 'Baptist' living in Brisbane, Australia? Well, firstly, like the rest of the Old Testament, the feasts of the Lord are all about Jesus. The depth of symbology is much deeper and extensive than space will allow for here, but consider this as an introduction (I will endeavour to write a more in depth post in the future).  The 'spring feasts' are all about Jesus' first coming. He died on Passover as the Passover lamb was being sacrificed. He took away our sins and was buried as the people were removing the leaven from their homes for Unleavened Bread. He rose on the morning of the feast of first fruits as the first of all to be resurrected. And he sent His spirit on Pentecost to write His law on our hearts (the Law is traditionally considered to be given on Pentecost) and produce a harvest of many people for salvation.
The fall feasts point to his second coming. The feast of Trumpets reminds us of how "the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God..." (1 Thess 4:16). The Day of Atonement describes how God will pour out his wrath and judgement on the sinful world. There is a sense of Jesus fulfilling this in his first coming, as on the cross Jesus made atonement for us as our sins were laid on Him, just as one of the goats had the sins of the people of Israel laid upon it and was sacrificed. And how as High Priest, Jesus could present His offering in the true most Holy Place in heaven (Heb 9:11-14). So, for followers of Jesus, our day of judgement has already happened. But the bible describes a day of judgement still to come for those who are not following Jesus as Lord and saviour, and therefore are not covered by the blood of atonement, thus it is not until the day of judgement that the blood of atonement comes into full effect.
And finally, the eight day feast of booths has a past, present, and future symbology.
Based on the description in Luke's gospel of Zechariah serving in the temple and using 1 Chronicles, the conception of John the Baptist, and the conception of Jesus we can reasonably calculate that John was born approximately during Passover (which is a time when Jews await the arrival of 'Elijah' (Jn...)), and Jesus was conceived around December around the time of Hanukkah, the feast of lights, and born around the time of Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles. This reflects John's words of the light of the world made flesh and dwelling (tabernacling) among us (Jn 1:9,14, 8:12), being born in a stable (Sukkah, Gen 33:17).
As Christians, we are sojourners in this world (1Pet 2:11). This world is not our home. This feast was originally given for Israel to remember their time in the wilderness spent living in tents before getting to the promised land (Lev 23:42-43). In the same way, we are living in temporary dwellings (2Cor 5:1-5) awaiting our arrival in our true home. Thus, for us today, it serves as a reminder of this reality. 
This ties into the future aspect as it points us to our eternal future with God, as John recorded:
"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place (tent) is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev 21:3).
So, since all the biblical holidays point to the past, present, and future work of our Lord and saviour there is a significant level of relevance for us today.

Aren't they done away with?
But you may be thinking of the following passage:
"Therefore let no one pass judgement... with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ"(Col 2:16-17).
The traditional interpretation of this passage is that people were imposing the feasts on the Colossian church, but Paul explains that now that Jesus has come those things are done away with: so don't let anyone tell you you have to. But the surrounding context speaking of 'human precepts and wisdom' (v. 22) suggests the scenario was actually the other way around. Surely the feasts of the Lord are not human precepts with the appearance of wisdom. It appears that because of their insistence on aestheticism (v.18), the false teachers were judging the Colossians for keeping the feasts. Paul's encouragement to continue their observance is that they point to Christ. Note also that they are a shadow of things to come. As we discussed above, they are pointing us to a yet to be fulfilled and completed work of Christ. Since the feasts are just shadows of things to come of which Christ is the substance, is that sufficient reason to neglect them? The sacrifices of the old covenant were a shadow of things to come of which Christ became the substance. Imagine if the people said, 'Moses, these sacrifices are just a shadow, so it doesn't really matter, so we don't really see any point in doing them.'

So as we've seen, these Christ centred feasts of the Lord given to God's people are neither Jewish nor irrelevant to Gentiles under the New Covenant. And based on Paul's encouragement to the Colossian church, and it's lack of mention in scripture, it's safe to conclude that they have not been done away with. Of course, the sacrifice parts have been done away with, thus changing how they're observed. Nonetheless, the feasts as a whole can still find a significant part of any believers life.

But let's say I'm wrong. Let's say that the feasts were really only given to the descendants of Jacob, and Paul really was saying they are irrelevant. Even if this was the case, I want to close with three questions that I think are still worth considering:
1. Is there not some benefit to observing the Lord's feasts, especially since observing them acknowledges and proclaims the Gospel; as does communion, another shadow of the work of Christ?
2. While I agree that the principle: 'if it's not in the bible we can't do it' is wrong, why are we happy to celebrate days that aren't in Scripture, namely Christmas (which most likely not Jesus' birthday) and Easter; but we resist these celebrations actually given in scripture of which there is no command forbidding or cancelling their observance?
3. Why would God give only a certain people group a bunch of 'public holidays' on which to feast and celebrate on a large scale, only to take them away after Jesus died and leave us with only the brief weekly snack of 'bread and wine'?

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