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 (Manna 75: Towards Maturity)
Christian Viewpoint on Festivals
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Christian Viewpoint on Festivals

Adapted from lecture notes from Singapore

INTRODUCTION

Festivals confront Christians at every turn. At home, we observe various festivities as part of our family traditions. At school and at work, local festivals may be officially celebrated. Our friends may also invite us to join in their festivities. But which festivals can Christians participate in and which ones should we avoid?

Our guide is, of course, the Bible, but before we search the Scriptures for answers, we need to understand that there are two different types of festivals: religious and cultural. Religious festivals are held to honor deities or to perform religiously significant rituals. Cultural festivals commemorate momentous events or heroes of the community, or celebrate joyous occasions such as harvest-time and change to benign season (e.g., Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, etc.).

RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS

Feasts of the Lord

A look into the Bible reveals that the Israelites too had both religious and cultural festivals. In the Old Testament, God Himself instituted seven religious festivals for the Israelites. They are laid down in Leviticus 23 as the (1) Feast of Passover, (2) Feast of Unleavened Bread, (3) Feast of the Firstfruits, (4) Feast of Pentecost (also called Feast of Harvest[1] and Feast of Weeks[2]), (5) Feast of Trumpets, (6) Day of Atonement, and (7) Feast of Tabernacles (also known as Feast of Ingathering[3]).

Christians are not bound to observe them, because they are only a shadow of the things to come (Col 2:16–17; cf. Heb 10:1). These festivals foreshadowed the salvation that would be given through Jesus Christ, the downpour of the Holy Spirit, and Christ's gospel call. All these have been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, hence we do not need to keep these feasts anymore.

Festivals in Honor of Idols

Moving on to the New Testament, we find that neither Jesus nor the apostles established any festivals; therefore, Christianity as such has no festivals. Needless to say, Christians are strictly forbidden from participating in festivals dedicated to false gods. It is an abomination to God. In Leviticus 18:3–30, God issued this injunction:

“According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances. ... Therefore you shall keep My ordinance, so that you do not commit any of these abominable customs which were committed before you, and that you do not defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God.”

Colossians 2:8 warns against being spoilt by the “tradition of men.” 1 Corinthians 10:18–22 warns against having “fellowship with demons” and instructs Corinth members that “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons.”

The command to Christians to separate themselves from the practices of other religions receives even stronger emphasis in 2 Corinthians 6:14–18:

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people." Therefore, "Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you." "I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."

Paganistic Festivals in Honor of the True God

However, people love festivals. If God has not provided any and celebrating a religious festival patently dedicated to a false god is wrong, it is very tempting to adopt a proscribed but popular religious festival and celebrate it in honor of the true God. In history, Aaron was the initiator of such assimilation. When the Israelites grew restless from waiting too long for Moses to descend from Mount Sinai with God’s laws, they revered a golden calf idol as the god who rescued them from Egypt. Exodus 32:5–6 records this innovative and masterful maneuver that would be copied by the apostate church thousands of years later:

So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord." Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

Note that he was still faithful to the Lord. His intention was to honor the Lord; the entire shenanigan was a “festival to the Lord”! Only that he adopted a pagan celebratory format. But unlike the apostate church, he knew of no other form of celebration, for Moses had not yet returned with God’s blueprint of how the people ought to worship. Nonetheless, God was incensed:

“And the Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” (Ex 32:9–10)

In the face of this threat, Moses interceded forcefully. God relented and spared the Israelites. Otherwise the entire Hebrew race would have vanished in the sands of time.

So it is very clear that not only the celebration of paganistic festivals per se is prohibited; the celebration of paganistic festivals reinterpreted to honor the true God is also prohibited. This is because God not only detests the worship of false gods but also people worshipping Him in the way of other religions. The form or manner of honoring God is important. In Deuteronomy 12:3–4, God commanded:

“And you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and burn their wooden images with fire; you shall cut down the carved images of their gods and destroy their names from that place. You shall not worship the Lord your God with such things.”

And in Deuteronomy 12:29–32, He added:

"When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.' You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods …. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it."

Jeremiah 10:2 warns, “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles….” History has shown that God does not want His people to honor Him in the way of the Gentiles. God is to be honored only in the way He Himself has set out. Therefore, Christians are not allowed to adopt a pagan festival, mask it with a Christian name, force Christian meanings into its centuries-old customs and celebrations, and then celebrate it in honor of Christ.

Examples of such adopted festivals are Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc. These festivals have pagan roots. Christmas, for example, originally celebrated the birthday of the sun god, Easter originated in a festival honoring the deity of fertility, and Halloween initially honored the god of death and is openly associated with the works of the devil. Although some of these festivals may be so ingrained in certain cultures that their original pagan roots are lost, we cannot and must not have anything to do with these festivals, lest we incur the wrath of God.

CULTURAL FESTIVALS

As for cultural festivals, peoples of all races everywhere have their own. The Jews are no exception. They have two—Purim and Hanukkah.[4]

Purim is celebrated on the thirteenth to fifteenth day of the month Adar (roughly March).[5] It commemorates the deliverance of the Jews in the Persian Empire wrought by Esther[6] during the reign of Ahasuerus [probably Xerxes (486–465 B.C.) but possibly Artaxerxes II (404–359 B.C.)].

The name originated from the Hebrew word pur used in Esther 3:7; 9:24–26 as “lots.” It may also have been derived from the Assyrian word puru, meaning pebble or small stone, which would be used for casting lots. Lots are associated with this festival because Haman, the vizier who masterminded the plot to massacre all the Jews, cast lots to find an auspicious day, as he was a superstitious man, to carry out the pogrom.

Hanukkah (also known as the Feast of Dedication) is celebrated beginning from the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev (December) and lasts for eight days. It originally celebrated the winter solstice but later commemorated the dedication (or cleansing) of the temple and altar by Judas Maccabaeus in 164 B.C. following his victories over Antiochus Epiphanes who had desecrated them for three years.[7] Hence the name. Hanukkah in Hebrew means “dedication.”

The prominent feature of this festival is the lighting of a candle on each of the eight nights of festivities. There is neither partial or total abstention from occupation nor is there any holy convocation at the beginning or the end.

Both these festivals were actively and widely celebrated in Jesus’ time. Jesus criticized many practices of the Jews in His time but never once questioned the propriety of celebrating Purim or Hanukkah. The gospel writer John mentioned Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication, in John 10:22 without adverse comment. It may be inferred therefore that the celebration of cultural festivals is permitted.

CONCLUSION

In the Old Testament, God personally instituted religious festivals for His chosen people, the Israelites. However, since these were only a shadow of the things to come through Jesus Christ, we are not obliged to keep them today.

Christianity itself is a religion without festivals, because Jesus did not institute any. Yet the Lord did not condemn the celebration of cultural festivals. Hence, it is not wrong to participate in festivals that are not religiously pagan in nature.

However, it is important to realize that pagan practices permeate every aspect of life—from birth to death. “Culture” in itself inevitably includes pagan aspects and “cultural” festivals will likely involve pagan practices. In celebrating these cultural festivals, we need to abstain from pagan elements and superstition. Inevitably, our refusal to join in the festivities may raise questions, make us appear boring, unadjusted, or even extreme and intolerant. Yet we must never compromise our principles in order to please man. Instead, we ought to remember that our God is a jealous God, and that He has chosen us to be separate and holy so that we may glorify and proclaim His name.

For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him; There! A people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations. (Num 23:9)

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; (1 Pet 2:9)



[1] Ex 23:16

[2] Ex 34:22; Deut 16:10; 2 Chr 8:13

[3] Ex 23:16; 34:22

[4] See generally Tenny, M.C., The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1976; The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Inter-Varsity Press, England, Leicester, 1980, 1994.

[5] Originally, it was celebrated on the fourteenth day by those in villages and unwalled towns and on the fifteenth by those in fortified cities (Est 9:18–19; Jos. Antiq. xi. 13). Around 161 B.C. a decree was made to celebrate annually the defeat of Nicanor, the Syrian general, by Judas Maccabaeus on the thirteenth day of Adar (1 Macc 7:49; 2 Macc 15:36). Incidentally, the record in 2 Maccabees 15:36, believed to have been written by 50 B.C., noted that Nicanor’ Day was the day before “Mordecai’s Day,” referring to Purim. The famous Jewish historian Josephus, at the end of the first century A.D., stated that Nicanor’s Day was kept on Adar 13 (Antiq. xii. 412) and Purim on Adar 14 and 15 (Antiq. xi. 295). After the 7th century A.D., the observance of Nicanor’s Day faded and Purim extended itself forward to the thirteenth.

[6] Est 9:16–18

[7] 1 Macc 4:41–59; 2 Macc 10:6–8

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