I am not a great proponent of the liturgical calendar, especially not saints’ days, or the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent. Nevertheless, I’ve always been happy to go along with the so-called evangelical feast days, considering them the harmless heritage of the Church, not holy days consecrated by God, but simply another occasion to hear the Word preached.
But it is worth remembering that Presbyterians, and other non-conformists, dispensed with these feast days and did not resume them until the late 19th century. The Westminster Directory for Public Worship states:
There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.
It is also worth remembering that, on the other side of the debate, the continental Reformed churches did decide to keep the feast days. Geneva abolished them only to restore them a little later, and the Synod of Dort also decreed that they should be observed in addition to the Lord’s Day; however, the Nadere Reformatie (Further Reformation, or ‘Dutch Puritans’), like their British brethren, disagreed with this.
We may ask, as long as the day is cleansed from popish and heathen superstition, what could be wrong with the feast days? Is it not just another occasion to preach redemptive history? One issue is that of Christian liberty. When the church elders call a meeting, they expect the congregation to attend. This arguably binds the conscience of the congregation to a man-made tradition, thereby violating their Christian liberty. Another issue is that of the regulative principle of worship, that we should worship the Lord according to his will rather than our own. I made reference in my previous post to the Jewish priests Nadab and Abihu who offered strange fire to the Lord, that is an offering in a way that was not in accordance with God’s instruction, and were destroyed. When it comes to public worship, we cannot justify a practice simply because we feel we ought to do it – without scriptural warrant – or because we simply think it is a good thing to do in order to honour God. So often in our age, the feast days are used as an evangelistic tool: because the world is willing to flock to churches on these days, we think that honouring them is necessary to win souls, as if salvation is dependent on us. Whether we observe festivals in liberty or not, we should consider that if we do things God’s way, if we really trust in his sovereignty, his effectual calling will not cease even if we fail to entertain the crowds with innovations of worship. He will save his elect. Yes, we are called to evangelize, but let us do it his way. Anything else is will worship. And if the world loves the feast days in spite of hating Christ, we must question whether the days have not been so far tainted by paganism and worldliness that they are beyond redemption. Some might say, Should we put the Christ back into Christmas or simply let it go? Was Christ ever in Christmas in the first place?
What then is God’s way? We might seek to justify the festivals from scripture: Pentecost (Feast of Weeks), Easter (Passover) and even perhaps Christmas (Feast of Dedication) might be seen as a continuation of our Old Testament heritage. Paul, writing to the Romans seemed indifferent to the observance of particular days:
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6 ESV)
He himself was eager to be present in Jerusalem at the festival of Pentecost, and the Apostles, of course, until they were thrown out, were present in the synagogues on the Jewish Sabbath. Without ever endorsing the continuation of feast days, they ministered to people wherever they may be found. Following their example, we are commissioned to go out into the world preaching the gospel to all people, maximising the opportunities that providence grants us, but this in itself is not necessarily a licence to establish holy days.
Indeed, on the basis on Paul’s despair in writing to the Galatians, it is safe to assume that the weaker brother in Romans 14 was the one who insisted on setting days apart. To cling to festivals is arguably Judaizing, despising our freedom in Christ:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have laboured over you in vain. (Galatians 4:8-11 ESV)
If we give undue reverence to times and seasons under some perceived obligation, we might ask, Are we in fact enslaving ourselves to man-made tradition? Has God’s Word laboured over us in vain? The feast days were part of the ceremonial law which is now abrogated, once ‘a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ,’ as it is written in Colossians 2:17.
Yet I contend that God has not left us entirely without festivals. Rather, we have fifty-two or fifty-three holy days in a year on which God has commanded us to come together in public worship and to rest from our labours. Hebrews 4:9-10 not only reflects our eternal rest in Christ, but also our regular pattern of worship which is a foretaste of that rest:
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9-10 ESV)
This passage, which compares God’s resting from his works to that of his people, testifies to the eternal truth signified in the fourth commandment, in which God himself set apart a day as holy:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8 ESV)
Now there are some who are ill informed, or such as are Judaizers of the Seventh Day Adventist movement, who insist that Christians have always been in error concerning the Lord’s Day, that the Roman Empire changed the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first. This is a false allegation! Since the Lord Jesus rose from the dead on the first day and thereafter met with the disciples on several occasions, the apostolic Church gathered in worship on Sundays. How fitting it is that we should look back to the firstfruits of the new creation under Christ (as opposed to the fallen creation under Adam) and forward to our eternal rest in Christ on the very day on which he rose! Neither do we establish this day without scriptural warrant. In Acts 20:7, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was administered and Paul preached the Word – on Sunday. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Paul instructed the churches to put something aside ready for the collection – on Sundays. In Revelation 1:10, John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when he received his revelation on Patmos. And it is also on this day – the first day, Sunday, the Lord’s Day – that we come together as one in the Spirit, hearing the Word preached and partaking of our Passover.