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Should Christians Celebrate Jewish Holidays?
By Greg Thornberg

Recently a “revival” of sorts has begun in the Evangelical church community involving groups of Christians who have returned to celebrating Old Testament ceremonies and holidays. For some it has been an enriching experience to better learn the Old Testament in its context but for others these Jewish holidays have become a requirement to godly living. The fact that most Christians do not celebrate or even understand Jewish customs has added to the confusion of what the church is supposed to believe on the subject. Many (if not most) pastors are not trained on the topic and find it easier to avoid the topic for the sake of keeping the peace rather than risk losing congregants for the sake of making a stand. But as we will see, what this new breed of Jewish Christians teaches requires pastors and churches to make a stand.  Not only because clarity is important but because Scripture itself requires us to make a stand on the subject.

The purpose of this article is to acquaint the reader with the Jewish-Christian movement bringing to light what they teach and what they say God requires. Because the Gospel is at stake, it follows that pastors must be trained to respond and correct the errant teachings among this movement and help members of their church to clearly understand the Gospel message and what is at stake for those who choose to abandon God’s word—eternal life.

Because of the importance associated with the Jewish-Christian movement, Grace Christian Fellowship opposes any teaching that requires Christians to practice Mosaic-covenant holidays and ceremonies as prerequisite to obedience and salvation. Since Jesus Christ is the sole focus of the New Testament, it is in the best interest of any believer to avoid practices making the Gospel message less clear or place undue emphasis on ceremonial practices that find their fulfillment in Christ. That is not to say we are opposed to the moral requirement as stated in the law. The New Testament not only upholds the moral requirements of God’s Law, it increases the demand on Christians to obey in the mind, heart and actions.  The Gospel, in this sense, exceeds the Law. It not only upholds all of the Law, it surpasses it so that all who adhere to the Gospel fulfill absolutely the requirements in the Law—ceremonial, civic and moral.  Those under the New Covenant are not Old Covenant breakers, but Old Covenant exceptionalists. But more on this will be explained below.

What exactly is the Jewish-Christian message that the Bible opposes? The Jewish-Christian movement’s teachings tend to revolve around the following anti-Gospel beliefs:

(1)    The Gospel message is not a call to a new covenant, but the restoration of the Mosaic Covenant.

(2)    Believers who do not embrace Mosaic traditions have not truly embrace Jesus Christ who invites us to become part of Israel.

(3)    The requirements of the Mosaic covenant are eternal and apply to all Christians today

(4)    Salvation is found both through Jesus Christ and working out our salvation through adherence to the Mosaic covenant.

In more extreme cases, these Jewish-Christian movements include the following teachings:

(5)    Jesus is not God, but a preeminent prophet

(6)    Hell is not a place but represents destruction

(7)    There is no conscious spirit that leaves the body after death. The dead cease to exist until they are raised from the dead.

(8)    Jesus was not raised from the dead.

This list is not comprehensive to all such groups, but the first four teachings listed above tend to be taught by nearly all such Jewish-Christian movements. The focus of this article, then, will be to address the first four teachings most of these groups hold in common.

Teaching 1: “The Gospel message is not a call to a new covenant, but the restoration of the Mosaic Covenant.”
The main argument for this teaching among Jewish-Christian adherents is from the words of Christ himself who says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) If the Law is not abolished by Christ but rather fulfilled, then it would seem to follow that even the ceremonial aspects of the Law ought to be obeyed as well. This would be true even today since Jesus said, “…until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”  In these words Christ affirms the necessity of the Law and its continuing nature even until today.

So how can Evangelicals say that the ceremonies prescribed in the Law are not required?  If Jesus says that not one dot of the Law will pass, are we not supposed to practice the Passover, eat kosher foods and Sabbath? The Law prescribes them and Jesus says to obey the Law. It would certainly seem like a closed case. How do Evangelicals get away with not practicing the Sabbath on Saturday or the Passover? The answer has comes from reading this verse within the counsel of all Scripture. This verse does not stand alone in explaining what Jesus required of his followers. Like other passages in the Bible, such statements seem like a closed case if it were all the bible had to say on a particular topic. Take for example the requirement of marriage:  In Mark 10:2-12 Jesus says that no one can divorce, period.  Nothing else is said but that we shouldn’t get divorced. If this passage is taken by itself, it sounds like there’s never a lawful reason for divorce. But Matthew 5:32 notes that Jesus had this qualifying remark, “…anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery…” (emphasis added)  If Mark 10:2-12 were all the Bible had to say on divorce, no divorce would ever be lawful. But it isn’t all Scripture has to say on the topic. Paul even adds to our understanding when he says that if an unbeliever is going to leave, the believer is not bound to remain married (1 Corinthians 5:17).  These qualifying statements do not contradict the teaching of Mark 10:2-12, but rather enhance our understanding of an important topic.

In this same way, Matthew 5:17-18 does not stand alone, but must be interpreted within the context of other passages.  Should Christians consider non-kosher food unclean?  In Acts 10:9-16, God tells Peter to kill and eat non-kosher foods.  When Peter objected saying, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean!” the Lord replied, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean”. God commands Peter to no longer call these foods unclean. To call them unclean would be disobedient to the Lord. In Mark 7:14-19, “Jesus declared all foods clean.”  The reason for this declaration was because true uncleanness is a matter of the heart and not food.  The very clear point Jesus is telling his disciples is that obsession with kosher food was a distraction from the cleanness God truly requires—that of the heart.  In a very real sense, requiring kosher foods would lead Christians away from focus on heart cleanliness. 

Matthew 5:17-18 must also be interpreted in light of the New Testament concept of “the reality” that is found in Christ. The reality of kosher foods is found in cleanness of the heart by Christ so that those who observe the cleanliness of heart are truly observing what the Law requires more so than kosher food observation. The reality of food, drink, festivals and Sabbath’s are found in Christ so that those who seek Christ are truly observing what these things represented.  This “reality” teaching in the New Testament is how Christians observe the Law without observing ceremonial statutes and be compliant with God’s word. Christians do not fall out of compliance with the Law but rather comply all the more through the reality of the Law that is found in Christ. The Apostle 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 or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17, emphasis added) When Paul is saying, “do not let anyone judge you,” he is saying that no food or drink, festival or holy day is to be condemned. It isn’t just food that finds its reality in Christ but also “with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”  We are not judged by any of these things if we are in Christ.  What reason does Paul give? “The reality, however, is found in Christ.” When Christians celebrate Christ, they fulfill food laws, ceremonial laws, religious festivals and the Sabbath day.

The reality of Christ is what the ceremonial laws were all about. What was once specified in food, drink, festival and Sabbath laws is in reality now found in Christ. Likewise, the reality of circumcision is found in Christ. The Bible says, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” (Galatians 6:15) The reality of circumcision is found in the heart where the Holy Spirit works (Romans 2:29; Colossians 2:11-12).  In Philippians 3:3, we are called “the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit…” The real circumcision in Christ was so important that Paul even urged uncircumcised men to remain as they are. Paul wrote, “Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised.” (1 Corinthians 7:18) When the issue of circumcision was being required by certain men in Galatia, Titus, a fellow worker with Paul in Galatia, would not be compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3). Titus and Paul opposed the requirement of circumcision “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (Galatians 2:5) The reality of Christ was so important that Paul knew requiring circumcision would lead to the demise of the Gospel.  He and Titus opposed it in order to preserve the Gospel message.

This disagreement between the Gospel message and the Christian-Jewish movement isn’t over whether the Law must be upheld, but in how it is upheld.  The reason Evangelical churches no longer practice Old Testament ceremonial law is because a greater more real obedience is offered to us through Christ. The reason Grace Christian Fellowship refuses to require ceremonial Law is because we concern ourselves with obedience of a higher, more compliant reality through Christ. In following Christ as our only savior and source of salvation, all that the ceremonial Law requires is fulfilled when we have faith in him. We are partakers in the greater reality that is Christ himself.  The reason we do not celebrate the Passover is because Christ is our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The reason why we do not designate clean from unclean foods is because “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.” (Romans 14:17-18).

The reason why the Jewish-Christian movement demands Old Covenant ceremonial practices on the basis of Matthew 5:17-18 is because they read these verses outside of the whole council of God’s word. The result is a less than ultimate compliance with God’s will and a demise of the Gospel message.  This is why Paul and Titus opposed circumcision “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved” (Galatians 2:5).  The final point is this: If Christ is the ultimate reality of the Law, those who reject the ultimate fulfillment in Christ reject both Christ and the Law that represents him. In the end such people fall out of compliance with both covenants and are outside of the will of God.

 
Teaching 2: Believers who do not embrace Mosaic traditions have not truly embrace Jesus Christ who invites us to become part of Israel.
One reason why this line of reasoning does not work is because it’s like saying, “If you do not embrace a painting of water, then you have not benefited from real water.” However, the image of something real is not necessary to enjoying the benefits of its reality. It is the opposite that’s true—clinging to an image without embracing the reality will fail to benefit you. Avoiding real water and clinging to an image of water will lead to death.  In the same way clinging to images of Christ while avoiding Christ leads to spiritual death.  The danger to the church isn’t in avoiding the image of Christ found in the Old Testament traditions, but in avoiding the real Christ himself. This was the message of the New Testament writers. Paul told his readers, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17, emphasis added)  But avoiding Christ is precisely what the Jewish-Christian movement does. By placing an inordinate emphasis on prayer shawls, yamakas, or Saturday Sabbath observation, the emphasis becomes less about the reality in Christ and real cleanness of heart to being more about rituals and ceremonies.  Avoiding Christ in this was is such a problem that it is common for families caught up in the Jewish-Christian movement to have almost no real understanding of essential New Testament teachings such as substitutionary atonement, regeneration, sanctification, working of the Holy Spirit and evangelism. This is why this issue was of no small concern to the early church. The Apostle Paul was so concerned about demanding Old Testament ceremonies, such as circumcision, that he refused to allow Titus to be circumcised.  He did this “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved” (Galatians 2:5).  In other words, by clinging to the imagery found in the Old Testament, the gospel of Christ was in fact being lost.

As the church, we must accept that our fallen tendencies lead us to adopt things that draw us away from Christ unless we are very careful to evaluate what we adopt. We are so fallen in our nature that we naturally cling to anything but Christ. We keep the image and throw out the reality. And if Christ alone is the reality of righteousness and new life, nothing else will prove of value.  This is exactly why Paul writes, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ ( referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23, emphasis added) 

It is the position, therefore, of Grace Christian Fellowship that required adherence to Old Testament ceremonial imagery of Christ (1) loses the Gospel message for those who emphasize it and (2) is of no value for those wishing to live righteous lives. Those to adhere to such views ultimately divide the church and offer a gospel-less alternative which simply cannot be allowed in the church.

What we are not saying is that learning about ceremonies and even experiencing them for the sake of Old Testament contextual studies is a problem. We are not, for example, saying that Christians should never experience a Passover meal in order to better understand the Old Testament or the Last Supper. But when these experiences become required for Christians, the Gospel message gets lost and the church must oppose it.
 

Teaching 3: The requirements of the Mosaic covenant are eternal and apply to all Christians today
This premise of the Christian-Judaism movement is difficult to reply to because in one sense the statement is true and in another sense it’s not true. It is true in the sense that what the Old Testament requires (righteousness, faithfulness, sacrifice, etc.) is perfectly fulfilled in the New Testament. But it’s not true that the Old Testament ceremonies must be practiced in the same way. Christians both do adhere to ceremonial law and in another sense do not. We commemorate the Passover, but only in Christ. It is more accurate to say that the Passover commemorated Christ and not the other way around. The Passover exemplified the sacrifice of Christ so that when Christians commemorate the death of Christ, they commemorate the Passover in the real sense.  But now that the reality of the Law has appeared, we must hold on to the true sense of the Law in Christ. Since all Mosaic ceremonies find their clear fulfillment and reality in Christ, we must conclude that the only purpose of the Law is to point to Christ.  And by clinging to the ceremonial Law, we are inadvertently saying that Christ lacks what the Law provides.

The author of Hebrews understood the “realities” in Christ in the sacrificial and ceremonial law and concluded that there is no benefit derived from Mosaic sacrifices. He wrote

1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
(Hebrews 10:1-4, emphasis added)

Again, notice the emphasis on the word “realities.” The point that the author of Hebrews makes is that the law wasn’t the real deal and added that “it is impossible” for it “to take away sins.” By the words, “it is impossible,” the Law in these words isn’t given even some limited power to benefit us. Why? Because it isn’t the real deal!  These were “copies of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 9:23), “gifts and sacrifices” that “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper.” (Hebrews 9:9) Notice again the comparison between Christ and the Mosaic ceremonial Law in Hebrews 8:4-6

4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” 6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (emphasis added)

And if the ministry of Christ “is better” and based on “better promises,” why would we cling to the “copy and shadow of the heavenly things”?

But a reader may now object and say, “But doesn’t the bible tell us that the Law continues forever?” If by Law you mean the righteous requirement and it’s reality in Christ, then yes.  But if you mean that we must cling to the exact terms of the Old Covenant alongside of the New Covenant, then the answer is no.  In fact, the Bible says just the existence of a New Covenant means that the first Covenant is obsolete. Again the Hebrews author writes, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13, emphasis added)

The theme of Scripture is again and against the supremacy of Christ over the former Covenant. And because Jesus is the perfection of what the Old Covenant pointed to, the Old Covenant “is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness…” (Hebrews 7:18) “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” (Hebrews 7:12, emphasis added)

This is not to say that the ceremonies celebrated by the Israelites were meaningless or worthless.  The Gospel of Christ was proclaimed through them in a hidden sense until the time a clearer proclamation of Christ was revealed.  But now that we have Christ, why should we cling to and mandate what is obsolete (8:13), makes nothing perfect (7:19) and cannot take our sins away (10:4)? When even Scripture sets aside the Old Covenant for the new one, the only way to mandate the Old is to disregard the supremacy of Christ and cling to that which cannot benefit us.

The reason Grace Christian Fellowship cannot allow members to mandate Old Covenant ceremonies is that we cannot do so without finding ourselves in direct conflict with the Gospel message. The truest way to fulfill Old Testament ceremonial law is to identify with and celebrate Christ alone in whom is the better promise (Hebrews 8:6).

 

Teaching 4: Salvation is found both through Jesus Christ and working out our salvation through adherence to the Mosaic covenant.
Most of our response to this statement has already been addressed above. For the sake of addressing it directly, let’s repeat what the author of Hebrews wrote:

1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
(Hebrews 10:1-4, emphasis added)

Salvation is entirely and completely through Christ and believers cannot find any benefit in the Old Law. It is “impossible” for the Old Covenant to take away sins. If it offers nothing to us, then adding it to the gospel is unnecessary and unhelpful.  But it’s not only unhelpful, it’s dangerous.  Paul offers this dire warning to those who seek to justification through the Law, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4) We can only be saved by faith in Christ plus nothing! Paul wrote very clearly

…yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
(Galatians 2:16, emphasis added)

For readers contemplating a life by the Old Law, let us warn you that your soul is in grave danger. Your position is not only unscriptural, it carries the very consequence of falling away from Christ. Since there is no salvation under Heaven except through Christ, those who live by the Old Written Code are destined for eternal separation from Christ and an eternity in Hell.

The conclusion is simply this: are you for Christ or for the Old Law? Do you seek the reality in Christ or do you wish to cling to that which cannot save you.  You have two opposing options and you must choose. One choice is for Christ and for life, the other is for the Old Covenant and separation. One choice saves and the other condemns and curses.  We might wish to be silent and non-divisive on this issue, but we are not allowed to be neutral on this topic. The church is not given the option to remain silent on this issue.

“Choose this day whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24:15)