Dear Church Family,
In our Men’s and Women’s Discipleship Groups, we studied the Gospel according to John over the past year on Wednesday nights. At the end of the study, we decided to combine the Men’s and Women’s groups to answer some specific questions that were submitted by those in the study.
Two weeks ago, we considered the first question which pertained to John’s use of the term “Logos” (translated as “Word”) in the first chapter of his Gospel. Last week, we considered the second question regarding the power of the keys of the kingdom to forgive and retain sins. This week, we will review the third and final question from our study which had to do with Christians and old covenant feasts: Should (or may) Christians celebrate old covenant feasts?
Technically, there are really two questions that we must consider with regard to Christians celebrating or partaking in old covenant ceremonial rites or feasts. First, should Christians celebrate old covenant ceremonial feasts, such as the Passover or Sader meal, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the Feast of Booths, or even the old covenant Sabbath on the seventh day? That is, are Christians commanded in Scripture to celebrate and participate in such things? Second, may Christians celebrate such old covenant ceremonies, rites, and feasts? That is, is it wise or in keeping with Christian faith and practice to celebrate and participate in such things?
As we seek to answer these two questions, there are two key hermeneutical principles that we must keep in mind: (1) We interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and (2) We interpret the New Testament against the background of the Old Testament (Luke 24:25-27; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 1:1-2). In the words of Augustine, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”
1. Should Christians celebrate old covenant ceremonial rites and ceremonies?
To answer this first questions, we will use portions of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), chapters 19 (Of the Law of God) and 20 (Of Christian Freedom) as a guide in summarizing the teaching of Scripture on these matters.
a. Three types of Laws given in the old covenant
So, to begin, one of the things that we must understand is that, historically, the Christian Church has understood that there are three differentiations (or types) of Law given in the Old Testament: moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws. Here is a summary of the teaching of the WCF, chapter 19, on these three kinds of laws.
(WCF 19.1-2, 5) Moral Law (Ten Commandments)
– Given: to Adam and Moses
– Purpose: perfect rule of righteousness
– Continuation: forever binding on all
(WCF 19.3) Ceremonial Law (Worship regulations)
– Given: to the church of Israel
– Purpose: typological and instructive
– Continuation: abrogated under New Testament
(WCF 19.4) Judicial Law (Civil regulations)
– Given: to state of Israel
– Purpose: general equity obligations
– Continuation: expired with political state of Israel
b. The ceremonial law is abrogated in the new covenant
For our present discussion, we will focus on only the second category, the ceremonial laws of the old covenant. The ceremonial laws pertained to rules that governed the worship practices of God’s people as they prefigured Christ (Hebrews 8:13-9:1; 10:1), as well as the moral regulations of “separation laws” (1 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Corinthians 6:17). The WCF teaches us that all these ceremonial laws “are now abrogated, or abolished, under the New Testament” (WCF 19:3).
Let’s just consider two passages from the New Testament that teach us this truth regarding the abrogation of the ceremonial laws at the coming of Christ. First, Ephesians 2:11-22 teaches us that, in Christ, the dividing wall of the ceremonial laws of the old covenant between Gentile (uncircumcision) and Jew (circumcision) have been torn down. On the cross, Christ abolished “the Law of commandments contained in the ordinances” that separated them (v 15). Thus, in the new covenant, there is one people of God, the church, comprised of Jew and Gentile alike and the ceremonial and civic laws of separation have been done away with.
Second, consider Colossians 2:13-17 in which God’s word teaches us that, on the cross, Christ has done away with the ceremonial laws of the old covenant. In speaking of how God has forgiven all our transgressions through our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (vv 13-15), Paul goes on to make application regarding the ceremonial laws of the old covenant (vv 16-17). Let’s consider these latter verses of application in more detail:
(Colossians 2:16-7) 16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day– 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
There are two key concepts in these latter verses that we must understand in order to make proper application of this passage. First, in verse 16, what does “food, drink, a festival, a new moon, or a Sabbath day (Gk: sabbaths)” mean? Well, here, Paul uses specific verbiage from the Old Testament to describe the work of the Levitical priests as they performed their duties in the tabernacle (1 Chron. 23:30-32). Thus, it would seem that Paul is here referring specifically to the worship rites and rituals – the ceremonial laws – of the old covenant.
Second, in verse 17, what do the terms “shadow” and “substance (Gk: body)” mean? In the book of Hebrews, the term “shadow” is used in a spatial sense to speak of the old covenant sacrificial system: the high priests served a copy and shadow of the heavenly things (Hebrews 8:5). Here, Paul uses the term “shadow” in a temporal sense to speak of the old covenant sacrificial system: the ceremonial laws of the old covenant were a type that pointed to the future work of Christ, Who is the fulfillment of the shadow.
Thus, while the worship practices of the old covenant were just a shadow, Christ is the true reality or substance of the worship of God. When Christ, who was casting the shadow, had come, He displaced and did away with the shadows: the ceremonial laws of the old covenant have been abrogated and abolished.
c. Answer to the First Question
From these points, we arrive at this conclusion: Christians are free from the yoke of the ceremonial law and are not required to celebrate or remember the old covenant rites and ceremonies. The New Testament teaches us that the ceremonial laws of the old covenant had a limited and temporary use: they were intended to point to the work of the coming Christ, and as such, are now abrogated (Acts 15:10-11; Galatians 4:1-7). WCF 20:1 summarizes, “…under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected…”
2. Is it wise or, or in keeping with Christian faith and practice, to celebrate old covenant ceremonial rites and ceremonies?
God’s Word clearly teaches that we are no longer under obligation to keep the feasts and ceremonial Laws of the old covenant; however, the question remains: are we permitted to do so? Or, perhaps a more practical question would be: Is it wise, or in keeping with Christian faith and practice, to celebrate and participate in old covenant ceremonial rights and ceremonies? After all, there are several movements which claim that Christians ought to (or at least are wise to) celebrate old covenant rites and ceremonies: Messianic Judaism, the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM), Philadelphia Tabernacle of David (PTOD), SDA, and others.
Answer to the Second Question: It is unwise, and not in keeping with Christian faith and practice, to participate in old covenant rites and rituals (ceremonial laws) for the following reasons.
(1) It diminishes and denigrates the finished work of Christ.
Commenting on Colossians 2:17, John Calvin writes, “…the man that calls back the ceremonies into use, either buries the manifestation of Christ, or robs Christ of his excellence, and makes him in a manner void.” This may sound like drastic language but consider some illustrations. Suppose a wife spends all day studying and talking to a painting of her husband while he, himself, is sitting in the same room with her. Or, suppose a new mother continues to play with dolls while she neglects her newborn baby in the crib next to her. Also, consider Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Galatia who were being persuaded by the Judaizers: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.” (Galatians 4:9-11)
(2) It is inconsistent.
If one wishes to participate in and celebrate any of the old covenant ceremonies (e.g., the Passover meal), then he ought to participate in and celebrate all of the old covenant ceremonial law, including the sacrificial system.
(3) It communicates that there are two distinct peoples of God: Jews or Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
That is, it rebuilds the dividing wall that was torn down by Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).
(4) It communicates that the two sacraments (or ceremonial rites) which Christ has given to His Church are ineffectual and inefficient.
Baptism and the Lord’s supper are sensible signs in which the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers (WSC 92); they are enough.
(5) It inevitably binds the conscience of believers apart from Scripture.
When individual churches or church leaders encourage, host, or lead new covenant believers to participate in old covenant ceremonies and rites, even if they come short of requiring participation, they teach that these ceremonies are an additional way of growing in the Christian faith. Thus, they implicitly bind the conscience of believers and violate the regulative principle of worship.
(6) It has the potential of causing a stumbling block to other Christians.
Just as with the Apostle Paul’s admonition regarding meat sacrificed to idols, one of our primary concerns in making wise decisions regarding our Christian liberty is how our actions affect our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:9-13).
There are many more resources available if one wishes to delve deeper into this topic. Here are just two that may be helpful for further reading. First, here is a short article from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Q&A webpage entitled, “Should Christians Celebrate the Seder?” Second, here is a short but quite thorough treatise written by pastors and scholars in 2002 regarding the broader questions of what the Bible teaches about the relationship between the modern state of Israel and the Church, the promises of God in both the old and new covenants, the land of Israel, etc. – “An Open Letter to Evangelicals and Other Interested Parties: The People of God, the Land of Israel, and the Impartiality of the Gospel.”
Though the ceremonial laws of the old covenant served a purpose for time, there are Christians today who continue to grope after the shadows of Christ rather than embrace the substance of Christ as He is given to us in the simplicity of the ministry of the Word and the sacraments. Perhaps it is because there is more “showiness” in the ceremonial rites and rituals of the old covenant which makes them more attractive to some. So, we conclude with a reminder from the WCF of the greater spiritual efficacy of the new covenant and its ordinances:
“Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant [the covenant of grace] is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.” (WCF 7:6)
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch