SHOULD GENTILES CELEBRATE THE LORD’S FEASTS?
It is a modern-day phenomenon that more and more Christians are discovering the Feasts of the Lord, and are finding joy and fulfillment in observing them, often together with Jewish believers. There are some in the Church who argue that these are Jewish holidays – Christians have their own. To be sure, Jewish people have many holidays: Chanukah, Purim, Tu’bishvat, Log b’omer, etc., but the “Festivals of the Lord” (Moadim in Hebrew), are something more. Something both historic and prophetic, both national and universal in their scope. They are sign posts pointing to G-d’s redemptive plan for the whole human race, in which Israel has a special role to play.
The word “moad” means an appointed time – you could say, a date on G-d’s calendar to meet with His people, and to conduct a dress rehearsal. In fact, in the opening chapter of Genesis, on the fourth day, the Lord creates the luminaries of the sky, in part, for signs and seasons (moadim). He starts up His calendar, which will eventually culminate in the salvation and restoration of fallen man, the redemption of Nature, and the everlasting kingdom of G-d on earth, all through the work of His Son, Yeshua (Jesus).
When Israel first became a nation, at the time of the Exodus, G-d commanded His people to keep these seven dates, three of which were Pilgrim Festivals, in which all males were to “appear before the Lord” in what eventually became the city of Jerusalem. It is noteworthy that among the millions who stood before Mt. Sinai at the Moad of Shavu’ot (Pentacost) were a “vast multitude” of believing Gentiles who had joined Israel in their flight from Egypt. “These are the appointed times of the Lord,” said G-d, “holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the times appointed for them.” (Leviticus 23:4) The list contains four spring festivals: Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, First Fruits and, 50 days later, Feast of Weeks, followed by a hiatus, until they are resumed in the fall with Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement and culminating, in Tabernacles. They are a witness, perpetual observances that the Jewish people have faithfully kept for almost 3,500 years.
Yeshua, the Messiah, is prefigured in all of them. To date, He has fulfilled all of the spring moadim. He was crucified on Passover, lay buried on the Feast of Unleavened bread, rose on First Fruits, was seen alive, and ascended to Heaven during the Counting of the Omer, and the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. The interlude between the spring moadim and the fall continuation marks the 2,000 years of Israel’s exile and the Age of the Church, with the spread of the Gospel message through the ripened fields of the nations. Today we stand at the threshold of the fall moadim, which will see the descent of the Lord with the trump of G-d and the voice of the arch angel (Trumpets), the atonement of Israel (Atonement), and the setting up of the Messianic kingdom from Jerusalem (Tabernacles).
In the first centuries, the Church embraced these festivals. To appreciate what transpired we need to understand that Jesus, the apostles, early evangelists, disciples, and leaders were all Jewish – and not nominally Jewish, but as James pointed out to Paul when he visited the Messianic community in Jerusalem, “all zealous for the law.” As Paul and the other Jewish apostles went out into the world to fulfill the Great Commission they went “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek”. They went to the synagogues throughout the Roman and Persian Empires where Gentile proselytes sat side by side with Jews listening to “Moses being taught.” They brought the news that the promised Messiah had come, in fulfillment of scripture: a concept foreign to a pagan mind, but familiar to the mind of the gentiles, who for the last century had been found in the synagogue corridors.
As Paul explained to the assembly in Ephesus, “you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near” (Ephesians 2:12).
Of course, Peter, James, John, and Paul kept the moadim. The Mother Church, if you will, was the assembly of Jews in Jerusalem, and the first 15 bishops were all Jews. It was only natural that the Gentile believers who now swelled the ranks of the newly planted assemblies would observe these days as prophetic fulfillment, and in fact we have evidence of this from Church sources. Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, wrote in 195 AD, that not only John, but the great bishops and martyrs Polycarp, Thraseas, and Sagaris, and the martyrs Papirius and Melito “all observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the Gospel,” and he continues, “seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven.”
- J. Van Goudoever sees the Christian eight-day pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Feast of Encaenia as having its roots in Tabernacles. Saint Jerome claimed that Polycarp also kept the Feast of Tabernacles in Asia Minor. The fourth century Greco-Roman Bishop Saint Methodius of Olympus said, “We are commanded to keep the feast to the Lord, which signifies that, when this world shall be terminated at the seventh thousand years, when God shall have completed the world, He shall rejoice in us.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines Pentecost as, “A feast of the universal Church which commemorates the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, fifty days after the Resurrection of Christ, on the ancient Jewish festival called the “feast of weeks” or Pentecost,” and the Early Catholic theologian, Origin, admits that He and others were accustomed to celebrating Passover and Pentecost.
Paul himself kept the moadim and spoke in his epistles about them to a Church which apparently, practiced them. For instance, he writes to the Corinthians “Purge out therefore the old leaven that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ, our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore, let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5: 6-8). Purging out the old leaven is the first act in preparation for the Jewish Passover and Feast of Unleavened bread. “In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow” (Acts 18:18). The act of cutting one’s hair to keep a vow references the Jewish Nazarite vow. A few verses later he tells the Ephesians, “I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will” (Acts 18:21). That is obviously one of the three Pilgrimage Feasts.
Over the centuries, as the Church became increasingly estranged from the Jewish people, what was in the beginning, the accepted faith of Paul, Peter, John, and the early believers was condemned as heresy. We can see it in the address of John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople to the Church in Antioch, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you. If any of you, whether you are here present or not, shall go to the spectacle of the Trumpets, or rush off to the synagogue… or take part in fasting, or share in the Sabbath, or observe any other Jewish ritual great or small, I call heaven and earth as my witnesses that I am guiltless of the blood of all of you.”
In his first Homily Against the Jews, Chrysostom continues: “Another very serious illness calls for any cure my words can bring, an illness which has become implanted in the body of the Church. We must first root this ailment out and then take thought for matters outside; we must first cure our own and then be concerned for others who are strangers. What is this disease? The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now.”
Paul warned the Church not to boast against the “natural branches,” as he called Israel. Yet for almost 1,600 years the Church has been cut off from its Hebraic roots. Today, as the Lord is resurrecting the Messianic movement, and making one new man of Jew and Gentile believer, is perhaps the time to take a second look at the Lord’s Feasts and find value in reclaiming them for the Church.