October 2017 marks a significant milestone in world religion—the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Yet a much more important biblically mandated occasion comes early in the month, as it falls around this time of year every year. And every year Protestantism sadly fails to acknowledge it and the need to observe it.
This occasion commemorates something that happened nearly 3,500 years ago as well as something much bigger that is yet to come. The reference is to the Feast of Tabernacles, which the whole world will be required to observe when Jesus Christ returns to the earth to rule all nations! (Zechariah 14:16-19).
In fact, in that world to come all people will also celebrate and worship on God’s seventh-day Sabbath (Isaiah 56:1-8; Isaiah 66:23) rather than on the first day of the week, Sunday. And they will observe all seven of the annual feasts or festivals that God revealed to ancient Israel in Leviticus 23!
So why is it that most churchgoers have never heard these things? Why don’t today’s churches teach them? Shouldn’t Christians derive their practice from the Bible?
A quick biblical overview
God had commanded ancient Israel to participate in these periods of special worship during the harvest seasons of the year (Exodus 23:14-16; Deuteronomy 16:1-17). Later scriptural teaching reveals that the physical harvests of crops symbolized the spiritual harvests of human beings in God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:37-38; John 4:35; John 15:1-8; Colossians 2:16-17). The first three annual festivals are associated with the spring harvests in the land of Israel, while the last four festivals are related to the harvest of late summer and fall.
The New Testament shows that the first-century Christian Church continued to observe these biblical festivals. Jesus Himself observed them, and we as His followers are told to walk as He walked (John 7:8-14; 1 John 2:6)—to live as He lived. The New Testament Church miraculously began on one of these annual festivals—the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). And the apostles and disciples of the early Church continued to observe these festivals long after Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 18:21; Acts 20:16; Acts 27:9; 1 Corinthians 5:8).
Through the observance of these feasts, God’s people focus on and are reminded throughout the year of the work of Jesus Christ in fulfilling God’s plan of salvation. And like the early Church, we must continue in them!
God’s festivals rejected, replaced and ignored by the Reformation
So what happened? Over time, apostasy—a falling away from God’s truth—set in and grew. Eventually those who continued in the teachings and practices of Christ and His apostles became a small minority among those who identified themselves as Christian. Many false teachings became attached to Christianity, and new days of worship were instituted, most of pagan origin—weekly Sunday observance and the annual holidays of Christmas and Easter being chief among these.
Even the true gospel message about Christ’s literal future return to rule all nations in the Kingdom of God was altered into a message about the Kingdom existing in the hearts of believers and Christ’s rule being established through the church—the church becoming centered at Rome and coming to dominate the ancient empire and various world powers ever since. Yet this was the great apostate church—not the relatively small true Church that continued in biblical teaching!
In time, and in protest against much corruption and false teachings and practices in the Roman church, came the Protestant Reformation, which had the intent of returning to the Christianity of the New Testament. In some ways it succeeded in restoring biblical concepts, yet it continued in much Roman Christian ideology and even introduced new problems. For all the talk of following Scripture alone, it certainly did not return to the faith and practice of the early Christians.
From the early Reformation period came a set of principles foundational to Protestant teaching on salvation (in contrast to Catholic teaching) known as the five solae or solas—sola being the Latin word for “alone” or “only.”
In the earliest articulations of these principles, there were just three—sola scriptura (“scripture alone”), sola fide (“faith alone”) and sola gratia (“grace alone”). Thus the Bible only was to be the rule of faith—not tradition and Roman church decrees. And salvation was understood to come through grace by faith in Christ for atonement with no requirement of righteous deeds or additional pious acts imposed by the Roman church.
Two solas were added later that also expressed earlier Protestant teaching: solo Christo (“by Christ alone”), rejecting the need for a special priesthood class and any other mediator but Christ, and soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”), rejecting the veneration of Mary, saints and angels.
Despite many changes, there was no return to biblical days of worship.
Faith and grace must be with obedience
Regrettably, the excessive focus on faith alone and grace alone had the shameful consequence of rejecting biblical law in general as part of the process of justification or being made right before God. The epistle of James had explicitly stated that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, emphasis added throughout)—for which reason Martin Luther wanted this book removed from the Bible.
And even the apostle Paul, the supposed proponent of rejecting the law, stated that “not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13). However, it is true that Paul also said, “We conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). Yet there is no contradiction here. We must realize that two stages of justification are being spoken about.
A person is initially justified or made right with God every time He sincerely repents (turns from sin and commits to obeying God) while having faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice—before any actual works of obedience. But a person remains justified by following through on the commitment in continuing obedience with Christ’s help. Sinning thereafter then requires new repentance to be justified or made right, along with continued obedience to remain justified.
It is vital that we continue in obedience to scriptural instructions, including the observance of God’s festivals. Paul himself continued to observe these festivals as a Christian, presenting them as continuing “shadows” or outlines of the great events in God’s plan of salvation yet to be fulfilled (Colossians 2:16-17). He even told the gentile (non-Israelite) congregation in Corinth regarding one of the festivals, “Let us keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:8)—referring to the biblical Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6).
Claiming “Scripture alone” and “Christ alone”—while disobeying both Scripture and Christ
It’s sadly ironic that the Protestant faith, with its 800 to 900 million adherents today, stands for “Scripture alone” and “Christ alone” while observing worship days and holidays from non-biblical pagan tradition—when the Bible specifically commands not to do that (Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
At the same time the Protestant faith tells its followers not to observe the days that Scripture says we are to keep, days that Christ Himself gave as the God who interacted with human beings in the Old Testament period (John 1:1-3; John 1:14; John 8:58; 1 Corinthians 10:4) and kept as a man in the New Testament!
How did this disconnect come about? It arose in part from a serious anti-Jewish outlook among the Protestant Reformers—following a long-ingrained attitude against Jewish practice in the Roman church.
The festivals given by God in the Old Testament were looked on as Jewish ritual that was supposed to have ended with Christ’s death—and continuing in them was seen as Judaizing legalism. Yet God said these were His feasts (Leviticus 23:1-2). And they all together represent the steps in God’s plan of salvation for all humanity—not just the Jewish people—through Jesus Christ. Indeed, the work of Christ is a central focus of every one of these observances. And the work is still ongoing.
Doesn’t it make a great deal more sense that standing for Scripture alone and Christ alone should include observances of God’s commanded biblical festivals that focus deeply on the saving work of Jesus Christ rather than celebrating repackaged holidays of pagan origin with only superficially invented connections to Christ’s story? Certainly!
In fact, a proper biblical understanding of faith and grace also demands the observance of these biblical festivals as part of trusting in God’s Word and receiving His gifts, as these occasions assuredly are. And, yes, it is all to God’s glory!
Overview of the biblical feasts—the steps in God’s plan to save mankind through Jesus Christ
Let’s look more, then, into these biblical festivals listed in Leviticus 23 and take note of the role of Jesus Christ in their meaning and fulfillment. More details about each can be found in our free study guide God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.
The Passover, in early spring in the northern hemisphere, was observed by the Israelites with a sacrificed lamb—recalling the blood of the sacrificed lamb in Egypt applied to the lintels and doorposts of Israelite homes to spare them from the plague that killed the Egyptian firstborn (Exodus 12; Leviticus 23:4-5).
This festival teaches us that Jesus Christ was sinless and, as the sacrificial “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” gave His life so that the sins of humanity could be forgiven and the death penalty removed, commencing with the redemption of the firstborn of humanity, God’s Church today (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-20; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 12:23).
The New Testament observance of this festival includes foot-washing and the partaking of unleavened bread and wine as symbolic of Christ’s body and shed blood offered in sacrifice, following His instruction and example (John 13:12-17; Matthew 26:17-30; Luke 22:14-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-31).
The Feast of Unleavened Bread, starting the day after Passover and continuing for seven days, recalls the Israelite Exodus from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea, being freed from captivity and the sinful life there (Exodus 12-14; Leviticus 23:6-8).
This biblical festival teaches us that Jesus Christ leads us to reject lawlessness, repent of sin and live by every word of God (1 Corinthians 5:8; Matthew 4:4). It was during this festival that Jesus was dead and buried for three days and nights and then rose from the dead. We are to be figuratively buried and raised with Him into new life, as pictured by baptism (Romans 6)—imagery also seen in the Red Sea crossing (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
During this festival, leaven—an agent such as yeast that causes bread dough to rise during baking—symbolizes sin and is therefore removed from our homes and not eaten for the seven days (1 Corinthians 5:7-8; Exodus 12:19). By eating unleavened bread during this time instead, we picture partaking of the true Bread of life, Jesus Christ (John 6:35, John 6:48-51), and thereby living a sinless life of sincerity and truth—the risen Christ living in us.
The Feast of Pentecost is a one-day festival that falls in late spring in the northern hemisphere (Leviticus 23:15-22). Also called the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Harvest or Firstfruits, it teaches us that Jesus Christ is now building His Church, comprising those who are a “kind of firstfruits” in the spiritual harvest of mankind, having the “firstfruits of the Spirit” (Exodus 23:16; Acts 2:1-4; Acts 2:37-39; James 1:18; Romans 8:23).
Besides its harvest aspect, Pentecost recalls the time of God’s speaking of the Ten Commandments to Israel at Mount Sinai. This is also when the Holy Spirit, which empowers us to continue in obedience to the law, was given to the New Testament Church in Acts 2.
God’s spiritual firstfruits, true Christians of this age, will be given salvation at the return of Christ. They have been given the Holy Spirit, which creates in each one a new heart and nature to live in wholehearted obedience to the commandments of God. Jesus Himself is the first of the firstfruits, as formerly pictured in a special firstfruits offering during the previous festival (see Leviticus 23:9-14; 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). Pentecost, Greek for “fiftieth,” is the 50th day counting from that initial offering of the wave sheaf during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The Feast of Trumpets, a Holy Day in late summer or early fall in the northern hemisphere, was to memorialize a loud blaring (Leviticus 23:23-25), probably the sound of the ram’s horn when God—in the person of the Being who was later born in the flesh as Jesus Christ—came down onto Mount Sinai in a great display of power and then spoke the commandments (Exodus 19-20).
This festival teaches us that Jesus Christ will return to the earth at the end of this age in power and glory—again preceded by the sound of trumpet blasts. Seven angels with seven trumpets are described in Revelation 8-10 heralding world-shaking events. Christ will return with the blowing of the seventh trumpet (Revelation 11:15)—the last trumpet (1 Corinthians 15:52).
At the last trumpet Christ will again come down to pro-claim God’s law—not just to Israel but to all humanity. At that time He will resurrect God’s faithful servants who are no longer living and instantly change those obedient saints who are still alive into immortal spirit beings (Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52-53; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
The Day of Atonement, a Holy Day following shortly after the previous one, was during the time of Israel’s tabernacle and temple the occasion for a special ceremony involving two goats—one representing Jesus Christ that was sacrificed and the other symbolizing something else, this goat being banished alive into the desert (Leviticus 16; Leviticus 23:26-33).
This points to the time when Jesus Christ at His return will send a mighty angel to bind Satan the devil away for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:1-3). It pictures the removal of the primary cause of sin—Satan and his demons. Until God removes the original instigator of sin, mankind will continue to be led into disobedience and suffering.
This Holy Day also pictures Jesus Christ as our High Priest making atonement before God the Father for the sins of all mankind. This atonement, or “at-one-ment,” allows us to be reconciled (at one) with God and have direct access to Him by spiritually entering into the “holiest of all” (Hebrews 9:8-14; Hebrews 10:19-20). By fasting on this day, Christians draw closer to God and picture the reconciliation to God that all mankind will experience following Christ’s return. Jesus Christ is essential in this process as our High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-15; Hebrews 5:4-5, Hebrews 5:10) and as our one sacrifice for sin forever (Hebrews 9:26-28; Hebrews 10:12).
Jewish tradition places this fast day as the last day of Moses’ second 40-day fast—when he came down with new tablets of the law after having broken the first set in response to Israel’s sin with the golden calf and mediated a renewal of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 34). This may be a parallel with Jesus’ second coming as the Mediator of the New Covenant, with the law to now be written on tablets of the heart of the Israelites and all people—as it is now being written on the hearts of true Christians by the Holy Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 10:15-17).
The Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Ingathering, comes a few days after the previous Holy Day and lasts for seven days (Exodus 23:16; Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:33-44). Besides celebrating the great harvest at the end of the agricultural year, this festival was also originally intended to commemorate the Israelites dwelling in temporary structures of branches when they left Egypt (Leviticus 23:40-43).
This feast teaches us that when Jesus Christ returns, He will begin the ingathering or harvest of the part of mankind still alive at His return, and establish a new society with Himself as King of Kings and Lord of Lords under God the Father.
Jesus, assisted by the resurrected saints, will set up His government on the earth for 1,000 years, a period often called the Millennium (Revelation 19:11-16; Revelation 20:4; Leviticus 23:39-43; Matthew 17:1-4; Hebrews 11:8-9). Rule under His laws will spread from Jerusalem throughout the world to usher in an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity (Isaiah 2:2-4; Daniel 2:35; Daniel 2:44; Daniel 7:13-14). This was part of the good news of the Kingdom of God that Jesus and His disciples proclaimed—including how we may enter and be part of that great Kingdom.
The Feast of Tabernacles is observed today through regional gatherings throughout the world. Church members are to live in temporary dwellings during that time. While this reminds us that life today is fleeting, it also symbolizes the Millennium, when earthly dwelling will still be temporary, albeit the grandest ever—awaiting the permanence of the new heavens and new earth still to come (Revelation 21-22). As we saw at the outset, Scripture explicitly states that all nations will be required to observe this festival (Zechariah 14:16-19).
The Eighth Day, the Holy Day immediately following the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:36-39), continues with many of the themes of the Feast of Tabernacles but is an independent feast.
This day teaches us that Jesus Christ will complete His harvest of human beings by raising from the dead, and offering salvation to, all who have died in the past and have never been given a full opportunity to be saved (Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 11:25-27; Luke 11:31-32; Revelation 20:11-13). In the last reference here, Jesus is the One pictured sitting on the great white throne in judgment—for the Father has committed all judgment to the Son (John 5:22-23; John 5:27).
Thus, the annual cycle of the celebration of the festivals and Holy Days of the Bible reminds Christ’s disciples that He is working out God’s plan of offering salvation from sin and death and the gift of eternal life in the family of God to all humanity—past, present and future.
Why do the major branches of traditional Christianity reject these observances that focus on the saving work of Christ? Because they are steeped in false tradition and misunderstanding. This includes those of the Protestant faith who proclaim Scripture alone and Christ alone. For by these principles they should not be observing holidays derived from paganism, but the only festivals actually commanded in Scripture—festivals kept by the apostles and early Church that present, step by step, God’s great plan of salvation through Jesus Christ!