When God begins something in this present age of mankind, He nearly always starts small. In Matthew 13:33 Jesus Christ compared God's Kingdom to both a mustard seed and leaven. Both analogies start with something small that expands into something much larger. Similarly, in Old Testament times God called only a relatively few people who were willing to follow His ways.
The biblical record shows that in early human history only a small number of people decided to obey God. A faithful few such as Abel, Enoch and Noah responded to the revelation of God's plan of salvation (Matthew 23:35). After the great Flood of Noah's time, God called and worked with Abraham and his wife Sarah. Of God's obedient people of those times, Hebrews 11:13 says they "all died in faith" with the sure knowledge that they would gain eternal life (Hebrews 11:40).
We should note that the plan for providing eternal life was already at work in the lives of these early people of God. The plan did not start with a covenant God made with ancient Israel; nor did it start with Jesus' earthly ministry.
God loved the world so much "that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). God's love in giving His Son continued His plan of salvation in effect from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34; 1 Peter 1:20). The blueprint of the Holy Days would reveal in due time the plan God had designed from the very beginning. These festival observances were not just a cosmic afterthought.
With Abraham's family we see God beginning to reveal the good news about His plan of salvation (Galatians 3:8). Genesis 26:3-4 identifies specific blessings God promised to Abraham and his descendants. The Creator pledged to bestow these blessings "because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Genesis 26:5). Abraham's faith and obedience is why the Bible calls him "the friend of God" and "the father of all those who believe" (James 2:23; Romans 4:11; Genesis 18:17-19).
A nation singled out
Abraham's descendants would grow into a mighty nation (Genesis 18:18). The promised line of blessed descendants would come through and be named after his grandson Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel (Genesis 32:28). After settling in Egypt they eventually became slaves (Exodus 1). The story of God's deliverance of ancient Israel from their bondage and His deliverance of people today is part of the intricately woven fabric of His festivals.
In due time the Creator set in motion a series of events involving festival observances that, illustrating His great plan, led to the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt. When Moses and his brother Aaron appeared before Pharaoh, they told the Egyptian ruler that the God of Israel commanded, "Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness" (Exodus 5:1).
Moses and Aaron had earlier called for the elders of Israel to assemble and had explained to them God's plan to deliver them (Exodus 3:16-18). God then performed miracles through these two men in the sight of the people (Exodus 4:29-30). As a result, the Israelites (although they later faltered) believed God would deliver them and fulfill His covenant with Abraham, as He had promised (Exodus 4:31; Exodus 6:4-8).
What followed was the first Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread for the Israelites who had been enslaved. Much later the New Testament Church kept these same days as a reminder of Christians' deliverance through Jesus Christ. For instance, Paul told members of the Church at Corinth—both Jews and gentiles (non-Israelites)—that they should put out leaven, symbolic of sin, because "Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5:7). In the next verse Paul said to this mixed group of Jews and gentiles, "Therefore let us keep the feast," referring to the same festival God had instituted in ancient Israel many centuries before.
The festivals in the New Testament
From His earliest childhood years, Jesus observed the feast days with His parents. "His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover," Luke 2:41 tells us. The following verses describe Jesus, at age 12, engaging the theologians of His day in a spirited discussion during this festival season (Luke 2:42-48). Clearly, He astonished these religious leaders with His understanding and insight. John writes of Jesus continuing to observe God's annual feasts as an adult during His ministry (John 2:23; John 4:45).
In one of the most instructive examples, we find that Jesus risked His personal safety to attend the annual Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1-2, John 7:7-10, John 7:14). We're told that "on the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, [which] those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (John 7:37-39).
Many churches believe that the apostle Paul later fundamentally changed the way Christians are to worship. This notion assumes he taught gentiles that observance of the festivals and Holy Days was unnecessary. Although some of his writings were difficult to understand, even by his contemporaries (2 Peter 3:15-16), Paul's explicit statements and actions contradict any notion that he annulled or abolished observance of these Holy Days.
In 1 Corinthians 11:1-2, for example, Paul told his followers, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ," and, "Keep the traditions as I delivered them to you." A few verses later he explained, "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me'" (1 Corinthians 11:23-24).
If Paul's practice had not been to observe the feast days God had instituted, his comments to the Jews and gentiles in Corinth would have been meaningless. Clearly, evidence is lacking that Paul ever discouraged anyone from keeping the annual festivals. Such a notion would have been unthinkable for him (see Acts 24:12-14; Acts 25:7-8; Acts 28:17).
On the contrary, the biblical record of Paul's ministry repeatedly depicts the Holy Days as important observances and milestones in his life. For example, he told the Christians in Ephesus, "I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem" (Acts 18:21). In Acts 20:16 and 1 Corinthians 16:8 we find Paul arranging his travel schedule to accommodate the Feast of Pentecost. In Acts 27:9 Luke, Paul's companion in his travels, referred to a particular time of year as being after "the Fast," a reference to the Day of Atonement (on which, as we will discuss later, one was to fast).
The Expositor's Bible Commentary, in a reference to Acts 20:6, notes that Paul, unable to arrive at Jerusalem for the Passover, "remained at Philippi to celebrate it and the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread" (Richard Longenecker, 1981, Vol. 9, p. 507). Regarding Acts 20:16, the same commentary notes that Paul "wanted, if at all possible, to get to Jerusalem for Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Passover" (p. 510).
Paul's ministry included observing the Holy Days with the Church. In defending the gospel he preached, Paul said he brought the same message the other apostles taught: "Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed" (1 Corinthians 15:11).
Paul and all the apostles taught a consistent message of the Christian's obligation to follow the example of Jesus Christ in all matters. The apostle John, who wrote near the close of the first century, summed up this message: "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked" (1 John 2:6).
Jewish Christians continued to uphold the Holy Days, as did gentile believers (see "Colossians 2:16 Shows Gentile Christians Observed the Biblical Holy Days"). From these references (as well as many others), we can conclude only that the practice of the early Church was to continue the observance of the annual festivals God gave, the first of which is the Passover.