Since the Word of God doesn't sanction the celebration of either Christmas or Easter and condemns the pagan embellishments associated with these humanly devised holidays, how should Christians worship God? Do annual celebrations exist that Christians should observe?
God has given us seven annual festivals, or feasts, on which to worship and honor Him. By observing them according to His Word, we can understand His ultimate plan for humanity. Let us now take note of the days God instructs us to formally worship Him on. His festivals are far more significant than this world's holidays because they reveal His plan for humanity.
The first commanded day of worship
Leviticus 23 lists all of God's commanded festivals in order. The first one is to be observed every week—the weekly Sabbath day (Leviticus 23:3).
In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we find that God created man on the sixth day of the creation week (Genesis 1:24-31). "And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made" (Genesis 2:2-3).
The Hebrew word for "rested" is shabath and is related to the word Sabbath. Literally, God sabbathed, or rested; He ceased from the work of creating (Exodus 20:8-11).
In resting, God also blessed and sanctified the seventh day as a gift for mankind (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 16:29). To sanctify something means to set it apart as holy. Since God made the Sabbath holy (Exodus 16:23; Exodus 20:11; Nehemiah 9:14), He instructed those who follow Him to remember to keep it holy by resting on it as well (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Keeping the Sabbath, then, reminds us that God is our Creator.
Besides making the Sabbath for rest, God also revealed that the Sabbath is a day of worship. In Leviticus 23 He told Moses: "Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: 'The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings'" (Leviticus 23:1-3). Holy convocations are sacred assemblies for worship.
When Jesus Christ came to live as a human being on earth, He did not come to abolish or weaken God's commands (Matthew 5:17). He came to "exalt the law and make it honorable" (Isaiah 42:21). Jesus kept the Sabbath (Mark 1:21; Mark 6:2; Luke 4:16; Luke 6:6), as did His apostles and other members of the early Church (Acts 13:14; Acts 17:2). Gentile believers met with them on the Sabbath (Acts 13:42-44; Acts 18:4).
This blessing from God, enshrined in one of the Ten Commandments, did not change. The seventh day of the week—observed from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset—has continued as God's commanded holy day for rest and worship. Even though misguided people later initiated a change to worshipping on Sunday, God's command was never rescinded, nor was there biblical authorization for a change to the first day of the week.
This is only the briefest explanation of God's Fourth Commandment. If you would like to discover much more about the biblical Sabbath, please download or request your free copy of our booklet Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest.
Besides the weekly Sabbath, God gave His people yearly festivals that correspond with the harvest seasons of Israel. These were also "holy convocations" to be observed at their appropriate times (Leviticus 23:4) and represent God's master plan of salvation for humankind.
Passover (Leviticus 23:5), which falls in early spring in the Holy Land, is a reminder of how God took the lives of all the firstborn Egyptian males (Exodus 12:7, Exodus 12:26-29) but passed over the Israelites' homes because they had placed the blood of a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts.
The blood of the lamb foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which spares mankind from eternal death. In the New Testament, Christians came to understand that Christ is the true Passover Lamb (compare Exodus 12:21 with 1 Corinthians 5:7). In observing His last Passover with His disciples, Jesus explained that the symbols of bread and wine represent His body and blood, offered by Him for the forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24).
The death of Christ then actually took place during the daylight hours that followed—which was still the same date according to Hebrew sunset-to-sunset reckoning. So He was sacrificed on Passover.
Our observance of this annual occasion marking Jesus' death (1 Corinthians 11:26) reminds us that eternal life is possible only through Him (John 6:47-54; Acts 4:10-12). His sacrifice is the starting point for salvation and the foundation of the annual feast days that follow.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread
In conjunction with the Passover, God instituted the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, which immediately follows (Leviticus 23:6-8). Historically it commemorates the ancient Israelites fleeing Egypt in such haste that they didn't have time to let their bread rise (Exodus 12:33-34). This feast came in Israel at the beginning of the early spring barley harvest.
God commanded the Israelites to keep this festival by removing leaven (yeast) out of their homes for seven days. The first and last days of this week-long festival were specifically set apart as holy convocations—annual Sabbaths—days devoted to rest and assembly for worship.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus identified leaven as a symbol of sin (Matthew 16:6-12; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1). Thereafter members of the early Church continued to observe this festival by putting leaven out of their homes for the week as a symbol of the clean minds and attitudes God desires of His people (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). After accepting Christ's sacrifice for our sins, we must follow His example in practicing righteousness.
It was during this festival that Jesus was raised from the dead—a vital factor for us to be led out of sin and on to God's Kingdom.
The Feast of Pentecost
The third annual festival is the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost (Leviticus 23:16-21; Acts 2:1). This festival, also called the Feast of Harvest or Firstfruits (Exodus 23:16; Exodus 34:22), corresponding with the start of the late spring wheat harvest in Israel, was the day God miraculously granted His Spirit to the New Testament Church (Acts 2).
Pentecost continues to remind us that God is the Lord of His harvest, choosing and preparing the firstfruits of His coming Kingdom by granting them His Spirit (Matthew 9:38; Luke 10:2; Romans 8:23; James 1:18). God's Spirit empowers us with the love of God, the motivation to obey Him, and a sound mind to discern His truth (2 Timothy 1:7; John 15:26; John 16:13). Only those led by God's Spirit are called the sons of God (Romans 8:9-14).
The Feast of Trumpets
The next feast day, in late summer or early fall in Israel, is the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24-25). Ancient Israel understood that trumpets were used as a way of announcing special messages (Numbers 10:1-10).
The New Testament reveals a great event to be announced with the sounding of a trumpet—the return of Jesus Christ to the earth (Revelation 8:2, Revelation 11:15). This day also pictures the time when faithful Christians who have died will be resurrected to life (1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16) to reign with Christ for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:4-6).
Interestingly, it was around this time of year that Jesus was born—not in the dead of winter (see "Biblical Evidence Shows Jesus Wasn't Born on December 25"). And the fall feast season represents the time when Christ will come to the earth again to reign in glory.
The remaining fall feast days describe steps in the establishment of the prophesied Kingdom of God on earth and judgment of humanity after Christ's return.
The Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement is the next holy convocation (Leviticus 23:26-32). Observed by fasting (Leviticus 23:27; compare Isaiah 58:3), refraining from eating or drinking (Esther 4:16), this day represents humanity's need to be reconciled to God through the forgiveness of sin.
At the return of Christ, Satan the devil, who now leads mankind astray (Ephesians 2:2; Revelation 12:9), will be bound (Revelation 20:1-3) so the nations can be reconciled to the Father through Christ. Luke referred to this observance as "the fast" in Acts 27:9.
The Feast of Tabernacles
The next festival period lasts for eight days (Leviticus 23:33-39) and pictures the final steps in God's master plan to bring all of humanity into His eternal family. It includes the last two of God's annual festivals and marks the celebration of the completion of a full year of harvests. The two festivals symbolize the last two great spiritual harvests of human beings under the reign of Jesus Christ.
The first seven days, the Feast of Tabernacles, also known as the Feast of Ingathering to mark this great harvest period (Exodus 23:16), pictures the 1,000-year rule of Jesus Christ immediately following His return to the earth (see Revelation 20:4-6) known as the Millennium.
Isaiah describes this future period as a time of peace when God's law will go forth to all nations from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2-4). The fierce nature of some animals will change (Isaiah 11:6; Isaiah 65:25), the earth will become highly productive (Isaiah 35:1), and, most important, "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). With Satan's evil influence removed, all of humanity will at last learn God's ways.
This perfect environment will be designed to offer all people the opportunity to repent of their sins and come to God the Father through Jesus Christ. The Bible shows that Jesus attended this important festival (John 7:2-14).
The Eighth Day
The final step in God's plan of salvation for all mankind is represented in a feast day at the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:39). Referred to in Scripture simply as “the eighth day” and now sometimes as the Last Great Day, this festival pictures the great judgment of humankind described in Revelation 20:11-13. During this time all people who have died not knowing God's plan for them will be resurrected to life to be given an opportunity to respond to God's call. Thus it represents the completion of the spiritual harvest of mankind.
Our Creator wants "all men to be saved" (1 Timothy 2:4) and is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Through His wonderful plan everyone will have an opportunity to know His truth, repent and receive salvation.
The Church of the first century followed Jesus' example of observing these days. Peter and John urged the brethren to walk in Jesus' steps (1 Peter 2:21), to "walk just as He walked" (1 John 2:6). They followed Christ's command to teach converts to "observe all things that I [Jesus] have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Obedience or idolatry?
Observances rooted in paganism break the first two of the Ten Commandments. Is God pleased when people claim to worship Him by adopting celebrations of pagan gods and goddesses in man-made holidays while they ignore His commanded days and ways of worship?
Celebrating the birthday of the sun god or adopting fertility rites to other gods and goddesses violates God's clear instruction: "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3).
Inventing religious feasts to replace those given by God contradicts His teaching: "You shall not make for yourself an idol ... You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God ..." (Exodus 20:4-5, New International Version). Substituting pagan customs and practices for what God has commanded—regardless of how well intentioned it might be—is idolatry.
Why would anyone choose to reject God's instructions and His marvelous feast days, especially since He gave them to us to reveal our ultimate destiny? To discover more about these magnificent festivals and how to observe them, be sure to request your free copy of our booklet God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind. You will find further proof that Jesus and the apostles observed these days and will learn much more about their significance in helping us understand God's master plan for all of humanity.
Following the instruction and example of Jesus Christ, the apostles and the early New Testament Church, members of the United Church of God continue to observe these annual days. We welcome all who wish to join us in worshipping our Creator on these great festivals of hope. We invite you to contact our nearest office to locate a congregation near you.