As we approach the season to be jolly, millions of people around the world prepare to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ. For many of them, Christmas time is the most enjoyable season of the year, and they eagerly look forward to it. Many sincerely honor Jesus Christ during the season and praise Him and God the Father for Their role in making possible our salvation.
However, as almost any encyclopedia will confirm, the symbols and customs commonly associated with Christmas-evergreen trees, holly, mistletoe, Yule logs, candles and the exchanging of gifts-came down to us, not from Christianity, but from pre-Christian practices the pagans used in worshiping their deities. Even the date on which Christmas is commonly celebrated, December 25, is demonstrably not the date, or even the time of year, of Christ's birth. Indeed, ancient pagan peoples chose the date because of its association with the worship of their gods.
Another popular day of worship, Easter, is considered one of the most holy in all Christendom, with many celebrating that day as the commemoration of Christ's resurrection. However, as with Christmas, Easter is nowhere sanctioned in the Bible as a proper custom for Christians. The practices associated with Easter likewise can easily be proven to be pagan in their origins.
But does the pagan origin of a holiday make any difference to God?
Many people believe that the origins of such customs do not matter to God and that He allows mankind to determine its own ways and days of worshipping Him. They assume that God will accept any form of religious practice so long as the worshipers mean it to honor Him.
What does the Bible say about this assumption?
Instructive for us in this study are two lessons from the Bible, both having to do with ancient Israel. As we look at these lessons, let's bear in mind the apostle Paul's words: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 2 Timothy 3:16-17 16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works.
American King James Version×). Paul said events recorded in the Bible “were written for our learning” (Romans 15:4 Romans 15:4For whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
American King James Version×).
Let us notice carefully what happened in two situations and, most important, what God thinks of people deciding on their own how to worship Him.
Israel and the tragedy of the golden calf
Early in the history of Holy Day observance, ancient Israel learned an important lesson from trying to establish its own ways of worship. Shortly after God delivered the Israelites from Egypt and instructed them concerning the Holy Days of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, He began to reveal to them more about His laws. As part of doing so, God told Moses to climb Mount Sinai, where He would speak directly to him.
When Moses' stay on Mount Sinai grew longer than the Israelites had expected, they began to look to Moses' brother, Aaron, as their leader (Exodus 32:1 Exodus 32:1And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.
American King James Version×).
After having lived in Egypt all their lives, the Israelites were used to Egyptian forms of worship. Tragically, under Aaron's lax leadership, they reverted to familiar pagan practices. They decided to worship God in accordance with common, traditional practices of their day. At Aaron's suggestion, they donated their golden earrings as the raw material to make a golden calf, similar to idols the Egyptians worshipped (verses 2-4).
Verses 4-5 record Moses' brother telling the other Israelites, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Aaron built an altar, then proclaimed to the people, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.”
Aaron didn't just induce the Israelites to practice idolatry; he took it upon himself to set a day of worship. He assumed that he could establish “a feast to the Lord.” The people took the matter a step further. Verse 6 says they “rose up to play,” a phrase that refers to sexual immorality. In explaining this verse, The New Bible Commentary: Revised says it refers to an “orgiastic dance, which characterized pagan religions” (p. 137).
The incident of the golden calf embroiled diverse cultural practices; godly elements such as burnt offerings and sacrifices were mixed with pagan customs of idolatry and sexual immorality. An ungodly agglomeration is evident today when people combine paganism with the teachings of the Bible.
God's View of religious experimentation
Israel's experiment with a questionable, self-made, ostensibly holy day abruptly turned tragic. God told Moses to descend the mountain immediately because the people “have corrupted themselves” (Exodus 32:7 Exodus 32:7And the LORD said to Moses, Go, get you down; for your people, which you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves:
American King James Version×). God's anger flared, and He was ready to destroy the people because of what they had done (verse 10). Only Moses' pleadings on behalf of Israel persuaded God to relent (verses 11-14).
To bring home the gravity of their mistake, Moses ground the golden calf into powder, added it to their water supply and ordered them to drink it (verse 20). As they imbibed the polluted fluid, it became in their mouths a bitter reminder of their disobedience to God.
Equally insightful is Moses' fervid question of Aaron after these unholy events: “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” (verse 21). Moses recognized the violation as a great sin. Indeed, the incident cost 3,000 men their lives (verse 26-28). Moses sought God's forgiveness from the Israelites' “great sin” (verses 30-31).
Subsequent scriptures summarize the enormity of the situation. Besides the men who died, God punished the congregation as a whole for its actions (verse 35). Because of the golden-calf incident, God said He could no longer stay in the midst of the people, and they rightfully mourned the change in their relationship with their Creator (Exodus 33:3-4 Exodus 33:3-4 3 To a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the middle of you; for you are a stiff necked people: lest I consume you in the way.
4 And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on him his ornaments.
American King James Version×). God then warned them again to avoid the pagan practices of other peoples and to observe His Holy Days (Exodus 34:12-18 Exodus 34:12-18 12 Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you go, lest it be for a snare in the middle of you: 13 But you shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: 14 For you shall worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: 15 Lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice to their gods, and one call you, and you eat of his sacrifice; 16 And you take of their daughters to your sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make your sons go a whoring after their gods. 17 You shall make you no molten gods. 18 The feast of unleavened bread shall you keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt.
American King James Version×, 21-22).
Notably, the importance of keeping God's Holy Days is specifically mentioned in Exodus 31 and again in chapter 34-both before and after Israel's experiment with the golden calf of chapter 32. In Moses' absence, Israel learned a bitter lesson from attempting to establish its own days and customs of worship.
Sadly, the people of Israel forgot the lesson they had learned. Years later, when Israel divided into the separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Jeroboam, the first king of the kingdom of Israel, made the same tragic mistake.
In 925 B.C., shortly after King Solomon's death, the 12 tribes of Israel divided into two nations. Ten of the tribes rebelled against Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, who had assumed the throne. So these tribes, which then established the northern kingdom of Israel, came under the rule of Jeroboam. Rehoboam continued to reign over two tribes, which became known as Judah, or the southern kingdom.
Even though God had promised Jeroboam He would allot him 10 tribes (1 Kings 11:31 1 Kings 11:31And he said to Jeroboam, Take you ten pieces: for thus said the LORD, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to you:
American King James Version×), the northern king was afraid he would lose his kingdom if the people visited Jerusalem (in the south) to worship according to divine instructions (1 Kings 12:27 1 Kings 12:27If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah.
American King James Version×). Under these circumstances, Jeroboam made two fateful decisions: He created two golden calves for his subjects to worship (verse 28), and he “ordained a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the feast that was in Judah” (verse 32). This festival was a counterfeit of the Feast of Tabernacles, which begins on the 15th day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:34 Leviticus 23:34Speak to the children of Israel, saying, The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the feast of tabernacles for seven days to the LORD.
American King James Version×), exactly one month earlier than Jeroboam's bogus feast.
“So he made offerings on the altar which he had made at Bethel on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in the month which he had devised in his own heart. And he ordained a feast for the children of Israel, and offered sacrifices on the altar and burned incense” (1 Kings 12:33 1 Kings 12:33So he offered on the altar which he had made in Bethel the fifteenth day of the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and ordained a feast to the children of Israel: and he offered on the altar, and burnt incense.
American King James Version×). This verse clearly shows us that Jeroboam had no authority from God to alter the Holy Days; he did this entirely on his own.
“After this event Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but again he made priests from every class of people for the high places; whoever wished, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places. And this thing was the sin of the house of Jeroboam, so as to exterminate and destroy it from the face of the earth” (1 Kings 13:33-34 1 Kings 13:33-34 33 After this thing Jeroboam returned not from his evil way, but made again of the lowest of the people priests of the high places: whoever would, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places.
34 And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, even to cut it off, and to destroy it from off the face of the earth.
American King James Version×).
God's judgment on Jeroboam
We just read that Jeroboam continued “his evil way.” He did not learn the lesson of the golden calf from Israel's history. He repeated the same sins of idolatry and attempting to establish his own days of worship. Because of his actions, God told him, through the prophet Ahijah, that disaster would befall his household: God said He would “cut off from Jeroboam every male in Israel, bond and free; I will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as one takes away refuse until it is all gone. The dogs shall eat whoever belongs to Jeroboam and dies in the city, and the birds of the air shall eat whoever dies in the field; for the Lord has spoken!” (1 Kings 14:10-11 1 Kings 14:10-11 10 Therefore, behold, I will bring evil on the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that urinates against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man takes away dung, till it be all gone.
11 Him that dies of Jeroboam in the city shall the dogs eat; and him that dies in the field shall the fowls of the air eat: for the LORD has spoken it.
American King James Version×).
Why did God pronounce a death sentence on Jeroboam and his descendants? He reminded Jeroboam that “you have done more evil than all who were before you, for you have gone and made for yourself other gods and molded images to provoke Me to anger, and have cast Me behind your back” (verse 9).
God did not hold the people blameless for following Jeroboam's counterfeit religion. God also pronounced punishment on Israel as a people: “For the Lord will strike Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water. He will uproot Israel from this good land which He gave to their fathers, and will scatter them beyond the River, because they have made their wooden images, provoking the Lord to anger. And He will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, who sinned and who made Israel sin” (verses 15-16). God later carried out this punishment, allowing soldiers of the Assyrian army to take Israel captive beyond the Euphrates River.
Such were the tragic consequences of two attempts by people to establish their own days of worship.
Don't interfere with God's instructions
What does God say about appropriating elements of other religions to worship Him? His instructions are clear. After wandering with the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, Moses, just before his death, reminded them of God's warning not to worship Him as other nations worshipped their gods.
“When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land,” Moses advised, “take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.' You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:29-32 Deuteronomy 12:29-32 29 When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwell in their land;
30 Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.
31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.
32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×).
This passage specifically informed the Israelites that they were not to adopt the pagan ways of worship practiced by the nations around them. God also said to follow His instructions exactly; they were not to add anything to or take anything away from His instructions.
Has God changed?
Ask yourself: Has God changed His mind on these matters? Is it permissible nowadays to substitute pagan, nonbiblical celebrations and traditions for the Holy Days He commanded in the Bible? Do we have the right to select any days or practices we wish to use in worshipping God and expect to impress Him with our worship?
Hundreds of years after the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness, God warned any who would ignore His commands: “I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6 Malachi 3:6For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed.
American King James Version×). Then, after the beginning of the New Testament Church, we find the writer of the letter to the Hebrews emphasizing that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 Hebrews 13:8Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.
American King James Version×).
At the end of the book of Revelation, we find similar instructions not to add anything to or to take anything away from God's words (Revelation 22:18-19 Revelation 22:18-19 18 For I testify to every man that hears the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add to these things, God shall add to him the plagues that are written in this book:
19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
American King James Version×). The Bible is clear, and God's instructions are consistent. He does not permit humans to replace His Holy Days with days of their own devising. GN