Some of our readers may be surprised to learn that the United Church of God, an International Association, observes the same religious festivals that Jesus observed. Why would we follow His example in the matter of which days we keep?
One obvious reason is that Jesus Christ was the perfect model of how a Christian should live. Equally important is our conviction that religious practices should be founded directly on what the Bible approves. The only religious festivals commanded or approved in the Bible are the ones Jesus kept. But are these the only reasons, or is there more to this story?
Jesus Christ observed the festivals God gave to ancient Israel. Christians, of course, are expected to follow His example, to "walk just as He walked" (1 John 2:6). One reason Christ observed the festivals is that they are relevant to His message, the gospel of the Kingdom of God. By observing them we can learn much about God's plan to grant eternal life to those who become His sons and daughters through Jesus Christ. This is what gives these festivals their Christian importance and significance.
At one of these festivals a city newspaper reporter once asked me, "Why does your church observe the Feast of Tabernacles, a Jewish festival?"
I had the opportunity to explain that the occasion is not a festival for Jews alone, but for all humanity. This is one of God's own festivals for the benefit of the human race. She later wrote an article complimenting the church for bringing a truly family-oriented convention to her city.
The Feast of Tabernacles, observed annually in September and/or October, is indeed a family festival. It has a distinct atmosphere, presenting abundant opportunities for close cooperation and communication among family members. It reflects what God is doing to create a family for Himself, His own children. He says to those called to be Christians: "I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty" (2 Corinthians 6:18, emphasis added throughout). God seeks a family relationship and calls on us to become a part of that family!
The harvest of the children of God
The festivals of the Bible are closely linked to the harvest seasons of the Holy Land, where Jesus Christ spent His human life. Jesus often compared what God was doing through Him to a harvest. For example, Christ said, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. Do you not say, 'There are still four months and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white [ripe] for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together'" (John 4:34-36).
Here Jesus links the idea of a harvest to His work of bringing humanity into a relationship with God that leads to eternal life. The festivals are not just memorials of what happened to ancient Israel, nor are they meaningless ritual. They were given to reveal major aspects of Jesus' role in securing the redemption and salvation of all humanity. They are all about the work of Jesus Christ. That is why we keep them.
God's marvelous master plan
Few realize that God has a master plan He carefully follows. His actions are not random or capricious. He formulated that plan before He created the heavens and earth. He began revealing important aspects of it with our first human parents, Adam and Eve. Let's examine what the Bible says about that fascinating plan and how the festivals that Jesus observed reveal the order in which God's magnificent blueprint for mankind will be accomplished.
When did God conceive His plan for creating mankind and offering us eternal life? Paul tells us that he became "a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God's elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness-a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time" (Titus 1:1-2, New International Version).
Time, of course, is measured by the movement of the earth and the other heavenly bodies in space. Paul is telling us that before God created the universe He envisioned human beings and a way for them to receive eternal life. The salvation of mankind is not a new idea with God.
Later, when God evicted Adam and Eve from the garden paradise of Eden, after they had succumbed to the serpent's influence and sinned, He told the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel" (Genesis 3:15).
In Adam's and Eve's presence, God revealed to Satan, "that serpent of old" (Revelation 12:9), that the time would come when a descendant of the very woman he had just deceived would crush his deceptive leadership over mankind. But first he would be allowed to strike (by crucifixion) a temporarily disabling blow to the promised Messiah.
God had a clear picture of the future. His plan included the death and resurrection of the Son of God, who was also to be the Son of Man-with God as His Father and the woman, Mary, His mother.
Is it any wonder that God began revealing more details of His plan to Moses at the time He selected ancient Israel as His special people? That was why God commanded the observance of His festivals with their dual meanings. Some of them represent truly historic events that occurred at the founding of ancient Israel as a nation. But they all represent the much more important relationship of all human beings to the mission of the Messiah (Colossians 2:16-17). That has always been their primary focus.
Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread
For example, the killing of the Passover lambs was the first event in the spring festival season. It represented an important occurrence in Israel's exodus from Egypt. But it also represents the death of a much later "Lamb of God" (John 1:29; John 1:36). The apostle Paul makes this plain by telling us that "Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5:7). The purpose of the Passover from the beginning was to represent the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
That supreme sacrifice is the foundation of the Christian faith. It reflects the all-encompassing love God has for His creation and His great concern for the ultimate well-being of every human being (John 3:16). On the last evening before He was crucified, Christ told His disciples, "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15-16). When Jesus returns to establish His Kingdom in its fullness on the earth, He will again participate in the Passover ceremony with His disciples, those who faithfully follow His teachings and example.
The children of Israel were delivered from their Egyptian oppressors during the festival that follows the Passover ceremony. The Feast of Unleavened Bread celebrates that deliverance. In the New Testament, Israel's rescue from Pharaoh's armies at the Red Sea is compared to a Christian's deliverance from eternal death, because of sin, through the sacrifice of Christ at baptism. "Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers [ancient Israel] were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).
The Feast of Pentecost
According to Jewish tradition, the Israelites received the Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone at the time of Pentecost. It was then that God made a covenant with them. A special relationship between God and the community of the Israelites was sealed, and they became the "congregation of God" of that time. But that relationship served as a type, or a forerunner, of a far more important relationship that would be established on a later Day of Pentecost.
Luke, author of the book of Acts, writes: "And being assembled together with them, [Jesus] commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, 'which,' He said, 'you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now'" (Acts 1:4-5).
Here is what happened: "When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit . . ." (Acts 2:1-4).
This was the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecies of Jeremiah 31:31-33 and Ezekiel 36:26-27. God promised to make a new covenant with the community of faithful believers. He promised to write His laws on their hearts and minds with His Holy Spirit, instead of on tablets of stone, as in the time of Moses. It was on this Feast of Pentecost that the Church of God-the Christian community of faithful believers imbued with God's Spirit-was born.
Next we come to the festivals Jesus kept later in the year, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles. These festivals represent earth-shaking events that will forever change the course of human history and show what the Messiah is yet to accomplish in harvesting the sons and daughters of God.
The Feast of Trumpets
The Feast of Trumpets, or Rosh Hashanah, begins the new Jewish civil year. But it is also the first day of the seventh month of the sacred calendar. It pictures the beginning of a new era, the end of the age of Satan's influence and the beginning of the age of the Messiah. God instructed Moses that "in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation" (Leviticus 23:24).
Why remember the blowing of trumpets? What relationship do trumpets have to God's master plan and the mission of the Messiah?
The Bible reveals the significance of trumpets: The blowing of trumpets will announce the return of Jesus Christ!
"Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24:30-31).
Paul clarifies even more what will happen at the conclusion of the blowing of trumpets that will announce Christ's return: "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed-in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory'" (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).
Few events-pictured here by the Feast of Trumpets-could be more significant to Christians than those that occur at the blowing of the trumpets at Christ's return. That is when Christians, living or dead, receive immortality and eternal life.
The Day of Atonement
On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) a special sacrifice was made in ancient Israel to reconcile the Israelites to God, to figuratively cleanse them of their sins. "This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls [by fasting], and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord" (Leviticus 16:29-30).
This was done to make sure that even sins committed in ignorance were figuratively cleansed through an atoning sacrifice. Some 1,500 years later the book of Hebrews further explained the significance of God's instructions regarding events that took place on that day: "But into the second part [of the tabernacle] the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing" (Hebrews 9:7-8).
Why was the "Holiest of All," that inner room of the tabernacle that symbolized direct access to God, not opened to the entire congregation "while the first tabernacle was still standing"? It was because the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ had not yet been made. Only His sacrifice, not the sacrifice of animals, could atone for the sins of the whole nation-and of all mankind.
The apostle John wrote: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:1-2, New Revised Standard Version).
God knows that people sin for two basic reasons. First, "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:4, NRSV). That is, most are unaware of their sin. Second, they are "darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart" (Ephesians 4:17-18, NRSV).
Immediately after Christ's return, Satan's influence over mankind will be suspended for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:1-2). This will fulfill what God earlier predicted to Satan in the presence of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15). With Satan banished and his deceptive, destructive influence removed, Christ will begin dispelling the ignorance of mankind and removing its spiritual blindness (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). At that time "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14).
Christ's atoning sacrifice will then be made available to all people on earth. God's intent, as expressed in John 3:17, will be accomplished: "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved."
The Day of Atonement was instituted to remind us that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not only for individual Christians in this present age but, after He returns, for cleansing all of mankind of all sins. That atonement paves the way for Him to gather all peoples into His Kingdom during the 1,000 years when Satan is restrained from confusing and misleading them (Revelation 20:2-3). The Day of Atonement thus has a clear Christian theme.
The Feast of Tabernacles
Then we come to the Feast of Tabernacles. The first time this festival is mentioned in the Bible it is called the Feast of Ingathering (Exodus 23:16). It was the great autumn harvest festival that people from all corners of the nation came together to observe. All during the harvest season they set aside animals and produce especially for this week of rejoicing. Everyone enjoyed an abundance of food, drink and fellowship. It was also a commemoration of the peace and safety God had promised if they would diligently obey Him. Notice the instructions they were given:
"But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you dwell in safety, then there will be the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide. There you shall bring all that I command you . . . And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates . . ." (Deuteronomy 12:10-12).
This festival is a celebration of God's guidance, protection and blessings for His people. Jesus Christ will give those same blessings even more abundantly to the whole world when He returns and establishes His reign on earth. What ancient Israel was able to enjoy for one week at the end of the fall harvest merely represented what Jesus Christ will bring to all mankind when He assumes the role of King of kings and Lord of lords.
The joyful Feast of Ingathering represents the time during which God will gather the great harvest of humanity into His family. It will be the time "all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob'" (Romans 11:26). But this prophecy applies not only to Israel. All people will turn to God.
The prophet Daniel makes this clear: "I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days . . . Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:13-14).
One final feast
Just as Jesus Christ's 1,000-year reign on earth (Revelation 20:4) is followed by another time characterized by amazing events, so is the Feast of Tabernacles followed by another festival depicting those events (Leviticus 23:34-36). Revelation 20:11-13 describes a time during which all people who have ever died without hearing of Jesus Christ or learning God's way of life will be resurrected and given their opportunity to receive eternal life.
The dead of all the ages-people like the queen of Sheba, inhabitants of ancient Nineveh and the people of Christ's time-will be resurrected together (Matthew 12:41-42). That resurrection of multiple millions of people back to physical, perishable life is detailed in Ezekiel 37:1-14. These are "the rest of the dead" spoken of in Revelation 20:5.
God's plan as depicted in these festivals is all-encompassing. Through this wondrous design, all people will enjoy the opportunity to learn God's truth and come to repentance, because God "desires all men to be saved" and is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). This is the time for the vast majority of human beings to be brought back to life to receive their opportunity for salvation. Thousands of millions of humans will receive the gift of everlasting life.
Festivals kept today
Jesus Christ set us an example by observing the biblical festivals, not because they were traditions of the Jewish people, but because, from the beginning, they represented His personal role in bringing the children of God into His spiritual family.
His apostles, walking in His footsteps, continued observing the same festivals. A considerable portion of Christianity observed them for centuries after His death. Looking into the future, we find a continuation of the same pattern. The prophet Zechariah tells us that attendance at the Feast of Tabernacles will be required of all peoples after Christ returns (Zechariah 14:16).
Today there are still Christians faithfully observing the same festivals Christ kept. These annual occasions were instituted to keep God's people, in all ages, aware of the key aspects of the mission and work of the true Messiah. They are, indeed, Christian festivals.