the real sabbath
How Do We Keep God's Festivals?
by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Forerunner, "Ready Answer," March-April 2012
As the first signs of spring appear in the flowerbeds or in the branches of trees, the minds of longtime Christians often turn to the nearness of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. We consider that we need to evaluate ourselves in preparation for another year of living God's way (II Corinthians 13:5), as well as to begin the physical work of removing leaven from our homes (Exodus 13:3-10). As we think about the upcoming holy days, we eagerly anticipate the extended time of fellowship that God's festivals bring, the meaty messages that we hope to hear, and the fine food and drink that we will enjoy—after all, they are "feasts"!
However, having observed perhaps several decades of holy days, we tend to take for granted the "how-to" part of keeping God's festivals. We probably keep them without thinking much about it at all. The way we go about it has become so ingrained into our routines that we do not realize that someone new to the truth about the holy days has little or no idea how to keep them. Frankly, the idea of keeping the festivals—and wanting desperately not to dishonor God in any way—can be quite intimidating!
Many who are new to God's commanded feasts fall back on Jewish practices, thinking that, since the Jews have been keeping them for so long, they must know how it is to be done. So, for instance, to learn how to keep the Passover, they will find instructions for the Seder online, at a library, or a synagogue bookstore. They will feel a little strange trying to follow the traditional order of service with its very Jewish flavor. Being Christians, they soon realize that, while similar to what appears in the Bible about the Passover, it is inadequate in a New Testament setting.
The same could be said about the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Going to the Jews for instruction on removing leaven from one's home and business can be helpful, but once again, the accretion of ancient traditions, while they may be quaint, are not satisfying in a Christian context. Taking a candle about the house to peer into every corner for leavening and keeping a bit of leavened bread to "find" and burn before the onset of the first holy day may be a helpful activity to teach children about ridding the home of leavening, but it is unsatisfying to the growing, adult, Christian mind.
So, how do Christians keep God's holy times? The Bible provides instruction and principles on how we should observe these important days, and church tradition and experience add some helpful assistance. If we follow these guidelines, we will be sure to obey and honor God and benefit from the meaning and joy of His feasts.
Begin With Principles
Leviticus 23 provides the most concise and complete list of God's appointed times in Scripture. Note how the chapter begins: "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, '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"'" (Leviticus 23:1-2). This opening shot reveals two very important principles to begin our quest to find out how to keep the holy days.
The first, repeated twice in one verse, is that these festivals are God's feasts, not Israel's, not the church's. He is their Source, He set the times, He gave them meaning, and He is their ultimate Object. We could say they are all about Him—and His plan and our part in it with Him. Our observance of these days is to focus on Him and His teaching, and with that comes wonderful spiritual and physical benefits.
The second principle appears in the command to "proclaim [them] to be holy convocations." These divinely appointed times are set apart for calling together. In today's language, a primary purpose of the feasts of God is to bring God's people together, not just for fellowship, but also for instruction and most importantly, to honor and worship God Himself. These holy times, then, contain a vitally important corporate aspect, producing unity in purpose, doctrine, and relationships within the Body of Christ.
The next verse, Leviticus 23:3, presents a third important principle: "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." Along with the weekly Sabbath, the seven annual holy days—the first and last days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Hag Hamatzot), Pentecost (Shavuot, also called the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Harvest), the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, also called the Fast), the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth), and the eighth day (often called the Last Great Day)—are also Sabbaths.
Like Sabbaths, they are holy convocations, as can be seen in the ensuing instructions. In most cases, the wording is that the holy day "is a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it" (see Leviticus 23:7-8, 21, 24-25, 35-36). This means that we are not to attend to our normal, weekday work—the kinds of activities that we do on the other six days of the week. This includes not only our paying jobs, but also the ordinary work that we would do around the house, on our cars, in our yards, at the local community center, etc.
In the instructions for keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread, though, God stipulates, "No manner of work shall be done on them; but that which everyone must eat—that only may be prepared by you" (Exodus 12:16). Feasting is part of the holy day experience. God wants us to eat and drink of the abundance that He has bestowed upon us in thanksgiving and joy on His appointed times, so He allows us to prepare food on the holy days. Even so, it is still better to prepare as much of the food beforehand, as on a weekly Sabbath, to get the most from the feasts.
In this regard, perhaps the most extravagant tradition of the church of God is its celebration of the Night to Be Much Observed, taken from the instruction in Exodus 12:42 and Deuteronomy 16:1-8 (in the latter passage, the wording clearly refers to the Feast of Unleavened Bread). Usually, as the first holy day begins, a few families will get together at one of their homes and eat a meal to rival Thanksgiving dinner. It commemorates the joy and thanks Christians feel now that they have been freed from the bondage of sin, Satan, and this world, just as the Israelites came out of Egypt "with a high hand" ( Exodus 14:8, KJV).
At the other extreme, the Day of Atonement is an obvious exception to the rule concerning food preparation. It is the most solemn of the holy days, and God's instructions on keeping it are blunt and terse:
Also on the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls. . . . (Leviticus 23:26-32)
To put it even more succinctly, on the Day of Atonement, we are not to eat, drink, or work at all for the entire twenty-four-hour period. It is a day of worship, instruction, prayer, and humbling ourselves before God in thanks for His marvelous work in atoning for all sin and in bringing mankind into unity with Him (see Leviticus 16:29-34; Isaiah 58:1-12; Revelation 20:1-3).
While the Passover is one of God's appointed times, it is not listed in Scripture as one of the annual Sabbaths. It is a regular day of work—in fact, it is the preparation day for the first day of Unleavened Bread—but the first few hours, the evening portion of the day, is a significant memorial of two great events in God's plan for mankind: the death of the firstborn in Egypt and the sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Leviticus 23:5 lists the Passover matter-of-factly: "On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord's Passover." The bulk of the instruction about the Passover is written in Exodus 12, and a great deal of it concerns the Old Testament ritual meal that was eaten on that evening. These details are types that were fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, so the New Testament church is no longer required to slay a lamb, since, as the apostle Paul writes, "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (I Corinthians 5:7).
The New Testament Passover is modeled after the events that occurred during what is commonly known as the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus ate with His disciples just before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus began His instruction that evening with a command to wash one another's feet: "For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (see John 13:1-17), and so we do.
The apostle Paul summarizes what happens next:
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." In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." (I Corinthians 11:23-25)
So, to commemorate His sacrifice—His broken body and His shed blood—by which He paid the penalty for human sin and consecrated the New Covenant (see Hebrews 9:11-28), Christians eat a little unleavened bread and drink a small amount of wine. In doing so, they acknowledge His sacrifice and rededicate themselves to their covenant with Him. It is clear from both the Old Testament and New Testament examples that only those who have made the covenant—Christ's disciples—are allowed to partake of the bread and wine, thus only baptized members should participate in this part of the service (see the principle in Exodus 12:43-49; also I Corinthians 11:27-29).
As Christ did after changing the Passover symbols, members of the church then listen to the words of Jesus' discourse to His disciples, which is found in John 13–17. Then, to close the service, they sing a hymn before concluding the solemn service (see Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26).
Two Notable Differences
While we generally keep the individual holy days in much the same way, two of them are notably different: the Feasts of Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles. We still keep the holy days within them as Sabbaths with church services, fellowship, and good food. Yet, because of God's commands regarding these particular feasts, they are unique.
As alluded to earlier, God requires us to remove leaven from our homes and not eat anything leavened for the duration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (see Exodus 12:15; 13:3-10). The command refers specifically to yeast, which causes bread to rise, but modern chemicals such a baking powder and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), which do the same thing, fall under the spirit of the command. Leavening is a biblical symbol of corruption and sin. So, in this festival, God is emphasizing to us that, in the same way that He brought the children of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, He brought us out of our bondage to sin, and we are now to live an unleavened life "of sincerity and truth" (I Corinthians 5:8).
For this week, then, Christians must do without soft breads, donuts, muffins, buns, bagels, cakes, and any other breadstuff that contains leavening. Instead, we eat matzos or homemade unleavened bread each of the seven days. It is a daily reminder of what God has done and how we should be living before Him and this world.
The Feast of Tabernacles is different from the other festivals in that God commands that we live that week in "tabernacles" (tents), "booths" (impermanent structures), or other temporary dwellings (see Leviticus 23:40-43). It is no longer required that we gather boughs of the specific trees of the Holy Land to make booths, but we do travel to another place—a Feast site arranged by the church in advance—and live in campgrounds, motels, or hotels. By this, God teaches us that, like the Israelites who lived in tents in the wilderness, Christians are pilgrims on the way to their own Promised Land, the Kingdom of God.
Of course, going away for a week or so costs money. God made provision for this in His law by commanding that we set aside a festival tithe—most often called the "second tithe"—to pay for our transportation, food, housing, and other needs during the holy days, particularly at the Feast of Tabernacles. God's instruction on this is found in Deuteronomy 14:22-26. While new Christians may see it as a burden, this second tithe is a great blessing from God, allowing us to keep and enjoy His feasts properly and to receive a foretaste of the blessings of His Kingdom.
On the subject of money, the holy days are also times when the church takes up offerings. (We do not take up weekly offerings during our church services.) Deuteronomy 16:16-17 provides God's instruction:
Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you.
These three feasts were the three "pilgrimage feasts" of ancient Israel, for which all the families traveled up to Jerusalem to keep them. Each adult male was expected to attend and to give an offering to God. We follow this command to give to God, splitting the offerings of those three "times" or "seasons" into offerings on each of the seven annual holy days.
Unlike a tithe, which is one-tenth of our income, the amounts of these offerings are voluntary. God wants us to consider how much He has blessed us and put a monetary value—"as [we are] able"—on His loving care for us. Of course, we can never give enough, but the exercise helps us to learn to appreciate God in greater ways.
The Bible contains a great deal more information about the holy days and their meanings for Christians, and such things are frequently the subjects of the messages given during the festivals. Keeping them year after year builds up layers of knowledge and understanding concerning God's plan and the wonderful process that He is putting us through in preparation for His coming Kingdom.
Though the church's customs and traditions in keeping these festivals may seem a little strange at first, they are filled with significance, and before long, they are like old, trusted, comfortable companions in our yearly worship of God. They certainly outstrip the silly and commercialized holiday customs of this world.
David writes in Psalm 34:8, "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!" God shows us His goodness by giving us these holy days, and blessed are those who keep them!
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