eviticus 23 requires observance of annual Israelite festivals along with the weekly Sabbath. Seventh-day Adventist Christians accept the ongoing requirement of Sabbath rest. So if we are to consistently follow biblical teaching and obey God, shouldn’t we also keep the festivals? Some say yes. Others say, “No, the festivals are not for Christians.” How does the Bible guide us on this issue?1
Let’s begin by recalling the biblical instructions regarding the festivals. Exodus 23 records God’s command: “Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty); and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God” (verses 14-17).2
Festivals and Gifts
This passage refers to the three pilgrimage festivals, when all Israelite males were to go from their homes and appear before the Lord at one place of worship. Following the construction of the tabernacle, this one place
was wherever the sanctuary was located at the time. Later the designated place was at a permanent Temple in Jerusalem (Deut. 12:4-18; 1 Kings 6-8). The festivals celebrated the lordship of the God of Israel, who had redeemed them in their past history (“for in it you came out of Egypt” [Ex. 23:15]) and who provided for their ongoing needs through agricultural blessings (“the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field”; “when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field” [verse 16]).
What is meant by the words “none shall appear before Me empty” (verse 15)? Here the Hebrew word translated “empty” means “empty-handed” (compare the same word in Gen. 31:42; Ex. 3:21, etc.), that is, without a gift for God (compare Ex. 34:20; 1 Sam. 6:3).3
God instructed the Israelite males to appear before Him in order to acknowledge His lordship over them and giving this required gift. Such a gift served as a kind of “tribute,” equivalent to that which a human overlord could expect of them (Judges 3:15; 2 Sam. 8:2).
So what kinds of gifts did the Lord expect from His people on their festival occasions? Numbers 28 and 29 specify what the Israelite nation was to offer Him at all sacred times, including the pilgrimage festivals and other special days: animal sacrifices. This explains why Moses had insisted to Pharaoh that when his people would go from Egypt to celebrate a festival to the Lord, they would need to take their flocks and herds with them (Ex. 10:9). Not only the nation, but also individual Israelites and their families sacrificed animals on annual sacred occasions (for example, Ex. 12; 1 Sam. 1:3-5, 21).
By offering animals, God’s chosen people were following the example of Abel, whose acceptable gift (same Hebrew word as “tribute” in Judges 3:15) for showing loyalty to the Lord was an animal sacrifice (Gen. 4:4). Such a gift expressed faith in the coming Redeemer: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). God’s requirement of animal sacrifices in Old Testament times proclaimed the message that fallen human beings can enjoy a relationship with God only by accepting the sacrifice of His Son on their behalf.
What if . . . ?
If we say that the divine commands to keep the festivals are still in effect for Christians, it is obvious that we must keep them according to the biblical instructions. Those require traveling to Jerusalem three times a year to offer animal sacrifices officiated by divinely authorized and ritually pure priests, who are descendants of Aaron, at God’s consecrated Temple (compare Lev. 8; Num. 3:10; 1 Kings 8). We can get to Jerusalem, but the rest is impossible because of the harsh reality that the only sacrificial system ordained by God on earth came to a crashing halt when the Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70. Now nobody can observe any of the annual festivals required by the Torah
(= Pentateuch) according to God’s instructions, even if they believe they must. Such biblical laws that require and regulate institutions that no longer exist (in this case the temple system) do not literally apply to us.4
Yet, the festival texts teach us the ongoing principle that we need to regularly celebrate God’s redemption and sustaining power.5
Not only is the earthly Temple physically gone; it lost its religious significance while it was still standing when Christ uttered the fateful words: “See! Your
house [not My house!] is left to you desolate” (Matt. 23:38; compare Eze. 10-11), and its veil was torn from top to bottom when He died, thereby exposing and desecrating its most holy apartment (Matt. 27:51). Thus the Messiah ended the real function of the sacrificial system (Dan. 9:27), although the ritual performances continued for a few more decades.
Today nobody keeps the festivals in the biblical way. However, Jewish tradition has creatively adapted their observance to life without Temple and sacrifice. This is done by taking biblical practices that can be done without those, such as eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:8) and making booths as temporary dwelling spaces (Lev. 23:42, 43), and adding other activities to them. The result is a lively and powerful system of celebration and teaching designed to preserve the memory of God’s mighty acts from one generation to another (compare Ex. 13:8). But such adaptations should not be confused with the biblical manner of festival observance, which has animal sacrifice at its core.
There is one festival adaptation that Christ Himself has given us: the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-29), which is a modified Passover service (compare verses 17-20). The Lord’s Supper does not include the central element of the Passover ritual—the lamb—because Jesus has already come as our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7). However, He used bread and wine, which were parts of the animal sacrifices (Num. 15:1-12), to symbolize His body and blood as a remembrance of His sacrifice (see also
1 Cor. 11:23-26).6
If Christ required Christians to keep the other festivals, He would have shown us how to adapt them too. But He did not.
The biblical festivals not only commemorated past events, such as the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and life in the wilderness (Ex. 12-13; Lev. 23:42, 43); they also served as acted-out prophecies of future salvation events. Prophetic aspects of the spring festivals were fulfilled on those occasions at the beginning of the Christian Era. Passover prefigures Christ’s sacrifice (John 19:36, citing Ex. 12:46; 1 Cor. 5:7). The sheaf of grain raised (so-called “waved”) on the day after the Sabbath at the beginning of the barley harvest (Lev. 23:10, 11) pointed to the resurrection of Christ as the “firstfruits” of those who would rise from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20-23). The Festival of Weeks (Pentecost) at the beginning of the wheat harvest (Lev. 23:15-21) foreshadowed the early “harvest” of souls who accepted Christ on the day of Pentecost through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2).
Already we see that the festivals as prophecies were not all fulfilled when Jesus died on the cross. The autumn festivals prefigured even later events. For example, the judgment in heaven that justifies (legally “cleanses”) God’s heavenly temple before Christ’s second coming (Dan. 7:9-14; 8:14) is the end-time fulfillment of the “cleansing” of the sanctuary/Temple on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), which was ancient Israel’s judgment day (verse 30; 23:29, 30).7
The fact that the salvation history significance of the biblical festivals continues way beyond the cross does not mean that Christians are bound to observe them. Aside from the fact that we cannot really keep them, all of their symbolic animal sacrifices were fulfilled in Christ’s truly effective once-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-14). Furthermore, Christ transferred the focus of our worship from earth to heaven when He ascended there to begin His priestly ministry in God’s heavenly temple (Heb. 7-10).
If Christians no longer have to keep the festivals, what about the weekly seventh-day Sabbath? There is a basic difference: While rituals at the sanctuary/Temple were an integral part of the biblical festivals, such practices have never made the Sabbath what it was.8
Leviticus 23 acknowledges the difference by separating Sabbath rest (verse 3) from the festivals (verses 5-43) through a second introduction to the chapter (verse 4; compare verse 2).
The Lord created Sabbath rest before
the Fall into sin caused the need for ritual worship to bridge a separation between God and humans and to express hope in a coming Redeemer. Unlike animal sacrifices, Sabbath rest was not established as a temporary ritual “type” (symbol) of a later and greater reality in salvation history. When God commanded the Israelites to rest on the Sabbath, He said nothing about a requirement to offer sacrifices on that day (Ex. 16:23-30; 20:8-11; 31:12-17, etc.). It is true that sanctuary rituals honored the Sabbath (Lev. 24:8; Num. 28:9, 10), but it was God’s provision for rest, not rituals, that made the Sabbath what it was.
This brief exploration has sought to answer the question: Does the Bible require Seventh-day Adventist Christians to keep the annual Israelite festivals? The answer is clear: no. Unlike the Sabbath, the festivals are not basic and permanent for life in our world. However, they are an important part of biblical heritage, and we can learn much about God’s salvation by studying them.
1 See also Roy E. Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), pp. 757-759; Roy E. Gane, “The Role of God’s Moral Law, Including Sabbath, in the ‘New Covenant,’ ” published online by the Biblical Research Institute at www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/documents/Gane%20Gods%20moral%20law.pdf.
2 All Scripture quotations in the article have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 See also Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001), vol. 2, p. 1229.
4 For criteria to determine whether or how biblical laws apply to modern life, see Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, pp. 305-310.
5 Compare Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1890), pp. 540, 541.
6 On elements that Jesus used to form the Lord’s Supper, see Roy E. Gane, Altar Call (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Diadem, 1999), pp. 159-167.
7 Roy E. Gane, Who’s Afraid of the Judgment?: The Good News About Christ’s Work in the Heavenly Sanctuary (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2006), pp. 38-42. On the Day of Atonement as Israel’s day of judgment, see Roy E. Gane, Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement, and Theodicy (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005), pp. 305-323.
8 On differences between the Sabbath and the festivals, see Ross Cole, “The Sacred Times Prescribed in the Pentateuch: Old Testament Indicators of the Extent of Their Applicability” (Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 1996), especially pp. 335-353.
Roy E. Gane, Ph.D., is professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern languages at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University. This article was published May 17, 2012.