Over the last month or so, since entering the holiday season, I’ve been made aware of some going back-and-forth about Christmas. Some have been convinced that, as Christians, it’s wrong (and possibly sinful) to celebrate Christmas. As strange as it may sound, let me explain this line of thought- It is not that it is wrong to acknowledge the birth of our Savior as significant, but that the celebration of Christmas as we know it is somehow stemmed from pagan rituals and rooted in anti-Semitism. In addition to this idea, it has also been said that we as believers are to observe the seven feasts as prescribed to the Jews in Leviticus 23. Some suggest that we have been misled and are wrong to think that these are no longer necessary to observe.
In this letter, my goal is to address these two points. In truth, I find it unfortunate that there is even a need to discuss this matter with Christians who, “ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb. 5:12) We, who seek to demonstrate the complete work of Christ for salvation and the grace of God, speak as if we do not understand it ourselves. And that’s what this is- a matter of understanding grace. We are being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4:14) It is Satan’s trap, and his desire to get us so caught up in useless and pointless theology that we miss the point- the souls of men and their need for a Savior. My brothers and sisters, we cannot allow this to happen.
It is thought by some that Christmas (along with Valentine’s Day and others) is sinful to observe based on the historical nature of the holiday. It is said that the origins trace back to Roman times where the sun was worshipped, and that the false apostate church adopted and “Christianized” it. Therefore, many of our traditions (the exchanging of gifts, wreaths, and even the decorated tree) are found to be pagan in nature. And by observing these holidays, we are said to be in violation of God’s word that says: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:7-8) And Paul, it would seem, chimed in agreement in Galatians 4:10-11: “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” To begin, I’d like to shed some light on these verses, and then share with you some other thoughts.
First, let us talk about Paul’s words in Galatians. What was he referring to? Some have said that, since these were Roman citizens he was talking to, them he must have been talking about the old pagan customs that they came out of. Not so! It’s easy to determine, once taking the entire scope of the book of Galatians into account, that Paul was writing about the Jewish Christians who were attempting to impose the Law of Moses onto these Gentile believers. That’s why he goes onto mention in Gal. 5:2-4, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” This is a stark warning to those who believe that the blood of Christ is not enough for salvation- because we have been “saved by grace through faith… not of works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
Now, in regards to Mark 7, we must not simply pull out verses while ignoring the full context of the passage. If we read the entire story, we see that Jesus is pointing to the “heart” of the matter instead of merely pointing out traditions. What Jesus says in vv. 7-8 is in harmony with Mat. 5-7, where Jesus brings clarity to the laws that the Pharisees had long sought to distort and add to in order to justify their sinful lifestyles. Not only that, but in verse 13 Jesus notes that the problem with their additions to the law was that they “nullified” God’s law.
Some would say here that this is the problem with Christmas- that 1) our keeping with the Christmas tradition conflicts with God’s commands concerning pagan worship (Isa. 2:6, 57:8); and 2) we have replaced the Holy Days of God and the Feasts with these holidays and are not obeying the Scriptures. To that I would say this:
1) We’re giving too much power to the pagans if we say that Christians cannot celebrate or glorify God on a day that has been reserved for idolatry. Or to say that God is incapable of infiltrating the dominion of darkness and bringing in under subjection to Himself is impossible is basically to say that there is no such thing as redemption! It would be as if to say that “Amazing Grace”, along with many of our classic hymns, are sinful because their musical arrangements came from old saloon songs; or to say that the Haitian voodoo priest cannot transform his temple into a church because it was once used for witchcraft; or a ministry cannot buy a bar and use it for worship and outreach. Isn’t that what God did to us, who “called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2:9). “He saved them from the hand of the foe; from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them” (Psa. 106:10) And if God is able to do such mighty redemptive work in man, who once was the subject of His wrath (Rom. 5:10), can He not, through His children redeem a day?
2) Are we called to keep the law, or the feasts, as a command? Some people are confused by passages such as Lev. 23, which proclaims the feasts as “lasting ordinances”, and New Testament verses that refer to keeping the law (such as Rom. 2:13). Some take this to mean that there is no difference between Old Testament regulations and New Testament practices. They can’t determine whether we are still expected to honor all of the regulations and requirements given to the people of God under the Old Covenant. Let me try to help in this matter.
First, let us notice Jesus’ words in a few passages. In Mark 10 we see the story of the “Rich Young Ruler”, who wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The first thing to come up was the Law- do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, honor your father and mother… did you notice something? The same thing we notice when reading James 2 when it talks about the law, he focuses on the 10 Commandments. We tend to get stuck on all of these regulations and rites, and Jesus keeps with the 10. Why? Because God wrote the Ten Commandments, but the people wanted more. And “because of the hardness of your hearts” Moses gave them these laws (Mark 10:5). We need to remember the intent of the law, people. And Jesus pointed to it again, with the rich young ruler like he did with the Pharisees- it’s about exposing the true condition of the heart. Jesus said, “go sell your possessions and give it to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven”. Was that even an Old Testament law? No! But that wasn’t the point, the issue was that his heart was not to glorify God. It was selfish.
Secondly, let’s remember the woman at the well (John 4), where she talked about the tradition of worship. In verse 20, she asks Jesus about the proper place to worship, the mountain or Jerusalem. Now, according to the requirements of the feasts, the people would have to go to Jerusalem in order to participate. But what did Jesus say? He told her that a time was coming where His people would worship Him neither at a mountain, nor in Jerusalem! What? Jesus changing things? Don’t be surprised, because He had already stated that foods once considered prohibited would be made clean (Mark 7), now he is stating that how and where we worship would change. He says to the woman, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (v. 23-24)
Jesus came to transform our hearts. The Old Covenant made with Israel was one of laws and works. The New Covenant with Christ is one of grace and faith. It says, “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10) This new covenant is superior to the old one (in fact, the whole concept of “new covenant” is that it nullifies the stipulations of the former), in that our salvation is no longer based on our efforts and our righteousness, but rather the righteousness that is from God (Heb. 8:13).
If Jesus had intended the church to continue in following an Old Covenant that did not help them in any other way than to condemn them (Rom. 3:19-20; 4:15), then why do we not see the early apostles commanding the believers to do so? True, we see Paul going up to Jerusalem during Pentecost, as well as spending time in the synagogues on Sabbath, but what was he doing? He was preaching Christ! Nowhere does it say that he was observing a feast or any ceremony, and more importantly, we never find Paul urging believers to do so either. If keeping the Old Covenant law was a necessity, then why did Paul call Peter condemned for trying to persuade Gentile believers (who did not keep the law) to begin following Jewish customs? (Gal. 2:11-14) Why, if keeping the Old law was a requirement, did he not require all believers to be circumcised? Rather, he said, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” (Gal. 6:15)
And that’s what it’s all about- the new creation. Jesus came to “make all things new”- a new hope, a new life, and a new heart for everyone who would put their trust in Him. “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:16-17) Look!! Christ, our Light, has come! Why, then, would we insist on looking at “shadows”…