Should we observe the Levitical festivals?: A Seventh-day Adventist perspective (Part 2 of 2)
Editor’s note: In part one of this series, we reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of five arguments generally employed by Christians and some Adventists for celebrating the Levitical festivals of the Old Testament. In this issue we offer a possible proper approach toward such festivals.
Valuing the riches and blessings associated with festivals but also being aware of the problems that are implied in observing them, Christians, if they wish, may search for a proper way to engage in festivals. They could explore some way to mark the festivals. This practice should not only be conducted with theological lucidity but also with prudence and balanced wisdom, humility, openness, and a willingness to learn. A number of practical suggestions may help Christians find a meaningful implication of the festivals in their Christian life and worship.
The would versus the should
First of all, to understand the non-normative character of the festivals is important. The New Testament offers a good example of how Christians should relate to the festivals. Indeed many texts provide us with the typological function of the sacrifices and then warn against the idea that they are still normative and necessary for our salvation. On the other hand, nowhere in the New Testament do we hear that we should not observe them. Actually, Jesus and His disciples kept celebrating them; and, later, the early Christians (Jews themselves living within a Jewish environment) as well as Paul, himself, followed the same practice. But they never felt it necessary to enforce the observance of the feasts on the Gentiles who desired to join the community of believers (Acts 15).
Wisely, they came to the conclusion “that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols [idolatry], from sexual immorality [ethics], from things strangled, and from blood [Levitical dietary principles]. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read . . . every Sabbath” (Acts 15:19–21, NKJV). Thus, the apostolic decree refers to three domains of the Law of Moses: idolatry, ethics, and the mosaic dietary laws. All these prescriptions were based on the reading of the books of Moses “every Sabbath,” suggesting that respect for the fourth commandment, “the Sabbath,” was also implied in the apostolic decree. No reference to the festivals is even implicitly given in the text. This attitude contains a principle of tolerance, not only towards the Gentiles who were not to be troubled by the new, unnecessary burden, but also implicitly towards the Jews who wanted to join the church. For if it was considered inappropriate by the apostles to trouble the Gentiles by imposing on them a new lifestyle implying the observance of the laws of circumcision and the Jewish festivals, it would also have been inappropriate to trouble the Jews by imposing on them a new lifestyle implying the abandonment of those customs. The word should should not be used either to impose the festivals or to defend them. We should not say, “You should observe them,” nor say, “You should not observe them.”
Wisely and significantly, Ellen White uses the word would and not should to express her rather positive view on that matter: “Well would it be,” she says, “to have a Feast of Tabernacles.”* Although her statement only refers to one festival, it suggests that Ellen White could have been in favor of exploring that possibility also for other festivals. For the reason she gives to justify this practice, “a joyous commemoration of the blessings of God to them,” could apply for the other festivals as well. At any rate, this remark shows not only an attitude of openness on the part of Ellen White—she was not afraid of exploring new avenues—but also an attitude of tolerance and wisdom. Indeed, the use of the word would rather than the word should not only denotes humility and openness but also shows respect for another point of view. Such an attitude of tolerance and prudence is to be commended, for it will avoid the risk of reaction and polarization, which has always degenerated into radicalization and fanaticism and ultimately led to divisions in the church.
A marking calendar
If we choose to mark the feast on the yearly calendar, we should do it with a clear understanding of what that feast means from a specific Seventh-day Adventist perspective. The choice of my words here, marking calendar rather than liturgical, and mark the festivals rather than do or keep or observe, is deliberate and intentional. The marking of the festivals should not be imposed as a doctrinal, liturgical/religious, or even an administrative obligation for the church as a whole entity. It should rather be suggested as a free opportunity to remind of God’s plan of salvation and of our prophetic identity and mission. It could serve as an opportunity to teach, learn, and proclaim at home, in the church, and in the world, the great dimensions of God’s plan of redemption.
The festivals are nothing but a pedagogical or evangelistic tool to be used, just as we sometimes do when we use the model of the sanctuary to witness through this object lesson to our unique message. It should be descriptive and instructive, not prescriptive. If we desire to mark the festival, it would therefore be advisable to do it during its season, not because we want or need to be faithful to agricultural, ritualistic, and legalistic norms, but rather as an opportune moment when other people think about it, just as we traditionally do for Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving (although these festivals contain some elements of pagan origin, such as Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, and the Easter bunny). Outside of the season, this practice will look awkward for all, be offensive towards others, and lose its communicative and signifying/ semantic power.
The main problem resides, however, in the way the festivals could be marked outside of the Bible, considering the absence of revealed instructions in this context and without the help of a developed tradition of observance as we have in Judaism. To avoid wild, creative initiatives, which may undermine and compromise the whole project, two fundamental principles should govern and guide any attempt to mark the festivals:
1. The respect of the original place from where the inspiration of the feasts has been taken, namely the Scriptures and the testimony of Israel. Learn about the genuine character of the feast and inform yourself about the Jewish traditions associated with it. Avoid deceitful and confusing misrepresentations. Make sure the feasts do not become occasions for the promotion of your personal ideas, fantasies, and hobbies that have nothing to do with the feasts, such as dances, spiritualistic and charismatic applications, inconsiderate blowing of the shofar, or putting on of exotic garments. Such expressions might be perceived as a disguising game and disrespectful behavior.
2. The respect of the new place where the inspiration of the feast has been imported, namely your church. Consult its leaders, including theological authorities and your friends (even and especially those who disagree with you), to make sure that your ideas of festivals and the information you have collected are well founded and consistent with the theology you profess as a Seventh-day Adventist. Make sure also that your experiment will not be misunderstood, will not hurt other members, and will, indeed, serve the good of the church. Avoid separate initiatives, remain humble and modest, and do not try to impose your views and practices upon other church members who may not share your perspective and spiritual sensitivity. Be prudent towards your sentimental and mystical emotions on these matters and your convictions, and do not confuse them with the divine truth or the gift of the Spirit.
To the question “Should we observe the festivals?” my answer is, on the basis of the above discussion, a clear and an unambiguous “No, we are not required to observe the festivals,” for the following reasons:
(1) Festivals have lost their normative quality as they have essentially been fulfilled in Christ and are no longer dependent on the categories of biblical revelation. The laws of the feasts are distinct from other laws such as the Sabbath and the dietary laws, which are not related to sacrifices or dependent on time, and are universal in character. It is indeed important to note and realize that God has not provided us with any instruction, any law regarding the way those festivals should be observed outside of the temple. If God has not indicated to us how to observe them in these conditions, how could He then require the observance of these laws? We are here dependent only on human traditions outside of biblical revelation.
(2) No Christian or Adventist historical tradition and/or custom exists about how these festivals have been and therefore could be observed.
(3) The specific mission and identity of the Seventh-day Adventist movement is not defined as a liturgical entity with a historical liturgical tradition to witness to. Instead, the Seventh-day Adventist Church identifies itself as a prophetic messenger with a universal scope and mission, transcending the variety of cultures and traditions, and pointing to the eschatological order.
On the other hand, this clarification should not exclude the following options:
(1) The pedagogical value of exploring and communicating (verbally or otherwise) the rich truths associated with the festivals, namely, their meaning in regard to the plan of salvation for the past, present, and future. Yet all this beauty and richness testified by the feasts does not make them normative laws to be imperatively followed. They remain just a pedagogical tool.
(2) The marking of the festivals may be used as a means of contextualization in order to reach out to the Jews, just as it is done for other cultural groups whether religious (Christmas, Easter) or secular (Thanksgiving). Even here, however, one may wonder about the efficiency and even the questionable ethics of this evangelistic method of contextualization.
(3) Jewish Adventists, like the early Jewish Christians, should not feel obligated to abandon the enjoyment of festivals; and no one should discourage them from doing so. Not only do the feasts belong to their cultural heritage, but they also provide them with an appropriate means of reaching out to other Jews. In this particular instance, in the light of the prophetic and theological dimensions of the Seventh-day Adventist message, their experience of the feasts may still become even more meaningful than in the past. These practices will be implemented, however, with a clear understanding that these laws and traditions are not prophetic revelation and no longer normative.
The last lesson to learn from the festivals is to relax and enjoy our religious life. All these tensions and discussions on whether we should observe the festivals, in fact, go against the very spirit of the feasts. Far from urging a serious and tense discussion and pressing obligation to observe or not observe, the message of the feasts is, on the contrary, a gracious invitation for joy and peace.
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* Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), 540, 541.