Revelation and Response In Torah-based Festivals – Part 2

[I finished the last post with two important questions my Theology of Christian Worship paper was intending to answer.The first is “what overarching revelatory themes should a liturgy convey?”  And the second is “what constitutes properly reverent obedience?”  The final part of my 2005 paper follows here. ]

Toward a New Covenant Liturgy of Revelation and Response: Marking Time

What overarching revelatory themes should a liturgy convey?  The main theme should be that God is Creator and Redeemer.  As noted above, God supplied humanity with a purpose and mission at creation.  Whatever else redemption accomplishes, it presumably should provide for humankind to fulfill that purpose.  This is probably why the Eden imagery is so prominent in Rev. 22.  Jesus comes therefore not only to free us from the penalty for sin, but to enable us to become a new creation that will finally be restored to God’s will of human dominion over the world (Rom. 8:20-25 cf. Gen. 1:26).  A liturgy that seeks to enable God’s revelation to his current people will need to balance these “already” and “not yet” aspects of eschatology.  Witvliet puts it this way, “Does worship induct participants into a cosmology in which God is at work faithfully in continuity with past divine action?  Does worship convey a sense of hope for the future grounded in God’s faithful action in the past?”[1]  How could such a liturgy be constructed?

Marking Time for Revelation

One possibility is to begin with a liturgy calendar that God constructed and supplied to his covenant people at Sinai.  Its special focus was a Tabernacle constructed to remind the Israelites about the lost garden, including guardian cherubim woven into the partition and the tree-like lamp stand representing the Tree of Life.  There was an altar for sacrifice with a fire that God had started miraculously.  The temporal foci were a weekly and yearly festival calendar as well as a 50-year cycle that culminated in an announcement of freedom[2] from economic and other forms of oppression.  There was a weekly rest to remind the people of God’s rest at creation and human participation in restful living under God’s Sabbath blessing.  There were covenant documents to be read out loud during the Feast of Tabernacles in the Sabbath year.  These were intended (along with moral and civil laws) to display God’s wisdom to the nations (Deut 4:6-8).  Is there anything of value in this curriculum for a New Covenant people?

There is no doubt that Jesus has fulfilled and is fulfilling all of these “shadows” (Col. 2:17).  This leads many, including John Frame to suggest things like, “the literal observance of these rites would distract us from the final accomplishment of salvation in Jesus.  Therefore God no longer requires our participation in these ceremonies.”[3]  Does this mean that the significance of the salvation events foreshadowed by and fulfilled on those dates needs to go unnoticed?  This is not necessarily the case.  New Testament Christians did seem to participate in many, if not all, of those ceremonies at least until the Temple was destroyed, and some observed gatherings on the festival dates even longer[4].  Paul’s last act before his arrest in Acts was to participate in a Temple ritual cleansing ceremony precisely to prove that he was not against the law as such (Acts 21:21-24).  Furthermore, if the “shadows” should be avoided lest they distract from the reality of Christ, what about later accretions that have no direct biblical warrant?  Are Easter eggs and Santa Claus less distracting to the reality of Jesus than remembering that there had once been animal sacrifices on the Day of Atonement?  Can dates and customs that are not even “shadows” be more effective at communicating the gospel than those which God himself ordained?

In arguing for the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper Eugene Peterson attempts to decouple it from the priestly system[5].  It is certainly true that the Passover meal as originally instituted did not involve Priests and temple ritual.  The Passover did, however involve a yearly pattern of repetition, not a weekly one.  Jesus clearly identifies his meal with a Passover celebration in Luke 22:15.

Liturgically, Jesus is signaling the initiation of an exodus.  That exodus is from sin and death.  The first is realized in full, while the second is inaugurated in Jesus’ own resurrection.  He deliberately chose a symbol that was a recapitulation of one that God gave great meaning to in Israelite salvation history.  Paul even suggests a proper response to Jesus’ paschal significance (1 Cor. 5:6-8) by commanding, “Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (v. 7, NRSV).  This hints at the possibility of a Feast of Unleavened Bread surviving in some (perhaps spiritualized) form.  At a minimum, Paul seemed to expect Gentile Corinthian Christians to understand the allusion.  The exodus symbolism may be easier to grasp if the Lord’s Supper is not decoupled from its yearly Passover association.

Hill notes that the Church year seems to be rooted in the Hebrew calendar[6].  Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Pentecost, though now calculated according to the Gregorian calendar, were all originally observances God gave to ancient Israel.  It seems odd to create a season called “Lent” when there already exists the notion of giving something up in the season of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (A giving up of something is more appropriate as an act of response to salvation remembered than as a preparation for remembering.) A Day of Atonement service would be a natural place for ritual confession of sin and pronouncement of absolution. It would also be a natural place for a theme about true liberty and social justice (Jubilee Year themes).  The Feast of Tabernacles would be ideal for a sermon series about the stipulations and promises of the New Covenant.  It could end with the theme of God “tabernacling” among his people, first as a pillar of cloud/fire, then as Jesus, and currently as the indwelling Holy Spirit, but culminating in His perpetual presence among all human beings who have trusted in Jesus.

Incorporating these festivals would go a long way toward integrating the narrative of the Old Testament into the consciousness of New Covenant Christians.  God chose those particular observances to reveal both a past and a future.  It would be good for churches to explain how Jesus uses these God-given times as types of his own salvation work.

Marking Time for Response

There is no real dichotomy between Yahweh and Jesus.  What we now call the Old Covenant was a wonderful gift from God to a people He saved.  A New Covenant became necessary because human beings were unable to live up to its holy and grace-filled demands, and therefore they broke covenant with God.  We Gentile Christians are grafted by grace into the rootstock of a remnant of Israel (Rom. 11:17-21).  Paul even warns Gentile Christians not to become proud of having “displaced” natural-born Israelites.  Reverent obedience to God is still a covenant requirement.

A reintroduction of the autumnal festivals into church worship rhythms could forge within Christians a greater, more coherent appreciation for the long-range work of a God who gave good gifts to the people of both covenants.  As we remember the past, present and future aspects of Jesus’ salvation work, it would be good to be taught about the Sinaitic/Deuteronomic Covenant by churches in a way that does not deprecate the work of God in that era of salvation history.  Fulfillment of the symbols embodied within it does not somehow render it unworthy of remembrance.  Its worship space, times and rituals were formative of a remembered salvation for a newly-freed nation and, later, of Messianic expectations for an exiled people who had broken covenant.  The apostles and early New Testament writers found in them Messianic realization and inauguration[7].  The worship space was destroyed by Roman armies.  The sacrifices were rendered obsolete by Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.  Holy times may be in a separate category.  Paul seems to be open to holy days, and refuses to let Christians set boundaries for others in this area[8].

This is good counsel for a post-modern era church.  It also leaves open the possibility of remembering the history (and future aspect) of salvation through reconnecting with the messianic symbolism that is built into the holy times God gave to ancient Israel.  This is a part of God’s revelation to his people that has been perhaps underappreciated in the church over many generations, contributing to an unnecessarily negative view of the law of the Old Covenant.

If such a reintegration is done well and non-legalistically, better appreciation for the grace of God throughout the Bible will result.  This could result in better-informed answers to questions about the seeming harshness of God in the Old Testament.  The God of the Bible has always been a God of forgiveness and fresh starts.  As examples, God rightfully objects to the neglect of the liberating aspects of his law (e.g. refusal to implement sabbatical year or jubilee) as well as the use of His delegated authority to oppress others (e.g. kingship of Ahab).  Meditation on the principles of the Old Covenant could also spark more creative ways of responding to social justice concerns than have been the norm for Evangelical Christians.

What is potentially attractive about these festivals is that their source is God.  They are to be found in the actual biblical narrative.  When the Bible reader who is aware of these festivals and their meaning encounters passages in which Jesus fulfils them, they have a context for being in awe of the great God who both foreshadowed and fulfilled that image in Jesus.  For instance, even a weekly Sabbath rest is directly connected in Hebrews 3-4 to God’s creation purpose (Hebrews 2:5-15, cf. Gen. 1:26-28) and future hope for humanity.  That future hope is none other than the purpose for which we were created: to fully have dominion with Jesus over a beautiful world that is teeming with life.

As followers of Jesus they will be aware that Jesus came to inaugurate an exodus from sin and death.  A proper response is to follow Jesus until we have fully entered into the Promised Land of eternal life.  As a follower of Jesus who is aware of the Feast of Tabernacles, one will understand that this life is a mere camping trip until real life becomes fully realized.  A proper response is to live a life entirely devoted to Jesus as an anticipation of full living.  It will also be a response of valuing treasure in heaven over treasure on earth.  Yearly reminders of the Day of Atonement may bring a response of awe and gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice.  It may also lead to a response of wanting others to experience true liberty from sin and fear of death.  It may further lead (if well understood) to a commitment to help others in tangible ways that maintain or restore their dignity, such as helping them find ways of earning a living as self-employed people rather just feeding them in soup kitchens.  There truly is a picture of freedom from the oppression of working as slaves of others in the Jubilee proclamation of this day.  Perhaps we can recapture the vision of providing for human dignity and worth that is inherent in the picture of each family being allotted a piece of land forever.

These are responses that can go beyond the normal evangelical desire to see people “saved” spiritually.  Jesus became human and was resurrected bodily to show that He desires to save not only the spirit, but also the flesh.  Remembering Jesus’ acts of salvation, past and future, via these festivals is one way to keep the tension between the already and the not-yet in liturgical view.

Potential Problems

There is always the possibility, however, that a legalistic approach could enter any attempt to reconnect with the Jewish roots of the Christian church.  Such an approach is not unknown within Jewish Messianic Christian movements.  Paul certainly insisted that Gentile converts need not become Jews in order to be saved.  He also refuses to teach his Gentile converts that keeping the Old Covenant law is required for salvation.  (Even in the establishment of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, salvation preceded covenant-obedience.  How much more is this so in the New Covenant!)  Every effort must be made to keep it from degenerating into an exclusive club of nitpicky rule-makers.

While legalism is a genuine possibility with this idea, it is also not unknown among Christians who eschew visible evidence of Jewish roots in their faith-walk.  Roman Christians endured centuries of prescribed menus and Latin worship.  Baptists would not dance, play cards or imbibe any alcohol.  All have “biblical” arguments for their rules and regulations.[9]  As a theological category, legalism cannot be limited to Jewish ways of looking at the Bible.  Festivals of any kind only reveal God’s person and will if the worshipper has a context in which to receive the revelation.  Any “holy time” imposed upon an unwilling person becomes a burden.  The solution is to make it clear, both at the outset and on a regular basis, that this should be time voluntarily set aside rather than a command.  Days that were commanded for ancient Israel are only one of many possibilities for a New Covenant people.  In an age where people are looking for coherence between what is believed and what is done, they may well be worth bringing back into the life of the church.


Reintroduction of the festive cycle of the Old Testament into the church in a non-legalistic way can provide occasions to meditate on the overarching themes of God’s original purpose for humanity and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  If the form and memorial function of the festivals in a liturgical year can be brought back into closer alignment with the biblical text, it may be possible to integrate better biblical understanding into the lives of church members.  This alignment could give believers better symbolic tools with which to comprehend and explain biblical revelation.  It could also potentially generate more imaginative, insightful and even truly helping-oriented responses in the lives of hearers and readers of the Divine Word.


[1] Witvliet, p. 56.

[2] The Jubilee year pronouncement during the Day of Atonement in the 50th year of the land Sabbath cycle of Israel (Lev. 25:8-10).

[3] Frame, p. 29-30.

[4] Hill, p. 100.  Hill points to church history as suggesting that some Christians observed Jewish festivals until well into the fourth century A.D.

[5] Peterson, p. 124.

[6] Hill, p. 93

[7] See especially the book of Hebrews.

[8] Rom. 14:5-6a

[9] Howard, pp. 12-14. A fair treatment of Evangelical taboos, pointing out the ubiquity of taboos in human cultures.


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About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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