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Does It Matter to God?
Over the last two millennia, traditional Christianity has systematically laid aside the "feast days of the Lord" and established its own holidays. Christmas was established to enable pagan converts to come into church fellowship without forsaking their heathen customs and practices. Easter is a replacement for the biblical Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread.
Even the weekly Sabbath was abandoned in favor of Sunday, supposedly to commemorate Jesus' resurrection (which, as we demonstrated earlier, did not take place on Sunday morning).
Although we should immediately recognize that overruling God's instructions is dangerous behavior, let us consider, from the biblical record, whether such humanly designed inventions and alterations are acceptable worship to our Creator God.
Changing God's instructions
When God began working with the ancient Israelites, He intended they set an example of obedience to Him for the nations around them (Deuteronomy 4:1, 6-8). They were to be a model nation, showing other peoples that God's way of life produces abundant blessings. Their experiences serve as continuing examples for us (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).
During their years in Egypt, the Israelites were exposed to Egyptian culture and worship. Notice what Unger's Bible Dictionary says about this culture: "The Egyptian religion was an utterly bewildering polytheistic conglomeration in which many deities of the earliest periods, when each town had its own deity, were retained ...
"Every object beheld, every phenomenon of nature, was thought to be indwelt by a spirit which could choose its own form, occupying the body of a crocodile, a fish, a cow, a cat, etc. Hence the Egyptians had numerous holy animals, principally the bull, the cow, the cat, the baboon, the jackal, and the crocodile" (1966, p. 291, "Egypt").
Shortly after miraculously delivering the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, God instructed them how He wanted to be worshiped. He gave them His commandments (Exodus 20), along with statutes and judgments detailing how to apply them (Exodus 21-22). God revealed His feast days (Leviticus 23) and gave directions regarding a priesthood, tabernacle and offerings (Exodus 25-31). God told Moses to climb Mount Sinai and gave him two tablets of stone engraved with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12; 31:18).
When Moses delayed coming down from Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1), Aaron and the people decided to mix the Egyptian form of worship with the instructions they had just received from God. The practice of blending religious beliefs and practices is known as syncretism.
After creating a golden image of a calf, Aaron proclaimed the next day a holiday—"a feast to the Lord" (verses 4-5). They then "rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry" (verse 6, New International Version). This celebration combined God's instruction with Egyptian religious practice and tradition.
We are not told why the Israelites chose this mix of worship. Perhaps they thought it was not a good idea to abandon all of the familiar forms of worship at once and they simply practiced what they were familiar with from their years immersed in Egyptian culture. Whatever their thinking, God was not pleased. He told Moses: "Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them" (verses 7-8, New International Version).
God shows from His Word He expects more from those who claim to follow Him. He wants people to worship Him "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24)—not in corrupted, vile practices rooted in worship of other gods.
Consequences of futile worship
The Israelites were in no way justified in departing from the God-ordained instructions introduced in the wilderness. God was so angered by their actions that He was ready to destroy the nation (Exodus 32:10). Only because of Moses' pleadings did God relent and spare them (verses 11-14).
Ancient Israel's experiment with combining parts of God's instruction with pagan customs and elements was a disaster. In punishment for this sin, 3,000 men lost their lives (verses 27-28). The remaining people had to drink water polluted with the ground-up idol, pulverized into powder (verse 20).
Being presumptuous—taking unauthorized liberty to do things such as altering God's instructions for worship—is sinful. The Bible describes the Israelites' actions as "a great sin" (verses 21, 30, 31). God's law is clear concerning presumptuous behavior (Numbers 15:30-31).
The principle holds true today among God's people. Once we come to understand His truth, we have an obligation to take steps to obey Him. We recognize that the instruction and examples in His Word were recorded for our spiritual instruction and benefit (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11; Romans 15:4).
Additional warnings for Christians
The generation of Israelites who built the golden calf apparently never learned to trust and obey God. Only a short time later, while preparing to go into the land God had promised them, they grew afraid of the land's inhabitants and refused to enter (Numbers 13-14). As a result, God told them they would wander 40 years in the wilderness until all those who had refused to follow His instructions had died (Numbers 14:33). After their deaths, God then began preparing the next generation to enter Canaan.
Part of God's instructions included an explicit warning against incorporating pagan customs into their worship. Here are His exact words:
"When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.'
"You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
Regrettably, the Israelites failed to permanently heed God's warning. Time and time again they let their fascination with the religious practices of those around them get the better of them as they lapsed into idolatrous worship.
Around 600 B.C. God gave three more warnings against this kind of behavior. First, through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, "Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them" (Jeremiah 10:2). Here God cautioned His people against following the gentile (non-Israelite) practices of worshiping the heavenly bodies (like the sun on Dec. 25) and against astrology in general.
In the following verses (3-5), God describes some of their idolatrous customs. They cut a tree from the forest, shaped it with an ax and overlaid it with precious metals.
Although this account is specifically referring to the making of an idol (verses 6-8), God's command, "Do not learn the way of the Gentiles," applies to all pagan customs. Christmas trees, mistletoe and colorful lights that come from pagan winter-solstice celebrations, rabbits and Easter eggs as fertility symbols, and demonic concepts at Halloween, all fit this prohibition. In giving this instruction against learning the way of the gentiles, God wanted His people to avoid the type of sin their forefathers had committed with the golden calf.
A few years later God again expressed His anger with His people. "For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. They have committed adultery with their idols, and even sacrificed their sons whom they bore to Me, passing them through the fire, to devour them. Moreover they have done this to Me: They have defiled My sanctuary on the same day and profaned My Sabbaths. For after they had slain their children for their idols, on the same day they came into My sanctuary to profane it; and indeed thus they have done in the midst of My house" (Ezekiel 23:37-39).
Here it appears that Israel practiced one of the customs like those associated with the Saturnalia and worship of Saturn—the sacrificing of children—and then came to worship God on one of His Sabbaths!
Through the prophet Zephaniah God decried "those who worship the host of heaven on the housetops; those who worship and swear oaths by the Lord, but who also swear by Milcom" (Zephaniah 1:5). God is not pleased when people are double-minded (James 1:8, 4:8) in their worship—accepting false religions and customs while professing to worship Him.
Consistent message throughout the Bible
Some people wrongly assume that Old Testament instructions that condemned mixing paganism with godly worship were annulled during apostolic times. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To prove the continuity of God's teaching in the New Testament, let us consider the city of Corinth. Here we find one of the most instructive examples about incorporating paganism into Christianity.
Strategically located just south of the narrow isthmus connecting central Greece with the Peloponnisos, this city sat on an important trade route. Its inhabitants grew rich by transporting goods across the four-mile isthmus, which saved them a 200-mile trip by ship. Worship of Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love) had long been part of the city's history. It also boasted a temple to Apollo, the Greek sun god.
What was Corinth like in the first century? "[Here] the apostle Paul established a flourishing church, made up of a cross section of the worldly minded people who had flocked to Corinth to participate in the gambling, legalized temple prostitution, business adventures, and amusements available in a first-century navy town ...
"The city soon became a melting pot for the approximately 500,000 people who lived there at the time of Paul's arrival. Merchants and sailors, anxious to work the docks, migrated to Corinth. Professional gamblers and athletes, betting on the Isthmian games, took up residence. Slaves, sometimes freed but with no place to go, roamed the streets day and night. And prostitutes (both male and female) were abundant. People from Rome, the rest of Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor—indeed, all of the Mediterranean world—relished the lack of standards and freedom of thought that prevailed in the city.
"These were the people who eventually made up the Corinthian church. They had to learn to live together in harmony, although their national, social, economic, and religious backgrounds were very different" (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, "Corinth").
Paul's instruction on other practices
Writing to this diverse group, primarily gentiles with a tradition of idol worship (1 Corinthians 12:2), Paul addressed the issue of whether outside religious customs and practices had any place among God's people.
". . . What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'
"Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.' Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 7:1).
Instead of renaming some of the pagan customs as Christian or allowing the new converts to retain some of their former practices, the apostle Paul commanded them to leave behind all of these forms of worship. He condemned the sexual immorality that was a common part of the fertility rites in honor of the goddess Aphrodite (1 Corinthians 6:13, 18; 1 Thessalonians 4:3). No doubt the new church did not participate in winter-solstice celebrations to the sun god, Apollo.
Christianity that is faithful to the Bible teaches its followers that "our old man was crucified with Him [Jesus Christ], that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin" (Romans 6:6). If someone is strongly committed to following Christ, "he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Paul explains that we are not to retain our favorite past religious
traditions. Indeed, "all things have become new"! As part of the
"old man" (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9), our former styles of
worship must go.
We see the obvious continuity between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible; the new forbids mixing pagan tradition with the "worship in spirit and truth" God commands (John 4:23-24).
Authority from man or God?
Since God is so strongly opposed to altering His revealed days of worship (Deuteronomy 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19), by what authority did human beings change the days we observe? Here is what the Encyclopaedia Britannica says about some early Christians: "Though many of [Jesus'] disciples continued to observe the special times and seasons of the Jewish Law, new converts broke with the custom because they regarded it as no longer needful or necessary" (15th edition, Vol. IV, p. 601, "Church Year"). Notice the lack of divine authorization. The people decided to make this change.
One of the first humanly devised changes was to worship on Sunday rather than the seventh-day Sabbath, the day authorized in the Bible. The same source acknowledges that "the New Testament writings do not explain how the practice began" (ibid., p. 603). Though some have theorized this change occurred in honor of Christ's resurrection, we have already seen that this rationale is flawed because Christ was resurrected near sundown on Saturday rather than on Sunday.
Replacing God's annual feast days with pagan holidays was also done in the same spirit. This same encyclopedia article also makes this frank admission: "Unlike the cycle of feasts and fasts of the Jewish Law, the [modern] Christian year has never been based upon a divine revelation. It is rather a tradition that is always subject to change by ecclesiastical law. Each self-governing church maintains the right to order the church year" (p. 601).
When the kingdom of Israel divided after Solomon's death, King Jeroboam of the northern 10 tribes soon changed the date of the annual autumn festival from the seventh to the eighth month of the Hebrew calendar (1 Kings 12:32-33). So the first king of the new northern Israelite dynasty established a corrupting pattern in the nation's religious life, one that eventually helped lead to the northern tribes' destruction at the hands of the Assyrian Empire.
Throughout the northern kingdom's history, the political and ecclesiastical leadership stubbornly persisted in "the sins of Jeroboam" (1 Kings 13:34; 15:30; 16:2-3, 19; etc.), one of which was his unauthorized alteration of the date of a God-ordained religious festival.
Time to leave traditions behind
As creatures of habit, we can find ourselves following traditions that are contrary to God's instructions. Almost 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ pointed out that a devoutly religious group, the Pharisees, was in just such a situation. Christ told them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men ... All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition" (Mark 7:6-9).
Just proclaiming that something is Christian does not make it so. No matter what our traditions have been or what rationalizations our reasoning may employ, the Bible is clear that we must follow our Creator's directions on His days and forms of worship.
In Colossians 2:8 the apostle Paul warns, "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ."
Similarly, one of the last messages in the Bible reveals this warning for people caught up in a great worldwide system that established itself in opposition to God: "Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues. For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities" (Revelation 18:4-5).
We have a choice. We can choose the feast days instituted by God or the holidays substituted by men. The choices we make affect our destiny and impact our relationship with our Creator.
We can take great comfort in the meaning of God's days of worship, since they represent the magnificent plan of God, who will give every human an opportunity to understand and accept His way of life either now or, for the majority of human beings, in an age yet to come.
©2002 United Church of God, an International Association