Q: I would like to ask your help in explaining something I am having trouble understanding. I know that you depend heavily on Leviticus 23 to prove that people should observe the holy days that are listed there. Several verses say that “it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations.” But it also says that God told Moses to “speak unto the children of Israel” about these things. It seems like these days and festivals were intended only for the Hebrew people in ancient times. There is no indication that other people were ever meant to observe them. The fact that it says “a statute for ever among your generations” does not seem to be enough to prove that everyone, everywhere, even today should observe these days. If the instructions were given to the “children of Israel,” how could others who never received the instructions be expected to follow them.
Also, Leviticus 24 speaks of using olive oil to keep the lamps burning continually. Verse 3 says this “shall be a statute for ever in your generations.” I’m sure you do not believe this applies today. Your churches do not have lamps burning continually. So how can you say chapter 23 is still to be observed but chapter 24 is not when they both say “forever in your generations.”
Finally, back in chapter 23, there are several references to an offering made of fire. Your churches do not offer burnt offerings. How can you pick some parts of the chapter to obey but not other parts. For example, verses 7 and 8 say, “ye shall do no servile work therein. But ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord.” You believe the first part about servile work should be obeyed but not the part about a burnt offeringand yet they are part of the same statement.
You see my problem? You appear to pick certain chapters and verses and say everyone needs to obey them. But then other verses that use the same language, “a statute for ever,” you say do not need to be obeyed.
Please help me to understand the reason for this.
A: First, you are quite right in saying, “The fact that it says ‘a statute for ever among your generations’ does not seem to be enough to prove that everyone, everywhere, even today should observe these days.” Obviously, God does not hold people responsible for holy days they know nothing about. These days were given to Israel, as you point out, and there is no evidence that God had revealed them to anyone else before establishing them for the nation He brought out of Egypt.
However, the continuity between Israel and the church cannot be ignored. In Romans 11:16-24, the true Israel is depicted as an olive tree with both natural and grafted branches, which represent converted Jews and gentiles. Thus, Israel’s tree is the church. In Romans 2:28-29, Paul says, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardlybut he is a Jew who is one inwardly.” In Galatians 4:29, the apostle states, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” For this reason, Paul can speak of the church as “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).
God’s promise of renewing His covenant with Israel is applied to the church (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-13), and prophecy pertaining to the restoration of Israel finds fulfillment in the establishment of the church (cf. Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:16-21). Gentile converts to Christianity were once “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise,” but in Christ those “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). These believing gentiles are “no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints [believing Israelites] and members of the household of God” (verse 19).
Through the prophet Isaiah, God reveals that the time will come when many non-Israelites will seek to learn the ways of the God of Israel. “For out of Zion shall go forth the law [to the nations], and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). So, yes, the law God gave to Israel was not meant to be exclusively for Israel. This can be seen in several Old Testament passages, including Zechariah 14, where God calls for the nations outside Israel to keep the Feast
of Tabernacles. It also comes across very clearly in the New Testament. For instance, Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, applies the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue (a part of the law given to Israel) to gentile believers, and even gives the land-promise associated with that commandment a universal application (Ephesians 6:13). Of course, Paul knew, as we do today, that certain aspects of the law were limited to specific times and places, and only certain underlying principles can be applied outside those time/place boundaries.
For ancient Israel, the law was viewed through the “lenses” of the Exodus. Laws pertaining to slavery, laws dealing with foreigners, and laws concerning the observance of Sabbaths and festivals were Exodus-related. In fact, the Sinaitic Covenant is Exodus-centered. Obviously, festivals commemorating the Exodus and related events have less meaning for non-Israelites than for Israelites. But once it is recognized that the festivals are not static in meaning, and that they actually have more New Covenant and Christological meaning than Exodus/Old Covenant meaning, then citizens of the “Israel of God” can see clearly that the annual festivals of Leviticus 23 do, in fact, apply to the New Covenant community.
How a particular law applies to a Christian must be determined on the basis of (1) the purpose of the law in question, and (2) the Christological/New Covenant meaning of that law. Only then will we be fully equipped to determine how a particular law relates to our situation. Where holy days are concerned, we realize that it would be quite unlawful to offer the sacrifices associated with them in our churches. The law demands that sacrifices be offered only at the tabernacle (or temple), and only under the supervision of the Levitical priesthood. However, it was always understood by the Israelites that a person could lawfully observe the holy days outside of Jerusalem, or, for that matter, outside of Israel.
The lighting of the candles you refer to pertains to the tabernacle, not local churches. While there is an abundance of evidence that in the future the temple will be rebuilt, the priesthood restored, and the sacrifices reinstituted under the direction of the Jesus Christ (see Ezekiel 4048), the temple (tabernacle) is not standing now and there is no functional priesthood officiating. Our churches are not patterned after the temple services, but are more like the synagogues that served as learning and worship centers for the scattered Jews and God-fearing gentiles of the ancient world. It would be a mistake to apply the sacrificial and ceremonial laws of the tabernacle/temple to local churches.
When we observe the annual holy days, we are celebrating the sacrificial and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. We recognize that the holy days are a “shadow” of the good things Christ makes possible for His people, but His is the “body” that casts the shadow (see Colossians 2:16-17).