This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume34, number 2(2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org.
In AD 49, the two major wings of the fledgling Christian faith met at Jerusalem to decide the fate of the church. The Pharisaic party claimed, “It is necessary to circumcise [Gentile converts] and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).1 However, it was deemed that grace ruled against any need to become Jewish and to follow the law. Nevertheless, many questions remained. The church was under the New, and not the Old, Covenant (Heb. 8:13). Did this new reality require a separation from the Old? Does it also require the church to distance itself from the celebration of the Jewish holidays, namely the Passover? Now that many churches are celebrating “Christ-in-the-Passover,” this question is re-emerging.
Clearly, an Absolute Separation Isn’t Warranted.
Jesus’ disciples spent a lot of time in the Temple. After His ascension, they “were continually in the temple praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53). They were there daily and then would return to their homes to break bread together (Acts 2:46). Peter and John continued this practice (Acts 3:1), going to the temple on a daily basis to preach (Acts 5:42). An angel saw no problem in directing the apostles to go to the temple to preach (Acts 5:20). From this, it doesn’t seem that the temple was now off-limits.
The Church Has Freedom Regarding Contact with Things Pertaining to the Mosaic Covenant.
“Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man” (Matt. 15:17–18).2
According to Jesus, food (or whatever things that are external) would no longer defile the believer. This was the lesson that Peter had learned through his vision and the voice that instructed him to eat nonkosher foods (Acts 10:9–16). This principle also extended to eating foods offered to idols: “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience….If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience” (1 Cor. 10:25–27).
Paul taught that this liberty even extended to eating such foods at a pagan temple, as long as it didn’t entice the brethren to do something that would violate their conscience (1 Cor. 8:4–13; Rom. 14:23). Clearly, we are no longer defiled by contact with any material objects: “To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). We are even free regarding the days we choose for worship (Col. 2:16–17; Rom. 14:5–6). More significantly, the New Testament always draws our attention back to the Old through quotations and allusions. If we can study the Old, why can’t we Christologically (with Christ in view) enact the Old?
However, There Are Limits to Our Freedom in Christ.
If we do have this freedom, why does the Spirit censure those who teach believers “to eat things sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:14; also 2:20)? There is a big difference between purposely seeking out foods offered to idols for spiritual benefit and mere contact with them. Although Paul taught that the idol is nothing and even the sacrifice to the idol is nothing, the participation in these rituals is definitely something:
“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry….The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [koinonia] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion [koinonia] of the body of Christ?…Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers [koinonos] of the altar? What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship [koinonos] with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake [metecho] of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?”(1 Cor. 10:14–22)
Christians may differ in their understanding of what it means to have koinonia through the Lord’s supper, but it is obvious that Paul relates the koinonia we experience with the koinonos experienced by “Israel after the flesh” and the pagan “Gentiles.” In each case, there seems to be some form of a spiritual participation through their rituals. In the case of the “Gentiles,” they “fellowship” with demons, and such fellowship provokes God’s “jealousy,” when His children actively participate.
Worship Must Conform to Truth.
It is clear that we do not have the freedom to partake in pagan ritual, but these verses say little about our participation in the Mosaic rituals. Paul argued that because God had created a revelation-laden world, humankind was “without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful” (Rom. 1:19–21).
Everyone worships something, but God requires that His creation worships Him as He truly is. Jesus said as much to a Samaritan woman with whom He conversed at a well. Her understanding of religion was superficial; it was merely a matter of where they worshipped. Jesus responded, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:2–24).
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We don’t have freedom in worship. We “must worship in spirit and truth”! Does this imply that as long as I am truthful in my heart—praying to Jesus all the time—I can participate in pagan worship, assigning to it my own meanings? Certainly not! It would be like telling your wife, after she caught you with a prostitute, that you were thinking about her the entire time. Worshipping God “in spirit and truth” requires a harmony between the way we act, think, believe, and even speak. However, celebrating the Passover Christologically in truth would not invoke any disharmony.
But Shouldn’t We Avoid Entanglements with the Law of Moses?
Paul warns, “Do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” [the Law] (Gal. 5:1). Wouldn’t celebrating the Passover represent this form of entanglement? I don’t think so. Paul explains his concern further: “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:3–4).
Paul wasn’t concerned about mere contact with the law, but the “attempt to be justified by law.”3 Such an attempt necessarily compromises one’s faith in Christ and in His more-than-adequate justification (Gal. 3:1–5; Rom. 3:23–28). If we celebrate the Passover because we believe that this will impart blessings that we could not obtain through Christ, then we are compromising Christ, in whom we are complete (Col. 2:9–10).
At the same time, Paul warned against being circumcised (Gal. 5:1–4). However, he had his biologically half-Jewish convert Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1–3). Was Paul acting hypocritically, and, even worse, was he jeopardizing Timothy’s relationship with his Savior? Of course not! The physical act of circumcision isn’t problematic, but rather what we believe about it. Paul wasn’t performing this act to save Timothy, but instead to make him acceptable to the Jews among whom they would be working. Likewise, celebrating the Passover isn’t necessarily problematic, but what we believe about it could be.
I would accompany my father to the synagogue on occasion. However, I didn’t believe that Scripture required this; nor was I trusting in law-keeping. I did it evangelistically and to support my father. I didn’t participate in the liturgy, lest I’d give the wrong impression and mislead others regarding my Christian identity. Nor did I want to risk provoking the Lord to jealousy (1 Cor. 10:22).
To Convey Wrong Impressions and Ideas through Unfaithful Worship Would Compromise Our Identity and Offend God.
I therefore wouldn’t participate in the Passover or other rituals at the synagogue, lest someone might construe my behavior to communicate that I believed that the Mosaic Covenant is still in effect. Such “speaking” would also be offensive to God (Job 42:7– 8). In defense of this type of participation, some Messianic Jews might cite the example of Paul taking the Nazarite vow: “Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification, at which time an offering should be made for each one of them” (Acts 21:26).
Paul’s action is truly problematic. It not only involved animal sacrifice—Christ represented the fulfillment of all animal sacrifices—it also communicated the wrong thing. Purification had been accomplished in full through Christ. Such a vow might therefore be wrongly interpreted to mean that Christ wasn’t sufficient. Besides, those Jews who were taking this vow alongside Paul would have understood Paul to be “preaching” the necessity and continuance of the Law. Matthew Henry wisely wrote, “James and the elders of the church at Jerusalem, asked Paul to gratify the believing Jews, by some compliance with the ceremonial law. They thought it was prudent in him to conform thus far. It was great weakness to be so fond of the shadows, when the substance was come….The apostles were not free from blame in all they did; and it would be hard to defend Paul from the charge of giving way too much in this matter.”4
I can see Paul in tears all the way to the temple. All of our actions must be governed by truth. Can Christians celebrate the Passover? Yes, as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t obscure truth, but instead brings gospel truth to light. Furthermore, in demonstrating the unity of all His truth—how Jesus fulfills the Old (even the Passover) with the New—we glorify our truth-Giver!
Daniel Mann has taught at the New York School of the Bible since 1992 and blogs at www.MannsWord.blogspot.com. He is the author of Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God’s Way (Xulon Press, 2004).
1 All Scripture quotations are from the NKJV unless otherwise noted.
2 Mark 7:19 adds, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’” (NIV).
3 Emphasis added.
4 Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on Acts 21:19–26.