Christmas and Easter:
What is the Bible-Believing Christian’s Duty
With regard to Holydays?
IN one form or another, this question inevitably comes to the mind of every serious believer sooner or later. He sees how Christmas and Easter are commercialized, and this seems profane. He hears that the traditions observed for these days are very old, and yet they are not from Holy Scripture; and this must mean that Biblical themes are being mixed with unbiblical practices. He finds that the very names of the days relish of something anciently pagan in the term Easter, and something presently superstitious in the term Christ-mass; and he longs for a way to disentangle his own practice from the haunting thought that he is borrowing part of his religion from either Paganism or Romanism. Didn’t he resolve an honest opposition to these things in resolving to follow Christ and renounce false religion?
Nevertheless, three strong factors are very obviously in favor if squashing these concerns, and moving on with the course he has always followed: (1) culture and family generally offer a harmonious call to keep up a custom that serves to unite, to preserve a heritage, and to define an identity; (2) multitudes of fellow-believers are committed to the same practice, and manage to carry forward in this with a good measure of confidence; and (3) important Christian leaders, of past and present times, have considered the matter, and account any objections against Christmas-keeping or Easter-observance as misguided: a mere fanaticism of folks not sufficiently informed.
But then, as strong as these factors are, his conscience testifies that “the customs of the people are vain,” (Jer. 10.3); that even within the company of believers, none are excused for sin simply because they “follow a multitude” to do evil, (Exod. 23.2); and the common answers of respected Christian leaders to justify some man-made traditions, while rejecting other traditions specifically because they are man-made, sounds very much like the leaven of which Jesus warned his disciples must beware, (Luke 12.1.)
Ultimately the Christian’s conscience calls for the warrant of the Word of God. He will either keep traditions in the name of religion, observe traditions as a system of the world’s customs, or possibly discard both; but he must do whatever he does with direction from the Bible. Mere allusions and comparisons to Biblical themes are not direction. And good intentions, about witnessing to others or overcoming atheist opposition to remnant religious influences in culture, can only be counted good while they measure up to how the Bible says these good intentions should be pursued.
“What saith the Scripture?” Our answer and direction must be found there.
Ready? — Probably not. — Most of us are on-guard about this. The world is full of deceivers, who twist the Holy Scriptures left and right. These enthusiastic Bible-quoters entangle one man’s conscience in vain agony about the rudiments of the world, (Col. 2.8,) and then give another man license to carry on with perverse sins in the name of liberty, (2 Pet. 2.19.) Consequently, many of us are on the defensive against lessons and conclusions based on the Bible that push us to any ideas or practices not already received by those we respect, or within the circle we consider safe and normal.
And in that regard, it may be we are wise. Depending on the leaders respected, or the circle defined, we may even say this policy is Biblical. It is the Lord himself who has taught that his sheep ought to go forth “by the footsteps of the flock,” and feed “beside the shepherds’ tents.” (Canticles 1.8.) He has given “pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” It is their responsibility to carry on this work with skill and faithfulness “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, etc.” (Eph. 4.11-12.) So while the real purpose here is to lay before you thorough details about what the Bible says, it may also be helpful to know who else has previously answered the question about Christmass and Easter with these lessons and observations from the Bible.
It must be acknowledged, the answer to be offered here, about what the Bible teaches the Christian’s duty is with regard to Christmas and Easter, is not the universal teaching of all the churches which have identified as “Catholic and Apostolic” by way of the historic Creeds of the Christian church. — But, it is the view which some such Christians held in the early church with regard to Christmas, and the view which many such Christians held in the Protestant Reformation with regard to both Easter and Christmas. At least three major reformers raised the concern about what direction would be biblical with the multitude of unscriptural holydays inherited from the Roman Church. They all proposed, more or less, the answer I will demonstrate and urge. Of them, one did not follow through. Another followed through as much as could be done given state impositions. And another, in his country, gave direction to the state about why it was necessary to follow the path which I will explain.
Moreover, the conclusion and practice I will describe is that of the Church of Scotland during her most Biblical and healthy phase, (the 1500s and 1600s,) and of the Puritans of England and New England. Many from the Dutch Protestant churches in the late 1600s also embraced this view, and the more Protestant-like Baptists of England and early America affirmed this perspective for a long time. I myself am a Presbyterian.
But what does the Bible say? Where should we gather our answer? Let’s begin with what Jesus teaches in the New Testament, make our comparison with the moral law of the Old Testament to assess our Savior’s own basis for what he approves and rejects, and then come back to the New Testament to see what bearing these principles had in the apostolic effort to bring the Gospel into the world at large.
Those who know the New Testament know that the Lord Jesus Christ did address the subject of religious traditions. They also know that the official leaders of Christ’s day were enthusiastic, and more than a little tyrannical, in attempting to impose their traditions on Jesus and his disciples, or judge these men in light of received traditions. In fact, it is easy to get distracted with the side-discussion about the sinfulness of men with unbiblical traditions imposing those traditions on others. But our question really relates to the traditions themselves. Assume the best things you can about those who observe these traditions: that they are “well intentioned,” that they are not themselves the original innovators, that they don’t judge others for neglecting what the Bible itself doesn’t require, and that they don’t make anyone uncomfortable with attempts to push their traditions on others; even with all this, Jesus would have something to say about the matter of traditions themselves, and what he says will be useful to answer our question.
In Matthew 15 and Mark 7, the Bible records for us an encounter between Jesus on the one hand, and the Jewish scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem, on the other hand. The question is raised by these leaders from Jerusalem: “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.” (Matthew 15.2.) Supposing Jesus had answered the question differently than he did, we might simply expect to find a defense of his disciples, and an assertion of their Gospel liberty. But Jesus doesn’t take that approach at all. He responds immediately with an answer that incriminates these tradition-keepers:
"Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?"
In other words: Your tradition involves you in sin. My disciples don’t need an excuse to abstain from your sin. You need to give an answer for your traditions.
As the reader of these Gospels will readily notice, Jesus goes on in this conversation with much more to say, but his first reply with a simple question was the definitive silencing of these tradition-keepers. The table was turned. As in other cases, there would be no success in gaining a point against Jesus or those who follow him.
In the verses which follow, Jesus proves his allegation, he identifies these Jews explicitly as “hypocrites,” he quotes the prophet Isaiah to draw an implicating analogy between his accusers and a former generation of hypocrites, and then he concludes with this powerful and ever-to-remember lesson: “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15.9.) — Actually this lesson wasn’t new. It was the lesson of the prophets, and it was the doctrine of the law. The words are similar to Isaiah’s, (ch. 29.13,) and closely reflect the old Greek translation of Isaiah’s text. And the Pharisees, being such great pretenders to expertise about the law, could not answer by saying either that “commandments of men sometimes make good doctrines,” or “God accepts some worship based on commandments of men and human tradition." No. The matter was settled. And whatever might yet have been debated, one thing was clear: the doctrine firmly held by Jesus.
Take it in these three points, which can all be gathered by examining Matthew 15 and Mark 7:
Religious observances and traditions not taught in the Bible are useless in pleasing God. This is the conclusion in verse 9 of Matthew 15, where we are told that such worship is vain. It does not honor God, nor does it please him. The same is stated in Mark 7.7.
Religious observances and traditions not taught in the Bible do not draw our hearts closer to God. This is clear from the first part of what Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29.13, where we find that this tradition-keeping zeal is judged to be of use only for drawing near to God “with their mouth,” though it leaves the zealots spiritually estranged from the God who is holy: “their heart is far from me.” (Matthew 15.8; Mark 7.6.)
Religious observances and traditions not taught in the Bible consistently bring us into conflict with or indifference towards God’s real commandments. This is implied by Jesus’ original counter-accusation in Matthew 15.3, further demonstrated in his example of how another of the Jews’ traditions conflicts with the fifth commandment, (Matthew 15.4-6,) and also twice stated in the account as given by Mark. See chapter 7, verse 9, where he augments his accusation, “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition”; and verse 13, where he says, ye make “the word of God of none effect through your tradition."
Whatever Jesus would say about Christmas and Easter in particular, it is very clear that he regards human institutions in matters of religion as vain, without spiritual reality, and practically dangerous not only as enforced on others, but even for those who observe them willingly.
The absoluteness and finality of our Lord’s argument is of little surprise to us when we consider the moral foundation for such lessons which already existed in the revealed Word of God. Jesus did not “come to destroy the law, or the prophets,” (Matth. 5.17,) and it is chiefly on account of these that the Jews could not possibly object to the answers and accusations Jesus presented to the Jews.
In the Old Testament, man-made religion is accounted a preëminent form of rebellion against God. And well it should be so accounted. In an era that involved the world being populated entirely by one family well acquainted with true religion revealed by God, (namely, the family of Noah and his descendants,) and in an era when the Lord often sent his inspired prophets to speak in his name, even to those who were departing from him, there could be little excuse for devising anything human in matters of religion. As there is no reality to serving the Lord, when we ignore what he commands, and do something else instead, so the essence of all man-made religion was effectively the same: men could commit idolatry by worshipping false gods, or they could commit idolatry by professedly worshipping the true God with such offerings, services, and image-making which were derived from the worship of other gods; but either way it was idolatry. Ahab was a horrific figure in Israel’s history, because he worshipped Baal. But prior to him, Jeroboam the son of Nebat was slated for infamy as he “who made Israel to sin,” (1 Kings 14.16,) because he resolved that the Lord should be worshipped in the form of golden calves, on feast days of his own appointing, with the help of a ministry which he had instituted himself. (1 Kings 12.26-33.)
All of this was in direct opposition to the Law of God. Certainly, it was not conform to any direction that the Lord had given. In the Law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments, we have four major points stated:
Who should be worshipped: the Lord demands that he only, and “no other gods,” should be worshipped, as is clear from the first commandment. This outlaws all religious service given to pagan idols, or to any person or creature beside the Lord.
How we should worship: the Lord, who commands all true worship, also forbids all inventions, and especially the making of graven images or other likenesses, as is described in the second commandment. The Lord himself judges between the loving of God, and the hating of God, not only by who we worship, but by how we worship.
The spirituality and sincerity of our worship matter: these must be so authentic that all our use of the Lord’s name, as the primary means by which he makes himself known, must be with genuine reverence, as is clear from the third commandment. This outlaws not only the occasional misuse of the Lord’s name in conversation, but also the hypocritical use of his name in worship that does not involve the worshipper’s heart.
The time and occasion of our worship: the Lord appoints both a time, and a proportion of time, for his worship, in the fourth commandment. In doing so, he owns the prerogative of determining when and how often men will engage in religious service; and by giving us direction with a pattern about a single weekly day of worship, and six days of labor, he leaves no place for the man who has a different plan or opinion about when he or others will worship the LORD.
These things all stand as the firm and immovable context for Jesus’ teaching about worship and religious traditions. He did not need to appeal to his divine authority, or prove his opinion about the seriousness of worship errors. It was no disadvantage to him that he was not a “doctor of the law,” like others, once the discussion was presented in the simple light of “God’s commandments” against “the elders’ traditions.” But there is more to the Law than just its Ten-Commandment summary.
When we say that the second commandment, using the example of graven images and other likenesses, is presenting a specific prohibition to condemn the more general offence of “all inventions” in the worship of God, this is not guess-work or opinion. Indeed, there are “opinions” to the contrary, promoted by certain schisms, which in some cases have a long history among the Christian churches. But their opinion is set in opposition to plain fact. We can no more say that image-making is the only kind of false worship condemned by the second commandment, than we can say that murder is the only kind of harming-our-neighbor forbidden in the sixth commandment, or adultery is the only kind of uncleanness forbidden in the seventh commandment. (Compare Matth. 5.21-32.) As James teaches us in the New Testament, those who break the law in one point, are guilty “of all” because we are called to keep a “whole law” in all its points. (James 2.10-11.) That being the case, we should not overlook the more detailed lessons of the Law and the Prophets about how God is to be worshipped, and what worship should be considered idolatrous.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses gives to the people of Israel, a long rehearsal of all that the Lord had done for them and their fathers, and all the instruction that had been given in commandments, statutes, and judgments. In the fifth chapter, the ten commandments were presented again, and, with respect to the worship of God, their substance is the same as above. But the law is not a single chapter only. The term “Deuteronomy” itself is a compound of two words: δευτερος, or ‘second’, and νομος, or ‘law’; because this whole book is presented as a re-declaration of the Law of God.
So consider also the twelfth chapter of Deuteronomy, which relates to religion, sacrifice, and worship. Other chapters detail the circumstances of particular ceremonies, but in this chapter we have a legal regulation ensuring that those details are kept pure from corruption. It begins by instituting a thorough clean-up of all the idolatry of the heathen. Israel was not to enter the land of Canaan, and then register historical sites and monuments for future students of antiquity, protecting the curious structures and implements of bygone idolatry. Instead they were commanded, “ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods.” (Verse 2.) They were commanded to “overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.” (Verse 3.) And the next verse, with its simplicity, should not be overlooked, “Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your God.” (Verse 4.) In other words, it is as if the Lord said, “You do not need to learn a single thing from these blind pagans about how to serve the true God. They did not learn their religion from me, and cannot teach you how to serve the LORD. If you intend to worship me, follow the pattern that I give you.” Indeed, this is the message of the chapter at large:
No one can devise for himself a way to serve the Lord. His natural blindness is not a fit guiding light, whether he is a pagan or an Israelite. Verse 8 says, “Ye shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes.” That is, the liberty they have taken to the present time, needs to be abandoned. The observation of sense is not a safe rule for the worship of God, and men can never agree together about its conclusions. They need a better rule of direction.
God himself gives the better rule of direction, and would yet show them the way to follow. He would appoint the circumstances themselves, with a definite place for their sacrifices and ceremonial system of worship to be practiced. Verse 11 says, “Then there shall be a place which the LORD your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there; thither shall ye bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings, etc."
When God provides the circumstance or details, men are not to supplement additions, or make exceptions the Lord did not define. Verse 13 says, “Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest.” No, they must keep to the place God would appoint.
God’s people need to be on guard against temptation, and a sinful disposition lurking in their hearts, to learn and devise new ways of serving the Lord. Verse 30 begins with “Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee.” And it represents the danger which the sinful heart of the religious personality inclines to, as if his question would be, “How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.” Curious structures, symbolic rituals, special preparations of food and drink, anniversary days in memory of special events, songs and performances to excite the feelings of worshippers, difficult and painful rites that express a man’s dedication to the object of his worship: all of these things, described with a little more detail in the last several verses of the second chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, are summarily forbidden at the end of Deuteronomy 12, with this single “take heed,” coupled with Moses’ embarrassing exposure of our religious faithlnessness: we are too too ready to “do likewise” with the heathen, as soon as we can learn a few details about the religion of these men who were wandering in the darkness to their eternal destruction.
But the very end of this chapter, in the last verse, is what we most need to remember. “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” (Deut. 12.32.) Here is the principle at the bottom of the second commandment. God does tell us how to worship him: prayer, reading his word, hearing his word read, teaching his word, singing his psalms, observing his ordinances. Surrounding it all is a mighty wall of defence: a principle distinguishing between all false religion, and all true religion; a rule discriminating between idolatry, and the worship of the Lord. Collect together all that the Lord has appointed for his worship, and then observe the simple rule: take nothing away, and add nothing to it. Neither of these is allowed any more than the other.
Do you want to know why Nadab and Abihu were devoured by fire before the Lord when they offered “strange fire before the LORD” in Leviticus 10? The text tells you, it was strange fire “which he commanded them not.” They disregarded that protecting wall of Deut. 12.32 safeguarding the true worship of God. True, they were worshipping the Lord. But they were worshipping the Lord in idolatry. They “added thereto” beyond the sufficient “What thing soever I command you."
Do you want to know why Jeremiah, speaking in the name of the Lord, proclaims judgment against the people of Judah for worshipping in their high places, and burning their children in the fire to their idols, and yet takes no time to prove that the slaying of children is murder, or that Baal is not the true God? It’s because a more simple fact gave absolute certitude to the conclusion that they were wrong without excuse. They had no direction from God for such worship: it was that “which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.” (Jer. 7.31; 32.35.)
Do you want to know why Jeroboam’s religious inventions, including his holyday, went from bad to worse, and never had the approval of any of the Lord’s prophets, even while Jeroboam and subsequent kings pretended to be worshippers of the Lord? It’s because Jeroboam and his priests had departed from that “what thing soever I command you” of Deut. 12.32, and had set foot in the path of what “he had devised of his own heart” (1 Kings 12.33.) Exactly where does that lead? Is there any limit? If the king follows his own heart, may not the nobles? may not the priests? may not all the people? We know the world’s answer. With its phony piety, it offers us on every side its hokey platitude: “follow your heart."
Do you want to know why Jesus leveled such hard accusations against the scribes and Pharisees of Matthew 15, in response to a mere question which some of them might have been asking in all sincerity? The answer still goes back to the end of Deuteronomy 12, as a principle essential to understanding the worship of God, and the purpose of the second commandment. The conflict brewing with the Pharisees was not only about my-party vs. your-party, nor my-pride vs. your competition. At the bottom, the conflict is about religion founded on the word of God, driven by the spirit of God, in opposition to religion that is founded on something beside the word of God, driven by that spirit which leads men away from the word of God.
Much more can be said about this topic from the Old Testament. Serious discipleship requires a willingness to read the books of the prophets, and Kings and Chronicles too. There we find the Lord’s explicit prohibition, “Learn not the way of the heathen,” with his assurance, “the customs of the people are vain.” (Jer. 10.2,3.) And there we find the long history of prophets and godly rulers struggling to keep men on the path of religion founded on God’s word, while Satan repeatedly tempts them to depart from that good rule. But for the present, we must proceed with the order proposed.
When our Lord Jesus gives his famous commission to the apostles at the end of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, his goal for the extension of his kingdom has a primary focus on the salvation of sinners. In this, he carries forward his agenda to “destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3.8.) This involves reversing all that Satan has effected in spreading darkness through the world, and taking possession of the Lord’s children as his own prey. False religion, perverse morality, delusional forms of philosophy and science, tyranny in church and state, and every other institution of the adversary of our souls, must be extirpated from the earth for the very reasons Satan has gone about to establish and fortify these in human society. On the one hand, all these things conflict with the honour and glory of God. And on the other hand, all these things, one way or another, serve to obstruct the progress of the divine light and saving grace which is advancing forward through the nations to gather the elect of God into fellowship with his Son. (1 John 1.3.) In the face of this formidable array of opposition, our Lord Jesus enacts his kingdom decree for the ministry of his church: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatosever I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28.19,20.) And with the King’s enactment, two things are joined:
A preamble which lays claim to his authority to give this direction: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” (Verse 18.) Literally it is so. Every claim to the contrary must recede. No king of any realm may oppose the commands of Jesus Christ. No people of any commonwealth may impede the progress of Jesus’ ambassadors. They will teach the right-and-wrong of worship, of life, and of society, according to the word of God. And from henceforth those trouble-makers whose pretend-scruples come forward with the question, “By what authority doest thou these things?” shall have one answer: by the authority of Him who was sent of his Father, (John 14.24.) It is by the authority of him who has been given “all power in heaven and in earth,” and who will come again to “judge the quick and the dead.” 2 Tim. 4.1.
An assurance which fortifies the witness and ambassador of the word of God against all doubts and fears. Indeed, there is authority for the things he must teach and command. But more, there is the presence of his Lord. “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” They need not fear the opposition they will face. Men will have their own commands and institutions. They will have their own claims to authority, as Amos found in Bethel: “for it is the king’s chapel, and it is the king’s court.” Notwithstanding men, their power, their institutions, their antiquity, their authority, their threatenings,—yet the “king’s court” and the “king’s chapel” will be taking some new instructions, because the “King of kings” is with his messengers. (See 1 Tim. 6.14-15.)
With this commission then, the Apostles of our Lord went forward into the world aiming not only to save souls from the consequences of sin, but also to transform society and displace all the religion found among the Gentiles, and deliver to every man, and every community, the mandatory instructions of the Redeemer-King, Jesus Christ.
So reflect for a moment, about what that would mean for the apostles, in terms of the worship of God. What were those mandatory instructions? What were the “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” from Jesus, about the worship of God?
1. We already considered extensively the fact that Jesus’ teachings oppose the inventions and traditions of men. He accounts human inventions and traditions in worship practice as conflicting with God’s commandment, and as amounting to worshipping God “in vain.” However old a human-tradition may be, and however much support it may have, Jesus does not will that it continue, and his command is against it.
2. Reflecting on John 4, and Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar, we learn that Jesus required that all worship must be “in spirit and in truth.” (verse 24.) If nothing else is certain, yet it is certain that the worship must be sincere and spiritual. The mind and heart must be affectionately engaged.
3. Again, from the same passage it is clear that something intelligent and informed is required: we must know whom we worship. Jesus faults the Samaritans with worshipping “ye know not what.” (verse 22.) Make no mistake, Jesus did not think Samaritans and Samaritan religion were “good.” In effect, his words put them on a level with the idolaters of Athens who worshipped “the unknown God.” (Acts 17.23.) Good neighbors some might be. Good Christians most were not. As a people, they had a religion which was condemned by Jesus.
4. Also, from this passage, we learn that Jesus’ commands do not enforce a Jerusalem-centered faith and worship practice. This is clear in verse 21, where our Lord assures the woman that neither Jerusalem nor any Samaritan site of worship will be the focus of God’s people. They will worship the Lord with acceptance in all the earth. And by consequence, it is not for man to re-institute a location-oriented system of worship.
5. Worship should be humble and un-ostentatious. Our Lord presses this point in opposition to the evil examples of those hypocritical Jews who endeavored to draw attention to themselves in their prayers and in their fasting. Three times in Matthew 6, such persons are informed that they need not expect thanks or approval from the Lord for such worship: “They have their reward.” (Verses 2, 5, 16.) And in Luke 18.11-14, the secret spirit of pride feeding this behaviour is painted forth to us in the thanksgivings of a man whose prayers were flooded with thoughts about himself, and how he is superior to others in religion and morals. In contrast to this, Jesus would have us worship the Lord as a people impressed with authentic feelings of our sinfulness, and our need of mercy.
6. The singing of the Lord’s praises should be maintained as an edifying and respectable activity for men in public and private. The Gospels of Matthew (26.30) and Mark (14.26) both record for us that Jesus and the disciples concluded their observation of the Passover, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper, by praising the Lord in worship song. And in observing this, it is good to note that the single word which our translation renders “sung an hymn” lends no support for the use of uninspired or sectarian hymns. We have every reason to infer that Jesus and his disciples in this case were hymning the Psalms of Scripture-itself to the Lord who had given these Psalms by the Spirit of infallible inspiration.
All of these commands or lessons should be remembered, and all of them did affect the ministry and instructions of the Apostles after Christ; but the first lesson is the primary concern of our present discussion. Jesus’ faithful apostles, carrying out their mission in the light of the authority given to him, would give direction to keep the worship of God limited to his own institutions, and free from all inventions and traditions of men. That is what they did.
When the creativity, extravagance, and self-gratifying inclinations of the Corinthians carried them headlong into disorder, and the abuse of spiritual gifts, Paul recalled them to the reality that formerly “ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led,” (1 Cor. 12.2.) As they were no longer such Gentiles, their worship ought not to be like what it was before. For Christians, the worship of God is not a matter of spiritual guess-work and experimentation, nor an attempt to temper the differing opinions and preferences of diversified cultures and personalities. A regard for order, and the rule of God’s word, will give direction, and will yield peace in the body. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” (1 Cor. 14.33.) So Paul insists; and the same Apostle resolves the difficult questions in Corinth, about the proper conduct of men and women in the Lord’s worship, with directions which he could back with the following words: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.” (verse 37.) God’s commandment gives direction.
From the Apostle Peter’s first epistle, we may discern whether the apostles were minded to follow the second commandment, or to regard it as obsolete with their boasted successors of later ages. Did they worship images, or pretend that the Lord’s people could make pictures suitable for reverence and devotion? We find an answer in 1 Peter 1.8. Speaking of Christ, Peter says, “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Though the phony “Successor of Peter” would have us strengthen our religious devotion by making pictures of an unseen Jesus, and rendering to them the worship which God forbids, yet Peter himself teaches us that the religious man who lacks the sensory knowledge of Christ and is deprived of the ostentatious paintings and statues admired by others, may yet for all this possess a spiritual joy that is “unspeakable and full of glory.” While others love the picture-Jesus received by the eyes, the believer who has learned from Peter loves the unseen-Jesus received by authentic faith. So Peter teaches; and the apostle John also explains the authentic loving of an unseen God in 1 John 4.12,20.
From the Apostle Jude’s epistle, we may gather two observations about his concerns relating to worship and religion: First, it is evident that Jude was concerned about the daring hypocrisy that so soon affected Christian congregations, just as it had affected the Jewish congregations of a previous era. While some separated themselves into sects, others presumed to come into the assemblies of Christians, and fearlessly partake in their feasts of charity. They drew near to the Lord with their mouths, but their hearts were far from him. Secondly, notwithstanding the extremity of disorder Jude observes, he has a task for us, and for all the saints: we must “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” What religion are we called to contend for? Popular religion? New religion? Emphatically it is “delivered” religion and therefore received religion. It is the religion given by God himself. So he says, in verse 3. View it in the light of a man brought up in the Scriptures then: This is a command to neither take away, nor suffer others to take away, from what God has delivered. And it is also a command to neither add, nor suffer others to add, to what God has given.
Now it might be that some would yet expect the Apostle James to render a little help to those who prefer ceremonies, and perhaps also human traditions. He does mention anointing with oil those who receive miraculous healing. And the Romanists often allege his epistle against the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, which perhaps leaves some feeling estranged from this apostle. But they should not. He is not against us. He is on our part. (Mark 9.40.) While his use of terms may vary from that of Paul, yet he plainly agrees that righteousness was imputed to Abraham upon his believing in chapter 2, verse 23. And as for worship, we find he was an advocate of simple and pure forms of worship: “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.” (James 5.13.) He will not leverage a man’s sickness to send him on a pilgrimage or extort showy rituals or voluntary dedications. He will have him pray. And he will have others pray for him. And he will have those with gifts of healing to use their gifts. When a man is full of joy, James will not leverage this to entice him to any kind of extravagance, nor will he license him to “follow his heart” in the imagination that all and every kind of worship attending his joy must be “spiritual” and worthy our approval. Rather, he joins the Apostle Paul (Col. 3.16,) and reminds him of the exercise the Scriptures prescribe: sing Psalms.
Let us return to the Apostle Paul. In Colossians chapter 2, he warns us against all worship that would distract us from the main and central thing in religion: “the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.” (Verse 19.) We gather from the chapter that the Pharisee-hearted men of his day were the same as those of Jesus’ day. They had their old rules about meats and drinks, holydays, new moons, and Jewish sabbaths, and they “judged” those who did not keep these things: a much more plausible kind of judgment than the hand-washing concern of those in Matthew 15 and Mark 7; but a wrong judgment nonetheless. They were presumptuous in their worship, and the inventions they appended to it. Paul names their “voluntary humility,” and a strange kind of worship devised concerning Angels. But these were things not revealed, and not commanded, only devised by their “fleshly minds.” (Col. 2.18.) At the end of the chapter there are some terms and categories worthy of note. He mentions “will worship”: all voluntary religion a man takes up without the Lord’s direction — without authority — without warrant — without faith. Faith must have reference to the Lord’s word. And he also mentions the same thing our Lord rebuked so sharply: “the commandments and doctrines of men.” We could consider his description, but the direction is plain. Jesus did not want us to meddle with these. Paul does not want us to meddle with these.
Finally, we should consider what the same apostle says in his letter to the Galatians. As with the hints about holydays in the previous passage, this also brings the discussion home to the question we are considering at present. Evidently moved by the influence of those judaizing spirits who were judging Christians in Colosse, the Christians in Galatia had been induced to adopt a new practice of a patched-together Christo-Judaism. It was not just claims about circumcision that excited them or concerned Paul. Consider what he says: “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain. Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am; for I am as ye are: ye have not injured me at all.” (Gal. 4.9-12.) If you wish to know why Paul used such strong language, you may consider his epistle at large. You will find sharper words yet. What makes men turn from the simplicity of Christian worship in its primitive and puritan form? What makes them imagine a greatness and preciousness in “weak and beggarly elements"? What makes men not only willing, but longing to be “in bondage” to the commandments, doctrines, and traditions of men? Not the Spirit of Jesus. Not the Gospel. And why do men who are in bondage defend their bondage as their liberty?
We must be honest about these questions: there are many answers, just as there are many men. Some Christians have been imposed upon. And others have been imposing upon good Christians. And sadly many professing Christians are too indifferent to care whether there is even a question about what should be done, or whether there is a distinction between right worship and wrong worship. We see how it was in Galatia: “They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them.” (Gal. 4.17.) And apparently others had a zeal that shifted according to the circumstances: “It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you.” (Verse 18.)
Now, the relevance of all these things is clear. Our modern holydays collect a few pieces of Scriptural doctrine and practice, and mix with them a great many things which are man-made. In themselves, they are man-made: they are the appointments of men, observed on a day of the calendar determined by men, with traditions devised by men. They diminish respect for the Lord’s day, as the day that God has appointed for the remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. They foster a false identity for nominal Christians who suppose there is something spiritual about their occasional-religion on these days. These days are also notorious for the increase of pictures, statues, and figures of a supposedly-seen-Christ which attend their celebration, though this more directly violates the second commandment. And for many, there will be no divorcing of these days from gluttony and covetousness, because, after all, that’s what makes Christmas Christmas, and that’s what makes Easter Easter. The ostentation and parade cannot be left out, because it is essential to persuading non-religious men that they should pretend to be religious.
Though it is obvious that in all of this, men do not actually draw closer to God with their hearts, though their mouths take up the name of Christ, (to use the distinction of Jesus in Matthew 15.8,) yet Christmas and Easter are defended by many arguments, reasons, and ill-used passages of Scripture. For some, there is too great strangeness in not observing what was always a source of joy from their youth. For others, there must be liberty in religion, and they are sure Jesus would extend it to include these holydays. Ultimately, these objections must give place to the scriptural facts presented above. One objection is worthy of notice for the present, and that concerns the last discussion of Paul cited above.
In Galatians 4, it is fairly evident that the times and holydays observed with the disapproval of Paul were those of Old Testament Judaism, then having a kind of resurrection in Galatia. Passover and the Feast of Booths, etc., are not the same as Easter and Christmas, as traditions which arose in the Christian church. On such a ground, some might object and allege that the condemnation of Jewish-holyday-observance is not a condemnation of holydays invented among Christians.
But everything we have already observed meets this objection and appeal with a clear refusal of its relevance. If Christmas and Easter were holydays of the Old Testament order, there would be more semblance of a Scriptural warrant for their observation. But they have no such origin. They must be regarded as either inventions of Christians, or as Jewish practices revised, or as Pagan traditions in a Christian dress. But none of these origins can make them allowable.
If they are inventions of Christians, then they come under consideration as doctrines and commandments of men, forbidden by Jesus, Matth. 15.9, and as an adding to the law, forbidden by Moses, Deut. 12.32. Or,
If they are Jewish practices revised, then they come under the direct condemnation of this passage in Galatians 4. Paul did not advise that their “beggarly elements” be improved, but called them to put away what were, in the circumstances, commandments of men. Or,
If they are Pagan traditions adopted into a Christian dress and form, then they are emphatically forbidden by Paul in 2 Cor. 6.14-18, and by Jeremiah in Jer. 10, and by Moses in Deut. 12.30.
But besides, we must consider: What is it that makes a form of worship one of those “weak and beggarly elements,” which Paul slights in Gal. 4.9? And how can Paul compare Passover and the New Moon sacrifices, to the old observances of the former-pagans of Galatia, who used to serve those who “by nature are no gods"? (Verse 8.)
No doubt the comparison would be resented by David or Moses, if they were deprived of the knowledge of the circumstances in which Paul wrote. But we are not deprived of that knowledge, and it is a certain fact that spiritual and holy men like David and Moses would readily be content with an order of worship free of sacrifices and holydays: an order in which “meats and drinks, and divers washing, and carnal ordinances” were no longer imposed because the “time of reformation” had come. (Heb. 9.10.) What was the real epitome of the religion of holy men like David, Moses, Jehoiada, and Job? Do we admire them for their outward religion and ritual observance? Or have we found in their writings and lives something in comparison more excellent? Would David need Christmas to be persuaded to be a Christian? Would Moses need Easter to be persuaded that Christ our Passover is Sacrificed for us? (1 Cor. 5.7.)
What do you need, to be a prayerful Christian? What do you need, to be a witnessing Christian seeking to evangelize your neighbors and co-workers? What do you need, to find spiritual delight in the practice of the Christian religion? What do you need, to be assured that the Lord is with you, and his love rests upon you? What do you need, to feel that Christianity is a system and life with order, culture, and history superior to all other religions?
Holydays, invented by men, with no warrant in the word of God, attended with superstitions, and tending to displace the actual commandments of God, are not the answer to any of these questions.
You don’t need them. In fact, you need to be rid of them. Jesus is calling you to walk his walk, and Christmas and Easter are not part of that. He wants you to be mindful of the things which God has commanded, and of the principles of worship which serve to ensure that God’s children, as true worshippers, “worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4.23-24.) He respected the Lord’s prohibition by Moses of all worship added to the law, and he confronted the religious people of his day about following the traditions of men. (Matthew 15, Mark 7.) And today he is, through his word, confronting you about the traditions of men.
At this point, the answer to our question has been made clear. More objections could be raised, and can also be answered. But the answer from Scripture-directions about traditions in worship is plainly that a Christian cannot participate in Christmas and Easter without incurring the guilt of sin. When he celebrates Christmas, and when he observes Easter as something more than the Lord’s-Day, he joins others in an invention obtruded on the worship of God. He meddles in a matter that properly pertains to Jesus himself to prescribe. He participates in corporate sin which former generations of Christians have renounced and disowned in times of reformation and church-wide repentance.
So for you, the answer at present must at least be this: that henceforward you will not do as others do in this thing. Evidence was strong before that this was an unclean thing which the Lord was not willing to cleanse after many generations. And now you know that you must not touch this unclean thing. You cannot expect that the Lord will make these institutions clean, because they are not what the Lord prescribes in his word. Whatever doubts you have, you know that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” (Rom 14.23,) and neither Christmas nor Easter can be observed until their promoters show their institution in the word of God. Either these things are commanded, and it is sinful to neglect them, (which should not be difficult to show if it is true,) or else these things are not commanded, and it is sinful to observe them.
And as for those who are thoroughly persuaded of the sinfulness of these holidays, it is your duty not only to abstain, but also to oppose. You must “contend earnestly” for pure and real religion. If you are a minister, an elder, a father, a leader in your community, a friend to erring brethren, you have a responsibility to share the light the Lord has given you, to help others out of the patterns and trappings of superstition and idolatry. Jesus spoke of these things to enemies, and he spoke of them to strangers. We should not doubt he spoke of them to friends and disciples too.
To conclude this discussion, consider yourself exhorted to take the right and Scriptural path in this matter, and admonished to abide therein though you meet with opposition and discouragement. Take the following few passages of Scripture to ensure yourself that this is the way which will be the way of peace, and ultimate success, for the Christian Church, and for you. You have heard the passages already, which serve to answer our question about Christmas and Easter; but these I offer you to support you in the difficulty of enduring opposition, and encourage you in the mission of laboring for a new reformation of the Christian Church:
In the fourteenth chapter of Revelation, among those “angels” or messengers which herald the Reformation of Christ’s church, the first angel calls us to the pure worship of the true God, disentangled from the idolatry and superstition of the Beast and the False Prophet:
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. — Revelation 14.6-7.
The religion you are called to, purged from all the influences of those evil workers named & described as the above passage continues, is a religion for every nation: for all people.
In the fourth chapter of John, which we considered earlier, our Savior’s words are not only a matter of doctrine, but also of promise, concerning the great change that would be brought about in the New Testament era, by which all nations would be brought to the same order of pure and simple worship, disentangled from local and distinguishing customs:
Believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father... the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. — John 4.21, 23.
The religion and worship you are called to practice, and to promote, is the religion of a people sought by God. Though the effort appears weak, unpopular, and despised, the Father himself is looking for it.
And finally, Remember what was prophesied more anciently, when Old Testament saints looked forward to a New Testament Church extending throughout all the nations of the earth, and observing one religion founded on the word of God. In our own practice of religion, we either advance and help forward the accomplishment of this hope, or else we obstruct it in preference for the things which are of men:
And the LORD shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one. — Zech. 14.9.
Search the Scriptures. They answer this question. And their answer is only one and the same, which every child of God is obliged to acknowledge, and to obey. May the Lord help you, encourage you, and strengthen you for the work which is to follow. Amen.