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Did The Apostles Keep Feasts?

Most of, if not all the apostles kept feasts long after Jesus had established the new covenant and returned to heaven. It may be even more of a surprise to realize that they not only kept the feasts, but they also kept most of, if not all the other rituals and ceremonies associated with the law of Moses!

Unfortunately, in the early church a situation developed where there were two different standards for Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. This may be hard to believe at first, but the evidence is unmistakable. Let us examine a few passages which reveal this fact:

And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. (Acts 21:18-22)

This is a description of what happened on Paul’s last journey to Jerusalem. It appears that James, the brother of Jesus, was the head of the church at that time because we are specifically told that Paul went in “unto James.” It mentions also that all the elders were present, but it is significant that James is mentioned by name.

These brethren were happy to hear about Paul’s success in working for the Gentiles, but it soon becomes clear that their main concern is the work for the Jews. They tell Paul that there are “thousands” of Jews who believe (that is, they have accepted Christ)”, but notice something about these Jewish Christians: “they are all zealous for the law!” Let us not be confused, they were not zealous for the ten commandment law, they were zealous for the law of Moses.

These elders are concerned about Paul’s influence. They hear that he has been teaching the Jewish believers who live in Gentile lands that they should no longer practice the law of Moses and they are concerned that when they hear that Paul is present, these “Christian” Jews are going to gather together to make trouble. So they give him some advice:

Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them. (Acts 21:23-26)

Paul is to show these Jews that he also is a keeper of the law of Moses. He is to do this by joining four other Jewish-Christian believers who have taken a Nazirite vow, which involved, among other things shaving his head and eventually offering a sacrifice.

Why would they ask Paul to do such a thing to satisfy “believing Jews?” It was because those Jews were “zealous for the law,” and obviously were still keeping all the rituals and ceremonies of the law including sacrificing animals! It is obvious that these leaders of the church were in full harmony with this practice and were involved in it themselves.

Now notice what they say immediately after giving Paul this advice: “As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing.” The Gentile believers were specifically excluded from keeping the law of Moses. They should observe no such thing. Only four things were excepted. They were to keep themselves from, things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled and from fornication.

So it is very, very clear that while the Gentile believers had nothing to do with the law of Moses, the Jewish believers, including the apostles, continued to keep it, including the observance of feast days, and going so far as to still offer animal sacrifices!

This was a double standard in the early church and to some extent, we can understand it because it was difficult for Jews to simply abandon the system by which they had lived all their lives, and which was a part of their very identity. The Jewish religion was not simply religion to them, it was integrated into all aspects of their lives from birth to death and was as much a part of their culture and national identity as it was religion. This is why Paul, when writing to Jews in Rome, told them that if one person held one day as being more holy than another, they should not judge one another about it, but they should make allowances and accept the person whether he felt one day was more holy than another, or vice versa (Rom 14:4-6)

However, it is also clear that the Jewish Church leaders in Jerusalem (particularly James) were very strict about the Jews still sticking to the law of Moses. They were deeply concerned that the Christian faith which bypassed the law, would cause the Jews to lose their national identity. It seems that to many of them, being a Jew was more important than being a Christian. On one occasion when Peter went to visit the Church in Antioch, something happened which is very revealing:

But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. (Gal 2:11-13)

Here Paul relates a troubling incident. Peter and the other Jewish believers had fellowshipped with the Gentile believers in the true spirit of Christianity. The segregation between Jew and Gentile required by the Jewish religion was ignored as Christians fellowshipped together. But then some other visitors arrived. Paul says specifically that these visitors “came from James.” It seems these were people who were in some way especially connected with James.

What is amazing is the fact that when these visitors arrived, Peter’s attitude immediately changed! Now, he no longer sat to eat with the Gentiles but segregated himself from them! Not only this, but the other Jewish believers, including Paul’s companion Barnabas, followed his example. Why did Peter do this? Clearly, he did not want news to get back to James that he Peter, was not following the law! This fear of offending James was so great that Peter was willing to be a hypocrite and offend his Gentile hosts rather than offend James! It is very clear that there was a great emphasis on maintaining the observance of the law of Moses by the Jewish believers, including the apostles. But what is also clear is that James seemed to be the main person who insisted on keeping this distinction between Jews and Gentiles. This was not a healthy situation.

This double standard was inherently a denial of the faith of Jesus Christ, which Paul opposed, but he was a lonely voice and in his final visit to Jerusalem, they finally got him to compromise.

Today as we see feast-keeping again making inroads among Christian believers, let us take note of what happened in that early church. Observance of Moses’ law was not something which was required of Christians, it was wholly a relic of Judaism, maintained by Jewish Christians because of their national identity. It is a retrograde step when Christians today turn back to Moses by practicing the observance of feast days or any other aspect of the law of Moses.

(Source: Restoration Ministry)

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