I very much believe Scripture should be that which shapes and informs our doctrines and practices. I do not believe Christians should create new doctrines or practices that we do not find in the New Testament. With that in mind, I would like to share with you why I believe Christians can observe man-made religious days (like Christmas or Easter) without violating these principles.
Purim and Hanukkah
In the book of Esther, the Jews created a holiday, “Purim,” to commemorate being saved from a genocide at the hands of the Persians. Esther 9:27-28 says,
The Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.
God had commanded the Jewish people to keep several feasts (e.g. Passover) in the Torah and Purim was not one of those days. However, there was apparently no assumption on their part that the prescribed list of biblical feasts should keep them from creating additional holidays. So, if all Scripture is supposed to be for our learning (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17), can’t we conclude from Esther 9 that it is acceptable for God’s people to create special days of celebration to honor God?
Another example of God’s people creating additional holidays happened during the so-called “intertestamental period” (the period between Malachi and Matthew). The “Feast of Dedication” (or “Hanukkah”) was created as an annual celebration commemorating Judah Maccabee and his Jewish forces retaking the temple and rededicating it to God after it had been defiled by the Greeks.
Neither Jesus nor the apostle John seems to take issue with observing a feast that was not authorized by the Law of Moses. In John 10:22-23 it is recorded, “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon.” Jesus was spending time in the temple presumably, like his Jewish brethren, commemorating its rededication to God.
The creation and observance of these holidays are recorded by the biblical authors in positive ways. Nothing negative is said about them whatsoever.
Traditions of Men
Some might ask whether or not Jesus’ words about “traditions” have any bearing on this discussion. After all, Jesus did say to the scribes and Pharisees, “for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6). But was Jesus condemning any sort of man-made religious traditions?
If Jesus was condemning all traditions, then my tradition of meeting for Bible study on Wednesday evenings, offering an invitation at the end of my sermons, or putting money in the collection plate after the Lord’s Supper would all be wrong, as these are all man-made traditions. But Jesus clearly wasn’t condemning all traditions of men. He was condemning breaking the commandments of God in order to keep the traditions of men. If we prioritize man-made traditions over the clear and explicit teachings of Scripture, then we are sinning.
Therefore, keeping man-made holidays could certainly be sinful if, in order to keep them, we violated the commandments of God.
In Honor of the Lord
Most importantly, in Romans 14, Paul specifically taught the Roman church to allow their brethren to observe certain days “in honor of the Lord” (vs. 6) without judging or despising them (vs. 10). Of course, the other side of Paul’s argument is that if someone abstains from observing a certain day, as long as he “abstains in honor of the Lord,” he should not be judged or despised for abstaining.
It’s important to notice that Paul is intentionally general and not specific in his instructions about the observance of which special days. Therefore, we must not limit the application of this passage to Jewish observances (Sabbath, Passover, etc.) or other first-century issues. The only qualifier Paul gives is that the observance must be “in honor of the Lord.” If a Christian observes a day “in honor of the Lord,” then it is not any other Christian’s place to judge him.
We must conclude, if someone wants to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in a special way on the Sunday after Passover, then he ought not to be judged for doing so. But if, on the other hand, someone does not wish to celebrate the resurrection in a special way on that Sunday, then he should not be judged or despised for his choice.
Some might say, “But aren’t we supposed to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday and not just one Sunday a year?” I would agree with that. I believe we have rightly inferred from Scripture and history that early Christians met on Sundays because Jesus was raised on Sunday. However, an annual celebration of Jesus’ resurrection no more negates the weekly celebration any more than a wedding anniversary negates a husband telling his wife, “I love you” daily. They are not mutually exclusive. You can celebrate the resurrection of Jesus weekly AND you can celebrate the resurrection annually.
Others may quote Paul’s words from Galatians 4:10-11, “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” However, Paul is not arguing it is inherently wrong for someone to observe special days any more than he is arguing it is inherently wrong for a male to be circumcised. He was admonishing the Galatians because they were being convinced that keeping the Law of Moses (including feast days, kosher diet, and circumcision) was necessary to be part of God’s covenant people. If someone tries to convince you that you must observe Passover or Sabbath in order to be right with God, they are violating this passage.
I know of no principle, command, example, or implication of Scripture that is violated by observing special days in honor of the Lord. In fact, Scripture seems to specifically allow for this practice. But most importantly, we must be careful not to judge and despise one another over these things, but welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us (Romans 14-15).
I love you and God loves you,