Should we allow calendars to divide God's people?
Editor's note: The writer is a member of the Boston-area United Church of God and author of "The Nature of God: A Biblical Review," "Grace, Law and the Covenants: A Biblical Review" and "Observances in the New Covenant: A Biblical Review." These papers can be accessed at www.biblestudy.org or by writing 248 Blue Hills Parkway, Milton, Mass. 02186. Mr. Fakhoury receives E-mail at email@example.com.
By Gary Fakhoury
BOSTON, Mass.--I couldn't have been more than 6 or 7 years old, but even then I could tell something quirky was going on at church. One day I finally asked my father: Why does the minister in church always say that the holy days are supposed to be on a certain day of a month when we celebrate them on different days every year?
Dad went silent for a moment.
"I think," he said finally, "that would be a good question for Dr. Hoeh."
Soon after, at a dinner we attended with the Herman Hoeh family, I got my chance. I remember the professor saying something about the moon and mentioning something about the sun. I didn't have a clue what else he was talking about.
So for some three decades I scrupulously managed never to ask another soul about the calendar and lived happily in my ignorance.
So when Journal publisher Dixon Cartwright asked me to read all the material he had received on the calendar to see if I had any thoughts to contribute for this series, I was not exactly thrilled at the offer. I knew there was something called postponements and that there was a controversy about them, but I wasn't at all sure I wanted to find out what they were or what the fuss was about.
Perhaps after reading all the conflicting--yet perfectly plausible--points of view, you, too, will wish you had never waded into this discussion. (See also the articles on the calendar and the postponements in the Feb. 26 issue of The Journal.) The calendar is not an issue that lends itself, it seems, to unambiguous conclusions. Yet for some the calendar has become a matter of eternal life and death.
For instance, a widely read antipostponement advocate makes it clear that he believes that if you do not adhere to the correct calendar you could lose your salvation. After quoting Matthew 22 and the parable of the wedding feast, he says:
"This example makes clear the dated invitations are being sent out now. But someone is blurring and distorting the dates of the wedding feast. Who might that be? The answer is found in Matthew 23. 'But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in your selves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in' (Matthew 23:13).
"Obeying false teachings [like] postponements will keep you out of the Kingdom . . . The first half of 1997 might be the last opportunity to accept God's invitation to the wedding supper. Are you going to be at the wedding at the right date?" (James Russell, "Prove All Things," December 1996).
Proving all things
Now, if we indeed prove all things we will come to understand:
There is no indication Jesus is telling us anything about the observance of any kind of calendar in Matthew 22. He is clearly speaking about the dangers of allowing sin and the cares of the world to overwhelm God's work in our lives (verses 5-6).
What promoters of specific calendars also usually fail to inform their readers is that, although their calendars might rightly eliminate some man-ordained rules such as are evident in the calendar of Hillel II (what we've generally called "the Hebrew calendar"), they by no means eliminate all man-ordained rules.
Indeed, they cannot, for, as has become evident in this series, God has not seen fit to tell us how we should figure three critical factors into our construction of a luni-solar calendar:
Some suggest we tie the first day of the first month to the vernal equinox. This seems reasonable, of course, but Scripture doesn't explicitly tell us to do this.
Even if we can agree on that, there is uncertainty (and thus differences of opinion) as to whether the first month should begin the first new moon after the equinox, the new moon before the equinox or the new moon closest to the equinox.
Reason might suggest we use the new moon closest to the equinox, but in some years this would begin the year too early for the barley harvest of the wave-sheaf offering (Leviticus 23:9-14).
Of course, this occurs even more often if we always calculate the start of the year from the new moon before the equinox. But, if we use the new moon after the equinox, in some years Passover would fall in May and the Last Great Day in November, which some feel is out of season (this would be the case in 1999).
In short, each of these three methods seems to present problems; thus we see the continuing disagreement.
This seems reasonable enough, until others point to Psalm 81:3, which in the NKJV indicates that the new moon is the full moon.
So, even when we can agree on using light for the new moon, there is room for disagreement. All of this, of course, can create quite a difference in when the feast days are kept.
But, even in the unlikely event we can agree upon what constitutes a new moon, the question arises: From what point on the globe should that new moon be sighted?
Many suggest Jerusalem, but the Bible doesn't specify Jerusalem. Moreover, when God gave the festivals to Israel, the Israelites were in Egypt (Exodus 12:1 and following verses), not Palestine, and spent 40 years wandering in the Sinai Peninsula. This would have put them far enough from Palestine to render a different new-moon-sighting time from what would have been possible at the spot Jerusalem would someday be.
In response, Jerusalem-time advocates suggest that this was a historical aberration and that from there on out the feasts were always reckoned from Jerusalem and will be in the Millennium as well (Acts 2; 18:21; 20:16; Zechariah 14:16-17; Isaiah 66:23).
Of course, when the feasts would be observed in Jerusalem they would be kept according to Jerusalem time; the people were coming to Jerusalem to keep the feast, so Jerusalem time would naturally be the point of reference. That's where the feast-keepers were.
The question we need to have answered is, What about those people (like ourselves) who are not in Jerusalem for the feasts? Exactly how would the Christians in Phillipi, for instance, know when the Feast of Unleavened Bread started in faraway Jerusalem (Acts 20:6)?
Likewise with Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:8) and Colosse (Colossians 2:16). It would have required weeks of dangerous and uncertain travel for a messenger to arrive from Jerusalem to these far-flung places, if the churches could have afforded such a messenger service at all.
And what about us today? God has feast-keepers all over the globe. Should the churches set up a new-moon hotline, direct to Jerusalem, so we can all know when the feasts are beginning? Has keeping the feasts according to God's will really been impossible until the advent of modern telecommunications?
But, since 12 lunar cycles are shorter than a solar cycle by about 11 days, if we do not periodically add time to a lunar calendar (called intercalating), the feast days will no longer remain "in their seasons."
Thus, given enough time, the Feast of Tabernacles, for instance, will eventually be kept in the winter, contrary to the Scripture (Leviticus 23:39).
Since Scripture does not tell us when or how to add in that time, all calendar creators must choose for themselves how to do this, which can lead to great differences in the timing of feast days.
Our current calendar year, 1997, is a good example. Those who do not follow the traditional Hebrew calendar with its intercalation will be keeping their feasts a full month apart from those who do, because of decisions everyone has to make in intercalating time into the lunar calendar.
Calendar creators may not like to think about how many decisions they must bring to their work. But we should squarely face the fact that being "wrong" on any of these matters can throw a calendar off by at least a day and as much as a month or more!
If your purpose is to hit the bull's-eye of holy time, being off by a day would be no better than being off by a month. Close may count in horseshoes, but not if there is a single 24-hour period upon which each day must land.
Given all this uncertainty about the calendar, which results from the decisions Scripture forces us to make, it seems entirely possible that no luni-solar calendar extant today times the annual festivals perfectly (whatever that might mean).
Now, if you're anything like me, this is not a pleasant realization to come to. We all like certainty. But for the above reasons it seems the only certainty we will ever have in regard to the calendar is that we will never have certainty in regard to the calendar.
This then brings us to a critical, and most uncomfortable, conclusion: If it is impossible to know with certainty that a given calendar hits the holy-time bull's-eye of the annual festivals, many of us, and perhaps all of us, are sinning seven times a year in spite of our best intentions.
Are feast days holy time?
How did we end up trapped in this calendrical box canyon?
I believe we walked into it by reasoning this way: The annual feasts are marked by holy days, which are holy time. Therefore, if you are worshiping according to the wrong calendar, you will be going about your normal business during holy time and observing the holy days during unholy time, all of which is a sin against God.
Before we dissect this reasoning, let's take a moment to compare this line of thought with the way we deal with our children. Let's say you were visiting my house one evening and overheard me telling my son:
"Now, son, sometime tonight I want you to clean up your room. I don't want you to clean it before the appointed time, or after the appointed time. If you do, you will be punished. But I'm not going to tell you when that time is. Now, do as I say! Don't make me spank you!"
If you heard me say this to my son, what kind of parent would you take me to be? Truly this would be some kind of cruel psychological game I was playing and not the approach of a loving father.
Yet this is exactly how some of us imagine God is dealing with His children in regard to the annual festivals and calendar calculation. He hasn't really told us how to figure all this stuff, so we can't really know if we're right or not. But He's going to be furious if we get it wrong!
Let's be honest about this. If we didn't believe God fully expected us to hit seven holy-time bull's-eyes every year, the question of the luni-solar calendar would never amount to anything more than a quirky academic pursuit of people with a knack for astronomy. The heat would quickly dissipate from the discussion.
After all, is it not fear that we might be sinning that fuels the emotions that accompany this whole calendar discussion? If so, is that fear properly placed?
I do not believe it is, and I believe that recognizing this is the only way to ensure unity within the fellowships of the Church of God. I believe the dilemma is resolved when we carefully examine what Scripture does and does not say in regard to days, their sanctification and holy time.
Some people may find it difficult to appreciate the concept of holy time, but God clearly says that He sanctified, or made holy, a day: the seventh day of the week (Genesis 2:3; Exodus 20:11).
We should carefully note that He sanctified the day itself. Since a day is a span of time, it is correct to say, then, that the seventh day of the week is holy time.
Thus when that seventh day of the week reaches a person at the point on the globe he is on, it is holy time for that person. If God has sanctified (or set apart for a spiritual purpose) a length of time, it is a sin to use that time for other purposes. It is using something God created in a way that is contrary to His will, and anything that is contrary to the express will of God is sin. (All of this is discussed at length in my paper "Observances in the New Covenant," which is planned for a soon-coming issue of The Journal.)
But it is critical to note that nowhere in Scripture do we see God sanctifying the annual feast days themselves in the same way He sanctified the seventh day of the week at creation.
In fact, in contrast to our colloquial, informal way of referring to the annual festivals, God nowhere even calls them "holy days."
The King James translation of Colossians 2:16 does refer to festivals with the term holyday. The Greek word is heortee, but the King James translators translate heortee "feast" in all the other 25 places it appears in the New Testament. This is why the New King James translates heortee in Colossians 2:16 "festival," as do other modern translations.
The festivals are not, and never were, holy days in themselves. According to Scripture, God made only one day holy in all of earthly history: the seventh day of the week.
The feasts are holy convocations
So what are the annual festivals? Leviticus 23 says they are "holy convocations" and "sabbaths" (verses 4, 7-8, 21, 24, 27, 35-37). This tells us two things. First, they are times God has set apart for His people to congregate for worship (convocate); second, they are days of rest, when normal work should not be done.
The weekly Sabbath, too, is seen as a time of holy convocation, of course (verse 3), but the festivals are not subsumed under the Sabbath in Leviticus 23; the Sabbath remains distinct from the others in that passage.
Here is the critical point to notice: Nowhere in Leviticus 23 or anywhere else does God say He made the annual feast days themselves holy days, as He did the seventh day of the week. In Genesis and later Exodus, God is clear that at creation He sanctified the seventh day itself. By its very nature, the seventh day of the week is sanctified.
But He nowhere says that He sanctified the 15th day of the first month or the first day of the seventh month or whatever. Read every word of Leviticus 23 and you will not find God anywhere saying He sanctified the days themselves as He did the weekly Sabbath in Genesis 2.
We have too often not noted the important distinction made in Scripture between times set apart for a holy purpose and holy time. One speaks to what God commands His people to do, the other to the essential nature of the creation itself. We see that distinction when we carefully compare Leviticus 23 with Genesis 2, and it should be taken into account when examining the luni-solar calendar and the keeping of the annual festivals.
Therefore, Scripture gives us no reason to believe these days constitute holy time in the way that the seventh day of the week is holy time. If we assume that they are, then we are right back hunting for a holy-time target that God has hidden from us and living in fear that perhaps our chosen luni-solar calendar has not hit it.
Surely we can see that such a concept of God is an insult to the most loving and just Being in the universe.
Has time been lost?
But, some have asked, is the exact time of the seventh day really that certain? Can we honestly assert that not a single solar day has been lost since creation?
I believe we can, and I believe this highlights God's guidance and the essential difference between the seventh-day Sabbath, created at the foundation of the world and contained within the solar cycle, and the annual festivals, established later according to the lunar cycle.
First, there is little question that the seventh-day Sabbath, and the weekly solar cycle upon which it was based, was lost to men at some point before the Exodus. But, while men may have lost track of the days, the Creator of the universe, of course, did not.
So we see in Exodus 16:23 that God informed Israel of His seventh-day Sabbath and when it fell. For 40 years in the wilderness God regulated the seven-day weekly cycle for Israel with the giving of the manna (Exodus 16:25-35). The Sabbath was recognized and enforced during this period (Numbers 15:32-36), and just before entering the Promised Land Moses reiterated God's Sabbath command (Deuteronomy 5:12-14).
This brings us to the time of Israel's entrance into Canaan.
Some claim that the Israelites forgot the Sabbath after their entry into the Promised Land and the weekly Sabbath was not readopted until after the exile from Babylon. We should examine this closely.
First, the Israelites were made to understand that the weekly Sabbath was ordained as an essential part of their covenant with God, "to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant" (Exodus 31:16). The question is, Did every one of them disobey this command and thus all lose track of the seven-day cycle?
This is not what Scripture teaches. First, God placed the regulation of the seventh-day Sabbath squarely at the feet of the Levites, whose priesthood continued throughout this period. In Leviticus 23:3 the weekly Sabbath is said to be a holy convocation, which required Levitical involvement; we see this reflected in 2 Chronicles 23:4-8.
Scripture also tells us the Levites baked showbread every week in preparation for the seventh day (Leviticus 24:8; 1 Chronicles 9:32) and conducted burnt offerings every Sabbath (Numbers 28:9-10). A special Sabbath pavilion was even built right into the temple (2 Kings 16:18).
Although Levitical recognition would have sufficed to preserve the seven-day cycle, Levites weren't the only ones cognizant of the Sabbath. Prophets, kings and common people all knew well when the Sabbath fell each week (2 Kings 4:23; 11:5-9).
In the Babylonian exile, a remnant of the priesthood remained in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 29:25), and those Jews who were taken to Babylon were allowed to conduct their affairs freely (verses 4-6). There is no reason to believe the seven-day cycle was lost during this time.
This is not to say that many in ancient Israel did not ignore the Sabbath command. Indeed, after the Babylonian exile habitual breaking of the Sabbath was seen as one important reason the captivity had occurred (Nehemiah 9:13-16; 13:17-18). Thus the Jews grew determined to make sure this would not happen again (Nehemiah 10:28-31; 13:19).
Once again the Levites were charged with ensuring that the weekly Sabbath was preserved and publicly recognized (Nehemiah 10:32, 33). This they did until, of course, the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.
During the intertestamental period, the scribal tradition also emerged, which began putting great emphasis on preserving the Sabbath covenant of Exodus 31. This was so effective that some chose to be killed rather than desecrate the Sabbath (1 Maccabees 2:32-38; 2 Maccabees 6:11).
This awareness of and respect for the weekly Sabbath was perpetuated by the scribes and Pharisees through the establishment of many detailed Sabbath regulations, about which Jesus would have so much to say.
Through all this it is clear that the seven-day cycle remained intact from the time of the giving of the manna to Jesus' day. Jesus would have known which day was the true seventh day that must be kept according to the Commandment, and He kept the same day that the rest of Israel kept (Luke 4:16).
There is no evidence Jesus ever kept a weekly Sabbath on a day different from that of his Jewish contemporaries. If the Jews were incorrect in their understanding of when was the seventh day, Jesus would have needed to part company with them to remain a sinless sacrifice.
From there, of course, the Julian calendar and its successor Gregorian calendar, all based on a seven-day week, preserved the seven-day cycle to the present, as is explained in the old WCG booklet Has Time Been Lost? From all this there is every reason to believe that, when we keep the seventh day of our week holy, we are observing the very same seventh-day God sanctified at creation.
I have gone though all this to show us the essential difference between the weekly Sabbath and the annual festivals in regard to the issue of holy time. When our fair and loving God establishes a holy time for men to keep, we can rejoice that He gives us the means to know when that time is. This is what He has done for us with the seventh-day Sabbath.
The reason He has not done this with the annual festivals is that there was no need to do so; He nowhere indicates He established them as holy time.
Should calendars divide us?
This being the case, we need to address the problem raised in the title of this article. Should differences of approach in the calculation of the luni-solar calendar divide brethren? In other words, does God expect us to make the calendar a nonnegotiable issue to the extent that we must separate ourselves from our present fellowships if those fellowships do not adopt the particular calendar method that seems best to us?
By now it should be clear that a fair and just God cannot expect this of us, since He Himself has not spoken clearly as to which calendar approach is best.
Of course, if this were all a matter of sin, then we should follow the calendar that will not violate our conscience, for we know that whatever is not of faith is sin. But our consciences must be educated by God's Word, and we have seen that, when we do not assume the annual festivals have the same nature as the weekly Sabbath with regard to holy time, we see there is just no sin involved in a given fellowship's calendar calculation.
I am not suggesting God doesn't care whether His people keep the annual festivals of Scripture. It is our Father's will that His people worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24), and Scripture gives us every reason to believe the annual festivals were kept by Jesus, the apostles and our first-century Jewish and gentile brethren. (Again, all this is discussed in my "Observances" paper.)
I am also not saying God has allowed men to decide for themselves when in the year to keep the annual festivals. He gives no room for doubt as to the month and day of each feast and the seasons in which they are to be kept. Scripture sets the boundaries for the festivals by making it clear Passover is to be observed in the northern hemisphere spring (Exodus 12:2; 13:4; Leviticus 23:9-14) and the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall (Leviticus 23:39).
We know there is meaningful typology involved in these seasons, and we can and should make sure the calendar method we're using meets these scriptural requirements.
I am suggesting, however, that we do not have to live in consternation and doubt about whether we are sinning in following the particular calendar our group might be using, because Scripture nowhere says He has sanctified the feast days themselves, as He has sanctified the seventh day of the week.
If this is not correct, then many if not all of us are upsetting God for not obeying what He has never given us sufficient knowledge to obey! I think we can all agree that this idea does not reflect the God of the Bible.
Therefore, I believe God's people should resist unwarranted fear and conflicts in our fellowships through disputes about calendar calculations. If we allow those to happen, it is hard to see how we will not have unwittingly assisted the adversary in his work.
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