by Johnathan Arnold
One might think that the Jew-Gentile controversy is over, but I’m astounded by the number of times I have encountered this issue. I’ve navigated it first-hand with several family members, a former parishioner, and a Seventh-Day Adventist friend — all who observe a handful of Jewish ceremonial laws and feast days. I’ve been asked countless other times by those who are curious or concerned.
The Western attraction is largely fueled by television and YouTube rabbis, mostly Messianic Jews who highlight meaningful connections between the Old and New Covenants. (Messianic Jews are Jews who have accepted Christ as Messiah but are still immersed in Jewish culture and usually practice some or all of the ceremonial laws and feasts.)
While we should study and appreciate how the Old Covenant points to Messiah, the fascination has generated an interest in actually keeping Old Covenant distinctives in the name of Christ, such as the organization of Passover feasts, observation of the Saturday Sabbath, and Jewish dietary restrictions.
When most people ask if this is “wrong,” they mean, “does this preclude someone from being a Christian?” The sweeping question, “are Messianic Jews saved?” even comes up at times. And it’s increasingly vital to answer with clarity, as even some solid young people are looking to Messianic Jewish rabbis as a regular source of information about the Bible.
The Glory and Sufficiency of Christ
Everything we need for salvation and piety is provided in Christ.
The popular idea that Old Testament law can be divided into three categories—one of which is “ceremonial” and can be thrown out altogether—is not a sufficient solution for New Testament believers. However, there are certain ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law (sacrifices, dietary restrictions, festivals) that are clearly not binding on New Testament Christians.
In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul writes, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). The Old Covenant ceremonial laws and feasts were mere shadows pointing our spiritual forefathers to Christ, so "what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it" (2 Corinthians 3:10).
The most important matter for a Christian to affirm loudly and clearly in this discussion is the sufficiency and glory of Jesus revealed in the New Covenant. If someone is fixated with the shadows, they may be missing the brilliant "light of the knowledge the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 4:6), recorded in the gospels and epistles, and woven in to the life of the New Testament church.
For example, if someone needs to organize a full Passover meal to remember Christ, they are undercutting the significance of the Lord's Supper, by which Christ Himself tells us to remember His death until He comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). Moreover, we do not keep the feasts by observing them as they are recorded in the Old Testament. We keep the feasts by partaking of Christ by faith.
Organizing a full Passover meal to remember Christ is undercutting the significance of the Lord's Supper, by which Christ Himself tells us to remember His death until He comes.
Everything we need for salvation and piety is provided in Christ. Jesus died for our sins, “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20), and "by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). We do not have peace with God by faith plus the law or by faith plus the feasts. The fullness and sufficiency are in Christ.
The Demands of the Gospel Faithfulness
Faithfulness to the gospel of Christ’s glory and sufficiency demands that…
Christians must renounce the Jewish law and feasts as unnecessary for salvation and spirituality. In Galatians 2:19, Paul says, “I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” The whole law (including the ceremonial aspects) must be rejected as a way of life and a way to relate to God. For example, “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15, ESV); “Circumcision is nothing” (1 Corinthians 7:19) and Paul goes as far as to say that “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (Galatians 5:2).
The whole law (including the ceremonial aspects) must be rejected as a way of life and a way to relate to God.
Bondage to Jewish ceremonial laws was a major red flag in Paul’s mind. He feared that the Galatians were supplementing the work of Christ—not relying solely upon Jesus for their salvation. Paul laments, “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain" (Galatians 4:9-11).
Christians must NOT put pressure on others to keep the Jewish ceremonial laws. When Gentiles at Antioch were pressured by Peter and others to keep certain dietary restrictions, Paul concluded that “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” and “said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews? …a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:11-16, cf. Colossians 2:16-17).
While some do not “require” others to keep Jewish laws or feasts, there is an unspoken pressure to do so. (To be fully embraced in most Seventh-Day Adventist communities, one must be a vegan or at least a vegetarian.) Dividing the body of Christ over these issues is cutting at the very heart of the gospel. Paul warns Timothy about those who “require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3).
To suggest one is more spiritual or enlightened for observing a Jewish law or feast day is to undermine the sufficiency of Christ.
Christians must walk by the Spirit and NOT by the letter of the law. “But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6). To walk in slavish obedience is to reject the freedom purchased by Christ. The believer walks in the Spirit and fulfills the law by living in love, for “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).
Ephesians 2:15 is clear that Jesus “abolished the law of commandments expressed in ordinances,” “blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Colossians 2:14). To suggest one is more spiritual or enlightened for observing a Jewish law or feast day is to undermine the sufficiency of Christ.
Someone once told me that God spoke to her and told her, "Study my feasts." She implied that the church was missing something significant by not given enough attention to these feasts. Soon she began observing the Passover meal, keeping a Saturday Sabbath, and thinking about Jewish dietary restrictions. The emphasis was on law and ceremony instead of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Be Careful Not to Judge
On the other hand, Romans 14:1-12 is a caution for mature Christians who realize that keeping Jewish laws and feasts is unnecessary. We should not condemn someone who observes some Jewish laws or feasts if we have reason to believe he or she is trusting fully in Christ for salvation; that is, if he or she also does not pressure others to follow his or her example and shows evidence of walking by the Spirit. In verse 1, Paul refers to these believers — those who keep certain unnecessary restrictions — as “weak in faith,” but still expects mature believers to extend patience, respect, and the right hand of fellowship to them.
If a person has fully trusted in Christ but for some reason feels bound by their conscience to keep certain restrictions, we should respect their sincerity and give them room to grow up in the renewing of their minds: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:5-6).
So, it’s not necessarily wrong to observe Jewish feasts, but it is unnecessary and is always a sign of either spiritual immaturity (Romans 14:1) or failure to fully trust in Christ (Galatians 4:8-11).
Mature Christians will make a clean break with all Jewish laws and feasts. Believers who do this are by implication “strong in faith” and have a “strong conscience.” Mature believers recognize that “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7), so we do not need to organize a Passover meal. Mature believers recognize that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11, cf. 1 Timothy 4:3), so we do not need to take bacon out of our shopping carts. What counts is what comes out of a person—holiness and thankfulness which reflect a changed inner life.
Mature Christians will embrace a fully Christian identity. Our identity is in Christ and the label “Christian” is significant and Biblical (Acts 11:26). To call oneself a Messianic Jew and not a Christian misses the mark. Whenever Paul talked about his Jewishness, it was to renounce it as a grounds for salvation or spiritual advantage. “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
How to Talk to Those Who Observe Jewish Ceremonial Laws and Feasts
More likely than not, you already know someone—or will meet someone soon—who observes at least some Jewish laws and feast days.
If you have reason to believe the person is not fully trusting in Christ—especially if he or she is pressuring others to follow his or her example—express with unparalleled seriousness the danger of undermining Christ’s work. When Paul thought that the Galatians were observing the Jewish law as though it contributed to their salvation, he said, “if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). He warned that their eternal destinies were at stake: “if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (Galatians 5:2).
Of course, “serious” doesn’t mean “angry.” These discussions easily grow passionate and heated. We need to remain cool-headed. “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Colossians 4:6). We should only say “that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29). We aren't any good to anyone when our faces are as red as a fire engine.
If you have reason to believe that the person is fully trusting in Christ—and he or she is not pressuring others to follow his or her example—accept the person as a brother or sister in Christ and give him or her room to grow. Paul gave people a lot more room than we sometimes do. “Weak in faith” (1 Corinthians 14:1) is not the same as faithless and unbelieving. Whenever the opportunity arises, emphasize the glory and sufficiency of Christ in the New Covenant to help them see more clearly.
May God give us grace and wisdom to broach this issue with words of caution and not impulsive condemnation.