The word “celebrate” comes from the Latin celeber or celebr meaning “frequented or honored”. Thus, to celebrate means to commemorate or honor an event or an accomplishment. People usually celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, feasts and festivals, or achievements.
Celebration originates in God. Zephaniah 3:17 talks about God rejoicing over His people with singing. Jesus, in His parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and the Lost Son, pictures heaven as filled with rejoicing every time a lost soul is won to the Lord.
Now, there may be disagreements among Christians regarding dates, events, and days of celebration; yet, celebration, in some form or the other, is present among Christians all over the world. However, one must be careful to not depart from the simplicity that is in Christ when it comes to New Testament Celebration.
The Simplicity of Christ’s Foundation
From the beginning, the Church has faced the threat of being led astray from the simplicity of Christ’s foundation. The threat came not only from heathenizing contexts (e.g. to compromise Christ and Belial, as in Corinth), but also chiefly from Judaizers who tried to understate the superiority of the New Covenant above the Old. The Church today faces both these threats and must guard against them.
First, there is the danger of compromise with the world. The Church faces this problem when it tries to celebrate in the way that the world does and thus lets the world define the meaning of celebration for it. This is as impossible as the impossibility of putting light and darkness together (2Cor.6:4-5). When the world dictates celebration, then worship turns into entertainment or idolatry, faith turns into a ritual, the celebration becomes commercial, and the result is diminishing of the spirit. Under the false pretense of “contextualization” and “incarnation”, the world invades the Church, the “Christianness” of the celebration is lost, and faith is enslaved by cultural identity. The Christian in context is a reality; the Christian consumed by context is a tragedy.
Secondly, and more subtly, is the danger of becoming obsessed with Jewish cultural roots of the Old Testament and thus straying away from the simplicity that is in Christ. Certainly, the feasts of the Old Testament had a national significance for the Jews; they anticipated the coming of the Messiah. However, it is important for the Church to understand the difference between the Old Covenant of Moses and the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. The people of the Old Covenant knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because of His covenant with Abraham (1Kgs.18:36). But, today, we the people of the New Covenant know God as the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” because of Christ’s New Covenant in His blood (1Pet.1:3). Christians must watch against any doctrine that extols the Old Covenant above the New and challenges the sufficiency of the New Covenant in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (2Cor.11:3-4; Gal.3:1). Also, doctrines that exalt bread, wine, oil, water, or even soil as being of superior quality because they have been brought from Israel are alien to the teachings of Jesus. Similarly, veneration of relics, icons, images or earthly things are idolatrous and, therefore, do not qualify as celebration before God. The Bible declares that we are complete in Him (Col.2:10) and that we have been blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph.1:3; 2Pet.1:3).
What to Celebrate and How to Celebrate?
The New Testament does not prescribe celebration of any feast or festival, apart from the Lord’s Supper. It, however, does forbid celebration of anything with the intention of procuring merit of some kind or fulfilling some false legalistic obligation.
“So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” (Col 2:16-17)
In the same manner that we are not required to offer sacrifices anymore, since Christ offered Himself for us once for all, and the OT sacrifices were only a shadow of good things to come (Heb.10:1), similarly, we are not required to keep the OT feasts anymore as if Christ has not yet come. Of course, we do anticipate His Second Coming. However, the only observance that Christ handed over to us in connection to His Covenant was the Lord’s Supper.
Note the words “as often as” and “in remembrance of me” in 1Corinthians 11:23-26; they indicate the frequenting of the Lord’s Supper and the purpose of it. Of course, there are now numerous false teachings being circulated regarding this; however, one must note that the Lord’s Supper is not for the purpose of some physical healing or whatsoever, but “in remembrance of” Christ. Also, the prescription assumes that the partaking of this Table is done when the Church comes “together in one place” (1Cor.11:20), not in individual homes alone by themselves.
But, Christians also celebrate a number of other events, which is not wrong. We already have seen that God Himself is a celebrating God, and He is happy when we celebrate in the spirit of freedom and not out of fear or legalistic obligation. Certainly, every time we come together to proclaim His Name and worship Him, we celebrate the praises of God (1Pet.2:9). But, the above discussion should help us celebrate better in the spirit of freedom and simplicity that is in Christ.
Freedom. True Christian celebration is free of every element of carnality and the works of the flesh (1Cor.11:20-22; Gal.5:19-21).
Fruitfulness. True Christian celebration is filled with the fruit of the Spirit and the joy of fruitfulness in the Lord (Gal.5:22-24; John 15:11). It must be filled with good works (Eph.2:10; Tit.3:8).
Fervency. True Christian celebration is fervent and passionate for the Kingdom of God. It is not just about keeping a feast or celebrating a festival, but is about the sincerity and seriousness of the Father’s business. Therefore, any celebration that is blind to evils paraded in the House of God or to leaven in the Church is vile in the eyes of God (1Cor.5:8; Mark 11:15-16). True Christian celebration is a time of refocusing, rededication, reaffirmation, reconciliation, revival, reawakening, and restoration. It is not mere celebration for celebration’s sake but is a time of commemoration, correction, and commitment.
Faith. True Christian celebration puts Christian faith on the pedestal and clearly and forthrightly proclaims the message of Christ. Any celebration that is ashamed of Christ and the Gospel is not a celebration in which heaven participates (Matt.10:32,33). True Christian celebration is only that in which heaven can joyously participate.
Felicitation. True Christian celebration is also a time of thanksgiving, worship, and felicitation; a time to greet and encourage one another with words and stories of faith. Some may use cards and gifts, but these are not compulsory. There will certainly be recounting of the works and mercies of God through words of testimony and thanksgiving or songs during a celebration. In all these, it is important to walk in true Christian spirit and to honor and celebrate Christ alone.
Fellowship. True Christian celebration also strongly highlights the primacy of Christian fellowship and love. It is the fellowship of light (1Jn.1:7) and the love of Christ (Jn.13:35). It has no place for malice, envy, and rivalry (1Cor.5:8). It highlights the unity of faith in Christ (Eph.4:13).
Thus, whether it is a Christmas celebration, the anniversary of a Church, the birthday of a child, or the anniversary of a Christian couple, one must remember that God delights in our celebration and rejoices with us. He first rejoices over us when He sees us walking in His freedom, fruitfulness, fervency, faith, and fellowship in the light.