Holy Days of Men and Holy Days of God
By G. I. Williamson
(Reprinted from "Blue Banner Faith and Life" July-September 1962.)
In the Gospel according to Luke, we read these words: "That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God." Luk 16:15 These are the words of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And please note their force: that which is placed by men in the highest category is placed by God in the lowest category possible.
And what are these things that men highly esteem but which God utterly abhors? They are the things of religion. That is what Jesus was talking about. To the Pharisees He said, "Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts, for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God." It was precisely those things that they did in the sphere of religion, those things which they highly esteemed and which made them appear "just" before men, which rendered them abominable unto God.
When Jesus went on to add this comment, his meaning became even more clear: "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail." Their trouble was that they did not heed the law of God. As he said, "Laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men . . . ye reject the commandment of God, that ye hold the tradition of men . . . ye reject the commandment of God that ye may keep your own tradition." Is it any wonder that the verdict was this: "They worship me in vain (that is, for nothing) teaching for doctrines the commandments of men?"
I. Other Men's Traditions
It is easy for us to see the error of the Pharisees. They added to the Word of God many humanly devised traditions. Gradually, as time passed, these traditions gained so high an esteem among them that they took a place along side the commandments of God. And by Jesus' time, these traditions had become more important to them (in practice if not in theory) than the commandments of God. Thus the Word of God was made of none effect by their traditions. Yes; and the special point to be observed is that those very traditions - time honored and sacred in the eyes of the Pharisees - were abomination in the eyes of God. Jesus said that they worshiped God in vain. That is, they might just as well have had no religious worship at all as to have had what they did. It was completely worthless.
When we recall the many instances in Biblical history when this same evil occurred, we shall better understand Jesus' severity. Does not the Bible tell us that it was so even from the beginning? "Unto Cain and unto his offering He had no respect." (Genesis 4:5) The worship that Cain devised for himself was abomination to God, however highly esteemed by him. And we remember the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, who took fire and incense and offered that before the Lord "which He commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord." (Leviticus 10:1,2) That which they highly esteemed was quite obviously "abomination in the sight of God."
To pass over many other instances, we may recall the question asked of Zechariah the prophet by those of the remnant which had come back from the Captivity. They inquired concerning a certain tradition that had "grown up" during the days of the captivity, and asked whether or not they should continue it. The Prophet said: "When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?" (Zechariah 7:7,5) Then he informed them that since they had developed that tradition without a specific command of God, it was no more acceptable to God as an act of religious worship than was their eating and drinking. "Should ye not hear the words which the Lord hath cried?" concluded the Prophet.
It would be difficult to think of a lesson more clearly taught in Scripture than this one: "that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God." And we must not think that this is merely an "old testament" doctrine. No principle of God's Word is taught in only one Testament. And this principle is no exception. The sinful tendency of man which we have seen in Old Testament history is evident in the New Testament also. Within the days of the Apostles, and in the Apostolic Church, we see this same tendency in sinful men, and we also find the same principle of divine revelation.
The Church of Galatia is a case in point. It is clear from the contents of Paul's epistle to the Galatians that that Church which had made such a promising start had soon gone off on the wrong track. Paul said that he marveled that they were so soon removed from the grace of Christ. And at least part of their trouble was this evil tendency under consideration. For the Galatians had decided that the pure religion delivered to them by the Apostles was not sufficient. They wanted something better (although there is nothing better). So they began adding to it certain holy days and seasons of their own devising.
We do not know just what those special days and seasons were, but we certainly do know what God's inspired Apostle had to say about them, for we find his words in Galatians 4:9-11: "...after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain."
Observe, how serious a matter this was in the Apostle's eyes. What is it to be "in bondage" again, if it is not to be enslaved to false religion? How could he say that he was "afraid of them, lest he had bestowed his labour in vain," except that such a religion as they were falling into was null and void before God? It is clearly another case of men highly esteeming the very thing that is abomination in the sight of God, and all because they were observing certain days and seasons without being told to do so by almighty God. Their sin was exactly the same as that of Cain, Nadab and Abihu, the captives from Babylon and the Pharisees who made the Word of God of none effect by their own traditions.
It is one thing to condemn other men's sins, but it is another to mend our own. The Galatians would probably have had no difficulty condemning the wicked Pharisees, but it is not so certain that they were willing to hear themselves condemned. Paul said to them: "am I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?" (Galatians 4:16). The author of this article would ask the same question. Suppose I do say some things that "hurt" a bit. Suppose I do speak out against something sacred to you. Do I then become your enemy because I tell you the truth?
The truth is that Christmas (and Good Friday, and Easter, and Father's Day, and Mother's Day, and Children's Day, and any other "special holy day" except the weekly Sabbath) is an abomination to God. Now please note with care: we do not say that everything associated with these days is abominable. What we do say is that every special holy day (or season) is abominable to God.
This is true, in the first place, because of the source of such. Let us consider Christmas as an example. It is admitted by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike that Christmas is not revealed in the Word of God. The Bible does not give us the date of Christ's birth. It does not even tell us the precise month or even the season. It is also generally admitted that there was no trace of Christmas observance in the Apostolic and post- Apostolic Church.
It was not until the third century that the celebration of Christmas began to appear in Christian circles, and even then there was no uniformity. Various dates were set for the "holy day" including January, March, April and May. To this day the Greek Orthodox Church observes January 6th rather than December 25th. When, under the growing authority of the Roman Bishop, December 25th was adopted in the west, it was largely an attempt to engage in competition with a pagan celebration called Saturnalia. It was a time of celebration, merrymaking and the giving of gifts. It was a pagan celebration in honor of the sun. They believed that the sun was a god, and that at this point it began to conquer over the darkness of winter. Gradually the Christian "holy day" and the pagan "holiday" coalesced into one. And the "tradition of Christmas" was firmly entrenched. On all this there is rather general agreement.
But there was a day in which Protestants and Roman Catholics disagreed strongly, not concerning what the source of Christmas (and other such holy days) was, but whether or not that source was valid. Then, as now, the Roman Catholic Church fully defended such man-made traditions, because, to quote its own words, "The Catholic Church has received from Jesus Christ the power to make laws for its members" (Baltimore Catechism). Among those laws we find the official designation of such "holy days" as Christmas and Easter, and such days are held by Roman Catholic dogma to be exactly the same as holy days designated by God himself.
There was, we repeat, a day when Protestants disagreed. There was a day when Protestants said that "the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for (God's) own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture - unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1, 6). And concerning this matter of holy days, they said that the people of God are to keep holy "such set times as He has appointed in His Word, expressly one whole day in seven" (Larger Catechism, Q. 116). That is, the Sabbath day alone was regarded by them as "Holy."
Suppose you were to imagine yourself to have the notion that it would be nice to observe the 3rd of February as a special holy day in memory of Jesus' visit to the Temple at the age of twelve. What right would you have to make such a designation? What justification would others have in accepting your idea? And what if your Church said, "No, we will not listen to such nonsense! Jesus Christ alone is King and Head of the Church, and He alone has the right to designate a holy day, and He has given us to keep holy the Sabbath alone?" Of course you would say that such a Church was simply keeping itself pure. Yet the truth is that Christmas (and Easter, etc.) has no more warrant from Christ than would such a day that were chosen by yourself. The only difference is that tradition through the process of time, raises something of purely human origin to the place that it is highly esteemed of men. But it is still an abomination to God because of its source.
Distorting the Gospel
The second reason why such holy days are an abomination to God is that it is necessary to sanction error in order to give them our esteem. We shall again cite Christmas by way of example. If there were any possibility that the date of Christ's birth were preserved through tradition, then it would be January 6th rather than December 25th which deserved the preference. The Greek Church is an older institution than is the Latin. And if tradition has any validity, that validity depends upon antiquity.
Even if we were to appeal to the false criterion of tradition we would be condemned! However, as tradition is condemned by Scripture we can neither build upon it nor be judged by it.
Much more important is the fact that the celebration of Christmas (and other such humanly devised holy days) distorts the true gospel of Jesus Christ. By the special religious observance of certain days, certain aspects of the gospel are given a prominence which is not given them in the teaching of the Word of God itself. Christmas and Easter are the two "holy days" that claim an inordinate amount of attention each year, and so the birth and resurrection of Christ receive a measure of attention which other aspects of the truth do not receive.
This emphasis is not found in the Apostolic writings. For in all the epistles of the New Testament we can discover no explicit reference to the so-called Christmas story. The resurrection of Christ does constantly receive much emphasis, but there is also much emphasis in the Apostolic writings on events which took place on other days that men have not memorialized with special days. This is a distortion of the truth of the Gospel, and a distortion of the truth is not the same as the truth itself. Thus to approve of such holy days we must approve of that which must be called error.
Confuses True Holy Days
And finally, Christmas (and other such holy days) is an abomination because of the fact that it shifts the thoughts of the Christian away from that which God requires, and toward that which He does not even sanction. The Word of God says nothing about keeping this day called Christmas. But it does say that almighty God would have us keep the Sabbath holy. More than that, God commands that we use the other six days for the works that belong to man. And this itself forbids men from doing what they have done in designating holy days. It is a scandal when men come along and take the Sabbath and make it man's day (such as Father's Day, Mother's Day, Children's Day and the like.) No one has a right to take that day which already has the Lord's name upon it, and give it to the honor of another. But on the other hand, God has given six days of every week to man, and neither can any one rightly take these days from man under the pretext of making them holy days of God.
When human authority would say, "this day no longer belongs to you, for your works and recreations, but is a holy day unto God," that is quite as abominable as to give God's Holy day unto men. Man has no more power to make one of the six days a holy day, than he does to make the Sabbath day common, or even special in some humanly devised way.
We emphasize the fact that such holy days as Christmas are an abomination to God - not because of many of the things that are so often condemned (such as gifts, and the upturn in business, and the hearty smile and friendly greeting - why should these be condemned?) but precisely because of the things that are usually praised! It is the religious trappings, the so-called sacred tradition of Christmas, that exactly which men highly esteem, that is abomination unto God. And the most tragic thing about it is that the children of the Reformation are in the forefront of those who are trying to make it a "holy day."
The inevitable result of such a trend is today what it has always been. Whenever men highly esteem tradition, they make of none effect the Word of God. Not only the Pharisees of old, but today also men make the Word of God of none effect through their tradition. And wherever the emphasis on such holy days as Christmas, Easter, etc., has increased, there has also been a corresponding decline in the observance of the Sabbaths of God. (And conversely, where there has been a serious attempt to keep the Sabbaths of God, there has been a rejection of those holy days which are without warrant in the Scripture.) And so we say again, that such holy days are an utter abomination unto God, even though they are highly esteemed among men. And they are an abomination because God has said, "What thing soever I command you, observe to do it; Thou shalt not add thereto nor diminish from it." No, not even by means of time-honored and custom-hallowed tradition. For the fact is that all religious worship, reverence, feeling and conscience which comes from any source but the infallible Word of God is just that - abomination in His sight.
Let me close with the words: "Am I become your enemy, because I have told you the truth?" And if I have not told you the truth, bear witness to the error. If I have told you the truth, then come, let us reason together. Is not the religion of God good enough for you? Are not the Sabbaths which our Lord has called His own, sufficient for your soul? Are you not willing to rest content with that which the Master has given? It is time that we Protestants, who condemn the Church of Rome for her superstitions, give up a few superstitions of our own.
My Lord has not told me to do it?