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Celebration: A Biblical Foundation

By Rosemarie Kowalski

Rosemarie Daher Kowalski, an Assemblies of God ordained minister, has served as a missions pastor, pastor's wife, musician, and university alumni director. She's volunteered as a Bible study leader, leadership trainer, and writer. She completed a PhD in Intercultural Studies at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, in Springfield, Missouri. She blogs at www.peacefulones.blogspot.com

"I've never been to a party like this," the woman looked puzzled. "Everyone's so happy. Usually it takes a few drinks to loosen people up but this crowd is having fun without them."

Our child's wedding was in full swing. People laughed, talked, and shared stories about the bride and groom. The ceremony truly celebrated the marriage of the young couple and the reception reflected the loving pleasure of family and friends. Some guests were not believers, among them the woman making the comment.

I've thought about her surprise many times. The heart of Christian celebration does not depend on props that "loosen us up" to be uninhibited enough to be happy. Instead, it rests on our inner joy at belonging to a wonderful God and being included in His family. Our life of worship is an ongoing, overflowing jubilee. It wraps itself around those nearby, rejoicing in the opportunities, accomplishments, and relationships of our faith communities.

Through ritual celebrations, Israelites morphed from viewing themselves as underlings of Egyptian rulers for 400 years into their identity as the people of God.

The Oxford Dictionary defines celebration as "the action of marking one's pleasure at an important event or occasion by engaging in enjoyable, typically social, activity." Christians celebrate all stages of life, knowing God is at the center of all that is good. We mark milestones and events, acknowledging that every day and every gift comes from God's good hand.

Why Celebrate? Biblical models and mandates

The Bible is full of celebration. The biblical God loves a party! Feasting, rest, and social life were not only offered to Israel: God mandated them as integral to community.

Gladness was God's gift to humanity. From creation onward, God expressed pleasure at things that are good. He rejoiced when He made the world: "Good!" ... and when He created humanity: "Very good!" (Genesis 1). Ecclesiastes 3:13 affirms "that each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil - this is the gift of God." Solomon encouraged a joyful attitude toward life because every part of life - eating, drinking, work, and relationships - could be pleasurable with God's approval (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). Israel assumed that their worship included joyful celebration (Isaiah 30:29).

The Bible celebrates family milestones: birth, stages of life, weddings, and funerals. Other family events mentioned include weaning a child (Genesis 21:8) and the return of a prodigal son (Luke 15:23-24, 32).

Celebrations commemorated God's presence and His provisions for the whole community. Appointed festivities were given "according to the daily requirement for offerings commanded by Moses for the Sabbaths, the New Moons and the three annual festivals - the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles." (Exodus 12:14-17; 23:9-32; 2 Chronicles 8:13). These memorialized the Exodus, salvation (Passover), and God's provision of land so Abraham's descendants would no longer wander as nomads (Leviticus 23:40-43). The list of feasts were repeated in the Torah so that no one could miss their significance or the purposes and rituals associated with them. (Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 16.)

God acknowledged His role in meeting the needs of His people. For example, sowing seed and harvesting were paramount to people who depended on the land for survival. The festivals acknowledged that no matter how hard they worked, God was their ultimate source of food, supplying nature's bounty of rain, sun, and soil (Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23:9ff).

Through ritual celebrations, Israelites morphed from viewing themselves as underlings of Egyptian rulers for 400 years into their identity as the people of God. The traditions of Sabbaths and feasts presented new expectations for former slaves and the annual traditions reminded each generation that God Almighty had intervened. Therefore their relationship with Him deserved exultant acknowledgment (Numbers 10:10).

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel tended to syncretize their celebrations, adding pagan rituals to their worship or neglecting God entirely. For example, Jeroboam set up new gods, feasts, and sacrifices to draw political and religious allegiance to himself, away from worship in Jerusalem's temple (1 Kings 12:32).

Periodically, Israel reclaimed their identity as God's people, as when Solomon reinstated the feast days (2 Chronicles 8:12-14). After their exile to Babylon, resuming the Torah rituals caused great joy and reestablished their uniqueness as a chosen nation (Nehemiah 8:8-10).

Festivities brought benefits to participants, providing respite from work for people and nature. The weekly Sabbath was God's gift, a social day of rest and reflection for hard-working families. (Exodus 16:30; 20:11; 23:3). The land rested in the seventh year, a sound agricultural practice that kept the ground from becoming overworked and unproductive (Exodus 23:10-11).

God instituted celebrations that would tie families and communities together in recognition of His supremacy.

It is noteworthy that no other gods - then or now - promise, let alone mandate, rest to their followers. Adherents of other religions work harder and harder to please their gods but they are never certain that they have done enough. What a contrast to the Bible's God, who calls His people to step away from life's routines and obligations to feast, celebrate, and remember His goodness!

Celebrations were multi-generational affairs (Psalm 145:3-7). God expected cheerful participation by natives and foreigners of all generations, regardless of social or financial status (Deuteronomy 16:11, 15). They were often accompanied by music and dancing (2 Chronicles 23:13). Special foods were prepared and eaten and wines drunk (Nehemiah 8:10, 12.)

Sacrifices and offerings lay at the heart of celebrations, acknowledging that everything belonged to God and came from His hands. Sacrifices also provided for the temple so the rituals could be continued (1 Chronicles 29:16; 2 Chronicles 31:4-6).

Feasts were part of biblical cultures, inside and outside of Israel. Job's children celebrated birthdays (Job 1:4); Samson and other young men feasted (Judges 14:10); Israel and others celebrated victories over their enemies (Judges 16:23; Esther 8:15; Revelation 11:10), as well as other special events (Herod's banquet: Mark 6:21); Persian Queen Vashti held a feast for women while the king celebrated with officials (Esther 2:18).

In the New Testament, adherents of Christ likewise assembled together (Acts 20:7). They were encouraged to meet in groups regularly for encouragement (Hebrews 10:25). One of their characteristics was a joyful attitude (Galatians 5:22; Philippians 2:29; Jude 24). In fact, all of heaven erupts with elation when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7-10).

God took His celebrations seriously and their cessation was His punishment, representing the breakdown of normal life and routines ("I will stop all her celebrations: her yearly festivals ..." Hosea 2:11). God penalized Israel for putting their own agendas before His command to rest: for example, whoever skipped the feast of Atonement or worked that day would be cut off from Israel (Lev. 23:28-30). Violating the Sabbath was punishable by death (Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36).

Sabbath observances continued in the New Testament (John 7:22-23), though Jewish leaders had added many cultural obligations. Jesus declared himself Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28) and reinstated it as a day for doing good and for healing (John 9:13-38). Paul affirmed that believers were not tied to Old Testament rituals (Romans 14:5-6). He assured the Colossians (2:6) that no one had the right to judge them by - or how - they kept Jewish religious festivals.

Therefore celebrations of the Early Church were new in intent and attitude, incorporating physical symbols of Christ's accomplishment (1 Corinthians 5:8; 11:20-34). The ritual meal of the Lord's Supper, instituted by Jesus as a memorial for His followers, encompassed prayers, feasting, and community remembrance (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 24:30; John 21:13; 1 Corinthians 11:26). Thus the Lord's Supper celebrated the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover the Jews: God had provided life instead of death. (It is noteworthy that Jesus did not include a sacrificial lamb in His instructions to His followers. Jesus, the Lamb of God foreshadowed in the Passover, was slain for the redemption of participants.) The final feast mentioned in Scripture is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. This worshipful celebration commemorates the victory of God Almighty, who is about to demolish His enemies and banish evildoers from His presence (Revelation 19:6-9).

Conclusions for Church Leaders Today

God loves celebrations. Solomon confirms that there are times to laugh and dance, to harvest, and to enjoy love and peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

Based on biblical precedents, we should make a joyful noise when celebrating God's goodness (Psalm 150). After all, we read that ritual trumpets proclaimed the onset of feasts and festivals as well as wars (Numbers 10:1-10). Israel - and King David - encouraged worship in dance and singing, playing instruments of percussion, string, and wood (1 Samuel 21:11; 29:5; 2 Samuel 6:14; Psalm 87:7; 150:3-4). Paul encourages songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. Throughout eternity, we will worship and celebrate God's beauty, purity, and goodness in eternity.

Why not start now? Those teens in band class? Integrate them in your services by employing them as a cheerful cacophony before the Lord and His people!

Humans are created for relationship with each other, too. God instituted celebrations that would tie families and communities together in recognition of His supremacy. God's people acknowledged Him as the source of provision by bringing offerings and sacrifices. They set aside a day each week to remember His creation and His dominion over time, work, and human efforts.

How does your church celebrate God's nature, His provision for salvation and other needs, and His ongoing friendship with us? Do you joyfully create space for Communion? Potlucks? Family celebrations? Spiritual milestones?

The God of Scripture is surely pleased when we come together in His name to acknowledge Him as the Center of our human experience.

Scripture quotations are from HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com.