WHY NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES OF CHRIST DO NOT CELEBRATE EASTER
By Wayne S. Walker
Almost everyone is, I assume, aware that there is a religious holiday known as Easter which is supposed to be an annual celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The New Testament definitely teaches the resurrection of Christ, but it really says nothing about an Easter celebration. Someone might ask, “What about Acts 12:1-4?” The King James Version reads as follows:
“Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”
We shall deal more fully with the usage of the word “Easter” in the King James Version here a little later, but for the moment it is important to note that practically all other versions, including the New King James Version, use the word “Passover” instead of “Easter.” The purpose of this article is to look at the Scriptures and see why New Testament churches of Christ do not celebrate Easter.
There is no authority in the New Testament to have an Easter celebration. Now, someone might say, “But it doesn’t say not to have one.” In answer to this argument we must note that we are commanded to do the will of God “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The will of God is expressed by the authority of Christ. “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Now, where do we find the will of God expressed by the authority of Christ? The answer is, in the Scriptures. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Again, the Scriptures say nothing about Christians commemorating the resurrection of Christ by celebrating Easter
Furthermore, we are forbidden from going beyond what the Scriptures teach. “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds (2 John vs. 9-11). Indeed, we are cautioned against adding anything to God’s revealed word. “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18). So, if the Scriptures say nothing about Christians observing Easter as a religious holiday, to do so is to go beyond the doctrine of Christ and add to God’s word.
New Testament church did not observe it
“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Because there is no authority in the New Testament for an Easter celebration, the New Testament church in the first century under the direction of the apostles did not observe it. But what about the reference to Easter in the King James Version of Acts 12:4. First, as indicated by all the other versions and the meaning of the word itself in the original language, the verse is talking about the Passover, not Easter. And second, whatever it is, it was Herod and the Jews, not Christians, who were observing it.
Why is it so important to continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine? The answer is because they were the ones whom Christ chose to reveal His will to the church. “How that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:3-5). Yet, no apostle ever mentioned celebrating Easter.
According to Wikipedia, “The first Christians, Jewish and Gentile, were certainly aware of the Hebrew calendar…, but there is no direct evidence that they celebrated any specifically Christian annual festivals. Direct evidence for the Easter festival begins to appear in the mid-2nd century….The modern English term Easter developed from the Old English word Ēastre or Ēostre …which itself developed prior to 899. The name refers to Eostur-monath (Old English ‘Ēostre month’), a month of the Germanic calendar attested by Bede, who writes that the month is named after the goddess Ēostre of Anglo-Saxon paganism.”
Basically, therefore, the modern concept of “Easter” is a mixture of Roman Catholic theology and pagan mythology, both man-made in origin. “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ….Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God” (Colossians 2:8, 18-19). Instead, we need to make sure that we follow Paul’s further instructions, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17). Thus, Easter is a human doctrine that was not observed by the New Testament church
Special days condemned
The Old Testament commanded the people of Israel to celebrate certain special festivals (Deuteronomy 16:1-17). Three of the most important of these festivals were the Passover which included the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks (known in the New Testament as Pentecost), and the Feast of the Tabernacles. There were also other special days, but all Hebrew males were commanded to assemble in the city where God would place His name, which ended up being Jerusalem, on those three.
However, as we have already noted, the New Testament mentions no special festivals and in fact condemns the keeping of such observances. Paul was worried about the Christians in the churches of Galatia. “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7). Why was Paul so concerned? Among other errors that had arisen among the Galatian brethren, he mentioned the keeping of days as religious observances. “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain” (Galatians 4:9-11).
Like having a special priesthood and offering animal sacrifices, the celebration of religious festivals is part of the Old Testament law which was done away. In the same context where Paul warned against being cheated through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, and being cheated of our reward by not holding fast to the Head, he also made the following comments. “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:14-15).
What were those requirements that were against us and were taken out of the way, having been nailed to the cross? Paul goes on to identify some of them by name. “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” (Colossians 2:16-17). Christians will not be judged on the basis of any requirements to observe dietary regulations or special days, because those things were part of the Old Testament law. New Testament churches will follow the New Testament pattern, not the Old Testament law.
Remember Christ each week
New Testament churches remember Christ’s death every week. Again, Jesus never authorized an annual celebration of His resurrection, but He did ordain a special observance of His death. “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom’” (Matthew 26:26-29).
When did the early church engage in this remembrance? “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight” (Acts 20:7). Someone might ask, “But how often—once a month, once a quarter, once a year, or when?” To answer this question, all we need to do is to go back to Exodus 20:8. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” How often was Israel to remember the Sabbath day? Well, every week had a Sabbath day, so they observed it every week. Every week also has a first day, so we necessarily conclude that the disciples came together to break bread in remembrance of Christ’s death on the first day of every week.
While, as we have repeatedly seen, there is no evidence that the New Testament church observed Easter, there is plenty of evidence that it observed the Lord’s Supper. “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Notice that they did it “often,” not just every once in a while. And New Testament churches will do the exact same thing today!
It has not the goal of this article to make fun of people who observe Easter as a religious holiday or to question the sincerity of their beliefs. I am sure that through the years many good people have honestly and truly believed that they have been honoring Christ and His resurrection through participation in special Easter services. The determination of what is authorized or unauthorized is not the honesty and sincerity of a person, but rather God’s revealed truth. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). And where do we find God’s revealed truth? “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Therefore, our goal has simply been to examine a religious subject in light of what God’s word has to say about it.
Also, we have not discussed what people may or may not do in celebrating Easter on an individual basis, such as with family gatherings, coloring and hunting eggs for children, buying and wearing new spring clothes, etc. These kinds of things are personal decisions. “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). Instead, we have focused on what Christ has authorized or not authorized His church to do according to the New Testament pattern for its worship and work. And what we need to remember and emphasize is that we must obey Christ in all things and not add to or take away from His word.
—Taken from Faith and Facts Quarterly; Oct., 2012; Vol. 40, No. 4; pp. 63-69