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Happy New Year!

A look at the concept of new year, Jewish festivals, and what it means for us.

Written by David Steltz on .

Notes

Introduction

‌Good morning! Happy New Year!

Since New Year’s Day actually fell on Sunday this year, I figured I might as well do a New Year’s themed message today.

It’s been 3 weeks now that we’ve been on hiatus from Matthew, and Lord willing, next week we’ll return to where we left off in chapter 17.

But today, I want to talk a little bit about the concept of the New Year, what it means for us as well as what it looks like in the context of the biblical story.

What is a New Year?

So, first of all, what is new year? What does that even mean? What happens with a new year? What changes?

A year is defined as one full planetary trip around the sun. So, on earth that means 365 days, 52 weeks, 12 months, and a cycle of seasons. Here in the North Country, we get a pretty well-defined cycle of 4 seasons which helps in keeping track of the passing of the years.

‌So, there is a certain physical, tangible, observable aspect to the cycle of new years, right?

Similarly, as the earth travels around the sun it’s simultaneously spinning, making one full revolution 365 times every year, and we are facing the sun we call it day and when the sun is hidden from us we call it night.

We break that period of time up into 24 hours and call that one full day. And every time we see the sun come up, we call that a new day.

Every new day comes with a new sunrise, and therefore a very natural reason to say, “Here we have a new day!” And the sun will go down at the end of the day and come up again tomorrow.

When the sun is in the middle of the sky, that’s the middle of the day, and 12 hours later is the middle of the night.

But when it comes to a New Year, why do we say that on January 1st, suddenly it’s a new year? Why not sometime in Spring, for example?

The passage of years is a clear, observable part of reality; however, the commemorating of new years is somewhat arbitrary as far as when in the year that’s decided.

The definition of a new year is simply this:

New Year is the time or day currently at which a new calendar year begins and the calendar's year count increments by one.

Ok, so it’s when we restart our calendar, but there are a variety of different calendars currently in use as well as historically, some based on the Sun, some based on the moon, and with varying methods of tracking the passages of months and years.

‌We use the Gregorian calendar, by far the most widely adopted around the world, but there are others that are pretty well known.

‌I won’t get into the specifics of the history of different calendars, it’s fascinating but not really relevant.

The Gregorian calendar has the new year beginning January 1.

The Chinese New Year on the other hand is actually meant to be celebrated in the spring, associating the end of winter with the beginning of the new year. It typically falls in late January or early February, which of course here is NOT the end of winter, but still the dead of winter, but that’s the idea anyway, and the specific date that it falls on our calendar fluctuates from year to year.

‌Islamic and Jewish traditions both have their own New Years, and India, Nepal, and other countries also celebrate New Year on dates according to their own calendars that are movable in the Gregorian calendar.

Concept of New Year

‌So, when to celebrate a new year is partly scientific observation, but more so cultural and religious tradition. So, from a Christian perspective, is there a right or wrong time to celebrate New Year's? Should we celebrate it at all? Is it wrong to participate in New Year's festivities in any culture?

‌Well, the short answer is no, of course it’s not wrong to celebrate a new year, whatever day that happens to be in your cultural and historical context.

But aside from just having a party, is there something meaningful about a new year that’s relevant for a follower of Jesus?

Again, nothing tangible or specific really happens between December 31st and January 1st, nothing different than any other two days, two rotations of the earth. And Jesus never commanded his followers to celebrate the new year on a specific day.

However, Jesus did celebrate the new year with his followers, within HIS cultural context. In fact, there were quite a few festivals and feasts, and two different “new year” celebrations, and I want to spend some time looking at those today.

Jewish Festivals

In the law of Moses, there are a total of seven different “appointed times” that were periods of times throughout the year to be set apart for festivals and feasts as well as fasting and repentance. They are described in various places, but you can find all seven in Leviticus chapter 23. I’m not going to read through all of them, but here’s the introduction in verses 1-2:

Leviticus 23:1–2 LEB
1 Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the Israelites, and say to them, ‘The festivals of Yahweh that you shall proclaim are holy assemblies; these are my appointed times.

Passover to Pentecost

‌It then goes on to first describe Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, the festival of first fruits, and the feast of weeks.

Passover

Passover centers around one evening meal and refers back to the exodus and their delivery from Egypt, AND points forward to Jesus being the ultimate sacrificial Passover lamb. Passover is also significant in that it marks the first month of the new year! And Passover kind of kicks off the next few, it starts the unleavened bread, and rolls right into the next one, it all starts with Passover, just as Israel’s exodus from Egypt was kicked off with the original passover.

So I want to read from Exodus 12, where God first commands the observance of Passover and declares that month in which they are brought out of slavery, to be the first month of their year:

Exodus 12:1–28 CSB
1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month is to be the beginning of months for you; it is the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they must each select an animal of the flock according to their fathers’ families, one animal per family. 4 If the household is too small for a whole animal, that person and the neighbor nearest his house are to select one based on the combined number of people; you should apportion the animal according to what each will eat. 5 You must have an unblemished animal, a year-old male; you may take it from either the sheep or the goats. 6 You are to keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembly of the community of Israel will slaughter the animals at twilight. 7 They must take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses where they eat them. 8 They are to eat the meat that night; they should eat it, roasted over the fire along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or cooked in boiling water, but only roasted over fire—its head as well as its legs and inner organs. 10 You must not leave any of it until morning; any part of it left until morning you must burn. 11 Here is how you must eat it: You must be dressed for travel, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You are to eat it in a hurry; it is the Lord’s Passover. 

12 “I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both people and animals. I am the Lord; I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. 13 The blood on the houses where you are staying will be a distinguishing mark for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 

14 “This day is to be a memorial for you, and you must celebrate it as a festival to the Lord. You are to celebrate it throughout your generations as a permanent statute. 15 You must eat unleavened bread for seven days. On the first day you must remove yeast from your houses. Whoever eats what is leavened from the first day through the seventh day must be cut off from Israel. 16 You are to hold a sacred assembly on the first day and another sacred assembly on the seventh day. No work may be done on those days except for preparing what people need to eat—you may do only that. 

17 “You are to observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread because on this very day I brought your military divisions out of the land of Egypt. You must observe this day throughout your generations as a permanent statute. 18 You are to eat unleavened bread in the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day of the month until the evening of the twenty-first day. 19 Yeast must not be found in your houses for seven days. If anyone eats something leavened, that person, whether a resident alien or native of the land, must be cut off from the community of Israel. 20 Do not eat anything leavened; eat unleavened bread in all your homes.” 

21 Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select an animal from the flock according to your families, and slaughter the Passover animal. 22 Take a cluster of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and brush the lintel and the two doorposts with some of the blood in the basin. None of you may go out the door of his house until morning. 23 When the Lord passes through to strike Egypt and sees the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, he will pass over the door and not let the destroyer enter your houses to strike you. 

24 “Keep this command permanently as a statute for you and your descendants. 25 When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, you are to observe this ceremony. 26 When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ 27 you are to reply, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he struck the Egyptians, and he spared our homes.’ ” So the people knelt low and worshiped. 28 Then the Israelites went and did this; they did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.

‌This was a big deal! And the purpose of all the ritual and tradition surrounding it was to give them something to pass down for generations and generations to remember what God did for them, to retell the story to themselves over and over again, and recognize their very existence as dependent on God.

‌And then of course, the image of the blood of the sacrificial lamb providing salvation from death, the blood on the doorposts causing destruction to “Pass Over” those who were faithful and listened to God’s instruction. This points to the ultimate sacrificial lamb, Jesus. And in case that wasn’t obvious enough, the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples was a Passover meal, in which he said, “This represents ME!”

The Passover represented new beginnings for Israel, and Jesus brought a new beginning for all humanity through his sacrifice.

‌Unleavened Bread

‌Right after Passover is a week-long festival of unleavened bread. During this time, they can’t eat any bread with yeast in it, again pointing back to how they prepared to leave Egypt. There was a practical purpose for the unleavened bread originally, in being able to leave quickly, to be ready for God’s deliverance. But the image of yeast also came to symbolize sin and corruption, and how it spreads when left unchecked. We just heard Jesus refer to the “leaven of the pharisees” in Matthew.

First Fruits

‌Then, to commemorate the beginning of harvest season there is a festival of “First Fruits,” which is essentially a harvest festival very similar to how most cultures have celebrated the harvest, except that they were to bring sacrificial offerings to the temple, as a reminder of their dependence on God and gratitude for his provision. Again, another reminder that God had brought them out of Egypt and into the promised land, into a new life.

For us, we find that new life in Christ, whose death and resurrection is a promise that we will also resurrect to live with him forever in glory. He was the first one, ushering in a tangible hope in a new creation, a restored Eden.

Paul talks about this concept in depth in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 15 he launches into a lengthy explanation as to the importance of understanding the resurrection and why it’s so essential to our faith. I won’t read the whole chapter, but I want to read the beginning of it, because he actually uses that term “First Fruit,” so I want you to watch for that in this passage. 

​1 Corinthians 15:1–23 CSB
1 Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6 Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me. 

9 For I am the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, so we proclaim and so you have believed. 

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain, and so is your faith. 15 Moreover, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified wrongly about God that he raised up Christ—whom he did not raise up, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Those, then, who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. 

20 But as it is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. 22 For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 

23 But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ.

‌So, in hindsight we can certainly see significance in the festival of first fruits not just as a harvest festival but as pointing towards Christ.

‌Pentecost

To wrap up the spring festivals, 50 days later, to mark the end of the harvest, there’s the feast of weeks. This also came to be known as “Pentecost,” from the Greek word for “fiftieth.”

Of course, now the most famous day of Pentecost is the one that we read about in Acts chapter 2:

Acts 2:1–4 CSB
1 When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. 3 They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them. 4 Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them.

‌This was the fulfilment of Jesus’s promise to send his spirit after he left physically, and the manifestation of God’s decentralized personal presence, using imagery from Exodus and the temple, but instead of being centralized in a building or structure, it’s resting on humans, like it did on Jesus, and it would then spread like fire.

‌And this just so happened to take place on the day of Pentecost. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I want to quickly finish summarizing the rest of these festivals.

‌All four of these so far are really like a grouping of festivals connected to Passover, which kicks everything else off. The unleavened bread starts with Passover, the First Fruits happens right after that, and then Pentecost is really being determined based on the beginning of Passover. All that happens in the spring, those 4 back-to-back.

Trumpets to Booths

‌Then there’s a long wait before the next one, which is the Feast of Trumpets or Rosh Hashanah.

Next would be the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, which is all about repentance and sacrifice and God’s mercy.

‌And finally, the Feast of Tabernacles or feast of Booths, which is another harvest festival, in the fall, and it involves sleeping in temporary, makeshift huts, as yet another reminder of the Exodus and the temporary, mobile dwellings they lived in during their nomadic time in the Wilderness.

‌There are many other Jewish holidays and traditions, but these seven are the core ones commanded in Leviticus, and all of them in some way point back to God’s provision and deliverance and mercy in the past, as well as forward to his promise of the same in the future.

‌Four of them happen in the spring, and three of them in the fall.

And three of those occasions were ones that faithful Jews would, if it all possible, travel to Jerusalem to celebrate together. Those were:

  1. Passover & Feast of First Fruits (New Year)
  2. Feast of Weeks (50 days after First Fruits)
  3. Feast of Tabernacles (in the fall)

‌So, those three times throughout the year, Jerusalem would be PACKED with visitors, out-of-towners making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, bringing offerings to the temple, worshipping, and feasting with their families and friends.

And the Jews who didn’t live in Jerusalem were scattered at this point, so we’re talking about people who would be coming from different cultures, and speaking different languages, and with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

This eclectic demographic then would be what you’d find in the crowds, the masses of people who were witness to the crucifixion, and even perhaps complicit in demanding it.

But that’s also the demographic you find in Acts, it would be mostly the same people visiting for Pentecost! In fact, if you keep reading in Acts 2 the next verse says this:

‌Acts 2:5 CSB
5 Now there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout people from every nation under heaven.

‌That’s exactly what makes the disciples’ speaking in tongues so significant! They were able to share the gospel with an incredibly diverse group of people, lighting flames that would eventually then disperse from Jerusalem and spread all over the world to all kinds of cultures.

How convenient is that?

‌Summary

There’s no way it’s a coincidence that Jesus was crucified as the “Passover lamb” during Passover, then rose from the grave when the feast of firstfruits would be starting. Then spent 40 days teaching his disciples before ascending to heaven…40 days…so soon after he left, on the fiftieth day, the day of Pentecost, he sent the Holy Spirit as promised to empower the disciples to continue the ministry and mission he started.

‌That’s just so cool!

Application

‌Now, to circle back to the questions I was asking originally about New Year, and what we should celebrate when, because this is January 1st, and Passover is in April and Pentecost is in May.

We don’t have any formal observance of those festivals in our church family, because it’s just not part of our cultural heritage. However, there are many Jewish Christians who enjoy celebrating Passover seder and many of the other traditions, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with participating in that! Jesus did too!

‌But he also helped his Jewish followers realize that they didn’t need to impose their Jewish customs, or language, for that matter, on their Gentile brothers and sisters. Not even circumcision or a kosher diet, both of which were incredibly scandalous and shocking at the time!

The ordinance we do observe is that which Jesus commanded during his last passover meal. He said “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, do it in remembrance of me.” It’s not that we should completely forget the original meaning of passover, but Jesus brought brand new meaning to it, and so we try to partake in those symbols not just yearly but about once a month as a church family.

And as for celebrating the New Year, again it doesn’t matter what day it falls on, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with celebration. Of course, how you celebrate is another question, but just use discernment with that.

Like Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything, there are times to mourn, times to repent, and fast, but God also clearly wants his people to celebrate the gifts he’s given us, his provision, and mercy, and most of all salvation.

There is no greater gift than the gift of new life, of rebirth that was made possible by Jesus.

2 Corinthians 5:17 CSB
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!

‌I’m not much into New Year’s “resolutions” simply because they often seem to be rather trivial and/or ineffective, but that said, if the turning of the calendar from one year to the next is an opportunity to reflect on the gift of rebirth, to take stock of what God’s done in your life over the last 365 days, to look ahead with hope in the promise of renewal, and perhaps identify some goals for personal growth and maturity in your relationships with God and others…well there’s certainly nothing wrong with that!

I encourage you to take some time to share with one another what God has done in your life over the past year, your joys and struggles. This is a healthy habit to have all year round, but we might as well take advantage of the opportunity to do it, of all times, when welcoming in a new year!

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year!