Old Testament Laws: Does Zechariah 14:16-21 Command Christians to Keep Festivals?
Question: Prophecies indicate that the Sabbath and annual festivals will be kept in God’s ideal age (e.g., Isaiah 66:23; Zechariah 14:16-19). Does this prove that the Sabbath and the annual festivals must be kept by Christians?
Here are two answers (a short one and a long one):
Answer 1: The prophets described an ideal time in which all peoples worship God. To effectively convey this to old covenant peoples, the prophets described old covenant forms of worship, including new moon observances (Isaiah 66:23), sacrifices in the temple (Zechariah 14:20-21; Ezekiel 45:17) and physical circumcision (Ezekiel 44:9; Isaiah 52:1-2). But neither physical circumcision nor animal sacrifices are religious requirements for Christians.
Will sacrifices be part of worship in the future? Opinions vary, but regardless, it is clear that these prophecies cannot be used to prove the validity of all these forms of worship for people under the new covenant, who have accepted and believe in Jesus Christ. Prophecies should be read for their purpose, not as a source from which we can infer standards and requirements for Christians. Our doctrines must be based on scriptures that are applicable to this age, the age of the new covenant.
Answer 2: Some have seen Zechariah 14:16-21 as a prophecy of a future millennial reign of Christ on earth during which the Festival of Tabernacles will be observed. This passage of Scripture speaks of survivors from all the nations that made war against Jerusalem going up “year after year” to worship God and to celebrate this festival at Jerusalem.
Some interpret this to mean that Christians today should keep the festival as holy time. The thought is that, since God told his people in ancient Israel to observe this festival, and since his people in the future will also observe it, is it not reasonable that his people today should keep the festival? That would be consistent with the idea that this time is designated as holy, permanently.
Is this a correct interpretation? Let’s answer by first looking at the circumstances under which the book was written. Zechariah was a prophet who began witnessing to Judah during the time of the rebuilding of the temple (about 520 B.C.) after the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity. Zechariah called on the Jews to finish the task of reconstruction by encouraging them about the important future role of the temple. His was an old covenant ministry, so we shouldn’t be surprised that his book is full of images pertaining to that covenant.
Zechariah was particularly interested in describing Jerusalem and the temple as the apple of God’s eye. He emphasizes that the Jews worshipping at the house of God would gain the victory over their enemies through the power of the Lord (1:14-17; 8:3-22; 12:13, 10; 13:1; 14:1-18). This theme fits the circumstances well. The small number of exiles who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild the temple were besieged on every side by enemies. It was in such trying times that Zechariah brought the word of comfort to the people about Jerusalem’s and the temple’s wonderful future (Ezra 5:1-2).
Zechariah’s basic message was that after the past and present periods of trouble there would be a glorious restoration. Jerusalem—which was a downtrodden and destroyed city in Zechariah’s time—would become the focus of God’s blessings. For the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem, the Festival of Tabernacles symbolized the promise of this glorious future time. We see this in a festival celebration in the time of Nehemiah, some years after Zechariah’s preaching (Nehemiah 8:9-18).
The book of Zechariah contains symbolic imagery. Here are some examples: 1:18-21; 3:1-10; 4:1-14; 5:1-4; 5:11; 6:1-8; 11:4-17. This means we must be careful in how we interpret what the book says, because at least some of it is not intended to be taken literally. This seems to be true of Zechariah 14:16-21. If we were to interpret this passage literally, and say that it teaches all people everywhere and at all times must observe the Festival of Tabernacles, we are faced with exegetical difficulties and logical contradictions.
For example, Zechariah speaks of the survivors of all nations going to Jerusalem to keep the feast (14:16). But this can’t mean all people on earth will observe the festival in Jerusalem. It is not possible for everyone to fit into Jerusalem for the festival, even if we consider the size of the city’s expanded modern boundaries. Only a tiny percentage of the earth’s people could gather there—even if one assumes a much smaller population at the beginning of some future age.
Some have responded that only representatives of all the nations would have to travel to Jerusalem. But this interpretation denies the literalness of Zechariah 14, which would be essential to prove that people everywhere and at all times are required to observe the festival. The account does not speak of representatives, but simply says “the peoples of the earth” must go to Jerusalem to observe the festival (14:17). To say only “representatives” will go is to not take the account literally. But one cannot logically hold that the prophecy is literal in all aspects except those that we think are impossible!
Conversely, the text does not speak of people observing the Festival of Tabernacles in all parts of the earth. The passage speaks of the festival as being observed only in Jerusalem. This accords well with the Mosaic command that the festivals were to be celebrated only at the place God chose, which ultimately was at the temple in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:4-6, 11, 17-18; 16:5-6, 11, 15-16). To celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles or any other of the Mosaic festivals outside of Jerusalem was not allowed by the Law.
If we see Zechariah’s reference to the Festival of Tabernacles as symbolic of an important theological point (in a non-Mosaic, Christian context), these kinds of problems and inconsistencies disappear. Let’s look at this understanding. Zechariah sees the nations who once hated God’s way now acknowledging the Messiah and his way as being just and true. Jerusalem and the temple were considered the focal point of God’s presence under the old covenant.
This picture echoes Isaiah 2:2-4 and 11:1-9, which shows the Messiah’s way of holiness going forth to all the earth from Jerusalem. Isaiah uses various symbols to show the way of God spreading out across the earth, including waters covering the sea, formerly dangerous animals playing with docile animals and children, the rod of God’s mouth striking the earth, swords being beaten into plowshares.
Zechariah uses different imagery to make the same point, including the picture of all the world coming to Jerusalem during the Festival of Tabernacles to worship the Lord. But just as we do not interpret the image of a rod striking the earth in a literal manner, neither do we need to take the image of the world coming to Jerusalem in a literal way. A much better understanding is that this is a symbolic picture, given in an old covenant context to Israel, which makes a crucial point: The Lord will one day be king of all the earth, and all people will worship him. To convey this to an old covenant audience, old covenant imagery was used.
Let’s look at other aspects of Zechariah’s use of imagery to further help us understand why his statement regarding the Festival of Tabernacles should not be taken in a literal fashion. In his description of the future age, Zechariah speaks of sacrifices and of the pots in Jerusalem being holy (14:21). Sacrifices were commanded in the past, and prophesied for the future in this passage. But no one is suggesting that we should have “holy pots” or offer physical sacrifices in our worship today. The logic that says Christians have to observe everything commanded in the past and prophesied for the future (the Law and the Prophets) is inaccurate.
If we take Zechariah 14’s comments about the nations of the world celebrating the Festival of Tabernacles as a literal command for all people today, we would not be at liberty to eliminate “holy pots” or sacrifices from present-day worship. Logic says that if one worship method is compelling for our time (Tabernacles observance), the other should be, too (having holy pots and sacrificing animals). But in truth, none of these are required today.
Zechariah 14:20 says the horses are to have bells with the inscription, “Holy to the Lord.” If we are to apply this section of Scripture literally to worship today, then we would need to have horses with inscribed bells as part of a Tabernacles celebration. It is obvious that if one interprets Zechariah 14 in a literal manner as requirement for our worship today, we find ourselves entangled in anachronisms.
What do we see in Zechariah 14:16-21, then? The imagery is drawn from worship under the old covenant and from Jewish apocalyptic thought. What is pictured is an old covenant scenario of the ideal world where the enemies of God and Israel bow to the Messiah’s rule. It was the right message for Israel under the old covenant, especially for the few Jewish stragglers who had returned to Jerusalem after the captivity. They could picture themselves and their enemies in fellowship with God in familiar physical terms—as worshiping at a restored temple in an uplifted Jerusalem that would one day hold sway over the nations under the power of the Messiah.
The New Testament interprets old covenant details in terms of new covenant spiritual realities. For example, Jesus revealed that true fellowship and worship are not restricted to a holy place in Jerusalem (John 4:21-24), and Paul showed that God extends his hand to all nations. Under the new covenant, the temple of God is the church, not a building in Jerusalem. We offer ourselves as living sacrifices, not physical ones at an altar in Jerusalem. Circumcision is of the heart, not the cutting of the foreskin.
God seeks all who are willing to worship him in spirit and truth. They do so in their hearts, not by going to the temple in Jerusalem. For Christians, there is no “holy place,” and there is no “holy time.” Christians can worship at all times and places because they do it through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
This is illustrated by the later chapters of Ezekiel, where intricate and complex details of a restored temple in Jerusalem are given. Levites and sacrifices are mentioned as a part of the worship in this restored temple, which is pictured as a physical building. This was an old covenant message, and it must be given a new covenant interpretation for Christians. That is why the book of Revelation radically reinterprets Ezekiel’s temple in terms of Christ’s redemptive work and salvation, as it does its many dozens of references to the Old Testament. See Revelation 21:22-22:5 to see how Revelation interprets the meaning of the temple.
The conclusion is that we should not interpret Zechariah 14 in a literal way nor as a command to Christians to keep the Festival of Tabernacles as “holy time.” None of the New Testament writings cite Zechariah 14:16-19 as applying to Christians. The apostles did not urge anyone—certainly not those who weren’t Jews—to go to Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles. There is not a single instance in the letters of Paul, Peter or John of a command to keep the annual festivals of ancient Israel.
The church does not interpret Zechariah 14 as a command for Christians today to observe the annual festivals of ancient Israel. If we are patient and explore these issues with an open mind, we can understand them in a spiritual manner in light of Christ’s redemptive work. Under the new covenant, we are not commanded to keep the Festival of Tabernacles. Christ has fulfilled the old covenant law. The spiritual reality is that Christ has made his tabernacle with us (in a literal translation, John 1:14 says that he tabernacled among us) and the people of God have become the tabernacle or temple of God in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.