Celebrate Like Those Who Have Hope
A Timely Issue
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul had to encourage his readers as they dealt with the death of loved ones. He wrote, "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Paul then showed how our Christian hope of the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory shapes our grieving. As this hope shapes our grieving, it actually shapes everything we do, including our celebration. We can adapt Paul's words and say, "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you ... to celebrate like the rest of men, who have no hope."
It is particularly helpful to think about this at the time of the year when there is much celebration. Companies throw Christmas parties. We have our own family celebrations at Christmas, as well on New Year's Eve. These are not the only times of celebration in the whole year, but when it comes to celebrations, the year does seem to end with a bang, so to speak. Some find it difficult to squeeze in every party they are invited to. So, it is a good time to ask ourselves if we celebrate as those who have hope.
Our manner of celebrating is addressed in the practical sections of various apostolic letters found in Scripture. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote,
...our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
In his letter to the Ephesians he wrote,
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.
In Peter's first letter he wrote that his reader had
spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do — living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.
1 Peter 4:3, 4
When you note that Paul wrote to the believers in Rome and Ephesus, and Peter wrote to the believers scattered throughout the area of present day Turkey, it is evident that there was a strong pull to the party habits of the world in which the early Christians lived. Peter's words indicate that there was considerable pressure to participate in the party scene of those days. Not participating was seen as being judgmental.
From the words used by Paul and Peter, we learn that these were wild parties. We actually come across some words that we may not even know the meaning of, beyond sensing that they speak of something bad. For example, in each of the passages we come across the word "debauchery." One dictionary defines debauchery as gross sensual indulgence or as abandoning all duty, virtue, and faithfulness. All three passages also refer to drunkenness, as it leads to debauchery. You get the impression that in the parties of those days, people just let loose. Filled with liquid spirits, they were in high spirits.
It is worth noting how Paul's warning in Ephesians 5 not to get drunk on wine is immediately followed by, "Instead be filled with the Spirit." This is a striking contrast of liquid spirits and the Holy Spirit. A Christian can't be filled with both and be true to the name Christian, for where the liquid spirits increase, the Holy Spirit must decrease. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of self-control, while the liquid spirits take over control.
We should not think, however, that this warning against partying in the style of the world means that Christians have to go through life with sour and dour faces. Keep in mind that the celebration style of the world is because they have no hope. That lack of hope leads to the mindset expressed in the lyrics of a still popular song, "We're here for a good time, not a long time, so have a good time, the sun can't shine every day" (from the band Trooper, 1977). As Christians we have every reason to be joyful. There are repeated exhortations in Scripture to rejoice. Do note that it is a call to rejoice in the Lord (e.g. Psalm 33:1; Habakkuk 3:18; Philippians 4:4).
This talk of joy, of course, is first and foremost an inner joy. That inner joy is there even when one is surrounded by much external misery. This is obvious from the context of the book of Habakkuk and Paul's letter to the Philippians.
This does not take away that there is also opportunity for actual joyful celebration. We see that in the way the LORD commanded Israel to keep a whole series of feasts. Besides the weekly Sabbath, there was an annual cycle of feasts associated with the agricultural calendar. One can read about this in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. The LORD commanded his people to rejoice at the different phases of the harvest. To make sure that those celebrations would be in accord with the hope of Israel, the LORD linked key events on the agricultural calendar with what we might term the annual church calendar of the Old Testament times. Israel was to celebrate before the LORD and remember how he had delivered them from Egypt. This is evident in the way the three key feasts of unleavened bread (Passover), Pentecost, and Feast of Booths were to be celebrated at the place where the LORD would chose to make his name dwell. First this was the tabernacle and later the temple. The time of rejoicing over material blessings was also the time to rejoice over spiritual blessings. The rejoicing over material blessings was to take place in light of the spiritual blessings. Note the key point of linking material and spiritual blessings, of celebrating in the presence of the LORD.
While as New Testament Church we are free from the ceremonial laws, this principle has been applied by the church in different ways. Already early in the history of the Christian church, there developed a celebration of the birth of the Lord Jesus. The date was chosen because it was a time of the year when people were accustomed to celebrating the lengthening of days as part of the old pagan religions. The early church, in its wisdom, filled the vacuum in celebration that had come about because of rejecting the old pagan feast with a feast that linked it to an important event in the church calendar, the birth of Christ. It remains an ongoing discussion as to whether this was good or not, but it is a reality. You can fight it or live with the wisdom of the forefathers, and link the celebration of an event on the annual calendar with the great event of the incarnation, when the eternal Son of God humbled himself and took on our human flesh.
We can also see this in connection with the custom of having a worship service in connection with the start of a new year. This is something that we have inherited as, by the providence of God, we have our church roots in The Netherlands. It is a fact that services in connection with the new year were maintained upon the request of the civil authorities, who saw it as a way to control excessive partying. Again, you can fight it or live with the wisdom of the forefathers, and link the celebration of an event on the annual calendar with the fact that salvation is now closer than when we first believed.
Even apart from these external aids, our celebrations should always be done as those who have hope. Both Paul and Peter were not just thinking of possible Christmas and New Year's parties but of all partying. As Christians, the Lord our God should always be on our mind. If we live conscientious, thankful lives, we will think of him often. Our daily prayers at meal times and before bed, and our weekly worship, keep him ever on our mind. Our Lord is with us constantly through his Holy Spirit who dwells within us. His presence should not be seen as a bogeyman to keep us from sinning, but as a joyful stimulant to live our whole life to the glory of our God, also in our celebrations. We live our whole life before the face of God, also when no one else sees us.
Wishing All a Joyful Celebration
As we are in the midst of our year end celebrations, we do well then to impress upon ourselves that celebrating is very much part of our Christian identity. Christians actually are the only ones who have reason to celebrate. The unbelieving world parties to numb itself and many wake up with a bad hangover and regrets. As Christians we may celebrate because of our hope in the coming of our Lord Jesus in glory. Such celebration should not be numbing but invigorating.
May our gracious God grant you all a joyful time as family and friends as you celebrate like those who have hope.