I remember one of the last conversations that I had with a minister in the Armstrong Church of God I was attending, prior to my decision to leave. We were discussing some of the doctrinal difficulties that we both struggled with. At one point in the conversation he became frustrated with all the inconsistencies and just threw up his hands and said, “well, all I know is that I’m going to keep observing the Holy Days just like the church in the New Testament!” So I asked him where in the New Testament the church was shown to be observing the Holy Days. He replied, “well right there in I Corinthians chapter 5 where Paul instructed them to keep the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread! Why would Paul even mention those days to a gentile church if they were not observing them?”
My minister friend actually asked two questions:
Did Paul instruct the Corinthian church to observe the holy days?
Why would Paul use Jewish Holy Days like the Passover and Feast of Unleavened bread to illustrate a point in his letter to the gentile Corinthian church unless the church knew about these days?
Here in the passage that follows is the “proof” that the church in Corinth was keeping the Holy Days.
(1Co 5:7-8) Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
See, it is right there as clear as day, “Let us keep the feast”! Paul is telling the church in Corinth to “keep the feast” found in the Law of Moses just like the Jews of his day did, right?
But such an interpretation creates the kind of inconsistencies that gave my minister friend so much frustration. If it were true that Paul were commanding that parts of the Law of Moses were required to be observed by gentiles, then that would seem to conflict with the decision made in the Acts 15 council and with so many of Paul’s other writings.
So let’s take a closer look.
Paul first preached the gospel in Corinth during his second missionary journey (Acts 18), which we will get to in a moment. Later, during Paul’s Ephesian ministry, he received reports from “some of Chloe’s household” (1:11) that there were factions in the Corinthian church who identified themselves with particular leaders. You’re probably aware that first Corinthians is not really the first letter written to the Corinthian church by Paul. There was an earlier letter, sometimes referred to as “the previous letter” that Paul had written to deal with issues of immorality, but much of that letter has been lost to time.
It is not clear for sure if Paul in 1 Cor 5 was dealing with additional issues brought to him by Chloe’s household, or if he had been told of these issues by the three church delegates, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17). Regardless, it is clear that in chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians Paul was further addressing the issue raised in the “previous letter”. This is important because it makes clear the context of the chapter.
A reference to this previous letter occurs immediately following the passages that we are looking at.
(1 Cor 5:9-11) I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.
Paul was not addressing holy days
It is not very difficult to see that the context of this chapter concerns a problem with sexual immorality in the church. A Corinthian member was carrying on an incestuous affair with his stepmother, a relationship prohibited in both the Old Testament (Lev 18:18, Deut 22:22) and in Roman law (Cicero Cluentes 6. 15 and Gaius Institutis 1. 63). Apparently proud of this member’s social status, the church did not exclude him from their fellowship. Paul’s message was that this man should be taken away from among the church.
(1 Cor 5:1-2) It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.
In the next few verses, 3 – 5, Paul passes the strongest judgment that he can on this man, calling on the church to gather in Jesus name to cast the man out from the church.
Timing of the Epistle
Paul wrote this letter just weeks after the Jews had celebrated the Passover and Feast of Unleavened bread. This feast is called a “pilgrim feast”, meaning that all the Jews and Hellenistic Jews would have recently returned from their travels to Jerusalem. (Dt 16:16).
The reason given by Paul for casting the man out from the church was based in part on this Old Testament Feast of Unleavened bread. Just as the unleavened Passover bread could be corrupted by just a little yeast, just one sinful man could corrupt the entire church. Here it is the permeating properties of yeast that underscore the symbolism.
(1 Cor 5:6-8) Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul’s instruction reveals a deeper meaning to the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Paul’s instruction to “purge out the old leaven”, a Jewish proverb at the time, referred to removing the sinful incestuous man, not physical leaven. And the place from which the “old leaven” is being purged from is not their houses, but rather it is purged from the church. The church is “truly unleavened”, that is they are considered to be without sin. How is the church considered “unleavened”? The church is unleavened because indeed Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us, thereby cleansing our sins by his blood.
Now we come to the passage in question.
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
The words are right there in front of us. Paul’s instruction is to keep the feast not with the old leaven, or with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth! Paul has elevated the Feast of Unleavened Bread from a physical ritual of putting leaven out of a house to a moral imperative to put a sinful believer out of the church. The church was to be sincere and truthful, not just appearing like followers of Christ, but demonstrating by their actions that they truly are following Christ.
The Passover sacrifice that had occurred year after year had been replaced by a once for all sacrifice, Jesus our Passover. And the Feast of Unleavened bread has become a continued observance for the Christian believer, not to put old leaven out of our houses but to rejoice in the light of Christ’s sacrificial death as our Passover and therefore live with a repentant heart daily.
This sinful incestuous man did not have a repentant heart. So what was Paul's concluding directive?
(1 Cor 5:13) “Therefore, put away from yourself this evil person”
Does any of this sound like an instruction from the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church to observe the Feast of Unleavened bread the way the Jews did? Was Paul focused on putting leaven out of houses?
No, of course not. That is not even the topic being discussed here.
So then why would Paul refer to these holy days if the gentile church did not observe them? How would they have known what the feast even meant?
The church had many Jewish members including the ruler of the synagogue
Now this starts to get easy. Because the premise made that these are all gentiles in Corinth with no understanding of Jewish customs is simply a false premise.
The account of Paul’s first visit to Corinth is found in Acts 18.
(Acts 18:1-2) After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth.
And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them.
Note this, around 49 A.D. emperor Claudius issued a decree that expelled all the Jews from Rome. Suetonius, a biographer of Roman Emperors, in his work, Life of Claudius, indicated that this decree was issued as a result of constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus. It is believed that the name Chrestus is a reference to Christ. This banishment of Jews from Rome added to the Jewish population in Corinth including that of the church.
Corinth: A large and populous mercantile city, and the center of commerce alike for East and West; having a considerable Jewish population, larger, probably, at this time than usual, owing to the banishment of the Jews from Rome by Claudius Caesar (Acts 18:2). [Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Ac 18:1). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.}
According to his custom, Paul began his evangelism in the synagogue preaching to Jews, Hellenistic Jews and gentile “God fearers”. All people who would know the Old Testament scriptures and the holy day practices.
(Acts 18:4) And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks.
Notice that Paul reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and Greeks. Many of the gentile believers were “God fearing” gentiles. That is, they believed in God and went to the synagogues but had not yet become Jews through circumcision. Cornelius was such an uncircumcised “God fearer”, for example (Acts 10:1).
Paul testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ but when they did not respond he decided to go to the gentiles and went to stay with Justus, a Greek whose house was right next door to the synagogue (verse 5-7). Even the ruler of the Synagogue and his family became believers at the preaching of Paul.
(Acts 18:8) Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized.
So what we see here are facts that the Armstrongist churches have left out of their presentation of 1 Cor 5. The church in Corinth was most certainly gentile, but had a large Jewish population even including the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth. This in part was the result of a decree made by Claudius Caesar that expelled the Jews from Rome sending many Jewish believers to Corinth.
Would they have known about the Jewish holy days? Of course, especially since the feast had occurred only weeks earlier.
But what about the members of the church who were gentiles and had not previously had any exposure to the scriptures? Would they have understood chapter 5 of Paul’s letter?
The apostles used the Old Testament scriptures to preach to gentiles that Jesus was the Christ
How do you suppose that the apostles persuaded gentiles to believe that Jesus is the Christ?
Well, when Philip encountered the Ethiopian Eunuch he taught him from the book of Isaiah. And in Thessalonica Paul reasoned from the scriptures (Acts 17:1-4). And what happened there?
(Acts 17:4) And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.
Gentiles came to be believers in Jesus Christ through Paul’s reasoning from the scriptures. Do you think that Paul ever mentioned that Jesus fulfilled the meaning of the Passover lamb? Seems very likely doesn’t it?
And in Ephesus Paul also reasoned from the scriptures (Acts 18:24).
And in Berea, the namesake of this blog, the Bereans searched the scriptures daily to see if what was being preached were so (Acts 17:11). Again, the result was that Greeks, gentiles, became believers.
(Acts 17:12) Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.
So we see that gentile believers would indeed be familiar with the scriptures and with various Jewish holy days. There were Jews that lived among them and they were also taught from the scriptures in order to be persuaded to believe that Jesus is the Christ.
Let’s go back to our original questions and summarize what we have just examined.
Did Paul instruct the Corinthian church to observe the holy days?
Nowhere does Paul give instruction to keep the holy days according to the Old Covenant. Instead he uses a practice known to the masses in order to show the Corinthian church how to deal with a sin issue. And in so doing Paul reveals a deeper meaning to Feast of Unleavened bread.
Why would Paul use Jewish holy days like the Passover and Feast of Unleavened bread to illustrate a point in his letter to the Corinthian church unless the church knew about these days?
The church did know about the holy days. It is not true that the church in Corinth was wholly gentile, there was a large population of Jews in Corinth as we have pointed out. And the gentile believers had significant instruction in the scriptures.
Paul used these days in his letter because many in the Corinthian church were Jews or God fearing gentiles and were very familiar with the practices accompanying the holy days. In addition, the letter was written shortly after the Passover and Feast of Unleavened bread. This was a pilgrim feast and the Jews would have recently returned from their travel to Jerusalem with the events fresh in their memories.
It was both timely and appropriate for Paul to use the meticulous removal of leaven from the homes of the Jews to demonstrate the meticulous way a sinful man should be removed from the church.
We do not have to throw our hands up in frustration because of contradictions between our doctrines and what the Bible clearly teaches. The New Testament makes clear that the Law of Moses was not mandated upon gentiles. They did not observe the Old Covenant holy days. Rather the gentile believers marveled at the fulfillment of these days in the person of Jesus Christ.
Christians truly are unleavened!
Let us therefore rejoice in the light of Christ’s sacrificial death as our Passover and live with a repentant heart daily.
It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. Acts 17:11