Should Christians Observe Easter?

The Big Picture blog has posted 39 photos of “Holy Week” from around the globe.   Here is their explanation:

Good Friday is part of Holy Week, a series of religious holidays and observations commemorating the last week of the earthly life of Jesus Christ and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.   Observances vary widely around the world, often incorporating elements of local pre-Christian traditions, and range from the elaborate and fanciful to simple and reverential. Collected here is a handful of photographs from this year’s Holy Week around the world.

You may find this question odd, but have you ever thought about the Biblical basis for the observance of Easter? Was it celebrated in the churches of New Testament times?   And if not, when and how did it begin?

For a brief discussion of the historical information, read this article by Ferrell Jenkins (reprinted below).

Easter is a widely-observed annual celebration commemorating the resurrection of Christ. You probably have noticed that Easter comes at a different time each year. “Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or next after the vernal equinox (Mar. 21 in the Gregorian calendar); if the full moon happens on Sunday, Easter is celebrated one week later. Easter Sunday cannot be earlier than March 22 or later than April 25; dates of all other movable church feasts depend on that of Easter” (Webster).

The Origin of Easter

Some church historians assert that Easter observance began in the first century, but they must admit that their first evidence for the observance comes from the second century (Schaff, History of the Christian Church II:207; Latourette, A History of Christianity, I:137). There soon arose a bitter controversy over which day Easter was to be celebrated. Some were observing it on any day of the week, and others were celebrating it only on the nearest Sunday. This indicates that they had no instruction from the Lord on this matter. By A.D. 325, the council of Nicaea decreed that it should be on Sunday, but did not fix the particular Sunday. The exact time of observance was determined by later councils.

Is Easter in the Bible?

The word Easter is only found one time in the English translation of the Bible and there it is a mistranslation. The King James rendering of Acts 12:4 used the phrase “intending after Easter.” Albert Barnes, a noted Presbyterian commentator who wrote in the nineteenth century when the King James version was widely used, said,

“There never was a more absurd or unhappy translation than this. The original is simply ‘after the Passover.’ The word Easter now denotes the festival observed by many Christian churches in honor of the resurrection of the Saviour. But the original has no reference to that, nor is there the slightest evidence that any such festival was observed at the time when this book was written. The translation is not only unhappy, as it does not convey at all the meaning of the original, but because it may contribute to foster an opinion that such a festival was observed in the time of the apostles” (Barnes Notes on the New Testament, XI, 190).

The word translated Passover, and the one used in Acts 12:4, is pascha. It means “a passing over” and is used with reference to the Jewish festival of Passover which was celebrated on the 14th of the month Nisan. This same word is used in Matthew 26:2; Mark 14:1, Luke 2:41; 22:1; John 2:13, 23 and other places, and in every instance is translated Passover in the King James Version, except Acts 12:4. More recent versions correctly use the term Passover in Acts 12:4. It is absurd to think that Herod Agrippa I wanted to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. The Scripture says that he “laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword…he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:1-3).

New Testament Christians Did Not Observe Easter

The famous fourteenth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica says,

“There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers. The sanctity of special times was an idea absent from the minds of the first Christians” (VII:859).

The apostle Paul warned against the observance of feast days, new moons, etc. (Gal. 4:10-11; Col. 2:16-17). Another reliable source says,

“In apostolic times the Christians commemorated their Lord’s resurrection every Sunday, by meeting on that day for worship. When Paul refers to Christ as our passover (1 Cor. 5:7) his language is metaphorical and cannot be regarded as containing any allusion to a church function” (A Dictionary of Religion and Ethics, p. 140).

For many people, Easter has become the one time of the year they attend church services. Concerning urging of Catholics to receive Holy Communion the question was asked, “They must go at least once a year if they would be regarded as Catholics?” “Father” Smith answers, “Yes, during Easter time” (Father Smith Instructs Jackson, p. 159). Many forget the admonition of Hebrews 10:25: “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.”

Importance of the Resurrection of Christ

Let no one imagine that we oppose the resurrection of Christ. It is the bedrock of Christianity and the deity of Jesus rests upon it (Rom 1:4). Christians today meet every first day of the week, as did the early Christians, to observe the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7). The first day of the week is a memorial to the resurrection of Christ. The death, burial and resurrection of Christ, serves as the form of an individual’s death to sin, burial in baptism, and resurrection to walk a new life as a new creature in Christ (1 Cor 15:1-4; Rom 6:3-11; Col 2:12).


“Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God (1 Pet 4:11). The celebration of Easter began too late, and without the expressed authority of God!

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4 thoughts on “Should Christians Observe Easter?”

  1. What I'd like to know is: what are modern day followers of Christ to do with Easter?
    Many try to ignore the Catholic or Orthodox (and modern day Protestant) traditions, and instead focus on a family holiday complete with the "pre-Christian traditions" of springtime bunnies, lamb and ham, and eggs. This seems to also be ignoring their link to ancient non-Bible specified traditions. If it is OK to celebrate ancient pre-Christian traditions because we don't mean what they meant, then is it OK to observe Pascha traditions, even though we already observe the Lord's Supper every week, because we don't mean the same thing that others mean (such as the reference above that "if you don't observe Easter you're not Catholic")?
    If we are trying to avoid looking like we mean the same thing by not having special services, are we forgetting that in observing "local tradition" of Easter instead of Pashca, that we look like we mean the same thing as the pagan (and they do still exist, of course)? Is there a good article or study on this available somewhere?

  2. I just find it amazing that we – as a church – supposedly care about evangelism, yet, instead of trying to find common ground and talk about the meaning of these holidays that have some connection to spiritual things (especially Easter since it is related to Passover), we jump out with guns blazing trying to shoot holes in the lack of biblical foundation for observance of any "holy day."

  3. Hi, Lisa. Thanks for the comment. If I run across any good articles or studies along those lines, I'll certainly pass them along.

    While there are undoubtedly some "pre-Christian" traditions that live on, I think the vast majority of people are unaware of those links. I don't personally have a problem with hiding eggs in the backyard for kids to find or bunny decorations throughout one's house. I think most use those and things like them in celebrating Spring, nothing more. And I'm certainly all for families spending quality time together.

    But I also think we would agree that there is a big difference between the "pre-Christian" traditions celebrating Spring that live on and the Catholic / Orthodox / Protestant twistings of the significance of Easter. The average Joe might not realize the pagan background of colored eggs, and that's probably OK. But he needs to realize what the Bible does and does not say about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. That is, as Paul wrote, of "first importance." We need to be truth-tellers about those facts.

    Like I said, if I run across any material that speaks directly to your question, I'll certainly pass it along. Thanks again for your interest!

  4. Hey Ben, thanks for the comment. While I agree with some of the logic behind your comment, I think we need to be careful.

    Number one, you're painting with awfully broad strokes and generalizations. I can't obviously comment on what others did this past Sunday from an evangelistic point-of-view any more than you. But I know how we handled the opportunity. We are always looking for evangelistic opportunities and do our best to take advantage of them. My sermon Sunday morning was on "gospel growth." I started with Jesus' statements in John 12:20-33 about his death and glorification. I then went to 1 Corinthians 15 and talked about those things that are of "first importance." I repeatedly emphasized how Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection are the basis for all gospel growth. In other words, I tied our planned subject into whatever preconceived notions visitors might have had and tried to teach the truth. I think that's a very biblical thing to do as you study the approaches of Jesus, Paul, and others.

    That being said, I also believe in the importance of being distinctive. We are distinctive in that we don't observe Easter like so many in the religious world. I don't think we should be ashamed of that, but use it as an opportunity to teach the truth. I believe we can do that, and still care very deeply about evangelism.