What day are we supposed to celebrate Easter?

Question
What day are we supposed to celebrate Easter? What is the Quartodeciman controversy?
Answer
A very brief background on Christian liberty, the Passover and the Lord's Supper is necessary before we get to the actual question concerning the Quartodeciman controversy.

No Command Binding the Conscience

There is no command in Scripture commanding the saints to celebrate a day specifically known as Easter (Rom. 14:5, 17; cf. Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16), so this should not be a point of disunity within the church. However, the Christian should celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-4) through word and deed every day of the year. It is part of their new nature to do so (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 2:20).

But since there is no Scripture against the celebration of Easter (or other Christian holidays) and as long as one doesn't make a doctrine attempting to bind the conscience ("God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men," WCF 20.2), there is absolutely nothing wrong with an individual, a church, or a denomination marking out a specific day(s) of the years to celebrate certain aspects of our Lord's birth, life, death, resurrection, or ascension.

Jesus Kept the Passover

As commanded in the Old Testament, Jesus kept the Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew (Luke 2:41-43; Mark 14:12-26; John 12:12), which commemorated Israel's deliverance from Egypt in which God "passed over" them and preserved them from his judgment upon all of Egypt (Exod. 12:13).

Exodus 12:11-14: In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord's Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.

According to Israel's calendar, Passover was celebrated on the variable day of the 14th of Nisan (Exod. 12:6, 14; cf. Lev. 23:5; Num. 28:16; 2 Chron. 35:1; Ezra 6:19, et. al.).

Jesus Instituted the Lord's Supper During the Passover Celebration

Jesus, the lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8, see below), instituted the Lord's Supper during the Passover meal (Mark 14:12-21, 22-25). The Lord's Supper (also known as the Meal, the Lord's Meal, the Eucharist, Communion) involves the serving of bread and wine. In essence, most theologians teach that Passover prefigured the Lord's Table.

There were four cups of wine during the Passover that represented the four expressions of deliverance promised by God (Exod. 6:6-7): (1) "I will bring out;" (2) "I will deliver;" (3) "I will redeem;" and (4) "I will take." So, during Passover, each Jew was obligated to drink four cups of wine at specific times during each seder (i.e. order):

(1) The First Cup (the kiddish cup): This is the introductory or sanctification cup. It is the first at the start of the Seder.

(2) The Second Cup (the haggadah cup): This is the cup of proclamation telling the story of what God did for Israel.

(3) The Third Cup (the berakah cup): This cup follows prayer after the Meal.

(4) The Fourth Cup (the hallel cup): This cup includes the recital - singing - of the Hallel Psalms (Pss. 115-118).

In a parallel way, Christ is the deliverer of his people (Heb. 2:9-18) and the four cups above symbolize Jesus alone as the one who brought his elect out from slavery to freedom (John 8:36; Gal. 5:1), delivered his royal subjects (Psa. 18:2; Isa. 61:1-3; Luke 4:18-21), redeemed his now holy people (Gal. 4:5; Tit. 2:14), and will take them to a promised land — the new heavens and new earth (John 14:3).

The Quartodeciman Controversy

As previously stated, Passover was celebrated on the variable day of 14th of Nisan. However, today Easter mostly takes place on a specific Sunday of each year. But this was not always the case. In the early church Easter was observed on the 14th of Nisan just as the Passover was and were known as the quartodecimans (meaning, "14th").

The Quartodeciman controversy (c.190 A.D.) resulted from disputes about the proper way to calculate Easter's date. Easter was originally celebrated at the same time as Passover until approximately 325 A.D. when the Council of Nicaea made it essentially an annual Last Supper celebration commemorating Passover and associated it with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which occurred on a Sunday (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1-2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Rev. 1:10).

The church desired to distance itself from Judaism, so it was somewhat agreed that Easter should always fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. So, the earliest date of Easter is March 22 and latest is April 25. However, there was a calendar problem. Though the root calculation of Easter is the same, the Eastern church used the Julian calendar which has 365 days in a year, and the Western church used the Gregorian calendar, which has 365 and 1/4 days in a year. The church remained divided over the calendars used and therefore the day Easter was to be celebrated. In an attempt to remedy this, the Council of Nicaea wrote the following to the Egyptian church:

All the brethren in the East who formerly celebrated Easter [Passover] with the Jews, will henceforth keep it at the same time as the Romans, with us and with all those who from ancient times have celebrated the feast at the same time with us (The Synodal Letter).

To this day, different denominations/churches celebrate Easter on different days. (The Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar.)

This should not be a point of contention within the church. Christ calls his church to unity (John 13:34-35; 17:21, 22, 23; Rom. 12:10; 15:5; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:3; Phil. 2:2; 1 Pet. 1:22; 3:8).

Related Topics:

Is the Sabbath Saturday or Sunday?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).