The Feasts of the Lord
Topic: Law Passage: Leviticus 23:1–24:23
I begin this morning by quoting from a New York Times article that caught my eye recently as we have studying the Book of Leviticus:
“Nearly half a century ago, archaeologists found a charred ancient scroll in the ark of a synagogue on the western shore of the Dead Sea.
The lump of carbonized parchment could not be opened or read. Its curators did nothing but conserve it, hoping that new technology might one day emerge to make the scroll legible.
Just such technology has now been perfected by computer scientists at the University of Kentucky. Working with biblical scholars in Jerusalem, they have used a computer to unfurl a digital image of the scroll.
It turns out to hold a fragment identical to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and, at nearly 2,000 years old, is the earliest instance of the text.
The writing retrieved by the computer from the digital image of the unopened scroll is amazingly clear and legible, in contrast to the scroll’s blackened and beat up exterior.”
The article goes on to reveal that the scroll’s content was (are you ready for this?) the first two chapters of Leviticus. Not surprisingly, those who worked on this project were most captured by the scroll’s antiquity, but I personally found what one of them said to be most amazing. He said—and I quote—“in two thousand years, this text has not changed.”
For those of us who believe the Bible, such confirmations of Scripture’s reliability should not surprise us. Did not Jesus Himself say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35)? Non-revisionist history will always confirm what God has said and done. Nevertheless, those of us who love the Lord take great delight whenever the historical accuracy of His Word is verified.
Thirty five centuries ago God chose for Himself a people to be “his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). By delivering them from enslavement and guiding them toward a land of promise, they were to be an undeniable witness to His holy character. The Book of Leviticus was written to show them how to live as His holy people in the midst of an unholy world.
I don’t think I would be too far off if I were to presume that no more than a handful of us here this morning have devoted much time to carefully studying this book. Over these past several weeks, we have attempted to look with some care at how the Lord specifically directed His people to draw near to Him in worship and obedience. Their approach to Him would be through a mediated sacrificial system that they must believe in and adhere to if their sins were to be atoned for and their fellowship with Him be maintained. He would repeatedly remind them that He was to be their one and only God; and because He is holy, they too must be holy (cf. Leviticus 11:44 and 45).
As we move toward the concluding chapters of Leviticus, we come today to the various “holy days” that the Lord prescribed for His people to observe. In chapter 23, verses 1 and 2, we read, “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts.’”
As we pointed out when we considered the Day of Atonement in chapter 16, these “holy days” were not merely Jewish “holidays” in the way we use the word today. They were designated times when the community would assemble for “holy” purposes. The timing of these special days had been carefully orchestrated by the Lord. Collectively they served as memorials to past events, were celebrated as present blessings, and anticipated future fulfillments. It is helpful to keep that in mind as we work our way through their place in the Jewish calendar this morning. There seems little doubt that God gave the feasts to Israel to remind them year after year of their privileged position in His sovereign plan of redemption.
Initially, we may find it difficult in seeing how chapters 23 and 24 fit together, but upon closer inspection we see that both deal with the honor that God both demanded and deserved from His people. In the first place, they were to be...
Remembering the Lord’s holy times (23:1-44)
Leviticus 23 is not the only place in the Pentateuch where the Lord’s appointed feasts are mentioned. These special times are mentioned briefly in Exodus 23 and 34, more fully in Deuteronomy 16, and they receive their most extensive treatment in Numbers 28 and 29. What we find here in Leviticus 23 is a description of each of the seven feast days. As verse 2 states, these instructions were for “the people of Israel.” They were not primarily for the priests, but for the laity.
That they are referred to as “holy convocations” means that they were sacred public assemblies where the entire congregation was being called to meet with the Lord.
The Sabbath day is mentioned first in verse 3. This is actually a reiteration of the fourth commandment the Lord gave to Moses (cf. Exodus 20:8-11). Here it reads, “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places.” While all of the other “holy days” were to be observed annually, this was a weekly time of remembrance in which the people were to withdraw from their normal routines and activities and reflect upon God’s provision. And while the principles of rest and worship are still part of God’s prescription for us today, interestingly enough this is the only commandment of the ten that is not repeated in the New Testament.
With one exception the feasts were compressed into two individual months of the Jewish calendar separated by an interval of about six months. That is why they are sometimes designated as “spring feasts” and “fall feasts.” Collectively, they are introduced in verse 4, which reads, “These are the appointed feasts of the LORD, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them.” Later feasts—namely Purim and Hanukkah—were added to the calendar, but we will confine ourselves this morning to those mentioned in Leviticus 23.
The spring feasts are described in verses 5 through 22. And while three separate “holy times” are given, they are all related in terms of proximity, occurring within days of one another. First of all, there is “the Passover,” which marked Israel’s deliverance from Egypt by the hand of God. It is introduced in Exodus 12, where the people are instructed to observe it in the precise manner in which the Lord had prescribed. Note carefully in verse 5, it is called “the LORD’s Passover.” Every year it would commemorated on “the fourteenth day of the month (of Nisan) beginning at twilight.” Jewish days were reckoned over a twenty-four period from sunset to sunset. If there is a single word we can attach to this special day it would be “redemption,” because it symbolized the day that the Lord set His people free from their Egyptian enslavement.
As “the Passover” drew to a close, “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” would begin. With some justification, many Bible scholars actually consider these two sacred times to be so intimately connected that are one and the same. For our purpose, we will consider them separately this morning. “The Feast of Unleavened Bread” extended over a seven-day period, during which time the people were instructed to put aside “any ordinary work.” The Jewish home would be swept clean of any and all leaven or yeast, which symbolically represented sin. They were only to eat “unleavened bread”...thus the name of the feast. On both the first and seventh days, the people were to gather in “holy convocation” to the Lord. Everyday in between they were to present food offerings to the Lord. The word that we can attach to “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” would be “separation.” As people who had been redeemed or set free from the penalty of sin, they were to be separated from any involvement in it as well
Although Leviticus does not state for us the precise date of “the Feast of Firstfruits,” verse 11 indicates that it occurred on “the day after the Sabbath” following “Unleavened Bread.” There is not complete agreement where within the week this day would have fallen. What we do know is that this was a one-day festival in which the Lord was acknowledged as the Sustainer of His people through His bountiful provision for them. By the waving of “the first sheaf before the LORD” and the offering of animal sacrifices, the people would signify their trust in the Lord in granting a fruitful harvest in the coming months. The word we might attach to this last of the spring feasts is “dependence.”
As mentioned, many see within these early feasts historic, present, and eschatological significance. I am more cautious than some in finding “types” in every detail of the biblical narrative, but at the same time I think we can be overly cautious and miss out on some pretty clear pictures the Lord has left for us to see. I have no trouble, for example, in seeing how these three spring feasts point to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
With regard to “the Passover” and “the Feast of Unleavened Bread,” for example, I turn to these words that Paul addressed to Christians in 1 Corinthians 5:7: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” And as for “the Feast of Firstfruits,” the same apostle leaves for us this thought from 1 Corinthians 15:20: “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” So there is a clear Christian message being previewed in these various feasts,
Returning to Leviticus 23, we come to “the Feast of Weeks” in verses 15 through 22. We notice right away that a seven-week interval separates this special time from the three we have just mentioned. The New Testament refers to this day as “Pentecost,” which means “fiftieth day.” We are most familiar with it as that day in Acts, chapter 2 on which the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers and the New Testament church was born. To the Jews about to enter the Promised Land it marked the anticipation of the harvest and the recognition of the Lord’s faithfulness in providing for their sustenance and growth. Grain offerings, as well as animal sacrifices were offered in recognition of the harvest the Lord would grant. Therefore, the word we could affix to this feast day is “thanksgiving.”
Before we leave this day, please notice in verse 22 the provision that the Lord made for those living “on the fringe” among them: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.” In this way, everyone—rich and poor alike, both citizen and foreigner—would share in the Lord’s provision. If you were with us in our study in Ruth some time ago, you will recall a beautiful illustration of this there (cf. Ruth 2). But even more significant is the application of this for the building of Christ’s church. Citing Paul again—this time from Galatians 3:28—“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Lord’s care extended to beyond the borders of Israel, just as it extends beyond the four walls of this church building today.
Beginning with verse 23, we are introduced to the fall feasts, all occurring within the seventh month known as Tishri. The first of these “holy days” was known as “the Feast of Trumpets,” and it was to be celebrated on the first day of that month. Today we know it better as “Rosh Hashanah.” It is called a “memorial” because it—along with the Day of Atonement—is considered the most solemn time of the Jewish year. It began with “a blast of trumpets” and served to summon God’s people from their labor to another time of “holy convocation.” The sound of trumpets served to call the people to “repentance,” and that would be the term we could attach to this feast day.
Nine days later, “on the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement.” As we noted two weeks ago, this was the most sacred of days of the Hebrew calendar. We were introduced to it in chapter 16 and devoted an entire message in discussing its significance. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, it was on that one day every year that the high priest entered into the Most Holy Place with the blood of sacrifice, sprinkling it upon the Mercy Seat as an atonement for sins of the people, including himself. Thus, the word we will apply to “the Day of Atonement” is “reconciliation.” It was God’s prescribed way of reconciling man to Himself.
There remains one more feast, and its description begins in verse 33. It is here called “the Feast of Booths” or “Tabernacles.” Five days after “the Day of Atonement,” for seven days—from the fifteenth to the twenty-second of the month “Tishri”—the people were to “dwell in booths.” For what purpose? The Lord answers in verse 43, “that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” According to verse 39, the annual harvest would have ended and the crops would have been gathered. It was a time of rest and great celebration
The significance of this special week is best explained by the New Testament event mentioned in Matthew 17. Jesus had been instructing His disciples about what it meant to truly follow Him. At the end of chapter 16, He had made a curious statement, saying, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). Six days later he summoned Peter, James, and John to accompany Him on a hike up a mountain where He was transfigured before them in demonstration of His Kingdom glory. Do you recall what Peter said when He saw Christ in His glory? He was so enraptured that he wanted to erect right then and there “tents” in which to dwell. Some translations actually use the word “booths.” Not only did Peter see historical significance to “the Feast of Booths,” but he understood its eschatological ramifications as well. This preview of the Kingdom, therefore, served as a reminder of the “restoration” of all things that the Lord is in the process of bringing to pass. That is the word I would choose to attach to this final feast.
I trust you are able to see that the divine arrangement of the feasts not only tell the story of Israel’s past, but depict the glorious future of God’s people as well. The exact reason for the gap separating the festal seasons is unclear to us, but many find prophetic significance in viewing it as representative of the Church Age. Twice in Paul’s writings—1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16—we read of the “trumpet” that will sound in announcement of our Lord’s return. And we have already seen how Christ has become “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (cf. 1 John 2:2, NIV). And now we await the consummation of all things, which means our “gathering” unto the Lord where we will dwell with Him forever (cf. John 14:1-3).
I have little doubt that these annual feasts appear in our Bibles in order to remind us of some very significant truths:
- We were created for His glory and should live for His glory at all times.
- We have all failed to do that because we have loved the glory of other things—including ourselves—more than we have loved the glory of God. That is called “sin” and is an offense against a perfectly holy God.
- God didn’t leave us to ourselves and our own solutions. He sent His Son into the world to vindicate His glory in the process of saving us from His wrath. That is what substitutionary sacrifice was designed to show us.
- The application of God’s provision for salvation comes through repentance and faith. Will we believe what God has said and take Him at His Word? When we do, that is how we glorify Him.
- God is going to succeed in the purpose for which He created the world. He will bring about the consummation of all things for His everlasting glory.
It is because we understand these things to be so that we are better able to understand chapter 24, because remembering the Lord’s holy times are for the purpose of...
Revering the Lord’s holy name (24:1-23)
This chapter begins with instructions concerning the proper care and ministration for the articles of service within the Holy Place, specifically the Lampstand and the Table of Showbread. At first glance the placement of this material may seem odd, but given the context of the feasts and the various calls for the people to gather in worship it is not out of place at all. These were sacred objects, remember. They are referred to as the “holy things,” and the priests had been charged with protecting them back in chapter 22.
The “lamp” was to “be kept burning regularly” as a reminder that the Lord is our Light at all times. And the “loaves” were to be arranged carefully by the priest “in two piles, six in a pile” to serve as a perpetual reminder of the Lord’s provision for the twelve tribes of Israel. As with the sacrifice offerings and the rest of the worship requirements given to the people, everything was to be carried out in the precise manner that the Lord had directed.
As we have observed throughout Leviticus, this is a book of detailed regulations specifying how the people of God were to approach Him in worship. Back in chapter 10, we saw the tragic outcome when two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, attempted to draw near to the Lord in an “unauthorized” manner. Here in chapter 24 we encounter the story of a man who dared to blaspheme God’s holy “Name.” Look with me at verses 10 through 16:
“Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the LORD should be clear to them.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.”
To understand this scene we must remember that the name of the Lord was so sacred that it was employed only in the most cautious manner. In later times the Jewish people refused to even pronounce it. To “curse” means “to treat with complete disrespect” or “to show contempt.” When used in relation to God it means “to revile” or “to blaspheme.” It was a violation of the third commandment to “not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” In fact, in that context we are told that “the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Any use of the name of the Lord in a presumptuous manner, either by swearing falsely in an oath or in showing contempt brought with it a death sentence in ancient times.
Allow me to pursue this a little further. Throughout Scripture, the Lord’s name constitutes His personhood and presence. It is also indicative of His authority. This is why the Church baptizes “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). When we truly love the Lord we can begin to comprehend the seriousness of the situation being described here. One day we all will understand it better than we now are able. The name of the Lord remains sacred, and God will not hold guiltless—even to this day—those who tarnish it in flippant disregard.
Writing in his commentary on Leviticus, Kenneth Mathews speaks to the situation being described here when he writes, “It is one thing to call for the death penalty, but quite another to pull the switch.” And yet the Lord calls the entire congregation to pass judgment upon the offender. As we see many times in Scripture, the sin of one affects the entire camp. By placing their hands upon the head of the blasphemer the community admitted their own culpability and transferred their guilt to the one who had brought the offense. What a reminder this is that sin must be identified, confessed, and forsaken because God’s name—as well as the survival of His chosen people—is at stake.
The closing verses of this chapter deal with the principle that has come to known as “lex talionis,” “the law of retaliation.” Beginning in verse 17 we read...
“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.”
It is interesting, is it not, that the death sentence for the blasphemer is not enacted until the “lex talionis” is spelled out by God. But therein seems to be a key to interpreting this tragic event.
Notice that there is a difference of penalty for the own who kills an animal and the one who kills his fellow-man. In the first instance, restitution is required; but in the second, retribution is decreed. What that implies is that human life is of greater value to God than the life of animals. Why? If we go back to the beginning—namely Genesis 1:27—it is because man has been invested with His image.
Can you see the point here? To take the life of another human being is to slay the image of God...to destroy it, extinguish it, rub it out, if you will. It is to remove that reminder of God that every other person ought to be for us. Therefore to curse one made in God’s image is to curse God, and to say in effect, “Away with you. I don’t need you!”
Jesus, of course, spoke to this “law of retaliation” in His Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5:38-42). Many believe that He was taking the “sting” out of the Old Testament ethic. It seems more probable, however, that He was attacking those who turned this legal principle into a matter of personal vengeance. It is the Lord’s “Name” that we are called upon to defend, and not our own. We must not forget that lest we turn our so-called “righteous anger” into our own personal crusade.
These two chapters belong together because the Lord’s reputation is always at stake among those who are called by His name. He is a jealous God and rightfully so, because He alone is worthy. To reveal Himself to us in any way is a concession of His grace. He would be perfectly justified in leaving us all as objects of His wrath.
As an aspect of His grace, He has given us one another to live in community. We are not called to live in isolation. John Donne was right, “No man is an island.” Together we celebrate the feasts and together we image God. That is what the Lord told the children of Israel thirty-five hundred years ago, and He continues to call His church to that responsibility today.
The Lord commanded His people in Exodus 23(:14-17), “Three times a year you shall keep a feast to me. You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread...You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. (And) You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the LORD God.”
While the names of those three feasts differ somewhat from those found in Leviticus 23, they are the same as those we have mentioned today as “Passover/Unleavened Bread,” “Firstfruits,” and “Booths.” In addition to appearing on these three occasions before the Lord, the worshiper is instructed not to come “empty-handed.” What have you brought with you this morning with which to worship and pay honor to your Lord?
The phrase “keep a feast” actually means “to make a pilgrimage.” It may interest you to know that the Hebrew word “hag” is very similar to the Arabic word “haj,” which is used by Muslims to designate their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca. You and I are not instructed to make that kind of pilgrimages today, but to borrow from John Bunyan we are all pilgrims traveling together to “the Celestial City.” Every time we gather we feast together.
The Lord has called us to live as His holy people. He still invites those who are His by faith to feast with Him. This evening we will be gathering to eat of the bread and drink of the cup in memory of His death and in anticipation of His return. As we await that hour, may these words from the Apostle Paul encourage us throughout the day so that you may come with “hands full” of praise, worship, and adoration of His holy name:
“Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7 and 8).
Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory!