The feasts and festivals of ancient Israel were times when the people of God would commemorate redemptive acts of the Lord. Six major assemblies are mentioned in the Mosaic law. The three major festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Booths were pilgrimage celebrations, when the entire nation gathered before the Lord. The others are the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Day of Atonement. Two other feasts worth noting are Purim and Hanukkah, which were instituted later.
These festivals were not only corporate times of celebration; they also expressed a theological message as they reminded the Israelites of the ways the Lord provided for their past, present, and also their future. This future blessing, cast in shadowy form, found its fullest redemptive reality in the messianic work of Jesus Christ.
Feast Of Passover/Unleavened Bread
The feast of Passover took place on the fourteenth day of the first month. According to Exodus 12:2, the exodus event marked the beginning of a new year. All the major festivals are dated in light of the exodus, which inaugurated a new stage in the life of the nation of Israel. The festival occurs in two parts: Passover and Unleavened Bread.
The first Passover took place on the night of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn (Ex. 12). During this Passover, an unblemished lamb was prepared for sacrifice (v. 5). The meat was eaten, but the blood was the key element. Israel was to use it to mark the entries of homes as a sign for the Lord to “pass over” them. This act of “passing over” prevented an angelic destroyer from entering the home (v. 23). It appears that the destroyer’s job was to execute the firstborn of each household in the land of Egypt without prejudice, and the Lord acted as a divine shield to protect the blood-marked homes. Every generation thereafter would sacrifice lambs for this feast, but they would not mark their doors with blood.
This feast was followed by seven days of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, during which the Israelites were prohibited from using any leaven in their daily meals. At the time of the exodus, the Lord’s redemption was imminent, and there was insufficient time for yeast to permeate the dough. They needed to be ready to leave Egypt immediately (v. 39). Thus, to eat unleavened bread was an act of faith, of trust in the Lord’s promise of an immediate exodus. The use of unleavened bread would continue to characterize the feast in later generations.
The redemptive images of the meal provide the historical background for the greatest event in the history of salvation: the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus is declared the “Lamb of God”—an allusion to the Passover lamb—by John the Baptist (John 1:29). The blood that protected the homes represents the blood of Christ, which provides salvation for all those who trust in Him. Jesus’ final supper, which He institutionalized for the church to observe regularly, was indeed a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17–29). The wine is Christ’s blood, and the unleavened bread His body (1 Cor. 11:23–29). The typological significance of the two portions of the festival is the final redemptive work of Christ that was fulfilled on the cross.
Feast Of Weeks (Pentecost)
This feast is found in Leviticus 23:15–22 and Deuteronomy 16:16–19. The name comes from the fact that it was celebrated seven weeks after the Sabbath of the Passover, plus one day. As this is the fiftieth day, it came to be called Pentecost, meaning “fiftieth” in Greek.
Two loaves of bread and several animal offerings were required; some of these were reminiscent of the unblemished lamb of Passover (Ex. 12:5; Lev. 23:18). Interestingly, the two loaves were specifically to be prepared using leaven.
Furthermore, there is a special connection between this feast and Passover. Weeks lacks a specific calendar date; its observance must be calculated according to the Sabbath of the Passover (Lev. 23:11, 14). Thus, it was impossible to celebrate the Feast of Weeks without first celebrating Passover.
These comparisons have enormous significance. According to Acts 2, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as prophesied by Joel was fulfilled after Passover, during the Pentecost after Christ’s resurrection, when the gospel of Christ was opened to all nations. This inclusion of the gentiles can occur only through the blood of the true Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ. This may explain the rationale for the “two loaves” of the Feast of Weeks and why they were to be prepared with leaven. Unleavened bread represented an act of trust, but Scripture often connects leaven with unbelief, immorality, and sin (1 Cor. 5:7; see Hos. 7:4; Matt. 16:6). The “leaven” in the two loaves of the Jews and gentiles could be cleansed only by the blood of the true Passover sacrifice offered before Pentecost. Therefore, Pentecost represents a reconstituted people of God composed of cleansed Jews and gentiles. This Pentecost is not only the reversal of the curse of Babel (Gen. 11) but is also the new covenant version of Sinai (Ex. 19).
Feast Of Firstfruits
In Leviticus 23, the aforementioned two loaves of bread are considered an offering of “firstfruits to the Lord” during the Feast of Weeks. This term also appears in Passover as part of the barley harvest. The “firstfruits” of Passover are to be dedicated to the Lord the day after the Sabbath of the week of Passover. The gospels record that Christ died a day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42). This means that the resurrection of Christ occurred on the day after the Sabbath, on the day of the offering of the “firstfruits” of the Passover harvest. Jesus is the firstfruits of resurrection life (1 Cor. 15:20–23). The repetition of “firstfruits” in the Feast of Weeks applies to the church. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the church is united to Christ, and we therefore have the “firstfruits of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:23). James 1:18 calls the church “firstfruits of his creatures” (see Rev. 16:6). Thus, the firstfruits of Weeks are fulfilled in the formation of a new community of two peoples (two loaves), who are united to Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Feast Of Trumpets
According to Leviticus 23:23–25, the first day of the seventh month was to be observed as a day of rest from work with a celebrative feast marked by the blasting of trumpets. It was not unusual to use trumpets to mark the beginning of an event. The Mosaic covenant was inaugurated with a loud trumpet blast (Ex. 19). Trumpets were blown to collapse the impregnable walls of Jericho (Josh. 6:16). Jesus taught that the end of the age (the beginning of the eternal kingdom) would be accompanied by the blasting of trumpets (Matt. 24:31). Paul said the same about the day of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:52). Therefore, it is not surprising that trumpets blast at the beginning of the seventh month, which celebrates the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27) and the Feast of Booths (v. 34).
Day Of Atonement
Unlike the pilgrimage feasts, this day focuses exclusively on the actions of the high priest (Lev. 16). On the tenth day of the seventh month, he would take two goats, sacrificing the first, bringing its blood into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkling it on the ark of the covenant. This was the only time anyone was permitted to enter that inner sanctum (Heb. 9:6–7). On the second goat’s head the high priest would lay his hands and confess the sins of the people. Then the goat was released into the wilderness. These two actions composed a singular atoning act. The movement to the epicenter of holiness, the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, was a reminder to the people that access to the holy God can come only with the shedding of blood. The second goat was taken in the opposite direction—into the wilderness. One takes us close to the holy God while the other takes the sins of the people away into a place of barrenness.
The Christocentric fulfillment of this ritual is remarkable. We have access to the holy presence of God by the shedding of Christ’s blood, and as the Israelites’ sins were taken to a barren place, so Christ takes away the sins of God’s people. The blessing of this day is that it points us to the day of that greater atoning sacrifice of Christ, the true Day of Atonement.
Feast Of Booths
The Feast of Booths (Lev. 23:34–44) was observed on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and marked the end of the agricultural year. As this was the final ingathering of the harvest, it was also called the Feast of Ingathering (Ex. 23:16; 34:22). This eight-day celebration included a sacred assembly on the first and last days. During the intermediary days, the nation was instructed to dwell in “booths” (i.e., “tabernacles”) to remember their journey from Egypt to Canaan.
These two names for this festival represent redemptive themes fulfilled in Christ. Ingathering is the final stage of the feasts’ agricultural motif. It begins with the barley harvest in Passover, continues with the wheat harvest in Weeks, and culminates with the vine harvest in Ingathering. This is a reminder that the ingathering of the nations will be completed. This theme of finality is more prominent in the other name of the feast: Booths. Israel’s time in booths in the wilderness would end when they entered Canaan; the wilderness era of the church will also end as it enters the final Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:9) at the return of Christ and the ushering in of the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21–22). Those in Christ are merely “sojourners” and “resident aliens” traveling in this fallen world until they reach their final homeland (1 Peter 1:4; 2:11). Zechariah 14:16–21 depicts the return of Christ as the time when the international people of God will gather at Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Booths. This final festival anticipates the end and the victorious return of Christ.
Purim is derived from the Persian word pur, meaning “lot.” It is celebrated on the thirteenth and fourteenth of Adar, which is the twelfth month. While the Jews were living in the Persian Empire, Haman cast “lots” to determine the day of genocide of the Jews. The Lord providentially preserved the Jews on that day through the intercession of Queen Esther and Mordecai. The day of destruction of the Jews instead became the day of their preservation. The feast of Purim was inaugurated to commemorate their deliverance (Est. 9:26–32).
The importance of Purim should not be minimized. Had Haman accomplished his nefarious task, the Jews would have been annihilated. There would be no Messiah (Gen. 3:15) and thus no salvation for anyone. The Lord protected this blessed line when it was most threatened, ultimately resulting in the birth of the God-man who would give Himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:2). Purim also foreshadows the final defeat of the enemies of God’s people.
Hanukkah, the Hebrew word for “dedication,” commemorates the victory of the Jews, led by Judas Maccabeus, against the overwhelming forces of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes that occurred during the intertestamental period. As recorded in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, Antiochus threatened the Jewish race by brutally enforcing their systematic Hellenization. He also desecrated the sanctity of the second temple by offering pagan sacrifices at its altar. In response to these atrocities, Judas Maccabeus heroically led the Jews to win their freedom from Antiochus in 165 BC, and they briefly enjoyed an independent Jewish state. They immediately cleansed the temple and rededicated it to the Lord. This established the festival of Hanukkah. According to Jewish tradition, Hanukkah became an eight-day celebration because the menorah of the temple burned for eight days despite the lack of adequate oil. Jews observe Hanukkah annually with much food and games beginning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month to remember this extraordinary Jewish victory.
Most Protestants are unaware of the details of this holiday because it is not found in the Protestant canon. However, like the feast of Purim, it reminds us of a time when the Jewish line was threatened with destruction, which would have had significant redemptive ramifications. John 10:22 mentions Hanukkah when the Jews were anticipating another military leader to accomplish a similar victory against the Romans. When they looked to Jesus during the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah, as such a leader, He reminded them that He is not a mere human liberator from political oppression; He is one with the Father and came to accomplish the “rededication” of the church, which is the “holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21).
Paul understood that these festivals were a shadow of Christ (Col. 2:16–17). Tragically, ancient Israel ignored these observances. Not only did this negligence result in their forgetting the Lord in their time, but it also kept them from looking to the future when the Lord Himself would bring about the final redemptive work of the true Lamb of God (Passover, Day of Atonement, Firstfruits), who would defeat His and our enemies (Purim) and who would gather His supranational people (Weeks) who would enter the consummated kingdom (Booths, Trumpets) where He would be their light (Hanukkah) forever.