God’s appointed holidays, described in Leviticus chapter 23, accomplish many purposes. Year by year they pace our lives according to the cycle God has designed into creation. They remind us of the great things God has done in Israel’s history. We should never forget that Messiah Yeshua, the apostles, and the early Messianic Jewish movement celebrated these festivals. In addition, each holiday is a prophecy which looks forward to what God is going to do in human history. If understood properly, the festivals in Leviticus 23 reveal God’s master plan to restore humanity. Learning about these holidays will build up our faith and help us to better understand the entire Word of God.
THE SABBATH: CREATION, SALVATION, CONSUMMATION
The first holiday mentioned in Leviticus 23 is the Sabbath. Perhaps it heads the list because it is the most important holiday of them all. It is observed every week while the other holidays take place only once each year. The word “sabbath” means “rest.” Every seventh day, beginning Friday night at sunset and continuing through Saturday night at sunset, is set aside for rest. Why do we consider the day to begin at sunset? The answer is found in the very first chapter of Genesis, where it is written: “There was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” All of God’s days, from the time of creation, begin at sunset, and the Jewish people have always followed this example. The Sabbath is designed to remind us that God created the universe in six days, and on the seventh day He rested. The Sabbath also reminds us of salvation. It wasn’t until the Jewish people were delivered out of Egypt that we began observing the Sabbath. The Sabbath also reminds us of the redemption of the Messiah, who called Himself the “Lord of the Sabbath.” As the Lord of the Sabbath, He is able to give us His Sabbath rest, as He promised when He said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). In fact, the key to victorious living is resting in Him while He works through us. The Sabbath also reminds us of the consummation of all things. One day in the future Messiah Yeshua will return to planet Earth and bring rest to this weary world.
THE SABBATH AND THE NUMBER SEVEN
God’s calendar is designed around the number seven which, throughout the Bible, is the number representing completion. Just as seven days make up a complete week, and we rest on the seventh day, so too the seventh month is the sabbatical month, and completes the yearly holidays. Every seventh year was a sabbatical year, in which the land of Israel was to enjoy a rest. Furthermore, at the completion of every forty-ninth year (seven times seven), as the fiftieth year commenced, God decreed it was to be “Shanat Yovel,” the “Year of Jubilee.” Property was to be restored to its original owners, those sold into slavery were to be released, the land of Israel was to have an extra year of rest, and the entire nation of Israel returned to a state of equilibrium. But “Shanat Yovel” does not exhaust the number seven’s relationship to God’s calendar. There is a tradition among the sages of Israel that the seven days of creation are symbolic of seven thousand years of human history. As is typical for a normal week, the first six thousand years would be full of work and weariness. But the Sabbath represents a future time when the Messiah will rule over the entire world, which will enjoy one thousand years of rest.
PASSOVER: THE FIRST OF THE SEVEN ANNUAL HOLIDAYS
The first of the seven annual holidays is Passover, which begins God’s yearly calendar. “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2). Passover occurs in the month of Nisan, which usually falls in March or April. Passover takes place during the spring, when the earth is full of new life, after the cold “death-like” state of winter. It makes sense that God’s calendar would start in the Spring – certainly more sense than beginning the new year in the dead of winter, as we do in the Western world.
Just as Passover begins God’s calendar, it also marks the beginning of Israel’s history as a free nation. The story of Passover begins with the Jewish people going down to Egypt in the time of Joseph. Joseph became the savior of Egypt as well as his own people. Years later, a new pharaoh came to power who did not remember Joseph. Instead of showing gratitude towards the Jewish people, he enslaved us. God raised up Moses, who went to Pharaoh and demanded that Israel be released. But Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to let Israel go, so God sent ten plagues upon the land of Egypt. The tenth plague was the most severe of all -death of all first-born sons living in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and of animals. If you were a first-born son there was only one way you would have survived that first Passover. The Lord God instructed everyone to take an unblemished, year-old lamb. You were to kill the lamb and pour its blood into a bowl. Then you applied the blood to the two doorposts and the top of the door of the house where the Passover lamb was to be eaten. God promised that He would go through the land that night, striking all the houses of Egypt. But God would pass over any house where He saw the blood of a spotless lamb applied by faith to the door. The first-born son would be spared from death, and the next day all of Israel would be redeemed out of Egypt. Then God took us, as it were, by the hand, and led us through the wilderness to the promised Land of Israel.
We can see that Passover was a prophecy of a greater redemption, a more profound Exodus, and a more excellent Lamb which was to come. John the Immerser understood this when he said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Passover was a prediction that God would one day send His Son into the world to be the ultimate sacrifice, to shed His blood on a cross, so that God may “pass over” the sins of those who believe in Messiah. As a result, He will bring us out of our Egypt, our bondage to the world, our slavery to sin, our captivity to the flesh and our slavery to the adversary. The Lord will take us by the hand, lead us through the wilderness of this world, to the New Jerusalem. It’s no coincidence that Messiah Yeshua died on Passover. His last supper was a Passover Seder and He died the next day, the first day of Passover – in fulfillment of Passover. We will see a similar pattern throughout the rest of the holidays. Each one looks forward to something that the Messiah would accomplish, and each one finds fulfillment on its own day.
FEAST OF MATZAH
The Feast of Matzah (Unleavened Bread) begins with Passover and continues for seven days. Nothing with yeast is to be eaten during that period. One reason why we eat matzah is to remind ourselves of our hasty departure from Egypt. By eating matzah we remember that when God did redeem us, He redeemed us quickly, so quickly that there wasn’t even time for our bread to rise. There is, however, another reason why we eat matzah. Throughout the Scriptures, leaven is often used as a symbol for sin. Just as a little bit of leaven will quickly spread and infect an entire batch of dough, so a little sin will quickly spread and infect an individual or an entire community. Prior to Passover, Jewish families will spend days and even weeks systematically ridding their homes of leaven. Rabbi Paul was familiar with this ceremony of cleansing our homes of leaven. He wrote to the Community of messianic believers at Corinth: “Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are unleavened, for Messiah our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the Feast, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the matzah of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Rabbi Paul used the ceremony of cleansing the house of leaven to teach us to cleanse our lives of sin if we expect to enjoy the blessings of Messiah, our Passover Lamb.
At His Last Supper (which was a Passover Seder), Messiah Yeshua took the unleavened bread, broke it, and gave it to His disciples, and He gave this matzah new meaning when He said, “This is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” In essence, Yeshua was declaring, “I am the fulfillment of this unleavened bread; I am the first man who has lived in this world and who never sinned.” He did resist every temptation, and finally, on the Feast of Matzah, His body was broken, and His sinless life was put to death on the cross, destroying the power of sin. The Feast of Matzah teaches us that when we are joined to Messiah by means of our faith in Him, He empowers us to have more and more victory over sin in our lives. When we are joined to the Sinless One, His victory over sin becomes our victory. One glorious day when He appears, we will be like Him, and in that day we will have complete victory over sin.
THE FEAST OF FIRST FRUITS
The Feast of First Fruits is the third yearly holiday, and also takes place during the week of Passover. Passover begins on the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan. First Fruits takes place on the sixteenth day of Nisan, which is the third day of Passover. In ancient times, when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, on this day Israel’s High Priest took the first sheaves of the barley harvest, and waved the first fruits of barley as a wave offering. This ceremony was like a prayer; by waving the first fruits of the harvest, the High Priest was, in essence, praying: “Lord God of Israel, thank You for the beginning of this year’s harvest. We offer to You the first fruits of this year’s harvest. Lord, accept the first fruits, the beginning and best of the harvest. O Lord, accept us, Your people, and please bring in the rest of the harvest.” If God would accept the offering of the first fruits, it was a guarantee that He would bless us with the remainder of the harvest during the year. The Feast of First Fruits was also a prophecy that the Messiah, who died on Passover, would come back to life. Death would not be able to hold the Sinless One. God would raise Him from the dead. He would be offered up as the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (see 1 Corinthians 15:20). That means that Messiah is the beginning of God’s harvest of humanity, the first to be raised from the dead. As the first fruits, He is the beginning and the best, the prototype and model for all those joined to Him. Because God found Him acceptable, raising Him from the dead as the first fruits, it is a guarantee that those who believe in Him, the rest of the harvest of humanity, will likewise be raised and be given eternal life.
It seems likely that Messiah Yeshua was raised from the dead on the Feast of First Fruits. It was “on the third day” that Messiah Yeshua rose from the dead. Passover starts the evening of the fourteenth day of Nisan. First Fruits take place on the sixteenth day of Nisan. So you have part of the fourteenth day, the whole of the fifteenth day, and the third day, the sixteenth day of Nisan, on which falls First Fruits. It is likely that the very same daythe High Priest was offering the first fruits of the barley harvest, God was raising the Messiah from the dead as the first fruits of redeemed humanity. The Feast of First Fruits is the true Biblical Resurrection day. I wish the Christian Church would have embraced this holiday, with its Goddesigned symbolism of the resurrection, rather than replacing it with Easter eggs, bunnies and ham roasts.
The next holiday on God’s calendar is Shavuot which means “weeks.” It takes place seven weeks and one day after the Feast of First Fruits. “Pentecost,” the Greek name for this holiday, means “fiftieth” because this holiday takes place on the fiftieth day after First Fruits. At Shavuot, Jewish men were required to make a second pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Once there,we would offer to God the first fruits of the wheat harvest. This time the High Priest waved two loaves of wheat bread that had been made with leaven. This is unusual, since it may be the only offering anywhere in the Scriptures that includes leaven. In general, the Biblical principle is that anything offered to God had to be without leaven, since leaven was usually symbolic of sin (see Leviticus 2:11-12). This offering up of the two loaves was another visual prayer. Through this ceremony the High Priest was in essence praying: “Lord, thank You for extending the harvest to the wheat. We offer up to You the first fruits, the beginning, the best of this crop. Lord of the harvest, we ask you to bring in the rest of the harvest throughout the year.” Shavuot was also a prophecy that Messiah’s resurrection, which took place fifty days earlier, would be expanded to include more of humanity. The second chapter of Acts records the fulfillment of this holiday: fifty days after Yeshua rose from death His first followers were gathered together in Jerusalem for this holiday. The same Spirit that raised Yeshua from the dead was poured out on those first Jewish disciples. The new Messianic Community was given His Spirit, and His resurrection life and power. This happened on Shavuot, and in fulfillment of Shavuot.
Since the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the Jewish people can no longer wave two loaves of bread as a wave offering. As a result, the emphasis of this holiday has shifted. According to Jewish tradition, Shavuot is the day that Israel received the Law on Mount Sinai. We should remember, however, that the giving of the Law was not without problems. While Moses was on Sinai receiving the Law, the rest of Israel was at the bottom of Sinai worshiping the golden calf. Moses came down from the mountain, saw what was happening and called out, “whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” The tribe of the Levites came to Moses, went throughout the camp of Israel, and put to death three thousand men who were involved in that idolatrous worship. Three thousand Jewish men were killed on Shavuot when the Law was given. Consider that in contrast with the fact that, when the Holy Spirit was given on Shavuot, three thousand Jewish people were made alive! What a powerful illustration of the principle that the letter (of the Law) kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6).
Why were two loaves of bread waved, and not one? The two loaves of bread can be understood as symbols of the two groups of peoples that make up the Messianic Community. In Romans 11, Rabbi Paul gives us the analogy of an olive tree made up of the original branches, the Jewish people. Later, wild olive branches, the Gentiles, are grafted into the olive tree of salvation and blessing. It could be that the two loaves of bread waved by the High Priest at Shavuot represent the original branches, the Jewish people, and the wild branches, the Gentiles grafted into the Olive Tree. Each loaf is incomplete without the other. The Jewish loaf needs the Gentile loaf to be complete, and the Gentile loaf needs the Jewish loaf to be complete.
Why is this offering made with leaven, a symbol for sin? The bread represents the Messianic Community, which is made up of sinful men and women. We struggle with sin each day of our lives. We are not yet like Messiah Yeshua, the pure unleavened bread. One day when He appears, we will be like Him, and will have complete victory over the presence and power of sin. But until that day, each one of us still wrestles with sin.
The first four annual holidays are intrinsically connected. They each take place in the spring. They are each symbolic of events connected to the First Coming of Yeshua. They were all fulfilled on their specific day in the calendar. For example, Passover was a prediction of the death of the Messiah, and Yeshua actually died on Passover, in fulfillment of Passover. We will see a similar pattern with the three Fall holidays.
After the four spring holidays comes the summer, during which time the crops are ripening. Each day brings the crops closer and closer to the fall harvest. The summer seems to be symbolic of the past two thousand years of history. Messiah’s Holy Community of Jews and Gentiles began in Israel among the Jewish people, but since the first century it has been spreading to all the nations of the world. For two thousand years the Good News has been taking root throughout the earth. The harvest of humanity is getting ready to be reaped.
THE FEAST OF TRUMPETS
Just as the four spring holidays are connected, so are the final three Fall holidays. They are connected to Messiah’s Second Coming. They all take place in the seventh month – the month of completion. If the pattern evidenced in the Spring holidays holds true for the Fall holidays, they too will be fulfilled on their own day. The Fall holidays will bring to completion God’s plan to rescue humanity. The first Fall holiday is the Feast of Trumpets. It takes place on the first day of the seventh month, which is the month of Tishri. Among the Jewish people, it is more commonly referred to as “Rosh HaShana” – the Jewish “New Year.” It may be the traditional Jewish New Year, but it is not the Biblical New Year, since this holiday begins the seventh month. According to the Bible, the true “Jewish New Year” takes place during the spring at Passover time. The Lord clearly stated this to Moses in Exodus 12:2 when He said, “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.”
On the first day of the seventh month we are told to rest and blow the shofar, a special trumpet made from a ram’s horn. The shofar was blown in ancient Israel for various reasons: If there was danger, the shofar was blown. If important information was being proclaimed, the shofar was blown. If the king was coming to visit our town, the shofar was blown. Messianic Jews blow the shofar on this day because we are announcing the soon return of King Messiah to planet Earth. Throughout the New Testament Yeshua’s return is promised to be accompanied by the blowing of the shofar (see 1 Cor. 15:51-52 and 1 Thes. 4:16). In the book of Revelation, with the sounding of the seventh trumpet, Messiah Yeshua returns to Earth. The shofar is designed to wake us up and get us ready for the Second Coming of Messiah and the other events connected with the seventh month.
THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
Ten days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, takes place. This was the one day when the High Priest was allowed to enter into the Most Holy Place in the Temple, sprinkle blood on the ark of the covenant, and atone for the sins of Israel. This is a very solemn day, when Jewish people fast and pray and ask for forgiveness. The rabbis teach that we have ten days from the beginning of the Feast of Trumpets to the close of Yom Kippur in which to repent. According to this tradition, if you do not repent during those ten days, God will blot your name out of the Book of Life, and sometime during the coming year you will die. This is a day for judgment, atonement and cleansing. Prophetically, it looks forward to a future day of judgment and cleansing immediately following Yeshua’s return. That judgment is further described in the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Matthew. Yeshua tells us that after He returns, He will establish His throne and judge all the nations. Those nations and individuals who turned to God will be welcomed into His kingdom. Those nations and individuals who have not repented will be turned away from life in the Kingdom. It makes sense that this judgment will occur on the very day of some future Yom Kippur.
Finally, we come to the last of the seven yearly holidays, Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles. It is the seventh holiday and it falls in the seventh month. With this holiday God will complete His plan to redeem humanity. Sukkot takes place on the fifteenth day of Tishri and lasts for eight days. For the third and last time of the year, the Jewish people went up to Jerusalem to celebrate this final harvest festival. We built booths, decorated them with branches and the fruits of the harvest, and lived in them for the duration of the holiday. We also took willow, palm and myrtle branches, waved them in the air, prayed and rejoiced with them. These temporary booths, which go up and come down one week later, remind us of the Exodus from Egypt and our forty years of wandering in the wilderness. They also remind us that our brief sojourn in this world is temporary. We are pilgrims while on this earth, wanderers with no permanent dwelling place.
Prophetically, Sukkot looks forward to a greater Exodus to come. It looks forward to the final harvest of humanity. It anticipates the eternal dwelling places which Messiah Yeshua has prepared for us. At the end of this age, God will gather the fruit of redeemed humanity into His kingdom. This is the goal of God’s efforts in human history, leading to the eternal kingdom which awaits redeemed humanity.
God has a master plan to save fallen humanity which is revealed in the Jewish holidays. To reach the goal to which the holidays point, you must start at the beginning of God’s calendar. You must cease from your own works and enter into the Sabbath rest that the Messiah alone provides. You must believe that Yeshua is the Passover Lamb who died for your sins, and that He is the unleavened bread that was victorious over sin. You must believe that He is the fulfillment of the Feast of First Fruits, the One who was raised from the dead. In fulfillment of Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) you must receive His Spirit and become part of the Messianic Community. Then you can look forward to His return, and so partake of the Feast of Trumpets. As part of Yom Kippur, you need to remember that when He returns to planet Earth, judgment will take place. Those who believe in Him will not be condemned, but have already passed out of judgment and into life. Then at the very end, you will be welcomed into that glorious and eternal kingdom awaiting redeemed humanity. Then those that have been reconciled to the God of Israel, through the wonderful Messiah whom He sent, will reign with Him forever and ever, which is the fulfillment of the Feast of Sukkot. Yeshua is the fulfillment of these holy days. He has filled them full of meaning and significance, for anyone who desires to celebrate them. Do you know Him? I hope so! Your eternal destiny depends on it!