You’ll remember that we’re in that part of the book of Leviticus which is about how the Israelites were to live holy lives before the Lord. According to chapter 17, holiness meant worshipping the Lord and not idols as their pagan neighbours did; and it meant not eating blood as their pagan neighbours did. According to chapter 18, holiness meant avoiding unlawful sexual relations and avoiding other customs and practices which were common among the pagan nations.
According to chapter 19, holiness meant worshipping the Lord and treating one another in the right way. Chapter 20 set out the penalty the Israelites could expect to receive if they did any of the things which the Lord forbade.
And chapters 21 and 22 were directed to the priests who had to keep themselves ceremonially clean so that they could come before the Lord who is holy and serve in him the Tabernacle. And when they came before the Lord, they could only bring him acceptable sacrifices.
And as we went through those chapters, we thought about how the rules and regulations which we find here concerning the priests and the sacrifices and the people point us to the person and work of Christ, who is our Great High Priest; who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins; and who gives us his Spirit to enable us to live holy lives. So, everything which we read in the book of Leviticus speaks to us in one way or another of the good news of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Today we come to chapter 23 which sets out for the people the appointed feasts. In other words, these are the special feasts which the Lord appointed for his people to observe. According to verse 2, they’re to be sacred assemblies when all of God’s people were to assembly together to worship him.
The Appointed Feasts
The appointed festivals begin with the weekly Sabbath. So, the Lord has given them six days to do their work, but the seventh day is a day of sacred assembly. They’re not to do any work on this day, says the Lord in verse 3. Wherever you live — the Lord said — it is to be a Sabbath to the Lord. So, wherever they lived in the Promised Land — even if they lived far away from Jerusalem and far away from the Tabernacle and the Temple — nevertheless they still had to remember to keep the Sabbath Day holy. Notice as well that this chapter describes seven festivals in total; and it begins with this one, the Sabbath Day which was to be observed every seven days. Therefore this one is foundational to all the rest and it was, of course, established at creation when God himself rested on the seventh day.
Next we read about the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, both of which took place annually in the first month of the Jewish year. The Passover was held on the fourteen day and the Feast of Unleavened Bread was held over the following seven days. Both of these festivals were established at the time of the Exodus: the Passover commemorated the night when the Israelites daubed the blood of a lamb on their doorposts so that the angel of the Lord passed over them and did not kill their firstborn sons. And on that very night they were released from their captivity in Egypt. Because they left in a hurry, they had to eat unleavened bread — bread without yeast — because there was no time to wait for bread to rise. By celebrating the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread each year, the people remembered God’s grace and mercy and how he delivered them from their bondage.
Next we have the Festival of Firstfruits, which they were unable to celebrate until they entered the Promised Land, because this was a harvest festival. And so, once they were settled in the land, and had planted their crops, they were to remember to bring before the Lord the firstfruits of the harvest. Verse 10 refers to a ‘sheaf of the first grain’ which was to be waved before the Lord. This bundle of grain was given to the Lord to represent the whole crop; and it was a way of acknowledging their thanks to the Lord who had blessed them with food to eat. You’ll see from verse 14 that the people were not to eat any of the harvest until they had brought the required offerings to the Lord.
Then we have the Feast of Weeks which, according to verse 15, took place seven weeks after the Feast of Firstfruits. Seven weeks of seven days is 49 days; then on the fiftieth day, they were to bring an offering to the Lord; and in the following verses it sets out what offerings they were to bring. The Feast of Firstfruits took place at the beginning of the harvest; the Feast of Weeks took place at the end of the harvest; by observing these two days, the people gave thanks to the Lord for his kindness to them. And since the Lord had been generous to them, they were to be generous to those in need; therefore, according to verse 22, when harvesting their crops, they were to leave some of the grain behind for the poor and the alien who lived among them. Think of the story of Ruth, who went into the fields and gathered grain for her mother-in-law and herself From what the harvesters had left behind. Since the Feast of Weeks was held on the fiftieth day after the Feast of Firstfruits, it became known as the Day of Pentecost.
In verses 23 to 25 we read about the Feast of Trumpets, which was held on the first day of the seventh month. It was to be a day of rest and it was commemorated or announced with the sound of trumpet blasts. So, the trumpet would sound and the people would know that their labour was over and they could rest.
Next we have the great Day of Atonement which took place on the tenth day of the seventh month. It was to be a day of self-denial and they were to bring an offering to make atonement for themselves. We’ve already studied the Day of Atonement back in chapter 16 and how the atonement offering was to cleanse the Tabernacle itself and the people from their sins so that God’s wrath would not break out against them for defiling his dwelling-place with their sin. We read in verse 29 that anyone who did not deny himself would be cut off; furthermore, whoever did not rest from his work would be destroyed by the Lord. Everyone was to be careful to observe this day.
Finally there’s the Feast of Booths which took place on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and which lasted for seven days. As well as bringing offerings to the Lord, the people were to live in booths or huts for seven days. According to verse 43 this was to commemorate how the Israelites used to live in tents whenever the Lord brought them out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness for forty years. It was a way to remember God’s grace to them in the past in rescuing them from their captivity and in bringing them safely through the wilderness to the Promised Land. And so, according to verse 40, they were to rejoice before the Lord; this was to be a time of great celebration.
So, there you have the seven appointed feasts: the weekly Sabbath; the Passover; the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost; the Feast of Trumpets; the Day of Atonement; and the Feast of Booths.
It should come as no surprise to learn that each of these festivals point us to the good news of the gospel; and they find their fulfilment in Christ.
We now observe the weekly Sabbath, not on the seventh day of the week, but on the first day of the week, the day when the Lord was raised from the dead to live for ever. Every Sunday is Resurrection Day when we come together in the name of our Risen Saviour to give thanks to God and to look forward to the day when we too will be raised to enjoy everlasting rest in the new creation.
The Lord Jesus was crucified at the time of the Feast of Passover, because he is the true Passover Lamb, who died in our place so that we might be set free from our bondage to sin, Satan and death to enjoy everlasting life in the Promised Land above.
And just as the Israelites had to clear out any yeast from their homes in order to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so believers are instructed to remove sin from our lives. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:
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.
When we believe in the Saviour we begin a new life, just as the Israelites began a new life whenever the Lord took them out of Egypt. And our new life in Christ is meant to be a life without sin.
The Feast of Firstfruits points forward to Christ who was the first to rise from the dead. He was the first to rise, but he will not be the last, because when he comes he will raise his people from the grave to live with him for ever and ever in glory. Therefore, the Apostle Paul calls him ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’; since he died and was raised, so all who trust in him will also be raised; and that means that those believers who have died are — as it were — only sleeping in their graves as if in their beds until the day comes when the Saviour calls them and tells them it’s time to get up now.
The Feast of Weeks or Pentecost when the Israelites gathered together to give thanks to the Lord for the harvest was fulfilled by the Great Day of Pentecost when the Risen Saviour poured out his Spirit upon his people. And now he continues to pour out upon his believing people one spiritual blessing after another. The Israelites gave thanks to the Lord for material blessings; we give thanks to him, not only for material blessings, but for all the spiritual blessings which we have received through faith in the Saviour.
One commentator has suggested that the Feast of Trumpets points forward to the preaching of the gospel, because just as the the blast of the trumpet told the Israelites that their work was over and they may now rest, so the gospel message proclaims that there is rest for our souls in Jesus Christ. However, the Apostle Paul also writes about how a trumpet blast will announce the resurrection. And so, the trumpet will sound and we will be raised from our graves to enjoy perfect peace and rest in the presence of the Lord for ever.
On the Day of Atonement, the priest sprinkled blood on the altar and on the people to cleanse them from defilement. But we have been cleansed from the guilt of our sins once and for all by the blood of the Lord Jesus.
And the Feast of Booths looked back to the time when the Israelites were a pilgrim people on the way to the Promised Land of Canaan. And believers today are a pilgrim people, because we’ve been delivered from our bondage to sin and Satan and death; and we’re on the way to the heavenly Promised Land. But we’re not there yet; for now, we’re only pilgrims on the way to our true home in the new heaven and the new earth. But on the way, we can trust our faithful Saviour to protect us and to provide for us and to lead us. And all who follow him, and who do not stumble and fall or go astray, but who follow him faithfully will come at last to the Promised Land, the place God has prepared for all his believing people and where we will enjoy his presence for ever.
The Israelites were instructed to observe these festivals, because through them God announced the gospel of Jesus Christ and the good news of forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life in his presence.