I suspect that, as the end of the year approaches, a great many of us feel the need for a break. The so-called “holiday season” is God’s good gift to us. In fact, such holidays are by God’s design. We see this truth displayed in Exodus 23:14–19, where the Lord commanded the men of Israel (and presumably their families) to take a “holiday” at least three times in the year. For several weeks, they would leave their homes, head for the appointed place, and enjoy God-centred festivals. These were to be days to celebrate God’s goodness to His people. When you factor in the necessary travel time, it is likely that the average Jew enjoyed as many as seven weeks of annual “leave”—according to God’s labour laws! But note that their holidays were, by definition and practice, very special days. They were holydays. So it should be for you and me.
As they took a sanctioned break from some responsibilities they were at the same time entrusted with the responsibility to use these holydays to strengthen their relationship with the Lord. God’s prescriptions were the means to turn mere holidays into holydays. Let me encourage you to do the same. Use this scheduled time of rest from some responsibilities to give attention to a much greater responsibility: your relationship with the Lord. Transform the “silly season” into a sanctifying season.
With reference to Exodus 23, note that these holidays were times of festivity, gladness and great joy. We see this in each of the feasts.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread (v. 15; cf. Leviticus 23:4–8; Deuteronomy 16:1–6) is the same as the Passover Feast. This feast celebrated God’s deliverance; His redemption of His people. The starting point for all celebration must be God’s salvation. You can only celebrate biblically if you have been saved by God’s grace. Have you? Just as we seek to use each Lord’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate our salvation, we can use our holidays for the same purpose. We should “feast” on forgiveness. Take some time to reflect and to read about God’s great salvation. Use your holidays to assess what leaven of sin needs to be swept away before commencing a new year.
The Feast of Harvest (v. 16; cf. Leviticus 23:15–22; Deuteronomy 16:9–12), also known as the Feast of Firstfruits or Pentecost, began on a Sunday, the first day of the week. It celebrated the close of the spring harvest and the commencement of a fuller harvest. It was a celebration of God’s providence in the past and of His promises in the future. It was a feast of anticipation.
This feast pictured Jesus Christ as the firstfruits from the dead, thus anticipating a great harvest of souls (1 Corinthians 15:20–23). Importantly, leaven was included in the bread used at Pentecost. This leaven anticipated new growth (Leviticus 23:17). Holidays are a wonderful opportunity to rebuild faith and to anticipate what God will yet do. We are encouraged as we reflect on God’s past faithfulness as a pledge of future faithfulness. Do you anticipate spiritual growth in the new year? Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven being like leaven, which results in growth (Matthew 13:33). God is ever at work, transforming lives through the ministry of His church. And so, during the holidays, reflect on both those things that you need to put off (Passover) as well as those things that you need to put on (Pentecost).
The third feast mentioned is the Feast of Ingathering (v. 16; cf. Leviticus 23:33–44; Deuteronomy 16:13–15), also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths. This feast celebrated the completion of the agricultural year. It was a celebration of God’s satisfying provision throughout the year, a feast of thanksgiving and appreciation. It was a week of many sacrifices—at least 192 throughout the week (see Numbers 29). But further, it was a time of corporate identification with the original exodus (Leviticus 23:41–43). The Feast of Ingathering was a time to highlight covenantal continuity, a historical connection with past generations of God’s people. It was a time to highlight God’s faithfulness in both recent past (the harvest year) as well as the distant past (the Exodus). It emphasised that history is moving somewhere. Our faith is credibly grounded in God’s past work and therefore we can confidently anticipate His blessings in the future.
Christian holidays are precisely this: reminders of historical fact. We celebrate the incarnation (Christmas), the crucifixion and resurrection (Easter) and the ascension. However we choose to remember these significant events, we must get it into our heads and hearts that we are a part of something huge and timeless—something that is far bigger than “Jesus and me.” Multitudes of saints have passed this way before us, and multitudes more will follow us. Think about it!
God commanded that these feasts be kept “to Me.” They were to remain entirely God-centred in their focus. Special events and days for worshipful celebration certainly have biblical justification, but there is always the temptation to miss the point. So, in what ways can you guard your holidays so that they are focused and faithful? Let me suggest that you use the holiday season to read the Word and pray—alone and with your family. Use these days to read good soul-nourishing literature. Live deliberately before the face of God in your choices of activities and entertainment. Don’t neglect corporate worship.
Obedience in keeping these feasts was nonnegotiable. All who identified with Yahweh were required to attend these feasts. The heads of households (fathers/husbands) were responsible for their households celebrating the holydays. God expected the entire family to join in the celebration, and He held the men responsible to see that this expectation was met. By way of application, men should help their families to benefit from the holidays.
Such holydays would no doubt stir the Israelites to live for the Lord upon their return home. That is, the corporate gathering would go a long way toward equipping them to live out God’s law in their own home and community. This is precisely what a proper response to a well-planned holiday will produce today. You will be able to enter a new period refreshed and revived for a new year of walking with the Lord.
When it came to offering sacrifices during these feasts, God was clear that He would accept only “the first of the firstfruits.” He would not accept the mere leftovers at the end of harvest. Deliberate planning and forethought was required for the proper observance of these holydays, and I would suggest that the same applies to us. God should be no mere afterthought during our holidays. We should deliberately plan to bring Him worship. For instance, God wants our best as the result of our trust. When we trust Him, our lives are manifestly different from surrounding culture. We will therefore stand apart from the silly and shallow approach to life that characterises our world. We will still celebrate the holidays, but in a markedly more substantial way than unbelievers. Let us strive to celebrate these days being deeply God-centred.
Fundamentally, these feasts were for the dual purpose of helping God’s people to practically appreciate His glorious work and helping them to anticipate the greater work that He would yet do through His Son. These feasts all pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ. They were Christ-centred to the very core. Philip Ryken captures the essence of this truth when he writes, “Jesus is the source of our sanctification, the firstfruits of our resurrection, the Lord of the harvest, the water of life, and the sacrifice for our sin. This is the gospel according to Moses, as recorded in Exodus 23.” Yes, these old covenant feasts have all been fulfilled in Christ. But the principle remains: We are to use our holidays in such a way that we will increasingly give ourselves to Christ. Only when we do so can the celebration really begin. And so on behalf of the eldership let me wish very happy holydays.