I suspect that as the end of the year approaches a great many of us feel the need for a break. By the time we reach mid-November we are thankful that the end is near, for as the calendar moves into December, the holiday season officially begins. Praise the Lord!
This time of year 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 times of celebration of God’s goodness to Israel as a people. Factor in the necessary travel time, and it may well have been as many as seven weeks’ annual “leave”—commanded by God!
But we should note that their holidays were actually holydays. So it should be for you and me.
When God gave these laws He did not intend for His people to turn away from all their responsibilities. They were responsible to use these holydays to strengthen their relationship with the Lord. God’s prescriptions would have been a means to turn mere holidays into holydays.
Biblical holidays can be a means to guard our devotion to Christ. They are an opportunity for rest from some responsibilities in order to give attention to a much greater responsibility: our relationship with our God. And so, while we often talk of this time of year as the “silly season,” there is a very real sense in which it ought to be a sanctifying season.
These God-ordained feasts were times of festivity, gladness and great joy. Very briefly, let’s note the purpose of each of the three feasts and glean some practical principles to help us to make the most of our holidays.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread (v. 15; cf. Leviticus 23:4-8; Deuteronomy 16:1-6) was 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 are to 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 needs to be swept away in the new year.
Celebrating Providence and Promises
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 was actually a combination of two feasts. It celebrated the close of the spring 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. This is strengthened as we look back on what God has done for us in the past. Do you anticipate spiritual growth in the new year? Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven being “like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened” (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 to be celebrated was 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, 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 a past generation. It was a time to highlight God’s faithfulness in the past—both recent (the harvest year) and distant (the Exodus). It emphasised the truth that history is moving somewhere, that history is linear.
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.
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 for us to abuse the privilege and offer God that which is not, in fact, worship.
In what way can you “fix” your holidays so that they are focused and faithful? Will you use the holiday season to read the Word and pray—alone and with your family? Will you use it to engage in some good reading for the nourishment of your soul? Will you live deliberately before the face of God in your choices of activities and entertainment? Will you be found in corporate worship? Will you, even during an unusual time of rest, continue to sanctify God’s Sabbath?
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.
Men—Christian husbands and fathers—how will your family benefit from the holidays? Will they prove to be holydays for the benefit of your family?
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 revived, not in need of revival!
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.
God wants our best as the result of our trust. When we trust Him, then 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.
Does your celebration of the Lord’s Day send this message? Will your celebration of your holidays do the same? Let us be sure that the way we celebrate life is deeply God-centred. Fundamentally, these feasts were for the dual purpose of helping God’s people to practically appreciate His glorious work and to help 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 these verses 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.
May you have wonderfully happy holydays!