Rest for the Restless (Leviticus 23:1-44)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

On 9 May 2013 we had a wonderful gathering for the first of what we trust will become an annual Ascension Day service and celebration. We came from our workaday world in our workaday clothes to corporately worship our risen and ascended Lord. Those who participated, I believe, will agree that we found rest for our wearied souls. Such rest is precisely why the Lord prescribed the feasts revealed in Leviticus 23: He wanted His people to come apart from their regular routine to find their rest in Him. He also wanted them to yearn for a greater rest, one that would only come with the advent of God’s promised Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Leviticus 23 served like a yearly planner for the nation of Israel. You might say, in our terms, that Leviticus 23 prescribes the “Christian calendar.” It highlights the seven major feasts, festivals or holydays that they were privileged to observe.

These holydays were prescribed by God to help His people to put their busy lives on pause in order to reflect upon and to remember their blessed privilege of being the people of God. Walter Kaiser has beautifully summed up the significance of the feasts: “A sabbath or a festival was like a kiss between lovers. It gathered into a special moment what was always true.”1 And so, even though these holidays were regulated, they were not seen as a chore. “Rather, these feasts testified to the joy Israel experienced in knowing God.”2 They were feasts of gratitude to God.

This chapter is every bit as prescriptive as the rest of the book, and quite literally this chapter is a “prescriptive prescription” for the wellbeing of God’s people. That is, to the degree that God’s people celebrated these prescribed feasts, in God’s prescribed ways, to such a degree the people would benefit spiritually. If they obeyed God’s rules of rest, they would experience the fruit of a deepening and thus increasingly faithful relationship with the Lord. In other words, the more frequently that God’s people contemplated gospel truth, the more rest they would find for their souls.

There is much in these 44 verses of benefit for the Christian, as I trust that we will see. Let me identify some principles at the start and then prove the thesis through the exposition.

  • Probably no chapter in Leviticus so clearly points to Christ and His comprehensive work of redemption than this one.
  • The new covenant believer is no less in need of frequent and regular reminders of God’s redemptive work in Christ than was the old covenant believer.
  • A Christian calendar clearly has value (and we as a local church at BBC should do better at recognising this!).
  • We need to be more deliberate about our holidays

This chapter can be divided into two broad sections: spring feasts in vv. 1-22; and autumn feasts in vv. 23-44.

The Need for a Holiday

In vv. 1-2 we learn of the need for God’s people to rest: “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “The feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts.”’”

Recent chapters have heavily emphasised the duties of the priesthood. Here, the attention shifts almost entirely to the duty of the congregation, with particular respect to their responsibility to rest. In that respect, this is a beautiful chapter expressing God’s care for His children. He knew their need for rest and so He told them to take their festive medicine!

There are a couple of issues that we need to address as we commence our study.

First, though no doubt God was concerned that these feasts be a time for the people’s physical rest from regular labours, at the same time there was a higher goal: The prescribed days of physical rest pointed them to their need for spiritual rest; the rest that is found only in Christ, the One to whom these holydays ultimately pointed. These were Christ-centred holidays—as ours should be.

Second, we need to understand the terms.

The word translated “feast” (v. 2, etc.) has a variety of meanings: “seasons” (Genesis 1:14); “set time” (Genesis 17:21); “time appointed” (Genesis 18:14; Leviticus 23:4); “meeting” (or, by implication, “congregation”) (Leviticus 24:3); etc.

The concept of a festival is one of a corporate gathering in which there is a sense of relaxation, fun, celebration and food. These were certainly present in these prescribed holydays, while some were more festive than others (e.g. Pentecost and Day of Atonement).

The concept of a feast seems to imply more of a family, time though not exclusively so. And a feast may be either a time of solemnity, joyfulness or both.

But regardless of the term used, it needs to be pointed out that these prescribed calendar events were corporate in nature. They were “holy convocations.” That is, they were to be celebrated as a gathering, as an assembly of God’s people. In many ways, these holydays served to strengthen national identity.

Exodus 23 prescribed that all males were required to come to the tabernacle (and, later, the temple in Jerusalem) to three of these them: Unleavened Bread, Pentecost and Tabernacles (or Booths or Ingathering). But with the other feasts, it appears that, regardless of where they were celebrated, they were to be done in fellowship with other believers. God’s people were to rest together!

Third, these feasts belonged to the Lord. They are referred to as “the feasts of the LORD,” and the Lord said quite clearly, “These are My feasts.” The resting therefore was to be God-centred. It was for this reason that God’s people were to reflect together, rejoice together, remember together and rejuvenate together as they reverently assembled together. Eveson (citing Wiersbe) notes, “Israel’s calendar prevented them from thinking of life as going round in a never-ending circle. There was a beginning, a forward thrust and an end. It ‘not only summarized what God had done for them in the past, but it also anticipated what God would do for them in the future.’”3 We who live under the new covenant are no less in need of the same. We need a Christian calendar as much as they did.

The Weekly Holiday

As noted there were seven feasts prescribed in the old covenant yearly calendar. That calendar was lunar, as prescribed by God. (That is why, each year, the date of Easter varies.) But there was another feast prescribed by God that was somewhat countercultural, in that it had nothing to do with either the moon or the seasons. Instead, it had to do with a seven day cycle. I am speaking, of course, of the weekly Sabbath Day.

I would imagine that most old covenant Jews were rather excited about the seven feasts of the year (though observance did require some sacrifice on their part). Perhaps the family looked forward to such times of holiday. Especially in later years, when the temple was constructed in Jerusalem, such occasions provided the exciting prospect of a journey to “the City” and a break from routine. Plans were made, picnic baskets were packed and snacks were gathered for the road. No doubt, the journey was attended with the age-old question, “Dad, are we there yet?”

But if the people of God wanted to enjoy a holiday as a family, and as a community, they did not need to wait for a special feast in March/April or August/September. Instead, they had a weekly opportunity for such a break. We see this in v. 3: “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings.”

God prescribed a weekly preview of the greater feasts in giving to Israel the Sabbath Day. In fact, He gave to all humanity this gift, though of course only His redeemed people truly appreciated (and continue to appreciate) it.

Note that this day was to be a day of rest. The Hebrew word for “Sabbath” literally means “to cease,” and this is precisely the emphasis. They were to labour six days a week doing their “customary work” (vv. 7, 8, 21, 25, 28, 30, 31) and then they were to rest on the seventh day. Again, this had nothing to do with the seasons or with a lunar calendar and everything to do with God’s creation ordinance. Since it was a creation ordinance it is still applicable—still prescribed—for us today. Until creation is re-created we are to have one day a week for our own re-creation. We call this the Lord’s Day. We need a day of “solemn rest” (literally, “Sabbath of Sabbath”) if we will have a week of solemn labour.

In other words, if we will worship God while we work then we must come apart once a week to worship without work.

Familiarity Breeds . . .

Much could be said about this, but for now let me simply emphasise that here we learn that those redeemed by God are blessed with 52 holidays that those not redeemed do not have. Perhaps one reason why the Lord put this reminder here about the weekly Sabbath was because He did not want His people to neglect this regular weekly feast in the midst of anticipating the special holydays. “Placing it at the head of all the holy convocations has the effect of emphasizing its distinctiveness, that it must not be forgotten or underrated in the excitement of keeping the other holy days.”4

Let me then ask, are you making the most of the Sabbath? Are you wasting it? Are you robbing yourself of its benefits?

Perpetuity of the Sabbath

It is also worth mentioning that perhaps there is a polemical reason for the inclusion of v. 3 before the listing of the seven holiday feasts.

No one would dispute that these were ceremonial feasts and that the new covenant believer is therefore not under obligation to observe them (though, as we will see, there are some continuities). But one reason that the Sabbath law is repeated here is to draw attention to the fact that it is distinct from the these other ceremonial observances, and therefore it does have abiding value—even and including today (see Colossians 2:16-23).

Sabbatical Emphasis

The fundamental point of these feasts is that the people (not the priests, for their labours would have been intensified) were to rest at these seven prescribed times of the year. These were prescribed sabbaticals.

Therefore, this reference to the Sabbath introduces the sabbatical principle undergirding this entire chapter. The word “Sabbath” is found twelve times in this chapter, and the number seven is referenced some eighteen times (the number of rest as well as of completion). We read some seven times that labour was to cease. Three of the feasts occurred in the seventh month. The feasts of Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles lasted seven days. Finally, there are seven extra Sabbath days prescribed in connection with these festivals. We should at least get this point: God wanted His people to take a break! And He wants the same for you and me. He desires rest for the restless until they enter the final rest.

The Spring Holidays

The first four feasts were observed at the beginning of the agricultural year.

Passover and Unleavened Bread

In vv. 4-8 we find instructions regarding the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread.

These are the feasts of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times. On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the LORD’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; seven days you must eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it. But you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD for seven days. The seventh day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it.

(Leviticus 23:4-8)

God Delivers

As mentioned, the first four feasts were scheduled for springtime. The first two of these were Passover (one day) followed immediately by the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Some treat these as one feast. The details for these are prescribed in Exodus 12 but here the general prescription is revealed for the people to observe.

These feasts served, of course, to commemorate God’s lovingkindness in delivering the children of Israel from Egypt. The Passover reminded the nation of the judgement that they had escaped on that fateful night for those not a part of God’s covenantal people. It reminded them that they too deserved the wrath of God. They were reminded that a substitute had died in the place of the firstborn. And since Israel was God’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22), a thoughtful Jew would reflect upon the fact that they themselves deserved to die at the hand of the death angel.

The purpose of this feast was to remind the children of Israel that God saved them and that He continues to save them.

We need to slow down if we will properly contemplate God’s redemption of our life. We need a regularly scheduled rest to reflect upon God’s so great salvation.

Our Communion service is a feast that reminds us of so great salvation, and of course Easter weekend is the new covenant counterpart of the old covenant Passover.

Flee Bondage

The Feast of Unleavened Bread commenced immediately on the day following Passover and lasted seven days. It also included a sabbatical rest: The first and final days of the feast were each to be a “holy convocation” on which the Jews were to refrain from any “customary work.” During this week they were to offer sacrifices on each day. Apparently, these were to be burnt offerings (offering made by fire), or perhaps any offering was acceptable as long as it was by fire.

The purpose of this festival was to commemorate and to contemplate the haste with which God’s people left the old life of bondage to journey to the Promised Land. This would serve to strengthen their covenantal commitment to live for the one who had given them such great salvation.

Summary

God’s people needed a pause to ponder the privileged rest from bondage God intended for them. But they also needed to ponder the rest that they ultimately needed from sin. Such rest was intended to create in them a hunger for the Bread of Life, which was far tastier than anything that the leaven of the world could offer. Of course, we need the same. Tidball applies this feast accordingly when he writes,

Christians have no equivalent to this festival, but it serves as a reminder of at least four important “oughts” of the Christian life. First, Christians ought to be in haste to obey God’s will. Secondly, Christians ought to be a pilgrim people, always making spiritual progress and never settling into a state of smug spiritual complacency. Thirdly, Christians ought regularly to examine their lives and throw out the corrupting influences of sin. Finally, Christians ought to feast themselves on the nutritious food of truth instead of on the seductive junk food of compromise that is often mistaken for it.5

We should also learn from this that the evidence that we have been delivered from sin is an ongoing removal of corruption from our lives. If there is no such removal then there probably has been no redemption.

Feast of Firstfruits

Verses 9-14 speak to the Feast of Firstfruits.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf, a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the LORD. Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the LORD, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin. You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.

(Leviticus 23:9-14)

God Owns

This feast lasted one day. Evidently, it commenced the day after the closing Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It occurred on a Sunday.

It should also be noted that this feast would not be instituted until such time that the nation entered Canaan. In this feast, “instead of looking back to their deliverance from bondage, the people now looked forward in confidence and with gratitude to a full harvest to follow.”6

A Jewish Wave

On this day, the harvest having begun, an individual came to the tabernacle with a barley sheaf from the harvest and gave it to the priest, who then waved it. Perhaps the priest waved it in the form of a cross. (This was a Jewish, not a Mexican, wave!)

The point of this ritual was to acknowledge that the harvest was all because of God’s gracious and providential work. After all, any harvest was actually owned by God. “The ceremony acknowledged God as the real author of all the land’s produce by making a representative presentation of the crops to Him, thereby consecrating them.”7 You might say that this was a feast stewardship.

But further, it was acknowledgement that more was to come. That is, the harvest having begun, it was believed that God would provide an even greater harvest. It was a feast acknowledging the people’s dependence upon the faithfulness of God.

In the new covenant there are many references to the firstfruits (Romans 8:23; 16:5; 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23; 16:15; James 1:18; Revelation 14:4), and no doubt this is the historical background for such imagery.

Sacrificial burnt offerings were to be offered, as well as grain and drink offerings. These were offered to God in their entirety, proclaiming the people’s dependence upon God, along with recognition that everything that He gave them was His.

It should also be noted that the prescription is laid down that the people were not to partake of the crops until they had first offered this sheaf and these sacrifices. Again, the point was to emphasise that God was not only their Sovereign Saviour but that also their Sovereign Sustainer.

The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)

In vv. 15-22 we read of Pentecost, known also as the Feast of Weeks.

And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD. You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the LORD. And you shall offer with the bread seven lambs of the first year, without blemish, one young bull, and two rams. They shall be as a burnt offering to the LORD, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering made by fire for a sweet aroma to the LORD. Then you shall sacrifice one kid of the goats as a sin offering, and two male lambs of the first year as a sacrifice of a peace offering. The priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before the LORD, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the LORD for the priest. And you shall proclaim on the same day that it is a holy convocation to you. You shall do no customary work on it. It shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.

‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.

(Leviticus 23:15-22)

God Accomplishes

On the fiftieth day after the Feast of Firstfruits, the next prescribed feast was Pentecost, or The Feast of Weeks. The latter name is derived from the fact that exactly seven weeks after the Sabbath preceding the Feast of Firstfruits, this feast began. “Pentecost” is related to the word for “fifty.” It was on the fiftieth day after Firstfruits that this next feast began. Again, this means that Pentecost was celebrated on a Sunday. On this holiday, God’s people celebrated the completion of the wheat harvest. On this day, the people celebrated God’s faithfulness in sustaining them.

This festival lasted one day and was characterised by joy and feasting.

The people brought two loaves of bread, baked with leaven, as well as grain and drink offerings. Seven lambs were offered to God on behalf of the nation, along with one young bull, two rams and one kid. The priests would partake of this bread of God.

Pentecost was also to be a Sabbath Day, on which no customary work was to be done. The feast required one’s full attention.

Remember the Poor

Interestingly, this Feast also involved a responsibility outside the tabernacle. The people were exhorted to remember the poor at this feast. I assume that this means that, having reflected on God’s goodness to them, they were to return to their fields humbled by God’s grace and thus moved to share both liberally and joyfully with those in need. It is for this reason that v. 22 instructs the people to leave handfuls on purpose for the gleaning by the poor. The lesson is obvious: God’s grace experienced becomes God’s grace expressed to others. The evidence of gratitude is generosity.

There is much here of practical value. As we come away for a time of rest from our regular labours and reflect upon God’s goodness, we remember His goodness to us. Such remembrance produces gratitude, which is then practically revealed in graciousness towards others.

Some months ago our church started what we trust will be a semi-regular practice. After Communion one night, we took up a special offering for benevolence needs in the church. The response was overwhelming. The principle on which this was based is precisely the principle we see here: Reflection on God’s grace works itself out in generosity to those in need.

New Covenant Significance

Of course, Pentecost is a very significant day in the history of the church. It was on this particular Sunday that Peter preached the first gospel sermon following the ascension. It was on this day that he proclaimed the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (Acts 2:22-23). It was on this day that he proclaimed that Christ was the firstfruits from the dead by His resurrection (Acts 2:24-28). It was on this day that he called the people to make haste to turn from their sin (Acts 2:38) as they believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. The result was a great harvest of souls as three thousand were converted. Pentecost indeed!

By the way, there are other connections between the old covenant Pentecost and that glorious Pentecostal Sunday. Note that, as they shared the bread of Communion, it would have been leavened bread. Further, as they celebrated God’s gospel provision, they also shared of their material substance with those in need (Acts 2:42, 44).

God has been bringing in His harvest for nearly two thousand years, and we have every reason to celebrate that He continues to do so in our day. God accomplishes what He purposes. He builds His church!

The Autumn Holidays

Verses 23-44 speak of three feasts that occurred in autumn. As an overriding principle, they teach us that God is faithful. These feasts included both the most solemn of the seven feasts and the most joyful of them. All three occurred in the seventh month, in what was autumn in the northern hemisphere. It was also at this time that the agricultural season ended.

The Feast of Trumpets

The Feast of Trumpets is spoken of in vv. 23-25.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work on it; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD.’”

(Leviticus 23:23-25)

God Reminds

Once again, we have here another one-day feast, this one involving the blowing of trumpets.

This feast occurred on the first day of the seventh month (August/September), and it was to be treated as a Sabbath. The people were to rest from their regular labours and to devote themselves to rest. As I hope to show you, they were also to focus on reconnecting.

The blowing of trumpets in Scripture was a time when the nation was being called to gather. It was symbolic of God’s voice calling to them (Exodus 19:19; Numbers 10).

The Law called for such gathering at times of national crisis but also, and primarily, at times of national covenant renewal. It would seem that this feast was so intended.

On the first day of the seventh month, the priests would blow the shofar. When the people heard this, then they gathered together. It is helpful to note a couple of timing issues here. This feast took place just nine days before the Day of Atonement. I think that this was strategic. As the people were called by the trumpet they were actually being called to attention. Such a call would prepare them for the most solemn of the feasts just several days later. As Ross says, “the trumpets awakened the people to the season of repentance and pardon and restoration.”8

As the people observed this prescribed one-day sabbatical, they no doubt reflected on what it meant to live in the presence of God. Undoubtedly, such contemplation went a long way towards making them cognisant of their sin and hence of their need for atonement. I would suggest that the Lord’s Day should also have such an effect upon us.

But further, this feast came at the end of the agricultural year. After successive seasons of barley harvest, wheat harvest and now the final ingathering of grapes, figs and olives, the people had more time on their hands. And so it was a wonderful opportunity for reflection and for self-examination. It was therefore a great time for spiritual renewal. And the succeeding Day of Atonement would go a long way towards cementing such renewal.

It has been suggested by some, and I think persuasively, that the Feast of Trumpets was also a time for God to remember His people and covenant. The trumpets signified that God’s attention was on His people. This is not to suggest, of course, that God ever does or could forget, but the people nevertheless were being reminded that God remembered them. Perhaps this is another benefit of our weekly Sabbath.

The Day of Atonement

The most solemn feast is addressed in vv. 26-32.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.”

(Leviticus 23:26-32)

God Reconciles

This most solemn feast again lasted 24 hours: “from evening to evening” or literally, “between the evenings” (v. 32).

You may remember from our study in Leviticus 16 that this was the day on which the high priest entered beyond the veil and placed the blood from the sacrificial goat on the horns of the mercy seat, thereby signifying God’s wrath being propitiated and His people being reconciled. In that chapter, the emphasis was on the responsibility of the high priest. Here, the emphasis is on the duties of the people.

On the tenth day of the seventh month the people were to “afflict [their] souls.” This has nothing to do with the medieval practice of self-flagellation, but speaks to the issue of humbling oneself before God. Most believe that it included fasting. In fact, the Hebrew word is related to the word for hajj. The word contains the idea of “treating harshly.” The people were to do some serious self-examination and deal seriously with their sin.

The people were to treat this day as a Sabbath, and so no regular work was permitted. They were to “celebrate” (lit. “keep”) this Sabbath from evening to evening.

There was a severe penalty attached to the violation of this law. Verse 29 says that one who did not afflict his soul on the Day of Atonement would be “cut off from his people,” and v. 30 further warns that God would “destroy” such an individual “from among his people.” Perhaps the penalties were excommunication and divine judgement respectively.

God’s Work Alone

Though most of the feasts emphasised this sabbatical principle, this was particularly the case with the Day of Atonement. And no wonder! After all, the Day of Atonement made it very clear that man’s only hope of being reconciled to God hinges on His work (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10).

There is a very real sense in which the Day of Atonement is continuous in our weekly calendar. That is, each Lord’s Day we corporately reflect and remember and reaffirm the truth that Jesus Christ has entered once for all within the veil to make intercession for His people. We are to do serious soul-business on this market day of the soul. And therefore we corporately and reverently rejoice that we have been reconciled to God by His Son; the One who secured such reconciliation by His blood on the mercy seat in heaven (see Hebrews 10:19-25).

The Feast of Tabernacles

Finally, in vv. 33-44, we read of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the LORD. On the first day there shall be a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work on it. For seven days you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. It is a sacred assembly, and you shall do no customary work on it.

These are the feasts of the LORD which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to offer an offering made by fire to the LORD, a burnt offering and a grain offering, a sacrifice and drink offerings, everything on its day—besides the Sabbaths of the LORD, besides your gifts, besides all your vows, and besides all your freewill offerings which you give to the LORD.

Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD for seven days; on the first day there shall be a sabbath-rest, and on the eighth day a sabbath-rest. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. You shall keep it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations. You shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.’”

So Moses declared to the children of Israel the feasts of the LORD.

(Leviticus 23:33–44)

God Sustains

This final feast of the “Christian calendar” was sometimes referred to as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Ingathering, but most frequently as the Feast of Tabernacles.

This feast occurred from the fifteenth day of the seventh month until the 22nd day. It was the most joyful of all of the festivals, and this is indicated v. 40, which informed God’s people that they were to “rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.”

This feast, like the other weeklong feasts, was bracketed by specially appointed Sabbath Days. The people were to corporately convene and were forbidden to do any “customary work.”

Stirring the Memory

The purpose of this particular feast was to celebrate what God had brought them through in the wilderness as He brought them eventually into the Promised Land. God commanded them to reenact, as it were, their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. “It encouraged a deep appreciation for the blessings of a permanent land and homes against the background of Egypt and the desert. It reminded Israel that God was with them in trying times. The Lord not only brought them out of Egypt but also brought them into a prosperous land. . . . It reminded Israel of where they came from and how far they had comes since their days in Egypt. . . . From humble origins, they were raised to a station they would have never reached if the Lord had not sustained them.”9 Such a stirring of the memory would produce joy.

It seems as if one of the major themes was the joyfulness of being pilgrims. After all, the structures in which they were to live were makeshift and spoke of the transient nature of their lifestyle. Therefore, it would ultimately seem that one of the major reasons for this feast was to focus the people of God on the future fulfilment of God’s promises in the light of His past faithfulness to His promises. No wonder this was to be a time of great rejoicing! The pilgrim mentality is a joyful one, for spring is coming!

Several hundred years later, after the nation had returned to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon, they celebrated this very feast. We read this account in Nehemiah 8. What is very interesting is that they did so after being exhorted by Nehemiah, along with Ezra and the priests, that the joy of the Lord was their strength (8:10). No doubt, as they built their booths, their level of joy increased as they reflected upon God’s faithfulness to them over these many centuries.

Storytelling

Verse 43 reveals another reason for this practice: It was to teach the next generations about God’s faithfulness. As the people sat in these booths they relived the experience of their ancestors. This gave them a sense of continuity and connection with them.

God’s covenant people enjoyed continuity and shared the same heritage. And so it was important that the story of God’s great and gracious redemption be told and retold to each subsequent generation.

Herein lies another important reason for this religious (festal) calendar: A believing heritage was never to be forgotten. Historical heritage gives a sense of covenant continuity. History, after all, is His story, and therefore it originates at an important historical point and it is heading to an important and final historical point. We need this sense of connection and continuity, especially in our day when we hear claims such as we live in a “post-Christian” world. Such days of remembrance give us great encouragement for both today and for tomorrow. And as Wenham observes, “How much more reason has the Church to rejoice today, in view of all the spiritual benefits that are ours in the Lord.”10

This is one important purpose of the church’s two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is one reason that the church would do well to commemorate significant historical-redemptive events (the virgin birth; the death, burial and resurrection of Christ; the ascension; the coming of the Holy Spirit; etc.).

Finally, it needs to be noted that the final day of the feast marked the height of rejoicing. They came home after camping out. That experience gave them a greater appreciation for being home. So it is with us: As we see ourselves as pilgrims we anticipate the promise of one day being truly home when God’s will is done on earth on as it is in heaven.

An Interruption

As we come to vv. 37-38, we almost expect to hear, “We interrupt this program for a special announcement.” In a strange way, the instructions regarding the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles are suddenly interrupted, before resuming in v. 39. There is a summary statement and reminder here that, even though special offerings were to be sacrificed at these special feasts, yet the regular offerings of the people were not to be diminished. In other words, God was concerned with regular faithfulness as well as with spectacular faithfulness. God did not want the people to rob Peter to pay Paul.

We can learn from this the importance of every day being a holyday, while at the same time guarding against discounting special days.

Christ-Centred Holidays

Having spent considerable time getting a handle on these various feasts and special appointments, we need to ask of what relevance they have to us.

Never Too Busy

Before moving to the most significant purpose of these feasts, let us consider the importance of corporately connecting and its requirements of time and sacrifice.

When you consider the number of required festivals (and the pilgrimages involved), you quickly realise that a man and his family would need some five to six weeks a year to fulfil their festive obligations. This would be a sacrifice for an ancient agrarian. There were some things far more important than convenience and career: God, for one! These feasts were designed to help the people prioritise God’s redemption in their lives, both individually and nationally. They needed these practical reminders of what their lives were ultimately all about. We need the same intensity of remembrance.

BBC is a busy church, and I for one make no apology for that. If a member of BBC is too busy to prioritise our “holy convocations,” he is frankly too busy. Give up whatever you need to in order to corporately connect with others! If you disconnect yourself, then don’t blame others when you miss out on the feasts of which they are a part.

The Lesson

The most important lesson that we glean from Leviticus 23 is that our only hope of the final and true rest is found in Christ. Of course, these holy days all point to the Lord Jesus Christ. “Nowhere is the continuity between the testaments so clear as in the calendar.”11

Passover and the Feast Unleavened Bread point us to Christ our sacrificial Lamb—the Lamb of God who continues to save us from our sins. Firstfruits points us to Christ as the firstfruits from the dead. Pentecost points us to Christ in you, the hope of glory. Trumpets points us to Christ as the one who unites us together and who remembers His covenant with us. He continues to gather together His people. The Day of Atonement points us to Christ the High Priest beyond the veil, as well as Christ the sacrifice and the scapegoat. Tabernacles points us to Christ the one who has faithfully led us thus far and who will continue to provide for us, lead us and gather in His people until that day.

Again, in each of these holydays the overriding emphasis is rest. God was teaching His people that they were restless and that they needed the spiritual rest that only He could give. So it remains, and so it is found in Christ alone.

Yes, we still battle against sin. Yes, our rest is sure but not complete. But there is coming a day that will commence an eternity of complete spiritual rest. In the meantime, let us anticipate that day by taking advantage of the weekly Sabbath, as well as other opportunities, to pause and ponder the gospel as it is in Christ Jesus alone. That, my friend, is where we find rest for the restless (Hebrews 4:9-16).

Consider these words of Vasholz in closing: “Rest is a mark of the true character of the people of God. . . . In [Christ], the blessed Sabbath is achieved. It is more important than all the Sabbaths prescribed under the Old Covenant. It is as Hebrews 4:3 states: ‘Now, we who have believed have entered that rest.’”12

Have you entered that rest?

Show 12 footnotes

  1. Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 281.
  2. Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 282.
  3. Philip H. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness: The Book of Leviticus Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2007), 304-5.
  4. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness, 307.
  5. Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 275.
  6. Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 415.
  7. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 217.
  8. Ross, Holiness to the Lord, 426.
  9. Robert I. Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 308.
  10. Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 307.
  11. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 306.
  12. Vasholz, Leviticus, 288.