Understanding The Gospels: A Beginner’s Guide To The Jewish Festivals

October 20, 2015  |  Josh Watt

Why study the festivals?

They all point to and find their meaning in Jesus and give us a picture of what the people of God should look like.

Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets (which includes the festivals); I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away; not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.” Matthew 5:17-18

What are the original festivals?

Leviticus 23 lays out the Jewish festivals and their significance for the people. In this section, Moses is essentially writing the Constitution for life for the Jews and in the center of it all he places the festival system God wanted for His people.  So if we are to understand God and what type of people He is shaping, the festivals are a great insight into what He wants of us.

Spring festivals:

Passover – This festival’s sole purpose was to remember the greatest act in Jewish history; God’s rescuing them out of slavery under the Egyptians.

Unleavened Bread – This festival was related to Passover as well. Its purpose was to have Israel eat unleavened bread for a week as they remembered the quick way they had to escape Egypt.

First Fruits – This festival followed the harvest of their crops in the springtime, and its purpose was to offer thanksgiving to God for His provision. Israel was commanded to offer a burnt offering (a male lamb), a grain offering, a food offering, and a drink offering. The Israelites were not permitted to eat until offerings had been given to God.

Feast of Weeks – Seven weeks after the first fruits celebration, Israel was to again thank God for His provision in the wheat harvest. They were not to do any ordinary work but bring a variety of freewill gift offerings to thank the Lord for His provision.  They were also required to not harvest their land completely but to leave some of it for the poor and immigrants traveling through that could be blessed by it.

Fall Festivals:

Feast of Trumpets – In the fall, the first Jewish festival was a day of solemn rest marked by food offerings and the blast of trumpets. Trumpets signify victories the Lord had given Israel and the great victory that is still to come when the Lord returns with the blasts of trumpets.

Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) – Nine days later, the Jews were to celebrate God’s forgiveness. This is the only day of the year when the priest could enter the Holy of Holies in the temple to offer sacrifice for the people. Two goats were used. The first goat was sacrificed to the Lord for the atonement of sin for all people. The other goat was set free as a scapegoat and as a picture of God’s removal of all their guilt and shame.

Feast of Booths – Two weeks after the feast of trumpets, Israel was to have a celebration that involved the native-born Israelites living in booths (tents) for a week to remember when they lived in tents during their exodus from Egypt on their way to the Promised Land.

What should we (as Christians) take away and learn from God’s robust festival system given to the Jews?

If Jesus really is the end and the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, why go backwards? I think a study of the festivals does two things. It gives us context when these festivals are addressed in the Gospels but more importantly, I believe, it “shows” us what kind of people the people of God should be.

God wants His people to party. God is a provider first and foremost for His people, and most of these celebrations are meant for people to celebrate God’s great provision with a great big party.

God wants His people to be intentional about remembering. This is a comprehensive system of festivals that constantly brings Israel face to face with their past and with their hopeful future. Remembering God’s actions in our life and God’s promised future requires some intentional planning and action on our part.

God wants His people to be intentional with their meals. The Jews ate a lot. And they ate together a lot. Jesus did the same thing in the Gospels. There is something special about the sharing of meals. God wants our meals to be more than just getting energy for us to live on.

God wants His people to worship Him with their best. Most of these festivals involved the Jews sacrificing something substantial: their best lamb, their first crops, or their best grain. Worshipping God requires that we lay down our best for Him no matter what we may think it costs us.

God wants us to do what we can to include the outsiders: widows, foreigners, immigrants, and the poor or marginalized. This one surprised me. In a few of these festivals, God explicitly makes mention of the sojourner (the foreigner or immigrant). God wants us (even in our festivals and celebrations) to be aware of and available to the least of these in our society.

Our God is a good God. Celebrate Him with intention and thanksgiving.