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The Rich Biblical Significance of the Feasts of the Lord

By: Karen Engle, ICEJ USA Managing Editor

In his letters to the early church, the apostle Paul often mentions “the word of God,” “Scripture,” or “the Scriptures.” For example, in Hebrews 4:12 he says that the “word of God is living and powerful” and in 2 Timothy 3:16–17 writes that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” 

At the time Paul was writing, the New Testament had not yet been penned, so the only Scripture to which he could have been referring was the Old Testament—in Hebrew, the Tanakh, which stands for the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. 

Jesus, too, referred to “the Scriptures” long before the New Testament was written. He was living it! Shortly after His resurrection, He appeared to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. Not recognizing Him, they updated this “fellow traveler” about the things that had taken place over the previous few days—Jesus’ crucifixion and burial—and how this man whom they had believed would redeem Israel according to the Prophets was now dead. 

Jesus responded by using the Old Testament to remind the two men what their Scriptures said concerning their Messiah: 

O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25–26) 

Later in Jerusalem, as those two men from Emmaus recounted the experience to the eleven disciples and others with them, Jesus Himself stood amid them and said: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (vv. 44–45). Then He opened their minds so they could understand what was written in the Scriptures—that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance would be preached in His Name to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem. 

No one knows the details of what exactly Jesus expounded to them that day—only that the two disciples confessed that as Jesus “opened their mind so they could understand the Scriptures,” their hearts were “burning within” them (v. 32 NIV). 

But I’m convinced that among many other prophecies about Himself, Jesus could have been pointing them to Leviticus 23 and the feasts of the Lord.  

What Are the Feasts? 

At this point, many Bible readers might bow out, convinced Leviticus is a book reserved for the scholarly sort. But I have found studying the feasts to be one of the most powerful and impactful things I’ve ever done as a believer. Why? Because every feast God established in Leviticus 23 points to Jesus, and altogether, they paint a glorious picture of God’s plan of redemption over all time.  

In this series on the feasts, we’ll explore what this means and how learning about the feasts deepens our understanding of God’s redemptive work. But before we do that, we must first unpack what they are.  

Feasts Diagram

The feasts are primarily found in Leviticus 23, Numbers 28, and Deuteronomy, but they undergird the whole of Scripture. However, the most logical place to start when first learning about them is in Leviticus 23:1–2: 

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “The feasts (mo’ed) of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations (quodesh miqra), these are My feasts.” 

The English word “feast” makes it easy to assume they involve gathering for a hearty meal. Although some feasts indeed involve food, the Lord’s feasts are a much deeper activity in the Bible and hold a more profound meaning. So let’s unpack this verse. 

In Hebrew the word “feast” is the word mo’ed (pronounced “mow-ed”), and it means “an appointment or a fixed time or season; also a signal.” Think of your calendar and any appointments you might have on it—a visit to the doctor, for example. When you make an appointment, the doctor expects you to keep it. Only in this case, God set these “appointments” with the Israelites long ago, and He expected them to keep them.  

The feasts spanned springtime through the fall and formed Israel’s annual lifecycle. They commemorated God’s faithfulness and reminded Israel who He was and what His character was like—and of their impurity. They were special times God set apart to meet with His people so that they could draw near to and worship Him. 

But Leviticus 23:2 gives us even more insight. God calls His feasts “holy convocations.” In Hebrew, “holy” is the word quodesh, which means, “set apart.” And the word “convocation” in Hebrew is the word miqra, which means, “a public meeting or a rehearsal.” Thus, God’s feasts are set-apart appointments on His calendar meant to be something practiced

Who Are the Feasts For? 

Notice in Leviticus 23:1–2 God says these appointments are “His” feasts. Though God initiated the feasts with the Jewish people, and though they are often referred to as the feasts of Israel, God clearly states they are “My feasts.” And He initiated them for a great purpose. 

Even the sun, moon, and stars have a God-designed purpose related to these “feasts.” Consider Genesis 1:14, where God says: 

Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night and let them be for signs (owth) and for seasons (mo’ed) and for days, and years. 

The word “signs” in Hebrew is owth, which means a signal, a distinguishing mark, or proof. And “seasons” is that same Hebrew word mo’ed—a fixed time or season or an appointment. 

God established the sun, moon, and stars in the heavens to operate as they do for timekeeping, so Israel would know when each feast was to occur—and to act as a signal, mark, or proof of something. Knowing this, let’s look ahead to the New Testament and some interesting wording Paul uses in his letter to the Colossians:  

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival (a feast day), a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:16–17, emphasis added) 

Some versions say, “the substance is found in Christ.” The Lord’s feasts (which include the weekly Sabbath, as well as new moon celebrations) are a mere shadow according to Paul—a type or a picture—of the reality, the “substance” found in Christ. Think of a musical theater production. In many dress rehearsals, the cast repeatedly practices their songs, acts, and dances to be fully prepared for their real performance in front of a live audience. God intended His feasts to be like a dress rehearsal, something to be practiced repeatedly but that were never the “real thing.” They always pointed to the true thing of substance: Jesus.  

This truth should make every Christian want to discover what these feasts are, because understanding the “shadow of the things to come”—Jesus—will naturally bring greater understanding of His life and ministry.  

What Are the Feasts? 

Though there are other feasts in Scripture, like Purim (which Mordecai initiated in the book of Esther to celebrate the Jewish people’s victory over Haman) and the Feast of Dedication or “the Festival of lights,” otherwise known as Hanukkah (which began after the temple menorah oil miraculously stayed lit for eight days during the time of the Maccabean revolt when there was only enough for one day), God’s feasts were initiated by Him in Leviticus 23. This does not mean Purim and Hanukkah are not important feasts for the Jewish people! Even Jesus celebrated Hanukkah (see John 10:22). 

However, God lists His feasts in Leviticus 23 as: 

  1. The Weekly Sabbath (Shabbat
  2. Passover/Unleavened Bread (Pesach) – Pilgrimage  
  3. Firstfruits (Hanafat Ha’omer
  4. Pentecost, or the “Feast of Weeks” (Shavuot) – Pilgrimage 
  5. Trumpets (Yom Teruah
  6. Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur
  7. Tabernacles (Sukkot) – Pilgrimage 

Out of His seven feasts, God set apart three “primary” feasts—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—where He required Israelite men to celebrate the feast “at the place in which He chooses.” Initially that “place” was in Shiloh in the tabernacle, but later, it was at the temple in Jerusalem: 

Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. (Deuteronomy 16:16; see also Exodus 23:4–17) 

These three special or “pilgrimage” feasts each represented significant encounters with God in the lives of His covenant people. The feasts also were intimately connected with ancient Israel’s agricultural calendar, which bursts with messianic significance. Passover, Firstfruits, and Pentecost occurred in the spring and were rehearsals for the first coming of Jesus. Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles, occurring in the fall, point to His second coming. (See chart on page 7.) 

Between spring and fall, of course, are the summer months, indicative of the church age, the “times of the gentiles”—a season when Scripture says the Jewish people’s eyes would be veiled and hearts partially hardened to who Jesus is but also when Jerusalem would be under gentile sovereignty. From Jerusalem’s fall in AD 70 (some believe as far back as Israel’s exile to Babylon and the First Temple’s destruction in 586 BC) to the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948, Jerusalem has indeed been under gentile control. But we are living in a new era, and for the first time in almost 2,000 years, Jerusalem is again under Jewish governance. The tide of the times of the gentiles is turning, and the feasts can teach us much about what comes next. 

A Picture of the Work of Jesus 

Too often Christians skip over Leviticus in the Old Testament because it seems antiquated or difficult, with so many sacrifices and offerings and rules. They ignore the feasts believing they are Jewish and not something to be concerned with. The feasts were, after all, like visual aids for the Jewish people meant to point them to their Messiah. However, when believers overlook the feasts, they miss something beautiful—and I believe what Jesus may have been unpacking for those two men on the road to Emmaus.  

Because each feast portrays a particular aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry and altogether paint a complete picture of His work, understanding them sheds incredible light on His first coming, His return, and everything in between—as well as the significant theme of seventh-day rest in the Bible. We live in a generation that can look back at Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and see how He indeed fulfilled each of the three spring feasts and the weekly Sabbath. (We’ll learn more about how in a future article.) Because He fulfilled those feasts perfectly, we can trust He will fulfill the fall feasts to exact perfection too. And for that reason, we should run to study them to better understand what’s ahead for us—and importantly, the nation of Israel. 

Keep learning about the significance of God’s feasts in the August issue of Word From Jerusalem, when we will introduce the fall feasts, beginning with Feasts of Trumpets.  

Who Kept the Feasts In the Bible

Though God initiated the Feasts in the Old Testament with the nation of Israel, in the New Testament, we see that Jesus kept the Feasts—as did His parents, the apostle Paul, and the disciples:  

Luke 2:41: His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 

John 2:13: Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 

John 5:1: After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 

1 Corinthians 5:8: Therefore let us [Paul and others] keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 

Acts 2:1: When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they [the disciples] were all with one accord in one place. 

Acts 18:21: When they asked him [Paul] to stay a longer time with them, he did not consent, but took leave of them, saying, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem.” 

Acts 20:16 (see also Acts 16:8): For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.