Israel’s End-Times Relevance: The Festivals
(Reading time: 23 minutes)
Leviticus 23:1-2 reads, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies”’” (NIV).
The Hebrew word in this passage translated “appointed festivals” most frequently is translated “meeting” in the Old Testament, but the second most frequent translation is “festival” or “appointed festival.” Although many Bible translations refer to these as feasts, the emphasis is on celebrating or commemorating an event, rather than eating. We could view appointed festivals as religious holidays.
The word translated “sacred assemblies” means an assembly of people gathered for a purpose. Notice “appointed festival” and “sacred assembly” both imply the event occurs at an appointed time which is not negotiable, it involves an assembly of people, and it has a specific purpose.
These are “the appointed festivals of the Lord,” the Lord’s festivals. He designated them as part of the Law for Israel to keep, and he set their sequence and timing. We’ll discover these festivals have great spiritual and prophetic significance:
- Their fulfillment is in the order in which they occur.
- They portray Jesus’ entire redemptive career.
- They provide insight to end-times events.
Many of the festivals were based on Israel’s agricultural seasons and we’ll see evidence of an agrarian culture when we examine them. The festivals were assigned to specific dates in the Jewish calendar, based on lunar months, not solar months as is the Gregorian calendar we use today. As a result, the festivals don’t always occur on the same days each year on our calendars.
As we examine the festivals, remember the Jewish day begins at sundown: evening first, then morning or daylight. This is based on the Genesis 1 creation account. For example, Genesis 1:5 states, “And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.”
The Bible has a single author: Holy Spirit. The Old Testament holds the imagery and precedent, while the New Testament holds the fulfillment, so we’ll discover significance of the festivals in both the Old and New Testaments.
This article is only an overview of the festivals, so we won’t address the hundreds of details and their significance. Our focus is on their end-times relevance.
What was the significance of the original Passover? The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and Moses and Aaron interceded with Pharaoh for them. They displayed multiple signs and plagues from God to persuade Pharaoh to release the Israelites and the final plague was the death of the firstborn of every household in the land. If the Israelites observed the festival applied blood to their doorposts as God said, the death angel would pass over their household and their firstborn would be safe. Afterward, God led the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land.
The festival of Passover is an annual celebration of that event. To Israel, Passover represents redemption — shedding of blood, liberation from bondage in Egypt and the promise of a homeland.
According to Leviticus 23:5, “The Lord’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month.” Notice, the day begins at twilight. The verse also states Passover occurs during the first month; the first month of the Jewish year is Nisan, which begins near the end of March or early April.
Fulfillment of Passover
As real as the first Passover was in Egypt, and as radically as it changed Israel’s history, that event was an image of an even more significant event in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The Apostle John referred to Jesus as the “lamb” or “lamb of God.” For example, John 1:29 reads, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In Jewish thinking, that was a clear reference to the Passover lamb.
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, 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” (Col. 2:16-17).
Passover was a celebration of deliverance from Egypt, but also a shadow of things to come. The “Last Supper” Jesus celebrated with his disciples was a Passover Seder or meal. Jesus died at the time the Passover lamb was sacrificed — an unblemished sacrifice for the people’s sins and a perfect fulfillment of the original Passover.
To Christians, Jesus’ death provides our redemption — the shedding of his blood, our liberation from bondage to sin and receiving God’s promises; all parallels to the Jewish fulfillment in the Old Testament. Passover represents redemption, in both the Old and New Testaments.
This festival was celebrated the day after Passover, so the two merged together in Jewish thinking.
“On the fifteenth day of that month the Lord’s Festival of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast” (Lev. 23:6).
In the Bible, leaven (yeast) represents sin or evil, because it causes fermentation, decay or decomposition. So the unique characteristic of this festival is the requirement they eat bread made without yeast. The first and last days of the Festival of Unleavened Bread are special Sabbaths, as opposed to weekly Sabbaths. This also is the first of three mandatory festivals, when all Jewish males must appear before the Lord.
Fulfillment of Unleavened Bread
Jesus died on Passover and had to be buried immediately because the next day was a special Sabbath of Unleavened Bread. As stated earlier, leaven represents sin, evil, decay and decomposition. In fulfillment of this festival, Jesus’ body didn’t decompose in the grave, as foretold in Psalm 16:9-10: “My body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.”
As Christians, we’re to purge sin and evil from our lives, just as the Jews purged their households of leaven for this festival. This purging of sin and its effects is what we call “sanctification.”
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the Lord so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath”’” (Lev. 23:9-11).
This reflects Israel’s agrarian culture. They planted barley as a winter crop, which began to ripen in the spring. Firstfruits was an offering the people brought of the first ripened grain and an act of worship performed by a priest. It celebrates the first crop in the spring, new life after the death of winter, before the total harvest. It figuratively represents new life after death, as we’re about to see.
Fulfillment of Firstfruits
According to research on Jesus’ final week, Passover began at sundown on Tuesday, so he celebrated the Passover Seder that evening and he died at the time of the Passover sacrifice on Wednesday afternoon. The people buried him quickly because the next day was a special Sabbath and there wasn’t enough time to ceremonially prepare him for burial. Thursday was the beginning of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, a special Sabbath, when Jews were not to work. On Friday, the women prepared the spices for Jesus’ burial; Saturday was the weekly Sabbath, so everyone rested; and the women intended to prepare Jesus for burial on Sunday, the day after the Sabbath. It was then they discovered Jesus had risen from the dead.
Before he was arrested and crucified, Jesus told his disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). The Gospel of Matthew records him saying, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). He was, in fact, in the tomb three days and three nights: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He rose from the grave on Sunday (which began at sundown Saturday), the day after the Sabbath. This means he fulfilled Firstfruits on its day, which occurs after Sabbath following Unleavened Bread.
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Jesus is the firstfruits of those who died but will be raised from the dead; firstfruits represents resurrection, life after death.
“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph. 1:13-14). So the Holy Spirit is both a firstfruits and a down payment on our inheritance.
“He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:18). So Christians are firstfruits. According to Revelation 14:4, the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel also are firstfruits: “They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.”
Firstfruits is the first harvest after winter and symbolically represents spiritual life after spiritual death, for both the Jew and Gentile. Passover, Unleavened Bread and Firstfruits combined seem to represent the birth of Israel as a nation as well as Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, which provide salvation for those who believe.
“From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord. From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the Lord” (Lev. 23:15-17). This is called the “Festival of Weeks” because it was seven full weeks plus one day, or fifty days, after Firstfruits. The New Testament (Greek) term is “Pentecost,” which means “fiftieth.”
We notice in this passage the people had to bake two loaves of bread with yeast, which is significant. During the Festival of Unleavened Bread, they had to eat bread baked without yeast. To the Jews, leaven or yeast represented sin, evil and decay. But Shavuot, Weeks or Pentecost mandated the use of leavened bread. This is a hint that there is something distinctly non-Jewish about this festival. It’s also interesting it required two loaves of bread and we’ll see the significance of this later.
Fulfillment of Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost)
Keep in mind that Jesus rose from the dead on Firstfruits, fifty days before the Festival of Weeks. Acts 1 explains what happened after his resurrection.
“After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 1:3-5). Jesus was with his disciples 40 days, proving he was alive and speaking about the kingdom of God. He told them to wait in Jerusalem for the “gift” of baptism with the Holy Spirit. This shows Jesus ascended to heaven 10 days before Pentecost (50 days from Firstfruits, when he rose from the dead).
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1-4). The Holy Spirit filled them on the day of Pentecost; on Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks.
As we noted earlier, the Jews had to bake two loaves of bread with yeast for Shavuot; the two loaves represent Jewish and Gentile believers. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16). Jewish and Gentile believers are one in the Messiah or Christ.
This passage states that Jesus abolished the Mosaic law’s commandments and regulations. The Greek word translated “abolish” means (1) put an end to; (2) put a stop to, make completely inactive; (3) invalidate, deprive of power; or (4) free from an earlier relationship. That’s what Jesus’ death did to the law with its commandments and regulations.
We saw earlier the bread must contain yeast, which represents sin, evil and decay. We believers haven’t yet been glorified, so we still have sin in our lives, do we not?
Jesus initiated the new covenant at “the last supper” which was a Passover Seder, a covenant meal, and it was the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, with accompanying power of God, that sealed the covenant. Pentecost represents the birth of the Church.
Jesus fulfilled the Festival of Passover on the day of Passover. He fulfilled the Festival of Unleavened Bread during the first days of that festival. He fulfilled Firstfruits on its day. That is, he fulfilled all of them on their respective days in less than a week. The Holy Spirit fulfilled the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost) on the day of Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection. That means the spring festivals were all fulfilled in two months. Once the process started, it ran to its natural conclusion, including a seven-week delay.
God fulfilled the spring festivals with Jesus’ first coming, fulfilling each Jewish holiday on the precise date it occurred that year. Likewise, God will fulfill the fall festivals with Jesus’ second coming, fulfilling each Jewish holiday on the precise date it will occur that year.
The Festival of Trumpets, Day of Atonement and Festival of Tabernacles all occur in the seventh month of the Jewish year: Tishri, which begins near the end of September or early October.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites: “On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts”’” (Lev. 23:23-24). Trumpet blasts in ancient Israel had two main functions identified by the type of blast: to call people to sacred assemblies or call them to war. The Festival of Trumpets is a sacred assembly announced by trumpet blasts. It also includes specific trumpet blasts during the festival.
Since the second century AD, Jews have observed a civil year beginning with the month of Tishri. Rosh Hashanah, literally “head of the year,” basically is their New Year’s Day for the civil calendar. The Bible defines the religious year, making Tishri the seventh month. Rosh Hashanah (the civil New Year’s Day) is not the Festival of Trumpets (a religious festival), but they occur on the same date, the first day of Tishri. To find the Festival of Trumpets on a calendar, look for Rosh Hashanah.
Fulfillment of Trumpets
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52). As I understand, there are different trumpet calls made throughout the Festival of Trumpets and the final one is identified as the last trumpet.
“The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’” (Rev. 11:15). The seven trumpets of Revelation 8 – 11 announce end-times events, not God’s wrath. The last or seventh trumpet precedes the announcement that Jesus will reign on earth forever.
Here’s what happens at Jesus’ second coming:
- he appears in the sky and everyone sees him
- he exercises his right to reign, which he won at Calvary
- he removes the saints from earth to reward them
- he seals the 144,000 Jews who acknowledge him as the Messiah
- an angel announces that God’s wrath on the ungodly is imminent.
The last trumpet fulfills both purposes from ancient Israel: it calls the saints together for a sacred assembly and announces a declaration of war on the enemy. This suggests the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11 coincides with the last trumpet sounded at the Festival of Trumpets. This is especially likely if end-times events occur on the day of the festival they fulfill.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord’” (Lev. 23:26-27). The days from the Festival of Trumpets (first of Tishri) to the Day of Atonement (tenth of Tishri) traditionally are called “days of awe.” These days lead up to Day of Atonement, which is when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to secure atonement or forgiveness of Israel’s sin.
“Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Those who do not deny themselves on that day must be cut off from their people. I will destroy from among their people anyone who does any work on that day” (Lev. 23:28-30).
There are other times in scripture when God tells them to observe a festival as a sabbath and not to work. However, when describing the Day of Atonement, God uses very strong, emphatic language. Anyone who violates this sabbath will be cut off from his people and destroyed. This is important and makes it distinct from other sabbaths and festivals.
Fulfillment of Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)
The “days of awe” are days of repentance and the 144,000 Jews will repent during that period. They will see Jesus in the sky on the Festival of Trumpets and acknowledge him as Messiah. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement or forgiveness of sins. Always before, the High Priest entered God’s literal presence as Israel’s representative on that day and only on that day. That’s an extremely strong precedent for the repentant 144,000 Jews when Yom Kippur is fulfilled.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Festival of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present food offerings to the Lord, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the Lord. It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work”’” (Lev. 23:33-36).
“On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees – from palms, willows and other leafy trees – and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 23:40-43).
They’re to rejoice for seven days and live in booths; temporary shelters or tabernacles. This commemorates their temporary dwellings on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land. God stated this is to be a “lasting ordinance for the generations to come,” but it’s also a clue. God only said this about Tabernacles, which is one of the three mandatory festivals.
Fulfillment of Tabernacles
I suggest Jesus will return to earth to rule from the Temple in Jerusalem on the first day of Tabernacles, to dwell or tabernacle among his people. It will be a time of great celebration among Jews.
The following passage provides some useful insight:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt. 17:1-5)
The Greek word translated “shelters” means a tent, tabernacle or dwelling; possibly a temporary shelter made of green boughs, skins or other materials. It’s very likely Peter suggested building these because it was during the Festival of Tabernacles. That’s the only time a Jew would consider building one; otherwise, why would he suggest building shelters?
Notice that after Peter said this, God spoke, “This is my Son…. Listen to him!” In other words, “Pay attention to my Son, not to Peter.”
If Jesus transfigured during Festival of Tabernacles, what would that suggest? It’s possible Jesus and we will appear in transfigured form on the day of that festival.
Zechariah 14 describes the Lord returning to fight the nations gathered against Jerusalem and set up his kingdom on earth. “Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain” (Zech. 14:16-17). After the Lord sets up his kingdom on earth, the nations will be required to go to Jerusalem each year to celebrate Tabernacles; or else they’ll have a drought the following year.
Why will this be the only event the nations must observe? There may be several reasons:
- It’s the anniversary of Jesus’ return to earth, to begin reigning and dwelling among his people.
- It’s the end of threats to Israel’s existence; they’ll begin living in permanent blessing and security.
- It’s the end of Christians’ limited existence; we’ll become kings and priests of God and begin ruling with Christ on earth.
The Festival of Tabernacles will be a major anniversary! It’ll be a new beginning for the Jews, the Christians and the world!
As we’ve seen, Trumpets (the first of the month) signals the catching away of the saints. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement, tenth of the month) signals the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. Tabernacles (15th-21st of the month) is when Jesus returns to dwell among the Jews and reign on earth. When will God pour out his wrath on the ungodly? One possibility is during the “days of awe” between Trumpets and Yom Kippur, when the Jews repent of their sin. Or the four days between Atonement and Tabernacles would be plenty. The descriptions of the festivals don’t include descriptions of anything like God’s wrath on the ungodly, so we can only speculate.
“Three times a year all your men must appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose: at the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles” (Deut. 16:16). These are the only mandatory festivals and they have special significance, because they reveal God’s plan.
- Unleavened Bread — birth of Israel
- Festival of Weeks, Pentecost — birth of the church
- Festival of Tabernacles — birth of Jesus’ kingdom on earth
God’s relationship with his people
- Unleavened Bread — God chooses a people, Israel
- Festival of Weeks, Pentecost — God spiritually lives within his people, Christians
- Festival of Tabernacles — God physically lives among his people, Israel
God’s redemptive plan
- Unleavened Bread — redemption/salvation; sanctification, freedom from the effects of sin
- Festival of Weeks, Pentecost — empowerment; anointing of spiritual gifts
- Festival of Tabernacles — official authority; ruling with Christ
As we saw earlier, all the spring festivals (Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits) were fulfilled on the days they occurred. In addition, Jesus fulfilled them in one week and then Festival of Weeks (Pentecost) fifty days later by sending the Holy Spirit. So we can expect the fall festivals (Trumpets, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles) to be fulfilled on the days they occur. Will the fall festivals all be fulfilled in the same month? That’s not only likely, but certain.
However, there’s an unresolved issue. Jesus stated clearly that we need to be ready because we won’t know the day or hour of his return (Matt. 24:36; 24:50; 25:13). Yet it appears we’ll be caught away on the Festival of Trumpets, which is only one day long. Since Trumpets is the first of the fall festivals and the others immediately follow, we might conclude we simply won’t know which year they’ll happen; but Jesus said we “won’t know the day or hour.” Maybe our calendars are wrong. Regardless, I’d suggest that since we can know when the Festival of Trumpets occurs (same day as Rosh Hashanah), we definitely should be alert as it approaches each year.
Obviously, none of us knows how much longer we’ll live or when the Lord will return, so we need to be ready at all times. But as we see Rosh Hashanah approaching, heads up!
The details and timing of the Jewish festivals provide insight to new beginnings: the birth of Israel, the birth of the church, and the birth of Jesus’ kingdom on earth. They also reveal important aspects of God’s relationship with his people, and his redemptive plan. Jesus fulfilled the spring festivals on the days they occurred, in less than a week: Passover and Unleavened Bread. Fifty days later, Holy Spirit fulfilled Weeks or Pentecost on its day. With this precedent, we can expect Jesus to fulfill the fall festivals on the days they occur, within three weeks – Trumpets and Tabernacles. The fall festivals also provide an important framework for end-times events.