The feasts of the Lord

'Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me. Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt.

'No one is to appear before me empty-handed. Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.

'Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast. The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.' (Exo 23:14–9a)

The two offerings we've looked at so far in the Old Testament were unique events. We now move on to look at the offerings God commanded his people to bring to him on a regular basis.

Three times a year all the men of Israel were to assemble before the Lord at Jerusalem, the place where he had chosen to put his Name (Deu 12:4–5). All the feasts mentioned in the above passage had symbolic meaning.

The word 'feast', in English, tends to suggest a banquet. I'm sure they would have eaten together at this time, but these were not banquets as such, they were religious festivals (v14), celebrating God's goodness and provision.

God commanded his people to keep seven feasts in total (a full list is given in Lev 23), but the three most important ones (see opening text) were to be celebrated at Jerusalem.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread

The Feast of Unleavened Bread began with the Passover. This took place on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month of the year. It marked the deliverance of God's people from Egypt and from their slavery to Pharaoh.

The feast symbolizes salvation, where God delivers us from the world and its ways (symbolized by Egypt), and from our slavery to our sinful nature (symbolized by Pharaoh). God said that the month in which Passover was celebrated was to be the first month of their year (Exo 12:1–2), just as conversion marks the beginning of our new life in Christ.

Passover was followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This began on the fifteenth day of the first month (the day after Passover) and lasted for seven days. During that time the Israelites ate bread made without yeast and removed all yeast from their homes. If anyone ate yeast during that period they would be cut off from their people.

Yeast was viewed as an impurity which contaminated the dough, and was symbolic of sin, which contaminates and corrupts our lives. The fact that this feast followed immediately after Passover, shows that God wants us to remove sin from our lives as soon as we've been saved (Rom 6:1–2; 1Co 5:6–8).

The Feast of Harvest

The Feast of Harvest (also known as the Feast of Firstfruits) was celebrated at the beginning of the barley harvest. Barley was the first grain to ripen in Israel. The first sheaf that was harvested was brought to Jerusalem and presented before the Lord (Lev 23:10–1). What did that signify? The New Testament tells us:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (1Co 15:20–3)

The sheaf of grain, presented each year before the Lord, was symbolic of Christ, who was the first to be resurrected from the dead.

Many people were raised from the dead in the Bible, but only Jesus was resurrected from the dead. All others were restored to their mortal bodies and later died. But when Jesus was raised from the dead he received a resurrection body that will never die (Rev 1:18).

Jesus was the first (the firstfruits) to receive such a body, and each of us will be given a similar body when he returns (Phi 3:20–1; 1Co 15:35–54).

That the whole feast was symbolic of Christ can be seen from the details given in Lev 23:12–3:

The Feast of Ingathering

The Feast of Ingathering (Exo 23:16b) took place at the end of the agricultural year when all the crops had been gathered in. It was also known as the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:33–4,39a). The feast symbolized the harvest of the earth at the end of the age, when Jesus will return and gather his wheat (his church) into his barn (Mat 3:12; 1Th 4:13–8; Rev 14:14–6).

So these three feasts in the Old Testament represented four great doctrines of the church: our salvation and subsequent life of holiness, our Lord's resurrection, and the harvest of the saints at the end of the age.

Give and it will be given to you

God said that no one should appear before him at these feasts empty-handed (Exo 23:15b). After all God had given his people, he expected them to give to him.

In the case of the Feast of Harvest, they were to bring to the Lord the best of the firstfruits of the soil (Exo 23:19a). There was a promise attached to that.

Honour the Lord your God with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. (Pro 3:9–10)

God said that if his people made giving to him a priority in their lives, they would always be plentifully supplied. Jesus gave a similar promise in the New Testament:

'Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.' (Luk 6:38)

God wants lambs, not donkeys

Not only did God require his people to bring to him the firstfruits of their crops, but the firstborn males of their children and of their animals as well (Exo 13:11–6).

Their firstborn sons were to be redeemed (their freedom bought back) with a sum of money, and the firstborn of their donkeys with a lamb. If a donkey wasn't redeemed with a lamb, its neck had to be broken (v13). That was a strange instruction, but it illustrated a spiritual truth.

God doesn't want us to be like donkeys, because donkeys are stubborn and stiff-necked animals with a will of their own. God wants us to be like lambs, because lambs are easy to lead and follow their shepherd. Jesus is depicted in Scripture as a lamb who meekly obeyed the will of his Father.

Do we serve God with the meekness of a lamb, or with the stubbornness of a donkey? Have we yielded every part of our life to God, or are there areas we've kept under our control?

Jesus told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (Mat 16:24). The way of the cross is one of total surrender to God in every area of our lives, including our finances. The old saying is true: If he's not Lord of all, then he's not Lord at all.

The Greek word translated 'Lord' in the New Testament is kyrios which means 'master' or 'owner'. If we haven't surrendered every area of our lives to Jesus Christ, then he's not our Lord.

Jesus doesn't force us to give our lives to him, it's something we do in response to what he's done for us. He gave his all for us; we give our all to him. He held nothing back from us; we hold nothing back from him.

Offerings for priests and Levites

God commanded his people to bring to him the firstfruits of their crops and the firstborn males of their animals. But he didn't want them for himself: he gave them to the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who ministered in the sanctuary and pronounced blessings in his name (Num 18:12–6).

Likewise, God gave the Levites no allotment of land in Israel. They, too, were to devote themselves to full-time spiritual ministry and were to live on the tithes brought to the Lord by the people (Num 18:21–4).

Michael Graham
December 2005
Revised April 2022

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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