What the Old Testament festivals tell us about JesusWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
To modern Christians, the Jewish festivals of the Old Testament may seem like strange, ancient rituals with little direct connection to our faith or experience. The painstaking rules about days to keep, foods to eat and animals – lots and lots of animals – to sacrifice may challenge the most faithful reader of Scripture.
For the Israelites, however, their festivals were the framework for what we might call their liturgical year. Each festival was an opportunity to remember and celebrate some aspect of God’s deliverance and provision for his people. Only one of them called for a fast; all the rest were joyful occasions for the community to feast and worship.
And for followers of Jesus, these Old Testament festivals carry even deeper significance. Each one in its own way tells us something about Jesus, pointing us to God’s ultimate expression of his grace and goodness to those who trust in him.
The Passover was the first of the feasts God appointed for Israel, and the most important. It was to be celebrated during the month of Nisan, the first month on the Jewish lunar calendar, corresponding to our late March and early April. Passover commemorated the central event in Israel’s history, when God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, striking down the firstborn son of every Egyptian family while passing over the Israelite homes that had the blood of a lamb sprinkled around their doors.
The feast foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus, who ate his final Passover meal with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. He then became our ultimate Passover Lamb, shedding his own blood on the cross to deliver those who trust in him, both Jews and gentiles, from our sins.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread followed right after Passover and lasted seven days. While the two are often used interchangeably, they are in fact distinct. After eating the Passover Lamb with unleavened bread, the Israelites were to continue eating unleavened bread – bread without yeast – for seven more days. In the Bible, yeast was typically used as a symbol for sin and its pervasive effect. By eating unleavened bread, the Israelites were reminded to keep themselves from sinful influences.
During Jesus’ final Passover, he inaugurated the Last Supper, telling his disciples that the bread represented his body broken for them. The first day of Unleavened Bread that followed would’ve been the day Jesus spent in the tomb. He was the true bread from heaven, the only one who can give life to those who trust him.
Like the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First Fruits is often conflated with Passover but is distinct from it. In fact, Unleavened Bread and First Fruits overlap, with the latter beginning on the third day after Passover. First Fruits marked the start of the spring harvest, celebrating the goodness of God in providing for Israel. To express their dependence on God, the Israelites would bring a sheaf of grain and wave it before the Lord.
The beginning of First Fruits was also the day Jesus rose from the grave. Writing about the Resurrection, Paul referred to Jesus as the First Fruits from the dead. Like that symbolic sheaf of grain, Jesus was the beginning of a spiritual harvest. All of us who belong to him will rise with him into new resurrection life.
Feast of Weeks or Pentecost
While First Fruits marked the beginning of the spring harvest, the Feast of Weeks marked its end. It was to be celebrated seven weeks or 50 days after First Fruits, hence its New Testament name of Pentecost, derived from the Greek word for 50. First Fruits looked forward to the promise of God’s provision while Pentecost looked back with thanksgiving at its fulfillment. Unique among the festivals, Pentecost called for the Israelites to offer two loaves of leavened bread, baked with yeast.
Jesus died on Passover, was buried during Unleavened Bread and rose on First Fruits. Then on Pentecost, after he had ascended to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit and gave birth to his Church. All along, the two leavened loaves had been a symbol of that Church, comprised of both gentiles and Jews.
Feast of Trumpets
After the four spring festivals, there was a time jump on the Hebrew liturgical calendar to the three fall festivals, clustered in the month of Tishri, our late September to early October. The first of these was the Feast of Trumpets, a day on which the leaders would blow silver trumpets and the shofar, or ram’s horn, calling the people to rest, reflection and worship. This was the beginning of a 10-day period known as the Days of Awe that culminated in the Day of Atonement.
In the Bible, the blowing of trumpets symbolized triumph, rejoicing and judgment. The New Testament authors, as well as Jesus himself, described his return accompanied by trumpet blasts. Paul added that Jesus would descend with a shout, in final victory over his enemies while gathering his own to himself.
Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement was the most holy day on the Hebrew calendar. Unlike the other festivals, it was not a day for feasting but for fasting. The Israelites were neither to eat nor do any work. Instead, they were to reflect on their lives and confess their sins to God, praying for forgiveness. On this single day of the year, the high priest would enter the innermost sanctuary of the temple and offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people.
The moment Jesus died, the massive heavy curtain to this sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, as if God were tearing a sheet of paper. With the death of Jesus, sin had been atoned for, once for all, and those who trust in him have direct access into God’s presence.
Feast of Booths or Tabernacles
Five days after the solemnity of the Day of Atonement came the joyful celebration of the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Lasting for a week, it was the final major festival on the Hebrew calendar and a high point of Israel’s liturgical year. During these seven days, the Israelites were to build little booths or shelters covered with palm fronds and leafy branches and live in them. The festival commemorated Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, living in temporary shelters with God as their guide.
Tabernacles was a reminder that God’s people are mere sojourners in this world. The feast anticipated the coming of Jesus, God made flesh, who tabernacled among us. As his followers, we are travellers in a temporary world, looking ahead to our eternal home, where God will tabernacle with us forever.
Festival of Lights
The Festival of Lights or Hanukkah, also know as the Feast of Dedication, didn’t originate in the Old Testament Law like the other festivals. Rather, it was established during the intertestamental period to commemorate the recapture and rededication of the temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 BC, after he defeated the Seleucid Greek monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had desecrated it.
This was a winter festival, celebrated during the month of Chislev which corresponds to late November and early December, around the same time as our Christmas season. John’s Gospel records Jesus attending the Feast of Dedication – a symbolic event, given John’s emphasis on Jesus as the true temple of God and the light of the world.
Like the Festival of Lights, Purim originated during the centuries following Old Testament times, commemorating Esther’s heroic intervention to save the Jewish race from Haman’s plot. The name Purim comes from the Persian or Babylonian word for “lots,” referring to the lots Haman cast to pick a day for destroying the Jews.
While Purim isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, it calls to mind the significance of Esther’s actions, which not only saved the Jewish race, but also made possible the birth of Jesus, five centuries later. Purim is celebrated during the month of Adar, late February to early March. It completes the circle of the liturgical year, leading back into the spring feasts, starting with Passover.
Concluding thoughts: Shadow and substance
Regarding the significance of the Jewish festivals, the Apostle Paul wrote, “These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:17).
During Old Testament times, each feast or festival drew the Israelites’ attention to God, reminding the people of his saving acts in the past and his ongoing providence in the present. But they also pointed to the future, to the one who would be the ultimate expression of God’s goodness and grace, and the ultimate revelation of God himself.
With the coming of Jesus, all of these foreshadows have been fulfilled in him. But this doesn’t mean they’re no longer relevant to our faith. While we’re no longer required to observe them, these festivals with their food and drink, their trumpets and booths and sacrifices, remain physical pointers that draw our attention and our worship upward to Jesus, the one they were always meant to picture.
Sources and further reading
Jessie Blackman and Susha Roberts, “7 feasts that point to Christ,” Wycliffe Bible Translators, accessed October 10, 2022.
Duane A. Garrett, “Feasts and festivals of Israel,” Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Books, 1997.
Mark Levitt and John J. Parsons, “The Jewish holidays: A simplified overview of the feasts of the Lord,” Hebrew for Christians, accessed October 10, 2022.
Estera Wieja, “Feasts of the Lord: Biblical holidays and the Hebrew calendar,” Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries, May 22, 2020.
“Jewish festivals,” Society for Old Testament Study, accessed October 10, 2022.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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