Why do we keep the festivals that are in the Bible instead of the more common holidays? What do these festivals mean and symbolize, and why were they so important to God?
When God delivered the nation of Israel from captivity in Egypt, He commanded the nation to participate in periods of special worship during the harvest seasons of the year (Exodus 23:14-16; Deuteronomy 16:1-17). You can read the full instructions in Leviticus 23, where they are referred to in many translations as “the feasts of the Lord.”
“Feast” is used here in the sense of festival or celebration. That is certainly a valid description, with four examples named in the original Hebrew with the word chag or hag, meaning “festival.” But the Hebrew word used in the intro verses (2-4) for all the occasions is mo’edim, meaning “appointed times.”
That means these occasions are special appointments God has made with His people—appointments He wants us to keep.
Our understanding of God’s plan is deepened by realizing that God uses the physical harvests of food crops to symbolize the spiritual harvest of human beings (Matthew 9:37-38; John 4:35; John 15:1-8; Colossians 2:16-17).
The first three festivals are associated with the spring harvests in the land of Israel, while the last four are related to the harvest of late summer and fall, making a total of seven.
Within these seven festivals are seven annual Holy Days. These (along with God’s weekly Sabbath) are holy convocations, or commanded assemblies, of God’s people. Holy means set apart, chosen as special, by God. He commands His people to get together on these days for worship and to learn about Him and His plan, as well as for fellowshipping, developing relationships and rejoicing together (Leviticus 23:1-4; Deuteronomy 14:23-26; Nehemiah 8:1-12).
The New Testament record shows that the first-century Christian Church continued to observe these biblical festivals. Jesus Christ Himself observed these festivals, and we as His followers are told to walk as He walked (John 7:8-14; 1 John 2:6).
The New Testament Church miraculously began on one of these annual festivals—the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
The apostles and disciples of the early Church continued to observe these festivals long after Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 18:21; Acts 20:16; Acts 27:9; 1 Corinthians 5:8).
Paul upheld their observance and spoke about them as continuing “shadows,” like foreshadowing, of the great future events in God’s plan of salvation (Colossians 2:16-17). He also instructed the gentile (non-Israelite) congregation in Corinth regarding the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so we know they were for everyone, not just for one nation or nationality (again, see 1 Corinthians 5:8).
Through the observance of these feasts, we focus on and are reminded, throughout the year, of the work of Jesus the Messiah in fulfilling God’s plan.
His work involves different phases:
- First coming to take the punishment of sin for humanity
- Now serving as Advocate and High Priest for His people and living within them to help them overcome sin
- Ultimately returning in power and glory to establish the reign of the Kingdom of God over all nations. All of this and more is pictured in the annual festivals:
The Passover is the first festival of the year. It teaches us that Jesus Christ was sinless and, as the sacrificial “Lamb of God,” gave His life so that the sins of humanity could be forgiven and the death penalty removed. Its observance includes foot-washing and the partaking of unleavened bread and wine, symbolizing Christ’s body and shed blood offered in sacrifice. (See 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-20; Romans 3:25; John 13:4-17; Luke 22:17-20.)
2. The Feast of Unleavened Bread
The Feast of Unleavened Bread, starting the day after Passover and continuing for seven days, teaches us that Jesus Christ leads us to repent of sin and live by every word of God. During this festival, leaven—yeast that causes bread dough to rise during baking—symbolizes sin and is therefore removed from our homes and not eaten. By instead eating unleavened bread during this time, we picture living a life of sincerity and truth, free from sin. (See 1 Corinthians 5:7-8; Matthew 4:4; Exodus 12:19.)
3. The Feast of Pentecost
The Feast of Pentecost is also called the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Harvest or Firstfruits. It teaches that Jesus Christ is now building His Church with those who are a “kind of firstfruits” in the spiritual harvest of mankind, having the “firstfruits of the Spirit.” Those who are called now have been empowered with the Holy Spirit, which helps us live God’s way. Jesus Himself is the first of the firstfruits. (See Exodus 23:16; Acts 2:1-4; Acts 2:37-39; James 1:18; Romans 8:23; Leviticus 23:9-14; 1 Corinthians 15:20, 1 Corinthians 15:23.)
4. The Feast of Trumpets
The Feast of Trumpets, the next festival, teaches us that Jesus Christ will return to earth at the end of this age. At that time He will resurrect God’s faithful servants who are no longer living and instantly change His saints who are still alive into immortal spirit beings. This festival commemorates the blowing of the trumpets that will precede and herald His return. (See Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52-53; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; Revelation 11:15.)
5. The Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement, an annual Sabbath following shortly after Trumpets, points to the time when Satan the devil will be bound for 1,000 years. It pictures the removal of the primary cause of sin—Satan and his demons. Until God removes the original instigator of sin, mankind will continue to be led into disobedience and suffering. This day also pictures how Jesus Christ made atonement for the sins of all mankind. By taking the punishment for our sins, He allowed us to be reconciled (at one) with God and have direct access to Him. By fasting on this day, we draw closer to God and picture the time when all mankind will get to experience this reconciliation with God following Christ’s return. (See Leviticus 16:20-22, Leviticus 16:29-30; Revelation 20:1-3; Hebrews 9:8-14; Hebrews 10:19-20.)
6. The Feast of Tabernacles
The Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Ingathering, comes a few days after the previous Holy Day and lasts for seven days. This festival teaches us that when Jesus Christ returns, He will begin the ingathering or harvest of the greater part of mankind and establish a new society with Himself as King of Kings and Lord of Lords under God the Father. Christ, assisted by the resurrected saints, will set up His government on the earth for 1,000 years. Rule under His laws will spread from Jerusalem throughout the world to usher in an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. This festival is observed today with Church members living in temporary dwellings for the entire period, in line with the Bible’s instructions.(Revelation 19:11-16; Revelation 20:4; Leviticus 23:33-43 ; Hebrews 11:8-9; Isaiah 2:2-4; Daniel 2:35, 44; Daniel 7:13-14.)
7. The Eighth Day
The Eighth Day, the last annual Sabbath, immediately following the Feast of Tabernacles, is known to some as the Last Great Day. This day teaches us that Jesus Christ will complete His plan by resurrecting all who have ever lived and offering salvation to those who have never before been given an opportunity to be saved. (See Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 11:25-27; Luke 11:31-32; Revelation 20:11-13.)
Thus, the annual cycle of celebration, God’s festivals and Holy Days, reminds Christ’s disciples continually that God is working out a plan of salvation from sin and death and offering the gift of eternal life in the family of God to all humanity—past, present and future. CC
Edited from the booklet Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God.