What was the purpose of the Jewish pilgrimage festivals?
Three times a year Israelite families travelled to the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:23-24; Dt. 16:16). The first of these was the Passover in spring, when they remembered how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The second was the Harvest Festival in summer (Ex. 23:16), when they thanked God for providing an abundant wheat harvest in Canaan. And the third was the Festival (or feast) of Shelters (or tabernacles) in autumn when they remembered God’s care and provision during the 40-year exodus journey. The purpose of these festivals was to remind them of the story of their deliverance and God’s abundant provision.
The Passover Festival
At the Passover they were to kill and eat a lamb together with unleaven bread (without yeast) and bitter herbs (Num. 9:1-14; Dt. 16:1-8). The symbols were taken from the exodus. In the final plague on the Egyptians, to be protected from the death of the firstborn son, the Israelites had to kill a lamb and put its blood around their front doorframe. The lamb died so they could escape death of the firstborn and escape from Egypt. And because they had to leave in haste, they didn’t have time to add yeast to cause their bread to rise. And yeast is also a symbol of sin. The bitter herbs symbolized their bitter slavery in Egypt (Ex. 1:14). Straight after the death of the Egyptian firstborn, Pharaoh told the Israelites to leave Egypt and they escaped (Ex. 12:31-33). One of the greatest Passover celebrations was when king Hezekiah repaired the temple and resumed re-established sacrifices (2 Chr. 30:26). There was also a great celebration when king Josiah reformed Judah (2 Chr. 35:18-19). Ezekiel taught that the Passover Festival will be celebrated in the Millennial reign of Christ (Ezek. 45:21-24). And “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover” (Lk. 2:41NIV).
The Passover Festival (one day) was closely associated with the Festival of Unleavened Bread (the following seven days). They are mentioned together (Lev. 23:4-8; Num. 28:16-25; Dt. 16:1-8). And when the pilgrim festivals are listed in Exodus, The Festival of Unleavened Bread is mentioned instead of the Passover Festival (Ex. 23:14-15).
Jesus died “when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb” (Mk. 14:12NIV). John called Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). He also saw Jesus as a Lamb who had been slaughtered (Rev. 5:6). Paul said, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). And Peter said, believers are saved “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pt. 1:18-19). Jesus never sinned (Heb. 4:15). So He is like the Passover lamb, which was also to be without defect (Ex. 12:5). Another similarity is that they were not to break any of the bones of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:46; Jn. 19:33-36).
Because of the death of the lamb on their behalf, the Israelites were delivered from slavery to freedom. And because of Christ’s death on our behalf, we can be delivered from the penalty of sin to have eternal life with God.
Although about 2 million men, women and children were rescued from slavery in Egypt, the greatest rescue from disaster is that billions of men, women and children have escaped God’s judgment.
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on the night before the Passover. It was a command for believers like the Passover was a command for the Israelites (1 Cor. 11:24). The Jews were to remember their deliverance/salvation from slavery once a year at the Passover festival. Like Paul, Christians can remember their deliverance/salvation from the penalty of sin once a week (Acts 20:7). But they don’t need to travel to a holy place for this remembrance, because today there are holy people (fellow believers), not holy places.
The bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper are symbols of Christ’s incarnation (He came in a human body) and His sacrificial death. At that time they were used at most evening meals. In this case, they represent His person and His work. The bread represents His body. And the cup represents the wine it contains, which represents the shedding of Christ’s blood, which represents Christ’s death. The main point is that forgiveness comes through Christ’s sacrifice. Just like the Israelites’ firstborn were only saved by the death of a lamb, Christ’s sacrificial death provides forgiveness and peace with God. At the Lord’s Supper believers recall His suffering and the blessings and benefits which come from His death and resurrection and they offer thanks and praise for all that God has done for them through Jesus Christ.
The Harvest Festival
This festival was near the end of the wheat harvest in Canaan (Ex. 23:16). It was also called the “Festival of weeks” (Ex. 34:22; Dt. 16:10), because it was seven weeks (or 50 days) after the Festival of Firstfruits (which was when they dedicated the barley harvest to the Lord on the Sunday after the Passover). Later it became known as Pentecost, which is the Greek word for 50th. It was also called “the day of firstfruits” (Num. 28:26) because farmers offered the firstfruits (the beginning) of their wheat harvest to God (Ex. 34:22). And they gave other offerings to God as well. At this festival they dedicated the wheat harvest to the Lord and gave back to God some of what He had provided for them. The offering of firstfruits was an acknowledgment that the harvest was from the Lord and belonged to Him.
The Israelites weren’t saved from slavery to live in the desert. In the Pentateuch (the five books of the Bible written by Moses), Canaan is described 15 times as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8 to Dt. 31:20NIV). It was a fertile and productive land. That was their new home. It was described as: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills” (Dt. 8:7-9). There was abundant water, abundant crops of grains and fruit, and abundant minerals. So God promised and gave them many physical blessings in Canaan.
Jesus was crucified at Passover (and rose from the grave at the Festival of Firstfruits). Fifty days after His resurrection, the Holy Spirit came to indwell believers and empower them for ministry. Thousands of people were in Jerusalem at this time because it was the Harvest Festival. On this day 3,000 people believed and were the firstfruits of the church. The day of Pentecost is remembered by Christians as the start of the church. Just as the first sheath of the harvest was an indication of the harvest to follow, the early Christians were an indication that many more would become Christians (2 Th. 2:13; Jas. 1:18). And the harvest continues today.
God promised the Israelites that they would be blessed physically. In a similar way, He has promised Christians spiritual blessings such as forgiveness (salvation), the presence of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3-14), the blessed (prosperous) hope of the certainty of Christ’s coming when our bodies will be resurrected and we will be freed from sin, and have an eternal inheritance in heaven (1 Pt. 1:2).
Jesus Christ was said to be the firstfruits: the first person to rise from the dead into a resurrected body (1 Cor. 15:20-23). As the firstfruits of the harvest were the first instalment of the harvest to come, His resurrection is the guarantee that all believers will also be resurrected to have eternal life in new bodies.
Regarding the Lord’s supper, Paul said, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving (or blessing) for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor. 16:10). The “cup of blessing” was a common Jewish expression for the last cup of wine drunk at a festive meal. It was a toast to God for His goodness. It didn’t convey a blessing, but it aroused praise and thanksgiving towards God for all His blessings to them. Likewise, Christians give thanks to God because of their forgiveness of sin and common salvation through Christ’s death.
Just like the Israelites thanked God at the Harvest Festival for bringing them to the promised land and for providing abundantly for them there, let’s thank God for our spiritual blessings. For all that God has done for us through Jesus Christ. How through Christ’s sacrificial death He provides abundant forgiveness and peace with God. The main point is that the resurrection of our bodies and other benefits come through Christ’s sacrifice.
The Festival of Shelters
This festival was called “shelters” because they built temporary shelters (or huts, or tents), which were walled structures covered with branches (Ex. 23:16; 34:22; Neh. 8:13-18). Similar shelters were used as temporary accommodation by armies (2 Sam. 11:11; 1 Ki. 20:12, 16) and by watchmen protecting crops from thieves and intruders (Job 27:18; Isa. 1:8). Jonah made a shelter like this (Jon. 4:5). As they were not robust, they swayed in the wind (Isa. 24:20).
After the exile, the Israelites built these shelters on their roofs, in their courtyards, in the court of the temple and in city squares (Neh. 8:16). During the 7-day festival, meals were eaten inside the shelter and many people slept there as well. It was like camping outside. Like the Passover, it was the time of a full moon, which helps when camping outside at night (Ps. 81:3).
At this festival they read the law of Moses (Dt. 31:10-13) and offered bulls, rams, lambs, goats, grains, oils and drinks to God (Num. 29:12-34). Solomon dedicated the new temple at the Festival of Shelters (1 Ki. 8:2, 65; 2 Chr. 5:3; 7:8-9). One of the greatest Shelters Festivals was after the walls of Jerusalem were repaired under Nehemiah’s leadership (Neh. 8:13-18). And at a Shelters Festival Jesus invited people to believe on Him (Jn. 7:37-39).
The Festival of Shelters reminded the Israelites how God provided for them in the past, the present and the future.
The past. The shelters were to remind them of the tents they lived in during the 40-year journey from Egypt to Canaan (Lev. 23:42-43). God protected and sustained them physically as they travelled across desert and wilderness. That’s how they came to live in Canaan.
The present. This festival was also called the Festival of Ingathering (or harvest) (Ex. 23:16; 34:22). It was a joyful time (Lev. 23:40; Dt. 16:14-15) when they celebrated the harvest of grapes and olives, which was the last harvest of the agricultural year (Dt. 16:13-15). The crops from the fields and the fruits of the orchards had been gathered. God provided plenty of food so they could thrive in Canaan.
The future. Ezekiel and Zechariah taught that the Festival of Shelters will be celebrated in the Millennial reign of Christ (Ezek. 45:25; Zech. 14:16-19). Then it will also be a celebration of the final regathering and restoration of Israel and people from all nations will go to Jerusalem for the festival. At the transfiguration, Peter suggested building shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (Mt. 17:4; Mk. 9:5; Lk. 9:33). Was he linking the Millennial kingdom with the Festival of Shelters?
Likewise, let’s remember that God cares for believers in the past, present and future. Christ’s sacrificial death has saved them from the penalty of sin, and can save them from the power of sin today and will save them from the presence of sin in the future. God has brought them into His family. And today the Holy Spirit protects and sustains their Christian lives. As God dwelt in the Tabernacle (Holy tent) with the Israelites, today the Holy Spirit lives within believers. Jesus has promised to return and resurrect their bodies so they can share eternal life with Him. And they will reign with Him in His Millennial kingdom when all nations will worship Him.
Just like the Israelites thanked God for safely bringing them to the promised land, let’s thank God for protecting and providing for us spiritually as we go through life in this world on the journey towards our heavenly home. For all that God has done for us through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The main point is that daily spiritual sustenance comes through Christ’s sacrifice.
God gave the Israelites specific instructions for the Pilgrim Festivals. They were divinely inspired, not humanly inspired. Adult males were required to attend them; for others it was voluntary (Ex. 23:17; 34:24; Dt. 16:16). And God promised to protect their land while they were away for a festival (Ex. 34:24).
During the Pilgrim Festivals they were required to bring offerings to be sacrificed to God. So they collected and sent temple tax and the firstfruits to the temple in Jerusalem.
– “No one is to appear before me empty-handed” (Ex. 23:15; 34:20; Dt. 16:16).
– “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God” (Ex. 23:19; 34:26).
– “Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you” (Dt. 16:17)
– “Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats” (Ex. 22:29).
The Passover Festival remembered a dramatic rescue. The Harvest Festival celebrated abundant harvests. And the Festival of Shelters remembered an epic journey. So the purpose of these festivals was to remind them of the story of their deliverance and God’s abundant provision.
Oscar Schindler used his enamelware factory as a cover in order to save Jews. Jan and Antonina Zabinski used the zoo they were running for the same purpose. Jaap Penraat from Holland used to smuggle Jews dressed as construction workers. And an SS chief’s physiotherapist saved many Jewish lives during World War II. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the S.S. and main planner of the Jewish genocide, asked Felix Kersten to become his personal masseur and doctor. Between 1940 and 1945 Dr. Kersten used his influence to keep many from becoming victims of the Nazi German concentration camps and gas chambers. The World Jewish Council credits him with saving 60,000 of their people, and the number of Dutch, Poles, Finns, and Norwegians he saved is difficult to estimate. Like those recalled by the Israelites, these are great stories of deliverance.
The Jewish festivals were part of the Old Covenant between God and the Israelites. A major activity during these festivals was offering sacrifices to God, which were a reminder of their sins (Heb. 10:3). Repeated sacrifices were a reminder of the ongoing guilt of having committed sin. They demonstrated the need for a payment for sin, which was paid by Christ’s sacrifice. The old sacrificial system could never bring permanent forgiveness, but the New Covenant did. The author of Hebrews described it as follows,
“The law [of Moses] is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:1-4).
Today we live under the New Covenant, not the Old one. Paul said, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). The killing of the Passover lamb pointed forward to the death of Christ as a sacrifice for our sins. Now that Jesus has died we don’t need to offer animal sacrifices. Instead we look back and remember Christ’s death and resurrection. In this way, the Lord’s Supper has replaced the Passover Festival for believers.
The pilgrim festivals were an occasion of corporate worship to God. The early church met together in the temple courts and in homes (Acts 2:46). One was large scale (involving many people) and one was small scale (involving only a few people). Do you do likewise? In particular, do you practice corporate worship? To only practice private Christian worship (unless forced by circumstances), is not biblical.
Paul used the Festival of Unleaven Bread (which was associated with the Passover Festival) to teach about Christian living. He likened the sin of incest in a church to leaven (yeast) in bread (1 Cor. 5:6-8). Like the Jews had to remove their yeast during this festival, Christians should remove sinful practices from their life. Otherwise, the sin will spread like yeast in bread. Their daily practice should match their position in Christ. Jesus cleansed us from sin, so we are to live like cleansed people. Our Christian life should be like a festival that is free from sin. This life is one of integrity, characterized by “sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:6-8). Where actions match beliefs. There is no hypocrisy. And it is consistent with reality.
Lessons for us
The purpose of the pilgrimage festivals was to remind the Jews of the story of their deliverance and God’s abundant provision. But the lesson today is that Jesus is the greatest story of deliverance. The benefits of Christ’s sacrifice include forgiveness, the resurrection of our bodies and other benefits, and daily spiritual sustenance. Is this a part of your story?
Is your life like a festival? Are you free from the control of sin (Rom. 6:7)? Have you offered your life as a sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1-2). Do you have integrity?
Written, July 2021