The Literal Fulfilment of Israel’s Seven Feasts

Prof. Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (February 2013)

There is a growing interest among Christians worldwide in the fulfilment of Israel’s seven major feasts, and that is the reason why thousands of them annually attend the Christian celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. Many people now investigate the deeper significance and prophetic application of these feasts, and are gaining new insight into biblical truths.

The cycle of the seven major religious feasts which are, according to Leviticus 23, annually celebrated by Israel, clearly reflects the Lord’s plan for the salvation and spiritual destiny of Israel and the nations. In them, we can discern the way of salvation for humanity which starts at the cross and the first purging of our sins, proceeds to the resurrection life and the filling of the Holy Spirit, then leads to the long period of world evangelisation which proceeds right down to the end of the church dispensation. Subsequently, the rapture of the church will occur, then the destruction of the wicked kingdoms during the seven years of tribulation, followed by the coming of Christ and the establishment of His kingdom of peace and righteousness on earth.

The Lord confirms in His Word that the feasts of Israel were not initiated by men, but were instituted by Him to reveal His plan of salvation for lost humanity. With a view to the future fulfilment of the feasts they should be celebrated in the correct chronological order every year: “The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts ... which you shall proclaim at their appointed times” (Lev. 23:2,4). The systematic order of the seven feasts reflects a clear prophetic programme.

Because these feasts all point to a future fulfilment in the Messiah they are in their original form described as “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col. 2:17). This statement by Paul literally means: “The feasts are prophetic indications of future events that will be fulfilled during the time of the Messiah.” All seven are Messianic feasts; the first group of four were all fulfilled during events related to the first coming of Christ, ending with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, while the last three refer to events associated with His second coming. The long period between the two groups of feasts prophetically refers to the church dispensation which elapses between the first and second comings of the Lord Jesus.

A very important aspect of these feasts that should always be remembered is that, in their original shadowy form, they were given to Israel to observe in order to prepare them on the coming of the Messiah. However, in the fulfilled, New Testament form of the feasts they are relevant to all people on earth as they contain a blueprint of God’s plan of salvation for all of humanity. On the moment when the first of the seven feasts was fulfilled, the perspective shifted from Israel to the entire world. The Lord commanded His disciples that the Gospel message should be proclaimed to all people as it was equally meant for them – nobody was to be excluded. The seven feasts and their New Testament fulfilment are as follows:

The Passover

Passover is celebrated in Nisan, which is the first month on Israel’s religious calendar. That is the spring month in northern hemisphere – usually March on the Gregorian calendar. Israel has a lunar calendar in which every month starts with the new moon. However, apart from their religious calendar they also have a civil calendar which starts six months later in the autumn on 1 Tishri (usually in September). That day is referred to as the Rosh Hashanah, or New Year. On the religious calendar, Tishri is the seventh month. According to Exodus 12:2, the Lord changed the order of the months on Israel’s calendar during their exodus from Egypt, resulting in Nisan becoming the first month. The spring month symbolises the beginning of a new life after Israel’s deliverance from four centuries of Egyptian exile and bondage to sin. However, Israel did not relinquish their civil calendar which begins on Rosh Hashanah, and still uses both calendars.

The first of the annual feasts begins with the full moon in Nisan (two weeks after the new moon it is always full moon): “On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover” (Lev. 23:5). The establishment of the Passover was the first guideline for God’s plan of salvation that would be fulfilled 1 500 years later when the Messiah was crucified for the sins of the world: “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. ... Now you shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. ... For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and will strike all the first-born. ... Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you” (Ex. 12:5‑7,12-13).

The seven feasts begin with the slaying of a lamb. The fulfilment of the Passover was the crucifixion of the spotless Lamb of God who was incarnated in the fullness of time to lay down His life for us. Peter referred to the priceless sacrifice of the Lamb when he said: “...you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Paul added to this: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7).

Jesus was crucified on Friday, the 14th day of Nissan (in April 32), on the day of that year’s Passover celebrations. He died at three in the afternoon (Mark 15:34‑37), on exactly the same hour when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in Egypt. Pilate was surprised that Jesus had died so quickly, and granted permission that He could be buried (Mark 15:42‑45). He was buried before the evening and the onset of the Sabbath when nobody could be buried (Luke 23:52‑ 54; John 19:31). According to the Jews’ system of inclusive reckoning, a part of a day is also described as a full day, and for that reason it is not inevitable that 72 hours should elapse between Christ’s crucifixion on a Friday afternoon and His resurrection early on a Sunday morning.

Since the moment when Christ paid the ransom for our sins, the fulfilment of the seven festivals is of significance to all people on earth. Even before the crucifixion of Jesus, John the Baptist pointed at Him and said: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He would not only die for Israel’s sins but for the sins of the whole world. After His atoning death He would further reveal Himself by means of the remaining six feasts.

The Feast of the Unleavened Bread

The second feast follows without interruption on the first one and is a direct consequence of it: “And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; seven days you must eat unleavened bread” (Lev. 23:6-7).

According to John 19:31, the Sabbath directly after the crucifixion of Jesus was an important day. That was because it was not only the weekly Sabbath, but also the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For the Jews this was a feast of soul‑searching and cleansing. As leaven is a symbol of sin, eating unleavened bread would mean that the believer was honestly committed to live a holy life. Therefore, they had to remove all the leaven from their houses for the duration of the feast. This rule was to be applied so stringently that they even had to sweep out crumbs of leavened bread and burn it outside (Ex. 12:15). Followers of the Messiah are likewise expected to cleanse themselves spiritually from the leaven of sin and unrighteousness.

We should also identify with Christ as the unleavened bread of life in such a way that we will abandon all the leaven of sin. Paul says: “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:6‑8).

The Jews had to search their houses on their knees for traces of yeast. In the same way we must search our lives in the light of God’s Word, and when sin is discovered it should be confessed and forsaken (Prov. 28:13). David said, “Search me, o God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

The Feast of the Firstfruits

The subsequent feasts of Israel are all associated with different phases of the annual gathering of the harvest, and in each case a deep spiritual application is made. The third one is known as the Feast of Firstfruits: “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it” (Lev. 23:10-11).

Because Israel is a winter rainfall area, the first sheaf of grain was given to the Lord as a sacrifice in the spring. This sheaf was to be offered on a Sunday, and it was a very important event since this celebration had significance far beyond the physical act of gathering the harvest – it was conducted to render the people of Israel acceptable to the Lord.

The Feast of the Firstfruits was usually celebrated close to the time of the Passover. The grain was nearly ready to be harvested when the Jews left Egypt (Ex. 9:31). This act adds to the meaning of the spring month of Nissan as the beginning of a new life. Not only did Jesus rise from the grave in that month, but the Jews were also led out of Egypt in Nissan. In the year 32, the ceremony was conducted on Sunday morning – the day on which Jesus rose from the grave. It was the day after the Sabbath: “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene" (Mark 16:9).

The seed that had fallen in the ground (the death and burial of Jesus) yielded its first fruit on that Sunday morning when Jesus rose from the grave. It also indicated the beginning of the harvest of souls, for the whole harvest that would be gathered after that, would be acceptable to God by virtue of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, it signalled the transition from the old covenant to the new. That is why it strictly had to be conducted on a Sunday, the first day of the week and symbolically the beginning of a new dispensation. That is why the celebration of the Sabbath was changed from the seventh to the first day of the week in the new dispensation of grace. Because of the finished work of the Messiah, we can celebrate resurrection day every Sunday. We have entered into the new covenant with God through Him, and are therefore active partakers in the resurrection life of Jesus our Lord: “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! ... But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:17,20).

Pentecost

“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: Seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord. You shall bring from your habitations two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the Lord” (Lev. 23:15‑17).

Only the first and the fiftieth days of the Feast of the Firstfruits were celebrated. On the fiftieth day, a Sunday, two leavened loaves had to be given to God as a wave offering. Remember that leaven is the symbol of sin, therefore these two loaves do not point to the Messiah. They must be seen as prophetic symbols of two groups of believers – those in Israel and in the Gentile world. The believers from Israel and the nations are despite their salvation not sinless and perfect, and must be consecrated to the Lord. That is the meaning of this ceremony.

The Jews celebrate the onset of the dispensation of the law at Pentecost (derived from the Greek word pentecostos, meaning fiftieth). They believe that the people of Israel arrived at Sinai fifty days after their departure from Egypt. It was there that God gave Moses the law (Ex. 19:1‑3). It was for the celebration of this feast that the Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem on the day when the Holy Spirit descended (Acts 2). They did not realise that the Passover, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread and the Feast of the Firstfruits had already been fulfilled through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus; therefore, they did not realise that the dispensation of the law had been consummated. The new dispensation of grace, ministered by the Holy Spirit, was a further progression from the dispensation of the law, “for the code of the law kills, but the Holy Spirit makes alive” (2 Cor. 3:6). 3 000 people died at Sinai because they were punished under the law for worshipping an idol (Ex. 32:28). On the day of Pentecost, of which we read in the New Testament, 3 000 people were saved when the new dispensation was introduced by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:41).

The beginning of the dispensation of the church at Pentecost indicates that it fulfils, ends and replaces the dispensation of the law. This was another example of God’s perfect timing, since 40 days passed between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and another ten days while the disciples were praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit to be poured out. This total of 50 days is exactly the same as the time that expired between the two wave offerings of the Feast of the Firstfruits. We still recognise this chronology, as we celebrate the resurrection on the Sunday after Good Friday, the ascension 40 days later on a Thursday, and Pentecost ten days later, again on a Sunday.

It is also interesting that Pentecost is not celebrated in isolation. It forms part of the preceding feasts and is intimately linked to the Passover festival 50 days earlier. For this reason the outpouring of the Holy Spirit must always be seen in its close association with the whole series of events that include the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out, the disciples spoke in various tongues which were understood by people who came from fifteen different countries or linguistic groups, despite the fact that the disciples themselves did not know these languages or dialects (Acts 2:6-12). This was clearly a special gift that functioned during the important transition from an Israel oriented gospel to a gospel message aimed at the spiritual needs of all nations and peoples on earth. The fulfilment of the seven feasts is closely associated with the salvation of all people, and with this end in view it is imperative that all of them should be informed in their own language on the salvation of lost humanity.

Gathering the harvest

After the Feast of the Firstfruits a period of four months follows, during which the harvest is gathered. The last three feasts are then celebrated after the harvest, in the seventh month. The long time-span between these two groups of feasts has prophetic significance. It refers to the dispensation of the church, as in that time the harvest of the kingdom of heaven is to be gathered. Those working for God must give all they have to complete their task within the available time: “Do you not say: There are still four months and then comes the harvest? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:35). On another occasion Jesus said: “The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2).

Jesus said to agnostic Jews who rejected Him at His first coming: “You shall see Me no more till you say, Blessed is He who come in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 23:39). The conjunction “till” means “up to the time when...”, and therefore clearly implies an end to the long period of Israel’s national unbelief. When Christ returns He will set foot on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (Zech. 14:4-5), and that clearly suggests that the biblical inhabitants of Jerusalem (the Jews) will be back in their land. During this second meeting they will not reject Him again but fully accept Him. They will look on Him whom they have pierced and bitterly grieve for Him (Zech. 12:10). The entire remnant of Israel will then be reconciled with Him.

The Lord Jesus again used the conjunction “till” when He said to the Jewish leaders: “And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). The restoration of Israel and Jerusalem will reach its final stage when the Messiah appears on the Mount of Olives at the end of the tribulation period, after the dispensation of world evangelisation. He will pass through the Valley of Kidron and the eastern gate which is still closed, and enter the Temple Mount where He will restore the fallen kingdom of David (Luke 1:32; Acts 15:16-17). On that day the trampling of Jerusalem will finally come to an end, including the prevailing Muslim control over the Temple Mount.

Paul also referred to this long period of Israel’s spiritual hardening, and indicated that it would coincide with the dispensation of world evangelisation after which Israel, as a nation, will be saved. He said that “blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom. 11:25-26).

Israel’s progressive end-time restoration is a clear indication to us that the times of the Gentiles, when the entire non-Jewish world is evangelised, is nearing its end. After that, the last three festivals will be fulfilled, after which the kingdom of God will be physically established on earth.

The Feast of Trumpets

The seventh month marks the end of the harvest, or virtually the end of it, as only the aftercrop will then be reaped: “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a Sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation” (Lev. 23:24). At different times of this day, as well as the 2nd day of Tishri, orthodox Jews blow rams’ horns (shofars) in their synagogues. On the second day, at dusk, the final trumpet is blown to announce the ingathering of the harvest. This is not the last of all soundings of the trumpet but the final trumpet of the harvest festival.

The Feast of Trumpets will be fulfilled when Jesus Christ gathers the heavenly harvest among all nations. Paul says, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:16-18).

In Israel’s programme, the first two days of the seventh month are followed by the seven awesome days when religious Jews humble themselves through fasting, confession of their sins, and doing good to others, thereby trying to secure the blessings of God. These acts are performed as preparation for the Day of Atonement which is celebrated on the 10th day of Tishri, in the hope that the Lord will not reject and judge them but declare them acceptable to Him.

These seven days prophetically refer to the seven years of the tribulation period, which will be Daniel’s 70th year-week. During times of great affliction and trouble, Israel and the nations will either seek and accept the true Messiah or, to their own downfall and ruin, they will conclude a covenant with the false messiah.

The Day of Atonement

The Day of Atonement is the most important religious feast in Israel. It was also the only day of the year during which the High Priest was permitted to enter into the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the nation: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord” (Lev. 23:27).

This day will prophetically be fulfilled when the Messiah comes again to bring an end to all sins and establish eternal righteousness in Israel (Dan. 9:24). On this very dramatic day after the great tribulation, a remnant of the nations will also be reconciled with Christ. According to Matthew 24:29-30, all the tribes of the earth will mourn for their sins when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.

Jesus will return on the last day of the seven years of tribulation, and set foot on the Mount of Olives. All eyes will see Him, including those who pierced Him (Rev. 1:7). In Israel it will be a day of repentance and conversion: “In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness” (Zech. 13:1).

To us as Christians the crucifixion was our Day of Atonement, but the multitude of unsaved people in Israel and the nations will only accept Jesus’ atoning sacrifice during His second coming and grieve for their sins. Their biggest sin will be that of rejecting Him as the Saviour of the world.

The Feast of Tabernacles

“The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the Lord. ... You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:34,42‑43).

This is a joyous feast that is celebrated after the harvest to thank the Lord for all His goodness. He is also praised for leading His people through the dangers of the wilderness, and setting them free from the Egyptian bondage. The feast has a definite future perspective, as it clearly reflects the coming of the Messiah. When He comes, the final harvest of the kingdom of heaven will have been gathered.

On the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the rabbis read Zechariah 14 in the synagogues. This chapter deals with the following themes:

·      the coming of the Messiah and all His saints (verses 4, 5);

·      the kingship of the Messiah (verse 9);

·      the exaltation of Jerusalem (verses 8‑11);

·      the destruction of Israel’s enemies (verses 12‑15); and

·      the compulsory participation of the other nations in the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem during the Messiah’s reign of peace (verses 16‑18).

The return of Jesus will be the final fulfilment of the Feast of Tabernacles. Then we will all praise God for having saved us from the bondage of sin, and for protecting us in this dangerous and evil world. We will thank and praise Him for the great harvest of believers that has been gathered into the kingdom of heaven. Great joy will prevail when the Messiah’s millennial reign is instituted with Jerusalem as the capital city of the world!

Satan will be bound and sin and iniquity will no longer dominate the lives of people. In Jeremiah 3:17 the Lord says, “At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the Lord, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem; they shall walk no more after the stubbornness of their evil heart.”

“Yes, many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zech. 8:22-23).

Personal experience

How do you experience the fulfilment of the feasts in the Messiah? Every saved person begins his or her pilgrimage at the foot of the cross, where the blood of the Lamb was shed for sinners like you and me. When we take our refuge in Him, our sins are forgiven and we are clothed with the garments of righteousness that only Jesus can give us. From there we progress to the experience of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit endows us with His power to become harvesters for the kingdom of heaven. When the Lord returns with the sounding of a trumpet to gather the final harvest for the glorious revelation of His kingdom, He wants to find us out there in the fields, busy inviting people into His kingdom.

Those who remain behind when the Lord takes away His children will face the greatest tribulation of all time under the tyranny of the Antichrist. When the saints return with Christ after seven years, the empire of the false messiah will be destroyed during the battle of Armageddon. That judgement will be followed by the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom on earth. If we wish to share in the final triumph of the Messiah, we have to follow Him all the way and also experience rejection and persecution by the world. It is only after we have suffered with Christ that we will also be glorified with Him and reign with Him (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 1:28-29; 2 Thess. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:12; 1 Pet. 5:10).

This is not an easy journey, and some people turn back along the way. They simply cannot bear to carry the weight of the cross all the way to the end of the narrow road and rather opt for an easy way out, by claiming the benefits and trouble‑free life of experiencing the Millennium right now. In so doing, they follow the teachings of the prosperity gospel and kingdom now theology. They are those who are not prepared to be crucified to the world, or to let go of their worldliness and let it be crucified to them. They are not spiritually strong enough to bear the loneliness and sacrifices that may be required of them during their walk in the service of the Lord. They find it hard to accept the fact that true believers are strangers and pilgrims in a world which lies in the power of the evil one (Heb. 11:13; 1 John 5:19). Will their faith prevail under circumstances of persecution?

In Egypt, salvation was only granted to those who had the faith to seek protection under the blood of the lamb. They embarked on a journey that, although dangerous and fraught with trials and tribulations, led to the Promised Land. Are you also on this journey and are you making progress in your spiritual life? The annual feasts, as expressions of our faith in the Messiah, are meant to be times of refreshing in the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19). It strengthens your vision and commitment, while you are once again endued with power from on high to fulfil your calling as a follower of the Messiah in an evil world.