Leviticus is all about God's presence and what God's people are like when He lives among them. It should remind us of the beginning of the Bible, when God made the world and designed it to be a place for man to live with his wife, living out God's command. But because of man's rebellion, God's presence was removed from man's presence. From Genesis all the way until Jesus' appearing, the OT tells us how man can go back to the presence of God. If God cannot dwell in the midst of a sinful people, either His presence is removed from them, or they are destroyed in His presence. This has been the problem in Leviticus.
(A) Overview of Feasts: National, God-appointed events of special significance (Lev 23:1-2)
Lev 23 begins with God speaking to Moses, and telling him to speak to the people. Note the instruction words in the command -- speak, say, proclaim. God specifically commanded Moses to be His mouthpiece. This is the pattern in every new section of Leviticus. Again and again, we need to ask ourselves "Why does God choose words?". Later on, after Moses' death and the people of Israel move on, they keep going back to the words of Moses that God commanded him to speak. We live in a world where everyone is trying to tell us something, sometimes to the point that we feel so saturated. But these writings are not just another person's words. These are the words of God. What, then does it mean to proclaim the words of God? It is not just to speak, but to speak as Jesus did. Jesus spoke with authority. When God chooses a person to speak, He chooses that person to proclaim His words. This makes the subsequent instructions so important.
There are 2 phrases that God used to describe His instructions -- "holy convocation" and "appointed feasts". To convocate is to assemble, therefore to obey this instruction, one had to gather. The holy convocation was the holy event for the gathering of His people. God was also telling Moses to tell the people, that there were special gatherings where the whole nation was to gather at the time God had determined. They gather not because it's convenient, or because they wanted to get something out of it. They gathered because God says so.
This passage reminds us that God does not just use words lightly. God's words shape behavior. God is God. This is the principle and idea behind the book of Leviticus. The Bible never talks about God with a small g ("god"). As a Christian, we believe that this higher authority speaks, and has a view on many topics including Himself. He demands that HIs words be proclaimed and obeyed for our good.
God lays out 7 feasts in Chapter 23:
- Sabbath (Lev 23:3) -- They were not to do work, but it was to be a Sabbath to the LORD. They were to be devoted to the Lord, and to pay attention to sacred matters.
- The Passover (Lev 23:4-8) -- An annual event commemorating the day when God judged Egypt, but He passed over Israel. They were not more righteous or special, but because the blood of the Lamb was spilled on their behalf. Jews who had to remember this annual event would remember this and their special identity.
- Feast of Firstfruits (Lev 23:9-14) -- This was for worship, signifying the giving of God the best of their harvest.
- Feast of Weeks (Lev 23:15-22) -- Takes places 50 days after the Feast of Firstfruits
- Feast of Trumpets (Lev 23:23-25) -- It was a day of rest, marked by a blast of trumpets.
- Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (Lev 23:26-32) -- An annual event marked by the slaughter of lambs. It's, in a sense, a national experience of killing and animal, and with the smell of blood in the air, they were to remember how they were all sinners.
- Feast of Booths (Lev 23:33-44) -- To remind the people of their migrant nature and how they were pilgrims for 40 years
We'll go over these in greater detail in the subsequent weeks, but as we read these verses, we need to think about the significance of these feasts for the community. It doesn't just take place in special places, but it takes place privately and corporately, and takes place wherever God's people are.
These feasts also tell a story. The themes of these feasts are: rest, atonement, dedication, gratitude, gathering, atonement, pilgrim. God was telling them their story again and again, reminding them that they were sinful people that were brought out of Egypt. He provided for them in the forgiveness of sins, and also their daily provisions, and will also one day bring them to their final rest. They depend on Him fully and this place is not their home, they were only passing through. This is the story of the Christian life too. In the same way that God sent Moses to tell their story, these words also tell our story. And the worst thing they could do is to forget their story. We too are also prone to forgetting these messages, themes and who we are. Where are you in your walk with God? Have you forgotten who you are? Have you allowed the world to tell you about who you are? Have you allowed your hopes, dreams, failures, possessions to define you?
(B) Feast of Firstfruits: Reflecting gratitude and God-centered dedication for the coming harvest (Lev 23:9-14)
Let’s home in on the Feast of the Firstfruits. They were to celebrate this when they enter the land, on the day after the Sabbath (i.e. the first day of the week). Notice that this command was given to them while they were in the wilderness, and could not celebrate it until they entered the land. Yet, they were informed about this and were expected to tell their children this command. Hearing this, the Israelites must have felt frustration mingled with hope. They knew what lay before them, but yet they had not obtained it yet. They were reminded of their present reality, but were promised a world to come. This Feast is a promise from God that He will bring them to where He wants them to be.
To celebrate this Feast, they were to give a sheaf of the firstfruits to the priest (Lev 23:10b). They had to harvest, and select a portion to bring it to the priest. The priest was to wave it on the day after the Sabbath (Lev 23:11). He didn't just wave it for fun and anywhere he pleased, but He waved it before the LORD. This was only possible because they have seen the presence of the LORD (i.e. glory cloud). The worshipper was also to offer a male lamb a year old without blemish was also offered as a burnt offering as a sign of their dedication (Lev 23:12). The food and drink offering is also given as a sign of their fellowship with God (Lev 23:13-14).
What is the principle behind the Feast of Firstfruits? The people of God were to know that they owe their best to God. Nothing they have did not come from Him. It was definitely risky for them to offer the first of their harvest to God. Who knew if there would be more harvest? But in doing so, they were to learn faith and trust in the God who has proven His faithfulness over and over again. For us too, this reminds us that we don't just give God the best, we are also to give God first. This is His due and our priority. This Feast was also to mark their dedication and fellowship with the God who provides.
As the Bible unfolds, this idea of of firstfruits expands and takes on additional meanings. In Num 18:2-13, the firstfruits had another function. The people offered them them to God, but God then gives it to the priests. This order is important -- the people offered to God, who used it to provide for His servants and the people were not to just give it to the priests directly. Thus, the people of Israel also indirectly keeps the priesthood going. It meets the practical need of priests. However, at some point in Israel's history, God's people had lapsed and in 2 Chron 31:4-6, we read of King Hezekiah organizing the people to obey this command again. They were out of fellowship with God when they did not celebrate the feast. Why is this important? Prov 3:9-10 tells us how life works best and inside the wisdom literature, the offering of firstfruits is tied to honoring God. This was the bigger principle behind this offering.
In the New Testament, Jesus is described as the firstfruits of "those who have fallen asleep"(1 Cor 15:20). We are to consider the resurrection of Christ here. Resurrection is different from resuscitation. Resurrection is to be raised from the dead to never die again. Only one person has been resurrected, and that is Jesus. These verses in 1 Cor promise that later fruit in the pattern of Jesus' resurrection, will arise. The New Testament is taking the idea of firstfruits not just to describe physical harvest, but also spiritual harvest. We will also be guaranteed a physical resurrection. This Feast was ultimately to point us to our resurrection promise.
The Feast of Firstfruits is not just an archaic celebration instituted by God for His people in a certain time. The principle and idea behind this feast also has present implications for us. What do we do with the resources God has given us? Do we tithe? How do you use your time, gifts, relationships, influence, emotional capital? Have you given God the firstfruits in these areas? We give God the best of what we have because we know that all good gifts come from God. And we are not giving anything that we own. We are mere stewards, and we are giving back to Him what is originally His. We live on borrowed time, all of us. None of us can tell God that we are going to do things for Him tomorrow, or at a certain point in time. The Feast of Firstfruits also point us to the hope that is to come -- of our physical resurrection when Christ comes again to make all thing new. How has your identity as a follower of Jesus Christ stamped your life and behaviour completely? How deeply has this identity taken hold of you so it shapes your very life?