June 20, 2005
“Holy Assemblies: Feasting to the Lord”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Leviticus 23, as we continue to work our way through the Book of Leviticus and see the gospel displayed in all its Old Testament glory.
We've come to a passage that is about holy feasting. We see consecutive instructions given about the various feasts of Israel…about the people's observation of them. But before we read the passage together, let me just outline a few of the things that we see as part of its content.
First of all, in verse 3 you see the instructions pertaining to the Sabbath Day, the seventh day rest that the people of God were not only to observe in their homes, but which they were to observe in holy convocation; that is, in solemn public assembling together to worship God.
Then, in verses 4-8 there are instructions pertaining to the Passover, or the Feast of Unleavened Bread; then, in verses 9-14 there are instructions pertaining to the Feast of First Fruits, the harvest feast; then in verses 15-22 the Feast of Weeks; in verses 23-25, the Feast of Trumpets; in verses 26-32, the Day of Atonement; and finally, in verses 33-44, the Feast of Booths, or what was called because of the King James translation, the Feast of Tabernacles, once upon a time.
Now, these feasts provide us the structure of the chapter's instruction, but the point is basically simple throughout the passage: this passage affirms over and over in different ways that the Lord is the Lord of our time; that our time belongs to Him. And the very insertion of the seventh day Sabbath and this cycle of feasts into the experience of the Israelite impressed upon the Israelite believer that God is the God of my time, that all of my time belongs to God, and that I set apart some of that time in recognition of His lordship over me, and as an opportunity to praise Him for the manifold gifts He has given to me by making me, by creating me, by redeeming me, by providing for me, by forgiving me, by giving me a hope for the future. And we're going to see that repeatedly emphasized in the language of this chapter, but bear it in mind. We don't have a lot of time for exposition because it's a long passage, but God's word is more important than anything else, so we're going to read the whole chapter. Before we do, let's ask for God's blessing on the reading and hearing of His word.
Lord God, this is Your word. We thank You for it. Nourish us spiritually by Your truth. Grow us in grace by Your truth. Disciple us by Your truth. Glorify Yourself in our hearts by Your truth. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God.
“The Lord spoke again to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, The Lord's appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations–My appointed times are these: For six days work may be done; but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwellings.
“‘These are the appointed times of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at the times appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the Lord's Passover. Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work. But for seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work.’
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, ‘When you enter the land which I am going to give to you and reap its harvest, then you shall bring in the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. And he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord for you to be accepted; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. Now on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb one year old without defect for a burnt offering to the Lord. Its grain offering shall then be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering by fire to the Lord for a soothing aroma, with its libation, a fourth of a hin of wine. Until this same day, until you have brought in the offering of your God, you shall eat neither bread nor roasted grain nor new growth. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.
“‘You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete Sabbaths. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the Lord. You shall bring in from your dwelling places two loaves of bread for a wave offering, made of two-tenths of a bushel; they shall be of a fine flour, baked with leaven as first fruits to the Lord. Along with the bread, you shall present seven one year old male lambs without defect, and a bull of the herd, and two rams; they are to be a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their libations, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the Lord. You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two male lambs one year old for a sacrifice of peace offerings. The priest shall then wave them with the bread of the first fruits for a wave offering with two lambs before the Lord; they are to be holy to the Lord for the priest. On this same day you shall make a proclamation as well; you are to have a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work. It shall be a perpetual statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations.
“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God.’
“Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘In the seventh month on the first of the month, you shall have a rest, a reminder by blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall not do any laborious work, but you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord.’
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the Lord. Neither shall you do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord you God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall not do work at all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your Sabbath.’
“Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the Lord. On the first day is a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work of any kind. For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the Lord; it is an assembly. You shall do no laborious work.
“‘These are the appointed times of the Lord which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, to present offerings by fire to the Lord–burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and libations, each day's matter on its own day–besides those of the Sabbaths of the Lord, and besides your gifts, and besides all your votive and freewill offerings, which you give to the Lord.
“ ‘On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventy month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord for seven days, with a rest on the first day and a rest on the eighth day. Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generation may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’
“So Moses declared to the sons of Israel the appointed times of the Lord.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Now, it really is an extraordinarily rich chapter, and we really could do a series of expositions on each of the feasts and the biblical symbolism that is attached to them. We could spend time looking at how these things are picked up in the New Testament. For instance, one of the things that strikes you immediately is the description of the feasts which occurred fifty days after the feast of harvest, how that works out in relation to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and the Day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. You can see there is rich and ample room for new covenant exposition throughout this passage, but let me look at the original intent for a few moments, and emphasize with you this: throughout the passage it is clear that in the observation of these festivals, in the setting apart of time in order to worship the Lord with God's people, and in the cessation of our regular labors, the people of God, Israel, are being called upon to acknowledge the lordship of God.
Two or three over-arching themes come out. First of all, God is Lord. One way God's lordship is made clear is that He is shown to be the lord of their time. You remember Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? You remember his complaint about Christmas? “It's just an excuse to pick a man's pocket!” You see what he was complaining about. It meant that his workers stopped working, you couldn't earn any money on that day; stores shut down, people expected you to give them gifts…it cut into his profit margin! Well, can you imagine what Scrooge would have done if he had lived in Israel? Have you tallied up how many weeks out of the year the people are not supposed to do anything, because they’re supposed to be concentrating only on the Lord? Not only once every seven days, but a compound of many, many weeks are designed to be devoted only to the Lord. No work is to be done. It is a way in which God's lordship over all of life, including our time, is indicated.
You know, in a strange way that ought to especially hit home to us in our day and time, because time is probably more important to you and to the people of our generation that it has ever been before. Most people would tell you today if they had to make the choice between time and money, they’d want more time. And here God is saying ‘You give Me your time, because I am your Lord.’
Secondly, notice that this is a way that God's people are set apart. If you are in Istanbul during Ramadan, you know it. The whole Islamic world is celebrating their special feast day to their false god Allah. But you know it. It interrupts business, it makes certain things inconvenient; and with strict and orthodox Muslims, you can only have limited contact within that time of Ramadan. It sets them apart.
Well, that's precisely what the one true God, the Lord God of Israel, intended by these feast days. It set them apart from the nations around them. Think of it: if they were having to cease all their work, trade ceased with their neighboring tribes and cultures interaction ceased, because these feast times were given over to…what? Holy convocations to the Lord — corporate worship. They couldn't be interacting and interfacing with pagan cultures around them because they were too busy…what? Gathering together to give to the Lord the glory due His name. And so by that very fact, God was setting them apart through the appointment of these feasts.
And then of course, following on that last point, did you notice how many times the phrase was used, ‘the holy convocations which you shall proclaim at the times appointed for them”? Did you notice how many times that phrase ‘holy convocations’ popped up? The emphasis of this passage on the priority of corporate worship, God's people gathering for the express purpose of meeting with Him, giving to Him the glory due His name, and receiving from Him the benefits through His means of grace–these major themes are evident throughout the passage. But let me hasten through some of the sections to remind you of some sub-themes that are quite important.
First of all, look at verse 3, because here the basic day of all holy days is mentioned. It's the seventh day Sabbath day of Israel, and here we're told that it is a Sabbath of complete rest and a holy convocation: “You shall not do any work.” There was nothing better than the Sabbath Day occurring as it did on a weekly cycle to remind the people of God that God was the Lord of time. They had to trust that He would provide for them even though they were taking off one-seventh of the year from work.
But think of the blessing of that, my friends. We've emphasized this before. These people had been slaves for 430 years, and now through the Sabbath Day, God, the Lord of Israel and the liberator of Israel from the tyrant, says to the Israelites, ‘I am giving you seven and a half weeks of mandatory vacation every year. You may not work, slave…slave who has been working 365 days a year…you may not work seven and a half weeks out of the year. What a blessing that Sabbath Day was to them, and how beautifully it set forth the truth that God is the Lord of time.
But then, look at verses 4-8, because there we see the description of the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread. They were to observe this feast in the first month, on the fourteenth day; then on the fifteenth day, and the seven days following on the Feast of Unleavened Bread. What is this feast to remind them of? It is to remind them of the Lord's redemption of them out of Egypt. In other words, they are to solemnly remember that it is the Lord who has redeemed them. God has woven feasts into their annual calendar whereby the people of God are required to remember that God bought them out of slavery, and into the freedom that they enjoy. The freedom that they enjoy is the gift of God.
I was listening to an interview on either National Public Radio or BBC World Service this past week with Newt Gingrich, and it was very interesting. They were interviewing him about his Civil War novels. You know he's written these three novels that sort of do what they call an ‘active history’ or a fictionalized history of the Civil War: What if Lee had won at Gettysburg? And then what would have happened if the battle between Lee and Grant had gone on in Maryland instead of Virginia? And what would have happened if….? You know, that sort of reconstruction…it's an interesting thing. The North still wins, by the way, even in his reconstructed history! But in the course of this conversation they were asking him about several things, and it wandered to the whole issue of democracy in other countries. And Newt Gingrich, in the midst of this discussion about his novels and this and that and the other, said, “Let me tell you the unique thing about America in all the world.” And I wanted to hear…OK, what's the unique thing? And he said, “Here's the unique thing: America is the only republic or democracy in the world that says that we get our rights from the Creator; that those rights don't come from the people or from a constitution, but they come from the Creator.”
Well, here is Israel declaring that their freedom does not come from some sort of social contract or mutual agreement or constitutional document: their freedom comes…where? It comes from the Creator who redeemed them out of Egypt.
And then, if you look at verses 9-14, in the Feast of First Fruits, these people have been laboring all year long, and now the harvest comes in, and what happens? For a week they can't touch it…and the first fruits are given to God. And what does that say? Everything comes from God. We worked hard for it; we really had to work hard for it; God expected us to work hard for it…but ultimately it comes from God, comes from His hand.
Then in verses 15-22, the Feast of Weeks, when once again they give thanks to God for His provision, what's going on there? A recognition of God's providence. It's the Lord who has provided for our bounty. In fact, we're going to recognize God's providence so much that we're not going to glean the corners of our fields; since God provided richly for us, we're going to provide for those who are needy and for the aliens who are sojourning in the land.
Oh, we could go on in this rich passage. We have only scratched the surface. The Lord is declaring here to us His lordship over us, over our time, over our food, over our souls. Let's pray.
Lord God, we thank You for Your word. Enrich us by it in trust and faithfulness. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.