Episode 39: Feasts | 10 MGJ Devotional Podcast

Episode 39: Feasts

     The time to celebrate has arrived! Let’s Celebrate! Let’s Party! Not exactly the idea you had in mind for a devotional thought? Welcome to the real world of the Bible. The people are commanded to gather together and to remember the past and celebrate the present–not the presents–to celebrate God’s current provision. Specific times are calendared, scheduled, planned and arranged for. Celebration is part of the yearly cycle, not just the life cycle. Graduations and weddings are planned celebrations. Birthdays may or may not get a celebration. Big anniversaries like 30, 40, 50 will involve such planning. But let’s be real, who wants to travel somewhere by foot to celebrate 3 times each year. And celebrate what, exactly?

In the Old Testament

     One might ask whether the feasts were important in the Old Testament teaching. The answer can be found in the number of times they are discussed and commanded. In addition to the earliest discussion found in Leviticus 23, the instructions about the three major feasts are given three more times. The book of Numbers provides a summary of the celebrations and other sacrificial practices. While the Passover occurs on the 14th day of the first month (Aviv or Nissan, depending on the calendar used) the next day is a feast day beginning the seven days of Unleavened Bread. (Numbers 28:16-25) In the seventh month (Tishri) three celebrations occur on the first, tenth, and fifteenth days. The fifteenth day begins a seven-day feast. (Numbers 29) Between these two, a third feast provides another time for remembrance. This celebration is referred to in Deuteronomy as the Feast of Weeks because it is celebrated seven weeks after the beginning of the harvest. (Deuteronomy 16:9-12) Deuteronomy reinforces the view that all the males of the tribes of Israel are to appear before the Lord at his tabernacle on these three occasions and make an offering according to the way in which he was blessed. (Deuteronomy 16: 16-17)

     While the people of Jerusalem are in Babylon in exile, the prophet and priest Ezekiel provides instructions for celebrating after they return to the land. He describes a seven day feast for Passover (Ezekiel 45:21-24) and an offering by the political ruler in the seventh month (Ezekiel 45:25). Many descriptions of the regular sacrifices and offerings guard the remembrance of the LORD, and a general description of offerings is provided for other festivals and appointed feasts. The Old Testament provides instructions repeatedly for celebrating at these three times during the year.

Elsewhere in John

     The schedule of feasts plays a key role in the chronology of the Gospel of John. From Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem for the Passover in John 2, the Gospel also recounts a celebration of an unnamed feast in John 5, Passover again in John 6, Feast of Booths or Tabernacles in John 7-10, and even Hanukah in John 10. Finally, Jesus returns to Jerusalem for the Passover in John 12. This series of significant events dominates the first part of the Gospel and describes the conflict Jesus has with those leaders responsible for maintaining order in Jerusalem.

     One significance of these festivals was the increase in the number of individuals. The yearly population of Jerusalem itself is subject to many estimates. Major cities had far smaller populations than we think of today. A festival would swell the number of individuals gathered by 10 or even 20 times. This means that a city with a normal population of 25,000 might see over 250,000 people arrive for a 10-14 day period. These large crowds could easily become a problem nor was it unusual for various parts to be unaware of what was happening elsewhere. The festivals were a time for important individuals to be seen by a large number of people from various cities of the ancient world.

     When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem at “a Jewish feast” in John 5, he was a lone individual within a sizeable crowd. Before entering the Temple precinct, it was important for worshippers to be cleansed by water after their long travels. The pool where the sick, blind, lame, and otherwise disqualified from approaching the temple was not just a place of relaxation, it was also a place where these worshippers could give money as a means of caring for the lesser of society on their way to the Temple. Thus, these feasts were not merely times of communal meals with family members and friends, but were times to gather before the Lord and remember his actions of provision for his people.

      John’s account of these feasts presents Jesus as a faithful and righteous Jewish male who made the triannual visit to Jerusalem as mandated in the Law and the Prophets. At this unnamed feast, often associated with the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, Jesus is on his way to the Temple, a place associated with conflict from his previous visit in John 2. The healed man then picks up his pallet and goes walking through the temple precinct, a naturally expected response for someone prevented from doing so for 38 years. (John 5:14) This man was not as aware as others present about the law’s commandments regarding the sabbath since he had lived his life as an outcast from the society for all this time.

     The feasts in John also serve as a backdrop for the words of Jesus. On this occasion the discussion moves from whether God is still working to whether Jesus has the authority to speak as he does. No one seems to consider the fact that Jesus has just made it possible for one more Jewish male to participate in worship. The question turns at the end, ironically, to question whether the leaders at the feast to keep instructions from Moses actually keep the instructions of Moses. (John 5:46-47)


     The prophet Isaiah is one voice among several that chastises the people for failing to keep the Law’s instructions. “My Soul hates your new moon celebrations and your feasts . . .Wash yourselves, cleanse yourselves, put away the evil of your souls that is in my sight. Learn to do good, seek out justice, deliver the one suffering, fight for the needs of the orphans and the widows.” (Isaiah 1:14a, 16-17) Jesus arrives on the scene of this week long time of community worship and challenges those who focus on activities within the temple only and not on those outside its borders. Times set apart for worship become meaningless when the other aspects of God’s teaching are ignored.

Take 5 Minutes More

     One element we learn from these feasts is that we should take time, several days in fact, to remember what God has done in our lives. These times should be celebrated with others. A second element is that our celebration of God with others does not disqualify us from practicing goodness and justice toward others. Jesus continues to challenge us not to forget those whom our rules leave outside the sanctuary for worship. Jesus continues to bring more people into the sanctuary who have not followed the rules we make.

     Consider these two questions and write a response to share with a friend.

  • When do you take time to remember what God has done in the life of your community? Will you plan time to do so?
  • What practices do you insist on that prevent those outside your community from joining with you to worship God? Will you address them?