The biblical calendar establishes some sacred times when the people of Israel were to gather to remember, to rest, and to worship. The foundational texts of these sacred times are scattered throughout the Pentateuch, but they are systematized in Leviticus 23. Numbers 28 and 29, in turn, standardize the rituals to be observed and the offerings to be presented on these feast days.
The incorrect understanding of these sacred times and their meanings has led to two easily detectable extremes in the history of the Christian church in general, and in the Adventist Church in particular. The first extreme is undervaluation, according to which biblical feasts are only Jewish feasts, ceremonial Sabbaths, nailed to the cross and of no value outside the nation of Israel in the times of the Hebrew Bible.
The second is of overvaluation, making biblical festivities a saving norm, mandatory for all Christians, whose restoration is even seen as part of the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Therefore, understanding the context of these sacred times, called chagim in Hebrew and festivals in English, and their meanings is of fundamental importance for each of us. And not only theologically, but also from the point of view of the Church’s mission. Before however, we talk about each one, it is necessary to understand, in general, the concept of time and sacred time in the Scriptures.
The Egyptians thought little about time in conceptual terms. They were not concerned with notions like past, present, and future. Everything they lived, depending on the Nile, was related to the recurrent life cycle.
Ancient Greek thinkers, within the same model of natural observation, saw time as a circular reality, in which all events returned in a repetitive and eternal way, a concept found also among Hindus.
The biblical concept, on the other hand, is of a history and time that have a beginning and move towards an end, in which events do not actually repeat. What happened in the past, stayed in the past, and does not return in the present or in the future. Paradoxically, God not only encourages but requires that the events of the past be remembered annually. How is this paradox resolved? Through a non-linear concept that is not time-cyclical.
It is not the events themselves that return, but their time, and their memory. This allows us to experience their meanings, while keeping us moving up the spiral, towards the goal established by God: the future kingdom. And this happens for the sacred times and the festivities.
Israel had eight great sacred times: Saturday, Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Weeks or Pentecost, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The following are a summary of their context and meaning.
The first of the sacred times of Scripture is the Sabbath or Shabbat. Its origin goes back not to a liberating act of God, but to the originating act of all life and all other sacred times: Creation. It is in Genesis 2 and not in Exodus 20 that the notion of sacred time first appears. And not as a man, but with God. For this reason, the Sabbath is the greatest of the sacred times of Scripture, serving as a model for all others.
The next sacred time on the calendar commemorates the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the most important liberating act in Israel's history. It is the celebration of the night when the destroying angel “passed” over the houses of Israel and preserved the firstborn, by contemplating the blood of the substitute on the doorposts. Its establishment, in Exodus 12, begins with the determination that it would be "... the first of the months of the year ...", indicating that the past life should be forgotten, because it no longer existed.
The lamb that died and the new life must be seen together in this feast because the life of each one sprang from the death of that lamb. In the same way, the Death of the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world (John 1:28), is what allows death to “pass” over us and the new life wecan have, starting a new cycle of life in Him.
The Passover feast went on for eight days (Lev. 23: 6), during which only unleavened bread could be eaten. The goal was to remember the quick departure from Egypt when they did not have time to allow the dough to rise. Not eating leavened bread symbolized not stopping to wait for the current location to give you something. Egypt, the world, evil, and sin have nothing to offer, and only hinder the rapid fulfillment of God's promises to His people.
The day after Passover was the day to present the first fruits of the earth, according to Leviticus 23:10. It was a time of thanksgiving for the divine provision that gave bread in due time while pledging a plentiful harvest. It was the result of late rains, which ripened the grain. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15: 21-24, uses a figure taken from that festival to present the resurrection of Christ as a pledge of the resurrection of those who believe in Him.
On the same day that the first fruits were presented, according to Leviticus 23: 15ss, the counting of seven whole weeks began. Although daily activities were maintained, they were added to an expectant count, called the sefirat ha’omer.
This interval, in which the harvest was finished, linked the departure from Egypt to a new feast, or sacred time, in the end, called Shavuot. The celebrated event is also the liberation of Egypt and the time of expectation and delivery of destiny to the Eternal. On the other hand, it is also, according to Jewish thinkers, the period that culminates with the delivery of the Law at Sinai. If this is true, there is a special relationship to what Jesus said in His dialogue with the disciples about the Holy Spirit, in John 14-15: The Law is Divine Instruction (Deuteronomy 30-32) and the Holy Spirit is the Instructor (John 14: 15ff).
Feast of Trumpets
After a period without festivals, we arrived at the feast of trumpets, described in Leviticus 23: 24-25. The aim of this festival seems to be only to point to the future. But it is called a memorial, announced at the sound of trumpets, or the shofar. The first mention of the shofar in the Scriptures is at Sinai (Exodus 19: 16ss), in the context of divine revelation and the Law. Its repeated sound at the beginning of the seventh month aimed to recall Israel's religious obligations, its commitment to remember all of what was being brought to memory that day.
Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement was, of the great festivals, the most important, as it dealt with forgiveness (Leviticus 23: 26-32). Interestingly, the day itself was not a judgment day. It was a day of purification of the camp, the sanctuary, and the people, according to Leviticus 16. Only that day had a ritual fully elaborated with details that sought to impact the people with the certainty that God was forgiving them. While judging them, not just for their acts of the year, but for their intentions. On that day, all of Israel's sin was removed from the presence of God and its existence was destroyed.
During the year, the penitent who presented an offering saw sin removed from his life and transferred to the sanctuary. But on that day, sin was taken from the sanctuary and camp to be eliminated. The elaborate ritual, described in Leviticus 16 and later literature, was intended to impress the mind with the depth of God's mercy and forgiveness. And therein lies its greatest in its deepest meaning: the judgment of God, announced with trumpets at the beginning of the month. It did not result in death, but in forgiveness, because "there is no condemnation for those who are" in the Messiah.
Feast of Tabernacles
At the end of the liturgical year, the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23: 34ff) began on the fifteenth of the seventh month, and celebrated the time Israel had spent in the desert. The objective was to remember that the Earth on which they lived was an inheritance of the Eternal and that their right to live there was given by God and not by natural right.
Therefore, they should leave their homes and live for seven days in huts, like their ancestors. There is a bridge between this feast and the millennium, in which the saints will live outside their land for a temporary period. The goal of the millennium, therefore, is not celestial tourism, but to remind us that the Earth that belongs to the Eternal will be given to us by inheritance, by His Merit, and by His Grace.
Each Leviticus 23 festival has its own characteristics, but they all share two essential aspects: 1. They are not from Israel. They are from God. These are times of remembrance of divine actions on behalf of His people, Israel; 2. They point to the future, beyond themselves, declaring in their own confirmation that they have a greater reality: the Messiah and His Work.
In this binomial between memory and expectation, we can find an answer to our question regarding the importance of the biblical festivals and their relationship to believers today. They continue as events commemorating God's action to deliver His people, through which the Messiah came to this world and His Word came to us.
For this reason, they are relevant in learning of a God Who relates, Who liberates, and Who directs. Despite this, these festivities have no saving function in and of themselves, nor should they be taken as a metric of relationship with God, since the reality typified by them has arrived and it is this reality—faith in Jesus—that should be the metric.
Sérgio Monteiro is a theologian, chaplain, and a member of the Feodor Meyer Institute of Jewish Studies, a member of the Adventist Theological Society, International Association for the Old Testament Studies, and Brazilian Biblical Research Association.