Written by Paul J. Bucknell on March, 24, 2020
The Significance of Hebrew Feasts for the Christian with a Special Focus on the Passover
Main Point: Old Testament teachings and laws such as the Passover serve as a critical backdrop to understanding the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross as seen in the Gospel of John.
The Old Testament Origin of Passover
The Passover, as taught in the Pentateuch, has become a culture-forming cornerstone of the Israeli society even down to this day. Shortly after Jesus died as the Passover lamb, the Passover was no longer celebrated by the killing of a lamb. This pattern became solidified after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.
Passover and other Biblical Feasts
- Study the Passover Feast (When, who, what, why, where, etc.) (i.e., Feast of Unleavened Bread)
- Exodus 12:1-13
- Exodus 12:21-32
- Exodus 12:40-50
- Numbers 9:1-14
- Deuteronomy 16:1-8
- How many Biblical Jewish feasts are there in the Law? ___________ (Deut 16) (Be careful!)
“Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths, and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. “Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17)
Significance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Deut 16:1-8)
Although there were three times mandated for all Israelite men to celebrate in Jerusalem, there are actually seven, let me call them, holidays (holy days). In the above diagram, we see that the seven holidays were grouped in the three celebrations in Jerusalem at the temple. So, for example, in the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, there was also the observance of the Passover and the Day of Firstfruits. Fifty days later came Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks. This was the reason in Acts 1-2 to find so many God-fearing internationals in Jerusalem.
- What is the significance of the three mandated feast times in Jerusalem?
- Feast of Unleavened Bread: Reconciliation=> Jesus’ first coming
- Feast of Pentecost: Empowerment=> Jesus’ Spirit coming
- Feast of Booths: Anticipation=> Jesus’ second coming
Although God mandated the men three times a year to celebrate in Jerusalem, there are actually seven festivals, or let me call them, holidays (holy days). In the above diagram, the seven holidays were grouped at the same time as the three celebrations in Jerusalem at the temple. For example, in the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, there was also the observance of the Passover and the Day of Firstfruits.
Fifty days later came Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks. Acts 1-2 recorded so many God-fearing internationals present in Jerusalem because they came to celebrate the Day of Pentecost. (Even here, you can see God’s deliberate means of communicating His truths to as many people as possible.)
Three holy days were observed at this climactic week in which Jesus died. The Jews killed their Messiah on Passover Day at the time the lambs were being killed for Passover. The Feast of Unleavened Bread marks how the believers need to abstain from all forms of evil, leaven being a symbol of sin. Lastly, Jesus’ resurrection took place on the same day as the Day of Firstfruit. Jesus is Himself the firstfruits of all of God’s people who are to rise and live in God’s presence. Look below and see how the apostles referred to these feasts in those verses. The last set of holidays, set in the seventh month of Tishri of the Hebrew lunar calendar, included the Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and the Feast of the Tabernacles (Booths). Again, they celebrated together. These holidays were embedded in the Hebrew culture so to shape the mindset and lives of the Jewish people, giving them another sign fo God’s redemptive involvement in their community.
The Jews, as a whole, missed the prophetic kick-off of the unveiling of redemptive events with the first coming of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. But though missing their Messiah, they initiated the Passover celebration with their killing of Him, the Messiah, the Lamb of God. Jesus was the Passover. The day of Firstfruit was Pentecost when the Spirit of Christ filled His people. The last set of holidays marks the return of Jesus the Messiah, precisely what Jesus predicted.
“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Mat 24:30)
The Day of Trumpets announces the great harvest celebration associated with the Day of Judgment (i.e., the Day of Atonement). After judgment, the memorial of the wilderness journey begins and never ends. The final harvest includes God’s people gathered from all the ages. Earth’s pilgrimage is over, and they enter the eternal sabbath, the rest in heaven (Hebrews 4).
Significance of Passover in the Gospel of John
To better amplify the way John used the Passover in the Gospel, let me, like John, focus on the Passover. The Hebrew holidays are often referred or alluded to in the Gospels and New Testament letters.
Jesus’ ministry went on for about 3 ½ years involving three trips to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. John mentions each of them. The following exercise helps a person study the context of their usage. We should note, however, that John’s Gospel is divided into two parts, the later largely describes the last week of Jesus’ life. This ‘slow motion’ portrait of the Messiah’s last week engulfs half the space of the Gospel of John!
- Scan the selected passages for the word(s) “Passover” in the Gospel of John. Find the events that happened around that particular Passover.
- John 2:13-25
- John 6:1-14
- John 11-12
- John 13-14
- John 18:39-19
The raising of Lazarus preceded that holy week. The celebration of Palm Sunday in John 12 announced Jesus as King. It is easy to miss all the ramifications of the individual scenes thrust before our eyes as we read the Gospels. Each is similar in the way they conclude with the climatic death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is alive and first fills His people starting at Pentecost and then will powerfully transform the universe upon His return. So, all of God’s people, look forward to Christ’s return—because He came the first time to lay down His life for His people.
The last half of the Gospel of John focuses on Jesus’ last week on earth. He was destined to die on the cross by sacrificing His life and ward off the enemy of death from God’s people (think of the original Passover symbolism). Jesus is this Lamb of God as earlier announced by John the Baptist.
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
“When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”” (John 1:36)
Later, in John 6, Jesus went from speaking about Himself as the manna from heaven to calling His disciples to eat His flesh and blood, we can only think that He started thinking of Himself as that Passover lamb that would soon be offered.
53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. (John 6:53-55)
The Gospel of John concludes with the whole last half of the book to describe in detail the prophetic fulfillments and give an indication of their great significance.
Study Questions on Hebrew Feasts
- What significance does Passover have for followers of Christ?
- What danger did the Israelites avoid in Egypt during the first Passover?
- What real danger does this represent for those who don’t believe in Christ today?
- What were the seven Hebrew feasts as found in the Law (Pentateuch)?
- What did each Hebrew feast refer to in the redemptive scheme of the Lord?
- What is the significance of the lopsided Hebrew calendar with no holidays at the end of the year?
- Make sure you do the John assignment by observing the times the word ‘Passover’ is used in the Gospel of John.
- What observations do you have on the way John repetitively used the word ‘Passover’ in his Gospel?