As you’re reading through Exodus, just as you might start to think that God is boring and is nothing more than a killjoy rule giver, you run into Exodus 23. Of course as you read through the book of Exodus you might easily skim over it and not pay any attention because it is tucked away with a bunch of other rules. In fact, you might even try to lump the section with the other rules, but it’s really not.
If you’ve attended any number of group events, you should know that not all of them are alike. First, there are meetings. These tend to be the dry and boring type of events that you might try your best to get out of, unless of course free food is offered, for which you might endure the meeting.
Next, there are conventions, conferences, or whatever else you might want to call them. Some of the stuff there might be kind of dry and boring but you choose to go to these events and you know that by going you’ll get to go to some things that you know that you’ll enjoy.
Finally, there are concerts, sporting events, parties, and celebrations. These are things that you look forward to even weeks in advance, you clear your schedule for, and you pay big money to attend.
As we look at Exodus 23 this morning, I want everyone to consider whether these events fall in under the meeting category, the convention category, or the party category. I think that you might be surprised to find that God is a lot more exciting than we give Him credit.
Let’s pick up in Exodus 23:10-12
10 “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.
12 “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed.
We’ve looked at the Sabbath some when we discussed the Ten Commandments. I won’t spend a lot of time on this but let’s note something that Jesus taught concerning the Sabbath. In Mark 2:27-28, it says:
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
The Sabbath was meant as a day of rest and relaxation. The Jews had made it into something tiresome by creating all kinds of laws in an attempt to protect the day. But the truth is that the day didn’t need to be protected, it was just supposed to be enjoyed as a day of relaxation.
There are a lot of people who have discovered that if you are taking a vacation to relax, you have to take at least two weeks. The reason is that you spend so much time planning and packing and driving and checking into your hotel that you need several days just to calm down from the stress that you put yourself under by going on vacation in the first place. After that you can begin to unwind from your normal stress.
That’s what the Sabbath is meant to be, a vacation. But the Jews had turned it into a big thing where they wore themselves out trying to rest that they never actually got to relax. By declaring that He was Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is not declaring that He is greater than the Sabbath or that He was abolishing it. Instead, think of what the Sabbath is supposed to mean. Jesus is declaring that He is the Lord of rest.
In this passage we also have the Sabbath year instituted. Every seventh year the land was supposed to rest. This accomplished a couple of things. First of all, it actually allowed the land to rest. Today we know that raising crops pulls nutrients out of the soil. Farmers now use fertilizers to replaces those nutrients. Or they might practice what is known as crop rotation. This means that different types of plants are planted in different years because they use up different nutrients in the soil and leave behind others when they die.
The other major part of the Sabbath year was a test of faith and reliance on God. The people had to trust that God would provide enough in the sixth year so that they would survive through the seventh year, just as they were to collect twice as much manna on the sixth day because there would be none on the seventh day.
The seven years is not a random number. People who study the climate now know that the climate goes in seven years cycles. You’ve probably heard of things like el nino and la nina. Those are weather patterns that come about every seven years. Undoubtedly God had already set the weather patterns so that the people would be blessed in the sixth year so that they wouldn’t need to plant and harvest in the seventh one.
The Israelites didn’t follow this instruction however. Apparently the Israelites didn’t practice this for 490 years or seventy Sabbath years were skipped. 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 states—
He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.
God gave the land of Israel the rest that it deserved and that the Israelites didn’t give to it.
The point of this section is that we shouldn’t look upon the Sabbath as something to be dreaded or as something tedious. Instead, it is meant to be enjoyed and we are meant to rest during our time of Sabbath.
14 “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me.
15 “Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt.
“No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
16 “Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field.
“Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.
17 “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD.
18 “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.
“The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning.
19 “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.
“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.
I’m going to be up front with you and tell you that I am leaning heavily on Pastor Bob Conway’s research on these feasts because I really don’t know them well on my own. There are more than three feasts in Israel, but these are the three major ones. These are the three that once the temple was constructed the Israelites were required to go to Jerusalem to celebrate.
Just like during the Sabbath, these feasts are celebrated with rest. You couldn’t work on these days and celebrate once you were done for the day.
These feasts we know by a few different names. The feast of unleavened bread is combined with Passover. Passover is the culmination of the week but the entire week was a celebration of freedom from Egypt. The leaven, or yeast as we would know it, is symbolic of both the bondage of sin and the bondage that the Israelites were in in Egypt. It is a great picture of sin because just a little bit of it can grow and consume everything. The Israelites had to rid themselves completely of it, just as we can’t accept a little bit of sin in our life because it will grow and consume us.
The feast of the harvest is also known as the feast of weeks. It is also known as a time of firstfruits. This was celebrated seven weeks after the feast of unleavened bread or 50 days later. This one day celebration falls upon the say day that the Ten Commandments were given by God. In the New Testament, this was the day that the Holy Spirit was given. We refer to it today as Pentecost, coming from the Greek word for 50.
This is known as the feast of the harvest because it is when the first harvest would come in. Passover occurs in early April. Fifty days later puts this feast at the very end of May or beginning of June. I don’t know all of the things that might have been harvested in Israel, but this is around the time that strawberries get ripe around here and they are probably our first thing to harvest, so the idea holds true in this area as well as Israel.
The third feast is the feast of ingathering or the feast of tabernacles. This was celebrated for a week around the end of September or early October. This would be a celebration of the fall harvest, much as we celebrate Thanksgiving today.
There are at least seven reasons why God gave these feasts to Israel. I’ve copied this directly from pastor Bob, so my apologies for the big words.
FIRST, to perpetuate the memory of those great events, and the wonders He had wrought for the people For example, the Sabbath brought to remembrance the creation of the world; the Passover, the departure out of Egypt; the Pentecost, the giving of the Law; and the Feast of Tabernacles, the forty-year sojourn of their fathers in the desert.
SECOND, to keep Israel faithful to their religion by appropriate ceremonies, in which they were given opportunity to offer sacrifices and serve the LORD.
THIRD, to provide for Israel lawful pleasures, and necessary rest.
FOURTH, to give Israel instruction; for in their religious assemblies the Word of God was always read and explained.
FIFTH, to consolidate Israel’s social union, by renewing the acquaintance of their tribes and families—for on these occasions they come together from different parts of the land to the Holy City.
SIXTH, to tie Israel to the Land and Yahweh. The calendar was not only timed to coincide with their planting and harvest labors, it was also designed to keep Israel’s history and future continually before the nation. In fact, Israel’s calendar became Israel’s catechism, a teaching instrument for succeeding generation, young and old alike. As a perpetual catechism, it constantly remind them of their unique history and identity.
SEVENTH, to foreshadow Christ, Salvation and the Kingdom of God through a Prophetic Calendar that is spelled out in more detail in Leviticus 23.
The seventh point is what I see as the most important one. There are historical reasons for the feasts, but ultimately all of the feasts point to Jesus and are fulfilled in Him.
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
Paul also tells us in 1 Corinthians 5:7 that Jesus was our Passover sacrifice.
Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
Jesus is also the fulfillment of the feast of firstfruits. He is the firstfruit of those who are resurrected from the dead and many more will follow Him in His resurrections. 1 Corinthians 15:20 tells us:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
The feast of tabernacles is still to be fulfilled as a part of God’s prophetic calendar. It looks forward to the Millennial Kingdom when all of the work is done and everyone will get to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Exodus 23 gives us just a partial look at the feasts of Israel. If we had more time, I’d look at Leviticus 23 which gives a fuller look at the feasts. Each of these feasts has a meaning behind them and they were to be a reminder to the Israelites about God and their history.
But perhaps the most important thing to remember from this passage is the idea that God wants us to enjoy the life that He has given us. He could have used any other method to pass along the ideas that are contained in these feasts. He could have given the Israelites solemn ceremonies. But instead He made them celebrations.
As we continue to go through the laws of God, remember that God as the lawgiver wants us to live life to the fullest. He wants us to enjoy it and to celebrate. The point of laws is for our own good and actually to further our enjoyment of life, not to detract from it.