The rhythms of the saints – Leviticus 23-24

The rhythms of the saints in ancient Israel are spelt out in various festivals in Leviticus 23. We’ve reached some more of those chapters of Leviticus that seem a bit, well, dry. It feels a bit procedural – you can see that there are instructions for various feasts for ancient Israel, but so what?

But what if I told you that you might have missed the point? What if this isn’t just wrapping up a few religious festivals? What if I said this is the absolute highlight of Leviticus? And what if I said that this chapter might mean you need to radically rethink your own attitude towards… church?

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube. You can find more in the series in our Sermon Index.

A holy nation (Ch 23)

Leviticus 23 lists 7 feasts or festivals.

There’s the weekly Sabbath (every Saturday) and then 3 Spring festivals and 3 Autumn festivals.

The Sabbath is such a big theme that we’ll look at that next time (you’ll never think about Sabbath in the same way again!). Your English Bible probably has headings for the other 6 festivals.

3 spring festivals

The 3 Spring festivals begin with the Passover. That’s a memorial meal, reminding them of how God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt. The angel of death passed over Egypt by night to kill all the firstborn sons. The people of Israel had been commanded to sacrifice a “Passover lamb” – and then put some of its blood over their doorways. As the angel of death passed over, God covered over his people by the blood of the Passover lamb.

The New Testament says that Jesus is our Passover lamb – his death and shed blood now covers us, so that we don’t die as punishment for our sins. The last supper was, of course, a Passover meal (probably served a day early so that Jesus actually died on the Passover).

The second festival in Leviticus 23 is the Feast of Firstfruits, or First Harvest. It was joined to the Passover. Passover happened on a Friday, then there was the Sabbath (Saturday), and then the Festival of Firstfruits began on the Sunday.

Small wonder Jesus’ resurrection is referred to as the Firstfruits from among the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:20 – a promise of a harvest to come.

7 weeks / 50 days later was the Feast of Weeks, or Harvest. A time of thanksgiving to God after all he’d provided. That later became known as Pentecost, and at the Pentecost in Acts 2 it’s easy to see a harvest begin!

3 Autumn festivals

The 3 Autumn festivals began with Trumpets and a food offering to God – the Summer is over, the back-breaking work is ended.

10 days later would be the next festival: The Day of Atonement. A sombre day, while the nation reflected on their sin. But a hopeful, exciting day too: The high priest would enter the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle, making atonement for himself and the whole nation. They’d all see the scapegoat being sent eastwards into wilderness – knowing their sins were gone, and the whole nation was holy to God.

Hebrews 9 & 10 makes it abundantly clear that Jesus’ work at the cross has accomplished all this and more: He is our one perfect sacrifice and our great High Priest – and we can enter the Most Holy Place and approach God in prayer.

The last festival was the happiest. The Feast of Shelters (or Booths, or Tabernacles) was a time when everyone had to live in temporary shelters for a week. It was happy: Leviticus 23:40 “…celebrate with joy before the LORD for seven days.” The whole thing was a celebration of the time God rescued Israel from Egypt and they travelled in tents.

Society as it should be

So why is this some kind of highlight of Leviticus? Try to picture the whole story line:

  • God called from the Tabernacle (Leviticus 1:1) to define sacrifices that would enable people to approach him.
  • Priests were put in place who would be holy, separate, to God. God dwelt among his people; they could draw near.
  • So there’s approach, and then in Leviticus 16 there was atonement – sin dealt with, oneness with God.
  • Then there were chapters on holiness – how the people and priests were to live out holiness every day (in the fields, in work, in the market, at home, etc).
  • And now, in Leviticus 23, we see the weekly and annual rhythms of the nation, gathering around God.

This is the society that they were to be:

  • Cleansed from sin and guilt; holy to God, living out holy lives for God; the very rhythms of the seasons and society built around God.
  • In Exodus 29:45-46, God said “Then I will live among the people of Israel and be their God, and they will know that I am the LORD their God. I am the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt so that I could live among them. I am the LORD their God.” And Lev 17-24 is the picture.

The LORD shines on his people (Ch 24)

Leviticus 24:1-9 moves on to something that seems a bit mundane: The items in the Holy Place in the Tabernacle. If you went to Sunday School or have been going to church a while you’re probably quite familiar with it. The Tabernacle had two rooms: The cube-shaped Most Holy Place where God was, and the Holy Place (sort of two-cube shaped) with 3 things in: The altar of incense – west, near the Most Holy Place, a gold lamp – south side, and a table with bread on it – north.

But stop a moment. Think about this. You know the picture. But these things are the closest items to God on the surface of the planet. They must be really important. More, it must be really significant that they’re here, right at this point in Leviticus.

Some verses in Numbers will help us see a little better: Read Numbers 8:2. 

Notice that: The light from the lamp was to shine forward. What would its light fall on? The bread. Twelve loaves of bread, one for every tribe in Israel. The light of the golden lamp shone on the bread representing the people – week in, week out.

Now read Numbers 6:22-26 (CSB).

We’re the bread

This is why I’ve been using an image of bread for these sermons – we’re the bread, the people of God. And the light of the Lord’s face shines on his people. Leviticus 24:1-9 is the goal, the pinnacle godly society that this God-given system of worship has been building towards:

  • God’s people, in God’s presence, under his light and warmth and blessing. He shines on his people.
  • This is a picture of heaven.
  • And the holy nation, holy in every way every day, living life under the rhythms of regularly gathering to God, is heaven on earth.

Two important things need to be said:

  1. First, all God’s people and only God’s people are represented by the bread. Only those whose sins are forgiven, atoned for by sacrifice, seeking to live for God, are there.
    • You can be there, because today Christ lives and you may turn to God for forgiveness of all your sin and guilt. He longs for you to come; he calls you.
  2. Second, while we must all come to God individually, our relationship and enjoyment of him is fulfilled and magnified in the Bible when we then worship him together.

Walk in his light

Notice that all 7 special festivals in Leviticus 23 had two things in common: Everyone was to cease work and rest, and everyone was to gather for holy assembly. Together, they were to gather to God, focussed on him.

When we come to church we’re not going through the motions of a religion or set practice: This isn’t religion by rote. We gather to God.

  • It may be that you’re not a Christian, and yet you find Christians interesting / attractive. It’s God at work in us that you see.
  • Alternatively you might be interested in God but Christians put you off! That may well be, because we’re not perfect. Remember that Christians can only come because Jesus is our great sacrifice – he took our punishment; we’re forgiven sinners, trying to live well for God (often failing).

We gather to God. And we gather to the Son of God, Jesus. He is given to us as the fulfilment of all those Leviticus feasts – he’s our Passover lamb, the first-fruits of the resurrection, the great atoning sacrifice. And he lives, and is present among his people at all times.

And so we gather in the Holy Spirit – present in every believer individually and present particularly when believers gather.

As we gather together, the face of God shines on us because we are his people and he is our God.

So if you feel distant from God for some reason, could it be that you’ve drifted not only away from God but from his people too? He shines particularly on his gathered people, so be among his people, where he is. Whether that’s here on Sunday morning and afternoon, or meeting up with 1 or 2 other Christians to pray and talk.

Your own rhythms

But it’s clear that God’s purpose for every believer is that you build your daily, weekly, and annual rhythms of life around him, gathered with his people whenever you can.

Don’t just watch; worship.

You might think, “That sounds ok, but church doesn’t always feel like that.” Don’t let the familiarity of things rob you of joy in Christ. Make sure you don’t just sing, but sing to God – see singing as prayerful meditation, sometimes joyful, sometimes more sombre. Don’t just watch; worship.

And make sure you sing to one another. Paul exhorts us all to sing to the Lord and one another.

God called his people to these set festivals to worship him together. Attendance wasn’t optional. You were to be there. Why? Because anyone choosing not to be there was effectively saying, “I choose not to praise God for the good things in my life, for his Passover rescue, or for everything he’s given so that I can approach him.” Contempt of God.

That’s why Hebrews 9 & 10 applies the wonders of atonement in Christ by saying we mustn’t stop meeting together: Jesus is our Great High priest who calls us to himself in glory. 

Let me put it this way:

  • On Sunday afternoon, at 4:30, the risen Christ will shine his face on his people who gather at Bromborough Evangelical Church to worship him in song, in prayer, in obedience to his word. He’ll be here himself.
  • For the life of me, I don’t know what you could find to do that would be more amazing than that.

The rhythms of all of life

But we also need to remember the whole shape of Leviticus. We are to live our whole lives under his blessing:  We have the joy and privilege of approach to God, with sins atoned for, gathering to Jesus. And then we’re to be holy to him, for him, at work, in the home, at the shops – with God shining on us the whole time. The rhythms of godly society, of the kingdom of God.

Hard days still come, of course. Some need to join us by YouTube as it’s the only possible way for them to join. But all the brokenness in life only points us to yearn for the time when we’re all wholly gathered together with Christ forever.

Some Christians think we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, Easter, Harvest, etc as they Bible doesn’t tell us to. But the rhythms of ancient Israel show it’s always good to gather to remember the great works of God. While those things are often great evangelistic opportunities, they are also genuine worship times for us.

So, together, let’s continue to gather to embrace the remembrance of the goodness of God.

Read Numbers 6:22-26.