Jewish Holidays and Jesus

The gospels demonstrate that many of the Torah’s holidays point to Jesus. Let’s look at Sabbath, Passover (Pesach), Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), and even Hanukkah which is not even from the Torah. Jesus says to the Sanhedrin Council that they search the Scriptures because they think it gives them eternal life, but the Scriptures actually point to Jesus himself, however, the Jewish leaders refused to receive eternal life by believing him (John 5:39-40). Later in John 5:45-47, Jesus said that it will be Moses, through the Law, that will judge them for not believing in him because he [Jesus] is the one in whom the law is about.

Sabbath – John chapter 5:
The Sabbath was the seventh day of the week and based on the seventh day of creation (Ex 20:11). The Israelites were told to rest on the day and it was for their benefit (Ex 16:29). Jesus’ response to his critics for healing on the sabbath was that God didn’t make man for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man, and that he was Lord of even the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Sabbath is about rest from the toils of life, and shouldn’t be used to restrict good deeds like healing people, because those are God’s good works being done on earth. Jesus specifically says his father (God) is working on the Sabbath so he is simply imitating the father (John 5:17). In addition, in Matt 12:7 Jesus quotes Hos 6:6, which says “God wants us to walk in love more than he wants sacrifices”. Ultimately, Jesus is saying that putting restrictions on God’s good works and power because it’s the Sabbath was contrary to the point of the Sabbath.

Jesus also points out that even the Sanhedrin council would feed and give water to their animals, or even rescue them from a ditch on the Sabbath. He also mentions in John 7:21-24, that the circumcision of a baby boy still happens on the sabbath because circumcision was a higher law than the sabbath law. Likewise loving your neighbor and doing righteous acts would be more important than the sabbath law since that is a greater commandment. This idea also is explained in Matt 15:3-6 when Jesus said that it was wrong to violate one commandment in order to fulfill another, like disrespecting your own parents to keep a vow. The two greatest commands are to love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36-40) This means that emergency phone line operators, firefighters, police officers, and EMTs, are not guilty of sin if working on the Sabbath, because they are out there saving lives in emergency situations. Only ordinary work was to be stopped on the sabbath, not walking in love and helping people. In the Good Samaritan parable (Luk 10:30-37), the Jews who ignored the man may have used the sabbath as an excuse, and they would be wrong. Just like the circumcision example, the Sabbath law is not higher than the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18). More of Jesus’s Sabbath teachings are in Matt 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-28 & 3:1-6, Luke 6:1-11,13:10-17, & 14:1-6, and John 5:1-18.

Pesach (Passover) – John Chapter 6:
Pesach is the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, which commemorates the day God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:11-20, Ex 13:3-7). Passover was the night where they put the blood of the Passover Lamb on their doorposts, to protect them from a plague of death which was sent to kill the firstborn of all those who did have the protection of lamb’s blood. When they left Egypt they were instructed to eat unleavened bread for seven days straight. The leaven is often thought to represent sin or corruption, so these seven days are seen as a means of consecration from sin. This analogy is seen in the new testament in Paul’s letters when he says, “a little leaven spoils the whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6, Gal 5:9), referring to a little sin corrupting a whole congregation.

Just before Passover in John 6 Jesus performs a sign at the sea of Galilee, feeding 5000 Israelite men and their families. After ministering to the people he wanted to feed them, so he received five loaves of bread and two small fish from a child, and multiplied them for the congregation to eat. This sign is also recorded in Matt 14:15-21, Mark 6:35-44, & Luke 9:12-17. In the second half of John 6 it is recorded that, on the next day while Jesus was on the other side of the sea of Galilee in Capernaum, the people followed him there. In verse 26 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs.” He says that they should be less concerned about perishable things like food and more concerned with receiving eternal life by believing him.

They demanded a sign that he was God’s anointed, despite the fact he just did a sign the day before, and they even bring up the time God sent quail and manna to their ancestors in the wilderness when they ran out of food a month after leaving Egypt (Ex ch. 16). The sign Jesus did the day before (feeding them multiplied bread & fish) mirrors that very miracle from the Old Testament, but they were too blind to make the connection. Jesus replies that “the true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (v33). When asked for this bread, Jesus said “he was the bread of life”. Here he makes the connection to the unleavened bread. Since leaven is often used as an analogy for sin, so Jesus is saying that he is a sinless one, in the flesh, set apart like unleavened bread (matzah). Meanwhile, the rest of humanity is filled with sinful nature and is like leavened bread (chametz). This distinction is what qualifies Jesus to die for our sins because he hadn’t sinned. He then connects his flesh to the unleavened bread and his blood to the wine of the Passover Seder. The people take it literally and freak out because they think it is cannibalism, but he is referring to how the Passover lambs’ blood is shed as protection from death. Passover is before the first day of the festival of unleavened bread which reminds Israel of how they were rescued from slavery. Jesus is pointing out that it was through the shedding of the Passover lamb’s blood that they escaped slavery in Egypt and likewise it is through the shedding of his blood, that God will free his people from slavery to sin (John 8:31-36).

Passover points to his blood being the agent that liberates believers from sin and removes their leaven, saving them from the consequences of sin which is death. Just like how God spared the firstborn sons of Israel from the final plague with the blood of lambs on the doorpost, because of Jesus’ blood we are spared condemnation on Judgment Day. In addition, the Israelites were instructed to eat the Passover lamb without leaving anything behind, burning up anything that isn’t eaten (Ex 12:10, Ex 23:18). This is like how God’s presence inside of believers (the holy spirit), purifies them daily by burning away sin (or yeast) and making them like Jesus, the unleavened bread. Lastly, the Israelites had to eat the lamb without breaking its bones, which points to the fact that Jesus was crucified without breaking any bones (John 16:26 -> Exodus 12:46, Num 9:12, Ps 34:20).

Sukkot Feast of Tabernacles – John chapter 7-9:
Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles retells the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. When in the wilderness, God guided them with the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Ex 13:21-22) and provided them water in the desert (Ex 17:1-7). It was a seven-day festival in the seventh month, that involved harvesting the last crops of the year and praising and worshipping God for the harvest. The Israelites were to celebrate this holiday while living in tents (Tabernacles), as a reminder of how their ancestors lived in tents for 40 years while sojourning the wilderness (Lev 23:34; 39-43). Sukkot is also referenced in Zech 14:16, as something Gentile nations will celebrate in the new kingdom.

During the Sukkot festival in John 7, Jesus ministers in the Temple, despite having a bounty on him. He calls out the people of Israel for wanting to kill him for his miracle on the Sabbath and for being hypocrites. The Sanhedrin tried to arrest him but no one laid a hand on him. On the last day Jesus gets up in the temple courts and he shouts, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink, whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38). The narrator clarifies in v39 that the living waters are referring to the Spirit, which wouldn’t be distributed to the believers until after the resurrection.

When Jesus said this he was also referring to the miracle of water from the rock at Massah in Exodus 17. This is one of the things the Israelites praised God for after the time of the Sukkot recorded in Nehemiah 8-9. In Nehemiah 9 the Israelites are called to confess their sins at the end of the month. Israel’s priests thank God for things he had done in the past, (Neh 9:15) including feeding them Manna from heaven (Ex 16) and giving them water from the rock (Ex 17:1-7). In 1 Cor 10, Paul uses the story of the Israelite’s journey through the wilderness to teach the Corinthians about the sin of idolatry. He shows them how Israel sinned by worshipping idols, even after their God rescued them from Egypt and carry them through the wilderness. He compares this to Christians who still practice idolatry, even after Christ rescued them from sin. In verses 1-4, Paul parallels God’s miracles in the wilderness to what Christ has done for us. He says the Red Sea is like baptism and the manna & water from the rock are like Jesus (bread of life & living water).

The next day, Jesus stood up in the court and said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). One of the rituals of Sukkot is the illumination of the Temple. King Solomon even dedicated the first Temple at Sukkot, so the Temple was central to the Sukkot celebration. The illumination ritual involved the lighting of four golden oil-fed lamps in the Court of Women. These lamps were 75ft high and were lit at night to remind the people of the pillar of fire that had guided Israel in their wilderness journey. Since the Temple was on a hill it illuminated the entire city. Jesus was declaring that he was the “Light” that the people had been waiting for to guide them out of the darkness.

God’s presence has often been represented by light like the burning bush, the pillar of fire in the wilderness, and the fire that rested on Mt. Sinai. In fact, when King Solomon dedicated the first Temple at Sukkot, God’s glory filled the Temple. Isaiah 9:1-3 says “that the people who walk in darkness will see a great light”. This prophecy refers to salvation for those who are blinded by sin and dark spiritual forces. Jesus is saying that he is that saving light that will open the darkened eyes of the blind. Matt 4:15-16 quotes Isa 9:1-2 to show the connection. This is a spiritual analogy but it is also demonstrated literally in John 9 when Jesus heals a man born blind. He later says in John 9:39, “For judgment, I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” This references the prophecy of Isa 61:1 which was quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18 which says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free…”

In John 7-9, Jesus is claiming to be the illuminating presence of God (pillar of fire) and the sustaining power of God (water from the rock) to his people. Some people believed (the true sheep) and some were offended and wanted him dead.

Festival of Lights (Hanukkah/Chanukah) – John10:20-42:
Hanukkah means dedication. It refers to the rededication of the Temple around 165 BC, after its defilement under the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV.  Antiochus III king of the Seleucid Empire, took control of Israel from the Ptolemaic Dynasty around 200 BC. Then 25 years later when his son, Antiochus IV took the throne, he was bribed by some Hellenistic Jews who wanted to show loyalty to Antiochus by Hellenizing the Temple. When Civil War erupted between the Hellenistic and traditionalist Jews, Antiochus IV intervened siding with the Hellenistic Jews and defiled the temple putting Greek idols in the temple. A priest named Matthias and his sons rebelled against this defilement, and after he died his son, Judah Maccabee, lead a revolt and defeated the opposition. Judah clears the temple of idols and rededicates it to God by lighting the menorah. It is said in the Talmud that they only had one container of oil, which was only enough for a day, and that miraculously, the oil lasted eight days, giving them enough time to make more. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. Another explanation for the eight days is that Maccabee was referencing Solomon’s first dedication to the temple during the Festival of Tabernacles which is a week-long celebration.

In Jesus’s time, many Jews were looking for a Messianic figure that would be like Maccabee and lead a revolt against Rome. Jesus however, didn’t come to conquer the physical empire but rather save his people from the spiritual empire of darkness and sin by dying for our sins and leading us as a guiding light to salvation. In the latter half of John 10, people demanded Jesus to tell them plainly if he was the Messiah and then prove it, presumably by leading the charge against the Romans. Jesus tells them that if they don’t believe his words or signs, then they are not his sheep, meaning God hasn’t opened their eyes to the revelation of who he is. He then says that he and the father are one and that only those whom the Father gives to him will receive eternal life. The people threaten to stone him for calling himself God, a natural response since Antiochus IV, called himself “Epiphanes” (God manifested). However, Antiochus IV was a false spiritual authority, prophesied about in Daniel 8-11, and referenced as one of the many imperial anti-christ figures in Biblical eschatology.

In John 10:36 Jesus says that it is not blasphemous for him to say he is the Son of God because he is “set apart” by God and sent into the world. This is similar to how a Temple is supposed to be a holy place set apart and free from sin (like idolatry). In this way, he is comparing himself to the Temple and claims to be the true way to salvation and rededication to God from their own defilement. This analogy is in line with John 10:6-9, where Jesus says he is the gate for the sheep to enter the pasture, and those that came before him are thieves (corrupt leaders), but only he gives salvation. In John 10:1-19 Jesus teaches with an analogy of a good shepherd who will lay down his life for the sheep (believers), to protect them from danger like a wolf (satan/demons). This is in contrast to the Sanhedrin council, who he associates with the “hired hands that flee at the sight of danger”, or a “thief whose voice the true sheep don’t recognize”. This was to emphasize how he stands out from any other human that has ever lived. Lastly, it can be said that those whom God chooses to give to him are set apart (like the sacred oil on Hanukkah) and rededication to himself.

First Fruits and Shavuot (Pentecost):
The celebration of First Fruits is the first day after the Passover Sabbath, which means this was the day Jesus rose from the dead (Matt. 28:1-10). Paul tells us that Christ is the “first fruit” of those who will be raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:20-23). Passover was the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (Lev. 23:4-8), then the next day was the beginning of the seven-day Pesach (Festival of Unleavened Bread). This was the day Jesus was crucified (Good Friday). The first and seventh days of Pesach were Sabbaths. The First Fruits celebration was on the first day after the first Pesach sabbath (Lev 23:9-14), this is according to Pharisaic tradition. Sadduceeic tradition believed that First Fruits was after the weekly Sabbath. Since Sadducees were the ruling party in the first century, First Fruits was on the 17th day (Sunday) because it is after the weekly sabbath (Saturday). Different sects of Jews had different days for Passover, this may explain why the gospel of John has Passover happen a day after the other Gospels because he is referencing the national Passover (Sadducees) as opposed to the sectarian Passover (Pharisees). Pentecost occurred fifty days after that Sabbath (Lev 23:15-16) so the first of those 50 days started at First Fruits.

The celebration of First Fruits marked thanksgiving to God for the first fruits of the year which were the grains harvested in the spring in ancient Israel. At this festival, the Israelites offered the very first sheaf of the harvest and were not allowed to eat anything from their crops until they gave its initial portion to the Lord (Lev 23:14). The Israelites had to trust God to take care of them while they resisted eating from the first harvest until this gift was made.

The word Shavuot means “weeks”, and it marks the conclusion of the “Counting of the Omer”. Its date is directly linked to Passover; the Torah mandates the seven-week Counting of the Omer, beginning after the Sabbath of Passover, to be immediately followed by Shavuot. This counting of days and weeks is understood to express anticipation and desire for the giving of the Torah. On Passover, the people of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot, they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God. The Counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Passover (the 16th of Nisan) for Rabbinic Jews (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), and after the weekly Shabbat during Passover for Karaite Jews, and ends the day before the holiday of Shavuot, the ‘fiftieth day.’ There are seven weekly sabbaths (Saturdays) and a 50th-day celebration. These numbers are similar to the sabbath year system which involves letting the land rest every seven years (shmita) and debt cancellation every 50 years (Jubilee or Yovel).

Just as the first fruits offered to God under the old covenant anticipated the fuller harvest to come, we can expect the same final harvest in the final resurrections (John 5:25-30, Revelation ch. 20) since Jesus is the “first fruit” of the resurrection. In addition, the holy spirit was distributed to God’s people on Shavuot or Pentecost (Acts 2) so this was the first sign of God marking his people for that final resurrection harvest to eternal life. The Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) is 50 days after the first Sabbath of Passover (or 49 days after First Fruits). This is also known as Pentecost (from the Greek term pentekostos, or fiftieth), which was the grand celebration at the end of the grain harvest (Lev. 23:15-22). So Jesus connects Passover, First Fruits, and Pentecost, together. Easter (which is based on the German word for rising/resurrection) is just a one-word term that sums them all up into the event of his resurrection as the first fruit of all resurrected people.

Bonus – Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement):
Jesus’ sacrifice atones for all of humanity’s sins (Heb 10L1-23) just like the blood of the sacrifice on Yom Kippur atoned for all of Isreal’s sin (Lev ch. 16).

Some resources that go more in-depth:
Was the Last Supper on Passover

Jesus and Sukkot

Questions about Jesus’ quote in John 7:38

Illumination of the Temple Ceremony

First Fruits and Pentecost