The High Holy Days

This is a very special and holy time in Israel, known as the High Holy Days or the “Days of Awe.”  It began with Rosh Hashanah, the Biblical Feast of Trumpets, the week before last (Sept. 25).  Next came the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year, which ended yesterday (Oct. 4) just after sunset, and then the Feast of Tabernacles begins this coming Wednesday at sunset (Oct. 8). 

So what is the big deal about the Jewish Feasts?  And what importance do they have for us as Gentile Christians?  First of all, some people you know—Jesus, Peter, Paul, and all the other disciples of Jesus—all celebrated these feasts every year, both before and after the resurrection of Jesus.  Paul participated in the Jewish feasts and organized his calendar around them:  and this was years after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus (Acts 20:6,16; 1 Cor. 16:8).  In other words, he did this as a Christian (or Messianic) believer in Jesus.  And so did the other Jewish believers in Jesus, as well as many early Gentile Christians.  We have records of Gentile Christians celebrating the Day of Atonement, for example, for the first 500 years of Christianity.  Others feasts are still celebrated today. 

But why would believers in Jesus celebrate the Feasts?  Although we often call them Jewish feasts, the Bible calls them the Feasts of the LORD: “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them: ‘These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you are to proclaim as holy assemblies’” (Lev. 23:2).  The word translated here as “appointed feasts” is moedim in Hebrew, which means a time that has been arranged for a meeting.  In other words, this was not just a time for them to meet with each other.  These were appointments to meet with God. 

These feasts are all tied in to the Hebrew calendar.  So it’s important to know just a little about the Hebrew calendar.  In Israel, they didn’t use the months that we do:  January, February, March, April, etc.  Why not?  Because these are pagan Roman months, named in honor of the pagan gods:  January is named for Janus, the strange two-faced god of beginnings; March is named for Mars, the bloody god of war; May is named for Maia, the mother of Mercury; June for the goddess Juno.  In the West, we don’t worship these gods anymore, but even up until today, we haven’t been able to completely erase their memory from our calendars.  The Jewish calendar is much older than this Roman calendar, and avoids any reference to pagan gods. 

The names of the months in Hebrew are Tishri, Heshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nisan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Ab, and Elul—very different from our own.  It’s a lunar calendar, so it shifts around a little compared to our solar calendar each year.  And about every three years, they add an extra month of Adar in the spring to harmonize with the solar calendar. 

There are two basic seasons in Israel:  wet season, when if there is any rain that year it will rain, and dry season, when it gets very dry.  This can create desert-like conditions in many places.  Dry season is when it looks like the sheep in the field are eating rocks, though they’re actually eating dried grass hidden between the rocks.  From an agricultural point of view, these two seasons are the time of sowing and reaping.  In the first, the time of sowing, early rains loosen the soil for plowing.  Then wheat and barley are sown in the fields.  The main rains come in the months of Tevet and Shevat, which is December through  February.  Then in March and April, the light latter rains swell the grain just before the harvest.    

The spring harvest marks the beginning of the dry season.  Though the land gets dry and the grass turns brown, this is when the fruit crop ripens.  How does it do that without rain?  From the natural miracle of dew.  Dew provides the equivalent of about six inches (15 cm) of rain each year.  That’s just enough to ripen the fruit, including the olives, grapes, and figs. 
This cycle of seasons and agriculture is closely coordinated with the Jewish festivals and their fulfillment in Messiah.  Most Christians understand a little about Passover in the spring, because of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, which the Bible says was a Passover Meal.  This Feast of Passover was at the time of the barley harvest.  It was a celebration of their escape from slavery in Egypt in the time of Moses, which happened at this same time of year.  Most Christians are familiar with the story of the Exodus, and the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb with which the people marked their doors.  All of this symbolism was fulfilled by Jesus’ death on the cross.  He became the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.  Because of this, many Christians continue to celebrate Passover right up until today, or Pascha to use its Greek name, as a Christian festival, although the form of the celebration has changed over the years.  Many churches still today consider Pascha (or Easter as it’s known in English and German speaking areas) to be the most important festival of the year. 

We also spoke once before about the wave offering, the Omer, that took place during the Passover week.  This is when a first-fruits offering of the new barley harvest was waved before the Lord.  This offering is a detailed picture of the suffering of Jesus, which was fulfilled in his resurrection and his ascension to the Father.  As it says in 1 Cor. 15:20, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”  

Then followed the fifty days of the counting of the Omer:  fifty days of uncertainty before the wheat harvest came in.  But when it finally came in, this was the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot, known better to us by its Greek name as Pentecost.  This is the festival that remembers the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.  It was fulfilled by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem for the festival.  This is when a special first-fruits offering of wheat was offered up:  two loaves of bread that symbolize the Jewish and the Gentile believers in Jesus.  Many Christians continue to celebrate a Christian form of this festival today.

All these spring festivals (Passover, the Omer, Pentecost, First-Fruits) have already been fulfilled by Jesus.  But the festivals in the fall have not yet been completely fulfilled (Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles).  Maybe that’s why they are less familiar to many Christians.  But they’re also important because they point forward to the return of the Messiah and the events that will happen after that. 

The first of the fall festivals is the Feast of Trumpets, which announces the special month of Tishri with a blast of the trumpet.  The modern name for this feast is Rosh Hashanah, which means “the head of the year” or “the beginning of the year.”  Why is that?  Because according to the Jewish calendar, this is the first day of the new year, which this year is the year 5775, that is, 5,775 years since the Creation.  This is only slightly different than the traditional Christian count, which places the Creation at 4,004 BC, which is now 6,018 years ago.  (The difference of 243 years is from different ways of counting the numbers in the Bible.)

For Rosh Hashanah to be the beginning of the year is confusing to many Christians, since the Bible assigns this time of year to the seventh, and not the first month of the year.  But Judaism in the time of Jesus came to recognize several different new year’s days:  there was a new year for the religious festivals, a new year for the tithing of animals, a new year for trees, and a new year for counting years, that is to say, a civil as opposed to a religious new year.  This civil new year came to be celebrated on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishri, which is the Jewish month that we’re in right now.  Because of this, the traditional Hebrew greeting at this time of year is “Shana Tovah” which means “May you have a good year.” 

In Bible times, this festival was known as Yom Teruah, the day of the blowing of trumpets ("Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'In the seventh month, on the first of the month, you shall have a sabbath rest, a memorial of the blast (teruah) of trumpets, a holy meeting,” Lev. 23:24).  This day is a symbol and a prophecy of Jesus’ return.  As it says in 1 Cor. 15:52, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.”  The blowing of the trumpet is a symbol of the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the righteous.

The trumpets blown for this festival are ram’s horn trumpets, called in Hebrew shoforot.  Some Christian groups blow them in their services all the time.  But in the synagogue, the shofar is blown only on certain days for specific reasons.  One of these reasons is the beginning of a new month.  The Bible commands the blowing of trumpets on the first day of every month in the Jewish calendar (“...and at the beginnings of your months [new moons] you will blow the trumpets...” Num. 10:10).  But Yom Teruah is the beginning of a special month, the Jewish month of Tishri.  This is the month of the holiest day in the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and also the week-long Feast of Tabernacles. 

What can we learn from Yom Teruah?  As we said, the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar.  In ancient times, they didn’t calculate the beginning of a new month, but instead waited until they saw the tiny sliver of the new moon.  When they first saw that tiny sliver of the moon, that was what they considered the beginning of the month.  But how could they be sure that everyone started the month at the same time? 

In Jesus’ day, people who saw the new moon would go and report it in the Temple.  After at least two witnesses were approved, the new month was officially proclaimed.  They would then light a huge bonfire on a mountain near Jerusalem, and then others would light them on other mountains until word of the new moon reached even distant Jewish communities hundreds of miles away.  

What this means, of course, is that every month, and especially on Yom Teruah, people were looking up in the sky in the evening, looking to see the tiny sliver of the new moon.  What is this a symbol of?  Watching and waiting for the return of Jesus—looking to see him appear in the clouds.  As it says in Luke 21:28, “But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Or in Matt. 24:42:  “Therefore, be on the alert (or be watchful), for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”  We don’t know when the day will come, so we should be watching and waiting for Jesus’ return.   

The blowing of trumpets (Yom Teruah) announces that the Day of Atonement is coming.  Since the Day of Atonement is a day of fasting and repentance—a symbol of God’s judgment—the sound of the trumpet is understood to be calling the people to repentance.  In other words, it’s a warning that judgment is coming, and so you better repent!  Because of this, the days between Yom Teruah and Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Repentance, or the days for repenting.  And so people think over their deeds of the past year, and repent of their sins before the Lord. 

According to Jewish teaching, there are two kinds of sins:  one committed against God, the other against your fellow man.  While you can repent to God for your sin against him, it does no good to repent to God for your sin against your fellow man.  You must go to the person you sinned against and repent.  And when possible, you must make restitution (you must pay him back) for whatever you did.  For example, if you stole something or broke something, you must pay for it.  Other kinds of sin cannot be paid for in this way, and you can only repent and ask for forgiveness.  So this is a time to get right with God and with your fellow man. 

This is very similar to Jesus’ instruction that when you are presenting your offering at the Temple, and you remember that your brother has something against you, you must leave your offering and get right with your brother first.  Then later you can bring your offering to God (“If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there…and first be reconciled to your brother.  Then come and present your offering,” Matt. 5:23,24). 

Religious actions don’t repair a broken relationship with our fellow human being.  We must go to that person directly to fix the problem.  And we cannot be right with God until we do.  As Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s prayer:  “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).  In other words, if we don’t forgive those who have sinned against us, God will not forgive us our sins against him.  This is, in fact, exactly how Jesus explains these words a couple of verses later:  “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14,15). 

Each time the trumpet is sounded during the days of repentance, it’s in a series of three different kinds of blasts (in three different sets of combinations).  The three different blasts are long [tekiah], medium [shevarim], and short [teruah]).  According to the rabbis, the first set of blasts symbolizes the kingdom of God.  This is to “wake us up” and remind us that God rules over the universe.  The second blast represents his care and provision for all Creation, that he is a loving God.  But the third blast represents the final judgment, when he will punish mankind for its sins.  Yes, God is a God of love.  But his love also means that he cannot allow sin to continue forever.  One day soon, he is coming to destroy sin forever.   

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is called “the Fast” in the book of Acts (27:9).  Why?  Because on this day every Israelite would fast from food and drink for the entire twenty-four hour day.  This fast was originally also observed by many Gentile Christians together with the Jewish people.  The evidence for this comes from John Chrysostom, one of the early church fathers (5th century).  He said in a sermon that not long before, it had been the practice of Christians to observe the Fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with the Jewish people—though at the time he was speaking, this had been discontinued.

Why would Christians, including Gentile Christians, observe this fast?  Because this is one of the things Gentiles are commanded to do in the Law of Moses:  “And this will be for you an eternal statute, in the seventh month on the tenth of the month, you will humble your souls and will not do any work, the native (Israelite) and the (Gentile) stranger living among you” (Lev. 16:29).  Of course, this is open to interpretation, because it says the Gentiles “living among you.”  Does this mean all Christians (who are living among the Jews by faith), or does it only mean Christians physically living in Jewish towns and cities?  Many early Christians, although not all, felt that this applied to them, and so they fasted with the Jewish people.  So the High Holy Days that begin this week are part of our Christian heritage, too.

In the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, this was the only day in the year the High Priest was permitted to go into the Holy of Holies, into the presence of God himself (Lev. 16).  This included the strange ritual of the scapegoat:  two identical goats, one sacrificed in the Temple, the other sent away into the desert.  This is the holiest festival of the year, in which everyone must participate or be cut off from his people (“For any soul that will not humble itself on this same day will be cut off from his people,” Lev. 23:29).   This is the day on which Israel as a nation was cleansed of all its sins against God by repentance and the offering of sacrifices.  But today, these sacrifices can no longer be offered.  So how can Jews today be cleansed from sin?  Only by the sacrifice of Jesus.  Without Jesus, no Jewish person today has the assurance of the forgiveness of their sins.  They can only hope their sins are forgiven.  Why?  Because there are no more sacrifices in the Temple.  Only in Jesus can they get that assurance. 

This year, the fast began on Friday at sunset (two days ago).  Jews around the world went to their synagogues, many of them dressed in white, and stayed awake all night, praying to God and repenting of their sins.  Some prostrated themselves before the Lord.  In Jerusalem, the streets of the city are absolutely quiet.  No cars or trucks or motorcycles will drive on this day.  Even the non-religious respect this day, even the Arabs.  Instead you will see many of the young people walking in the streets at night dressed in white.  Many go to the Western Wall, the ancient wall of the Temple, to pray.

In the time of Jesus, the High Priest also stayed up all night in the Temple, praying and studying God’s Word.  The elders that were with him helped him remember all the important duties he would do the next day, so he wouldn’t make any mistakes.  Why was this important?  Because the next day, he would go into the Holy of Holies of the Temple, into the presence of God himself.  This meant he had to do everything just right, and be perfectly ritually clean, so that the people would be cleansed of all their sins. 

Early the next morning, after offering the daily burnt offering, the High Priest took a ritual bath, and put on a white garment.  This was in obedience to Lev. 16:4:  “He will put on the holy linen tunic, and the linen undergarments will be next to his body, and he will be girded with the linen belt, and attired with the linen turban—these are holy garments.  Then he will bathe his body in water and put them on.”  Normally, the high priest wore fancy colored clothes, some made with golden thread.  But for this ritual, he wore only plain white clothes.  This was a symbol of humility in coming before the Lord. 

First he offered a bull as a sin offering for his own sins.  This is in Lev. 16:6:  “Then Aaron will offer the bull for the sin offering which is for himself, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household.”  In the time of Jesus, he did this by laying his hands on the bull and confessing his sins.  Why was the High Priest’s own sacrifice—a bull—so much larger than the sin sacrifice of the people, which was a goat?  To show that the ritual purity of the High Priest was very, very important to the special rituals of the Day of Atonement.  He was to represent the people before God by going into the Holy of Holies.  And for this he had to be perfectly pure and holy.  This is exactly why it is so important that Jesus is perfectly holy:  he is our high priest in the heavenly Temple.

Then, the High Priest stood in the courtyard of the Temple, just in front of the entrance of the Sanctuary building.  Here, two identical male goats were brought before him.  As it says in Lev. 16:7:  “And he will take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting.”  The High Priest then cast lots over these two goats, as it says in Lev. 16:8:  “And Aaron will cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat.”  After reaching into a bowl for the lots, he picked them up in his two hands.  The hand that held the lot “for the Lord” he held up in the air.  Then he laid the lots on the two goats, and said, “A sin offering to the Lord!”  Then he tied a red thread around the horns of the goat chosen to be the scapegoat, and another red thread around the throat of the goat chosen to be sacrificed to the Lord.    Why were these two goats identical?  To show that they are two parts of one offering. 

The priest then confessed his sins over the bull a second time, along with the sins of the priesthood, and slaughtered it, catching its blood in a bowl.  This is in Lev. 16:11:  “Then Aaron will offer the bull of the sin offering which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his household, and he will slaughter the bull of the sin offering which is for himself.”  

After this, he walked up the ramp of the Altar of Burnt Offering, that was there in the courtyard, and scooped up coals from the fires burning on top of it.  He also filled another vessel with two handfuls of incense.  Then, with the incense bowl in one hand and the firepan with the hot coals in the other, he entered the Sanctuary of the Temple.  This is in Lev. 16:12:  “And he will take a firepan full of coals of fire from on the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil.”  

Inside the Sanctuary building, behind the Altar of Incense, was a huge double curtain between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.  The high priest now walked between the two curtains (there was just enough room for him to pass) and entered the Holy of Holies.   

Once he got into the Holy of Holies, he put the incense on the coals of the firepan, and the whole place was filled with smoke.  This is in Lev. 16:13:  “And he will put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, lest he die.”  This is talking about the Ark of the Covenant that used to be in the Holy of Holies, but which was stolen when the Babylonians destroyed the city many years before.  So how did they do this ritual if the Ark of the Covenant was no longer there?  They went on and did the ritual just as if it was still there. 

Then the High Priest went out and came back in again, this time carrying the bowl with the blood of the bull, which he sprinkled seven times in the Holy of Holies.  This is in Lev. 16:14:  “Moreover, he will take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat [that is, the top of the Ark] on the east side [in other words, the front side], and in front of the mercy seat he will sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.” 

What is the meaning of this?  Why does he sprinkle the blood of the bull in the Holy of Holies?  The blood of this sacrifice, the sacrifice of the bull, is what makes a way for the high priest, an unworthy human being, to enter into the Holy of Holies, into the presence of God himself.  Only in this way can he be made worthy to offer up the sin offering of the people.  What is this a picture of?  That no man is worthy to come into the presence of God.  As it says in Romans 3:10:  “There is no one that is righteous, not even one.”  That’s why God himself had to come, as the God-man Jesus.  Only he is worthy, on the basis of his own blood, to enter into the true, heavenly Holy of Holies, to make atonement for us. 

Then the High Priest came out again from the Holy of Holies, and slaughtered the goat that was for the Lord, a sin offering for all the people.  What is the meaning of this?  That only one who comes out from the presence of God is worthy to offer up the sin offering for us.  What is this a picture of?  Jesus, who came from the Father, to offer himself as a sin offering for us. 

Then the High Priest again entered the Holy of Holies, and this time he sprinkled the blood of the goat in the Holy of Holies.  As it says in Lev. 16:15:  “Then he will slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.” 

What is the meaning of this?  As it says in Lev. 16:16:  “And he will make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel, and because of their transgressions, in regard to all their sins.”  What is this a picture of?  When Jesus died for us, as it says in the book of Hebrews, he entered again into the presence of the Father, into heaven, to offer his own blood as a sacrifice for us, to cleanse us from our sins, to make atonement for us before the Father (Heb. 9:12)! 

Then the High Priest went out again to the other goat, the scapegoat, for the second half of this important ceremony.  As it says in Lev. 16:21:  “Then Aaron will lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he will lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness.” 

Then the scapegoat was led out by someone, usually a non-Israelite, over the top of the Mt. of Olives and into the desert.  Originally it was just left to wander and die there.  But in the time of Jesus, it was led to the edge of a cliff, and pushed over it.  What was the meaning of this?  The scapegoat carried the sins of Israel away.  As it says in Lev. 16:22:  “And the goat will bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he will release the goat in the desert.” 

What is this a picture of?  Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus led his disciples out of Jerusalem, on the same road taken by the scapegoat, over the Mt. of Olives.  When they came near Bethany, he ascended into heaven.  What is the meaning of this?  Jesus is our scapegoat, taking our sins as far away as the East is from the West, as far away as the heavens are from the earth, cleansing us from sin.   

How are all these incredible events summed up for us in the Bible?  In Lev. 16:30, it says, “For it is on this day that atonement will be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD.”  This is a beautiful picture of the ministry of Jesus.  Jesus came to cleanse us from our sins, and to put us in a right relationship with God through him.  Jesus’ death on the cross fulfills the Day of Atonement for those who believe in him.  This was God’s eternal plan:  that when we receive Jesus, we are saved from the wrath of God that is coming. 

So what have we learned today?  It’s very important for us to understand the meaning of the Jewish Festivals in order to understand the ministry of Jesus.  Rosh Hashanah (or the Feast of Trumpets as the Bible calls it) is a reminder that Jesus is coming, and that now is our chance to repent, before it’s too late.  The blast of the trumpet reminds us that there will be justice, and that God will judge and avenge all sin. 
The Day of Atonement is a symbol of that coming judgment, that all will come before the throne of God.  And when they do, some will be saved and others will be destroyed.  The only way to avoid this punishment is to repent now and be restored to God through the sacrifice of Jesus. 

The Feast of Tabernacles, which starts later this week, is a symbol of the joy of eternal life for those who are saved.  But that’s a subject for another time....

Let’s pray:  Lord, we thank you for the forgiveness that we have in Jesus.  We thank you that you loved us so much, you came all the way from heaven to heal us, to restore us, and to save us.  Thank you for teaching us about this in the Feasts of Israel, so that we can understand the importance of what you came to do.  Thank you for dying on the cross that we might be forgiven of all our sins.  Help us never to treat lightly what you have done for us, but help us always to praise and glorify you for what you have done.  For you are an awesome and a mighty God, and we praise you now, in the name of the one who died for us:  Yeshua, Jesus, the Messiah.  Amen.  

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