Please if you would, take a copy of the Bible in your hands and turn with me to the book of Exodus, chapter 23. Exodus chapter 23; page 64 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. The Westminster Larger Catechism teaches us that the Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of salvation. The reading and the preaching together are the means the Holy Spirit uses to save sinners and strengthen believers and encourage us in our Christian lives. And so before we read God’s Word and hear it proclaimed, it’s fitting for us to bow our heads and ask for God to send us the Holy Spirit to help us understand and believe His holy Word. Let’s pray together!
O Lord, Your Word is spread before us. As we turn our attention to it, we pray that Your Spirit would work mightily by it as it is read and preached. May it be indeed a means of grace to every heart here in this sanctuary. Work by Your Spirit to draw us to Christ and to the end of ourselves, to cling to Him and find in Him all sufficiency. So we look to You and we pray that You would wield the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, to great effect in all our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Exodus 23 at the tenth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day, you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.
Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips.
Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me. You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God.
You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my feast remain until the morning.
The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.
You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.
One of the things I have enjoyed about life here in Mississippi is learning its cultural rhythms. I’m not speaking about the music of our state so much as the rhythms of our people, the life of our culture, the ebb and flow of our calendar. And there are different factors that shape those rhythms, aren’t there? So for example, football season has just begun and with it the great pilgrimage to the holy cities of Oxford or Starkville! And then when the pilgrim feasts of football are over, another season begins. Many of the men and not a few of the women initiated into the bloody rites are taken out to the wilderness to put a bullet in a deer or a turkey! And so goes year after year. We shape our calendars around things like this, don’t we? Football and hunting, times at the lake house or at the beach, the school calendar national holidays – they punctuate our lives with a certain rhythm that binds us together, expresses shared values.
And in our passage this morning, the Lord makes use of that basic human instinct for life rhythms, cultural rhythms, to imprint upon His people habits designed to teach them and can teach us about the God of infinite grace. Before we look at those particular rhythms and festivals God provided for His people, I do want you to notice first of all verse 13 carefully with me. Verse 13. This really is the master concern, not just of this part of the chapter but of this entire section of the book of Exodus. Look at verse 13. God says to them, “Pay attention to all that I have said to you and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips.” God wants to be first in the lives of His people. He wants us to prize Him not as one among many, competing for our attention or affection, but as the only Lord of our lives. “There’s no place for other gods; don’t even name them. Forget them instead! So prize Me, so desire to honor Me, so delight yourselves in Me that My commandments become nothing so much as the transcript of your own deepest heart longings.”
That’s part of the purpose, actually, of those rather curious commands in verses 18 and 19, if you’d look down there with me for a moment. They are perplexing at first read, aren’t they? Strange to our ears. But I want you to understand that God is simply teasing out what it means for Israel to put Him first in their lives. So verse 18, they are to be careful not to mix the blood of their sacrifices with anything leavened, nor are they to leave the fat of their sacrifices until morning. That is to say, they are to pay attention to their worship and not to offer polluted or putrid sacrifices. God wants our hearts and our minds fixed on Him and He wants our best. And so verse 19, “the best of your firstfruits, of your ground, you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God not the leftovers, not an afterthought,” which, just as an aside, it’s not hard to find there a challenge for us about how we worship or how we give – is it? Bring the best of your firstfruits. Be intentional and sacrificial.
Then notice what really is the most bizarre command of this whole section there at the end of verse 19 about not cooking a goat in its mother’s milk. It’s actually not so bizarre when you understand that this was part of Canaanite sacrificial worship. This is how the pagans did it. And God wants us to worship Him His way; not our way and not the world’s way. He wants to be first in our lives and in our affections and so He says, “Pay attention to all that I have said to you. Make no mention of other gods nor let it be heard on your lips.” And that really is, in many ways, the great mark of a Christian. We’ve come so to cherish the Lord Jesus Christ that His commands have become our delight and our God-given duties increasingly our most basic desires. We love Him and so we want to please Him and we find there to be, as we walk with Jesus, less and less room in our hearts or on our lips for any rival to Him. We seek not to mention other gods, not to entertain the world’s competitors, counterfeits, claiming our devotion. Instead, we strive to make the Lord Jesus always first and only in our lives. Everything else in this part of the chapter is simply designed to further that great concern, to push the exclusive claims of God all the way down into the rhythms of Israel’s life together. By structuring their lives, as we’ll see, around these Sabbaths and around these festivals, God is doing discipleship in Israel. He is training His people to cling to Him and to trust in Him.
It may not have been original to him, but I once heard William Still, the last pastor of Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen, describe I think very well the way we all tend to function. He said, “Sow a thought; reap an action. Sow an action; reap a habit. Sow a habit and you will reap a destiny.” “Sow a thought; reap an action. Sow an action; reap a habit. Sow a habit and you will reap a destiny.” Isn’t that how we all tend to operate? And in our text, as I hope we’re going to see, God is sowing thoughts and actions and habits in the fertile soil of Israel’s community life that He might form them and shape them and disciple them for His glory and their eternal good.
And if you’ll look at the text with me, you’ll see that there are two distinct sets of instructions about the rhythm of their national life. In verses 10 through 12, there are Sabbath rhythms. Do you see those in verses 10 through 12? Sabbath rhythms. Then in 14 to 17, festival rhythms. Both of them teach important things about God and His Gospel. Let’s look at verses 10 through 12 first – Sabbath rhythms.
In verses 10 to 11, there are instructions governing the practice of agriculture and the cultivation of the land in Israel. They are to work the land for six years, then on the seventh allow the land to lie fallow. That’s good farming practice. It helps maintain the fertility and the productivity of the soil. But notice in our text there’s another reason for it given. They are to do it, do you see, “that the poor of your people may eat, and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat.” The farmer leaves his field alone one year in seven and in the fallow field whatever crops may grow up without cultivation may be harvested by the destitute. There’s a concern here that the land of promise be indeed a land of plenty and a land of provision and meet the needs of God’s people, especially the poorest and the most marginalized.
Jesus was Numbered Amongst the Poor and Marginal
And that reminds us, yet again, of a principle we have noticed several times in this larger section of the book of Exodus. God is deeply concerned for the marginal and the weak and the impoverished among His people. They are not an afterthought as He gives laws to govern the national life of His covenant community. That actually may be how you feel as you’ve come here this morning. It might put words to how you perceive yourself – impoverished, marginal, an afterthought to God. But laws like this one are designed to make sure God’s people never fall into that way of thinking. He wants to build into the rhythms and routines of Israel’s national life a fundamental concern for the needy that will echo His own concern. It’s actually a pattern that we have seen nowhere with greater clarity than in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. No one cared for the poor or the needy like Him. He was always found among them, wasn’t He, serving them, listening to them, ministering to them. In fact, you may even remember how in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 12, He was Himself numbered among the poor and the marginal. Those who needed to glean heads of grain in the fields on the Sabbath day. There really is no one who knows the depths of our poverty or need like Jesus Christ. You are not an afterthought to Him and you are not marginal to Him. After all, He knows what it’s like to be marginalized and outcast and impoverished and He endured all of that that He might be a perfect Savior to us, even at our lowest points and in those moments of direst need.
A Day of Rest
And look down at verse 12 for a minute. Along with the cycle of the Sabbath year, God reminds His people of the weekly cycle of the Sabbath day. Do you see that in verse 12? And again, notice the motivation. What is the Sabbath for? It’s for rest! It’s for rest! Rest for working livestock, rest for children or servants laboring on the land or in the household; even rest for foreign residents who have come to dwell in Israel. It’s the same note we’ve just heard about in the Sabbath year reflecting the heart of compassion in God for His people. He wants us to rest. Some of us, I suspect, are inveterate activists. Our lives are filled with frenetic business and we feel like there’s something not quite right when we are resting. We get a little twitchy, a little anxious that we’re not doing what we ought to be doing; that there’s something wrong. What a beautiful thing to see the wisdom and compassion of God here in this text who commands His people to stop, one day in seven at least, and to fold your hands and to quiet your hearts and rest. Our God knows our frame and He remembers that we are but dust and even when we think we don’t need to rest, He knows better and has made a gracious provision in the Sabbath day, the Lord’s Day, on which He calls us to rest.
In the same part of Matthew chapter 12, that we mentioned earlier, Jesus declared “the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath!” That is to say, the Sabbath is His day and His character is stamped upon it. As God makes provision for our needs, the Sabbath we could say is a Christ-like day, a day of grace, a day of rest, a day of mercy and service and compassion. I wonder if one reason we reject a careful, joyous Sabbath observance on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, is that we consider it to be more of a burden than we do a blessing. It’s not a day of rest and gladness but perhaps a day of restricted freedom and wearying obligation; dull and heavy not Christ-like and filled with joy and ministry and renewal. And if that’s your view of this Sabbath command, no wonder you reject it. No wonder! What a drudgery! No, the Sabbath Jesus said was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. It is a gift of grace from a God who knows you need to rest and has sought to ring-fence one day, to build into our weekly rhythms and patterns provision for our welfare.
It’s fascinating to me, even more profoundly than that, it’s fascinating to me that immediately prior to provoking controversy with the Pharisees in this part of Matthew chapter 12, when Jesus gleans in the field and picks the heads of grain from the field, immediately prior to that at the end of chapter 11, Jesus had turned to the crowds and said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” You see what He’s saying? He’s saying the Sabbath pattern is ultimately a Gospel pattern, so not only does the Sabbath Day bear the character of the Lord Jesus Christ, it points us to the provision the Lord Jesus Christ has made for our souls when He gave His life to redeem us. Rest – rest from dead works to serve the living and true God; rest from a guilty, sin-seared conscience; the rest of peace with God and peace from God. And so I hope you can hear Jesus saying to you this morning, “Come to Me! Won’t you come to Me you weary, heavy-laden soul? I have rest for you today.” So there are Sabbath rhythms here.
Then look with me at verses 14 to 17. There are also festival rhythms. God instituted three festivals in our text – The Feast of Unleavened Bread, verses 14 and 15, The Feast of Harvest in the first part of 16, and The Feast of Ingathering. Unleavened Bread is connected to the broader celebration of the Passover. The people were to sweep their homes clean of all yeast, of all leaven and make unleavened loaves to eat for seven days. It was a way to commemorate the exodus when the people, you will remember, had to flee Egypt in such a hurry they didn’t have time to allow their bread to rise. The Feast of Harvest was held in early summer and it was focused, as the name suggests, on the very beginning of the wheat harvest. That’s why it’s also called The Feast of Firstfruits. The celebration involved the taking of the very first grains of the harvest, the first stocks of the harvest, and waving them before the Lord as a way to say that everything from here, all the harvest that is provided for us, is a gift of Your grace and we acknowledge our dependence upon You. And then the third feast, The Feast of Ingathering, on the other hand, is held in the fall at the very end of the harvest when the last stocks of grain and the last of the produce of the land are fully gathered in, a time of great celebration.
And I want you to notice carefully that movement punctuating the whole year for God’s people, right across the year. There seems to be a progression, says Philip Ryken. The worship year began with unleavened bread and ended with lavish feasting. This says something about God and His grace. “Salvation is always getting” – this is great, listen to this; “Salvation is always getting bigger and better as God piles one blessing on top of another.” That’s good, isn’t it? That’s part of what we’re being taught here. There’s a progression! It starts with some simplicity, unleavened bread, but it moves on through the beginning of the harvest to the fullness of celebration as the last sheaves of grain are being brought into the storehouses. That’s the way it is with the grace of God. It’s not that He saves us and there’s a sort of an initial deposit of grace and then He stands back and says to Himself, “Well now, let’s see how they get on with that.” Leaves us to ourselves to struggle on as best we can. No! Not at all!
The Grace of Sanctification
The grace He gives at first, great and sweet and undeserved, is only the beginning. “The path of the righteous is like the first light of the sun shining ever brighter until the noonday,” Proverbs 4:18. There are brighter days ahead for your soul by the grace of God, believer in Jesus. There are brighter days ahead in the grace of God for your soul. “The path of the righteous is like the first light of dawn shining ever brighter until the noonday.” “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined; those whom he predestined, these he also called. Those whom he called, these he also justified; those whom he justified, these he also glorified.” There’s progress! “He that began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Praise God that He doesn’t leave us the way He finds us. Praise God that there is grace upon grace upon grace. Grace that plants the seed in your heart, grace that begins to make it grow, grace that causes it to bear the full fruit until the glorious harvest is come.
A Call to Consecration in the Light of the Cross
But these festivals, I think, teach us even more than that. In 1 Corinthians 5 at verse 7, for example, the apostle Paul applies The Feast of Unleavened Bread directly to the Christian life. Sin, he says, is like leaven, like yeast. And he says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed! Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of simplicity and truth.” Jesus is the true Passover Lamb because of whose shed blood we are no longer slaves in bondage, not to Egypt but to sin. The bondage of sin no longer characterizes us because of the work of the Passover Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ. And yet the truth is, the presence of sin, the pollution of sin, is a reality. There’s still leaven in the dark corners of our hearts and homes and lives. Isn’t that so? Still, leaven to be swept clean. And that’s the message of this particular festival. Sweep out the leaven; clean out the old life. Jesus has shed His blood to make you holy, therefore be holy indeed. It’s a call to consecration in the light of the cross.
A Call to Mission in the Light of the Cross
Or think with me about The Feast of Harvest. Another name for this festival, as you may know, is The Feast of Pentecost. The name derives from the Greek word for “fifty” because Leviticus 23, says fifty days after the first sheaves of the harvest are waved in thanksgiving before God, there is to be a special sacrifice offered. In Acts chapter 2, the city you will recall, the city of Jerusalem, was filled with Jewish pilgrims from all over the world, they’ve come for the celebration of The Feast of Harvest, The Feast of Pentecost. Almost two months before, at Passover, Jesus had been crucified and now on The Feast of Harvest, the resurrected Christ, pours out the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and the great final harvest of men and women, boys and girls, saved by grace through the Gospel begins. To be sure, it was only the earnest, the firstfruits, of the final harvest. That’s why Jesus, in Luke chapter 10 at verse 2, you will remember, said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” There’s work to be done now in this season of harvest. Don’t misread the signs of the times! This is the harvest season! However hard and challenging it may appear around us, this is the season between firstfruits and final gathering in. And so Jesus says to us we are to pray the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers. We are to go with the Gospel to friends and neighbors, to our city and to our world, to gather in the harvest for the fields are white unto harvest. So Unleavened Bread is a call to consecration. The Festival of Harvest is a call to mission.
The Ultimate Festival of Ingathering
And one day, the final, climactic Feast of Ingathering will come when the harvest will, at last, be completed and the mission fulfilled. In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus tells a parable, a very solemn parable that pictures that great day. The world, Jesus says, is a field in which He has sown Gospel seed and a great harvest of sinners saved by grace has grown up ready to be gathered in. But at the same time, an enemy, the devil, has sown weeds among the sheaves of grain. “The harvest,” Jesus says, “is the end of the age and the reapers are the angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has an ear, let him hear.” Isn’t that a sobering picture of that last great day of ingathering? There will be a sifting, Jesus is saying, a separation of the wheat and the chaff of believers and unbelievers and those who do not know Jesus Christ, like the weeds in the field, will face the fire of divine wrath forever. But those who have trusted in Christ to be their Savior and Redeemer and Lord will join the great celebration, shining like the sun at noonday, in the presence of the Father in glory as the ultimate Festival of Ingathering commences.
Which Destiny will be Yours?
So we need to ask ourselves, “Which destiny will be ours when that day dawns? Which destiny will be yours when that day dawns?” I hope you can see that God was establishing rhythms of worship and rest in the cycle of Israel’s corporate life, all of which were designed from Sabbath days to Sabbath years, from Unleavened Bread to Harvest, to Ingathering, all of which were designed to highlight His marvelous grace. And finally, ultimately, to point us to the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the climactic message of this passage, isn’t He? And the central question that this text is asking us is really very simple. It is, “What will you do with Jesus? What will you do with Jesus?” Will you keep the feasts? Will you enter into the joy of celebration through faith in Christ alone? Will you learn to rivet all your attention and trust upon Him and find yourself swept up in that great assembly when the day dawns, participating in that glorious, final Festival of Ingathering? Or will yours be the lot of the weeds, sown among the sheaves of grain, facing the wrath of Almighty God? What will you do with Jesus?
Let’s pray together!
God our Father, we bow before You with gratitude that You are a God of compassion and a Father of mercy. That You make provision for us that we might rest, both in our bodies on the Sabbath Day and spiritually in Christ forever as we rest on Him in the Gospel. Help us to hear His summons and invitation to come and find rest in our weariness and as we labor. Teach us the joy and the celebratory note that ought to sound in every believer’s heart as we see our Savior gathering in from every tribe and language and people and nation a great harvest of which we ourselves have become a part. And we pray for those who are yet as like weeds, sown among the sheaves. O Lord, would You help them to hear the Gospel call, to know that they need Christ desperately and to flee only to Him. For we ask it in Jesus’ holy name, amen.
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