God instructed Israel that their males should go three times every year up to Jerusalem to “appear before the Lord” with an offering. The appointed times were the Feast of Passover (Unleavened Bread), the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Booths (Exod. 23:14–17; Deut. 16:16). Passover celebrated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Pentecost celebrated the barley harvest and, by the time of the New Testament, was associated with the giving of the law at Sinai. The Feast of Booths celebrated God’s care for Israel during their sojourn in the desert. According to the New Testament, all the Old Testament feasts also have prophetic significance.
Hebrews 9:24 describes Jesus’ ascension into the presence of the Father. He arrived at the heavenly sanctuary, “the true ones,” (plural in Greek, referring to the two-apartment heavenly sanctuary) in order to “appear” before God with a better sacrifice (Heb. 9:23, 24, NIV)—His own blood.
Jesus fulfilled the pilgrimage feasts’ prophetic significance with amazing accuracy. He died on the day for the preparation of the Passover at the ninth hour, the moment in which Passover lambs were sacrificed (John 19:14; Matt. 27:45–50). Jesus was resurrected on the third day and ascended to heaven to receive assurance that His sacrifice had been accepted (John 20:17; 1 Cor. 15:20), when the priest was to wave the sheaf of ripe barley as the first fruits (Lev. 23:10–12). Then, He ascended forty days later to sit at the right hand of God and inaugurate the new covenant on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1, 2).
The purpose of pilgrimage in ancient Israel was to “behold the face of God” (Ps. 42:2, NRSV). This meant to experience God’s favor (Ps. 17:15). Similarly, the Hebrew expression “to seek the face of God” meant to ask God for help (2 Chron. 7:14; Ps. 27:8; 105:4). This is the sense, in Hebrews, of Jesus’ ascension. Jesus ascended to God with the perfect sacrifice. Jesus ascended to heaven also as our forerunner into the presence of God (Heb. 6:19, 20). He has made real the promise for the believers who journey “seeking a homeland,” desiring “a better country” and looking “forward to the city . . . whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10, 13–16, NRSV).
When God called Israel from Egypt, His plan was to create a personal, intimate relationship with them. He said, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself” (Exod. 19:3, 4).
Thus, through Moses God gave the necessary instructions to prepare the people to meet with Him. The people needed to consecrate themselves first (Exod. 19:10–15). Those who ascended to the foot of the mountain without preparation would die. Nevertheless, once the people had prepared themselves for two days, then “when the trumpet sounds a long blast” on the third day, God instructed that the people “shall come up to the mountain” (Exod. 19:13, ESV). He wanted them to have the experience Moses and the leaders of the people would have when they ascended the mountain and “beheld God, and ate and drank” in His presence (Exod. 24:9–11, ESV). The people later recognized that they had seen God’s glory and that it was possible for God to speak “with man, and man still live” (Deut. 5:24, ESV). But, when the moment came, they lacked faith. Moses explained years later: “You were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain” (Deut. 5:5, ESV). Instead, they asked Moses to be their intermediary (Deut. 5:25–27; compare with Exod. 20:18–21).
God’s manifestation of His holiness at Mount Sinai was to teach the people to learn to “fear,” or respect, Him. The “fear of the Lord” leads to life, wisdom, and honor (Deut. 4:10; compare with Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 10:27)—and also to the lesson that He is merciful and gracious (Exod. 34:4–8). Thus, while God wanted Israel to come to Him, the people became afraid and requested Moses to be their intermediary. The description in Hebrews of the events at Sinai follows primarily Moses’ reminding the people of their lack of faith and their apostasy with the golden calf, and how he was afraid of meeting God because of their sin (Deut. 9:19). The people’s reaction was not God’s plan for them; it was, instead, the result of their unbelief and consequent disobedience and rebellion, as Hebrews emphasizes (Heb. 3:12, 19; 4:2, 6, 11).