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The Lord Jesus and his kingdom message offer a radically alternative view of our life, and the world around us. A perspective that evokes thankfulness amidst trials and enables a disciple to express joy amidst hardship. The Feast of Tabernacles offers a way to visualize this transformed point-of-view.
WHAT IS THE FEAST?
The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) is virtually unknown in Christian circles, yet it featured prominently in the faith and practice of Jesus and his countrymen. It's the setting for his remarkable declaration in John 7, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, 'Out of him shall flow rivers of living water.'"
Sukkot occurs in the Autumn and follows Passover (Pesach) and Pentecost (Shavuot) as the last of the three annual pilgrimage festivals.(1) From another angle in Judaism, it is also the first feast as it occurs in the seventh month, their spiritual new year. So significant is Sukkot that as early as Solomon and the dedication of the Temple it was called simply, the festival (1 Kings 8:2).
Like Pesach, Sukkot has many vibrant biblical symbols and rituals associated with it. None, though, is more recognizable or memorable as the booth (sukkah). "You shall dwell in booths for seven days.(2) All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God." - Leviticus 23:42-43, ESV
WHY BOOTHS? Although there is a wealth of valuable teaching and detail in this and other related texts, for the sake of brevity and staying connected to my stated purpose, I want you to notice three things:
1) The people of the covenant were to make temporary shelters (booths) and dwell in them for seven days, the length of the feast. 2) Why? So that each person in each successive generation would remember that the great saving events of the Exodus resulted in them dwelling in booths en route to the Promised Land. 3) Why? So that the individual and the community would learn to walk by faith, not by sight. YHWH, the only true God, is the one to whom exclusive allegiance is owed so fear and obey him. But serve him from a heart of love because He alone is truly Faithful.
Wait a minute, how did I get God's grace—his covenant faithfulness—out of the text? Here is my answer and you will see it's the hub that the wheel of the festival turns on.
When thinking about the children of Israel in the wilderness, Christians are conditioned to think primarily in terms of how they responded: with fear, unbelief, idolatry, complaining and whining, disobedience and so on. It is our default setting, perhaps because we understand sin so much more than we do redemption. Further, we of the new covenant often read these stories and think of ourselves and our behavior as superior. By judging them as we do—which is a symptom of theological anti-Semitism—we become blind to the same tendencies and actions in ourselves (1 Cor 10:6).
Don't misunderstand me; sin is an important part of their story, of our story. Indeed, one only arrives at the Feast of Tabernacles by way of the Day of Atonement five days earlier (Lev 16, 23:26). But the utter sinfulness of sin can only be adequately grasped in the light of God's intrinsic goodness. The character of the Holy One is the deeper truth we behold when we risk trading in the security of our creature comforts for the seeming insecurity of these fragile shelters.
FROM THE BOOTH, WE LEARN TO DISCERN GOD'S PRESENCE Passover is the biblical archetype of salvation by grace through faith, the way out of captivity if you will. Pentecost, illustrated by the events at Mt. Sinai fifty days later, answers the why of divine deliverance. The heart of the world's rightful King is to bring people back into proper relationship with Him. He brought them out to bring them in. The stunning manifestation of His dedication—the point of all that preceded this—is His gift of presence, evidenced by the Tabernacle.
And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8 ESV)
This crucial text plays an important part of the mental framework for the Jewish people during the time of Jesus, indeed even to this day. Why? Because they grasped, at least initially, the idea that we're wrestling with now. The intent of salvation is that our great Creator desires to dwell (live, be present) among those He rescues. The very organization of Exodus pictures this sequence and end goal.
Let's break it out by chapter divisions:
> 1-12 = Israel's Deliverance from Egypt
> 13-24 = From Egypt to the Covenant at Mt. Sinai
> 25-40 = The Tabernacle and the Worship
And what is the dramatic climax of the book? The glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle! (Exodus 40:34-38)
The result? The Shepherd of Israel will lead them each step of the way, manifesting his care in protection and miraculous provision. Did God withdraw his presence? How about after the idolatry of the golden calf incident? After the cowardice and disobedience of the people following the bad report from ten of their twelve scouts?
No, no he didn't. This profound reality is so fresh in the mind of Moses that forty years later he exhorts Joshua, and through him the covenant people, "It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8, Joshua 1:5)
IMMANUEL Now consider how John, the Jewish disciple of Jesus, introduces the Master in his Gospel. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14) Up until this point, he has called him the divine word (logos). From this point on he is known to John's readers as that word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. Do you hear the echoes of the tabernacle in the wilderness language? Dwelt among us, beheld His glory, grace and truth actualized.
Shortly after, John the Baptizer's testimony "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29) completes the Temple worship connection. In verse 33 that same prophet gives clear witness concerning the source of this revealed glory, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit." Here is a good place to ask ourselves, if the Son of God exercised no divine rights or privileges to depend solely on Holy Spirit, how much more dependent are we, his followers?
As if to answer our question, Jesus gives comfort to his soon to be scattered little flock on the eve of his crucifixion. The words he chooses echo powerfully from the very portion of his Bible we looked at above, only this time with a distinctive new covenant orientation,
"Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me." [...] "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." (John 14:1, 18-20)
YOU SHALL REJOICE IN YOUR FEAST In Deuteronomy 16, instructions for The Feast comes with a unique dual responsibility relating to joy. The pilgrim is to be joyous; it's a command (vs. 14). The ability to obey the command arises from the awareness of blessings related to Abba's presence (vs. 15). Because he is faithful, his people respond with faithfulness.
The pilgrim festivals serve as a tutorial of biblical faith. It was during the season of Passover that Messiah Jesus died, rose from the dead, and continued in fellowship and teaching with his disciples. It was on the day of Pentecost that he ascended, sending the promised Holy Spirit to set up residence within believers. What then of Tabernacles?
If Pesach is our way out, and Shavuot our way in, then I believe Sukkot helps picture our way forward. As it was for our Master, it is the way of sojourning in a wilderness hostile to grace. It is the way of radical trust that discerns salvation at work in his world. And it is the way of delightful obedience, dedicating ourselves to working with him to transform our surroundings into a garden of his presence.
(1) Four of the five foundational books of Moses provide detail, teaching and instruction concerning these three important appointments in the Israelite calendar (Exo 23, 34, Lev 23, Num 28-29, Deu 16). To get closer to a sense of what they meant to the Messiah, keep in mind that these sacred festivals were invented, engineered, and given by His Father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
(2) The rendering “booths” (cf. NAB, NASB, NRSV) is probably better than the traditional “tabernacles” in light of the meaning of the term סֻכָּה (sukkah, “hut, booth”), but “booths” are frequently associated with trade shows and craft fairs in contemporary American English. The nature of the celebration during this feast (see the following verses) as a commemoration of the wanderings of the Israelites after they left Egypt suggests that a translation like “temporary shelters” is more appropriate. [Leviticus 23:33 note #50 - This is an example of the meaningful study notes available online at netbible.org. They feature the excellent NET translation, and useful helps like Hebrew, Greek, parallel Bibles and more. The service is free.]