Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Feast of Tabernacles 2014

Hag Sameach!  (“Happy holiday!” in Hebrew)  Today is the fourth day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Oct. 12, 2014).  It started last Wednesday evening at sunset (Oct. 8), with a Sabbath rest, and will continue until this coming Wednesday at sunset (Oct. 15), when it will be followed by an additional day of rest (Oct. 16).  This is the festival that we will be celebrating with other churches in Hsinchu next Sunday (Oct. 19)! 

This festival is commanded by God in Leviticus 23:34,39:  “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the LORD…. When you have gathered in the crops of the land, you will celebrate the feast of the LORD for seven days, with a rest on the first day and a rest on the eighth day’” (Lev. 23:34,39). 

This is the festival just after the final harvest of the year, the fruit harvest.  That fruit harvest is the result of the “miracle” that takes place during the dry summer months that we talked about last week:  all that fruit ripening because of the dew.  So for the farmers it’s a time of rest and a time of rejoicing.  The harvest is complete.  For this reason, the festival is also known as the Festival of the Ingathering (Hag Ha’Asif), because all the ripe fruit has been gathered in. 

Prophetically, this points to the time after all the righteous are gathered in at the coming of the Lord Jesus, when we will celebrate with him in the Millennium, the Messianic Kingdom, when Jesus will rule on this earth from Jerusalem.  Like the Feast of Tabernacles, this will be a great time of rest and rejoicing. 

So just to review briefly how this fits in with the other feasts at this time of year:  As we mentioned last time, the Feast of Trumpets is a symbol of the return of Jesus, when he will come with the blast of a trumpet, and the resurrection of the righteous.  The Day of Atonement ten days later is a symbol of God’s destruction of the wicked, all those who have rejected Jesus’ atonement for our sins.  Then comes the Feast of Tabernacles, which is a symbol of the Millennium, the Messianic Kingdom of Jesus on this earth. 

But actually, as it says here in Lev. 23:39 (see above), the time of the Feast of Tabernacles is really two festivals rolled into one.  First is the Feast of Tabernacles itself for seven days, followed on the eighth day by another festival known as Shmini Atzeret (“the assembly on the eighth day”), or as it says in the verse, “a rest on the eighth day.”

The Feast of Tabernacles is one of the three great pilgrim festivals of the Jews, when God commanded the men of Israel to come up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord.  But this feast is not only for the Jews.  Gentiles also participated in it, even back in the time of Moses:  “And you will rejoice in your feast, you and your sons and your daughters and your male servants and your female servants and the Levite and the stranger (ger) and the orphan and the widow that are within your gates” (Deut. 16:14).  The stranger mentioned here, ger in Hebrew, refers to Gentiles living in Israelite cities.  Because of this, some Christians feel it is appropriate for Gentile Christians to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles today. 

And there is certainly no question that the book of Zechariah says that in the kingdom of the Messiah, when Jesus returns to earth, the time known as the Millennium, everyone will go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast:  “Then it will be that everyone who is left of all the nations…will go up every year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zech. 14:16).  This is the verse that inspired the modern celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. 

That this feast concerns the nations of the world is also recognized by the rabbis.  They say that the seventy bulls that the Bible commanded to be sacrificed during this feast were a symbol of the seventy Gentile nations, the traditional Biblical number of all the non-Jewish nations of the world.  Where does this number of seventy nations come from?  From Genesis 10, the chapter known as the Table of Nations, which lists seventy descendants of Noah, each of whom was the ancestor of a nation. 

Where does the Bible say that seventy bulls were to be sacrificed during the Feast of Tabernacles?  Thirteen bulls are commanded for the first day of the feast, twelve on the next day, and so on to seven bulls on the seventh day (Num. 29:13-32).  When you add them up, it comes to exactly seventy. 

The connection of this feast with Gentiles is certainly being felt right now, this week, in Jerusalem, where thousands of Christians have gone up from all over the world to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast.  Most of the festivities for Christians are being held in the brand new Pais Sports Arena, not far from where we used to live in Jerusalem, an area known in Bible times as the Valley of Rephaim (right next to the Teddy Kollek Stadium and the mall).  This is one of the places that David fought the Philistines.  The Pais sports stadium has lots of room for the Feast to grow in the future.  The Christian celebration of the Feast is the first international conference to use this location. 

The Christian celebration started on Friday evening (Oct. 10) in En Gedi, down in the desert near Jericho.  From there, they came up to Jerusalem for Saturday morning communion services at the Garden Tomb (Oct. 11).  Then Saturday night, they had the “Parade of Nations” in the Pais Arena.  Altogether there were more than 4,000 people attending from 80 countries, the largest number in seven years.  Today (Oct. 12) they’ll be having seminars and another big celebration tonight and tomorrow.  Videos of all these events can be seen at and on other sites.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 14), they’ll participate with Israelis in the big Jerusalem March that winds through the streets of the city.  Tens of thousands of people come out to see it or march in it.  This parade is a big encouragement to the people of Jerusalem, who often feel that the whole world is against them.  Often the bystanders will applaud when they see Christians from all the different nations marching in the parade. 

Then that night, Tuesday night, will be the Israeli Guest Night, in which Israelis will be treated free to a big concert in which Christians will affirm their love for Israel and the Jewish people.  And then there will be a last prayer meeting on Wednesday morning at the steps by the Huldah Gates.  This was the main entrance to the Temple in Jesus’ day.

This feast is called the Feast of Tabernacles because people prepare booths (or huts) to live in during the Feast.  Every family makes its own booth:  sometimes on the roof of their house, sometimes on a large balcony, sometimes in the garden.  This must be a temporary structure, and you must be able to see the stars through the branches that are used to make the roof. 

Some of these booths are plain, others are decorated with all kinds of fancy decorations.  Many have a table and chairs inside.  All week long, they live in the booths as much as possible, eating their meals and even sleeping in them. 

Why do they build booths?  This is in obedience to the commandment of God in Leviticus 23:  “You will live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel will live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt.  I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 23:42,43). 

What is the meaning of these booths?  The time of the fruit harvest is a time when you can see many small huts or booths in the fields in Israel.  These are put up by farmers to guard their fruit crops just before the harvest, so no one will steal their fruit.  Many times the farmers or their workers will actually sleep out in these booths.  Others use old stone watchtowers in the same way. 

These temporary dwellings are a reminder of the forty years that the children of Israel wandered in the desert under the leadership of Moses and lived in temporary dwellings like this.  During all this time, they were kept alive by the miracles of God.  Because of this, the booths are a symbol of trusting God for his provision. 

They’re also a symbol of our earthly bodies.  As the apostle Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:1: “For we know that if our earthy house, the tent (or booth) [of our body], is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made by (human) hands, eternal in the heavens.”  Our lives in this world are like these booths:  temporary and fragile.  But one day they will be replaced by permanent dwellings in the resurrection:  eternal bodies that will endure forever. 

In Jesus’ day, people used to worship in the Temple holding a lulav in their right hand.  These were palm branches tied together with myrtle branches and willow branches.  In the left hand they held an etrog, a citrus fruit which is like a large lemon, known in English as a citron.  This was in fulfillment of Lev. 23:40:  “Now on the first day [of the Feast] you will take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and branches of leafy trees and willows of the brook; and you will rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.”  These are still used to celebrate the Feast today.  You can see people shopping for them in the markets in Jerusalem, looking very carefully to make sure they get high quality fruit and branches that will last for the whole festival. 

What’s the meaning of the lulav and the etrog?  There are many different explanations.  One is that they represent four different kinds of people—different personality types—worshipping together.  Another is that they represent all the different kinds of vegetation in the world.  Another is that they represent the different parts of the land of Israel:  the desert valley of the Jordan River (the palm), the mountains (the myrtle), the areas around rivers and streams (the willow), and the cultivated plains (the citron).

In the time of Jesus, beginning early in the morning, a procession went down to the Kidron valley (east of Jerusalem) to get willow branches from the trees there.  These were placed around the altar of sacrifice in the Temple as a decoration to form a leafy canopy.  This was done every day of the Feast (except Sabbaths). 

At the same time, another procession, led by a priest with a golden pitcher, went down to the Pool of Siloam to draw water with singing and rejoicing.  This is the same pool to which Jesus sent the man born blind later that same week to receive his miraculous healing.  “The man who is called Jesus made clay, and anointed my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam, and wash’; so I went away and washed, and I received my sight” (John 9:11).  This is the same pool that archeologists have just recently discovered in Jerusalem—a very exciting archeological discovery.

When the priest had filled the golden pitcher with water, he returned to the Temple, where he was met by a blast of trumpets.  He then walked up onto the altar and poured the water from the golden pitcher into a bowl on top of the altar.  Another priest poured wine into another bowl nearby at the same time.  This pouring out of water and wine on the altar was done each morning of the festival week. 

What is the meaning of this pouring out of water and wine on the altar?  The altar was a place of sacrificial death, a symbol of what Jesus came to do for us.  So no wonder John was so amazed at the crucifixion of Jesus when he saw both blood and water coming out of the side of Jesus:  “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water.  And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe” (John 19:34,35).  Why was John so amazed by this?  Because it fulfills this important symbol of the Feast, when both wine (a symbol of blood) and water were poured out on the altar. 

One year, on the last day of the festival, the seventh day, when the water and wine were poured out for the last time, Jesus raised his voice in the Temple so that everyone could hear him:  “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If any man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever trusts in me, as the Scripture said, ‘Out of his inner parts will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37,38).

Just imagine what a dramatic moment that was, with Jesus crying out before the thousands and thousands of people gathered in the Temple for the Feast!  The Bible says that many believed in him because of it:  “Some of the crowd therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, ‘This certainly is the Prophet.’  Others were saying, ‘This is the Messiah.’…” (John 7:40,41).  What did they mean by “the Prophet”?  This was the ‘prophet like Moses’ of Deut. 18:18, one of the best known prophecies about the Messiah at that time. 

So what was the meaning of the words that Jesus shouted out in the Temple?  They explained the true meaning of the ceremony of the pouring out of water.  The rabbis connected this pouring out of water with the prayers for rain that the people would begin to say at this time.  Many years, the first rain of the season will fall during the Feast of Tabernacles.  But this water had a deeper meaning.  As John explains in John 7:39:  “This he spoke of the Spirit, whom those who trusted in him were about to receive” (John 7:39).  Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, of which the altar is a symbol, we are cleansed from our sins so that we are able to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. 

As Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, “Therefore, after he (Jesus) was raised up to the right hand of God, and received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he poured this out that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33).  Peter was talking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that took place that day, in which the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and were speaking in tongues.  The pouring out of water on the altar was a symbol of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the death of Jesus. 

The rabbis, too, recognized a connection between this ritual and the Holy Spirit.  They said:  “Why is the name of [this ceremony] called the drawing out of water?  Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, according to what is said [by the prophet Isaiah], ‘With joy you will draw water from the springs of salvation (yeshuah)’” (Ruth Rab. 4:8).  This is a quote from Isa. 12:3.  The rabbis were more right than they realized.  Because in Hebrew, the word salvation at the end of this verse is yeshuah, the noun form of the Hebrew name of Jesus:  Yeshua.  The “springs of salvation (yeshuah)” in Isaiah—the springs of Jesus—are the “rivers of living water” that Jesus was talking about (John 7:38):  the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. 

Why is it important to receive the Holy Spirit?  The Holy Spirit is God in us, helping us to live holy and pure lives, drawing us closer and closer to himself.  The Holy Spirit is also Jesus’ promise or pledge to us that we will receive an inheritance when he comes again and gathers us to himself.  As it says in Eph. 1:13-14:  “In whom [in Messiah] you [Gentile believers], too, after you heard the word of truth—the good news of your salvation—in whom you, too, after you believed, were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is a pledge (or down payment) to us of our inheritance toward the redemption of the possession, that it might result in the praise of his glory.”  What is Paul talking about? 

The sealing of the Holy Spirit is when we are marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, just like the ancient seals they used to use to mark ownership.  That seal, that marking of our lives by the Holy Spirit, is a promise, a pledge that we will one day receive the inheritance of eternal life from the Lord.  And when will we receive that inheritance?  At the time of the “redemption of the possession,” when we, God’s special possession, will be set free from the afflictions of this world at the return of Jesus.  Amen?   Are you looking forward to that day of rejoicing?

On that same day, the last day of the feast, the priests and the women and children made a procession around the altar of sacrifice carrying their branches and singing a group of psalms known as the Hallel (Psalms 113-118).  When they got to the last Psalm, Psalm 118, they shook their palm branches at the first verse, “Give thanks to the LORD,” then again at vs. 25, “Please, LORD, save us now!” (in Hebrew, Ana Adonai Hoshia-nah).  Does that remind you of anything?  Hoshia-nah is written in Greek as Hosanna.  Then again they shook their branches at the end of the psalm, “Give thanks to the LORD.”  This was done each day of the feast with a single procession around the altar, but now, on the last day, they walked seven times around the altar.  And then after that they smashed all their branches into little pieces.  What was this all about? 

This procession is similar to what some call today a Jericho march.  Remember when Joshua and the children of Israel marched once around Jericho each day for a week, and blew the trumpets, but on the seventh day they marched seven times around Jericho and shouted and blew the trumpets.  What happened when they did that?  The walls of Jericho fell down!  The city was completely destroyed, just like the branches that the people smashed.  This is a picture of the final defeat of the wicked. 

But wait a minute!  Why would this picture of the destruction of the wicked be put at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles?  Isn’t the Feast a picture of the peaceful Messianic kingdom, the thousand years reign of Messiah on the earth?  Shouldn’t the destruction of the wicked happen before the Feast? 

It’s true that the Bible teaches the destruction of the wicked at the coming of the Messiah, just before the 1,000 years.  This is when God will pour out his wrath on the unrighteous.  They will all be destroyed and their souls will go down to Sheol, the place of the spirits of the dead, until their resurrection.  Because of this, during the thousand years, only the righteous will be on the earth.  But that’s not the end of the wicked. 

At the end of the thousand years, there will be another resurrection, the resurrection of the unrighteous.  This is when they, too, will be raised back up to the surface of the earth.  And there will be a terrible battle between God’s people and all the unrighteous.  In the book of Revelation, this is called the battle of Gog and Magog (Rev. 20:8).  It will be a horrible and fearsome battle.  But in the end, just like the falling of Jericho on the seventh day, the wicked will be defeated by a miracle of God.  That will be our Great Hosanna!  God will have a complete and final victory over all the forces of wickedness, including Satan himself.

Then the unrighteous will be brought to the Final Judgment.  This is when they will be sent to Gehenna forever (the Lake of Fire).  All this happens at the end of the thousand years, just as the Great Hosanna happens at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Does this procession with palm branches and singing Hosanna remind you of anything?  This is the way the people greeted Jesus when he rode the donkey into Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday, singing the same verse from Psa. 118:  Hoshia-na, Hosanna.  But Palm Sunday was at a completely different time of year:  the time of Passover in the spring!  Why did they use a ritual from the fall festivals to greet Jesus in the springtime? 

Have you ever looked closely at Psa. 118?  It’s about God delivering his people from foreign enemies.  “All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off.  They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off” (Psa. 118:10,11).  The people went out to greet Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior, the one God would use to destroy all the work of the enemy.  This fit perfectly with the ritual they all knew from the Feast of Tabernacles. 

At the close of the first day of the Feast, four huge lampstands were put up in the Court of the Women.  This is the area where most of the worship took place in the Temple.  The old, worn clothes of the priests were used for the wicks of the lamps.  These lamps were so bright, they say there was not a court in Jerusalem that was not lit up by their light.  In the light of those huge lamps, the righteous men danced before the people (known in Hebrew as Simkhat beth Hashoeva).  Perhaps Jesus was referring to this ceremony when he said later that same week:  “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).   

The last event of the day was a special declaration of faithfulness to the Lord.  Two priests blew trumpets, and then marched across the Court of the Women, with the blast of trumpets again.  When they came to the eastern gate of the court, they turned around to face the Sanctuary, and said, “Our fathers who were in this place, they turned their back on the Sanctuary of the Lord, with their faces toward the east, and they worshipped towards the rising sun; but as for us, our eyes are towards the Lord.”   This was in memory of the many years the people had turned away from God to worship false gods.  But now, they said, “Our eyes are toward the Lord.”  They had turned away from their sins to worship the living God. 

The last day of the Feast, the Great Hosanna, when they marched seven times around the altar, was the end of the Feast of Tabernacles.  But it was not the end of the festivities.  God had commanded another holy day that was added to the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, and began right away that same night:  Shimini Atzeret, “the assembly of the eighth day.”  But although many people consider this just to be the end of the Feast, the Bible is very clear that this is a separate festival and does not include any of the rituals of the Feast of Tabernacles.  The people are no longer commanded to live in Booths, for example.  So what is the meaning of this eighth day? 

Today in Israel, this day is celebrated as Simchat Torah, the “rejoicing in the Torah.”  This is the day on which they finish the annual cycle of Torah reading (the five books of Moses are read through once a year), and then start again reading chapter one in Genesis.  This is celebrated with great joy in the synagogues in which the people march around holding Torah scrolls.  But this is a new celebration, only started in the last 400 years or so. 

All that the Bible tells us is that this eighth day is a day of rest.  In Jesus’ day, and still today, it’s the day on which they start to pray again for rain:  it’s the beginning of the wet season.  But aside from that, from a Biblical point of view, this additional holiday on the eighth day is a bit of a mystery. 

You don’t hear much about the eighth day as a Christian symbol these days, but in the early years of Christianity it was an important symbol.  For example, when Christians began to worship on Sunday, they sometimes spoke of it as the eighth day, following the Sabbath on the seventh day.  This eighth day was the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, after being laid in the tomb during the Sabbath.  In Jewish symbolism, the first day was the first day of the creation, on which God created light.  The eighth day was therefore a symbol of a new creation.  The seven day week was sometimes spoken of as a symbol of this world, the eighth day as a symbol of the world to come. 

This can be seen for example in the world-week teaching.  This is the idea that the world will last 6,000 years (represented by the six days of the week), then there will be the 1,000 years of the Millennium (represented by the Sabbath), then on the “eighth day,” eternity will begin. 

The symbolism of the eighth day can be traced right back into the pages of the Bible, in which the eighth day was especially important after a week of cleansing:  the consecration of Aaron after seven days of purification (Lev. 9:1), the circumcision of baby boys on the eighth day (Lev. 12:3), the cleansing of a leper after seven days of purification (Lev. 14:10,23) and of someone made unclean by a discharge (Lev. 15:14,29).  Also the cleansing from contact with death after seven days (Num. 6:10).

So if as we’ve already seen, the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Great Hosanna, is a symbol of the final destruction of the wicked, what is the meaning of the festival of the eighth day?  It’s a symbol of eternity to come, the New Heavens and New Earth.  But if that’s true, then why is there so little symbolism on this day, other than it being a day of rest? 

As Paul put it, quoting Isaiah, “Things that eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not come up in the heart of man, things that God has prepared for those who love him (Isa. 64:4)” (1 Cor. 2:9).  This is how the rabbis, too, thought of the New Heavens and New Earth:  it’s beyond our ability to even imagine. 

I mentioned that Shimini Atzeret is the day they begin to pray for rain again, the beginning of the rainy season.  In the same way, the New Heavens and the New Earth will be the time of the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  And in the same way that they end the Torah reading on this day, this is when all the prophecies of the Bible will be fulfilled.  As Jesus said, “Until the heaven and the earth pass away, a single letter or a single stroke will certainly not pass away from the Law until all comes to pass” (Matt. 5:18).  This is when the Law will be completely fulfilled, and we will enter in to a completely new type of existence with God forever.  This is what we’re going to be celebrating next Sunday (Oct. 19):  a festival that celebrates the victory we will have when Jesus comes back again:  the eternity that we will have with him and the Father forever.

Something the Jewish people say or sing at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles is “Next Year in Jerusalem.”  It’s a hope and a prayer that next year they will celebrate the feast in Jerusalem.  This is something we as Christians can certainly agree with.  Because one day Jesus is coming, and as Zechariah said, we will celebrate this feast with him in Jerusalem.  Would you like to celebrate this feast next year in Jerusalem with Jesus?  Turn to your neighbor and say:  “Next year in Jerusalem!”

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