Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tabernacles - The Bittersweet Feast of Booths

The Feast of Tabernacles is the best time of year to be in the Churches of God. Exciting cities, luxurious accommodations, rich food and drink... it's a virtual recipe for fun. Herbert Armstrong certainly picked up on the celebration's festive nature.

How on earth could this celebration be anything but complete - either now or in its fulfillment, as the Churches of God explain it. Today, at the Feast, we're lying on the beach, fellowshipping with brethren, deciding which steakhouse to visit next. And that's small potatoes compared to the time the COGs claim it pictures - Jesus is back, the saints have been glorified, Satan's gone. Nothing's missing. Yet Messianic Jews say the Feast of Booths - and the other Holy Days as well - are incomplete.

As we near the end of our look at the shadows of Colossians 2:16-17, we need to consider Messianic Judaism's unique perspective on the annual festivals. It is commonly accepted in most religious communities that the Holy Days were given to point to Israel to Jesus. Messianic Jews are uniquely positioned to see both the Hebrew symbolism of these festivals and the incompleteness of their celebrations. Their interpretations don't necessarily line up with the COGs, but if I have to pick between the views of those who trace their roots to ancient Israel or the views of a 20th century Quaker advertising salesman, well, you do the math.

In my last post, we covered the symbolism that traditional and Messianic Jews attach to the Feast of Trumpets and Day of Atonement. Today, we'll look at their take on the Feast of Tabernacles.

The Feast of Tabernacles

For Israel, the Feast of Tabernacles was an opportunity to rejoice and thank God for His provision during the autumn harvest season, according to David Brickner (A Three-in-One Festival, Jews for Jesus Newsletter, November 2013). With their repentance and fasting over, it was time to rejoice with the blessings of the land God gave to them and a renewed relationship with Him.

Celebrating their blessings undoubtedly reminded Israel of the providential way God brought them out of Egypt to the blessings of the Promised Land, according to Samuele Bacchiocchi (God's Festivals in Scripture and History, Part II: The Fall Festivals, p. 220). Coming into the Promised Land marked the attainment of national and territorial independence.

The temporary booths the Israelites lived in during the festival were a tangible reminder of how God provided for them in the wilderness, says Bob Mendelsohn (Booths in Bethesda, Jews for Jesus newsletter, October 1992). During the celebration of a bountiful harvest, the booths reminded them that God sustained them in the wilderness, where they had no ability to provide for themselves.

"It marks the season in Jewish history when we could not provide for ourselves," Mendelsohn says. "If God had not provided for us, we would have died in the wilderness."

Booths were made out of trees, branches and foliage, which reminded them of their humble origins in the desert, according to Bacchiocchi (p. 222). These temporary dwellings were erected on roofs, in courtyards and even in the courts of the Temple.

During the Feast, these courtyards, the Temple and much of the city were illuminated by giant candelabras. The Mishnah (part of the rabbis oral tradition) tells us they were about 75 feet tall and were fueled by four golden bowls that each held at least 10 gallons of oil, according to David Brickner (Christ in the Feast of Tabernacles, Jews for Jesus newsletter, October 1998). Since the Temple was on a hill above Jerusalem, these blazing bowls could be seen throughout the city. The light was supposed to be reminiscent of the Shekinah glory with which God had once filled His Temple.

And here we find what's missing in the Feast of Tabernacles. The festival was a joyful, bountiful celebration in the good times - giving thanks for the land and the plentiful harvest, looking back at how God had brought them such prosperity out of nothing. But the Feast must have stirred wistful emotions in the Israelites who celebrated it after returning from captivity. Remember Ezra 3:12 and 13 - that many from the older generation wept while the Jewish refugees celebrated completing the new temple foundation. They recalled the glory of Solomon's temple, and their mournful cries rivaled the joyful ones.

God had brought Israel to the Promised Land, and they had lost it because of their disobedience. In a land of such bounty, their friends and family were so starved that some resorted to the horrific act of eating their own children. In the wilderness, God had tabernacled with His people and led them with a pillar of fire. Later, the Shekinah glory lit the temple. But now it was gone. The Jews were keenly aware of this fact, and tried to recreate its glorious light for the festival. But man can never fill the darkness he creates. Only God can.

Jesus used the concept of light to explain His identity and mission to people, to point to Himself and the people's need for what He could give them.

"I am the light of the world," Jesus declared to those in the temple, likely on the Eighth Day. "He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life." Examining John 8, many commentators tell us that He spoke these words in the Court of Women, where these magnificent candles were located. Besides this symbolism, Jesus also alluded to Isaiah 9:1-2, which predicts a great light from Galilee will lift despair the of the people from the land.

"Nevertheless, the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed, as when at first He lightly esteemed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward more heavily oppressed her, by way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galillee of the Gentiles. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined."

Jesus was telling the Jews at the temple that He - the Light - the source of the Shekinah glory that once filled the temple - was again dwelling among them, Brickner says. The light from the candelabras would be extinguished after the Feast ended. His light, however, would remain, and could lead them for a lifetime if they would only follow Him.

"Many refused to have their own darkness exposed by that light," Brickner laments. "But there were those who were drawn to the light, whose hearts burned with the truth of Y'shua (Jesus).

Not only had the light returned, that light could dwell within them in the form of the Holy Spirit, Jesus taught the crowd during the festival's spectacular water drawing ceremony. Some sources say this ceremony took place every day of the Feast. Others say it took place only once during the celebration, on the seventh day. A parade of worshipers and musicians accompanied the priest to the pool of Siloam, where the priest filled a golden pitcher with water from the pool. The parade took place in the wee hours of the morning, and returned to the temple just as the morning sacrifices were getting started. The priest approached the altar's two silver basins, poured wine into one as a drink offering, and the water into the second.

This meaningful ceremony thanked God for the water that nurtured the recent harvest and petitioned Him for rain during the upcoming season, Bacchiocchi says. Water was a scarce, precious commodity in that region, which made it a powerful image for Jesus to use. It was likely at the conclusion of this ceremony that Jesus made his statement, as the people had just finished chanting, "with joy you will drink water from the wells of salvation," which was the tradition during this ritual.

It's no wonder that Christ cried out in the words of John 7:37-38 in the Temple on this occasion, Brickner says. Much like the rain for which His people were praying, the Holy Spirit falls upon those who follow Jesus. The Spirit refreshes us and causes us to grow in grace and faith.

"Jesus was saying that he was the wellspring of salvation of whom the prophet Isaiah wrote. He was the Messiah, the Lord's anointed one, Brickner says. "It is no wonder that Jesus chose the day of the water-pouring ceremony to invite everyone to come to him. If only the people would believe in him, he would quench their spiritual thirst."

The Feast of Tabernacles was a joyous occasion, but for post-exile Jews, it had to be bittersweet. It celebrated God's protection and provision - which they had lost. It gave thanks for physical blessings - which had greatly diminished. During this festival, they re-created an imitation of the Shekinah glory - which was gone. It was during this post-exile festival that Jesus declared Himself in the temple to be all the Jews were missing, and more than they could imagine. Some listened, but some refused to look beyond the shadows.

The Eighth Day, which many COG splinters traditionally refer to as the Last Great Day, did not appear to be a significant observance to the Jews, Bacchiocchi said. No water ceremony took place on the eighth day, and the sacrifices were diminished. It simply appeared to be a day to draw the festival to a close and to help those in Jerusalem transition from the pomp and circumstance of the festival back to normal life. There was nothing to foreshadow an opportunity of salvation to the masses. The Bible shows that humans will be judged upon their bodily resurrection (Hebrews 9:27).

For more information on the COG interpretation of the Feast of Tabernacles, please visit and

But wait, Martha, aren't these enduring festivals that were celebrated before Sinai, after Sinai, in the apostolic age and even after Jesus' return?

Well, there really isn't much of a case for Holy Day observance before Sinai. Some like to make hay with verses that talk about Abraham obeying God's commandments, statutes and laws. But it is speculation to assert that Abraham kept the entire Law of Moses before it was even established, much less specific laws regarding festivals which were grounded in the Promised Land. It makes more sense to assume that Abraham followed obeyed the terms of the Abrahamic and Noachide covenents, which were given to him and his forefathers.

What about the apostles and the early church? Festivals are mentioned only sporadically in the New Testament. Paul mentions the fast of Atonement in passing, stating that it was past the time of year for smooth sailing (Acts 27:9). This is not the same thing as proving that the early church still kept Atonement. Cultures and regions often order their calendar and lives around religious or national holidays. In that part of the world, the Jewish Holy Days were a big part of the culture, and likely served as a quick, easily-understood calendar reference. In short, old habits die hard. I left the COGs more than a year ago, but Christmas and Easter are hardly reference points on my mental calendar.

It's also likely Paul and other ethnic Jews continued to celebrate Holy Days. Consider 1 Corinthians 5 in light of the fact that we know there were Jews in the Corinthian congregation. Likewise, Peter was not chided in Acts 10:14 for continuing to abstain from foods considered unclean under the Sinai Covenant. And of course believers in Jersusalem were gathered on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was first given.The early Church - guided by the Holy Spirit -  did not admonish Jews for continuing these traditions, but taught that these practices were not to be imposed upon Gentiles. And remember, once again, dear reader, that the odds are very good that you,ethnically speaking, are a Gentile.

Well then, what about after Jesus' return? There are prophetic references to festivals, primarily the Feast of Tabernacles. Zechariah 14:16 tells us that those who survive the Day of the Lord will go to Jerusalem each year to worship Jesus and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. God will withhold rain from the nations that don't go. Those nations, in that context, have a clear command from Jesus to celebrate the festivals. In Jerusalem. Perhaps in accordance with all the provisions of Leviticus 23. We do not today, nor do we even have the means (a priesthood or a temple) to do so in this era (i.e. a priesthood, a temple, specific trees from Palestine with which we are to make booths, etc). And if the Holy Days are part of a covenant established by God - containing laws to which we should not add and from which we should not take away - we have no authority to alter them for modern times.

We see a similar picture in Isaiah 66, at the time when God has made a new heaven and earth. All mankind will come bow before Jesus, from one New Moon to the next and one Sabbath to another. One must wonder if this passage portrays continual worship of Jesus - not on the occasions of the New Moons and Sabbaths, but for the duration of the period between them. God may have used the context Isaiah knew to describe an otherwise indescribable setting. Consider also that at this time, we see priests and Levites on the scene (Isaiah 66:21). Priests and Levites - which we do not have now - were essential to proper, Biblical celebration of the Holy Days under the Sinai Covenant. If we use prophetic descriptions such as these as our basis for requiring Christians to keep the annual festivals today, then we must explain the absence of priests and Levites in our worship as well as our failure to observe the New Moon. 

Interestingly, the millennial system of sacrifices described in Ezekiel 43-46 differs greatly from the the system outlined in the Sinai Covenant. The dimensions of the temple and its courts are different. There was no Ark of the Covenant, Tablets of the Law, Mercy Seat, Cherubim, Veil, Golden Candlestick or showbread. The high priest is replaced with a prince with limited royal and priestly duties. Some wonder whether we should even take these descriptions to mean that a modified priestly system will be put into place. It's possible this is another case in which God used contextualized illustrations to explain a future reality to a discouraged, short-sighted nation. One that had only known God through a priestly, ritualistic system and not through a personal relationship. At any rate, it's highly problematic to describe the millennial system as either a continuation of or return to the very same worship practices outlined in the Sinai Covenant.

We see what may be the ultimate picture of the Feast of Tabernacles in Revelation 21-22, in the new Jerusalem, where Jesus illuminates the city and the righteous dwell with Him there forever. This beautiful passage includes my favorite verse (Revelation 21:3-4, regarding God tabernacling with men), but it is problematic for declaring Holy Day observance to be required for this age. As in Isaiah 66, this seems to be a perpetual arrangement. The whole point is that man will be with God forever forward. It would be anticlimactic for God to dwell in the New Jerusalem and then leave after a week. The Feast of Tabernacles was likely a Biblical type of this time. But the Bible is filled with rich symbolism. It is not our mandate in this age to mark every occasion of biblical symbolism. Not even the COGs do this. The law and the prophets pointed to Christ, and the New Testament revealed Him and explained Christianity, so it's no shock that themes of sin, sacrifice, repentance, restoration and salvation resonate across its pages. We must not let false teachers entice us to pour old wine into new wineskins. In my final post, I'll talk about the dangers of doing so.

The Holy Days (and other shadows) had a purpose in Israel. That job was to point to Christ. But once Christ comes, those shadows have served their purpose. Today, it's not our mandate to peer at Christ through slivers of darkness, but to walk in His light daily. And to preach the gospel to the world (Mark 16:15-16) - the true gospel, a message about sin, repentance and salvation, about Jesus' life, sacrifice, resurrection and future return.

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It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11

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