As a school boy I rode a bus past a synagogue in Vancouver. There were little shelters or huts on the property made from leafy branches. I wondered what that was about.
I learned later that it was the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles.
In Hebrew, this was Sukkot or Succoth referring to booths or huts made from branches. “Originally an agricultural feast, Tabernacles readily became a Jewish pilgrimage festival which invoked God for badly needed rain and recognized the autumnal equinox.”
What is this festival about?
As we read the Lord’s instructions in Leviticus 23:33-43, we note that this festival began on the 15th day of the seventh month in Israel’s calendar. It lasted seven days – eight if we include the additional Sabbath.
Applying a couple of the guiding principles earlier identified (Celebrating God’s Grace – five guiding principles) we anticipate that:
- this festival, being in the seventh month, will be fulfilled in the future; and,
- this festival, being a seven day celebration, will be fulfilled in a life-style or continuing state.
This festival of tabernacles is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, each reference providing more information and different dimensions. For instance, we have already noted that Leviticus 23 gives us the core directions for this celebration.
Here we are told something of the significance of this festival: “so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt” (23:43). This was a time for Israel to remember their community salvation ‘story’ – the Exodus during which God was present with them, and provided for them in the Sinai wilderness. One of the features of this exodus from Egypt was God’s generous provision of life-giving water from a rock (see Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13).
In Numbers 29:12-40, Israel is instructed concerning the sacrifices that were to be offered to the Lord during this festival.
Deuteronomy 16:13-17 highlights that this celebration took place after harvesting grain and grape. In the context of God’s provision, words like “joy” and “bless” occur: “For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete” (16:15).
A glimpse into the future
The Old Testament prophet Zechariah writes about elements associated with this festival of tabernacles that are still future. He foretells the future return of the Lord as victorious warrior. In that context we read (14:8-9):
On that day living water will flow out of Jerusalem … The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.
Again, this festival recognizes the provision of the Lord (living water), and the presence of the Lord (king over the whole earth).
Some significance in the present
The only specific reference to the festival of tabernacles in the New Testament is John 7:2. Jesus attended this festival in Jerusalem. John records (7:37-39a) that:
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him [that is, Jesus].” By this he meant the Spirit … .
Although there are different understandings of Jesus’ words, I conclude Bible scholar Gary Burge is right when he comments that “The water which would flow from beneath the temple would now flow from Jesus, the new temple. … The inexhaustible Mosaic supply of life-giving water in the wilderness could now be found in Jesus. … In Jesus’ person one can find the fulfillment of all the [Festival of] Tabernacles expectations.”
In other words, Jesus Christ is now both the presence of God and the provision of God.
And yet, the fulfilment of the Festival of Tabernacles is still in the future.
Fulfilment in the future
How will this festival be fully realized?
Two elements will be brought together for the people of God in the future: God’s presence and God’s provision.
First, let’s consider the provision.
We’ve seen how God provided life-giving water to Israel in the wilderness. We have also seen how Jesus is now the source of that life-giving water. This ‘water’ is no longer simply H2O; it is the Holy Spirit.
In addition to the glimpse of the future given by Zechariah, we also read texts such as Revelation 22:1-2:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations.
In these images we are assured of the inexhaustible life-giving provisions of our extravagant God as a continuous state in the future.
Second, we ponder the future realization of God’s presence.
Hours before his crucifixion, Jesus says this to his followers (John 14:1-3):
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
There it is! He will come back and will take us to be with Him, that we may be where He is. That is a statement of God’s presence in the future!
I hope that I’ve conveyed something of the rich and practical significance of this festival (as well as the others).
Take some time to think about this festival and what it means for you.
One focus is to contemplate the present possibilities of living in the kingdom of God now – even though it hasn’t fully arrived. We can do that by walking and living in the Spirit that is provided to us in and through Jesus Christ (John 7:37-39). Note the language Paul also uses: “we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
How can you “drink” this provision of the Holy Spirit – not just as one experience, but as a life-style – seven days a week?
A second focus is to reflect on the present effects of the future expectation of being with Jesus Christ.
How does that expectation inform and strengthen your hope? And how does that hope seep into and permeate the way you think and act here and now?
 Gary M. Burge, The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 91-92.
 Burge, The Anointed Community, 93.
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