Sukkot, or Tabernacles, is the third and final of the great pilgrim festivals of Israel when all the males of Israel had to appear before the Lord at the temple In Jerusalem. The ancient rabbis saw a significance in the festival not only for Israel but also the nations, and the prophet Zechariah foresaw a day when the Gentile would go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival with the Jews. Thousands of Gentiles from around the world travel to Israel every year to keep the festival. Although I'm not criticizing Christians who make the annual pilgrimage to Israel for the festival each year, are they really fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 14, or is there an even greater significance to the festival? What is the significance of Tabernacles for Christians today?
1. Tabernacles is a Happy Festival
In the Jewish calendar, the Festival of Tabernacles always falls on the 15th day of the seventh month, Tishri. In the West, we follow a different calendar, and this year Tabernacles fell on October 13th.
The ancient Israelites were commanded to live in tabernacles for seven days, so that future generations might remember that God made Israel live in tents after redeeming them from Egypt. Tabernacles is a joyful celebration at which religious Jews remember God’s care and provision for Israel when they travelled from Egypt to the Promised Land, living in tabernacles.
There are several names for the festival. Its Hebrew name is ‘Sukkot’ but it is also ‘the Festival of Ingathering’, because the festival celebrates the gathering of the final harvest of the year.
It is also the ‘Season of our Rejoicing’ because it is the only festival at which the Jewish people are commanded to rejoice for seven days.
Tabernacles is such a great festival that some Jews refer to it simply as ‘the Festival’.
2. Tabernacles is a Harvest Festival
In Deuteronomy 16:16, all the men of Israel were commanded to go to the temple in Jerusalem three times every year: at Passover; at Pentecost and at the Feast of Tabernacles. All three festivals occurred at harvest times.
Harvest in the Bible is full of symbolism about God’s purposes for Israel and the nations. Jeremiah 2:3 tells us that when God chose Israel, she was ‘holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest’. Where there are firstfruits, harvest will follow. When God described Israel as ‘the firstfruits of his harvest’, he intended that the people should know he would one day have a full harvest from among the nations.
Throughout the Bible, the concept of Israel as the ‘firstfruits’ of God’s harvest occurs in different ways. For example, in Genesis 12:1-3 God called Abraham to be ‘a blessing’ and promised that through him ‘all families of the earth will be blessed’.
The writer of Psalm 67 seems to have Genesis 12:3 in mind when he prays for God to be 'gracious' to Israel and 'bless' Israel and make his face shine on Israel so that the nations will know God’s salvation. As it goes with Israel, so it goes with the nations. According to Genesis 12 and Psalm 67, the nations cannot be blessed with salvation apart from Israel being blessed first.
The psalmist's prayer for Israel also recalls the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-26: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you, and be gracious to you…’
Although the high priests had pronounced the Aaronic blessing on Israel for hundreds of years, the writer of Psalm 67 knows the nation was not experiencing them in their fullest sense. Only when the Messiah came could Israel know the blessings of God’s mercy, his grace and the shining of his face in their fullest sense. The songs of praise celebrating the coming of Messiah, sung by Mary, Zachariah and Simeon in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, are full of the themes of blessing, light, grace, mercy and peace. The Aaronic blessing could be experienced by Israel in their fulness only when Messiah came. But after Messiah had come in grace to bless the Jewish people with peace and shine the light of God on them, he sent out his apostles to proclaim salvation to the nations.
3. Tabernacles is a Prophetic Festival
When God was about to redeem Israel from Egypt, he declared that Israel was his ‘firstborn’ son. Just as the ‘firstfruits’ carry the promise of a full harvest, so the ‘firstborn’ in a family anticipates even more children. So if Passover looks back to when God redeemed Israel his ‘firstborn’ from Egypt, the Festival of Tabernacles looks forward to a time when he will have a family from all the nations.
According to the instructions given in Numbers 29, seventy bulls were offered over the seven days of the festival, starting with 13 on the first day and finishing with seven on the last day. The later rabbis taught that there were seventy nations in the world and that at Sukkot the 70 bulls were offered on their behalf.
Zechariah 14:16-19 foresees a time when the nations will keep the Festival of Tabernacles, and over the last thirty years, Christians from all over the world have begun to go to Jerusalem each year to keep the Festival in the belief that they are fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy. Although I am not trying to prevent Christians going to Jerusalem at this time of the year but I think the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy is far greater than those Christians imagine.
In Revelation 7, John sees a vision of 144,000 people from all the tribes of Israel. Chapter 14 presents a similar vision but with additional details to help us understand chapter 7 better.
Chapter 14:1-7 tells us that the 144,000 were ‘redeemed from among mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb’ and in chapter 7, the vision of the 144,000 ‘firstfruits’ is followed by a vision of a vast crowd of people from all nations, so great that no one can count them.
Here we see both Israel, God’s ‘firstfruits’, and the full harvest from all nations. After the vision of the 144,000 ‘firstfruits’ in chapter 14, John sees the Son of Man, Jesus, reaping a great harvest from the nations with the sharp sickle in his hand.
The letter of Ya'akov (James) is probably the earliest New Testament letter, written when almost all believers were Jews. In verse 1 of the letter, Ya'akov addresses his readers as ‘the twelve tribes in the Diaspora’ and in 1:18 he calls them ‘a kind of firstfruits of God’s creatures’. I suggest that the letter of Ya'akov is addressed to the 144,000 (or at least some of them), as the ‘firstfruits’ of the harvest of God and the Lamb.
If we look a little more closely at Revelation 7:15-17, we see that the believers from the nations are keeping the Festival of Tabernacles! On the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem thousands of Jewish men dressed in white robes with palm branches sing the ‘Great Hosanna’. But in John’s vision, the people in white robes with palm branches singing the ‘Great Hosanna’ are all from the nations, not Israel!
Here is the true fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The nations are keeping the Festival of Tabernacles in the heavenly Jerusalem!
4. Tabernacles is a Messianic Festival
Without water, there can be no harvest. At the time of Jesus, a joyful thanksgiving service was held in the temple on the last day of Tabernacles. Priests drew water from the Pool of Siloam and poured it out at the altar of sacrifice where the 70 bulls for the nations had been offered. The water ran out the temple gate, into the Kidron valley and through the Judean desert toward the Dead Sea.
It was said in the second temple period: ‘He that has not seen the joy of drawing (and the pouring) of the water, has not seen joy in this life.’
In John 7, when Jesus attends the Festival of Tabernacles, we are told: ‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink… Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’.”’
John explains that the ‘living water’ which will flow out of his people is the Holy Spirit. But where in the Old Testament is there a ‘Scripture’ that says ‘rivers of living water’ will flow from the heart of those who believe in the Messiah? No Scripture that says that, so what does Jesus mean?
It will help us if we remember that in Ephesians 2, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Peter 2, Messiah’s people are called his new, spiritual temple.
In Ezekiel 40-48, the prophet sees a vision of a glorious future Jerusalem complete with temple. In chapter 47, he sees a river of life-giving water flowing from the gate of that temple. As the river flows through the desert, it refreshes the land and causes trees to grow in abundance. Could Ezekiel’s vision be a picture of Messiah’s spiritual temple?
John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 & 22 is a parallel passage. John sees a New Jerusalem, from which life-giving water flows and he tells us that the New Jerusalem is the bride of the Lamb. In Ezekiel’s vision, trees grow in the desert but on either side of John’s river, the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden grows. In the book of Revelation, the entire earth has returned to the perfection of Eden. But Eden in Revelation is even better than the original. It is filling the earth and instead of just one Tree of Life, there is a whole harvest of them and their leaves bring healing to the nations!
Is this not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of living water flowing out of the hearts of his people, his living temple? Since he ascended to heaven and poured out his Spirit, life-giving water has been bringing new life to the nations. In Ezekiel’s vision, the river of life starts as a trickle from Jerusalem but becomes a great river bring life to the desert. The river of life began flowing as a trickle from the apostles in the temple on the Day of Pentecost. Since then the life-giving water of the Spirit has become a great river that is bringing life to all nations. Christians are called to bring life to the world and that river continues to flow from us.
5. Tabernacles is the Final Festival
The three great pilgrim festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, set before us a single picture of God’s Messianic Harvest programme for the world.
According to Leviticus 23:10,11, on the day after the Sabbath at Passover, the people were to bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of their harvest to the priest. The priest waved it before the LORD and the one who offered the sheaf was accepted before God.
At the Passover on which Jesus was crucified, on the very day that the first sheaf of the harvest was waved before God, Jesus rose from the grave. In 1 Corinthians 15:20, Paul describes Jesus as ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’. The first sheaf of the barley harvest was a picture of the resurrection of Jesus. Just as the sheaf of the firstfruits was offered as the guarantee of a full harvest, the resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee of our resurrection.
After the Passover Sabbath, the people had to count fifty days to the day of Pentecost. On that day they presented two loaves of bread at the temple as firstfruits of the wheat harvest.
The Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost, the very day on which the two ‘firstfruit’ loaves were lifted before God in the temple. On the day of Pentecost, like all religious Jews, the 120 disciples would have been present in the temple when the Holy Spirit fell on them. In the very temple where the two loaves were offered to God, the 3,000 Jewish souls who believed Peter’s message were presented to God and the Lamb as the ‘firstfruits’ of a coming world-wide harvest of souls.
Five months later came the final harvest of the Jewish year, the Festival of Tabernacles.
The firstfruits at Passover related to Israel, as did the two loaves presented at Pentecost (Jews and Gentile proselytes to Judaism were converted on the Day of Pentecost) but the final harvest at Tabernacles anticipated a gathering of not just Israel but all nations into the kingdom of God.
But the harvest of the nations will also affect Israel because Paul recognises in Romans 9-11 that something has gone wrong as far as Israel’s salvation is concerned. From the Tanakh (the Old Testament), we might imagine that after ‘all Israel’ was saved, the nations would be saved. But that has not been the case. Nevertheless, God still loves Israel and will be true to his purpose to save the nation he calls his ‘firstfruits’ and his ‘firstborn’.
Paul tells us in Romans 11 that God is using the Gentiles to make Israel jealous and that the ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ will be the way God will save ‘all Israel.’
The gospel is to the Jew first, not the Jew only. By evangelising the Jewish people we help to bring about the salvation of the nations. Christian Witness to Israel is working to bring that great day. Pray for us and help us to ‘provoke the Jewish people to jealousy’ and thus bring about the salvation of Israel and the nations.