Are Christians To Keep or Not To Keep The Feast of Tabernacles?
Some skeptics falsely charge that there is a contradiction in Zechariah 14:16-21. They claim that Christians are to keep the feast of Tabernacles, yet the new covenant teaches that they (and everyone else) are no longer legally bound to the law of Moses (Romans 7:1-4). Which is correct? Is the skeptic’s charge valid? Let us rightly divide God’s word together as we search the Scriptures for the answer (2 Timothy 2:15; Acts 17:11).
Zechariah records some of the most dazzling prophecies that come to fulfillment during the Messianic age (Galatians 4:5; Zechariah 11:12,13; 13:7; 6:12,13; 12:10-14). To accurately understand Zechariah 14:16-21 we must note several contextual indicators. The first indicator is the phrase “in that day” (Zechariah 14:20,21), which is found throughout Zechariah and points to the Messianic age. The second indicator is the identity of the city of Jerusalem, which must refer to the spiritual city of Zion, the city Paul references as “the Jerusalem above, who is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26). It is the city over which the King, the LORD of hosts reigns, namely, Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords (Matthew 28:18). Special attention: those who identify with being true worshippers unto the King who also “keep the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zechariah 14:16). How can it be possible for Christians “to keep the Feast of Tabernacles”, yet at the same time not be bound by the regulations of the law of Moses which were nailed to the cross? (Colossians 2:14-17; Ephesians 2:13-16)
One of the principles of interpretation is the consistency of language. Yet, there are exceptions to this principle. In this passage, the exception involves the redefinition of terms in regards to “Feast of Tabernacles.” This alleged contradiction disappears when we understand the sense in which we keep the Feast of Tabernacles as redefined in the light of the fulfillment of Jesus (Matthew 5:17,18). We do not observe the shadow, but the substance – Jesus (Colossians 2:17).
First, we as Christians “keep the Feast of Tabernacles” as we endeavor to rejoice in the Christian life. This feast was one of the three annual feasts (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) to be celebrated by the Jews (in our September-October on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, Tishri, of the Jewish calendar). It lasted for eight days (Leviticus 23:35), celebrating a time when there were no hardships (since the crops had been stored and the fruits gathered, which was why it is also known as the Feast of Ingathering). The Lord commanded them to rejoice! (Deuteronomy 16:14) There were many joyous activities that were celebrated during this feast (such as singing, the playing of instruments, and the juggling of torches). In the Mishnah, Sukkah 51a states: “He who has not seen the rejoicing (at the Feast of Tabernacles) has never seen rejoicing in his life.” Five days prior to the feast of Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement was observed (Leviticus 16). It was a solemn day: the high priest of Israel would enter into the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant for the sins of the nation. The sins of Israel were forgiven based on God’s foreknowledge of what He would accomplish through His Son’s future death on the cross of Calvary (1 Peter 1:20; Romans 3:21-26). To be forgiven by God of our sins is a cause of great rejoicing in God our Savior (Romans 5:1,2,11). We must put away the mindset of griping, complaining, and grumbling (Philippians 2:14-16) that was a part of the character of old Israel who was infamously known for it (1 Corinthians 10:10). We must desire to be like Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)
Second, we as Christians “keep the Feast of Tabernacles” as we shine the light in this dark, corrupt world that reflects the glory of Christ. After the first day of the feast, the Jews came to the Court of the Women (a section of the temple complex, where great preparations had been met). There were four huge golden candelabras that were seventy-five feet high and reached over the height of the city’s walls. Each candelabra had four golden bowls in which the young priests who oversaw the pitchers of oil would climb up the ladders to these bowls and refill them. Per the Mishnah, Sukkah 5.3, there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect the blazing light. Imagine yourself if you were a few miles outside of the coast of Israel at night and you saw the city of Jerusalem lit up by these torches. What an amazing sight to behold! Could this not be what Jesus was alluding to in John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life”? As the moon reflects the light of the sun, let us reflect the light of the Son, Jesus, in our daily lives in this dark world of sin and corruption (Matthew 5:16; Philippians 2:15-16).
Third, we as Christians “keep the Feast of Tabernacles” as we humbly give of ourselves as a living sacrifice unto God. First, the sacrifices made at this feast were far more numerous than the other Jewish festivals (Numbers 29:12-34). All twenty-four orders of the priesthood were involved in these sacrifices (Jeremias 204). Jesus is the true fulfillment of the animal sacrifices in that they could never take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4). Since God showed His love for us in this manner, then as Paul stated: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1). We need to offer our thanksgiving of praise (Hebrews 13:15), our giving of money (1 Corinthians 16:1,2; 2 Corinthians 9:8,9), and most of all ourselves (2 Corinthians 8:5).
Fourth, we as Christians “keep the Feast of Tabernacles” because we ought to sing with the spirit and the understanding of what the Lord has done for us and continues to do for us (1 Corinthians 14:15). At the feast, the Levites would sing on the fifteen steps that led down from the Court of Israel to the Court of the Women (per the number of the psalms that are known as the “Songs of Ascent”, Psalms 120-134). Some of the main themes found in the “Songs of Ascent” was the protection of the Lord on behalf of Israel (Psalm 124:1) and those who trust in the Lord will not be moved (Psalm 125:1). Is not our Lord Jesus on our side – the new Israel (Galatians 6:16)? Is He not our Protector? (Hebrews 13:6). If we keep on putting our trust in the Lord by obeying His will, will we be safely home with the Lord someday? Absolutely!
Fifth, we as Christians “keep the Feast of Tabernacles” because we are to quench and satisfy our thirst in God Himself. The “water libation” ceremony took place during the feast. While the morning sacrifice was being prepared, a priest would lead a procession of people down to the Pool of Siloam where he would take a golden pitcher and fill it up with water. The procession would return to the temple to the altar that had two silver bowls (where the water would be poured along with wine into the silver bowls). As they were being poured, the Hallel Psalms (Psalm 113-118) would be sung by the people. It is no wonder that our Lord in John 7:37-38, during the Feast of Tabernacles on its last day, states: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” God wanted to remind old Israel that He had saved them out of Egypt and thus provided them salvation. They could find true fulfillment and satisfaction in the one true God. God also wanted to remind them that He provided for them with rain for their crops and harvest. Should we not be reminded that God provided His Son to die for us and that He can truly quench our spiritual thirst? (Matthew 5:6). Satan tries daily to pull us away from God (who is our true source of satisfaction and fulfillment) by seducing us to indulge in the “passing pleasures of sin” (such as, pornography, covetousness, illegal drugs, and other forms of idolatry (Colossians 3:5; Hebrews 11:24). Sadly, we might give ourselves over to them if we are not careful. Satan will never satisfy what the soul longs for and truly needs. When our Lord went to the village of Sychar, he met a Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus asked her for a drink to quench his physical thirst. The one who was truly famished was the Samaritan woman (because she was spiritually empty and thirsty because she was living in adultery). Jesus wanted to give her water that would spring up into everlasting life if she would partake of it (John 4:10-14). She needed to give up that adulterous union. Let us only rejoice in the true God that abundantly provides for us and has truly blessed us with material blessings and every spiritual blessing that is found in His Son, Jesus (Ephesians 1:3).
Sixth, we as Christians “keep the Feast of Tabernacles” so we can remember that our mission is to help seek and save those who are lost in sin. Around the time of the feast of Passover, the Jews would gather the barley for harvest in April. Around June and close to the feast of Pentecost, the wheat crop would come in for harvest. Around September-October, the Jews would gather the fruits (which is why it was also known as the “Feast of Ingathering”). The Jews were thankful to the Lord for the bountiful harvests. Jesus stated that the word of God is the seed of the kingdom (Luke 8:11). He reminds us that we are to be sowing seeds in the hearts of people who are honest enough to give their lives in obedience to the Lord (1 Corinthians 3:6). Whatever we sow we will indeed also reap (Galatians 6:7). This also applies to evangelism. There are many who are lost in sin and need the Savior. Are we willing to give them that life-transforming message? There is coming a day when we will no longer be able to work in the fields, but it will be the harvest time (that is, the day of judgment).
Seventh, we as Christians “keep the Feast of Tabernacles” so we can remember that we are pilgrims and strangers on the earth. The reason for celebrating this feast is stated in Leviticus 23:40-42: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days… You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” The children of Israel were to remember that it was the Lord who led them for forty years in that wilderness. They were strangers and pilgrims who were just passing through. The new Israel, the church of Christ, is to be reminded that we are also passing through this fallen, sinful world that is temporal and transitory. It is going to pass away (1 John 2:15-17). We are to be looking forward to “the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). While we are here, we are to be reminded that we are pilgrims (1 Peter 1:1). Peter warns: “I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
Are Christians to “keep the Feast of Tabernacles”? They are as to keep it in the light of the fulfillment of Jesus. They are to remember to rejoice in the Christian life, shine their light in this dark and corrupt world, offer themselves as a living sacrifice unto Him, quench and satisfy their thirst in God Himself, sing with the spirit and the understanding of what the Lord has done and continues to do for them, seek and save those who are lost in sin, and know that they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. London: SCM (ET 1969).
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