What is the Feast of Tabernacles?

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John 7:37-39

This week’s scripture is only three verses, but they can be a confusing three verses—especially for modern audiences with little or no knowledge of Hebrew culture. After all, the events of John 7:37-39 happened in another time, culture, language, and (for many of us) country!

These questions are about ‘context,’ the second of the six questions we always ask when reading the scripture. Context questions include all the things we don’t know off the top of our head when reading scripture—places, people, reasons, festivals, etc. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a degree or an expensive library of theology texts to answer questions of context. All you need is a Bible, a prayer, and a willingness to learn.

If you have a question about context, you will want to read the passages that come before and after your scripture. The more you read, the more you will understand. Take John 7:37-39 for example. If we go back and read John 7, we will find the answer in the text:

After this, Jesus went around in Galilee. He did not want to go about in Judea because the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him. But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do”(John 7:1-3).

Jesus stands up on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. But why is this information important? Obviously Jesus’ audience seems to have made some connection between Jesus’ words and this festival—immediately after hearing him, people begin to debate about whether he is the Messiah or not. What are we missing?

What is the Feast of Tabernacles?

The best method of understanding scripture is building a repertoire of scripture during your daily devotion time. If you do this, you will find yourself identifying relationships between scriptures that you would have otherwise overlooked.

By applying this method, you’ll discover that Leviticus 23:33-43 explains what the Feast of Tabernacles (also known as Sukkot) is. Every time you find a different scripture that relates to your passage, you should look it up—it often sheds a different light on your original scripture. In Leviticus 23, for example, we learn that the Feast of Tabernacles is a joyous and festive occasion in which the Jewish people look back and remember their ancestors’ Exodus.

During the Feast of Tabernacles, people would construct and live in temporary houses, called Sukkah. They would eat, sleep, and live life in this Sukkah. Every morning, they would also travel to the temple to attend the Water-Drawing Ceremony, or the Simchat Beit Hashoeivah.

Every morning, water would be brought to the Temple from the Pool of Siloam. A priest would pour this water upon the altar and the people would joyfully shout Psalm 118:25-26. When Jesus stands up to speak with the crowds, this ritual has already happened seven times. The Jewish people had shouted the Psalms, lived in temporary shelters, and thought of the Messiah for seven days.

How do we know that they thought of the Messiah?

Psalm 118:25-26, the passage that the Israelites shouted each morning, included mention of the Messiah: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” This is because the Feast of Tabernacles is not only about remembering the past; it is about looking forward to a future in God’s kingdom when no one will have to live in a temporary shelter ever again. Naturally, then, they thought of the Messiah who would bring this new world into being.

Then Jesus stands up.

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” he says. “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’”(John 7:37-38).

For modern readers like us, this might be confusing. John explains to us that Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit (John 7:39), but this doesn’t explain why the Israelites know exactly what Jesus is talking about. How could they possibly conclude that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah from his claims of living water?

If we return to the Old Testament, we will find that there are several scriptures where “the Spirit of God” is associated with water. Isaiah 44:3, for example, says, “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring” and in Zechariah, we find the following:

“It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.”

“On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.”

“The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name”(Zechariah 14:7-9).

When the Jewish people heard Jesus speaking of living water, they knew Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. This is why they begin to debate the truth of his claim.

Jesus is offering an amazing gift. As Christians, we know that the gift can only be given through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. This gift is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Here’s a question for you: If you could choose Jesus being physically present or the Holy Spirit living within you, which would you choose? The intuitive answer is Jesus, but Jesus assures us that this isn’t true. In John 16, Jesus says, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you”(John 16:7).

Jesus tells us that having the Holy Spirit living within us is much better than having him be physically present among us. If this is the case, the Holy Spirit must be very special indeed.

Scripture tells us that it is through the Holy Spirit that God makes his home in us. John 16:13 says:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit does not tell us what he wants to tell us—he only tells us what he hears Father and Son saying. How do we know this? The Nicene Creed tells us this: “[the Holy Spirit] proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Through the Holy Spirit, we are given a relationship with God.

Going to church every Sunday is wonderful. So is attending Bible studies or listening to Christian teachers. And there is something even more wonderful than these things: learning from the Holy Spirit. Scripture says that the Holy Spirit will teach us all things about Christ. The Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, and inspired the writers of the scriptures—without the Holy Spirit, we cannot understand the scripture.

The Holy Spirit helps us to understand the mind of God. He is the reason why Christians experiencing great suffering and persecution can be filled with such joy and love. He gives us life, sanctifies us, and helps us to pray. Through the Holy Spirit’s instruction, we become more like Christ.

Although the Holy Spirit is the most misunderstood member of the Trinity, he is also vitally important. Through the Holy Spirit, we learn that our God is not a distant God. He is not an abstract principle. He is involved in every aspect of our existence—so much so that he lives inside of us.

Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will be given to all who believe in him. It is interesting to note that Jesus says “who believes” and not “who has faith.” Believing is a verb—not a noun. Believing is not a mental assent. Even Satan knows that Jesus died, resurrected, and ascended into heaven. Does this make Satan a Christian? Of course not. Believing is more than just knowing.

Believing means (1) knowing God’s word and (2) doing God’s word. Sound strange? Let’s consider an analogy. I know that brown rice is healthier for me than white rice. I’ve read several reports of how brown rice supports healthy sleep patterns, weight loss, and energy levels. But if I know this and only eat white rice, it doesn’t matter what I knowMatthew 7:24-27 tells us that our relationship with God is very similar.

Jesus calls for us to actively believe in him, not to passively acknowledge him. Perhaps this is why he calls the thirsty to come to him rather than declaring that he will come to all who are thirsty.

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