************ Sermon on Leviticus 23:33-43 & John 8:12 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 22, 2002
"The Feast of Tabernacles: The Ceremony of Lights"
During the next twelve months or so I plan to preach on the Feasts of the Lord in the Old Testament. Tonight I want to preach on the Feast of Tabernacles. At first it may seem that this is a strange feast to use for a candle light service but bear with me as we look at this Feast in the Old Testament, at the time of Jesus, and at how it is fulfilled in Christ.
I In the Old Testament
A The Feast of Tabernacles is known by at least two names. The Hebrew word is "Sukkot" meaning "Tabernacles." But it is also known as the Feast of Booths or Huts. It acquired this name from the requirement for all Israelites to dwell in booths or temporary shelters during the 7 days of this autumn holiday. It was to be an annual reminder of God's provision and presence during the 40 year wilderness journey from Egypt to the land flowing with milk and honey. During that journey Israel lived in temporary shelters. During that journey God gave them water from the rock, manna from the heavens, and quail from the seas. During that journey God was before them in a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day.
B The feast was celebrated with great joy. In fact, it was the most joyful and festive of all Israel's feasts. The reason for the joy was threefold: it commemorated God's goodness and provision during the wilderness journey, it commemorated God's present goodness and provision with the completion of the harvest, and it looked forward to the future and the fullness of the harvest that is to come.
C Three portions of Scripture deal with the Feast of Tabernacles. Our portion from Leviticus states the people were to live in booths and rejoice before the Lord with branches (Lev 23:33-43). The book of Numbers specifies there were to be many daily, sacrificial offerings ( Numbers 29:12-39). And, Deuteronomy says that in a sabbatical year the Law was to be publicly read during the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut 31:10-13).
D We have every reason to believe the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated on a regular basis. It was celebrated at the dedication of the Temple under King Solomon (2 Chron 5:3). It was also celebrated at the rededication of the Temple when Nehemiah brought the children of Israel back (Neh 8). And, we know it was celebrated at the time of Jesus.
E The Feast of Tabernacles was one of the three pilgrim feasts. Three times during the year, all Jewish males were required to appear before the Lord in the Temple (for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles – Ex 23:17; 34:22-23; Deut 16:16). These were known as pilgrim feasts because of the required pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
In the days of the Temple thousands of Jewish Pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. They came from every village within the nation and from many foreign countries, most often in large caravans for protection. All Israelites were required to attend, if they were able. So the city of Jerusalem became absolutely packed with people – bumper to bumper people. The Jewish historian, Josephus, said the city of Jerusalem would swell in population from 50,000± to well over 500,000 – maybe as many as a million people. Wall-to-wall people.
The pilgrimage was a joyous trip filled with much singing. The pilgrims made a point of singing the great hallelujah psalms (Ps 113 - 118) as they marched from wherever they lived and came to the Temple. The children would sing with their parents – children and parents together.
When they got to the Temple they would present gifts for the poor and the stranger and the homeless and the Levites. They would bring fruit and grain and wine and meat because they were not allowed to "appear before the Lord empty-handed" (Deut 16;16).
F Upon arrival in Jerusalem, the pilgrims focused their energies upon building lean-to booths. So on the way to Jerusalem they were gathering branches. They gathered palm branches to symbolize the oases. They used myrtle branches to symbolize the mountains. They collected willow branches to symbolize the places where there were streams. They found fruit branches to symbolize fertile hill sides. All of these branches reminded them of the various kinds of terrain they traveled through on their way to the Promised Land.
The booths they made were constructed of interwoven branches and leaves. But you were still supposed to see the sun through them. And you lived in it for 7 days. You ate in it. You slept in it. You sang in it. You washed in it. Whatever you did, you did in that booth. It was your home for 7 days.
You can imagine that there were booths everywhere. There were booths on top of the buildings. There were booths in the streets. There were booths out in the courtyard. There were booths on the hills surrounding Jerusalem. All were carefully located within a Sabbath's day journey of the Temple – that is, little more than half a mile.
F Every morning the people would hear the blast of the ram's horn from the Temple. It summoned the people of God to worship. And they did this for 7 days. They would take additional branches that they had gathered on their way in. And they were from the same kind of trees: palm, myrtle, willow, and fruit. And they tied them together in a bundle. And they would go to the Temple and would wave their bundle of branches – and they waved them until the leaves fell off the branches. Thousands of people, packed into the Temple courtyard and waving their branches. Why? Because the purpose of the Feast of Tabernacles was to celebrate and rejoice in the Lord, His presence, and His care.
Numbers 29 lets us know that they were required to be joyful – the alien, the fatherless, the widow, as well as the rest of Israel – they were all mandated to be joyful. It made no difference what the situation of your life was – you were required to rejoice in the Lord. Imagine this: you have no home, you are an alien, you are an orphan, you are a widow, you have no future; but you are instructed to be joyful. Here is a reminder that joy is not determined by circumstance. Rather, it is something that is yours because of Christ. So God's people were mandated to be joyful. They were to go to the Temple and they were to celebrate. And, they were to do so for a week.
Back then and today so many people live their lives without joy. Whether they realize it or not, they are searching for joy. But they search in the wrong places. They go to casinos – I was in Tahoe last week and I did not see a single happy person in front of any of the slot machines. They go to bars. They go shopping. They go to exotic vacation spots. They lose themselves in work. They go from woman to woman or from man to man. They are all searching for joy. They don't realize that they can find that joy only in Christ.
Leviticus also tells us they had to go to the Lord with an offering made by fire. Now this does not mean they killed a bull or a couple of rams or a goat or a lamb or a kid like they did on the other feast days of Israel. Listen to what they sacrificed on the Feast of Tabernacles. In the course of one week they sacrificed 70 bulls, 14 rams, 98 lambs, and 336 tenths of an ephah of fine flour. This is what was sacrificed during an "ordinary" celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. But there were also extra-ordinary celebrations of that feast like the time King Solomon dedicated the Temple. Listen to all that Solomon sacrificed that Feast day:
(2Chr 7:5) And King Solomon offered a sacrifice of twenty-two thousand head of cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats. So the king and all the people dedicated the temple of God.Did you catch the numbers: 22,000 cattle; 120,000 sheep and goats. That's a lot of sacrifices.
What happened to all these offerings? Only some of them were burned. A lot of them were eaten. They were distributed among the people and the people feasted and had a party for an entire week. They celebrated the goodness and the richness of life with God. That was the Feast of Tabernacles.
II At the Time of Jesus
A By the time of Jesus the Feast of Tabernacles still included the huts or booths but it also had evolved a couple of different ceremonies. The first was the Ceremony of Water. I will skip over this ceremony and will preach on it a future date.
The second ceremony was the ceremony of lights. In the courtyard of the Temple stood 4 towering lamps; they were 75 feet high – that is twice as high as the high point of this ceiling. The lamps were so big that the reservoirs for oil held over 10 gallons each. Their wicks were manufactured from the linen garments worn by the high priest in the previous year's Day of Atonement; the linens would be twisted and dipped into the oil and set ablaze. Each lamp had four long ladders leading up to the lamps. Young priests would climb the 75 feet up the ladder with the wicks. Carrying large pitchers of olive oil they would periodically climb the 75 feet and refill the lamps. They would climb the 75 feet to light the lamps too – something like the Olympic torch I saw at Squaw Valley last week. I can imagine Matt McCutchen and Christopher Drennon clambering to the top – and I understand Matt wouldn't even need the ladder (ask Matt about this after the service) – but I also know a big bunch of you would never ever consider climbing this high. This lamp lighting ceremony was repeated every night from the second night until the final night of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Josephus records that when the lamps were lit just at sundown the light was so bright that every home in all of Jerusalem could see the light reflected from the courtyard of the Temple.
B Now, the light stands for what? We all know. Remember the wilderness journey? Remember when the children of Israel came out of Egypt and bondage and into the wilderness? Always at night there was that pillar of fire, the light of God's presence, to guide them and protect them. And in the Tabernacle courtyard there was always a lit lamp signifying that God was there with them on their journey.
And so the 4 giant lamps in the Temple courtyard would be lit. All of Israel would wave and beat their branches against the air and the ground until the leaves would fall off. And they would celebrate with extraordinary joy that God was with them, that His presence filled them, that His gifts surrounded them and provided for their needs. They celebrated God's presence which is a light in a dark world.
III Fulfilment in Christ
A Do you know something? The ceremony of lights cried out for Christ. It wasn't just a looking back to the light of God's presence leading the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
Now, consider what John writes in chapter 7 of his Gospel. He starts off this section with, "On the last and greatest day of the Feast" (Jn 7:37; cf 7:14). You know when that is. That is the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. For 6 days now the young men have scampered 75 feet to the top of those 4 lamps in the Temple courtyard to trim the wicks and to fill the bowls and to light the lamps.
Now, our text doesn't say this, but the context leads us to believe that it is during the actual lamp-lighting ceremony of the last day of the Feast that Jesus stood up and said,
(Jn 8:12) "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."The Pharisees knew what Jesus was claiming here: He was claiming to be the Messiah. They were familiar with the many titles in Scripture which ascribe light to the Messiah: the Star out of Jacob, the light of Israel, the light of the nations, a refiner's fire, a burning lamp, the Sun of righteousness. They knew that Jesus was claiming to be the light of God's presence – the same light of God's presence that led Israel through the wilderness. So they immediately called Jesus a liar (Jn 8:13).
Later that same day – it is still the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles – Jesus healed a blind man. He brought light into that man's darkened life. As He did so, He said, "While I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (Jn 9:5). Again the Pharisees were angry with Jesus.
Now, remember the context. The Temple lighting ceremony is still fresh in everyone's mind. It has just been celebrated six nights in a row. Jesus was saying that He was the light that would light not just the Temple and Jerusalem but the whole world.
We live in a world in which people do not believe in truth, in which people don't have guilt any more because they do not believe there is anything right or wrong any more. Everything is relative and there are no ultimates anymore. Yet, people hunger, they thirst. There is an ache. Calvin says we all have created within us the seed of divinity. We were created to know Him and seek Him. And when we play all of these games and deny Him and reject Him and deny the truth of His Word we know something is missing. Deep down we know that there is darkness where there should be light.
Unless the Spirit of God replaces the lying heart with truth, we remain in darkness. Evil is not out there somewhere; it is in here and in your heart and my heart. But Jesus stands up before the world and He says, "I am the light." "I can show you in a sin-darkened world what it is to live, and to rejoice, and to enjoy life regardless of circumstances." Joy, regardless of circumstances, is possible because Jesus is the light of life.
Jesus is the light of our life. Your husband, your wife, your family may all be outside of Christ. Everything about your circumstances may be a mess. Your finances may be sinking quicker than the stock market. But life and joy and peace, says the Feast of Tabernacles, depends upon the light of God's presence. As with Israel, it is only the Lord's light that gets you through the wilderness.
B In the Old Testament, of course, the Feast of Tabernacles was looking forward to Jesus. It was looking forward to the Jesus Who would stand there on the day of the Feast and say,
(Jn 8:12) "I am the light of the world.. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
The Feast of Tabernacles continues to look forward to Jesus. I think of an Old Testament promise mentioned by Ezekiel:
(Ezek 37:27-28) My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. (28) Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.The Lord promises to tabernacle with His people forever. The light and glory of His presence will always be with them. This promise is repeated in the New Testament in the vision of John in the book of Revelation:
(Rev 21:3) And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.Imagine the joy and rejoicing of being in God's presence and glory forever.
"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." For you and I to keep the Feast of Tabernacles now means we have to believe in Jesus and His crucifixion and death. Then, we no longer walk in darkness but have the light of life. Then our lives are filled with joy in and about the Lord.
So let me ask you: have you experienced the life-changing, ever-present, light of the Messiah, or are you still walking in darkness?
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