A Feast of Unprecedented UnityPublished on: 18.4.2022
By Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President
Three times a year, the Lord commanded His people to ascend to Jerusalem for the three main pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot. The Bible refers to them as the “Feasts of the Lord,” meaning they were divinely instructed holidays which God expected His people to keep (Leviticus 23:1ff). According to Scripture, each one is a mo’ed, or “appointed time.” In a way, they can be understood as entries on a heavenly calendar when God decides to meet with His people in a special way. But of these three festivals, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Succot) was considered the greatest.
Over the centuries, Christians have celebrated the first two feasts during Easter and Pentecost. But the third feast of Succot has not been celebrated throughout most of Church history, and it was even declared ‘heretical’ at one point by the Catholic church. Only during recent decades has Succot increasingly become part of the Christian holiday calendar – in no small part due to the Feast of Tabernacles sponsored for over 40 years now by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
The Message of the Feasts
As with the other pilgrimage feasts, there are two main concepts undergirding the Feast of Tabernacles. First, all three festivals are tied to special periods in Israel’s agricultural calendar. Pesach celebrates the feast of “first fruits” (Leviticus 23:10ff), Pentecost marks the wheat and barley harvests, and Succot celebrates not only the final harvest season for grapes, pomegranates and olives – the most precious of the harvests – but it also rejoices in God’s faithfulness and provision throughout the entire year.
Secondly, each feast commemorates a specific period in Israel’s history. Pesach remembers the deliverance from bondage in Egypt. On Shavout, Israel recounts how God came down with fire on Mount Sinai and delivered the Ten Commandments. And during Succot, the people of Israel recall their 40 years of wandering in the Wilderness, living in rickety booths and yet they experienced the supernatural provision of God.
All three feasts have their fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ. Easter honors Jesus as our spotless Passover Lamb, who rose from the grave as the ‘first fruit’ from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20). Then on Pentecost, the Spirit of God came in fire upon the disciples of Jesus and wrote His laws on their hearts – an initial harvest of 3000 souls who came into God’s kingdom, just as countless more have done since.
Lastly, Succot celebrates the final and most precious harvest of the year, and no doubt we are experiencing today the largest harvest of souls in Church history. In every nation, the Gospel of the Kingdom is being preached and great efforts are underway to reach the last tribes and tongues with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
A further fulfilment, however, centers around the main characteristic of Succot – the Tabernacle.
The chief symbol of Succot for most people is the building of a booth or tabernacle (succah in Hebrew), as commanded by God: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths.” (Leviticus 23:42)
Every year, it is always fascinating to see Jewish families all over Israel build succahs on their porches or in their gardens. For an entire week, God commands His people to dwell in these frail tabernacles – to relive the Wilderness experience. These small huts have flimsy walls and a roof barely covered with branches. The rabbis say you need to be able to see the stars at night through the ceiling. In this make-shift tent, the whole family is supposed to eat their meals, study and even sleep.
Recapturing the desert experience serves to remind everyone that we still live in a fragile world and, despite our prosperity, we are still dependent on God to sustain us. Paul refers to this enduring truth that we live in earthly booths:
“For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven…” (2 Corinthians 5:1-2).
These past two years of a global pandemic and now a brutal war in Ukraine have reminded all of us just how fragile life can be. Even Christians are shaken by these events and often wonder where is God? But Paul says that as we experience our frailty and feel “hard-pressed on every side… and perplexed,” we should not despair (2 Corinthians 4:8); this is the ordinary life of a believer in Christ, and it should not crush us but rather bring us closer to Him.
Only when Christ returns will we receive our full redemption in a new resurrected body, but until then we are still groaning (2 Corinthians 5:2), waiting like Abraham for the city whose builder and architect is God (Hebrews 11:10).
The Four Species
The word of God combines the command to build a succah with another divine charge: “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.” (Leviticus 23:40)
Israel was to take these four species from trees common in the Mediterranean area. The branches of the palm tree, willow and the leafy tree together make up what is called the lulav. They add to it the fruit of a “splendid tree” (etz hadar in Hebrew). Since the time of the Maccabees, this is taken to mean a citrus fruit called the etrog. When Jews purchase an etrog, they always carefully examine it for any possible flaws and a perfect etrog can sell at a high price. These four species are used today in their daily prayers during Succot and are waved in the directions of the four corners of the earth, recognizing God’s kingship over all the world.
According to the rabbis, the four species represent the many character types within the people of Israel, as well as the fullness of the Wilderness experience. The palms trees are the wanderings through the valleys and plains, the leafy trees are the bushes on the mountain heights, the willows represent the brooks of water provided by God, and the splendid trees are the hope for the fruits of the Land of Promise. Therefore, these species represent the entire people with all their different characteristics and experiences.
According to a Sadducee tradition dating back to Second Temple times, these branches also were to be used to build the succah. The Book of Nehemiah refers to these species in that context:
“… and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.’” (Nehemiah 8:15, ESV)
For Nehemiah, the species were the building materials for the booths. But the main difference in the list of species is his mention of olive trees instead of the ‘etz hadar.’ The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that citrus trees like the etrog originally came from India and were introduced into Israel only upon the return from the Babylonian exile. Could it be that the ‘splendid tree’ in ancient times was understood to be the olive tree? We do not know for certain, but passages like Zechariah 4 speak about the splendor of the ‘golden oil’ flowing from two olive trees. And Nehemiah called the people to bring cultivated and wild olive branches in order “to make booths, as it is written.”
Wild and Noble Olives
It is also fascinating to note that this passage in Nehemiah is the only other verse in the entire Bible besides Romans 11 where we find the wild and natural (or cultivated) olive tree mentioned together. The English Standard Version translates it as the “wild and the noble” olive in line with some main commentaries. For Paul in Roman 11, these two branches represented the household of God, consisting of both Jews (the natural or noble olive tree) and Gentiles (wild olive branches). Paul saw the wild branches being grafted into the noble tree and the two united through faith in a Jewish Messiah, Yeshua. Both are partakers of the nourishing sap which flows within the noble tree (‘etz hadar’) of Israel. In Romans 9:1-5, Paul explains this includes “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came.” Paul, therefore, instructs the Gentile Church to be grateful towards the Jews and to bless them in return with our material gifts (Romans 15:27).
Already in the times of Nehemiah, when God restored Jerusalem and the Temple, these two branches – the wild and noble olive trees – appear to cast a prophetic shadow onto our day. As in the days of Nehemiah, we see Jerusalem restored and a global temple of God being built of “living stones,” believers from every tribe and nation, being fit together as a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5). Paul saw this reality of Jews and Gentiles together in one body as a “mystery” hidden from ages past but now revealed through the holy apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5-10). This “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15), united by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, is formed into “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22)
The prophet Zechariah saw in a vision two olive trees extending their branches and their oil to a golden lampstand. “Not by might, not by power but by My Spirit” declared the Lord to the prophet. And then Zechariah saw in this vision how God was placing the capstone, the completion stone, upon the Temple with shouts of “Grace, grace to it.” (Zechariah 4:1-7)
In Solomon’s time, the Temple was completed during the Feast of Tabernacles (1 Kings 8:1ff).
Thus, it is not surprising that Zechariah also sees the Gentiles coming to Jerusalem to join Israel in celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles (Zechariah 14:16).
I believe there is a great prophetic purpose in why God has restored the Feast of Tabernacles to the Church. We are living in the time when God is placing the capstone to His Temple. God is preparing His Bride of both natural and wild olive branches, and this will be accomplished by renewed outpourings of the Holy Spirit and great dispensations of grace upon His people.
There is one more lesson we can learn from the four species: In the Temple in Jerusalem, the priests circled the altar every day waving the species in their hands praying and proclaiming from the Psalms: “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!” (Psalm 118:25)
On the last day of Succot, the Hoshana Raba (hoshana means “please save us”), the priests would circle the altar not just once but seven times. The prayer was a prayer for blessing, for rain, and for God’s overflowing provision. The reenactment of the battle of Jericho was the pleading for a breakthrough for their personal lives, their families, and their nation.
Over the past forty years, we have witnessed exactly that! We have heard testimony after testimony of answered prayers for personal breakthroughs and exceptional blessings offered during our Feast of Tabernacles. Feast pilgrims were called into ministry, had financial breakthroughs, and were healed from diseases. Church revivals were kindled in various countries, parliamentarians were called into public service, barren women were able to have children – these are just some of the testimonies we heard from people attending the Feast.
One of the pilgrimage psalms sung at Succot proclaims: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) This, the Psalmist adds, releases God’s anointing and “there the Lord commanded the blessing – life forevermore.”
So many times we have seen when the one Body of Messiah comes together and pleads, “Lord save us,” that God answers in surprising ways and confirms that Succot is indeed a mo’ed, an appointed time to meet with the King of Kings when nothing is impossible with Him!
In many ways, the Feast of Tabernacles has become a global succah for Jews and Gentiles, and the special unity we have in Yeshua becomes a catalyst for God to send a breakthrough. I pray that you can join us this year and experience the Feast outpouring for yourself!