Thanksgiving, Sukkot and Christ - Part 1

Thomas Lieth

Thanksgiving, as we celebrate it as Christians, basically has its origins in the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. In the same way that Easter has its origins in Passover, and Pentecost has its origins in the Jewish Feast of Weeks, Thanksgiving has a Jewish-Biblical background in the true sense. All these Old Testament festivals have experienced their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and have therefore been given a completely new meaning for us Christians. At Easter, Pentecost, and also at Thanksgiving, we actually confirm the Biblical promises and their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Hardly anyone thinks of this as he eats his chocolate bunny at Easter, takes a vacation over Pentecost [this occurs mainly in Europe], and stuffs himself at Thanksgiving, but that it is why it is all the more important to show, once again, what we actually celebrate, and what the importance of these holidays is.

In Leviticus 23, seven holy festivals of Israel are mentioned, which God the Lord gave to Moses and the people of Israel along the way. Three of these seven festivals were so-called pilgrimage festivals, during which all male Jews had to travel to the temple in Jerusalem (Ex 23:14-19; Deut 16:16).

The first of these pilgrimage festivals was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was celebrated in direct connection with Passover. Therefore, at the time of the Lord Jesus, Jerusalem was overflowing with people from all over Israel and beyond for Passover. And, of course it was no coincidence that the Lord Jesus was crucified on Passover, at exactly the same time that the sacrificial lamb was offered in the temple. That was divine precision. The Pharisees and the scribes did not at all want to kill the Lord Jesus during the Passover, but rather before or later. John reports on the scribes and Christ: “Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come” (John 7:30; this was during the Feast of Tabernacles). By the will of God, the seizure and killing of the Lord had to occur at the time of the Passover sacrifice, although the priests and scribes had resolved regarding Passover: “Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people” (Mt 26:5). Nonetheless, it happened that way, precisely and exactly at the place where God wanted it. In God’s plan of salvation there are no coincidences, but rather fulfilled prophecy and divine direction.

The second pilgrimage festival is the Feast of Pentecost, or the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which is observed 50 days after the Feast of Passover. It is also something like a harvest festival, in the spring, after the grain has been harvested. And we have yet another reference to the New Testament, which is why [European] Christians celebrate Pentecost. This is also no coincidence, but rather divine precision and fulfilled prophecy. For, the Holy Spirit began its work in the congregation at precisely that time, 50 days after the Passover festival: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord…And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:1ff.). As before, this is no coincidence.

The crucifixion and the resurrection occurred during the first major pilgrimage festival; the church came into being during the second major pilgrimage festival; and with the third pilgrimage festival, everything comes to a triumphant conclusion.

But, before we consider the third of these pilgrimage festivals, the Feast of Tabernacles, another of Israel’s seven holy festivals should certainly be mentioned briefly, because its fulfillment in Jesus Christ is especially interesting. It is the Feast of Firstfruits, which was fulfilled with the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and which occurs between Passover and Pentecost. Thus, 1 Corinthians 15:20 speaks of “the firstfruits of them that slept,” and Colossians 1:18 speaks of “the firstborn of the dead,” so that He would be the first in everything. Yes, this is a wonderful fulfillment of the decree concerning the firstfruits. This festival always fell on the day after the Sabbath, that is, on Sunday. And, when did the Lord Jesus rise from the dead as the firstborn and the firstfruits of the departed?  On a Sunday. Coincidence, or divine precision?

Now, on to the third pilgrimage festival, namely Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles. Leviticus 23:33-34 says, “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the feast of tabernacles for seven days unto the LORD.” 

Interestingly, the Feast of Tabernacles is known among the Jews as “the Festival.” Just as the Bible is “the Book” and the Matterhorn [in the Alps] is “the Mountain,” the Feast of Tabernacles is “the Festival.”  This means that when someone speaks of “the Festival,” it doesn’t mean Passover, Pentecost, or even Purim, but the Feast of Tabernacles. It is not by chance that many Christians travel to Jerusalem during these feast days to pray, to demonstrate their solidarity with Israel, or simply to take part in the festivities associated with Sukkot. It is also no coincidence that non-Jews set off for Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles; it is the only Jewish festival that even includes the Gentiles (non-Jews) a bit. Thus, it says in Deuteronomy 16:14 that the stranger should joyfully celebrate this festival, too. Even though the accompanying sacrifices and the like were a purely Jewish matter, the Gentiles were to be included in these festivities. Sukkot was a folksy and joyous feast, connected with music, light spectacles and dances. Therefore, it is still popular with Jews to this day, and is still called “the Festival.” It is also why non-Jews like to come to Israel, to watch the activities or even to dance along.

We should certainly distinguish between the original divine instructions for this festival and the tradition that has developed from it, but the invitation to be merry actually issued from God Himself: “…ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days” (Lev 23:40).

That even the Gentiles, that is, the strangers, should be included in these festivities, is also found in the Jewish festival tradition, in which it is said that the 70 bulls sacrificed during the festival represent the 70 nations from Genesis 10. This is not a biblical statement but a Jewish doctrine, which is noteworthy because otherwise, the Gentiles are not included in any other festival. Further reference to the Gentiles is given in Zechariah 14:16. It is said that in the earthly kingdom of God, all believers—those from the Gentile nations included—will go up to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. Consequently, the Feast of Tabernacles also has meaning for the future, since God’s kingdom on earth has not yet appeared.

Now let’s discuss the content of the festival. The Feast of Tabernacles is the last of Israel’s seven holy festivals, and is celebrated in the autumn after the grape and fruit harvest (Ex 23:14-17). On the other hand, the Feast of Tabernacles is also called the Feast of Ingathering, when the last harvest is finished. The festival actually has a double meaning. It is not just a thanksgiving festival following the last harvest; no, it is also meant to be in memory of God’s faithful care during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, when the people could not bring in a harvest and were entirely dependent on God. Hence, the tradition of living in tents or huts, as the people lived in during the desert wandering. It says in Leviticus 23:42-43, “Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” And in Deuteronomy 2:7, Moses remembered: “For the LORD thy God hath blessed thee in all the works of thy hand: he knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness: these forty years the LORD thy God hath been with thee; thou hast lacked nothing.” 

When we consider the wandering in the wilderness, then we see that Israel really has every reason to thank the Lord for His enduring faithfulness. God would indeed have had every reason to destroy His people in the wilderness, because they turned their backs on God, their liberator and savior, and instead preferred to worship a golden calf. Or also because they refused to take possession of the Promised Land out of fear. Ultimately, this was the reason why the wandering in the wilderness took so long. It didn’t happen because of highway construction work, but because of Israel’s disbelief and disobedience. Yet God is faithful, so He tended to His people in a caring manner, even when they had become unfaithful to Him. God cares for the essentials; He cares for the daily needs, and that even applies to you and me today. As our Lord Jesus Christ emphasizes: “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body more than raiment? …Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? Or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:25, 31-33).

This is wonderful! And if we are honest, most of us have even more than we need every day. That is, God cares even for abundance. He doesn’t just care for our survival, but also that we will be satisfied and enjoy the food. Why else would God have endowed us with a sense of taste? This is the great thing, that God has created us so that we can and should rejoice. We have eyes to see beauty; we have ears to hear sweet words, music, or even birdsong. We have a sense of touch and feeling to enjoy a loving hug, and God has endowed us with taste buds—not to gobble up the culinary pleasures, but to enjoy them.

Back to the wandering in the wilderness and God’s faithful care of His people Israel. Numbers 1:46-47 speaks of over 600,000 men who were traveling in the desert. Extrapolating from this figure, interpreters speak of over 2 million people, since their wives and children were also with these men on the road. In order to preserve this enormous number in the desert and to provide for their necessities, Moses would have had to procure up to 1,500 tons of food every day. At least one smart person has estimated the quantity in this way. But still further: for drinking and washing, 45 million liters [close to 12 million gallons] of water were needed every day, and that in the desert. It’s impossible to imagine. Here, I can understand anyone who says, “That cannot be. So many people…that isn’t possible. Forty years definitely can’t be right, either, and the desert might never have existed. This entire exodus from Egypt…it’s surely all a fairy tale.” 

In fact, it is not humanly understandable, any more than a talking donkey or the virgin birth (Num 22:28; Mt 1:23; Lk 2:7). But, we are not talking about some good read; we’re not speaking here of human work, but we are reading from the Word of God, and dealing with the personal intervention of God. This fact alone makes me believe what is written in the Bible, and lets me know that God is acting here; God is speaking here. It deals here with God’s plan of salvation for Israel and the nations. These tons of food and millions of liters of water concerned God—every day, for over 40 years. What a faithful God!

The culmination of all of this is testified to in Deuteronomy 8:4, where it says, “Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.” If people like us were to be just ten days in the desert, then I’d like to see our shoes, clothing and feet…and we would stink like a mountain goat. Oh, yes, the people of Israel truly had and have every reason to thank God, for a time in which they themselves sowed nothing, and consequently could reap nothing. And then I ask us: are we still thankful, and do we appreciate the daily miracles of God in our lives?

Midnight Call - 10/2017

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