Jesus, Messiah and Lord
General introduction to Jesus as Messiah and Lord
So many passages could be mentioned:
Sabbath in Nazareth
The Jewish year
To examine Jesus as Messiah we are going to focus on two festivals on the Jewish calendar and how Jesus related to them
The Feast of Tabernacles1
My first ever visit to Israel on my own was in the autumn. I had visited the country before, but only as part of a group. This visit was my first experience of Israel off the tourist track. As I arrived in Jerusalem on the local `Egged' bus, it seemed to have undergone a transformation. On every balcony, temporary shelters had been made out of boards, branches and anything else that came to hand. It was as if the city had suddenly turned into a mass refugee camp and a stranger might have imagined that just such an event had occurred, the extra people being housed in the shelters. This was, of course, the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot as it is known in Hebrew. The shelters (tabernacles) were not for unexpected refugees but for local families to live in for a week. In this way they would remind themselves that they too had once been refugees and God's hand had brought them to this land.
Three elements of the festival
The Feast of Tabernacles is the third pilgrimage festival. It is the final harvest festival, when all the crops are gathered in. For the ancient Israelites, Sukkot was so important that it was simply known as the Feast (Deut 16:15). The basic instructions for Tabernacles are found in Leviticus 23. It is celebrated for seven days, starting on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, which is the month of Tishri (September or October). The first day should be a Sabbath and the eighth day, after the end of the festival, should also be a Sabbath. Leviticus then goes on to outline special fruits that should be used in the festival, and instructions on how to build a temporary shelter called a tabernacle or Sukkah.
Building a tabernacle
The centre of celebration for this festival is the tabernacle. This has to be a temporary structure and there are many rules about its construction. It is only allowed to have one permanent wall, which does mean that it can be built up against a house. Today the walls might be made of hardboard or plastic sheeting over a frame. The roof is made of branches sparse enough to be able to see the stars. The Sukkah is used for eating meals and for study. Some families will sleep in it for at least one night. This obviously lends itself well to a hot country such as Israel, other parts of the Mediterranean or even California. It is not so suitable for colder countries such as Britain and particularly Eastern Europe.
The Four Species
Four special fruits are mentioned: `Fruits from the goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willow of the brook' (Lev 23:40, RSV). These were to be used to rejoice before the Lord. The Talmud identified the boughs of leafy trees as myrtle, and the `fruits from the goodly trees' as a citrus called an etrog. This looks like a large lemon, with a prominent tip or `pittom'. The palm branch, which should be beautiful, has a holder made out of the base of it. Here are placed the willow and myrtle. These are held with the etrog and shaken to the four points of the globe, upwards and downwards, while a blessing is recited.
Another tradition links the four species to four different types of people. Dates from the palm tree have taste but no smell: this is symbolic of people who are very clever but rather impractical. The myrtle has a lovely fragrance but no taste: this represents people who are practical, and always willing to help others, but are not very clever. The willow has neither taste nor fragrance: this is symbolic of people who are `good for nothing'! Finally, the etrog has a wonderful fragrance and a good taste: this is symbolic of people who are not only very learned but are also full of good deeds. The punch line of the story is to thank God that he has not made everybody to be an etrog! Most people have their weaknesses, and all types of people are needed to make up a genuine community.
The third activity of the festival is to rejoice. This is commanded in Leviticus 23. Verse 40 says: `On the first day, you are to take choice fruits from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches, and poplars, and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.' Throughout the biblical period we find that this is the most joyful of all festivals. Sometimes Tabernacles became too joyful and the prophets warn about overindulgence.
Tabernacles in the New Testament
Most of the ceremonies focussed on the Temple. Willow branches decorated the altar, with their points facing inwards. The priests would bring palms and willows to the Temple and wave them each day while circling the altar once, reciting psalms and blowing silver trumpets. On the last (seventh) day of the festival, five willows were bound together and carried round the alter seven times. As they circled the altar they sang from the Hallel Psalms (113-118, 136), but especially emphasised Psalm 118:25: `O Lord save us (Hosannah); O Lord give us success'. Because of this, the final day became known as the `Great Day' or the `Great Hosannah'. The willow branches would be shaken and beaten until all the leaves had been lost from them and palm branches were also waved. The beating and waving of the four species sounds a little like rain falling and this ceremony was a prayer for the autumn rains to come.
Water is a key element for the Festival of Sukkot. Jerusalem has always struggled to have enough water. There is only one spring called Gihon, which is outside the city in the Kidron valley. There was an ancient tunnel built from within the city walls to this spring which was used by King David to enter and conquer the city. King Hezekiah built a second tunnel to take the water from the spring to a pool, called Siloam, which was within the city to the south of the Temple.
The Festival of Tabernacles comes in the autumn and by this time of year there has not been rain for many months. Praying for rain became a central part of the Sukkot festivities. On each day of the Festival, the priests would go down to the Pool of Siloam with a golden horn which they would fill with water. They would then return to the Temple with much rejoicing and singing the Hallel Psalms. They poured out water on to the altar and prayed for the autumn rains to come. This was known as the Libation Ceremony and was based on Isaiah 12:3: `With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation'.
Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles
There is one definite incident of Jesus attending the Feast of Tabernacles and this is found in John 7- 8. Jesus' brothers challenged him to come with them to the Feast, but he was reluctant to go. This might seem surprising, but the reason becomes clear if we remember the link between Sukkot and the Maccabean revolt. The people of Jesus' day were looking for a Messiah who would be like the Maccabees and would fight to regain Israel from their oppressors. Jesus knew if he came publicly to Jerusalem at this time, he would be proclaimed `King Messiah' and would become the focus of a revolt. He stayed in Galilee a few days longer and so did not arrive in Jerusalem until the middle of feast. Rather than make a big messianic arrival, he instead took up his role as a rabbi and began to teach in the Temple courts. His teaching caused great controversy, partly because of his great learning but mainly because of his claims about himself. Then, on the final day of the festival, Jesus made a dramatic statement. This was the day when, after the Libation Ceremony, the priests would circle the Altar seven times and would make the special entreaty to the Lord to both save them and to give them the autumn rains. We read in John 7:37-38:
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and said in a loud voice, `if any one is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.'
It is a hard at this distance to imagine how dramatic and how shocking this statement was. It is no wonder that, as a result, some people called him a prophet, some the Messiah, but that others wanted to seize him as a heretic.
The second major theme for Sukkot in New Testament times was light. This probably came from the description of the Shekinah or Glory of the Lord appearing at Tabernacles time when the Temple was first dedicated. During the Second Temple period, a special ceremony was enacted in the Court of the Women. In each corner of the court, four huge candlesticks were erected. Each had four branches with large bowls filled with olive oil. Each bowl contained a wick, which was made out of the worn out garments of the priests. These were lit at night, so illuminating the Temple with 16 torches. In the days before floodlighting the effect was quite breathtaking for the pilgrims and residents of the city. Each household also had torches in their own courtyards. Under these lights the people gathered for an evening of praise. It was said by the rabbis that whoever had not celebrated Tabernacles in Jerusalem had never experienced real joy.
What did Jesus say?
Jesus' second statement at this festival was no less dramatic than his first , especially when we realise that he was actually in the floodlit Temple when he made the statement. John 8:12 described the scene: `when Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, `I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life''. Given the festival lights and their link to the Shekinah, it is no wonder that Jesus was accused of claiming equality with God. This was exactly what he was doing.
So in these two statements we see Jesus not taking the role of a gentle teacher but of a very bold and controversial prophet. His listeners were left with two alternatives, either he was the Messiah and the Son of God, or he was an impostor and highly dangerous.
Tabernacles to come
Many people also link the return of Jesus with the Feast of Tabernacles. Why is this? If we look at the Old Testament we find that there are two strands to the messianic hope. One involves the Suffering Servant and is typified by Isaiah 53. Here the Messiah suffers and dies for his people to bring them redemption. `He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed' (Isaiah 53:5).
The second strand describes a King Messiah and is typified by Isaiah 11. In this passage, the Messiah regathers his people, there is a final judgement and he brings about peace on earth.
The wolf will lie with the Lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, . . . . .In that day the root of Jessie will stand as a banner for the peoples, the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people' (Isaiah 11:6,10-11).
In the early centuries of the Christian era there was a Jewish tradition of two Messiahs. Messiah Ben Joseph would be a suffering servant who would die for his people and Messiah Ben David would be a king Messiah who would restore his people and bring about peace on earth. This is recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud.2 Later Judaism applied the suffering servant theme to Israel and the messianic hope to a Messiah who would be king.
Christians see these two strands as two stages of Jesus' mission. His first coming among us was as a suffering servant. He pitched his tent among us and identified with us. He suffered on our behalf to bring about our redemption. His second coming will be in glory as King Messiah to bring about the final ingathering, judge the earth and establish eternal peace.
How does it relate to Tabernacles? Jesus' first coming as the Suffering Servant fulfilled the Passover festival with its themes of sacrifice and redemption. His second coming as King Messiah can be shown to fulfil the Feast of Tabernacles. Many of the passages concerning the Second Coming of Jesus in the New Testament and of the king Messiah in the Old Testament contain Tabernacles and High Holy Days themes. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 describes the return of Christ to be announced by sounding of a trumpet and this links to Rosh Hashanah. At the start of the High Holy Days, we hear the trumpet blast to prepare for God's judgement at Yom Kippur, and God's presence among us at Sukkot. When Jesus returns we will also hear the trumpet as we prepare for judgement and to meet our God.
Revelation 7 describes the final redemption of Christ very vividly. This scene is reminiscent of rejoicing in the Temple at Tabernacles:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: `salvation (Hosannah) belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb' (Revelation 7:9-10).
Jerusalem will have eternal light and water will flow from the throne out through the city.3 The passage from Isaiah 11, quoted above, has many common themes with Tabernacles and the return of Jesus, particularly ingathering, rejoicing and judgement. The Old Testament also gives a picture of the Festival of Tabernacles in the last days. The Feast will continue with all nations taking part. Zechariah 14 sees into the future: `Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles' (Zechariah 14:16).
From these passages we can conclude that in the return of Jesus there will be an ultimate fulfilment of the Feast of Tabernacles. First there will be judgement. This will be followed by a time of unimaginable joy, and of a final ingathering of God's people. The redeemed will live with the eternal presence of God's Shekinah light and be refreshed by the living water of the Holy Spirit.
Most of the material in this session is extracts from my book, A Feast of Seasons.
2. Jerusalem Talmud, Hai Gaon Responsum.
3. Revelation 21:23, 22:1.