By Dr. Doug Redford
Where would you say the following statement appears for the first time in the Bible: “and your joy will be complete”? The answer may be surprising to some. The first time those words are found is in Deuteronomy 16:15, in connection with celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles.
The Feast of Tabernacles, the final feast in this series of studies, is known in Hebrew as Sukkot (pronounced Sue-coat), the word translated as “tabernacles” or sometimes as “booths” or “shelters.” God commanded the Israelites to “live in temporary shelters for seven days” (Leviticus 23:42), reminding the people of the dwellings in which they resided following the exodus (v. 43). Eventually the celebration of Tabernacles came to commemorate as well God’s faithfulness in providing for his people during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. (The term tabernacles should not be confused with the tabernacle that served as the central structure for Israelite worship prior to the building of Solomon’s temple. The two structures served entirely different purposes.)
From Restraint to Rejoicing
On the calendar (both in Old Testament days and in modern times) Tabernacles is celebrated only five days after the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). As one reads the record of the feasts found in chapter 23 of Leviticus, it is clear that the tone of the legislation changes dramatically moving from the Day of Atonement (vv. 26-32) to the Feast of Tabernacles (vv. 33-44). The Day of Atonement’s regulations include the command to “deny yourselves” (v. 27). The observance of Tabernacles also includes refraining from all work (on both the first and eighth days of the feast). But with verse 39 comes the command to “celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days.” Verse 40 tells the people to “rejoice,” and verse 41 repeats the word “celebrate” (twice). Thus one day of self-denial and serious self-examination was followed five days later by seven days of unbridled celebration!
Part of the celebration involves the fact that Tabernacles was also a harvest festival. Shavuot (observed earlier this year) was a spring harvest festival, marking the ingathering of barley and wheat. The fruit crops were harvested and processed during the summer (including dates, figs, olives, and grapes), and Tabernacles celebrated the completion of that task.
Today Jews observe Sukkot with great enjoyment, acknowledging the aforementioned transition from self-examination to public exultation. Building a sukkah (the Hebrew singular of Sukkot) is an entertaining family activity in which children can take part. It also satisfies the excitement many children have about camping outside. The sukkah may be any size, as long as it is large enough for one to be able to “dwell” in it (barring any inclement weather). Often the sukkah is decorated, sometimes with artwork drawn by the children. This year Sukkot will be observed from sunset on October 4 until sunset on October 11.
Jesus at the Feast
Only one time is the Feast of Tabernacles mentioned in the New Testament, and it comes in a fascinating series of events recorded only in John’s Gospel (chapter 7). By this point in Jesus’ ministry, intense controversy was swirling around his identity, ranging from the view of him as a “good man” (v. 12) to one who was demon-possessed
(v. 20). Some among the crowd wanted to arrest Jesus; others placed their faith in him (vv. 30, 31).
Like the Passover observance (covered in a previous article in this series), the Feast of Tabernacles had undergone certain changes by the time of Jesus. One of these involved a ceremony in which a priest, on each of the days of the feast, would draw water from the pool of Siloam (located south of the temple area) into a golden pitcher. The priest would then lead a procession of worshipers to the temple grounds, where he poured the water into a vessel at the altar of burnt offering. This was done seven times on the dramatic final day of the feast.
This custom must be kept in mind when one reads in John 7:37 that “on the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.’” Perhaps even as the priest was pouring the water from the golden pitcher, Jesus announced, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (v. 38).
John then adds this explanation: “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified” (v. 39). Thus Jesus was using this climactic conclusion to the Feast of Tabernacles to invite others to himself as the source of true, living water and to foreshadow the coming of the Holy Spirit through whom living water would continue to flow into and out of the followers of Jesus. This promise came to fulfillment after Jesus’ ascension (his being “glorified”) when on the Day of Pentecost the Spirit was indeed “given” to those who chose to believe in and obey Jesus (Acts 2:38).
John’s Record and Testimony
It is certainly more than coincidence that John is the only Gospel writer who includes the promises Jesus later gave during Passion Week about the coming of the Holy Spirit (chapters 14-16). The first reference to the Spirit is in John 14:16, 17a: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.” This points to a key role of the Holy Spirit: to be a source of truth for followers of Jesus. The Holy Spirit would guide those who wrote the New Testament Scriptures, insuring an accurate record. Like the Old Testament writers, the New Testament authors would also be “carried along” by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).
There was more to the Spirit’s ministry than providing assistance in writing a reliable, truthful record of matters pertaining to Jesus and his church. Jesus went on to say this in John 14:17b, 18: “The world cannot accept [the Spirit], because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
Here the Spirit’s personal indwelling presence in the followers of Jesus is highlighted. The Spirit will not only guide through a sacred book; he will guide and empower personally each follower of Jesus to live a holy life in a hostile, unholy world. This is not to downplay the importance of the inspired book, but as Carl Ketcherside once aptly noted, “An orphan with a book is still an orphan.”
It is the Spirit’s personal presence that provides for us “another advocate” (implying an advocate just as Jesus had been an advocate). One could say that just as Jesus was Emmanuel (God with us), the Holy Spirit is Jesus with us.
The same combination of truth and personal presence is seen in Jesus’ further teaching in John 14:26, 27. In verse 26 Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit’s role as instructor of what Jesus had previously taught. In verse 27 he promises his incomparable peace, unlike anything the world can provide. The Spirit will satisfy both searching minds (through Scripture) and troubled hearts (through his presence).
John himself came to experience both of these features of the Spirit’s ministry during his exile on the island of Patmos, as recorded in the Book of Revelation. While there he recorded being “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10). He also received messages intended for the seven churches in Asia, each concluding with the plea: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). The apostle may have been exiled, but not his advocate!
As Jesus reached the conclusion of his instruction in John 14-16, he encouraged his followers to ask for anything in his name and added this promise: “And your joy will be complete” (16:24). This brings us back to where our study began in Deuteronomy 16:15, with the emphasis on joy being “complete as part of celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. Yes, our joy is complete, because the source of true joy has come; and before he left, he made sure to provide us with a more than adequate advocate in the Holy Spirit—someone “in our corner” whose book and whose presence will keep us holy and joyful while we pass through this world as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11).
Dr. Doug Redford serves as minister with Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.