(Be sure to read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.)
by Michael Barber © 2006
Because it’s been a while since I discussed the feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkoth), let me refresh your memory. The feast coincided with the harvest of grapes and olives. As with the feast of Pentecost, another harvest time festival, the ingathering of the first fruits became a symbol for the hope of the future “ingathering” of Israel.
The feast was also associated with the temple. This is probably due to two reasons. First, the feast occurred in the seven month, the same time Solomon had dedicated the temple (cf. 2 Kgs 8:2; 2 Chr 7). Second, the feast was closely associated with the Day of Atonement—a feast that was especially focused on temple rituals—which took place only five days prior to it.
The book of Zechariah seems to bring together these elements. There we read about the ingathering of God’s eschatological people in the holy city of Jerusalem. This future ingathering is described as taking place during Sukkoth (Zech 14:16-21).The feast’s signature image, the “booths,” served two purposes. Harvesters in the fields used the booths for protection from the elements. Yet, the booths also had a religious significance, functioning as a reminder of Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness.Rabbinic tradition preserves reports of the specific rituals carried out during the feast. One ritual involved the Levites taking water from the pool of Siloam, carrying it into the temple and pouring it out as a libation to the Lord. It seems as though this ritual may have been understood as a reminder of the water which flowed from the rock Israel drank from in the wilderness. The water was also associated with the temple. In fact, Ezekiel described a renewed temple, which itself would be the source of flowing water (cf. Ezek 47:1-12).
Another ritual involved the lighting of candles in the temple. This rite signified the people’s celebration and renewed commitment to remembering the presence of the Lord in the temple. The burning flames served as a reminder of the glory-cloud of the Lord.
"He Tabernacled Among Us"
From the outset, the fourth Gospel reveals Jesus’ role as the true tabernacle and temple of the Lord. In John 1, Jesus is described as the Word who “dwelt among us” (1:14). In Greek, the verb can literally be translated as “he tabernacled.” As God “tabernacled” with Israel, so in Jesus God is “tabernacling” among his people again. In fact, the word was used not only in association with God dwelling in the tabernacle, but also in connection with the Lord’s “dwelling” in the temple (cf. 1 Kings 6:13). In the next chapter, Jesus is described not only as the tabernacle of the Lord, but also as the true temple of the Lord (John 2:13-22).
Since Jesus was the true temple, it is no surprise to find him present in Jerusalem at the feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2ff.). In John 7:37-39 we read,
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, ‘If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive…”Jesus seems to be drawing on new temple imagery—as Ezekiel saw waters flowing from the new temple, so the Spirit will flow from him, the true temple. The imagery here seems to be linked with what we find in John 19 where we read about Jesus giving forth his Spirit in death and water (and blood) flowing out of his heart from his pierced side.
In John 8, we have another possible reference to an image associated with Sukkoth. There Jesus describes himself as “the light of the world” (8:12). Given the larger context of the feast of Tabernalces, Jesus may be alluding here to the ritual of lighting the candelabra in the temple.
Interestingly, the next chapter takes place at the pool of Siloam—the place where the water ritual began. There Jesus heals a man who had been cast out of the earthly temple. But he is restored in Christ, the true temple. The old temple has been surpassed; the eschatological temple has arrived. In all of this we are meant to see that the focal point of the restoration of Israel is not a physical location—it’s the person of Christ.
To be continued...
 For more on the temple themes in John see P. W. L. Walker, Jesus and the Holy City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 163-75; James McCaffrey, The House with Many Rooms: The Temple Theme of Jn. 14,2-3. Analecta Biblica 114. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1988.