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Friday Feature - In the footsteps of Messiah – Why we celebrate the Feast

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4 Oct 2019
Friday Feature - In the footsteps of Messiah – Why we celebrate the Feast
In the late 1970s, a gifted Canadian couple living in Jerusalem, Merv and Merla Watson, received from the Lord a vision to invite Christians from around the world to come join them in celebrating Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles. They were inspired by the promise in Zechariah 14:16 that one day the Gentiles will come up to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot alongside the Jewish people. In 1979, a few hundred Christians responded to the invitation. But the next year, more than 1,000 believers from some 32 nations arrived for this unique Christian gathering in Jerusalem.

It was during that Feast of Tabernacles celebration in 1980 when the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem was born. The following year, the Feast moved to the Jerusalem Convention Center and some 3,000 pilgrims showed up from all around the world. Since then, each and every year has witnessed a miracle as thousands of Christians ascend to Jerusalem from across the globe to mark this biblical holiday.

“It was always God who brought them here. It truly was a move of the Holy Spirit,” Merv Watson recalls of those early years.

And the Holy Spirit continues to bring them to this day, as we just saw when thousands of Christians from over 90 nations attended this year’s Feast in September.

The Feast of Tabernacles is more than just “another Christian conference”. I will never forget my first visit to Israel in 1991. Our tour guide told us, “You have to visit the Feast!” He took us to the evening celebration and I will always remember what I experienced. Thousands of Christians from around the world were worshipping God together with many Jews in the city of Jerusalem. I felt like we were in heaven. Tears were running down my face as I witnessed something which I knew was enormously important to God.

A prophet ahead of his time

If we go back some 2,500 years in Israel’s history, we find the Jewish people returning from captivity in Babylon to their ancient homeland. During this time of restoration, when Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt, the prophet Zechariah saw the Feast of Tabernacles taking on a whole new dimension.

“And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.” (Zechariah 14:16)

The Hebrew prophet foresaw Gentile nations streaming to Jerusalem to celebrate a Jewish festival, the Feast of Tabernacles.

This is even more remarkable considering that in Zechariah's day, the Feast of Tabernacles was not even being celebrated by the Israelites! It would be only 80 years later, under the leadership of Nehemiah, that Israel itself would once again begin to keep Sukkot. Nehemiah found in book of the law “that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month” (Nehemiah 8:14). The Bible then reveals a startling fact: “Since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so.” (Nehemiah 8:17)

How amazing! All the centuries before Nehemiah, Israel had never fully celebrated Sukkot by dwelling in booths. This makes the vision of Zechariah even more powerful. During a time when Sukkot observance had fallen off, the prophet not only envisioned this Feast of ingathering fully restored to Israel, but he also saw it widely expanded by Gentile participation.  So Zechariah was well ahead of his time.

The wild and noble olive branch

Under Nehemiah and Ezra, Israel again began celebrating Sukkot as commanded. And yet, Nehemiah gives an unusual order: “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths...” (Nehemiah 8:15, ESV)

Originally, the Lord instructed Israel to gather branches from the willow and palm and other leafy trees for use at Sukkot, with no mention of olive trees (Leviticus 23:39-44). Yet in Nehemiah 8, the Hebrew text mentions two kinds of olive trees: etz zeit and etz shemen. The English Standard Version and Revised Standard Version – in agreement with the Jewish Encyclopaedia – both use the phrase “the olive and the wild olive”. And according to the Apostle Paul, the “wild olive” in Romans 11 represents the Gentile part of the Church which has been grafted into the commonwealth of Israel.

So while in Nehemiah’s day, Gentiles were not yet involved in the Feast, they were symbolically represented by the “wild olive branches”, foreshadowing that coming day when both Jews and Gentiles would celebrate this feast together as one new man (Ephesians 2:11ff).

A prophetic sign to Israel

Our Senior Spokesperson David Parsons recently brought to our attention that at the end of Yom Kippur, just a few days before the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish people end their solemn synagogue services by reading the Book of Jonah. It is the story of a reluctant Hebrew prophet who had to declare God’s judgment over the main city of the Assyrian empire, which was known as a brutal, oppressive conqueror. Now after Jonah delivered his warning to Nineveh, the Bible records that he went out of the city “...and made a booth for himself there … till he should see what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5). The Hebrew word used for ‘booth’ is sukkah or tabernacle.

So Jonah was sitting in a flimsy tabernacle, like all of Israel now does during Sukkot, and was watching what would happen to these Gentiles who deserved God’s judgment. But instead of God’s wrath, he saw a sinful city repent and find mercy with God.

I had to think about that story at this year’s Jerusalem March, as thousands of Christians were marching through the streets of Jerusalem, an event broadcast live all across Israel. The Israeli people were sitting in booths, and like Jonah they looked out over a parade of sinful Gentiles who have received mercy from the God of Israel. Indeed, it was a demonstration of God’s love for the nations.

Jesus himself said that Jonah’s story would be a sign for Israel (Luke 11:29-32). Of course, he was alluding to his death and resurrection three days later. But he also referred to the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba, all Gentiles, who would one day testify to Israel.

Every year, as Israelis watch thousands of redeemed Gentiles marching through Jerusalem, it is a testimony that the God of Israel is also God over the nations, and has shown mercy to repentant Gentiles who otherwise deserved His judgment.

The four winds

In Leviticus 23:40, God commands Israel: “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.”

As Sukkot approaches, every observant Jew purchases these "four species" at local markets. In every synagogue during this holiday, they are waved in all four directions. The four species represent, according to Jewish tradition, all the different types of people on the earth - the good, the bad and everyone in between. The four directions encompass the whole earth - north, south, east and west.

The prophet Ezekiel gives a most powerful prophecy of Israel's restoration in chapter 37. After first seeing her physical restoration to the land, he is instructed to carry out a very unusual prophetic act, which leads to Israel's spiritual restoration. God asks him in to, "Prophesy unto the wind... Thus says the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." (Ezekiel 37:9 KJV)

This is a rather unusual prophecy, as it makes the Spirit of God seem divided in the four corners of the world. Yet as I thought about this, I felt God speaking to me: “Jürgen, you have seen the Spirit of God in the four corners of the world.”

And yes, I indeed have seen the Spirit of God moving powerfully in the West, at great revival meetings on the Amazon River and in mega-church meetings in Texas. I have experienced the Spirit of God in the South, as thousands of believers gathered in Port Harcourt on the Niger River Delta to worship God. I have seen Him moving in the North, in the lively churches of Finland as far north as Lapland. And I have witnessed it in the east, in the underground churches of China.

So I understood that, indeed, the Spirit of God is drawing thousands and thousands of people up to Jerusalem every single year. God is drawing them to come to fill this city with the presence of His Spirit. In a way, all these pilgrims from around the world are heaven's response to the Jews in their booths waving the four species in all four directions at Sukkot. Today, the Gentiles are coming and I believe it is just the beginning of a far greater number in the years ahead. God’s Spirit is drawing Gentiles to Jerusalem for Sukkot to fill this city with His presence.


The presence of believers from around the world in Jerusalem at Sukkot is a great prophetic sign of the times in which we live. It is a powerful foreshadowing of even more glorious days ahead.

When Merv and Merla Watson were planning that first Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Jerusalem in 1979, they felt uncertain about exactly how Gentiles should celebrate this biblical feast. So they asked the advice of a senior rabbi in Israel. After receiving his well-meaning guidance, they were about to leave when the rabbi called them back.

“Mr and Mrs Watson", he said. "That you, as Gentiles, came here to ask me how to celebrate Sukkot is quite unusual. Our prophets declare that in the Messianic times, all Gentiles will come to Jerusalem to celebrate this feast with us. When you asked me today how to celebrate Sukkot, I am hearing the footsteps of Messiah, that he is coming.”

And this is what the Feast of Tabernacles is all about. The ICEJ has been privileged to organise this incredibly unique event for 40 years now. And it is indeed not just another Christian conference, but a prophetic declaration to Israel and the Church that Messiah is coming soon. In the end, it is all about Jesus. It is not about us, nor even about Israel, but about the returning King.

If you are still able, please join us for this year's Feast here in Jerusalem. Or also consider coming next year, from October 2-7, when we will be celebrating 40 years of the work and ministry of the ICEJ. If you are a pastor or ministry leader, consider bringing a group from your church. Contact our Feast Registration office at:  

Republished and updated from the ICEJ’s Word From Jerusalem magazine (November 2013)

You can subscribe to WFJ HERE


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