In Deuteronomy 12:9-14 there is an interesting note that has some surprising relevance to our own worship practices related to the Feast of Tabernacles: “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes— for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the Lord your God is giving you. But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you dwell in safety, then there will be the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide. There you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, and all your choice offerings which you vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion nor inheritance with you. Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the Lord chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you.”
At first glance, most people would read about the burnt offerings and sacrifices and immediately tune out there. Yet, at its heart, this passage is giving us a lesson about the Feast of Tabernacles, indeed all of the feasts, that we would do well to pay attention to even if the implications may prick our hearts a bit concerning our conduct relative to these days. God wanted Israel to come together in one place for His feasts, not merely in every place that one sees, so that Israel would recognize its unity as the people of God. This is something that we can see throughout the history of Israel–when various events were held at Gilgal and Shechem during the time of Joshua, we see all Israel together. When we look at the practice of Israel going to Shiloh, there is this same sense of unity, as is the case later and for a much longer period with Jerusalem being the place where God set his name from the time of David until the destruction of the second temple and the decisive dispersion of the Jews. In the book of Acts, to give a particularly pointed example, we see that Jerusalem being the place that God had set His name meant that there was a large group of diverse people who could see the workings of God in a single place and then take that news and that faith back with them to their home areas. The place where God set his name was not one place in every tribe, or in every town, or in multiple locations in the same town at times, but was meant as a way to focus the attention of the whole body of believers on one central place that represented the unity of the brethren as a whole. Nor is this something only of historical interest, because the prophet Zechariah records in a well known passage in Zechariah 14:16-21 that those nations that do not come up to Jerusalem during the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ will not have any rain in their lands until they do. The unity and focal point of the place that God has set His name that once was will be yet again.
To be sure, from the very beginning there were procedures set up for those who could not travel all the way. For those who could not bring their tithe because of distance, their tithe could be converted into money, as is the general custom among believers who celebrate today. For those who were too destitute, there was to be a tithe stored up in the towns of Israel for the widow and orphan and Levite and stranger, as it is written in Deuteronomy 14:28-29. During the early Church of God, we know that Paul wrote to the Church of God in Corinth about their practices during the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread in 1 Corinthians, and found much that was upsetting and improper about their practices. Yet we also know from Acts that Paul was particularly keen on traveling as much as possible at great risk to himself to Jerusalem to celebrate festivals, even despite divine warnings of peril and danger to befall him there. The pull of Jerusalem as the center of the religious economy of Judaism was so strong a pull that it overwhelmed his own sense of self-preservation. How many people can say that they have put themselves in harm’s way in order to obey God’s commandment to assemble with other brethren?
In light of this picture of unity and togetherness, it is lamentable that our example should so closely follow that of Israel under King Jeroboam, who said it was too far for the brethren to travel all the way to Jerusalem so he changed the feasts and brought it to the people because he was afraid that if Israel and Judah shared religious observances and commanded assemblies that Israel would see themselves as one common people with the people of Judah, and thus would overthrow Jeroboam and reunite. One gets a similar feeling from 3 John when one reads about the efforts of one Diotrophes to prevent a common meeting of his own particular congregation with the larger missionary work of the early Church under the direction of John. One sees the same tendencies in our own day and age as well, as we have very few common convocations with people from other groups–here and there, as in Estonia, we have examples of a common meeting place between brethren from the United States, Australia, Canada, and other places with local brethren, most of whom belong to a single Latvian congregation–but for the most part we are not unified with the larger body of faithful brethren at the Feast of Tabernacles, but rather we celebrate in every place we see, and do what is right in our own eyes. What will it take for us to lift our eyes from where we are to look at the greater unity of the faith among our brethren that we all proclaim will be the case when our Lord and Savior Jesus returns to establish His kingdom on earth ?
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