Studies in John (Lesson 7: The Feast of Tabernacles)
I. The Feast of Tabernacles
It is by no means a mere coincidence that the events of this weekâ€™s lesson, and Christâ€™s subsequent teachings, took place during the Feast of Tabernacles. For, as we have already noted with respect to the tabernacle furniture, so we will find that Christ likewise fulfilled all the symbolism of the great religious feasts of the Jews. But before we can understand how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles, we need to go back and read about why and how it began.
Leviticus 23:24-44 tells us of the institution of the Feast of Tabernacles, as a holy celebration to be observed in remembrance of Godâ€™s bringing Israel out of Egypt, and making them his people. It is the last of three times in the year in which all of Israel was commanded to come up to Jerusalem for a sacred feast to the Lord. There are several notable things about this feast in particular that deserve our attention.
First, its timing as the last great feast of the year, and specifically, as the feast which took place immediately after the Day of Atonement, is significant. After the most solemn day of the year, in which Israel was to afflict herself, mourn for her sins, and offer a sacrifice of blood for those sins (Leviticus 23:27), the Jews then celebrated the most joyful feast of the year. This feast was a celebration of the ingathering of the harvest of grapes and olives, and so it is sometimes called the Feast of Ingathering (Exodus 23:16). But this ingathering of the harvest is only a small part of the significance of the celebration â€“ for ultimately, the feast looked ahead to the ingathering of Godâ€™s people from all the nations, and their joyful celebration together in Godâ€™s presence (see Zechariah 14:16-21). The basic meaning of the feast, then, is to remember that, after the effective sacrifice of the Day of Atonement (fulfilled by Christ on the cross), there would follow the bountiful fruits of this sacrifice. Christâ€™s atonement would have the effects of bringing people from all over the world to rejoice in the presence of God. That is the essence of what the Feast of Tabernacles looked forward to.
This truth is also fleshed out by the tabernacles, or booths in which the Jews were supposed to live during the days of the feast. These booths looked backward to when God first redeemed his people from Egypt, so that they had to put up crude booths for shelter (Leviticus 23:42-43); but also, they looked ahead to when God would â€œtabernacleâ€ among his people. So in sum, the Feast of Tabernacles, coming at the end of the year, and immediately after the Day of Atonement, looked ahead to the day in which the final fruits of Christâ€™s great atonement would be enjoyed â€“ and these fruits would be the gathering of a people from every nation to rejoice in the very presence of God.
Before we move on, we must mention one more thing: the two ceremonies that took place at the Feast of Tabernacles, which set it apart from the other feasts, were, first, the pouring out of water, and second, the illumination of the Temple. This is significant because Jesus clearly alludes to these practices when he is teaching the people during the feast, and he applies their symbolic meaning to his own person and work. The pouring of water he alludes to in John 7:37-39; and the illumination of the Temple he alludes to in John 8:12. We will discuss both of these sayings when we get to those texts.
II. Textual Analysis
Jesus is Expected at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1-13)
Chapter seven begins at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, when all the Jews were expected to go up to Jerusalem. However, Jesus is staying in Galilee, because the Jerusalemites have been trying to kill him, ever since his dispute with the Pharisees over the Sabbath (John 5:18).
At this time, Jesus brothers still do not believe in him, as can be seen in their request for him to go up and do signs, to validate his claims about himself. This is no doubt occasioned by the mass exodus of Jesusâ€™ supposed disciples (John 6:66), following his controversial teachings on his equality with God the Father, and the blindness and inability of natural man. It is as if they are saying, â€œYou lost all your disciples because of your radical claims â€“ they will all be in Jerusalem for the feast, and the only way to get them back is to go up and do some miracles for them. You canâ€™t expect the world to believe you, if you hide yourself from the world.â€ Of course, this very sort of thinking is exactly what Jesus condemned in the Jews who had left him. Their demand for more signs was evidence of their lack of true faith.
In response, Jesus tells his brothers that, although they are of the world, he is not. His goal is not for the world-at-large to believe in him â€“ he knows they will hate him, because he exposes their evil deeds. In fact, throughout Johnâ€™s gospel, it is clear that Jesus expects the world to reject him, and only those whom the Father has given him to believe and so be saved. We have already seen some indication of this reality, but it will only become more and more clear throughout the rest of the gospel (e.g. John 10:25-27; John 17:6-10).
This underlying difference â€“ that his brothers are of the world and he is not â€“ is no doubt the reason for his response to them. Any time is appropriate for them to go up to the feast, for they do not even belong to the Father, and cannot be a part of his redemptive plan. But Jesus does belong to the Father, and always follows his will â€“ and so for him, there is a definite, appointed time for everything that he does. He is not saying that he will not go up to the feast at all, but that there is an appointed time for him to do everything, according to the Fatherâ€™s plan of redemption. And only at that precise time will he go up. And so he waits in Galilee until the middle of the feast.
Jesusâ€™ brothers do go up right away, however, and it is apparent that they are not the only ones who are expecting him to attend. All the people are wanting him to arrive, and there is considerable dispute over who Jesus truly is â€“ but all of the people, even those who believe that he is, in some sense, â€œgood,â€ fail to believe in him as the true Son of God; which will become clear as the dialogue between Jesus and the Jews unfolds over the next few days.
Jesus Teaches at the Feast, and Causes Much Controversy (John 7:14-53)
Although Jesus came up to the feast in secret, at first (vs. 10), he eventually makes himself manifest to all, and begins to teach publicly. Although he does not here do any more miracles, the authority and power of his teaching is so great that the Jews marvel and question its origin. Jesus responds to them by saying that his teaching is so powerful and true because it is not just his doctrine, but it comes straight from the Father â€“ and anyone who truly desires to do the Fatherâ€™s will would know that this is the Fatherâ€™s doctrine. Jesus is not teaching for his own glory, but for the glory of the Father, and this fact alone should convince the Jews that he is righteous. However, since the people did not even believe the Father (for they were not even willing to follow the law of Moses, which the Father gave to them) they would not believe in Jesus, but would instead try to kill him. This murderous intention just proves their resistance to the Fatherâ€™s law; for, although Moses commanded not to kill (Exodus 20:13), the Jews are trying to murder Jesus, an innocent man.
The Jews are appalled at this assessment, and even suggest that Jesus had a demon, to speak so foolishly. But in order to prove his point, that they are actually breaking Mosesâ€™ law, Jesus reminds them of the miracle that he had done formerly, when he healed a man on the Sabbath. Although Moses had commanded that no work be done on the Sabbath, the work of restoring sinful man was clearly excluded â€“ for circumcision, which brought man into a covenant relationship with God, was still allowed on the Sabbath, even by the Pharisees. But if so, then why did the Jews try to kill Jesus, who restored a man from the devastating effects of the curse on the Sabbath day? If they allowed for a man to receive circumcision on the Sabbath, even though that â€œbrokeâ€ the command not to work, then they should allow Jesus to accomplish the very work of restoration and salvation to which circumcision pointed. But they were not willing, because they were not righteous.
At this point the Jews, who recognize that the Pharisees really did want to kill Jesus, wonder why they did not then attempt to kill him, after these accusations â€“ and the only explanation they can come up with is that they really did know that he was the Messiah. And yet, even granting this much, they were not willing to accept him as the Messiah, because they â€œknewâ€ where he was from â€“ Galilee, from where the Messiah could not possibly come. But even in response to this unasked question, Jesus clearly gave an answer: You should already know where I come from, if you know God â€“ because he is the one who sent me. I didnâ€™t come from Galilee or anywhere else on earth â€“ I came from God. And everyone who knows God will know me. This definite assertion produced two basic responses: some of the Jews attempted to seize him, for blasphemy â€“ but some of them believed in him as the true Messiah.
Among the former were the Jews that the Pharisees sent to arrest Jesus. But Jesus told them that their efforts to seize him would do them no good â€“ for he was about to go where no one could follow. Of course, he meant that he was about to go to heaven, after he had accomplished redemption; but they did not understand, and wondered if he was about to go into the lands of the barbarians, where they would not be able to follow him.
It as at this point (John 7:37, ff.), that Jesus makes his famous offer, â€œIf anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.â€ It is notable that this occurred on the last day of the feast. On this day, as well as the six days preceding, the Jewish leaders would take water from the Pool of Siloam, as well as the regular offering of wine, and pour them out before the Lord. This was supposed to symbolize the blessings of the Messianic Age, when life-giving water would stream out over all the earth, just as the water flowed from the Rock in the wilderness. So in essence, Jesus is saying, â€œOnly I can fulfill this reality â€“ I am the true Rock from which the water of life flows.â€ And, in order to illustrate his claim from the scriptures, he alludes to Zechariah 14:8, and applies it to himself. In order to make clear just what Christ is saying, John then tells us that Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit, whom he would send out into the world. Yes, the Messianic Age would be one in which the Spirit would flow out over all the earth, and bring life to the nations. And, just as the water flowed from the rock in the wilderness, so the Spirit would proceed from the true Rock, giving life to all who believe in him.
Throughout the rest of the chapter, we see the various responses to Christâ€™s teaching. Although some almost believe in him as the Messiah, yet eventually the same objection that they brought up earlier, namely, that Jesus was from Galilee, and therefore not of the seed of David, convinces them otherwise. Of course, this was a false assumption, which might have been easily cleared up, if they had taken the pains to inquire into his history. So then, at the end, the people finally decide that they should arrest Jesus. In fact, servants of the Pharisees are sent to do this very thing â€“ but the betrayal and arrest of Jesus was going to happen in Godâ€™s planned time, and that hour had not yet arrived; and so, being amazed at his authority, they are powerless to seize him. The Pharisees have certainly made up their minds about Jesus, by now, but their time has not yet come. In fact, the only glimmer of light to be seen among their ranks is in the case of Nicodemus, who, although still timid and weak, is starting to give some evidence that he truly was regenerated and given faith in Christ, at the occasion of his nighttime visit to speak with him.
The Adulterous Woman (John 8:1-11)
The textual evidence for the next passage, about the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), is very tenuous. But even if it was not an original part of Johnâ€™s gospel, it was likely a historical event, and certainly teaches nothing contrary to the picture that the gospel paints of Jesus. It simply relates another attempt of the Pharisees to prove that Jesus really is a law-breaker, opposed to the penalties demanded by Moses. In response to this, Jesus first demonstrates that they are all just as guilty as she (perhaps this was pointed out in some way by his writing on the sand); and then, he demonstrates his own intrinsic authority to forgive this sinner who openly acknowledged her sin. Just as with the Sabbath controversy, when the Pharisees attempt to show Jesusâ€™ lawlessness, he instead proves that they themselves are the guilty ones, and that he is able to forgive and restore.
â€œI Am The Light of the Worldâ€ (John 8:12-59)
This next passage relates another claim that Jesus made of himself, in relation to the ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles. In the following chapter, he will illustrate his claim, by the sign-miracle of giving sight to the man born blind. But for now, he simply makes the assertion, with solemn authority, that â€œI am the light of the world.â€ The result of this newest claim will be to catapult the Pharisees back into the same old argument and controversy that they have had with him before â€“ and in response, Jesus will make the same offensive claims that had alienated him from the religious leadership before: first, that the Pharisees are unable to believe in God, and second, that Jesus truly is God â€“ only this time, he will make these claims even more clearly and emphatically.
In response to Jesusâ€™ claim to be the true and exclusive Light of the world, and hence, the fulfillment of this Temple illumination ceremony, just as he was with the water-pouring ceremony, the Pharisees immediately jump on a point that Jesus had made in an earlier argument. Jesus was bearing witness of himself, so his witness must not be true â€“ after all, even he had said that his witness was not true if it came from himself. In response, Jesus clarified that his witness is indeed true, because it does not originate with him, but comes from the Father. Then, he turns the argument back on the Pharisees, and tells them that they do not know the Father â€“ for if they did, they would know that the Fatherâ€™s message is one and the same as Jesusâ€™ claims.
Then, Jesus brings up another teaching that had been a point of discussion in the past â€“ â€œWhere I am going, you cannot follow.â€ Only this time, he makes it clear that he was speaking of their destiny after death. When they died, they would not go where Christ would be after his own death, for they would still be in their sins, because they did not believe in him. Eventually they would see him glorified, but they would not be able to be with him, for they rejected the words of the Father, which Jesus was clearly teaching them. This certainly did not go over well with the Pharisees, but among the rest of the people, there were some who believed in him, through his teachings.
Jesus then addresses these people who have come to believe, and emphasizes to them that, if their faith is truly genuine, they will continue to believe in his words â€“ and it is only in the truth of his words that they would find true freedom and liberation from their sin and its effects. But at this teaching, the shallowness of their faith becomes apparent â€“ for their hope for freedom is actually in their being descended from Abraham, and is not in Christ. Of course, this error is something that John had addressed from the beginning, when he clearly explained that Godâ€™s children were not those who were descended from Abraham, but those who were given a new birth by the Spirit (John 1:12-13).
It is at this point that Jesus becomes even more offensive: the Jews are not truly Abrahamâ€™s children, or else they would do what Abraham did â€“ and Abraham believed in the teaching of God. Yes, they were physically descended from Abraham, but in reality their spiritual father was the Devil, and they were enslaved to him and to their own sin â€“ that is why they will not listen to Jesusâ€™ words, which come from the Father; and that is why they do not love Jesus, but seek to kill him. Because they belong to the Devil, and not to God, they are not able to believe in Jesus.
These Jews, who just before had professed faith in Jesus, lash out in a verbal attack against him, calling him one of the hated Samaritans, and claiming he had a demon, after hearing this latest teaching. In response, Jesus claimed once again that eternal life could only come to the one who believed these truths â€“ and that God the Father would vindicate Jesusâ€™ claims, and glorify him in the final judgment. The Jews become incensed that he would make himself greater than Abraham â€“ for even Abraham could not give eternal life; to which Jesus clearly responds that Abraham rejoiced because he believed in Jesus, the Christ who was to come: and furthermore, that he alone was the eternal Yahweh, and greater than Abraham. By now, the shallow faith of the Jews is utterly exposed, and instead of believing on Jesus, they take up stones to kill him with.
At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus makes some staggering claims, which demand that all the symbolism of the great religious feasts of the Jews be fulfilled in him alone. Thus, he alone can pour out the life-giving Spirit upon all flesh, and he alone is the true Light of the world. Of course, this is too great a claim for a mere man to make of himself; but, as Jesus makes indisputably clear by the end of the feast, he is not merely a man â€“ he is also Jehovah God, who existed eternally, and in whom the forefathers of Israel placed their trust. This teaching caused much animosity among the Jews, which was only stirred up all the more by his equally unpopular claim that the reason they did not believe him is that they did not belong to God, but to their father the devil, and they were therefore unable to believe the truth of God. The controversy that has begun between Jesus and the Pharisees is intensified and spread to the common people on this occasion â€“ soon, in Godâ€™s own timing, it will result in the atrocity of the cross, which is both the greatest crime and the truest act of love and mercy in all of history.