Exploring the Gospel of John: 7


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles (I)

John 7:1-13

1.  The material in 7:1 through 8:59 has the Feast of Tabernacles as its symbolic backdrop, which means that Jesus is understood [to be] the reference to the various symbolic meanings of this feast.  In John 6, this happens with respect to the Passover.  John assumes that Jesus is comprehensible only if one first begins with the Jewish matrix, out of which he came and which he does not merely leave behind.

2.  The Feast of Tabernacles was one of the most popular pilgrimage festivals (a festival that one had to go to Jerusalem to celebrate).  The feast lasted for eight days, during the first seven of which men lived in booths or tabernacles — temporary structures, which reminded Jews that, during the wilderness wandering Israel had no permanent home.  In the first century, The Feast of Tabernacles celebrated the completion of the harvest and was connected with God’s leading of Israel through the wilderness, while Israel dwelt in tents.  Tabernacles had also become connected to the salvation that God would grant at the eschaton (Zechariah 14).  The Feast of Tabernacles was also accompanied by prayers for abundant rain, as a sign of God’s provision for Israel.  On the first seven days of the feast, there was a procession at night, to gather water from the Pool of Siloam and four large menorahs would be placed in the court of the women, to provide light for the festivities. Thus, water, light, and salvation are intertwined at the feast.

3.  7:1 reminds us of the growing opposition to Jesus, mentioned in 5:18 and emphasized in 6:41.  While there is opposition in Galilee, only in Jerusalem is there the threat of death.

4.  Jesus’ brothers want him to go to the feast, to display himself (7:3-4).  These brothers were present at Jesus’ first sign (2:12) and seem to be aware that Jesus is doing signs — but it is clear that they do not believe (7:5).  Their unbelief blinds them to his entire mission, which is not to attract attention through publicity generating deeds, but to do the will of the Father.  The brothers fail to notice, among other things, that Jesus’ mission is not a congenial one and that, once the meaning of his signs is made known (as in 6:41), the likely result will be not adulation but opposition.

5.  Jesus’ response makes clear his very different perspective. To their suggestion, in 7:4, he offers the same response that he offered to Mary’s suggestion in 2:4,My time has not yet come…” (7:6).  On the other hand, the brothers’ time is “always here” (7:6), meaning that they are free to do as they please, at any given moment, and this is a function of their relationship to “the world”– the world can not hate them (7:7) because they live according to it.  These two facts — that Jesus follows the will of the Father and because he is his own person –demonstrate the huge distance between God and the world (and “world” here includes even “religious” people), he is the object of hatred.  The opposition to Jesus is not simply the product of power-hungry priests or a legalistic frame of mind, as if the opposition was simply at the level of ideas or personalities.  The opposition to Jesus is, finally, an opposition to God.

6.  In 7:10, Jesus appears to be dishonest; he has refused to go to Jerusalem but, after his brothers leave, he departs as well. This is actually part of a pattern:  We saw it in 2:3-10 (where Jesus refused to do anything about the wedding wine and then does something) and we will see it again in 11:3-5 (where Jesus will refuse to respond to Lazarus’ illness and then he comes to Mary and Martha).  These episodes emphasize the fact that “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (6:38).  Notice the contrast between the counsel from the brothers, in 7:4:  (“Show yourself to the world!”) and what Jesus actually does in 7:10:  (Jesus goes up to Jerusalem “not publicly but in private”).

7.  7:10-13 draws an important distinction drawn between “the Jews” (7:11) and “the crowd” (7:12).  The distinction between the two is important:  First, it is only “the Jews” who are seeking to kill Jesus (7:1), while the crowd is of a divided mind about him.  Second, the crowd’s discussion of Jesus cannot be carried on openly, “for fear of the Jews” (7:13).

Questions for Reflection

(1)  “For not even his brothers believed in him” (7:5).  This verse suggests that the opposition to Jesus was quite extensive and that even members of Jesus’ family (presumably those who were familiar with him) did not believe.  What does the brothers’ lack of faith suggest to you?  Does their familiarity with Jesus and their lack of faith in Jesus have a message for us?

(2) In suggesting that Jesus go to Jerusalem to “show yourself to the world” (7:4), the brothers operate from the perspective of “common sense” (what seems sensible to them).  However, it is clear that this is not what Jesus is called to do.  In what ways can following “common sense” lead us to act unfaithfully? (Consider Romans 12:1-2.)

(3) In 7:7, Jesus says that the world hates him. What does it mean for the world to hate us?  In 1 John 2:15, we see the other side of this: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles (II)

John 7:14-36

1.  7:14-36 is a little difficult to read because it is not always clear who the audience is.  In 7:11, it is “the Jews” then, in 7:12, it is “the people.”  In 7:15, we come back to “the Jews” but then, in 7:20, it is “the crowd.”  By 7:25, there is a shift to “some of the people of Jerusalem” and then, in 7:35, we come back to “the Jews.”  To make matters more complicated, 7:32 introduces the Pharisees and “the chief priests.”  One possible reason for this lack of clarity is that John is not interested in drawing clear lines of distinction but in presenting various objections to Jesus.  The category “the Jews” is not a completely delimited one — membership in which is always the same.  It is, rather, a fluid category in which, while not including all Jews, designates those Jews of various backgrounds who oppose Jesus.

2. The chief issue, which surfaces in this context, is that of authority — Jesus’ authority, in particular.  Indicating a lack of anxiousness about “showing himself” to the crowd (7:4), Jesus appears at the middle of the Feast of the Tabernacles.  The initial response of “the Jews” (7:15) is one of astonishment: How is it that Jesus is a master of the Law, without having studied it properly?  Jesus is not a rabbi and this raises the question of the source of his wisdom (note also Matthew 7:28-29).

3.  Jesus’ response to this astonishment needs to be seen, in light of both 7:12, where he is accused of being a false prophet, and Deuteronomy 18:15-22, which promises a prophet Like Moses, about whom God says “I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them.”  “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.”  (7:16) Jesus responds to the charge of being a false prophet and makes clear the source of his authority.  How is this claim to be validated?  “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (7:17).  One cannot validate Jesus’ claim to authority, apart from a commitment to God’s will.  The nature of this will has already been disclosed in 6:29, where we learn that God’s chief work is bringing about belief in the One whom he has sent.  In the final analysis, belief in Jesus can only be validated by belief in Jesus; this belief does not have a criterion of judgment that is external to it.  This may sound circular — but it points to the unique relationship between God and Jesus.  Belief in Jesus is not something that is distinct from or secondary to belief in God and this is because the Son is the Father’s revelation of himself. Another way of saying this is “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (6:65).  Faith in Jesus can only be a gift from the Father because Jesus is the Father’s gift of himself in the Son.  Jesus’ claim to authority is a complex one. On one hand, he claims that his authority is completely derived from God and that his submission to this authority is a sign of his authenticity.  On the other hand, he claims to work with God’s authority so that he can say, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (6:51).

4.  The conversation takes a new turn in 7:18-24.  Jesus raises the issue of whether “the Jews” are really faithful to Moses. There are those seeking to kill Jesus (7:1), on the grounds that he is a false prophet and yet, for Jesus, the question is whether they actually understand the Law, in observance of which they are seeking to kill him.  The accusation in 7:20 — that Jesus has a demon — needs to be taken seriously, as meaning (1) that Jesus is insane and (2) that he is a false prophet.   Jesus refers back to the events of 5:1-18 (where a paralyzed man is healed by Jesus on the Sabbath) to make his point.  He says that Torah seems to have two conflicting commandments – Sabbath-keeping and circumcision on the eighth day – and that these seemingly conflict when the eighth day falls on the Sabbath.  And yet, as Jesus points out, circumcision is seen as so important that it is carried out even on the Sabbath – in apparent violation of the Law.  Jesus makes use of a standard method of rabbinical argument called “from the lesser to the greater.”  If it is acceptable to violate the Sabbath, in order to deal with a single part of the body (circumcision), how much more acceptable must it be to restore an entire body?  Jesus has produced a legal argument to justify his action.  But his argument is not merely legal — not simply a clever trick.  It makes an important point about judgment.   In order to understand the Law, one must approach it in the right way, not by mere “appearances” (7:24) but with “right judgment” (7:24). What does this mean?  In light of this whole narrative, it seems to mean that Jesus himself is the standard of “right judgment.”  The issue here is not merely one of “legalism” but of the whole purpose of the Law and the One who gave it.  Jesus suggests that all attempts to apply the Law, apart from him, will always be misguided.

5.  The conversation takes another turn in 7:25-30.  “Some of the people of Jerusalem” (7:25) advance the opinion that the authorities have changed their mind about Jesus (remember 7:1), since here he is teaching in the Temple.  But, at the same time, they make it clear that such a change in view would be wrong, since Jesus cannot be the Messiah.  Why?  Reflecting a particular Jewish conviction that the Messiah’s origin and identity would remain hidden until his full manifestation, they say, “we know where this man comes from” (7:27).  For John, this is an ironic statement.  For the crowd, Jesus is “from Galilee” but this only gets at half the story — because he is also “from God.”  As Jesus makes clear in 7:28-29, the crowd’s confident assertion of knowledge is another example of “judgment by appearances.”  Judging by appearances has not only resulted in complete ignorance of Jesus’ origin (he has been sent by God and, thus, is true, just as the One who authorizes him is true) but also in another ignorance:  Jesus accuses his accusers of not knowing God (7:28).  This takes us back to what was said earlier about knowledge of God and knowledge of Jesus.  It is not simply that Jesus’ accusers have misunderstood him and yet are right about God.  It is, rather, that their failure to rightly regard him reflects that they do not really know God.  Jesus is not accusing them of being atheists or agnostics but of something much more concrete and serious: He is claiming that Israel does not really know the God of Israel, whose revelation he is.  Some in the crowd perceive the enormity of Jesus’ claim, for they attempt to arrest him (7:30). But the response to Jesus is not uniformly negative, for “many of the people believed in him” (7:31).

6.  In 7:32-36, we return to “the Jews” and their reaction to Jesus.  Jesus’ mission is to return to the Father:  “I am going to him who sent me . . . Where I am you cannot come” (7:33, 34). The way of return is by the cross and resurrection — and this constitutes Jesus’ glorification.  “The Jews” reveal their lack of comprehension, by interpreting this to mean that Jesus is speaking of going to the Dispersion (to Jews who live outside Palestine).  This is ironic, since Jesus will, in fact, go to the Dispersion, but not in the way that they imagine.

Questions for Reflection

(1) Section 3 above points out that belief in Jesus can only be validated by belief in Jesus.  While this sounds circular, it is simply another way of stating the principle that “faith seeks understanding.”   This means that the understanding of faith presupposes and proceeds from faith. The only thing that makes faith in Jesus finally understandable (and fruitful) is faith in Jesus.  This does not mean, however, that faith is irrational.  Can you think of instances where your faith has led you to a greater understanding of what you already believed?

(2) In 7:28-29, Jesus makes it clear that one does not really know God, apart from himself.  This is because he is God’s self-revelation.  How can this fact help us to deal with other religions, which are monotheistic and make a claim to know the God of Abraham (Judaism and Islam)?  Certainly, at this point, Jesus challenges any kind of “Christian deism.”

Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles (III)

John 7:37-52

1.  The time marker in 7:37 is important.  What Jesus is about to say is said, on the last day of The Feast of the Tabernacles (“the great day”), which would have been a Sabbath.  On the previous day, this annual reenaction occurred:  a procession of priests drew water from the Pool of Siloam and moved around the altar in the Temple seven times.  The purpose of this action was to ask God for abundant rainfall, so as to provide an abundant harvest.

2.  In 7:37-39, Jesus applies this symbolism to himself, moving from actual water (absolutely necessary for life) to another type of water, identified in 7:36, as the Holy Spirit.  Jesus does here with water what he did in John 6 with manna:  he moves from a limited gift from God, given to Israel during the Exodus, to an unlimited gift from God, given as a consequence of the fulfillment of God purposes.  In each case, we understand manna and water as signs that point beyond themselves, from the provisional to the final and, in each case, Jesus identifies himself with the final purpose.

3.   The Scripture citation, in 7:38, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” is probably a composite citation; it is not a citation of one actual verse of Scripture but is a citation that gathers up several passages together.  Psalm 78: 16, 20 (which refers to Exodus 17:6):  “He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers . . . He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed.”  Isaiah 43:20 uses the flow of water as an image of Israel’s future salvation:  “ . . . for I will give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people . . .” Isaiah 44:3 uses this image to indicate the gift of God’s Spirit: “For I will pour water on a thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing upon your descendants.”

Zechariah 14:16-19 uses the Feast of Tabernacles as an image for the final fulfillment of God’s purposes — all nations will come to Jerusalem to keep the festival.  Ezekiel 47:1-12 envisions water flowing from the Temple and becoming a literal river of life.  There is an early Christian precedent for identifying Jesus as the rock from which the water flowed (1 Corinthians 10:4) and John identified Jesus with the Temple (John 2:13-22).  Jesus sums up and fulfills both the rock and the Temple.  This is reinforced when John 19:34 notes that blood and water flow from Jesus’ pierced side on the cross. Jesus is also seen here as fulfilling the eschatological meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles, indicated by Zechariah, and he draws on the connection made by Isaiah 44 between water and the gift of the Spirit.  In this way, John 7:38 sums up the history of Israel, from Exodus to promised restoration and identifies all this with Jesus.

4.  The note at the end of 7:39 is important: “ . . . for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”  This verse makes an important theological connection between Jesus’ glorification (his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension) and the gift of the Holy Spirit, making it clear that the Spirit’s coming is a fruit or consequence of Jesus’ work and that the two are organically connected.   John 19:30, 34 and 20:21 make this point.  In short, the Spirit is not a source of general religious inspiration but, rather, the work of the Spirit is to realize in individuals and the Church what has been accomplished in Jesus.

5.  The response to what Jesus has said is reported in 7:40-44.  It is not uniform but rather diverse and confused (7:43).  Some think that Jesus is the Prophet promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-22, a Prophet who would be a new Moses.  Some understand Jesus to be “the Christ” (=”Messiah”).  7:43 may be ironic, in light of the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6; Luke 2:4, 15). The questioners seem to have in mind Micah 5:2.  Some believe Jesus guilty of serious offenses and judge that he should be arrested (7:44).

6.  7:45-49 adds yet another perspective. The chief priests and the Pharisees dismiss the judgments of the crowd as completely unsound:  They think the crowd is easily taken in because the crowd does not know the Law and is “accursed.”

7.  7:50-52 raises grave questions about the supposed competence of the chief priests and Pharisees to judge in matters of the Law.  Nicodemus reappears from 3:1-15 and casts doubt on the position of the chief priests and Pharisees, by alluding to the provisions of Deuteronomy 1:16-17, about the necessity of fair and impartial judgment.  This is met with derision, by implying that Nicodemus is from Galilee (that is, that he is backward, not learned in the Law, and unobservant of it).  If the Pharisees mean that there is no prophecy of the Messiah coming from Galilee, they are mistaken, as Isaiah 9:1,2 does just this.

Questions for Reflection

(1) We are now in a position to understand the connection between Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles.  Here, Jesus lays claim to be the fulfillment of what is promised and symbolized in water, the water from the rock (life in the desert, God’s provision), water flowing from the Temple (the great cleansing and life-giving stream) and the water in the wilderness (the restoration of Israel).  How does the connection made by this gospel help you to understand who Jesus is and what he does?  Could this be of help in speaking to those who are not yet Christians?

(2) In Chapter 7, we see that Jesus’ claims about himself are continually controverted.  While few today think of Jesus as being an evil influence, many adopt a view of him that is only partially correct. What are some of the reasons for these views and how might we respond to them?

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