By Neil Earle
Not so long ago the Jewish festival known as the Feast of Tabernacles (September 29-October 9) was the spiritual highlight for our church, formerly known as the Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International). We drew heavily on the Old Testament passages in Deuteronomy 16:13 to create in mid-20th century an unusual celebration for eight days structured around a family-oriented festival.
Most people have positive memories of these events. But it did have some downsides as far as funding and duration went. But more importantly, did the New Testament have anything to say about all this? How did Jesus keep the Feast? In the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel we get a snapshot of Jesus at the Feast and the tone is quite different from what we once put things.
John 7 comes just after Jesus has most of his followers walk out on him. He explained in John 6 how his physical body, about to be crucified, would be spiritual food for the whole world which was hard to take coming from a young man in his early 30s from the backwater village of Nazareth. Peter and the Twelve stayed loyal but Jesus then prophesied bluntly: “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil” (John 6:70).
This somber background opens John 7:1-9 which shows Jesus’ physical brothers urging him to go to Jerusalem and become a big hit in front of the crowds that gathered for the Festival. This may have been meant sarcastically “for neither did his brothers believe him” (v. 4).
“It’s not my time yet” Jesus replied and the Greek uses the word “kairos” for “Time” not the usual “chronos.” Jesus was speaking of his ultimate time to offer himself as a sacrifice to the world on the cross but – as is so common in the Fourth Gospel – they misunderstood him.
Misunderstandings, conflict and aggression become lively themes through this whole chapter and it helps underscore a crucial Christian principle: Jesus divides (Matthew 10:34). “Jesus came with the sole intention of saving the world, “wrote William Barclay, “But confrontation with Jesus demands a decision. Every man must have a reaction to Jesus Christ” (The Apostles Creed, page 272).
So the whole family of Jesus does not go up together as our church was wont to do so often in the decades up to the 1990s. Jesus caused division in his own family and he provokes responses that can be outlined across this chapter.
There were at least five reactions to Jesus when he finally showed up in Jerusalem at the middle of the Feast (verse 14).
The reaction of the Crowds – divided and confused. They could not get past the fact that he was from Galilee and the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem. A simple check by asking Peter or Matthew where Jesus was born (Bethlehem) would have solved that hang-up but people seemed more content to talk and gab then to take effective action. It’s the same when some hare-brained ideas circulate about Jesus today (verses 10-13, 40-44). In our age of “talk” shows we are used to this phenomenon.
The Temple Police – bewildered. They came to arrest him but were turned back by the way he spoke and what he said. Twice in this chapter people are stymied over the “mechanics” of the message and the time and occasion rather than the real message Jesus wanted them to get – that he was the Lord come to visit his temple (Malachi 3:1),that he was from God and sent from God (verses 15, 45-46).
The Rulers of the Temple – the hostility and hatred they directed at Jesus came because he had healed a man on the Sabbath. That was in John 5. Apparently a lame man taking up a bedroll was an infraction of carrying things on the Sabbath. They hated Jesus from that moment. He answered that in their tradition circumcision was done on the Sabbath when necessary so…why not release a man from bondage? Wasn’t that the real intent of the Sabbath law (verse 21-24). The response was to call Jesus demon-possessed.
So far this does not look like a good fun family festival. Conflict and hatred animate every passage. Murder seethes from most of the leaders.
Nicodemus was one of them and he appealed for patience but he was drowned out in a chorus of hatred (verse 52).
Response number five involves you and me, John’s readers. What are we to make of this young man from Galilee? How are we to respond?
So what was going on? Who was this Jesus, really? Why was he there? What was he saying about himself that was so controversial – incendiary enough to almost get him arrested and killed?
The answer is in John 7:37-38:
“On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.”
This is what Jesus’ feast was really all about. This is what all Christian undertakings must be about, for “in him all things hold together…in all things he must have the preeminence” (Colossians 1: 17-18). More than the temple, the Law, the crowds, the rulers – Jesus is it!
I’ll let the Bible expositor John Piper explain all this, with some of my own phrasing thrown in. Here is Piper’s Notes on these verses:
“We can see from this verse that Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts. The saving power and grace of God which the Temple crowds looked back upon were now present and uniquely available in Jesus. [Remember, this fall festival depicted through living in booths the wandering in the wilderness under Moses – God’s protection in the desert].
“The deep longing for God and arrival of his kingdom, kept alive by the recurring feasts, need not be mere longing any more. God had now drawn near in his Son sent from God and He offered his saving rule to all who would submit. This had been Jesus’ theme form the beginning, ‘Repent and believe for the Kingdom is at hand.’”
Everything in the OT had pointed forward to a time of fulfillment. Jesus is that fulfillment. Jesus was the New Tabernacle and New Temple as it says in John 1:14, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us’ [literal meaning].
Says Piper: “We no longer meet God at the tabernacle and the temple we meet him in the One God sent, Jesus the Son (John 7:16). So when we hear Jesus cry, If anyone thirsts let him come to me and drink, He was saying, Don’t look back to the days in the wilderness or even take anxious thought for the future – look to Me!
That’s quite a claim Jesus is making. In me, he says, all the past is summed up and in me the future hope has arrive – already!
No wonder the crowds were bewildered – could this young man from Galilee sum up in Himself all the grace and power of God manifested in previous times. Could he embody in his very being the hope of future glory? This is what Christians today believe – everything exists for the sake of Jesus – past, present and future, and in Him it all holds together.
Back to Piper: “The invitation is universal. There are no ethnic, intellectual or social qualifications. Everyone ever born has a personal invite. There is only one thing needed: You have to be thirsty. That is why one evangelist said that the hardest part of preaching is not getting men to be saved. It is getting them lost.
“The hardest thing is not to satisfy thirst but to get people to see their need.
“And yet, were we to think about it, the thirst is obvious. Everything we set our hands to do gets tiresome. We fight against an innate boredom and restlessness. Fad after fad, fashion after fashion [and TV special after TV special!], challenge after challenge leaves us thirsty in the end.
“Because we were made for something bigger. We were made for God! One fundamental meaning of sin is thirsting after something other than God.
“But God is gracious. He has set things up so that every trophy tarnishes, every muscle sags, every face wrinkles, every victory fades. This is because he wants us for Himself. He wants us to turn to Him and fulfill the purpose for which he gave us life. He wants us to drink from the never-failing spring of water. Jesus said in John 4:34, ‘Whoever drinks of the water I give shall never thirst. But the water that I shall give will become in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life.”
“This water of life can be perpetually renewed inside us. We meet the life-giving Jesus in His word, ‘The words that I speak to you are spirit and life’ (John 6:63).
“We see Jesus in His word, in other Christian folk, in prayer and worship – we drink Him in and we know within ourselves that here is the water that satisfies.”
Piper adds: “But the promise is not only that we shall be satisfied but SATISFYING! Out of our hearts shall flow rivers of Living Water. He promises not only to fill our cup but to make it overflow to others. We become not merely a receptacle but a fountain, a spring. Experience shows that the joy we feel as Christ flows into us will turn stagnant if it does not flow out from us in praise to God and service to fellow-man.
“When that river of blessing touches the life of another person only then is our joy full. The formula, then, is this: Drink in Jesus by faith. Pour it out in praise and service. Never thirst again.”
Thank you, John Piper, for a gripping and heartfelt explanation of what John 7 was all about. Jesus kept the Feast by offering himself as the Source of Living Water, the fulfillment of all our hopes and dreams. That’s whole lot bigger and better than dwelling in booths for seven days. Bigger than the Law of Moses could ever conceive. Perhaps bigger even than we can grasp. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.