Episode 90 - Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles, part 1 - Opening Up the Gospels

This is Episode 90 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 89 we found Jesus in the town of Bethany just outside of Jerusalem where Mary was sitting at His feet and listening to His teaching. He had been journeying southward for the Feast of Tabernacles after having rejected Galilee and pronouncing judgment upon them. There was only about 6 months left in Jesus’ ministry before He would be crucified, and so there was an urgency to His words and His mission. Remember, Jesus had come to Israel seeking the fruits of repentance. He was not looking for outward righteousness according to the Law, He was looking for a heart that was torn. He didn’t find much of that in Galilee and as we’re going to see today, He isn’t going to find much of it in Jerusalem either. Well let’s begin today in John 7: About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. 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. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?” (John 7:14–20 ESV) Here we are in Jerusalem in October of 28AD. Luke’s Gospel has been narrating Jesus’ journey to the Feast of Tabernacles, and now John’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ activity during the feast. This is the first of three visits to Jerusalem that the Gospels record during this Late Perean and Judean period. As you can see, Luke 9:51-17:10 bookend the events of this period. Jesus had set His face toward Jerusalem, and now John 7:14 shows Jesus in Jerusalem. We see all sorts of His activity from John 7:14 through John 8:59, and that’s what we’ll look at today. Now John 7 begins the drama by saying that Jesus went up to the temple in the middle of the feast and began to teach publicly. There, everyone was completely astonished at Him. Now as far as we can tell, this is the very first time Jesus has ever taught in the temple in Jerusalem. That’s right, up to this point, the Gospels do not record Jesus as ever having taught in the Temple, and He is only 6 months away from being crucified. This is why chronology matters. Think about it – Jesus is in the temple in John 2 in April of 27AD. That’s when He cleanses it at the beginning of His ministry, and John never mentions Him having taught. Then the next time we see Him in Jerusalem is in John 5 just a few months later for the feast of Wood Offering, and John once again doesn’t record Him publicly teaching then either. The next opportunity for Him to be in Jerusalem for a feast is in John 6, a year later in April for the Passover of 28. But He doesn’t go to that feast, remember? He heads north and ministers to Gentiles. So now we are in October of 28AD, just six months before His crucifixion in April of 29, and this is God in the flesh, the first sinless man to walk the earth since Adam – who stands up and begins to preach. The crowds are marveling and they say “whoa, who is this guy? Where did He learn that gives Him the ability to speak with such knowledge and authority?” The way rabbis in Israel would learn would be to study the opinions of the Law from their teachers, and the more they could recite those opinions with conviction, the more they could begin expressing their own convictions. The whole place is enraptured because likely a large majority of those hearing Jesus had never heard Him teach before, and His teaching was authoritative and, according to the people, sounded like He actually knew what He was talking about. The content of Jesus’ teaching here at the Feast of Tabernacles could be characterized by the word “severity”. He responds to questions from the Jewish authorities and exposes their hard hearts again and again. Look at what He says in verse 19: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?”” (John 7:19 ESV) Just imagine yourself as one of the pious, religious Jews who were seeking to perfectly obey the Law and be pleasing to God, and then you hear this Man saying that you don’t actually keep the Law. How offensive would that be? Well it wouldn’t be that offensive if it was just an ordinary person saying it, but undoubtedly many in Jerusalem for the feast held Jesus in high regard at least in some way. Remember, John said that the crowds were looking for Him at the feast. So these extremely pious Jews, hearing Jesus make statements like “none of you keeps the law”, would have taken great offense to them because of the way Jesus was regarded and who He had claimed to be. Let’s keep reading in John 7: Some of the people of Jerusalem therefore said, “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, and they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Christ?” (John 7:25–26 ESV) John tells us that some of the people of Jerusalem wondered if the leaders knew that Jesus was the Christ because they seemingly permitted Him to speak openly in the Temple. I think John’s emphasis on the “people of Jerusalem” is important here. Jesus had spent most of His ministry up to this point in Galilee. So the large majority of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, those who actually lived there and weren’t just there for the feast, probably didn’t really know much about Jesus except maybe some hearsay and rumors from the Galileans. What was clear to them though was that the establishment was seeking to kill Him. On the other hand, the Jewish authorities knew much more about Him – He had confronted them in the Temple at the beginning of His ministry and He had been assailing and rebuking them as they traveled to Galilee to see who they were up against. Now John continues: “The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering these things about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him. Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.”” (John 7:32–34 ESV) The chief priests and Pharisees are getting agitated and want Jesus arrested, but His time had not yet come. The hostility towards Jesus will only increase from this point forward. And Jesus knew that His hour was drawing closer. How do we know that? He says “I will be with you a little longer”. This wasn’t just random. He knew that in less than 6 months the ones wanting to arrest Him would finally do so and then condemn Him as a criminal and pin Him to a cross. Several days pass, and we can probably surmise that Jesus continued to teach in the Temple. On the last day of the feast, Jesus stands up and says something very profound. Let’s keep going in John 7: “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:37–39 ESV) In order to understand what Jesus is saying here, we really need some background information that is not commonly known by 21st century Gentiles. In the morning on the days of this fall feast, the priests would draw water from the Pool of Siloam and carry a golden pitcher full of it into the temple. The pitcher of water was then poured into a large basin, a shofar was blown, and then Psalms 113 through 118 were sung as songs of gratitude for the harvest of crops and to ask God to provide rain once again for another bountiful harvest next year. Water in the Middle East was scarce, and the people were very much aware of their dependence on God for rain and a good harvest. Rain was the way their life would be preserved. Just imagine what this scene could have been like. It was filled with music, rejoicing, and thanksgiving. One rabbi wrote that anyone who hasn’t seen the water ceremony has never seen rejoicing in his life. Now with this in mind, look back at what Jesus said on this high day of the feast, with this water ceremony most certainly in the minds of the people: “if anyone thirsts, let Him come to me and drink”. Just as Jesus said in John 6 that He was the true bread from heaven, now He is saying that He will give an overflowing amount of water to those who come to Him. Like in John 6 with the bread, the water He’s talking about isn’t something that comes from a well or from a lake. Here He’s talking about the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God that will give life. Just like water is necessary for life, Jesus is saying that He is the giver of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is what gives life. The life He’s talking about is not some spiritual, ethereal thing – He’s talking about a real body with a real beating heart and real breath in real lungs. As we read later in the New Testament, the Spirit is a down payment or guarantee of participation in the resurrection. Just as Jesus is the bread from heaven who would resurrect and restore those who feasted on Him, He is also the giver of the Holy Spirit that will sustain life forevermore. Some passages that Jesus had in mind were probably ones like Exodus 17:6: “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Exodus 17:6 ESV) And also Psalm 78: “He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers.” (Psalm 78:15–16 ESV) This is just awesome. Jesus is casting Himself not only as the bread of life, but the giver of the water of life. In order for Israel to inherit the promises made to them, they would have to come to Him, hear His words, bear the fruits of repentance, and take the water of life freely and without cost. Sadly, they would go on to reject Him, and the covenantal curses would overtake them once again. In the next episode we’ll continue looking at what Jesus says and does at the feast of Tabernacles.