Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

108. The Great Day of the Feast (John 7:37-53)

The Feast of Tabernacles came to its climax in a "holy convocation" on the eighth day (lev.23:36). On each of the first seven days of the feast there was the impressive ceremony of water-pouring. Priests went in solemn procession to the Pool of Siloam. There they filled a golden vessel with water, carried it to the temple court, and emptied it out (with wine also) at the altar. Meantime the Hallel was sung. So also was Isaiah 12.

It was a custom which probably dated back to the time of that prophet: "With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation. And in that day shall ye say, Praise the Lord, call upon his name, make mention that his name is exalted. Sing unto the Lord; for excellencies he hath made, even waters of knowledge—this in all the Land. Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion; for great is the Holy One in the midst of thee" (Is. 12:3-6).

Zion means "a dry place", and the spiritual truth embodied in this name was symbolized by die fact that the priests went to Siloam to draw water which came from outside the city via a smitten rock, and carried it into the temple.

But the Scriptures which were read at this Feast promised that "living waters shall go out from Jerusalem" (Zech. 14:8), flowing with increasing depth both east and west, to heal the Dead Sea of Israel and the greater dead sea of the Gentiles.

The water-pouring ceremony was intended as a reminder of Israel's wilderness journey, when God saved them from perishing by providing a copious supply of water from the smitten rock.

The discontinuation of water-pouring on this eighth day was similarly designed to remind Israel that after the wilderness wandering, God gave them their Land of Promise, "a land of brooks of water" (Dt. 8:7). Yet on this day Jesus was now to remind them that their souls were still dried up for want of true water of life. They needed the promised "fountain... for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness" {Zech. 13:1).

On this particular day when the water-pouring ceremony was omitted, and when only one bullock was offered instead of many (Num. 29:35,36), Jesus made a most spectacular appeal to the multitude (cp. v. 28; 12:44; contrast Mt.l2:19). It was the last time he would be present at one of the Feasts of the Lord. When the temple court was crowded with people he took his stand in a prominent place and with a loud shout fastened the attention of everybody on himself: "If any man thirst, let him come unto me; and he that believeth in me, let him drink" . . ."wisdom crieth aloud without; she uttereth her voice in the broad places:. . . Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you ..." (Pr. 1:20,23).

Zechariah, the last of the Old Testament martyrs (Mt. 23:35), had similarly stood in the temple court and cried out against a people who worshipped God with their transgression, and "they stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of Lord" (2 Chr. 24:20,21).

Very shortly (8:59) they were to attempt the same against Jesus.

Now his earlier meaningful allusions to Isaiah 55 came to a focus: "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters . . . wine and fatness without money and without price."

The smitten rock

And it was an appeal to see in himself the fulfilment of the type of water from the smitten rock—"as the Scripture (Ex. 17; Num. 20) hath said, Out of his belly (that is, from Christ) shall flow rivers of living water". There is no Scripture which says precisely this. But it may be that this was because the mind of Jesus ran on another Scripture also: "Thus saith the Lord that . . . formed thee, From the belly (LXX s.w. Jn. 7:38) thou shalt yet be helped ... I will pour water upon him that is thirsty ... I will pour my spirit upon thy seed ..." (Is. 44:2,3). Alternatively, as has already been suggested in Study 107, there is here another allusion to Psalm 40: "I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my belly (LXX: 2 important MSS). I have preached righteousness in the great congregation" (v. 8,9). The words paraphrase the teaching of the type enacted in the wilderness.

Both places (Ex. 17; Num. 20) where the rock was struck to provide water were called Meribah: "waters of contradiction". And now, when Jesus offered a new and better water-pouring for their everlasting blessedness there was contradiction and gainsaying in plenty (v.40-43).

Six months earlier Jesus had claimed to be the fulfilment of all that the manna foreshadowed. Now here was its counterpart. "Our fathers .. . did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that rock was (ie. represented) Christ." (1 Cor.l0:3,4).

Some have found difficulty in this exposition by Paul—as though the Rock providing water actually moved from place to place in the wilderness. Expositors have been known to shed a strange kind of light on this passage by citing rabbinic fantasies of this sort; and thus the obscurity intensifies.

There is a better explanation, suggested by Bullinger, which is almost too simple. The word "them" (in the phrase "followed them") is not in the text. Instead, the reference is to events following chronologically in the Exodus record. The giving of the manna is described in Exodus 16. The provision of water from the rock comes in the next chapter. Thus, "they drank of that Rock that followed (next in their experience and next in the record)"; cp. also Ps. 78:15-25.

It was on this "great day of the feast" that Psalm 82 had a prominent place in the temple ritual. The relevance of some of its words to the present situation is clear enough: "God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he udgeth among the elohim, (the rulers). How ong will ye judge unjustly? . . . They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness ... I have said, Ye are elohim, and all of you are sons of the most High. But ye shall die like men..."(v. 1,2,5-7).

And Isaiah 48 also invites attention: "Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; I have not spoken in secret from the beginning ... they thirsted not when he led them through the deserts: he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out" (v.16,21).

The appeal of Jesus focussing attention on himself, would be the more striking because on this "great day of the feast" Psalm 114 had just been sung as part of the ritual: "Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob; which turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters" (v. 7,8).

The general tenor of this great public claim would be clear enough to the crowd of people who heard it, but the greater fulness of meaning only became evident to the disciples in later days, when they saw blood and water pour out of the pierced side of Jesus (Jn.19:34), and, yet more clearly, when they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost: "This spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified." (16:7; Eph. 4:8). As there was no water until the rock was smitten, so there was no outpouring of the Spirit until Christ was crucified.

The word "glorified" was probably intended by the evangelist to direct his readers' attention to a similar impressive sequence of events in the wilderness. The cleft rock was not only (to means of quenching the thirst of Israel and of washing away sin (see Dt. 9:21), it was also the place of the manifestation to Moses of the Shekinah Glory (Ex. 33:22), so that the Glory was reflected in his face in the presence of the people (34:29-35). Soon after this the Spirit that was upon Moses was imparted also to the Seventy who were to aid his administration of God's law (Num. 11:24-30).

There are few chapters which illustrate the f theme of this gospel better than this one: "The Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (1:17). The parallel and contrast with Moses illuminates many o verse here (eg. v.4,5,6,12,16-25,28-30,34-41).

When Jesus made his appeal in the temple court there were probably few so discerning as to appreciate these details, but evidently the allusion to the wilderness experience of Israel was understood by some, for they said: "Of a truth this is the Prophet", i.e. the promised Prophet like unto Moses (Dt. 18:15,18; Jn.l:21,25;6:14).

Others, yet more convinced, declared: "This is the Messiah". Of course, both groups were right, but some were emphasizing Scriptures about the first advent and the characteristics of Jesus which chimed in with those, and others those about the second.        


But there was also genuine puzzlement 'How can he be? This Jesus is from Nazareth, What Scripture says that the Messiah is to come from Galilee? Are we not all familiar with the promise that he will be born in Bethlehem-and not the northern Bethlehem either (Josh. 19:15), but the place where David came from.' It is interesting to observe that John does not stay to add a correction to this mistaken idea. He takes for granted that his readers, having access to other gospels, already know the truth about the birth of Jesus.

They felt so sure of this interpretation of Mic.5:2 that they ignored the hints that "the Branch out of the stem of Jesse" (Is. 11:1) would have Branch-town (Nazareth) as his home, and would bring light in the spiritual darkness of Zebulun and Naphtali (Is. 9:1,2). Their mistake should be a warning to those in modern times who go in for cocksure dogmatic interpretations of latter-day prophecy.

So instead of a united attempt to understand their Scriptures more clearly in the light of the undoubted truth of the Nazarene's divine message, there was a division among them, even though they were all on his side. How pathetically prophetic this situation was. Both groups had far more truth than all the rest of the nation, yet they were unable to put up with each other's point of view. Today it is just the same: 'You must believe exactly what I believe- and you must say it in my words' (Lk. 12:51).

No arrest

Those rejecting the claims of Jesus wanted to see him arrested there and then. If only he could be lifted right away from these seething arguing crowds on whom he had made such an impression, the risk of a big explosion in the city would be much diminished.

So once again the temple officers, with renewed instructions to apprehend him, came back to a full meeting of the Sanhedrin without their man. Had someone made a mistake? 'Are we to arrest a man who talks as he does?' It might even have meant: 'We will have no hand in violence against such a man. If you wish him arrested find others to do the job.'

Either way, John Carter's comment is pithily right: "One of the strangest explanations for failure to make an arrest ever put forward by the police of any age or country." There seems to be the clear implication: 'He is the prophet like unto Moses!" Were they more in fear of Jesus than of the chief priests?

Their report must also have included, as further excuse for inaction, that a large and sympathetic crowd was all round Jesus (cp. Lk. 19:47,48), for the angry comment was provoked: "This multitude which knoweth not the Law is accursed." Yet in truth the curse was on themselves. It had been foretold long centuries before (Gen. 49:5-7; tradition associated the scribes with Simeon).

It is to be remembered that this was not the first time the officers of the temple guard had failed to take strong measures against Jesus. No doubt, when he took upon himself to clear the temple court at his first Passover (2:14ff), steps should have been taken against this arbitrary assumption of authority, yet nothing was done. And now, twice within a week, there was the same reluctance to take action.

The chief priests did not ask what Jesus' teaching was which had made such an impression on them. Instead, only an angry expostulation (to be followed up, doubtless, by strong disciplinary action): "Are ye also deceived? Is there one out of the rulers (Sadducees) or of the Pharisees who have believed on him?" What a dramatic irony there was in this outburst, for sitting there with them was one who did so believe but who as yet could not muster the courage to confess it.

Timorous disciple

Nicodemus, who more than two years earlier had come to Jesus by night, had never been able to forget that experience. Everything else he had heard and seen of Jesus went to strengthen his conviction that the prophet's claims were true; there was nothing for it but to accept his authority, believe his teaching, and give him allegiance. But this was more than Nicodemus could steel himself to do. He had resigned from being President of the Council (3:10 RV), rather than be inextricably involved in decisions against Jesus; or it maybe that, his sympathies with Jesus coming under suspicion, he had been edged out of office. But to confess discipleship openly!—no, this was too much; he could not do it.

Now, in an effort to soften reaction against Jesus and perhaps to save the man who had spoken with such persuasion to him, he interposed a legal objection: "Doth our law judge any man before it hear him, and know what he doeth?" He tried to make it appear that he was concerned only with niceties of the Jewish law, It was more than he had courage for to come out openly as a supporter of Jesus.

His legal demurrer was, of course, absolutely valid. Moses' charge to the judges of Israel was: "Ye shall hear the small as well as the great" (Dt. 1:17). No man, whatever his standing or his crime, was to be condemned unheard. Yet these rulers, by their very wrath, had Jesus condemned already. Nicodemus' quiet objection neatly exposed their own deficiences. Either they knew not the law, or they were so unscrupulous as to thrust it deliberately on one side.

"He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him" (Pr.l8:13).

Smarting under the implied rebuke, they rounded on him in hectoring, bullying fashion: "Art thou also of Galilee?" Try as he would Nicodemus could not keep his sympathy for Jesus hidden. It showed in his look and tone of voice. "Search and look", they shouted at him, "for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet." In reply Nicodemus might well have bidden them search and look. In their prejudice and hatred they had badly overshot. The prophet Jonah (2 Kgs. 14:25} and, very probably, the great Elijah (1 Kgs. 17:1) came from Galilee; and a powerful prophecy by Isaiah associated the Messiah himself with "the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. . . in Galilee of the nations. . . the land of the shadow of death" (Is. 9:1,2).

But it was useless, as it always has been, to attempt to reason out of Scripture with men whose minds were already adversely made up.

As the sun was setting, and preparations were made for the temple gates to be closed, the crowd round Jesus dispersed, "every man unto his own house". But Jesus himself "had nowhere to lay his head" (Lk. 9:58)-at least, nowhere where he could be safe from those who "sought to take him." But he had a refuge in the garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives (18:2), a place where his enemies would never dream of looking for him.

The sequence in the few verses here is worth noting:

Rejection by the rulers.
Jesus goes away.
He returns.

New policy

A glance back at the activities of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles, as described in tfi long, important and exceedingly profound chapter, emphasizes the tremendous contrast be observed between the comparativi obscurity and semi-retirement of the pasti; months and the sudden deliberate adoption of! big publicity methods. This marks the beginninj of his last great appeal to the nation-n preaching effort which was to take him ink, every corner of the country. It was to hi. reinforced by the work of his disciples, If outstanding miracles done in the full light* public attention, and by more than one specid: campaign in Jerusalem.

This, as a deliberate policy, to be carridj through with remorseless resolution and! unceasing activity, is the key to a prop*' understanding of much that the gospels narn*. about the last six months of the ministry. As the* studies proceed it will be necessary time and again to draw attention to this set purpox dominating the teaching and activity ofJesm right to the end. His unflagging self-dedicationJ to this work and the long drawn-out effort involved was to leave him almost a physio wreck by the time his Passover came on.

Notes: Jn. 7:37-53

Out of his belly. A synecdoche for "from him"; cp. Rom. 16:18; Ph. 3:19; Tit. 1:12. But John doubtless wants his readers to see here an element of the literal; 19:34.

Shall flow. In the passive this verb always (26 times) refers to the utterance of a divine oracle; e.g. Mt. 1:22.
Not yet glorified; ie. the Rock not yet smitten. Note the various associations of "glorified" in John:

by disciples at last understanding him; 11:4; 17:10.

ascension; 16:7.

the gospel to the Gentiles; 12:20,23; ls.55:5.
The Gk. hardly allows of this question being said in hostility.
Bethlehem. Other examples of John assuming without explanation a knowledge in his readers of details into other gospels:

The twelve (6:6,7).

Mary Magdalene (19:25; 20:1).

The other women with Mary at the tomb(20:2).

The institution of baptism (3:22,23).

The Breaking of Bread (6:50,51 - omitted in ch. 13).

The gift of the Spirit (7:39)implies Acts 2.

There are other examples.
Any of the rulers: 12:42; ls.53:3;l Cor. 1:20,26;2:8.
Cursed. Yet they must have known Dt. 27:26.
Nicodemus. Allusions in Jewish writings might mean that Nicodemus was a kinsman of Gamaliel, that he was hounded from the Sanhedrin for his discipleship of Jesus, and that he died in abject poverty (Acts.4:34?).

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