By Peter Amsterdam
July 16, 2019
The Gospel of John speaks about several encounters Jesus had with the Pharisees during His visit to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. The first encounter took place in the middle of the feast and the next happened a few days later, at its end.
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.1
The Feast of Tabernacles was a seven-day event, and on the day following, the eighth day, there was a solemn assembly of the people. The book of Leviticus states,
For seven days you shall present food offerings to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present a food offering to the LORD. It is a solemn assembly; you shall not do any ordinary work.2
Commentators differ about which day was the last and great day of the feast, with some favoring the seventh day and others the eighth. What matters is that it was the last day, the climax of the whole celebration.
There were specific rites which were performed on each day of the feast. One was scheduled just before dawn, in which the people would go outside the east gate of Jerusalem, and as the sun rose, they turned away from it and faced west, toward the Temple, and prayed a special prayer. Another ceremony was performed after dark, during which four huge menorahs (an ancient Hebrew lampstand made of pure gold) were set up to illuminate the entire Temple area.
The third daily ceremony was the water libation. On the first morning of the feast, the priests would form a procession that went to the pool of Siloam to bring from it a golden container of water to the Temple. This water would be used throughout the seven days of the feast. During this procession from the pool of Siloam to the Temple, the pilgrims who had come to the feast waved what are known as “four species”—three types of branches and one type of fruit tied together (also called “lulav and etrog”).3 Besides being used in the procession from the pool of Siloam, the four species were also waved during a special ceremony on each day of the feast.
On the last, great day of the feast, the water libation ceremony reached its peak. The priests circled the altar in the Temple seven times and then poured out the water with a great deal of ceremony. It was on this last great day of the feast that Jesus stood up and cried out with a loud voice, “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.’”4 This was likely a rather dramatic scene, as Jesus stood and made an impassioned appeal to those in the Temple.
Bible commentators debate on the correct reading of this verse. One author explains:
The original manuscript of John did not contain punctuation marks, and while that does not affect the sense in the great majority of instances, occasionally, as here, there is room for some ambiguity.5
The traditional way to read these verses is that Jesus is stating that out of the hearts of those who believe in Him will flow rivers of living water. Thus, Jesus is promising that whoever thirsts should come to Him, so they can drink. As believers, they then will be given the Holy Spirit, which will result in rivers of living water flowing from their heart.
Some commentators think that the verse should be punctuated differently so that it reads “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.’” When punctuated in this manner, the “out of his heart” refers to Jesus, and thus it is from Jesus’ heart that the living water flows. Some early manuscripts of the book of John support this understanding; however, the oldest punctuated manuscripts do not.
It seems likely that Jesus was speaking of those who believed as being those who would be filled with the Spirit, as that is what happened to His disciples on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven.6 The Old Testament makes reference to God’s people being like a spring:
The LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.7
Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus said to the Samaritan woman:
“Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”8
Author Leon Morris states:
The drinking of which Jesus there spoke is possible only to the one who comes in faith. And faith has its results. When the believer comes to Christ and drinks, that believer not only slakes his thirst but receives such an abundant supply that veritable rivers flow from him. This stresses the outgoing nature of the Spirit-filled life.9
When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.10
Some of those who were present, who heard His words, echoed the words of the Galileans who earlier in the Gospel wanted to make Him king.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”11
The prophet they were referring to is the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy.
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.12
Earlier in this chapter, we were told that many of the people believed in him.13 Perhaps some of them were present on this day and were part of the crowd which said, This is the Christ [the Messiah]. However, some of the earlier group who opposed Him may have also been among those who rejected the idea of Jesus being the Messiah based on the fact that He was from Galilee, as it was known that Scripture taught that the Messiah would be from Bethlehem.
You, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.14
However, unbeknownst to the crowd, Jesus was from the lineage of David15 and was born in Bethlehem, thereby meeting this qualification of the Messiah coming from Bethlehem.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…16
Because of these differing opinions, there was a division among the people over him. This is the first of three splits spoken of in this Gospel. In this case, the crowd has a divided opinion of Him. Later we find a second division, this time among the Pharisees.
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them.17
The third time, the split was among “the Jews.”
There was again a division among the Jews because of these words.18
This time the division among those listening to Him resulted in some of the crowd wanting to put Him under arrest, but nothing came of it. They were unable to arrest Him because his hour had not yet come.19
The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.”20
The temple guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, which probably meant they went back to the Sanhedrin, the religious leadership body of the Jewish people. Their mission was unfulfilled as they didn’t return with Jesus under arrest. This attempt was likely separate from the earlier one, meaning that at two different times the Jewish leadership ordered Jesus’ arrest, and both attempts failed. When questioned as to why the guards didn’t arrest Him, they spoke with awe at the power of what He taught. “No one ever spoke like this man!”
The religious leaders responded to the guards with a three-point rebuttal. The first point was that the guards had been deceived. The second was that none of the Jewish leadership or the Pharisees believed in Him. However, as will be seen shortly, this point was proven false, as Nicodemus—a Pharisee—was also a believer in Jesus. The third was that the crowd who believed what Jesus taught were cursed since they didn’t study the law like the Pharisees did. Other Jewish writings show that the common people who weren’t well studied in Scripture were held in contempt by the Jewish religious leadership at that time.
Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”21
Earlier in this Gospel, we’re told that Nicodemus was both a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, and that one night he came to Jesus and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”22 After Jesus’ death, Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes in order to anoint Jesus’ body before burial.
In this instance, Nicodemus attempted to direct the others to what the Mosaic Law taught—that those who were arrested were to have the opportunity to explain themselves.The book of Deuteronomy stated You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike.23 However, the Pharisees already had their minds made up, and as far as they were concerned, Jesus was guilty and should be arrested. They dismissed what Nicodemus said with a question, Are you from Galilee too? In appearing to defend Jesus, who was a Galilean, Nicodemus opened himself up to accusations of his being someone who had Galilean sympathies, which was clearly something they looked down upon.
The Pharisees pointed out to Nicodemus that no prophet arises from Galilee. However, here too they were mistaken, as they overlooked the prophet Jonah, who was from Gath-hepher,24 which was in Galilee.
(Continued in Part Five)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
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1 John 7:37–39.
2 Leviticus 23:36.
3 The origin of the “four species” is found in Leviticus 23:40, when the Lord was giving Moses instructions for the first Feast of Tabernacles: And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days (Leviticus 23:40).
4 John 7:37–38.
5 Milne, The Message of John, 120.
6 Acts 2:1–4.
7 Isaiah 58:11.
8 John 4:14.
9 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 376.
10 John 7:40–44.
11 John 6:14.
12 Deuteronomy 18:15.
13 John 7:31.
14 Micah 5:2.
15 Matthew 1:1–17, Luke 2:1–16.
16 Matthew 2:1.
17 John 9:16.
18 John 10:19.
19 John 7:30.
20 John 7:45–49.
21 John 7:50–52.
22 John 3:2.
23 Deuteronomy 1:17.
24 2 Kings 14:25.