SESSION TWELVE: FEAST OF TABERNACLES (JOHN 7)
INTRO: Were you ever dared by your brothers or sisters to do something dangerous? What happened?
- Why did the religious leaders want to kill Jesus (see 5:18)?
- What rumors are circulating about Jesus in Jerusalem (vv. 12-13)?
- Given the risk, why did Jesus go to the Feast of Tabernacles (v. 16)?
- Why does Jesus' teaching in verses 14-29 provoke the responses of vv. 30-31?
- How does the confusion over Jesus' birthplace (vv. 41-42) cloud the issue of his identity?
- Why would Nicodemus risk defending Jesus (vv. 48-50)?
- Do you face any family opposition to, or ridicule of your faith?How do you deal with it? How does Jesus' situation help?
- When have you seen religious principles put ahead of love?
- What evidence can you offer of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life?
TAKEAWAY: What is your greatest takeaway from this story? What specific life changes do you need to make? How will you hold yourself accountable?
COMMENTARY: THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES (JOHN 7)
It's now mid-October. Months have passed since Jesus fed the Passover-bound crowds and walked on water. He's still in Galilee and now he faces a dilemma. It's time for the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths).
This was one of the Jews most favorite festivals. It was known as "The Great Feast" (1 Kings 8:2) or the "Festival of the Lord (Leviticus 23:9)." It was more popular than Passover and Pentecost. Every Jewish male within 15 miles of Jerusalem was required to attend Tabernacles, Passover and Pentecost. And many Jews far from Jerusalem made the pilgrimage too.
This eight day festival was a thanksgiving celebration to commemorate the end of harvest, but it also had historical significance too. It was a festival to memorialize the Israelite wandering in the desert, between the glorious Red Sea miracle passing and crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. It remembered a time when the Israelites were homeless, strangers in a strange land, wandering and totally dependent upon God.
This is why it's named a festival of "booths." Jews celebrated it by living for eight days outside their homes in constructed "tabernacles" or tents (Leviticus 23:40-43). These "booths" were constructed on roofs, in city squares, alongside roads, in gardens and even at the temple courts. People were to create their temporary housing with a thatched roof that protected from elements but also allowed the sun and the stars to be visible. It was a celebration for the rich and poor, the stranger and guest, the invalid and the widow to gather in community.
One of the great traditions of the Festival was a daily parade by the people, carrying palm fronds and willow branches, to the Temple. They would gather around the great altar, stretch out their fronds and branches, to create a roof. At the same time a priest would take a golden pitcher to the Pool of Siloam (where Jesus healed the paralytic) and fill it with the spring's "living water." The priest would carry the pitcher back to the Temple, through the Water Gate, then pour the water over the great altar as the people recited Scriptures about "living water" (Isaiah 12:3) and sang psalms of thanksgiving (Psalms 113-118). Every day they held this ceremony. On the last and eighth day they would march seven times around the altar to role play the ancient fall of Jericho.
It's no wonder why the people loved this festival. It was fun. It was experiential and interactive. And it reminded them of a time when life was even more humble. Passover was special. Pentecost was grand. But Tabernacles was the "great feast" and festival. Josephus commented in his Antiquities of the Jews (3:10:4) how Tabernacles was the "holiest and greatest festival among the Jews."
Jesus was no stranger to attending these great festivals. John records how he has attended both Passover and Pentecost, possibly even Tabernacles, before. But this one is different. Jesus is up north in Galilee. His brothers persuade him to go, but Jesus resists. He knows that there are people looking to kill him in Jerusalem. He knows what they did to his cousin John the Baptist. Jesus isn't interested in making a scene, as his brothers want him to do (even though they don't believe in him). He even told his family that they can go to the festival, but he'd staying home this time around. It's probably because his brothers are going to the festival and Jesus doesn't want them to out him, But Jesus changes his mind, sneaks into Jerusalem and lays low. He hangs on the edges and takes it all in. As he told his agnostic brothers: "My time is not yet here."
It doesn't take long for Jesus to hear the rumors about WHO he is. Some think he's a "good man" while others believe he's a liar (v. 12). Regardless, few were talking out loud. If Jesus was there, it was just talk.
It's at this point, that some commentators push pause. That's because verses 15 to 24 seem out of place. In these verses, the crowd questions Jesus' learning. How did he get to be so influential? Who's authority is operating under (because every rabbi had a greater rabbi who taught him)? Jesus counters with an argument over the Law. He's accused of breaking the Sabbath, but Jesus points out the priests and Pharisees are constantly breaking the Sabbath when the perform circumcism. The Law forbade any work on the Sabbath. The Law also demanded a newborn boy be circumcised on his eighth day of life. Many newborn boys eighth day fell on Saturday...and that was a problem. Jesus argues that somehow it's okay to "cut" and "mutilate" a part of the body on the Sabbath but it's not okay for him to take a "mutilated body" and make it whole (as he did healing the paralytic on the Sabbath).
This is why many connect this passage to John 5 and say it's a continuing thought after John 5:47. Indeed, it does seem to fit well there. Jesus has healed a paralytic on the Sabbath (5:1-15) and was persecuted by the Jewish leaders for healing on the Sabbath (5:16ff). Jesus uses a debate strategy at this point, just like he does here in John 7:15-24, to defend himself from a charge of breaking the Sabbath. Even our Bible versions tend to separate this section out (leaving in 7:14 as introduction). But if you delete vv. 15-24, the story does seem to flow better. The question is why or how did this writing intended for an earlier chapter end up in John 7? Was it sloppiness? Was it something that happened after John penned the gospel? Could these verses comprise a single page that somehow got mixed up and accidentally inserted in a different place? These are all options. Still other Bible students think John 7:15-24 is just a rabbit trail that John felt his readers needed to take.
At this point, Jesus' teaching does cause a stir. They note that Jesus is speaking publicly (Jesus must have changed his mind about that matter too) and that there are people looking to kill him. They struggle with his origins and background. The ancient Jew believed the Messiah would be born, as Micah predicted in Bethlehem, but beyond that he would "mysteriously appear." In fact, there was a rabbinical teaching that stated that three things will "mysteriously appear": the Messiah, a godsend and a scorpion. Jesus reminds the crowd that, yes, he is from Galilee and Nazareth, but it doesn't matter because ultimately Jesus is FROM GOD. If that isn't enough, he adds that they really "do not know him" (v. 28). Up to this point, Jesus was just a rebel and a revolutionary. Now he's committing blasphemy--the gravest sin a Jew could commit.
This sends the Pharisees into a fury and they try to arrest Jesus. But he only tells them that his time among them is short. Some day they will look for him and not find him. Naturally, the crowd thought Jesus was talking about leaving the region, perhaps going to a distant land to teach the Greeks. But that's not what he meant. He's referring to his glorification and ascension into heaven.
And now we come to the focal point of John 7. Everything else is set up material. And don't forget this is the Feast of Tabernacles. It's about a people living in tents, wandering and lost, looking for a better land. It's also about gratitude and worship. It's at this point that Jesus, perhaps as a participant at that "frond and branch" water ceremony around the great altar, makes his Tabernacle plea (John 7:27-39):
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
It's a remarkable statement to make, especially on the last day of the great festival.
But it only creates more confusion. More arguments erupt. He must be the Prophet (the Elijah promised by Malachi to come before the Messiah), said some. Others said no, he is the Messiah. It literally created a theological debate. It got so bad, that others wanted Jesus arrested, but no one dared to do it. Later the temple guards told the Pharisees that "no one ever spoke the way this man does (v. 46)." And that created a new problem. The Pharisees and chief priests were firmly in denial. Jesus was not the Messiah. In fact, he was more than just a menace. Jesus was a heretic...and heretics needed to be eliminated.
That's when Nicodemus (John 3) spoke up. The Law, he said, doesn't allow for condemnation without a hearing. The implication was their hands were tied without a trial. Of course that also didn't sit well with the Sanhedrin. In fact they commissioned Nicodemus to investigate the matter further, including consulting the Scriptures. The Messiah did not come out of Galilee, they argued. And they were right. But in their desire to be precise and correct on Scripture, they missed the TRUTH. The Scriptures say nothing about Messiah's background, other than he'll be born in Bethlehem (and Jesus was). Most of what they believed was Scripture turned out to be a cultural MYTH that stated the Messiah would "mysteriously appear" and have no background.
In other words, these learned rabbis trusted cultural myths instead of the Scripture. And maybe that's why Nicodemus ends up in the Jesus camp at the end. Perhaps he takes the Sanhedrin's advice to search the matter further and discovers the cultural myths he's believed all his life were a lie. It's why we need to be careful in our own interpretations of the Bible, particularly those parts that have no basis in Scripture. Too many Bible teachers (and students) cut and paste, cherry pick and selectively build their theology. And then close their eyes to Scriptures that contradict, oppose and weaken their own view.
This story is a wonderfully unique story by John. It's full of drama and circumstance, rabbit trails and deep theology.
It's a great story for those with ears to hear.
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