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John 7:37-8:20

Roger Hahn

The passage that is the subject of this lesson is part of a series of dialogs that compose most of John 7 and 8. John 7:37-44 forms the third dialog, 7:45-52 form the fourth dialog, and 8:12-20 provide the fifth dialog. John 7:53-8:11 is a unique part of the material in John's gospel. Many ancient copies of the Bible do not have these verses in this location. It interrupts the flow of the dialogs. It will be treated in this lesson following the material on the third, fourth, and fifth dialogs.

The setting of John 7 and 8 is Jesus' visit to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. If John 7:53-8:11 is set aside for the moment, the three dialogs of this lesson all take place on the last day of the Festival. Understanding some of the rituals and the Feast of Tabernacles in Jesus' time provide important background for the material in our lesson. The Jews had held the Feast of Tabernacles in special esteem for almost a thousand years when the events of the text took place. First Kings 8:2 indicates that the dedication of Solomon's temple (approximately 960 B.C.) took place in conjunction with the Feast of the Tabernacles. For that reason the Jews - even in Jesus' time - saw a special connection between the temple and the Feast of Tabernacles.

Two ceremonies that were part of Tabernacles' celebration during Jesus' time are especially important in the context of John 7 and 8. The first involved water and the second involved light. Because Tabernacles was a fall, agricultural festival special prayers for rain were made during this celebration (see Hebrew/Jewish Calendar). If rain would fall at the time of Tabernacles or shortly afterwards it was seen as an indication of ample Fall rains that would prepare and restore the soil for a successful crop the following year. Zechariah 10:1 contains instructions to pray for rain. Zechariah 14:17 warns that rain will be withheld if Tabernacles is not properly celebrated. It is likely that Zechariah's vision of the fountain of waters overflowing out of Jerusalem is to be understood as an expression of the abundant rain for which Jews prayed at Tabernacles time.

A special ceremony was held each day of the Feast to dramatize this prayer for rain. A procession went from the temple down to the spring of Gihon at the southeast corner of the base of the temple mountain. A priest filled a golden pitcher with about two pints of the spring’s water. As the people sang Isaiah 12:3, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation," the procession returned with the pitcher to the temple compound. Each of the people in the procession carried a clump of myrtle and willow sticks tied with a palm in one hand and a lemon or citron in the other hand. The willow sticks reminded them of the huts or tabernacles in which Israel had lived in the wilderness. The lemon or citron was a sign of harvest.

As they entered the temple area the procession began to sing the Hallel Psalms (Psalms 113-118). The procession went around the large altar for the burnt offerings and the priest poured the pitcher of water into a funnel that took the water through the altar to the ground. As the singers finished Psalm 118 they gave a great shout and waved their palm leaves toward the altar. This dramatic ritual of the water pouring was done each of the first seven morning of the Feast of Tabernacles. On the seventh day, the procession went around the great altar seven times before the water was poured out. This ceremony was a vivid expression of thanksgiving to God for the gift of rain, a dramatic prayer for rain, and a powerful reminder of the way God brought water from the rock as Israel had traveled in the wilderness.

The second dramatic ceremony associated with Tabernacles was the Illumination of the Temple. On the evening of the first day of Tabernacles four great candleholders were placed in the center of the Court of the Women. When it was dark all the candles were lit. Ancient witnesses claimed that the candles sent a blaze of light throughout all of Jerusalem. As Barclay states, "The Festival of Tabernacles was a time then that the blaze of the Temple lights illumined the city and pierced the darkness of its squares and courts and lanes." Throughout the night the spiritual leaders of the Jews sang psalms of praise and celebration and danced before the Lord. There was a strong symbolism that relationship with God was a light that illumined all of Jerusalem and penetrated all the darkness of the soul.

It seems to be no accident that John's portrait of Jesus at the Feast of the Tabernacles draws upon both of these dramatic ceremonies.

John 7:37-44 - The Third Dialog on Jesus’ Identity

This section of John contains two parts, verses 37-39 and verses 40-44. Verses 37-39 take their clue from the ceremony of the water pouring at the Feast of Tabernacles. They deal with Jesus as the source of authentic, true water. Verses 40-44 return to the implications of this for Jesus' identity. The language and theme is much like that of John 7:27-29.

John 7:37-39 - Jesus, the Living Water

Verse 37 begins by setting Jesus' words on the last day, the great [day] of the feast. This expression creates a problem. Is the last day, the great day, a reference to the seventh day or the eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles? Deuteronomy 16:13 indicates that the Feast was to last seven days. Leviticus 23:33-35 indicates that the Festival proper lasted seven days, but that the day following - the eighth day - was to be a special day of worship and of holy convocation. It was a Sabbath added onto the end of the Festival proper. Bible scholars are divided as to whether John 7:37 refers to the seventh or the eighth day. Rabbinic evidence implies that the ceremony of the water pouring was only done the first seven days. In fact, the eighth day had very little activity - it was a Sabbath. Jesus' opening remarks "fit" most powerfully on the seventh day, right at the end of the final ceremony of the water pouring.

As a result many scholars believe that it is the seventh day that is referred to in verse 37. Others note that the Sabbath observance of the eighth day would have attracted a larger than usual crowd. This would have been an excellent opportunity for the kind of sermon that Jesus then gave. The debate cannot be resolved with certainty. But it seems clear that John had the water pouring ceremony in mind as he delivered to us the words of Jesus found in these verses.

Jesus' opening words, "If anyone be thirsty that person must come to me and drink," echo the invitation of Isaiah 55:1-3. Jesus' words also interrupt the Tabernacles ceremony in a dramatic way. If, as many scholars believe, Jesus uttered these words at the end of the water pouring ceremony the impact is powerful. The water has been poured out; the prayer for God to graciously grant rain has been made. And Jesus' voice booms out, "You have prayed for the rain that waters the earth. Good News! God has sent the water that will satisfy your souls!" Surely, no message ever began more dramatically.

Though the introduction was dramatic the exact meaning of Jesus' words is difficult for us to define precisely. Though verse 38 says as the Scripture has said, we really can't identify any specific Old Testament passage about which Jesus was speaking. The invitation to come to Jesus and drink echoes Isaiah 55:1-3. The reference to rivers of living water flowing sounds very much like Zechariah 14:8 and Ezekiel 47:1-2. The great fourth century scholar/preacher Chrysostom argued that the quotation was found in the words, "he who believes in me," quoting from Isaiah 28:16. Some Old Testament passages, such as Isaiah 43:19-20 and 44:3, actually combine the idea of water or rivers and the Spirit. Isaiah 58:11 and Proverbs 18:4 describe wisdom flowing like a river out of the inner most part of a person. However, the reference here in verses 37-38 is so vague that we can not know if Jesus and John had any or all of these Scriptures in mind.

Interpreters of this passage are also perplexed about the meaning of the phrase, Out of his inner most being shall flow rivers of living water. To whom does "his" refer? Is Jesus promising a relationship with God that will enable living water to flow out of the believer's inner most being? Some scholars believe that "his" refers to the one who believes in Jesus. Barclay summarizes this view in these words, "This would mean that Jesus was promising us that cleansing, refreshing, life-giving stream of the Holy Spirit so that our thoughts and feelings and emotions and inmost desires would be purified and revitalized and filled with new life." One of the greatest needs of believers throughout the history of the Church as been the need for the believer to be so filled with the Holy Spirit that the Spirit flowed out of the believer into a needy world.

However, a significant number of scholars believe that "his" refers to Jesus. Out of Jesus will flow the living water of the Holy Spirit. This view is consistent with the thought of John's gospel and of Paul. John believed that Jesus was the source of the Holy Spirit for believers. That is clear from John 20:22. The apostle Paul presents an unusual interpretation of the Old Testament in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4. He refers to the water flowing out of the rock in the wilderness, an obvious reference to Exodus 17:6 and Numbers 20:11. However, Paul indicates that the rock from which the water flowed followed Israel wherever they went. (He seems to get this from a rabbinic tradition.) Paul culminates the section by simply saying, "The rock was Christ." Many scholars believe that Paul considered the water that came from the rock (Christ) to be the Holy Spirit. If so, then Jesus is the source of the Spirit.

There are important truths in both of these interpretations. The ultimate source of the Holy Spirit is Jesus. Nothing good will flow out of our inner most being unless Christ first places it there. On the other hand, the point of Christ being the source of the Spirit is not just that the Spirit flows from Jesus. Jesus is the source of the Spirit so that He can grant the Spirit to those who believe on Him so that the Spirit can flow out of them. We short-circuit the work of Christ if we are not open to the Spirit flowing out of our lives.

The final part of verse 39 contains a startling conclusion. It is an editorial remark by John; it is not part of Jesus' words. Almost all the English versions say: The [Holy] Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not been glorified. Some manuscripts contain these exact words. However, the King James Version and the New American Standard Version both place "given" in italics indicating that it was not original to the text. The oldest and best manuscripts do not contain the word "given." They literally say, "The [Holy] Spirit was not yet, because Jesus had not been glorified" (NRSV:  "For as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified").  For John the meaning of Jesus being glorified is the crucifixion.

John does not mean that the Holy Spirit did not exist until the Cross. After all John's gospel speaks in chapter 1 of the Holy Spirit descending and remaining on Jesus. What he means is that the Holy Spirit did not become powerfully meaningful and real in people's lives until after the crucifixion. It can be summed up by saying that Pentecost was not really possible until after Calvary.

The real purpose of the Holy Spirit is not to empower us to do miracles. The Holy Spirit did that on several occasions in the Old Testament for several different people. The real purpose of the Holy Spirit is to open us up to the full nature of God. That will mean power, but even more it will mean that the love of God can flow out of the believer by means of the Holy Spirit. And the love of God could not be fully known until Jesus had died on the Cross. So John tells us that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit in his Feast of Tabernacles sermon. But the real meaning of the Holy Spirit only became clear after Jesus had been glorified.

John 7:40-44 - Jesus' Identity as Messiah

The Jews expected a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit when the Messiah came. They were keenly aware that the Holy Spirit had been the source of prophecy in the Old Testament and no prophets had arisen since Malachi about 400 B.C. They yearned for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit that would be demonstrated by the renewal of prophecy. They examined themselves to see why that had not happened. They concluded that when Messiah came he would not only set them free from political oppression. If God would graciously send the Messiah surely He would also graciously pour out His Spirit once again.

As a result when Jesus proclaimed the Spirit as living water coming again in abundance from himself one logical conclusion would be that Jesus was the Messiah. Verse 41 notes that some of the listening at the Feast of Tabernacles drew that very conclusion. They proclaimed Jesus as the Christ or the Messiah. Verse 40 notes that others described Jesus as the prophet. The Jews expected a prophet like Moses to arise in the days of the Messiah also. They believed that would be the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:15.

However, others were not receptive to the idea. John 7:27 had noted the belief of some Jews that when Messiah came he would come suddenly and "out of nowhere." Since they knew that Jesus had come from Galilee, they deduced that he could not be the Messiah. The argument of verse 42 implies that the Jews at the Feast of Tabernacles did not know that Jesus was descended from David nor that he was born in Bethlehem. They claim that the Old Testament indicated the Messiah would be from the house of David. Second Samuel 7:12 is usually considered the source of their belief. They also allude to Micah 5:2 as proof that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

It is interesting that John does not follow up verse 42 with a correction that showed the ignorance of the Jews who assumed that since Jesus was from Galilee he could not have been born in Bethlehem and that he was not of Davidic descent. Two explanations have been given. One is that John himself did not know of Jesus' birthplace and Davidic descent. John makes no reference anywhere else in his gospel to show that he knew these facts that we learn from Matthew and Luke. However, it is very unusual that John would record a challenge to Jesus' Messiahship that had no answer.

 The second explanation is that John did know of Jesus' birthplace and Davidic descent and that he knew all Christian readers would know. Thus the "ignorant" comment of the Jews in verse 42 can be left unchallenged because "all of us" know and that very fact accentuates the "ignorance" of the Jewish rejection of Jesus. We cannot prove that this was John's purpose; without a doubt it is the result that arises from reading verse 42. Verse 43 contains a familiar conclusion in John's gospel: There was a division in the crowd about Him.

John 7:45-52 - The Fourth Dialog on Jesus' Identity

The unusual aspect of these verses is that Jesus does not appear on the scene nor speak. The scene moves back to the chief priests and Pharisees. The members of the temple guard who had been sent to arrest Jesus (John 7:32) finally return without him. The impression that we could easily get is that the temple guards had been sent to arrest Jesus, had spent some time listening to him, and had returned empty handed. In fact, verse 37 indicates that the return of the temple guard (verse 45) is on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Verse 32 indicates they were sent out in the middle of the Feast, at least three days earlier. That chronological note does not weaken the impression that the temple guards were so "taken" by Jesus' teaching that they just forgot to arrest him. The unfolding dialog strengthens that impression.

The leaders angrily demand why the guards had not arrested Jesus. The reply is that no one had ever taught like Jesus. One would wonder if temple police would really answer in this fashion unless Jesus' teaching authority was simply overwhelming. It is part of an important picture John is painting of Jesus. His teaching is so compelling that even the tough temple guardsmen are awestruck by it.

Their reply sets up a sarcastic response by the Pharisees. They cannot believe their tough temple police could be swayed so easily. They then claim that no ruler or Pharisee had believed in Jesus. This is another example of Johannine irony. The statement might have been true at the historical point of this conversation. However, the readers of John's gospel would surely know that several rulers and Pharisees had come to believe in Jesus after "his glorification." Paul the Pharisee is the example best known to us. However, Acts 6:7 and 15:5 also speak of priests and Pharisees who believed.

The Pharisees sarcastically claim that only the cursed crowd that knows nothing of the law had believed in Jesus. There is considerable evidence that the Pharisees considered themselves superior to the common people who could not and did not devote their lives to study of the Law. They called these common people the people of the land (am ha-aretz in Hebrew). The gospels imply that Jesus directed much of his ministry to the am ha-aretz and that the scribes and Pharisees were infuriated by it. When we only want to minister to people like ourselves and not to the down and out we are more like the Pharisees than we are like Jesus.

The section concludes with an interchange with Nicodemus who had come to Jesus by night in John 3. Nicodemus pointed out that Jewish legal procedure required a hearing and an opportunity for explanation and self-defense. Again, it is ironic that Nicodemus' question reflects the command of Jesus in John 7:24 not to judge by appearance but by a righteous standard. The Pharisees contemptuously charge Nicodemus with being a Galilean - a major insult for a Judean. It would be like calling a Harvard educated person a hick or hayseed from the sticks.

John 8:12-20 - The Fifth Dialog on Jesus As Light

Verse 12 introduces a new direction in John's unfolding story of Jesus. Jesus resumes his Feast of the Tabernacles message by describing himself as the Light of the World. This is the first time Jesus has expressly identified himself in this way. For John it is the resumption of a theme first expressed in John 1 in the prologue. It will be later in the gospel before John further develops the theme, but the mention of it here is especially appropriate.

In the context of the Feast of the Tabernacles and the ceremony of the Illumination of the Temple Jesus' statement is very meaningful. Barclay gives a beautiful paraphrase of the thrust of Jesus' words. "You have seen the blaze of the Temple illuminations piercing the darkness of the night. I am the Light of the World, and, for the man who follows me there will be light, not only for one exciting night, but for all the pathway of his life. The light in the Temple is a brilliant light, but in the end it flickers and dies. I am to men the Light which lasts for ever and for ever."

Jesus' statement in verse 12 is also one of the I AM statements in John. The Greek form is ego eimi - the name used of Yahweh in Exodus 3:14 - I AM WHO I AM. And Jesus says, "I AM the Light of the World." Not only does he claim to illuminate and brighten our lives, he is also the very God of the Old Testament now incarnate and at work in the world. He further comments that the person who is following him will not live in darkness but in the brilliance of His light. The Greek verb for follow is a present tense, indicating a continuous, on-going life-style of following in Jesus' footsteps. Not only does the follower of Jesus walk in Christ's light, that light is connected to life. The theme of life had been very important in John 4:46-6:71. The theme of life will be return powerfully in chapter 11 with the resurrection of Lazarus.

Almost as suddenly as the theme of Jesus as Light was introduced in verse 12, it is dropped in verse 13. Verses 13-20 return to a set of arguments very similar to those found in John 5:30-47. The question of Jesus bearing witness to himself is repeated. Jesus turns the direction of the dialog to the witness of the Father. In a typical Johannine pattern the Jews do not understand Jesus and assume he is speaking of a literal, human father. Jesus points out that their failure to understand the father arises from their refusal to acknowledge him. This repeats a Johannine theme that theological understanding is built on personal relationship with Jesus. That is an insight that we ought not forget.

John 7:53-8:11 - Jesus and The Woman Taken in Adultery

As mentioned above these verses interrupt the flow of thought and are not found in the oldest copies of the New Testament. In fact, of the five oldest and best copies of the Greek New Testament not one contains these verses. When the verses do begin to appear in this location in John there are asterisks or footnote marks that indicate the verses are unusual. Some copies of the New Testament place these verses in other locations - some after John 7:36, some at the end of John 21, and others in the middle of Luke 21. On the other hand there is evidence that people were aware of the story contained in these verses very early in the second century - the AD 100's.

What should we conclude? How should we respond to these verses? First, it is very unlikely that they were originally a part of the gospel of John. They interrupt the flow of the Feast of Tabernacles dialogs and they are missing in all the old, great manuscripts. Second, that does not mean that these verses are false. The forgiveness and acceptance of an adulteress is not the kind of thing you would expect the early church to have made up. In reality this story describes the very reason that the scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of accepting sinners in Luke 15:2.

Augustine suggested that these verses had been removed from John because some people were offended by Jesus' forgiveness of the woman. It is perhaps more likely that these verses were not originally a part of John's gospel, but the story was known and repeated as part of the oral memory of Jesus' life and teaching. It was well known in the church and at a later date it was inserted into John at this location in the text. Its purpose was to provide an illustration of Jesus' words in John 8:15, You judge according to the flesh, but I judge no one.

The story is a powerful reminder that none of us is without sin. None of us is really capable of passing judgment on a fellow human being. Judgment belongs to God; He will judge righteously. Jesus' parable and teaching in Matthew 18:21-35 fit in with this event in Jesus' life. None of us is without sin; each of us needs the forgiveness of God; if God would forgive us, He could forgive anyone; so should we forgive even the sinner who seems the most offensive to us. Forgiveness, not stone throwing, is God's expectation from us.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you begin each day ask the Lord to speak to you through His Word and to make the Word alive and meaningful in your heart.

First Day: Read the notes on John 7:37-8:20. Look up the Scripture references.

1. Identify one or two new insights that were important to you.

2. Select a truth for which you see a personal application in your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.

3. Does the Spirit flow out of your inner most being as describe in John 7:37-39? Ask the Lord to let the Spirit flow from your life.

Second Day: Read John 8:21-59. Focus in on John 8:21-29.

1. What is the cause that people will die in their sins according to Jesus in these verses?

2. What do you think Jesus meant in verse 21 when he said, "I am going away and you will seek me . . . where I am going away you are able to come?"

3. Describe the relationship between Jesus and the Father that is implied in these verses.

Third Day: Read John 8:21-59. Now focus on John 8:30-36.

1. What would you identify as the new theme appearing in these verses?

2. The Jews claimed that as Abraham's descendants they had never been slaves. In what ways would you say that they were wrong?

3. Read Romans 6:15-23 and 2 Corinthians 3:17. In what ways do these verses illuminate John 8:34-36.

Fourth Day: Read John 8:21-59. Focus in on John 8:37-45.

1. Why does Jesus disagree with the Jews that they are Abraham's children?

2. What is the condition that proves God is our Father? Is that condition being met in your own life?

3. Jesus seems to say, "Like Father, like children, therefore you are children of the devil." What characteristics of the Jews led him to make that chilling statement? Are any of those characteristics a part of your life?

Fifth Day: Read John 8:21-59. Now focus in on John 8:46-51.

1. What "accusation" do the Jews make against Jesus? Why do you suppose they applied those terms to him?

2. If the Jewish word for "hear" or "listen" is the same as "obey," how does verse 51 illustrate verse 47?

3. In verses 49 and 50 Jesus states that he honor His Father and that he is not seeking glory for himself. What are some events and teachings in the Gospel of John that illustrate the truth of these claims of Jesus?

Sixth Day: Read John 8:21-59. Focus in on John 8:52-59.

1. Why did the Jews accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed in verse 52?

2. In verse 58 Jesus states, "Before Abraham was born, I AM." What do you think is the significance of the words, "I AM?"

3. Jesus said, "If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father is the one who glorifies me." Are you ever tempted to glorify yourself? What is the value of glorifying yourself? What changes in your life would glorify God?

-Roger Hahn, Copyright 2013, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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