The Crowd Debates the Source of Living Water (John 7:1-52)

This is a Bible study on the passage in the gospel of John where Jesus goes to the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), proclaims publicly that he is the source of living water, and causes a divisive stir among the Jewish people.  To understand this post, you should stop and read John 7:1-52 before moving on.

Jesus choose to reject his family’s advice and act in secret at the beginning of the Festival (John 7:1-10).  But why?  This seems out of character for Jesus.  What can we learn about him from this choice?  Jesus knows that his family (at this point in his ministry) does not believe that he is the Messiah to come into the world to die for the sins of his people.  His family thinks Jesus wants to become a popular public figure—an “über-rabbi”—very quickly.  But Jesus has a different agenda.  Indeed he is on a mission, but his mission is very different than what his brothers desire for him.  So Jesus rejects his family’s advice to go up to the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) and make a grand entrance.  Jesus plans to attend the Festival, but in his own timing and for his own teaching purposes.  By examining Jesus’ decision, we can learn that he will not be put in a box or bound by other people’s expectations.  Even those who claim to love and worship Jesus today—his Church—must learn that Jesus is not about supporting our causes and signing up for our programs.  He has his own mission to accomplish, and he is Lord.  It is our job as disciples to follow Jesus, not to borrow him and his good name for a time to lend credibility to our lusts and ideologies, even when we try to baptize them into the kingdom.

While Jesus is teaching about himself, the crowd talks in secret about him (John 7:11-13).  What can we learn about the situation they and Jesus faced?  It has always been human nature to gossip, to talk, to spread rumors, and to predict what will happen.  When it comes to other people, we love to talk about what we think about them.  Sometimes we do it openly when the person is not present.  Other times we do our talking privately, for fear that our words will be heard and judged in a public setting.  I think this is what is going on in this passage.  People know that the Jewish leaders are deeply divided about Jesus.  He is a polarizing figure.  Some believe he is a good guy, others a bad guy.  Some believe he is a saint, others a demon.  Some believe he is the Prophet, or even the Christ, others a blasphemer worthy of the death penalty.  No one seems to want to cast their final vote until a consensus arises regarding the identity of Jesus.  Talking about the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth today is no different.  We should learn from this episode that Jesus will always be controversial, but that cannot allow us to stand on the sidelines and just talk about who we might think Jesus is or what he’s about.  No, we are called to take a public stand on the identity of Jesus.  Christians testify that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  Many people are willing to grant that Jesus was a good guy, but they chaff at the claim that Jesus is God.  Jesus will always be controversial.  We should be willing to suffer for our convictions that Jesus was right to say he is the source of living water from God the Father.

This naturally leads us to consider the risks today for Christians talking openly about Jesus.  I am think personally, not just in general.  Furthermore, we ought to consider the risks in other countries?  When I worked in a secular environment, we all received corporate sensitivity training.  Although the training did not forbid discussing religion in the workplace, it was strongly implied that such topics were best avoided to foster an inclusive and tolerant working environment.  Talking openly about Jesus would have been considered bad form.  Over the course of several years, I occasionally took the time to share the gospel with friends at work, but the situation rarely presented itself.  It was obvious that talking openly would have been a distraction from work, and that doing so would have alienated many of my coworkers, some of whom were adherents of different religions.  Outside of the working environment, the risks associated with talking openly about Jesus are loss of friendships (and potential friendships), ridicule, being ignored or marginalized in one’s social circles, accused of being arrogant, narrow-minded, judgmental, spiritually weird, pre-modern, old fashioned, puritanical, whatever.  The world does a good job in a secular culture of ridiculing and rendering Christians (and Jesus) irrelevant.  In other secular countries the risks are similar, but in non-secular countries (where the predominant worldview is religious) the risk of talking openly about Jesus can be much more severe.  Economic persecution, social persecution, loss of home, family, and even one’s life are all possibilities in other countries, even in the 21st century.

In Jesus’ day, a rabbi’s authority to teach came from having studied under a recognized rabbinic scholar.  Why doesn’t Jesus need such credentials (John 7:15-19)?  Reading the passage, one can almost hear the objections to Jesus teaching: “Hey, this guy didn’t go to seminary!  So where did he get all this book learnin’?”  Amazingly, Jesus didn’t go to school and learn from earthly rabbis because he had better credentials.  His degree of knowledge and teaching came from God the Father himself!  In other words, Jesus studied under God the Father, and that is infinitely better than studying under the rabbinic schools of his day.  Rabbis and their disciples have earthly scholarly credentials that give them the right to teach God’s Word.  Jesus has heavenly scholarly credentials that give him the ultimate and authoritative right to teach God’s Word.

Now let’s put ourselves in the crowd.  How would you respond if a miracle-working Bible teacher made such a claim to justify revising interpretations of Scripture with which you’re familiar?  Why?  In one sense, this is not really a legitimate question for the Christian today because we live on this side of the resurrection of Christ.  But if I was a first century Jewish man witnessing all that Jesus of Nazareth was doing, then it would have been very difficult to learn the new lessons and hermeneutic (interpretive grid) that Jesus taught.  Because I’m seminary trained, I assume that I would have been rabbi trained in the first century.  I probably would have sought that out for my life.  So seeing a miracle-working rabbi making outlandish claims probably would have been difficult for me to process.  But because of my belief in the reformed doctrine of election, I think I can safely say that I would have bent my knee to Jesus as the Christ and become one of his many disciples.  He has chosen me, and since I am his and he is mine, I am confident that if I was born in the first century, but allegiance to Jesus would not have been different.  But because his claims were so radical, it would have been more difficult for a theological conservative like me to wrap my arms around Jesus and his new teaching.

Think of some people today who are offended at the idea that Jesus knows God in a way other great religious figures don’t or didn’t.  Why is that idea so offensive, even threatening?  Is it in any way offensive to you?  Many religious people today are offended by this idea.  Anyone who worships God without a name probably feels this way.  Such people think that God loves everyone, and there are many paths to God.  As the saying goes, “All roads lead to Jerusalem.”  People look at the great religious teachers of history and the holy men and women of today and question the credibility of the claim that Jesus knows God in a way qualitatively different and better.  This sounds arrogant and smacks of partisan spirit.  B’hai followers, Sikhs, Muslims, non-Christian God worshipers, deists, pagans, secularists, atheists and agnostics all rebel against the notion that Jesus has a special and unique relationship with God.  This is offensive because it disqualifies other religious teachers from coming to the table with their “divine insights”, at least as much as their insights contradict the teachings of Jesus.  This is threatening because Jesus claims that he is the only way to the Father, and that those who do not approach the Father cannot have a share in God, but are instead destined for punishment for their own sins.  No one wants to be told they are condemned apart from union with Christ the son of God, and no one to believe they are outside the love of God because they are outside of Christ.

At the heart of the passage is Jesus reinterpreting the meaning of the Feast.  How does Jesus add new meaning to the water ceremony (John 7:37-39)?  The water ceremony up to this point reminded the people that God provide living water from the rock for their ancestors during the wilderness wandering years.  When Jesus stood up to speak, he seized the perfect moment to reinterpret and redefine the water ceremony by identifying himself with the water rock.  He who thirsts for living water must now come to Jesus, because out of Jesus flow rivers of living water (the Holy Spirit).  Essentially, Jesus is claiming that for centuries the water ceremony was pointing to himself, and now that he has come, the meaning of the water ceremony may be revealed.  Jesus is the source of living water for all who are thirsty!

The author of this gospel, John, emphasizes that the living water of the Spirit was not available during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 7:39).  This is an unusual comment.  Why do you think the Spirit couldn’t come until after Jesus was “glorified”?  I think that the Spirit could not come as God’s gift to his people until after Christ rose from the dead and was glorified because the Spirit is the comforter (helper) given to the Church in Christ’s absence.  John narrates that Jesus breathed on his disciples after he returned from the dead, thereby bequeathing the Holy Spirit to them.  Luke tells us that the Spirit arrived in power at Pentecost.  For Jesus to give resurrection life, he had to first earn it himself by surrendering his life on the cross for the sins of the world, and then win the justification from his heavenly Father that he did not deserve to die but instead deserved resurrection.  Once Jesus earned resurrection life, he was enabled to give it as a spiritual gift to his disciples and the Church.

The entire episode begs us to look at our lives to see whether we measure up to Jesus’ teaching on experiencing the Holy Spirit.  Would you describe your experience of the Holy Spirit as “rivers of living water” quenching your thirst?  This is a hard question to answer because I don’t live in a region of the world where water is scarce.  To be blunt, I just don’t find myself very thirsty.  When I need a drink, I drink.  When what I have to drink goes stale, I pour it out and replenish myself with fresh water.  So the imagery of rivers of living water just doesn’t speak to me in the same way than it probably did for people in contexts where water is more scarce.  But my experience of the Holy Spirit is that he brings satisfaction to my life where there was none before.

There are some in the crowd who are enamored with Jesus; others who are indignant at him.  In what ways is Jesus on trial in John 7? On the other hand, in what ways are the people on trial?  Jesus is on trial before the people in terms of his place of origin.  Jesus claims to be from heaven, but the people know he grew up in Galilee.  He is on trial in terms of his teaching credentials.  Jesus claims to have a message from the Father, that his message is from heaven, but the people don’t know where he gets his learning because he didn’t study under a recognized rabbi.  He is on trial in terms of his destination.  Jesus claims he is going to a place where they cannot go (heaven), but the people interpret this as a claim that he will go to the Gentiles where they have no desire or intention of going.  Some say Jesus is the Prophet, others say he is the Christ.  Still others say he cannot be either because he is a false teacher who breaks Sabbath law, and therefore must be rejected or killed.  In all these ways Jesus finds himself on trial.  But the people are also on trial!  Are they on the side of God (good) or the side of bad (evil)?  Will they listen to this teacher come from God, or will they reject the divine word in favor of a human-originated word?  Will they side with the religious authorities and the Pharisees in rejecting God’s messenger, or will they cast their lot with Jesus and thus risk losing all?  Jesus is on trial, but in the end it is really the people who God is trying (testing).

How do you typically deal with people who are rebels against God, perhaps in disguised and sophisticated ways?  Do you generally avoid them, debate them, appease them, provoke their curiosity, or what?  I hate to admit it, but in my worst moments I tend to debate people who are rebels against God.  I guess it’s just my nature, or perhaps a subconscious mistaken notion that I can argue them into belief.  “OK, OK, you win!  I’ll believe!  Uncle!”  But I’ve noticed that I am capable to avoiding rebels against God too.  I can think of times when I have tried to appease them by minimizing their rebellion against God.  All of these are sinful ways of responding to rebels against God.  What I should be doing is lovingly confronting people with the gospel message of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ after I’ve spent a good deal of time listening to them and asking probing questions about their life and beliefs.  That is the hard way to respond, but I believe it is the way of wisdom that in the end can yield the most fruitful dialogue.  Only God can make the seed of the gospel grow in a sinner’s heart, but I can do a better job of cultivating and sowing that seed.

Now it is time to turn the tables.  In fact this is exactly what Jesus is doing by putting his enemies on trial at the Feast.  It’s easy to see somebody else as Jesus’ religious opponent.  In what ways are you, or your brand of Christian faith, tempted to oppose him or the Holy Spirit?  Wow, what a difficult thing to ask!  This is like asking, “Where are your blind spots?”  If I knew, then they wouldn’t be blind spots, right?  Being a proponent of the evangelical and reformed branch of the Christian faith, I’m sure that my Christian subcultural context affects the way that I respond to the Holy Spirit.  The Reformed world is generally very doctrinal and theological.  There aren’t very many folks in my camp that are promoting the mystical spiritual disciplines.  When a teacher rises up to call attention to the mystical side of the Christian life, he is usually confronted by other teachers and declared to be not truly Reformed (i.e., not kosher).  But I think there is some truth to the traditional spiritual disciplines that are historically promoted by the Christian mystics.  There is value to solitude and mediation.  There is deeper truth to be discovered in quietly listening to what the Holy Spirit is teaching the Church through the Scriptures.  There is something to the ethics of simplicity, manual labor, communing with God in nature, and being sensitive to the directions God seems to be working in other Christian communities (even in other cultures and other parts of the world).  Just like everyone else, I tend to get caught up in my own little world.  I am tempted to think that the Holy Spirit is doing the same thing in my life and my church congregation that he is doing everywhere else and for all time.  Lord, forgive us for our limited view of the kingdom.  Help us to see with new eyes, eyes enabled to see by the power of the Holy Spirit, what you are doing to build your kingdom on earth!

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