Six months before His crucifixion, Jesus stood in the temple on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles and declared
If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (John 7:37b–38)
The following day was the octave, the “eighth day” of the feast. Though the feast was technically only seven days, the following eighth day was a “holy convocation” observed as a Sabbath day. None of the pilgrims to Jerusalem would have begun their travels home, so the temple would have been crowded once more before feast-goers began their travels home. Once again Jesus spoke out, this time saying,
I am the light of the world: He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. (John 8:12)
These two declarations are usually dealt with in a vacuum, as abstract spiritual metaphors with little or no reference to their context in the Feast of Tabernacles.
Going to Jerusalem
Jesus had been urged to attend the Feast of Tabernacles by His brethren (John 7:2–10). Their desire was that Jesus perform “good works” or miracles so that He could not be ignored. A turning point had occurred in Galilee after the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus refused to be made their king and demanded they accept Him as the bread of life, their life-giving manna sent from God (John 6:48–51). At that, many who had followed Him turned away (v. 66). The accusation of the religious leaders, that His power was demonic (Matt. 12:22–30), likely frightened away the faint of heart. The cumulative effect of the attrition was so obvious that Jesus asked the twelve, “Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67)
These family members of Jesus therefore made the suggestion that Jesus go to Jerusalem and so display His miracles to the feast-goers that His popularity and acceptance would be guaranteed. Their intention was to see Jesus accepted, but their suggestion was that He so overwhelm them with miracles that faith was unnecessary. Jesus let these family members go to Jerusalem on their own. He followed, but “in secret,” that is privately, not as a spectacle, and He arrived after the feast had begun (John 7:14).
When Jesus left Galilee and went to Jerusalem, He was walking into a viper pit. This was the stronghold of Jewish religion. The city was full of priests and various sects, all easily identifiable by their dress. The attacks of the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee, if not coordinated from Jerusalem, had at least been done with their approval. These supposedly pious religious leaders had early conspired with those close to Herod in Galilee to destroy Jesus, likely hoping he would imprison Jesus as he had John (Mark 3:6). This is why Jesus had responded to His brethren’s suggestion that He go to Jerusalem with, “The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth …” The hate of which He spoke was a vicious one.
We need not assume Jesus knew this by supernatural means alone. He had, by now, three years of interaction with these religious leaders. His fame very early extended to all parts of Palestine (Matt. 4:24), so they kept close watch on Him. Early in His ministry, Jesus had gone to Jerusalem and healed the man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5). Ignoring the miracle, the religious leaders had focused on the fact that Jesus had told the man to pick up his bed and go home. That they saw as a violation of the Sabbath. In reality, it was only contrary to their rules of what constituted Sabbath observance, not a violation of any commandment. For violating their rules, they sought to “persecute” Jesus and even “to slay him” (v.16). Not one to appease evil men, Jesus then referred to God as His Father, so that they “sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the Sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God” (v. 18).
The will to see Jesus neutralized, even dead, was thus a long-standing contingency in Jerusalem. A warning had been made that if anyone proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, they would be excommunicated from the synagogue (John 9:22), a shunning so thorough its financial repercussions alone would reduce an individual to poverty. The mere mention of Jesus had to be done carefully for fear of the authorities (John 7:13). When Jesus then went to Jerusalem and appeared in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, the opposition of the religious establishment to Jesus was already determined. Because they did not have the authority to execute Him (that later took the cooperation of Pilate, the Roman governor), their principal attacks were designed to discredit and deflate His popularity, as was clearly in view in the case of the woman taken in adultery. Nevertheless, the desire to kill Jesus was present, as the disciples noted when Jesus determined to return to Jerusalem (John 11:7, 8, 16).
The Feast of Tabernacles
It is easy for us to miss the significance of the Feast of Tabernacles, as well as brief references, such as John’s time-stamp in verse 37: “In the last day, that great day of the feast …”1 Both are important to understand the significance of the words of Jesus when He “stood and cried, saying, if any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (vv. 37–38). The reference to living water seems, to us, completely extraneous, out-of-the-blue. Our other-worldly view of spirituality inclines us to create a purely esoteric interpretation of the rivers of water Jesus referenced. But Jesus stood and “cried” it, which implies He said it in a loud voice, with emphasis, as a declaration, likely commandeering the attention of the temple crowds. This was not a “spiritual” teaching (which would have been done seated), but a loud pronouncement in the crowded temple. The reference to rivers of water would have been immediately known to the celebrants.
The Feast of Tabernacles was the most joyous of the Jewish celebrations. It is also called the Feast of Tents or Ingathering. It was celebrated from the 15th to the 22nd of Tishri, in the fall after the harvest was done. It was thus comparable to the American Thanksgiving, yet it was also to commemorate God’s provision for His people in the wilderness, when they were taken from the security of Egyptian life and were waiting for the realization of His promise of the land of Canaan.
The feast itself lasted seven days, but the eighth day, the “octave,” was observed as a Sabbath and often referred to as part of it. A great deal of ritual, in and out of the temple, was observed. Prior to the feast, the people erected booths, or huts, to represent their temporary shelters in the wilderness. Numerous sacrifices were offered throughout the week as prescribed in Scripture. So many were offered it was the only celebration in which all the priestly orders took part.
The most unique part of the temple ceremony was the carrying of water by priests to the temple altar, accompanied by crowds waving branches and carrying fruit. The priests filled pitchers of water from the Pool of Siloam (outside Jerusalem) and entered the “Watergate” chanting the “Great Hallel” (halleluiah, or praise to God), each part repeated by the people waving their branches. The water represented the miraculous provision of God to sustain His people before they realized the Promised Land. The procession of priests with water was joined by one of priests carrying wine, perhaps to represent the prosperity of the land. Both joined to pour out their pitchers at the base of the altar. This water ceremony is not prescribed in Scripture, but is likely of ancient practice. It is likely the reference of Isaiah 12, especially verse 3, “Therefore with joy shall we draw water out of the wells of salvation.”2
The observances took the people back to a time when they had to anticipate God’s promises, but it also referenced promises made by the prophets which were yet unfulfilled. Isaiah had spoken of God’s people being “like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isa. 58:11). Ezekiel 47 contains a long description of a vision of water flowing from the altar. The prophet described its beginning as small, but enlarging at a distance to ankle-depth, then further to the knees, then to the loins, then so deep it could not be forded. The waters transformed the lands they touched, so that “everything shall live whither the river cometh” (v. 9). Zechariah echoed this description of the blessings of God: “And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem” (Zech. 14:8).
The Jews had known blessings, and the fruits they carried likely represented the fruits of the land into which they had been brought, but not the fullness of such as those described by Ezekiel. Yet Jesus had preached the Kingdom of Heaven and would very soon speak of its blessedness to sheep of other folds of which the people knew nothing (John 10:16). So, the historic context of the Feast of Tabernacles was the people waiting for the promise of the land to be fulfilled. That promise had been realized, but the remembrance of the wilderness anticipation of God’s faithfulness also had this future orientation, because God had yet more promises to fulfill. The realized promises of God were the basis for anticipating those yet to be realized.
The ritual of the water went on for all seven days of the feast. It was a loud, joyous celebration. It was the public aspect of the feast, as most of days two through seven were spent in joyful celebrations with family and friends. The water ceremony changed slightly on its last day, the seventh. This time, the priests circled the altar not once but seven times before pouring out the water and wine. Willow branches, which had been erected over the altar, were then shaken until their leaves fell off. Children then ate the fruit before the family huts were then dismantled.
“Come Unto Me and Drink”
We are specifically told that when Jesus offered Himself as the source of water, He “stood” and “cried” in a forceful voice for those who wanted “rivers of living water.” Alfred Edersheim believed the account only makes sense if Jesus did this at, or soon after, the conclusion of the water ceremony. The one men feared to speak of, who they would now try to arrest (John 7:45), had injected Himself into the culminating rite of the feast, because it was, in fact, about Him and the Kingdom of Heaven. He was demanding what was rightfully His. He co-opted the ceremony the religious leaders did not fully understand. The sacrilege was theirs.
John, writing some years later, provided us with our best commentary on the meaning of what Christ’s promise of living waters meant: “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified” (v. 39). After a week of festivities, Jesus had directed the attention of all in the temple to Himself. Despite the standing threats, some ventured to claim Jesus must be Elijah or the Messiah (vv. 40–41, cf. Mal. 4:5–6). When the religious leaders became agitated and prepared to move against Jesus, Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, urged fairness, but was denounced, their minds were already made up that Jesus was not the Messiah (vv. 50–52).
To us, living water is a mere analogy. To those at the Feast of Tabernacles, it was a clear reference to a river of God’s blessing they believed was certain of fulfillment, even if they were not certain how. Jesus said, if you want those blessings to flow and grow into a river no man can ford, believe on me. Two thousand years later, the blessings that flow from Jesus are, indeed, a river that cannot be passed over.
The “Octave” of the Feast
Another tradition at the Feast of Tabernacles was the erection of four huge lampstands in the court of the temple. Each had a basin of oil. The wicks of these lamps were retired priestly garments. Young men, all sons of priests, stood on ladders to keep the basins supplied with oil, so this certainly indicates a rapid burn of a large amount of oil. Women filled the galleries while men crowded into the court. The light from these lamps filled the temple, reflecting off its gold, and the glow from the temple could be seen throughout Jerusalem. This was not a solemn ceremony. Men danced with lighted torches, accompanied by music and singing. Gamaliel I, the teacher of Paul, is said to have been a particularly talented dancer, who threw his torches into the air and caught them while dancing. This was repeated the first six nights of the Feast. It was called “the rejoicing of the drawing of water,” so this tradition3 was obviously referencing the same expectations.
There had been an attempt to seize Jesus in the temple on the seventh day. Men were assigned that job but failed (John 7:44–47). On the “octave,” the eighth day which followed the feast, Jesus again entered the temple. This time, the authorities tried to discredit Him over the woman taken in adultery. Instead, it was they who left, defeated (v. 9).
It was then that Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (v. 12). It is hard not to associate this statement with the ceremony of the lamps. We cannot easily dismiss a “light show” run of six consecutive nights which represented the most spectacular its observers would ever see as the context of our Lord’s words.
Moreover, we should note the context of Christ’s words in the reference to light was in the context of a happy, loud celebration. He was not identifying Himself as a tiny glimmer of light in a sin-darkened world, but as a blinding glow that overpowered and consumed the darkness.
A Massive River and a Blinding Light
The analogy of living water should not be given a pessimistic interpretation, as if Jesus merely gives cool water to parched lips. Ezekiel’s vision was rather of a river that no man could cross that came from the altar. That was the water ceremony, and Jesus gave us water from His altar, Calvary, and, as John clearly notes, that water continues in the work of the Spirit. Indeed, the rivers of living water still increase in depth and breadth.
Jesus as the light of the world is also more than a beacon of hope in the dark. It is the nature of darkness that it must yield to light. Jesus is the light of the world, and, as the Spirit’s work increases to a mighty river, the light that is Jesus Christ is extending in time and history to the entire world.
1. The principle references to the Feast of Tabernacles are in Exod. 23:16; Lev. 23:34–43; Num. 29:12–38; Deut. 26:13–15; 31:10–13; and Neh. 8.
For a discussion of the Feast of Tabernacles, see “Tabernacles, Feast of,” in McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Vol. X, pp. 145–151. Also, Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, Chapter VII.
2. This would contradict the supposition that practices not prescribed by Scripture are forbidden. There is no indication that Jesus frowned on this custom. In fact, His claim to be the source of rivers of living water validated its representation of the reality of God’s promise. He did not condemn the celebration, but only claimed Himself as the source of life.
3. Again, this was extra-Scriptural, but nowhere condemned.