Sermon, May 16, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
We continue this morning with our looking at John chapter 7, which is about the events surrounding the Feast of Booths, and Jesus’s time there. We know that, as Jesus says in this account, that his hour had not yet come for the final confrontation with the Jewish leaders that would lead to the crucifixion, that would come about six months later at the following Passover. But the tension between Jesus and the leaders is increasing, and, as we’ll see in this passage today, there is a lot of confusion over who Jesus was and how he fit or didn’t fit (they thought) the prophesies about the Messiah.
We’re going to look at a rather lengthy bit of text today, the entire rest of the chapter in fact. I thought hard about breaking it up into smaller pieces, but on further reflection, I thought it would be good to consider it as a whole so that we could consider the events, the confusion, the various reactions to Jesus, view them all in a bit more human terms, see it all for the drama that it is. The events we’re about to read about take place immediately after the confrontation we read about last week, when Jesus went up to teach in the temple in the middle of the feast, and the following couple of days to the end of this weeklong feast. And as we looked at last week, in that teaching Jesus called out the religious leaders on their hypocrisy for selective outrage about the Sabbath, and for seeking their own glory. It stung a little bit. And now we get to see the reaction to all of that, among the various groups of people gathered in Jerusalem at the time. So let’s read together John, chapter 7, beginning in verse 25. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
25 Some of the people of Jerusalem therefore said, “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill? 26 And here he is, speaking openly, and they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Christ? 27 But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from.” 28 So Jesus proclaimed, as he taught in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I come from. But I have not come of my own accord. He who sent me is true, and him you do not know. 29 I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me.” 30 So they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. 31 Yet many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?”
32 The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering these things about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him. 33 Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. 34 You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.” 35 The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks? 36 What does he mean by saying, ‘You will seek me and you will not find me,’ and, ‘Where I am you cannot come’?”
37 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. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 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.
40 When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” 43 So there was a division among the people over him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
45 The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” 47 The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” 53 They went each to his own house.
The Word of the Lord.
Like I said, this is a lengthy text, and there is a lot going on, but I think that we will find our central theme in the middle of the text, in verses 37 to 39, and thinking about the truth in that will help us understand what else is going on at the feast.
Like I said, there were various groups of people, and all reacting differently, there is a lot of confusion, because Jesus’s words and teaching were being heard by many different ears. Think of the drama here. There has for months been a lot of thinking about the Messiah. There’s been a lot of Messiah fever because there are at least some people who think that perhaps Jesus is. Way back at the beginning of this gospel, one of the first things that happened was a delegation of Jews from Jerusalem going to find out if John the Baptist was maybe a Messiah candidate. Remember, they’ve been keeping themselves up to date on the prophesies so that they can recognize him when he comes.
So our first reacting characters are, we read, some of the “people of Jerusalem.” So these are not the pilgrims from elsewhere that are at the feast, these are people who live in Jerusalem, but not the religious elites. We read later on in this text that there is a clear pecking order among types of people in Israel, as we hear the Pharisees so arrogantly denounce the Galileans as being lesser than. At the top are the religious leaders, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Levite priests, the ones who would have known the law and the prophets the best. They are the ones who were so worried in the previous passage that Jesus had not gone to their rabbinical schools before teaching. At the bottom of people here at the feast would be the ones who had come to the feast from distant places like Galilee, the Pharisees refer to them as “rabble” or “riffraff” in verse 49.
And then somewhere in the middle would be the ordinary citizens of Jerusalem. They aren’t religious leaders, but they do reside in the capital. They clearly know more than the average pilgrim about the plans of the religious leaders because they live there in Jerusalem. That’s just like we know the intentions or plans, or possible things being discussed by the Casper city council, stuff that’s going through the grapevine, we know that more than a person who comes up from Cheyenne for a few days twice a year. They know the plans of the local government. They also might be, living in Jerusalem, more well-versed in Messiah prophesy than your average Jew. We can see this in human terms. And these Jerusalem citizens are surprised and confused by several things, they say
“Is not this the man whom they seek to kill? 26 And here he is, speaking openly, and they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Christ? 27 But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from.”
Three things they say here about Jesus that aren’t jiving with what was supposed to be happening. Hey, isn’t this the man they were planning to kill when he got to town, why is he teaching and they aren’t doing anything? He has a death sentence on his head, a warrant out for his arrest and no one is doing anything. The second thing they say is to offer a possible explanation for why they might not be acting, which is that maybe now they actually think he’s the Messiah. They were going to kill him, but then he came, they see and hear him, and now they’re not so sure. And thirdly, they cast doubt on the idea that the leaders could have possibly been duped by this guy, because they know some prophesy that suggests that when the Messiah appears, no one will know where he comes from. Weighing all the prophesies and some passages in the Apocrypha, that was the opinion of some, that the Messiah would appear out of nowhere, and others thought that it was clear he’d come from Bethlehem. And because they thought Jesus was from Galilee and not Bethlehem, he actually didn’t fit either of those prophesies in their minds. So it can’t be true. So the people of Jerusalem are confused.
Jesus responds. He doesn’t actually attack their prophesy arguments, he just says “you know where I’m from, I’m from the Father.” Think bigger, trust my words, all will become clear, but for now trust me. And after he says this, the situation really doesn’t change much, they are still seeking to arrest him, but aren’t acting on it yet, the confused people are confused, and there are some that believe, verse 31:
31 Yet many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?”
They say, basically, what more are you waiting for, people? Look at the signs, are you really going to wait for a Messiah to come that’s going to do more than we’ve already seen? It’s like an investor that waits and waits and waits for the perfect time to make an investment, that investor will never invest, at some point someone investing in something is going to have to take a leap of faith and do it. So too here with someone investing in Jesus, in actually believing that he’s the Messiah. At some point the confused people need to admit that they don’t understand everything and trust that Jesus is who he says he is. But right now they trust their understanding of the scriptures more than the words of Jesus, who is right in front of them. The people who believe are believing based at least partly because they saw signs, but we read that they did believe.
All of this troubles the Pharisees, and it’s finally time to take action. And it says that they sent officers to arrest him. And then Jesus says something else to them that is perplexing. He says I’m going where you can’t find me, and I’m going to a place you cannot come. What Jesus says is perplexing, admittedly. John writes this decades after it actually happened, and so we know and it is quite obvious that Jesus is talking about the Ascension, when he finally completes his earthly work and returns to the Father. How many sayings of Jesus have we already encountered in this gospel where Jesus is talking about something bigger, a deeper truth, something beyond, and his hearers take it literally? Here he does again. So they are again confused, they think he might be talking about leaving Palestine and going to teach the Jews that are dispersed outside of Israel, in Greece and other places, when he’s really talking about going back to heaven. If they would only hear, he’s already told them that he’s come down from heaven and he will return. They didn’t believe him then, and they don’t connect the dots now.
And then we come to the central verses of this long passage, verses 37-39, Jesus’s closing remarks to the people gathered at the feast. He makes a very public proclamation to the crowds:
37 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. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
And just in case we missed it, John makes sure to clarify immediately with verse 39:
39 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.
We will deal with Christ’s words in a bit, but first look at the reaction. The feast is reaching its dramatic conclusion as all these sets of people grapple with who Jesus is. There are various reactions in the minds of the people who hear what Jesus says here. We read that some believe, after he says this, that he is the Prophet promised by Moses. Some say that he is the Christ. He is actually both of those things, but some thought that it would be different people. Some are still confused about the birthplace issue, because they don’t realize that he actually is of the line of David, that he was born in Bethlehem, that he does fulfill those prophesies. And so people are believing various things about him, they are divided, some want to arrest him, but still no one does.
Imagine that scene, Jesus making this proclamation and then all of these various and conflicting views being muttered about among the people. Some are merely confused, but some of them are seething, can’t wait for this imposter to be arrested and killed, because they do not believe. Meanwhile, the officers that the Pharisees sent to arrest Jesus, the ones we read about earlier in the passage, they return back to the Pharisees, not having done their job. And the Pharisees are not happy about it.
45 The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!”
Now these temple officers would have been no theological slouches. They were Levites, would have been well instructed on matters of religion, so when they heard the words of Jesus, they did so with discerning ears. I was thinking about our military once years ago, and thinking about how they are trained. I was thinking of drill sergeants and all of that. In a way it seems a little crazy, but in many ways, soldiers are trained not to think, only to do. They have orders, and they carry them out with great efficiency, precision, and professionalism in almost every case. But for the most part, the soldiers are not told to think. That seemed a little weird to me, but then I realized how important that is, because the military, as a complex unit, works best when there is a cohesive strategy being executed in the entire force. And the soldiers who are supposed to think, the ones who decide strategy and make decisions that become the orders, they may be 7 or 8 levels of people away from the person who will actually do the thing that needs to be done. And that general needs to know that the order will make it quickly from the decision to the doing without it being questioned or reconsidered, only done. That’s how the military is strongest.
So what have these temple officers done? They went against their training for sure. They were meant to carry out the wishes of the Pharisees with respect to arresting Jesus. But what did they do? They went, and they listened, they thought about what they were hearing. And they don’t arrest him, returning to the Pharisees. How do the Pharisees feel about this? They were already mad enough about this whole Jesus situation to risk potential political fallout by having him arrested, and now the soldiers have disobeyed.
47 The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.”
They appeal to the fact that none of the Pharisees have believed, none of the authorities. And then they say that the people who are impressed with Jesus—it’s translated as “crowd that does not know the law,” but it’s more condescending than that, it literally means “people of the soil”—these people are stupid, unlearned, so don’t be deceived by them.
Then Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, enters the scene again, it’s been a while since we’ve seen him. He doesn’t come out and say that he believes or anything, but he at least throws a little caution to the seething Pharisees and says hey, should we listen to what Jesus is actually saying before we get so completely worked up? And they respond to Nicodemus with vitriol, condescendingly asking him if he is “from Galilee,” if he is no better than riffraff himself. We have some experience with this, it feels like the typical level of political discourse in America today—all reaction, no listening, ad hominem attacks—“Hey should we at least listen to what he has to say and then pass judgement?” “No, we shouldn’t, and you’re stupid too.” Quite a scene this all is.
So it took a little while, but I think now we have a bit more accurate of a picture in our minds of the level of confusion, murmuring, mumbling, hatred bubbling under the surface, hatred boiling over and becoming active. And it doesn’t entirely make sense, because if all of the people in this scene would really listen to Jesus, really examine who he is and what he’s done, really look at the prophesies, they would know that he is the promised Messiah. It’s so obvious. It’s so simple.
But like I said at the outset, it all comes back to the central verses of this passage, what Jesus cried out 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. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
Water. Jesus has already referred to himself as living water when evangelizing the Samaritan woman, and here he talks of living water again. And now there is a more specific tie to what the Jews were celebrating, the Feast of Booths. This feast was specifically a celebration of the Israelites being miraculously sustained in the wilderness, first with manna, but then also with water from the rock. Numbers 20:
Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.
And at the Feast of Booths there is a specific ceremony every day where the priests pour out water for two reasons, to commemorate the giving of water at the rock, and to look forward to the Spirit being poured out on the whole earth during the Messianic age. There are so many references to living water in the Old Testament, and it being poured out, but you heard earlier from Ezekiel, that was the one of many that I chose. The water flows out of the temple into a huge river and into the sea and heals and multiplies everything:
And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes.
…its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. 12 And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Living water was in the minds of the Jewish people, this is another crystal clear image of Jesus pointing directly to himself, saying “I am the source of living water,” and this water, which is the Spirit, will flow from Jesus into all of the believers. There is a lot of discussion about whether this passage says that the water flows out of Jesus or out of the believer, who that “he” is, but for our purposes for this point it is not worth going into. The point is that that when we come and drink of Jesus, we receive the Spirit. And that Spirit flows in us and through us and out of us to call the church home.
And it is what we know about the Spirit that makes this scene not seem so crazy—it should be obvious to everyone in this situation that they are in the presence of the Messiah, but they don’t see it—the scene makes sense because of what Jesus said about the Spirit the last time he brought it up, in chapter 3 talking with Nicodemus:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
And the next thing that Jesus says to Nicodemus, about the Spirit:
8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Lack of understanding is everywhere in this passage. The Pharisees don’t understand, the citizens of Jerusalem don’t give up their poor interpretations of prophesy, they don’t understand because they simply do not have the Spirit of God in them. Their eyes are not open, their ears are still plugged, they may be walking around, but they are spiritually dead. They cannot see because they have no life in them, they are in their natural state, hostile to everything of God.
And furthermore we are reminded that faith, all faith, is a work of God, a gift. It’s not something we achieve, it isn’t something that we work toward, the Spirit is something that comes to us and grabs us. Jesus calls, says that you must come to him and drink of the living water, and those who the Spirit is working in will come and do exactly that, because it is an act of obedience to the inward call of the Spirit. All of this confusion swirling around Jesus in this passage, they were all confused and angry because they were not believers. Some would become believers, Nicodemus doesn’t seem to be there yet, but he’s on his way. He appears one more time in chapter 19 bringing spices to bury Jesus in the tomb.
So as we remind ourselves often, there are ultimately only two kinds of people in the world, those who drink of the living water, and those who drink only the water of the earth. Those who eat the living bread and those who only eat the bread of the earth. And Jesus has already talked about that. Your fathers at the bread in the wilderness, and they died. Even miraculous bread was still just bread.
So it is in our lives. Are we content to drink the water of the world, or are we drinking at the fountain that gives life? What is the bread of the world? Money, pleasure, fame, whatever makes you happy. Paul said it well in 1 Corinthians—if there is no resurrection, then let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die! If this is all there is, if this life is all that there is, then we have no reason for being anything but completely self-centered. The fact that we as people aren’t completely and always self-centered is actually an excellent argument for the existence of God, one that C. S. Lewis makes brilliantly in Mere Christianity.
In this book, Jesus offers us so much more, just like he told Nicodemus chapters ago, he says I’m not here to fix your life, I’m here to rebirth you into something completely new. Drink the living water, receive the Spirit, and become a new creation. Think bigger, right? The theme of the book of John. You want to be fixed, but I’m going to make you into something else. You want a warrior Messiah that frees you from the Romans, but I’m fighting the real enemy, sin, death, and the devil. You want water to drink so that you aren’t thirsty, I’ll give you water that heals your soul.
We have to remember that God’s plans for us are so much bigger than our own plans for us. This is the big problem with pop-psychology preaching and “live your best life now,” all of that prosperity preaching. The prosperity preaching is Our plans + Jesus = Happiness. But that equation doesn’t work, human, earthly plans + anything = death and destruction. The Christian equation is Me + Jesus + The Will of the Father = Eternal Glory. Notice that that equation has no “my plans” part to it. Not my will but yours be done, do we really mean it. When I become a Christian, my plans disappear.
I was reminded of this powerfully when we were hiring our Administrator for the Christian school. When we first interviewed Mark Earwood for the job, it became very clear to us almost immediately that he was the perfect person for our needs, and we immediately shifted from “is he the right fit,” to “how do we get someone like this to take a chance on us.” How do we get him to move away from family, to a new place, to a school that doesn’t even exist yet? And in response to the “why would you want to come here,” he always said, “I’m God’s employee, I will go where I am led.” Not my plans, Lord, show me where I can be of most use to the Kingdom. The image of drinking of Jesus and having the Spirit wash away not only our sins but also our plans, it’s beautiful.
So what is your life, what of each of us here? Have we fallen down on our knees and truly handed over our whole lives to Jesus? If you’ve never believed, now is the time, there’s no time to waste, repent and trust in Jesus to save you from your sin, and you will drink of the living water, and once you start, you can’t stop. But even for those of us who drunk long ago, for the rest of our lives the old man still wants to distract us, get us to focus on the water of the earth, the food of this life.
For about two months now the overarching metaphor from Jesus has been about food and drink, has it not? We’re about to leave that now, all the food metaphors, so we need to ask ourselves all of these questions Jesus has been asking. We have the living water, do we drink of it deeply or just sip it from time to time? We have the bread of life, do we feed on it until we can eat no more? Is it really our food to do the will of the Father? We should reflect on that continually – are we living as if our lives have one purpose, or just another purpose added on to our purpose, even if that added one (the God one) is really really good!
It’s no wonder that Jesus left us a sign that was a meal, so that he can remind us, constantly, as he says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Let us feed only on this bread, and not our own, drink of this cup, and not our own, and through Jesus, out of us and to others will flow streams of living water. That’s a promise. Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Give us this mind always, to see our lives with a single purpose, that of following and serving you, using the time and treasure that we have left to pour out praise upon you and spread your gospel. Fill us all with the Spirit today and every day as we seek to do your will. Give us clarity of mind and of purpose going forward, and never let waver our zeal for you and your law. In the mighty name of the one and only who saves, your Son, Jesus Christ, amen.