John (Part 21): Festival of Tabernacles (ch 7)
John chapter 7 begins a new section: Jesus as Light. It runs through chapter 10 verse 21. At this point, we have moved along far enough to take a backwards look to recognize how John is organizing his discussion. “Jesus as Light” is the fourth of the major sections following the prologue (1:1-18). The first section, called “Jesus as Replacement,” gave us several examples of Jesus replacing (or, better, fulfilling) certain ideas and types of old covenant revelation. It began with John the Baptist remarking that his baptism of water would be replaced by Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit. The gathering of the disciples toward the end of chapter 1 shows Jesus as the replacement for Jacob (Israel). The water changed to wine at the Cana wedding provides a picture of life replaced by abundant life in Jesus. At the cleansing-the-temple scene, Jesus announces that he is the new temple. Nicodemus learns, in chapter 3, that the physical birth (in Adam) must give way to a spiritual birth (in Christ). And finally, John the Baptist, representing old testament prophetic revelation, steps aside for the full, ultimate revelation of Jesus.
As mentioned, we notice in all these replacement/fulfillments a putting aside of the incomplete (but directionally important) old covenant pictures and progress as they are found to be fulfilled in Jesus. But that concept doesn’t end with the first section. John keeps the same pattern, but with more detailed focus, as he moves through the next sections. With Jesus as Living Water, we found Jesus explaining the satisfaction of need in him so that worship of God (in trust, satisfaction, and rest) is spiritually accomplished through him. In Jesus as Bread of Life, we read of life—relationship with God—attained through complete dependence on Jesus—a taking in as it were of eating bread for physical life. Now we are to see Jesus as Light, pictured in the old covenant as the pillar of fire that led the Israelites, but promoting the idea of God’s ever present provision.
Some Christians seem to want to put the Old Testament aside because, after all, we live in light of the full revelation of the New Testament Christ. But, as John is pointing out through his discussion so far, a full understanding of who Christ is and what he did comes from a full understanding of the OT background that pictured him through type and figure and symbol and allegory. To ignore the OT support can result only in an incomplete understanding of the New Testament. We need to know about the different sacrifices pictured. We need to understand the purposes for the feasts. All of that informs our comprehension of the presentation of the Gospels. The next and last major section following our upcoming one of Light is Jesus as Life. The Bread of Life section has Jesus bringing us to relationship with God; the Life section shows Jesus as our relationship with God.
Another interesting construct is that just as the tabernacle in Israel’s midst provided developmental revelation toward covenant relationship with God, the sections of Jesus as water, bread, and light provide those same developmental steps. The Tabernacle included the laver (water), the table of showbread (bread), and the seven-candled menorah (light). Therefore, John has a heavy emphasis on OT revelation—especially through the Mosaic development—as he brings the revelation of Jesus into focus. In fact, we have seen over and over that John is presenting Jesus as the new and improved Moses who has come to lead God’s people. Let’s look at how John sets this up.
First, John begins his Gospel just as Moses began his writings, with “In the beginning ….” In the first two chapters of Moses’ Genesis, he moves through a 7-day progression to arrive at the Rest of God—the Sabbath. The first two chapters of John’s Gospel also cover a 7-day progression to culminate in the Rest of God pictured in the wedding scene and illustrated both by the marriage itself and the water-to-wine imagery.
John emphasizes in his Prologue (1:17) that “the law was given through Moses, [but] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Notice this comparison carefully. It is showing similarity and contrast intentionally to illustrate that Moses had indeed been a type of Christ, but Jesus moves on and beyond in fuller reflection, revelation, and satisfaction. Of course, we quickly note the contrast of Law to Grace and Truth. It is not that there was no grace or truth in the law. It is that the law was meant to lead toward a fuller understanding of God’s grace and truth. But the real contrast that leads toward most of the book’s additional comparisons comes in the verbs used. The Law was given through Moses. Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ. The usage hints of Moses as the messenger delivering his message from God. Jesus (the Logos, the Word made flesh) comes as the message itself.
In John 1:45 we read, “Phillip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law (and so did the prophets): Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth!’” Here we see that distinction between messenger and message. Moses, the messenger, wrote of the message—Jesus. Continuing, John 3:14 provides the same kind of contrast. We read, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” Again, Moses is the messenger, doing the lifting. However, Jesus is the message being lifted up.
In his Sabbath discussion with the antagonistic Jews, Jesus faults them by referring to Moses. He says in John 4:46-47, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, because he wrote about Me. But if you don’t believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” And in John 6:32, speaking to the crowd that ate the bread, Jesus tells them, “I assure you: Moses didn’t give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the real bread from heaven.” Here again Moses is the messenger delivering the bread from God, while Jesus is the message—the bread itself.
In the Jesus as Light section that we are coming to, John continues this developmental contrast between Moses and Jesus. Jesus says in John 7:19 and then in verses 22 and 23, “Didn’t Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law! … Consider this: Moses has given you circumcision – not that it comes from Moses but from the fathers – and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses won’t be broken, are you angry at Me because I made a man entirely well on the Sabbath?” We will be discussing this verse in more detail later, but right now notice that it carries the same kind of progressive contrast as the others. Jesus implies that his work goes beyond the instruction of Moses. As the Jews bring the adulterous to Jesus in chapter 8, they set up the same contrast as they ask in verse 5, “In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say?”
Finally, in John 9:28-29 we see the distinction again: “They [the Pharisees] ridiculed him: ‘You’re that man’s disciple, but we’re Moses’ disciples. We know that God has spoken to Moses. But this man—we don’t know where he’s from!”
Thus, John shows us over and over this comparison with Moses and God’s previous revelation finding explosive carried-forward purpose fulfillment in Jesus. It is with that background understanding that we continue in our study.
As we approach John’s section on light, we should recognize that light is used to image revelation and understanding. John tells us in 20:30 that his purpose for the whole book is “that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in his name.” This is light. This is understanding. This is the fulfilling revelation of God’s Word made flesh.
In the Prologue we had read that the true light was coming into the world (1:4-9). John says they “observed His glory” (1:14), ending the prologue by stating that the God “has revealed Him” (1:18).
In chapter 7 John sets up the backdrop as the Feast or Festival of Tabernacles. So, before we start discussing chapter 7, we should understand a bit about this feast. This was the last of the year’s seven major feasts described in the Levitical law. Three of the feasts were considered spring feasts—those that occurred in the month of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew year. Passover was a one-day event on the 14th of Nisan. It was followed immediately by the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which ran for 7 days. The first day following the weekly Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread was the Feast of Firstfruits. Pentecost was also technically a spring feast, although it occurred seven weeks following the Feast of Firstfruits. It celebrated the full grain harvest.
The fall feasts included Trumpets on Tishri 1, Day of Atonement on Tishri 10, and Tabernacles (or Booths) for eight days starting on Tishri 15. Trumpets announced the end of the harvest. The Day of Atonement was a time to look back on the harvest, see God’s faithfulness in provision, but recognize their own unfaithfulness in trust. It was a time of self-denial and humility as sin offerings were made for their unfaithfulness. But five days later was the last of the seven feasts for the harvest year. The Feast of Tabernacles was a time of joy celebrating, as all fall festivals do, the completion of harvest for another year.
Each of the seven feasts related specifically to the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land.
Passover – This event recalled the night of eating the Passover Lamb and placing its blood on the lintel and doorposts of the home so that the Angel of Death would pass over.
Unleavened Bread – Bread made with leaven requires a waiting period as the bread rises. Unleavened bread could be made quickly. God ordered to be made in anticipation of their quick departure from Egypt.
Firstfruits – The Israelites managed their escape from Egypt through the Red Sea as God miraculously opened a dry path for them. When the Egyptian army tried to follow, the sea crashed back drowning them.
Pentecost – Seven weeks after their escape, the children of Israel were camped at the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses received the Law from God at this time.
Trumpets – The Feast of Trumpets commemorated crossing into the Promised Land ending their journey and announcing their arrival.
Day of Atonement – On this reflective day, the Israelites recognized their failures to keep covenant relationship through their journey although God had remained faithful.
Tabernacles – Throughout the journey they lived in temporary shelters—booths or tabernacles. But God dwelled with them through their journey in the Tabernacle and was with them as they came into the Promised Land. This Tabernacle was evidence of God’s presence—Immanuel: “God with us.”
Besides these events that gave birth to each of these feasts, the festivals hold specific symbolic meaning for our New Covenant realization in Christ.
Passover – This is, of course, related to the death of Jesus on the cross by which we gained redemption – our freedom from sin.
Unleavened Bread – This illustrates both the fact that Jesus was unblemished with sin, qualifying him to be a sin sacrifice, and the fact that through his sacrifice the guilt for our sin has been removed.
Firstfruits – We celebrate the resurrection three days after Christ’s Passover death, recognizing Jesus as the firstfruits of restored covenant relationship with God.
Pentecost – As the Israelites received the Law 7 weeks after their escape from Egypt, God’s New Covenant people received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ.
Trumpets – The final three feasts are still anticipated by New Covenant Christians. We await the last trump when Christ returns, ending our journey here.
Day of Atonement – As the Book of Life is opened, we, in humility, find our life secured in Christ by his faithfulness.
Tabernacles – The journey over, we joy in the Zion realization of new heaven and new earth without sin and forever always in love relationship dwelling with our God.
As a further demonstration of God’s intricate and miraculous coordination of all events in his guidance and preparing for ultimate realization of redemption, let’s take an even more in-depth look into his planning through some of these feasts. Note the following chart.
Let’s begin with the Passover – Crucifixion connection. The rest of our chart builds off that. The first month of the Jewish year was Nisan (established by God at the time of the exodus). On Nisan 14, Passover occurred. The Bible tells us that the very night of the Passover, Pharaoh ordered them to get up and get out. The Israelites, already prepared to leave by the previous direction of God, camped together at Succoth that first night. During the Passion Week of Jesus life, he was crucified on Passover, Nisan 14, which based on the calculation from the Gospel of Mark, was on a Thursday. Because the Jewish day began at evening, the Passover supper of the Exodus was Wednesday night after sundown.
The first day of Unleavened Bread begins on Nisan 15, the day immediately after the Passover. The Bible tells us that the Israelites moved from Succoth to Etham (Ex 13:20). This was Thursday evening (start of day of Nisan 15) of Passion Week, and Jesus was in the tomb.
The second day of Unleavened Bread was Nisan 16. In the exodus, the Israelites moved from Etham to Pi-hahiroth during the day of Nisan 15 to camp at Pi-hahiroth as Nisan 16 began (in the evening). This was Friday night of the Passion Week. Jesus was still in the tomb.
Pharaoh and his army had the Israelites boxed in against the Red Sea. God miraculously opened the sea so that the Israelites escaped through the sea through the evening and night, which began Nisan 17. In the morning (still Nisan 17), Pharaoh’s army attempted to cross the sea through the path but was swallowed up as God returned the sea to its natural course. This sealed the victory of escape for the Israelites. And for Jesus, this was Sunday morning, as his victory over sin and death was revealed in his resurrection.
The Bible says that the children of Israel traveled three days without water (Ex 15:22). Finally, they came to a spring at Marah, but could not drink of it because it was bitter or poisonous. They grumbled because of this. Moses interceded with God and God purified the water so they could drink. And then they came to Elim at which were an abundance of springs. Although exact dates in the days after Christ’s resurrection are not given, the one event we are told of in John 20 is Thomas’ lack of faith (just as the Israelites lacked faith in their grumbling for water). Thomas is satisfied as the Israelites were.
And finally, seven weeks later, the Israelites are at Mt. Sinai where Moses receives the Law. Seven weeks after Christ’s resurrection, at Pentecost, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ ministry lasted three and a half years. (We understand that from Daniel’s 70 Weeks [or 70 periods of 7 years] and the fact that the Messiah was cut off in the middle of the 70th week [Daniel 9:26-27]). Backing up 3.5 years (1278 days) from the triumphal entry brings us to Tishri 1. So, then, Christ began his ministry – at his baptism as God proclaimed him as his beloved Son and called on everyone to hear him – on the Day of Trumpets in that year.
Continuing on in the count of days of ministry, we find that the Feast of Unleavened Bread ended on the 1290th day following the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Since unleavened bread symbolized the sinlessness of Christ in his sacrifice, the end of the feast, corresponding with Thomas’ unbelief-turned-to-faith cry of “My Lord and my God!” is significant as the timing of all disciples believing in the risen Lord. This 1290th day we find prophesied in Daniel 12:11. There it says that from the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1290 days.
When was the daily sacrifice abolished? I contend that it occurred at the baptism of Jesus. Here’s why. Exodus 29:38-42 discusses the daily sacrifice. It was to be an offering given “regularly on the altar every day” (Ex 29:38). And the purpose was so that God “will meet you to speak to you” (Ex 29:42). Now, at the baptism, John the Baptist declares, “Look! The Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:35b). Also, John writes in his prologue, “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (Jn 1:14). Additionally, Jesus says, “For I have not spoken on My own, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a command as to what I should say and what I should speak” (Jn 12:49). So, we have purpose of the daily sacrifice to be a sacrifice in which God meets with his people and speaks to his people. Jesus is declared a sacrifice (“Lamb of God”) who will meet with his people (“took up residence”) and speak to his people (“Father…has given…what I should speak”).
So then exactly 1290 days following the beginning of Jesus ministry when the daily sacrifice should have been abolished, the Feast of Unleavened Bread ends, with its significance of demonstrating the sinlessness of Christ and concluding in Thomas’s declaration that he is Lord and God. Daniel 12:12 continues with the angel’s words to Daniel, saying, “The one who waits for and reaches 1,335 days is blessed.” Well, what happened exactly 45 days following the end of Unleavened Bread on day 1290? Pentecost happened. The Holy Spirit was given to all Jesus’ disciples in the upper room. That was day 1335, and it was a day of great blessing indeed.
So, we see that God’s entwining and faithful activity interweaves throughout his progressive revelation of history to accomplish his Zion purpose of redemption.
The backdrop of John 7 is the Festival of Tabernacles. We learn several things about this festival from Leviticus 23:33-36; 39-43; Numbers 29:12-39; and Deuteronomy 16:13-17. We learn that the purpose for the feast was to remember the journey of the Israelites. This was one of three festivals (the others being Unleavened Bread and Pentecost) when the Jews were all supposed to gather in Jerusalem. They all built small booths or tabernacles simulating the ones they used on the journey. Therefore, the landscape was dotted with these structures—on rooftops, in streets, and on the hillsides around Jerusalem. They had to live in these structures for the 8 days of the feast.
But it was not merely a remembrance of the hardship. It was a remembrance from the perspective of arriving safely. It was a joyful celebration of God’s provision and presence with them throughout their journey. God delivered them to his Promised Land. So, it was a time of gratefulness and joy.
One theme during the festival was demonstrated particularly with a libation—a drink offering. Normally drink offerings were wine (Ex 29:40; Nu 28:7). Sometimes they were water—but living water from a spring. During the Festival of Tabernacles, each day a priest would go down to the Pool of Siloam, south of the Temple, and bring back a jar of the spring water. He would then pour this out as a drink offering on the altar at the same time another priest would pour out a jar of wine also on the altar. The point of these drink offerings were in symbolic relation to God’s spirit with them and God’s provision for them. The priest would quote Isaiah 12:3-4 at the time: “You will joyfully draw water from the springs of salvation. And on that day you will say: ‘Give thanks to Yahweh; proclaim His name!’”
The Jews saw this Festival as God’s completing victory in brining them safely to the Promised Land, but they also saw it as looking forward to when God would raise Israel to the preeminent position in the world. So the water and wine poured out gave thought to the fulfillment of passages such as Isaiah 44:3, Zechariah 13:1; 14:8; and Ezekiel 47:1-12.
But this picture of the wine and water symbolizing life and Spirit to the world was actually brought in focus in John 19:34 when the soldier thrust his spear into the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross, and blood and water poured out. In that picture we see the true significance of life and Spirit to the world.