This post ends an examination of John 7, only three verses of which are read in public worship in churches that use the three-year Lectionary, making it a candidate for the ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses.

This chapter revolves around the Feast of Tabernacles, normally a joyous commemoration.  However, for Jesus it proved to be a difficult few days of finding His preaching largely rejected or misunderstood. Previous posts provide the background to this instalment: Jesus’s relations who tell Him to prove Himself in Jerusalem, His teaching at the temple in that great city and the ensuing confusion. Today, we discover what happened on the final day of the feast.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

John 7:40-52

40When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” 41Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” 43So there was a division among the people over him. 44Some 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?” 46The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” 47The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49But 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?” 52They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”

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The setting is the final day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the culmination of the previous week.  Before studying the aforementioned verses, however, here is what is included in the Lectionary, with the exception of the final clause in verse 39:

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. 38Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” 39Now 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.

If the words ‘living water’ sound familiar, recall the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman in John 4:9-15 (emphases mine):

9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

Why does Jesus employ these words again in John 7? During Tabernacles, the Jews gather together with olive branches to praise the Lord in song.  John MacArthur describes the daily ceremony, also performed at the close of the feast:

… at the Feast of Tabernacles there was a commemoration of God’s leading Israel in the wilderness. He commemorated all the wanderings when they dwelt in booths and tents and so forth and so on. And the populace of Israel would move into Jerusalem for this great feast.

… they took literally Leviticus 23 and rightly … which said this, that they were to take the fruit of goodly trees and branches of palm trees and thick boughs of thick trees and they were also to take the willows that grew by the brook and everybody got a branch. And they all marched to the temple with all these branches, they did it every day during the Feast of Tabernacles. And the instruction of the Pharisees when they got to the temple, they took all their branches and they held them out like this and formed a great round roof over the altar. And the altar being there was covered them by the roof of these branches. And at the same time that this was going on, the priest had in his hand a golden pitcher which held about two pints of water. It was empty. And he would go down to the pool of Siloam and he would scoop out two pints of water, fill his pitcher, walk back through what is called the water gate back to the temple and he would carry this water toward all these people who had their branches over the altar. And in the time when he came through the water gate, the people all recited Isaiah 12:3 which says, “With joy shall he draw water from the wells of salvation.” And here he came symbolically with the water.

So, here we have devout Jews who await their promised Messiah.  Yet, many of them have actively rejected Jesus. Jesus (John 7:37) cries out, inviting them to drink freely of Him.  In other words, He asks them to approach in faith and recognise that He is the One whom God has promised.  Jesus is the new well of salvation.

After this ceremony, those assembled would return to their homes, near and far.  Matthew Henry writes:

[1.] To those who had turned a deaf ear to his preaching on the foregoing days of this sacred week; he will try them once more, and, if they will yet hear his voice, they shall live. [2.] To those who perhaps might never have such another offer made them, and therefore were concerned to accept of this; it would be half a year before there would be another feast, and in that time they would many of them be in their graves. Behold now is the accepted time.

The invitation to come and drink indicates that what Jesus offers is the New Covenant, the successor to the old Mosaic covenant. The thirst which He quenches can be construed to mean circumstantial and spiritual.  The use of ‘living water’ ties in with this commemorative religious ritual involving the water of Siloam, which were then the waters of salvation for the Jewish people, their deliverance to the Promised Land.  Now, Jesus takes this further, indicating that He is the means of eternal life, the new salvific waters of Siloam.

Furthermore, with abundant faith, that same water will flow from believers’ hearts.  Our difficulty through the centuries is that we have faith, but more often than not, an insufficient amount to effect Jesus’s words.  MacArthur observes:

We are channeled for living water to reach the world. Out of our hearts should flow rivers, not one river and not a drip. Most of us can’t even say, “Out of my heart drips living water.” I think the reason that so many Christians stink spiritually is because they have become stagnant storage tanks instead of rivers of living water. And I always say most of us need a good dose of spiritual Drano because somewhere along the line the channel is clogged.

Doing a search on ‘living water church’ indicates many houses of worship around the world which carry that name.  The words ‘living water’ have resonance.  Henry explains:

Israel, that believed Moses, drank of the rock that followed them, the streams followed; but believers drink of a rock in them, Christ in them; he is in them a well of living water, ch. 4:14. Provision is made not only for their present satisfaction, but for their continual perpetual comfort. Here is, [1.] Living water, running water, which the Hebrew language calls living, because still in motion. The graces and comforts of the Spirit are compared to living (meaning running) water, because they are the active quickening principles of spiritual life, and the earnests and beginnings of eternal life. See Jer. 2:13. [2.] Rivers of living water, denoting both plenty and constancy. The comfort flows in both plentifully and constantly as a river; strong as a stream to bear down the oppositions of doubts and fears. There is a fulness in Christ of grace for grace. [3.] These flow out of his belly, that is, out of his heart or soul, which is the subject of the Spirit’s working and the seat of his government. There gracious principles are planted; and out of the heart, in which the Spirit dwells, flow the issues of life, Prov. 4:23. There divine comforts are lodged, and the joy that a stranger doth not intermeddle with. He that believes has the witness in himself, 1 Jn. 5:10. Sat lucis intus-Light abounds within. Observe, further, where there are springs of grace and comfort in the soul that will send forth streams: Out of his belly shall flow rivers. First, Grace and comfort will produce good actions, and a holy heart will be seen in a holy life; the tree is known by its fruits, and the fountain by its streams. Secondly, They will communicate themselves for the benefit of others; a good man is a common good. His mouth is a well of life, Prov. 10:11. It is not enough that we drink waters out of our own cistern, that we ourselves take the comfort of the grace given us, but we must let our fountains be dispersed abroad, Prov. 5:15, 16.

Note that at the end of John 7:39, Jesus was ‘not yet glorified’.  This means that He had not yet been crucified, risen from the dead and ascended into Heaven in order to send the Holy Spirit to His faithful to continue His work.

Now, onto today’s passage.  Note in verses 40 and 41 how Jesus’s words strike a chord with some of those gathered on that final day in Jerusalem.  Some, imperfectly, recognise him a true prophet.  Others actually call him ‘the Christ’ — the Lord, in other words.  As we saw last week, questions turn to His earthly origins (verse 42).  Only one of the three groups of adherents — those in verse 41 — believe that He is the Messiah.  Again, the Jews had expected different qualities in their Messiah. They anticipated a great king, a commanding presence. Instead, they see a humble, understated Jesus who walks most places and mingles with everyone.  One can imagine the three groups of people discussing Christ’s identity, possibly in a rather agitated, even mocking, way (verse 43).

MacArthur analyses the situation:

They assumed that Jesus was born in Nazareth. All they had to do was ask and He would have told them He was born in Bethlehem. But, you know, unbelief is smug, isn’t it? It’s always that way. Self-satisfied. Willful, ignorant, unbelief just says, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.” That’s what unbelief always says. And so many people are contrary to Christ and they don’t even want to hear about it, do they? Don’t even bother me with that stuff. They’re smug, self-satisfied. They know it all. They’ve got it all compartmentalized and Jesus doesn’t fit.

And I’ll tell you, we’ve said it every week now for a few weeks, Jesus never commits Himself to unbelief, does He? He doesn’t say… I was born in Bethlehem. He doesn’t say that. Why? Because He never commits Himself to willing unbelief. If a man doesn’t want to know the truth, you know what? He won’t know the truth. And it’s interesting to me that these are religious people because, you know, they knew all about the Scripture but didn’t know anything about what it meant. They knew the Old Testament. Didn’t know who it applied to. A lot of good it did them. So we meet the contrary.

Also, once again, the providential hand of God is at work; some, particularly the Jewish leaders,  wanted to arrest Him, yet no one did (verse 44).

Recall that in John 7:32, the Pharisees sent officers to arrest Jesus.  Now (verse 45), those officers have returned empty-handed. The chief priests and Pharisees are apoplectic that the officers have not followed their instruction.  MacArthur explains the social hierarchy at work:

Now the temple police are just one echelon up from the common people, but that’s a big step, you know. They got a little authority, temple police. Not down there with the cursed common people. They’re a few steps below the chief priests and the Pharisees, but they’re up there. So these guys say to them, “Are you going to go along with the cursed, common people?” See. “Have any of us rulers and us wise leaders believed in Him?” See what they’re doing? They’re appealing to their desire for prestige. They’re appealing to their ego. And they’re appealing to their economic status. See. And, in effect, they’re saying, “We are the ones who decide. The stupid, ignorant, cursed people know zero, we decide.”

The officers respond in verse 46 that they had never heard anyone speak quite like Jesus.  So, whilst they might not have been among the newly-converted that day, there was a commanding, authoritative quality in Jesus’s presence and words which caused them to stand by and do nothing.  Again, God also willed that they do nothing. Did He help them discern the situation?  Henry believes so:

Providence ordered it so that this should be said to them, that it might be a vexation in their sin and an aggravation of their sin. Their own officers, who could not be suspected to be biassed in favour of Christ, are witnesses against them. This testimony of theirs should have made them reflect upon themselves, with this thought, “Do we know what we are doing, when we are hating and persecuting one that speaks so admirably well?”

In verse 47, the Pharisees counter the officers: ‘What, do you also believe this man, this impostor?’ They go further in verse 48, effectively saying, ‘You don’t see us believing what he says, why would you?’ It is an elitist response: ‘Do as we say.  We’ll tell you what and whom to believe.’ We see that today with our political leadership and ‘experts’ who, in soothing tones, tell us not to oppose their wishes.  Institutions are ‘too big to fail’.  Salt is ‘harmful’.  Individualism is ‘bad’.  If Obama doesn’t win, ‘there will be riots’.  Don’t think, just do it.

The same holds true of the Church’s enemies, particularly today, but also throughout history.  Henry reminds us:

Christianity has, from its first rise, been represented to the world as a great cheat upon it, and they that embraced it as men deceived

when the interest of Christ runs low in the world, it is common for its adversaries to represent it as lower than really it is. But it was too true that few, very few, of them did. Note, First, The cause of Christ has seldom had rulers and Pharisees on its side. It needs not secular supports, nor proposes secular advantages, and therefore neither courts nor is courted by the great men of this world. Self-denial and the cross are hard lessons to rulers and Pharisees. Secondly, This has confirmed many in their prejudices against Christ and his gospel, that the rulers and Pharisees have been no friends to them. Shall secular men pretend to be more concerned about spiritual things than spiritual men themselves, or to see further into religion than those who make its study their profession? If rulers and Pharisees do not believe in Christ, they that do believe in him will be the most singular, unfashionable, ungenteel people in the world, and quite out of the way of preferment; thus are people foolishly swayed by external motives in matters of eternal moment, are willing to be damned for fashion-sake, and to go to hell in compliment to the rulers and Pharisees. 

In verse 49, the Jewish leaders reveal the contempt they have for the crowd discussing Jesus, from whatever standpoint. On the one level, they feel threatened by their spiritual subjects whom they consider rabble because they are unrefined, uneducated people.  Yet, often, those are the people who are most open to Jesus’s message.  The same holds true today.  There is no gnosis involved — no special knowledge to be had.  Jesus didn’t come to save a certain class of people, He came to save us all.

Nicodemus makes another appearance.  Remember in John 3 Jesus rebuked this religious leader for being obtuse and stubborn. Since then, Nicodemus has come to believe that Jesus is Lord.  He appeals to his fellow leaders (verses 50 and 51), reminding them that the law of Moses says that no one is to be condemned on prejudices.  He asks them to consider who Jesus is and what He is teaching. Nicodemus meets with a rebuff from his peers who compare him to the Galileans (verse 52), who have been hearing what He has been saying and believing in Him.  Contrast them with the scoffing, hostile Judeans, among whom are the hierarchy in Jerusalem who wish to kill Him.  The hierarchy make the same mistake in not having traced Jesus’s origins back to Bethelehem.  But they do not care.  They just want to see Him gone.

Henry concludes:

They were not willing to hear Nicodemus, because they could not answer him. As soon as they perceived they had one such among them, they saw it was to no purpose to go on with their design, and therefore put off the debate to a more convenient season, when he was absent. Thus the counsel of the Lord is made to stand, in spite of the devices in the hearts of men.

Next week: John 8:1-11