John 7:1-24, Tabernacles and the Hiddenness of Christ

[August 14, 2011] The key to the passage that lies before us and the section that it introduces, namely chapters 7—10, is the meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth), and the Feast of Dedication (Hanukah) that follows two months later (which we will leave aside for now). The Passover was significant when it was mentioned in 2:13 and 6:4; so now it is with the Feast of Tabernacles.

This passage, the one stretching from chapters 7 to 10, corresponds to chapter 5, when Jesus was last in Jerusalem. In 7:21 Jesus says, “I did one work, and you all marvel.” That one work was the healing of the man lying beside the pool of Bethesda. Jesus speaks of it as if there had been no break (chapter 6) and it had just happened. In other words, there is continuity between 5 and 7. This goes along with our observation that 6:16-21 (the crossing of the sea) forms the center of the gospel, and 6:1-15 (the feeding of the five thousand) and 6:22-71 (the Bread of Life discussion) forms a circle around it. The next layer of the horizontal chiasm would be chapter 5 (the healing on the Sabbath) on the one hand and chapters 7—10 (the events pertaining to the Feast of Tabernacles) on the other. Likewise, the healing of the royal officer’s son in 4:43-54 corresponds to the raising of Lazarus, and the Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in 4:4-42 corresponds to the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany in 12:1-11.

The significance of the Sabbath in chapter 5, we found, had to do with more than the day of the week. The story evoked the thirty-eight years of wilderness wandering after the failure in Kadesh-barnea (Deuteronomy 2:14) due to Israel’s hardness of heart and unbelief. The Sabbath signified dwelling in the Promised Land (Psalm 95) which, according to Hebrews 3:7—4:13, remains to be fulfilled. The Sabbath refers to the Kingdom of God which will come when the Son of Man manifests Himself. This Kingdom is anticipated in the life of the church, but we still wait for it to come. (The church is not the Kingdom.)

This interpretation of the Sabbath in chapter 5 corresponds to the meaning of Tabernacles in chapters 7—10, as we shall see.

The Feasts of the Lord

Let us take an overview of the Feasts of Israel. In the first month of the religious calendar are three festivals: the Passover, the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Feast Day of the Sheaf of Firstfruits. They correspond to Israel’s redemption from Egypt, their leaving Egypt, and their crossing the Red Sea. The festivals take place during the early (Spring) rains and the harvest of barley. For us they depict typologically the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. This is followed in the third month by Pentecost, which takes place during the harvest of wheat and corn. It celebrates the giving of the Law at Sinai. For us, it corresponds to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The dry season of the fourth, fifth and sixth months represent Israel’s wilderness wanderings. For us they depict the age of the church, during which both Israel and the church try the Lord with their unbelief and are themselves tried.

In the seventh month are three more festivals. This is during the latter (Fall) rains and the wine and oil (the fruit) harvest. The Blowing of Trumpets (Rosh Hashana) takes place on the first day; the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) takes place on the tenth; and the week-long Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth) takes place from the fifteen to the twenty-first days. What do these signify? For Israel they celebrate Israel’s entrance into and possession of the Promised Land. The exile of Israel from the Land means that they also look forward to when the Messiah comes and restores them to the Land.

The Feast of Tabernacles

The Feast of Tabernacles has great significance both for Israel and the church. It is the time of rain and the final harvest. The rain speaks of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the harvest speaks of both the gathering of Israel and the church at the Lord’s coming. The staying in tabernacles or booths is a time of looking back and rejoicing. According to Jewish tradition, the Shekinah glory (the cloud and pillar of fire) first appeared on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The glory descended on Solomon’s temple on that day. In the time of Jesus, the Feast of Tabernacle thus also celebrated the Illumination of the Temple. People lighted lamps on the evening of the first day of the Feast. The Feast, then, signifies the coming of the Kingdom.

Some would interpret the Feast of Tabernacles as referring to the perfecting of the church at the end of the age, before the Lord’s coming, by a “second” outpouring of the Holy Spirit (this would be the “latter rains”). I do not see this taught in the Bible or evident historically. Movements have always taken place. Whatever is happening in the church in our own day—on a large scale—does not evince anything unprecedented, especially in terms of depth. What is evident is that the purpose of God for the church is fulfilled in the overcomer, the one who is victorious (signified by the palm branches), those whom Joshua and Caleb typify. This has taken place throughout the history of the church. This is the “present” fulfillment of the Feast. In fact, it is only they who will participate in the coming Kingdom as they reign with Christ. They have heard the trumpet call; they have known the depth of the atonement and entered the Holy of Holies; they have known the indwelling Spirit and lived according to it. They will be harvested ahead of the unfaithful believers who will be not be allowed to enter the Wedding Feast (though after a long time of discipline, they too will become “victorious”).

The Hiddenness of Christ (John 7:1-9)

The disciple John when he composed his gospel, did not know what the history of the church would look like, but he did see—and perceive spiritually—the situation with Israel, and the paradoxical presence of the church of Jews and Gentiles (the Messiah’s people) in the midst of Israel among the nations. This situation—though the connection of the church to Israel is hidden—persists to this day.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus’ own who do not receive Him (1:11) are the Judeans (see 4:43-45). In 2:23-25 we saw that Jesus did not entrust Himself to the Judeans even though they were impressed by His signs. In chapter 5 they openly opposed Him and sought to kill Him (verse 16). In chapter 6 He returned to Galilee.

In John’s gospel geography is significant. Jesus is in Galilee at the wedding of Cana, and again in Cana when He heals the king’s man’s son, and again in chapter 6. John does not mention Him being in Galilee again until after the resurrection, in chapter 21. In Galilee people are receptive of Him (though see 6:66), even if they do not believe.

Chapter 7 begins with Jesus in Galilee. It is after the three months of the dry season for the Jew’s Feast of Tabernacles is near. His brothers want Him to manifest Himself to the world, to go to Judea and make Himself known openly, for, John tells us, “not even His brothers believed into Him.” Jesus refuses. “My time has not yet come … [It] has not yet been fulfilled.”

What is the significance of this exchange? On the one hand, since the Judeans were seeking to kill Him (verse 1), He was not going to give Himself into their hands since His hour (hōra)—the hour of His death and glorification—had not yet come. This is true. However, Jesus did not use the word “hour” but “time” (kairos). He may have meant that the right time for His manifestation to the world had not yet come.

Jesus did not manifest Himself to the world. He will not until His Second Advent, when He comes at the end of the age. In other words, His presence in Israel during the time of His First Advent was “hidden,” or “in secret.” He was the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13. In fact, He was more—He is the “I AM.” Yet people saw only the presence of a man, a teacher and healer, whom they could seize and kill. He had “emptied” Himself, and truly was “flesh,” a man among us. His divine nature, which is so important in the Gospel according to John, is hidden. One day it will be manifested to the world, but that time “has not yet been fulfilled.”

The brothers—we may be talking about Jesus’ relatives and not necessarily about James and Jude—because they do not believe, represent the world. They still belong to the world, therefore they are already manifest. Their time is always ready. “The world,” Jesus says to them, “cannot hate you.” Jesus, on the other hand, exposes the world for the evil delusion that it is, and so the world necessarily must hate Him.

The hidden presence of Jesus continues after His resurrection in the church. Whenever the world touches the presence of Jesus in the church it must react by “hating” the church, whether that takes the form of outright persecution or “reinterpretation” (it cannot hear on Jesus’ own terms; it tries to control the terms to render the church innocuous). No matter what, the world cannot afford to be exposed.

The three months of the dry season represents the exile of Israel from the Land of Israel, but it also represents the time of Christ’s “hidden” presence among them and His “hidden” presence in the church among the nations (which is never apart from Israel’s historical presence also among the nations).

Israel’s Unbelief (7:10-13)

After the brothers leave, Jesus goes up to the Feast. But He does so “not openly, but as it were in secret.” What, then, does this signify? In His resurrection, Jesus fulfills the Feast of Tabernacles in Himself. The latter rains are fulfilled in Him; He is the harvest of the oil and wine, the fruit harvest; He is in Himself—in all the wealth that is in Him—the Good Land; He is the Shekinah glory. He becomes all this to us by His death on the cross. Through His death, the life that is within Him is released and He becomes (through the coinherence of the divine hypostases) the Holy Spirit which He imparts to His church. However, this fulfillment is still hidden. It is hidden within the church. All believers receive the Spirit, but most believers only get a glimpse of what they have been given; those who overcome know Christ and the Spirit in this deeper way. However, they too are hidden from the world.

Many in Israel believed, and still do. Most of Israel, at least after the first few centuries, do not—they have been scandalized by the church historically. The god of this world has used the world within the church to blind the eyes of Israel to their Messiah. Be that as it may, He is still their Messiah and He still loves and upholds them.

The questioning in chapter 7 here: “Where is He?” “He is a good man”; “No, rather He leads the crowd astray”: sets forth the confusion of Israel with respect to Jesus. Verse 13 uncovers the underlying fear in which this questioning goes on. There is fear of their authorities, fear of their fellows, fear of their kin. The attitude of the Jews to Jesus, when it is not outright hostility (usually for what has happened historically) is: I won’t believe into Him, but if He is the Messiah we will see.

So, though Jesus knows in Himself the fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Tabernacles continues to be anticipatory for Israel. During the Feast Israel looks back at its wilderness wanderings and celebrates the grace of God that has kept them through all their stubbornness and rebelliousness. It is the grace of God that keeps Israel to this day and will keep them. Inasmuch as they love God and depend on the election of His grace, the Lord Jesus loves them as His own.

The church openly acknowledges who Jesus is (unlike Israel) and yet it strangely seems to have no more faith in Him than Israel has. This is the paradox of our common history. Israel’s exile is the church’s own. The church ought to acknowledge its solidarity with Israel. There are only a few in the church who are faithful, who have ever been faithful, to Christ, in anything like His fullness.

How to Know (7:14-18)

When Jesus began to teach, people were confused. How do we know concerning His teaching, whether it is of God or whether He speaks from Himself?

Jesus says that unless we are resolved to do God’s will, we cannot know. It is not a scholastic, academic or intellectual problem. The more you study the more you will hit a wall or else go in circles. Only the person who is willing to do God’s will, whatever it is, can know God’s will. If we have to know what God’s will is first before we decide whether to do it, then we cannot know God’s will. The willingness has to precede our knowledge. Otherwise we cannot know.

Obviously this kind of knowing is not cognitive; it is spiritual. The condition for knowing is also not cognitive; it is personal. The condition for knowing something in our spirit depends on our relationship to the Person of God, not our cognitive knowledge of God. “He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory.” The person who seeks only the glory of God is the one who will recognize the One “who seeks the glory of Him who sent Him.” Like recognizes like. This person will see that “this One [namely, Jesus] is true, and unrighteousness is not in Him.”

How can we be so like Jesus that we can recognize Jesus? In ourselves we are not aware of God enough to seek only His face. We seek our own glory. Paul answers this in 1 Corinthians 2. “The things of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. But we have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit which is from God.” It is only the Triune God that knows Christ. It is only the Holy Spirit within us that can reveal Christ to us. Jesus told His disciples at the end of the previous chapter in John’s gospel, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”

Those who believe, in Israel and among the nations, are those to whom Christ reveals Himself. We can argue about this, but experientially it boils down to what Jesus says. The Holy Spirit is working within us when we are resolved to do God’s will. This person—the one who is resolved to do God’s will—is the one who will know the truth about Jesus.

Healing and Circumcision (7:19-24)

Jesus flatly accuses those who oppose Him of not keeping the Torah. Just as they oppose the Torah, so they oppose Him and even want to kill Him. They find this incomprehensible. They are even in denial of their hatred of Him. He must have a demon, they say.

Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath (in chapter 5), which according to Jesus did not violate the Sabbath but rather fulfilled it. He compares their circumcising a man on the Sabbath “that the Law of Moses may not be broken” to His making a man entirely well on the Sabbath. These two things correspond to each other. Do not judge by concrete appearance only; judge the righteous judgement, he tells them.

Perhaps Jesus is alluding to the thought in the Torah and Jeremiah that, before their exile can end and the promises of God can be fulfilled, Israel must repent and “circumcise their heart” (read Deuteronomy 30:1-6, etc.). His healing of the man on the Sabbath so that the man can enjoy the Sabbath is like Israel’s need to circumcise its heart that it may end its exile. It brings in the theme of the Day of Atonement (see Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4-5). The Day of Atonement precedes the Feast of Tabernacles that celebrates their entry into the Promised Land. Likewise, when Jesus healed the infirm man, He said to him, “Behold, you have become well; sin no more so that nothing worse happens to you.”

On the cross Jesus circumcised the flesh in its truest sense, cutting off the self-sufficiency of the flesh that was demonstrated by Abraham when he gave up waiting for God to fulfill His promise through Sarah and impregnated Hagar as a way of taking things into his own hands. This “circumcision” is given to those who believe into Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ own abiding presence within them.

Insofar as those who oppose Jesus are not ready to circumcise their hearts, they are also not ready to recognize Jesus. The infirm man was not ready.

Tentative Conclusion

The passage does not break here. It continues. This is how, however, John begins to connect Jesus to the Feast of Tabernacles. Israel (and the church in paradoxical solidarity with Israel) wander in the wilderness of their exile waiting for the Advent (or Second Advent) of the Messiah. The Feast of Tabernacles recalls this wilderness wandering. That is what we have seen in these verses. Before Israel and the church can enter the Kingdom they need to circumcise their heart (repent) so that they are resolved to do God’s will and thus made capable of recognizing Jesus for who He is.

In the meantime, Jesus came to Israel in a “hidden” way and continues to be in the midst of Israel through the church in the Person of the Holy Spirit who dwells in the believers. The Kingdom (the Promised Land) is hidden within the church and is only known to those who “overcome,” who are victorious over the world, the flesh and the devil. Who they are is also something hidden, yet to be revealed.

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