John 9 and the Feast of Tabernacles

Chapter 9 of John’s gospel belongs to a much longer passage that begins in chapter 7. This entire section takes place in and around the temple during the Feast of the Tabernacles, one of the three annual festivals which Jews from throughout the world were supposed to attend. John’s readers, who would have been familiar with the temple rituals associated with the pilgrim festivals, would have seen some things in John’s story that we most likely will miss.

First, during the Feast of Tabernacles water was drawn from the pool of Siloam. The water, according to some sources, was mixed with wine and poured out at the altar to sanctify the temple and to recall the water God provided in the desert during the Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

So John tells us that Jesus stood up at the end of the festival and announced,

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (7:37)

Jesus is the true living water, more central to the life of God’s people than the water drawn from Siloam’s spring, more central even than the water Moses provided in the desert.

Second, a number of giant lamp stands illuminated in the temple during the festival. It was said that they were so powerful that they lit up the entire city of Jerusalem at night.

So John also reports that Jesus proclaimed,

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (8:12)

Jesus is the light of the world, much more so than the lamp stands that illuminated the whole city during the feast.

The God who once was worshiped God in the temple was now present wherever the Christian community gathered to worship Jesus. Everything written in the law and the prophets about the temple, every experience of God’s holy and overwhelming holy presence in the temple courts, all of these found their fulfillment in the worship of Jesus Christ.

This would have been an important message for John’s audience. John wrote in Asia Minor – modern day Turkey – where the gospel of Christ was taking root among diaspora Jewish communities. Even for Jews living outside of Judea, the temple and its rites were central to their faith.

In 70 AD, however, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. It not only was the place where priests offered daily worship to the God of Israel, it was also the place where Jews scattered throughout the world journeyed to participate in the three major festivals that took place every year. I don’t know how often most Jews in Asia Minor were able to visit Jerusalem for the festivals, but I imagine it was more common than we might think. The Apostle Paul, who was born in Asia Minor, certainly had strong ties to Jerusalem before his conversion.

The Jewish Christ-followers to whom John wrote would have been among the pilgrims who made that journey to meet with their God in the house he had established. Yes, you could pray anywhere, but something special happened in the temple. We tend to skip over the seemingly endless chapters in the Bible that describe the temple’s furnishings, priesthood, sacrifices and festivals, but they reveal just how central the temple was to Jewish life.

Second, Jewish followers of Jesus were finding themselves increasingly out of place within their own synagogue communities. The synagogues’ leaders eventually began to expel Christ-followers from the assembly. We see this in John 9, where John’s readers find themselves walking down the same path as the man born blind and his parents.

… if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue … John 9:22

For Jewish Christians, this was a very serious matter. These people were their family. Some of them were their closest friends. They went to school together and played together as children. Throughout their lives, they sat together at the elders’ feet. To survive in a non-Jewish world, they did most of their business with each other.

Jesus sought out the man who had been cast out of the synagogue – the one who had been blind from birth before Jesus opened his eyes – and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” And confessing his faith, the man worshiped. [At least according to the majority of the textual evidence. Verses 38-39a are omitted in some important ancient manuscripts.]

John wrote his gospel partly to open the eyes of Christ-followers to the new reality in which they participated. Yes, the temple in Jerusalem may have been destroyed, but we have a new “temple” – a new locus for worship – in the person of Jesus by the power of the Spirit. And yes, the synagogue to which you and your family have belonged for generations is coming apart, but it is in the assembly where Christ is worshiped that you will find your true spiritual family.