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Note of the Day – May 28 (John 7:37-39)

John 7:37-39

Today’s note will examine the declaration by Jesus in Jn 7:37-38, part of the great discourse-scene set in Jerusalem during the festival of Sukkoth (Booths/Tabernacles). At the very least, this episode spans all of chapter seven, through verse 52; however, many commentators, based on the view that 7:53-8:11 is an interpolation, would join 8:12-59 as part of the same discourse-scene. If this is correct, then the entirety of chapters 7-8 (excluding 7:53-8:11) is set during, or at the time of, the festival. According to ancient tradition (cf. Exod 23:14-19; Lev 23:33-36ff; Num 29:12-38), the harvest festival of Sukkoth was celebrated over 7 days (Tishri 15-22), beginning and ending with a special Sabbath. Later Jewish and Rabbinic tradition records a number of rituals and customs, some form of which could conceivably have been in practice in Jesus’ time, and which may be reflected in the discourse.

The structure of chapters 7-8 is extremely complex—with discourses and isolated sayings (or blocks of teaching) by Jesus alternating between reports of the people’s reaction to him (vv. 25-27, 30-32, 40-44; cf. also 8:20, 30, 59). These reaction passages contain two elements: (1) question as to Jesus’ possible identity as the Messiah, and (2) attempts to arrest and/or kill him. At the center of the discourse-scene are two statements by Jesus, relating to key motifs associated with the traditional Sukkoth ceremonies:

  1. 7:37ff—Water: Jesus identifies himself as the source of Living Water
  2. 8:12Light: Jesus identifies himself as (the source of) the Light of Life

An extended reaction episode (7:40-52) is set in between. I will be discussing the first of these sayings today.

Verse 37

“In the last great day of the festival, Yeshua stood and cried (out), saying ‘If any (one) should thirst, he must [i.e. let him] come [toward me] and drink'”

The setting is the final (7th) day of the Sukkoth festival, commemorated as a special Sabbath day; the importance of this celebration is indicated by the adjective “great” (e&sxato$). The motif of water is especially significant, since Sukkoth was a harvest festival which traditionally included a prayer for rain, as a sign that there would be a good crop in the coming year. The Mishnah tractate Sukkah records additional ceremonies involving water-offerings (cf. TDNT 4:281-2; Brown, pp. 326-7). Each morning a ceremonial procession would draw water (in a golden pitcher) from the Gihon spring, and, accompanied by worship and signing (including a recitation of Isa 12:3), would bring it into the Temple, circling the altar and pouring the water into a funnel where it would flow to the ground. On the seventh (last) day, the procession would circle the altar seven times.

The language used of Jesus in v. 37 (“he stood and cried [out]”) seems to echo Wisdom traditions—e.g., Prov 1:20-21ff; 8:1-4; 9:3-5. The call to come and drink of wisdom—with wisdom symbolized by water—is relatively frequent (cf. below on Prov 5:15; 9:5, etc). In the context of the Johannine discourses, Jesus’ call is a clear reflection of his earlier dialogue with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. There, too, he invites the woman to drink from the water which he gives (vv. 10ff). Similarly, in the Bread of Life discourse of chap. 6, where Jesus presents himself as “bread” from heaven, the theme of eating this bread is joined with drinking (v. 35, and the eucharistic language of vv. 51-58). Jesus’ statement in 4:13-14 is perhaps closest to his words here in v. 37:

“Every one drinking out of this water [i.e. ordinary water from the well] will thirst again, but whoever should drink out of the water which I will give him, he will not ever thirst (again) into the Age…”

Note also 6:35:

“the one coming toward me should not (ever) hunger, and the one trusting in me will not (ever) thirst at any time”

Verse 38

“‘…the one trusting in me, even as the Writing [i.e. Scripture] said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water‘”

The precise syntax and vv. 37-38 is somewhat difficult. Many commentators and translators treat v. 38 as the start of a new sentence, but this obscures the obvious parallel with 6:35 mentioned above:

  • “the one coming toward me”
  • “the one trusting in me”

Perhaps a better way of rendering vv. 37-38 would be as follows:

“If any one should thirst, let him come toward me and drink, (and for this person,) the one trusting in me, even as the Scripture (has) said, ‘out of his belly will flow rivers of living water’!”

In any event, both coming toward Jesus and drinking (from the water he gives) are defined specifically in terms of trusting in him.

What Scripture is Jesus citing here? There has been difficulty in identifying this, since the quotation does not correspond to any Old Testament passage which has come down to us. Unless Jesus is citing a Scripture now lost (which is possible, but unlikely), he is probably paraphrasing one or more passages. Of the possible references, note the following (cf. Brown, pp. 321-3, 27-9):

  • Verses such as Prov 5:15; 18:4; Sirach 24:30ff from Wisdom tradition (cf. above)
  • Isaiah 12:3 (cf. above)
  • Isaiah 58:11: “you will be like a garden soaked (with water), a (flow)ing forth [i.e. spring/fountain] of water—(a spring) of which its waters will (never) prove false”
  • Jeremiah 2:13 (cf. also 17:13): “my people have left me, the place to dig (for) [i.e. the source of] living waters…”
  • Psalm 78:15-16: “He caused streams to come forth out of the rock, and made (the) water(s) run down like rivers”—i.e., a reference to the Exodus tradition, cf. also Ps 105:40-41; Isa 43:20; 44:3; 48:21, and note 1 Cor 10:4.
  • Zechariah 14:8: “And it will be in th(at) day, (that) living waters will go forth from Jerusalem…”

The expression “rivers of living water will flow forth” would seem to reflect some combination of Psalm 78:16, Zech 14:8, and (perhaps) Isa 58:11. A contested detail in the verse involves the words “out of his belly”—is this the belly of Jesus or of the believer? The parallel with Jn 4:14 strongly suggests the latter:

“…the water that I will give him will come to be in him a gushing (spring) of water leaping (up) into the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]”

On the other hand, the closest Old Testament references have the “rivers of (living) water” coming out of either (1) the Rock in the wilderness, or (2) Jerusalem, spec. the Temple—both of which are identified with the person of Jesus in the New Testament. Many commentators identify the “belly” here with the event following Jesus’ death in 19:34, in which “blood and water came out” of Jesus’ side. This possibility will be discussed in a later note.

The Sukkoth setting in Jerusalem makes it likely that Zech 14:8 is the primary Scripture in view here. The Sukkoth festival is mentioned specifically in 14:16-19, and appears to relate to chapters 10-14 as a whole (note the reference to a prayer for rain in 10:1, and cf. 14:17-18). It is also one of the only Scriptures using the expression “living water” in a symbolic/spiritual sense (cf. also Jer 2:13; 17:13, and possibly Song 4:15).

Verse 39

“And he said this about the Spirit, which the (one)s trusting in him were about to receive; for the Spirit was not yet (with/in them), (in) that [i.e. because] Yeshua was not yet granted (the) honor/esteem (from God)”

This explanation is given by the Gospel writer, much like the similar aside in 2:21-22. He identifies the “rivers of living water” with the Spirit. As I discussed in the earlier note on 4:10ff, the context of the narrative (cf. especially the reference in 3:34) itself indicated such an identification. Here the Gospel writer makes explicit what can otherwise be inferred. According to the structure of the narrative, the Spirit is not given to believers until after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascent to the Father. This process—all three elements or aspects—are summarized by the use of the verb doca/zw (“give [or regard with] honor/esteem”, often translated “glorify”). In the Gospel of John it refers specifically to the honor bestowed on Jesus, by God the Father, and relates both (a) to Jesus’ completion of the work given to him by the Father, and (b) his return to the Father in heaven. This is the first occurrence of the verb, which will feature prominently in the second half of the Gospel (18 times in chaps. 12-17), as the Passion begins to come more clearly into view. The Gospel writer provides a similar comment to v. 39 in 12:16.

In the next note I will turn to examine the second saying of Jesus at the heart of the Sukkoth discourse-scene, that in 8:12.

References above marked “Brown” are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29 (1966).

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