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John 7:37-39 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 6-6. THE CONTEXT
It is always important to understand the context of a scripture, but especially important for this scripture. It follows the Feeding of the Five Thousand, where Jesus is manifested as “the bread of life” (6:1-15, 35)—a fitting prelude to “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!” (7:37).
It takes place during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 10, 14). The Feast of Tabernacles is the third of three great pilgrimage festivals that Jewish males are required to observe “in the place which he (Yahweh) shall choose” (Deuteronomy 16:16). Once the Jerusalem Temple was built, that was the place where they celebrated these pilgrimage festivals.
• Passover (also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread) took place in March/April.
• Pentecost (also known as the Feast of Weeks) took place in May/June.
• The Feast of Tabernacles (also known as the Feast of Booths and the Feast of Ingathering and Sukkoth) takes place in September/October, and celebrates the fall harvest of grapes and olives. It lasts seven days with a holy convocation on the eighth day (Leviticus 23:36).
Jewish law specifies that, during the Feast of Tabernacles, Jewish people “You shall dwell in booths seven days. All who are native-born in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42-43). It also characterizes this feast as a fall harvest festival (Exodus 23:16; Deuteronomy 16:13).
Of special note for our text is the water ritual that took place at the Feast of Tabernacles. On each of the first six days, the priest would march in procession to the Pool of Siloam, where he would fill a golden vessel with water. He would then march back to the temple, accompanied by the people reciting, “Therefore with joy you will draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). At the temple, the priest would process around the altar with the vessel of water to the accompaniment of a choir singing Hallel Psalms. He would pour out the water as an offering to God, thus bringing to mind the water from the rock that sustained the ancient Israelites (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13) as well as the rains that sustained Israel during the year just passed. The rite also constituted a prayer for God’s continued provision of rain for the days to come. On the seventh day, they would march around the altar seven times. They did not observe the water ritual on the eighth day.
JOHN 7:37-39. IF ANYONE IS THIRSTY, LET HIM COME TO ME
37Now on the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! 38He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him (Greek: ek tes koilias—from his belly) will flow rivers of living water.'” 39But he said this about the Spirit, which those believing in him were to receive. For the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus wasn’t yet glorified.
“Now on the last and greatest day of the feast” (v. 37a). As noted in “The Context” above, this festival is the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (7:2, 10, 14).
The last day could be either the seventh or the eighth day. The phrase, “greatest day,” seems to favor the eighth day, but that is not certain.
“Jesus stood and cried out, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink'” (v. 37b). Now we can see the significance of the water ritual at the Feast of Tabernacles (see “The Context” above). For a week, the people have been celebrating the gift of water that God has provided for their physical sustenance. Now Jesus is telling them that he is capable of satisfying their spiritual thirst.
If this happens to be the eighth day when the water ritual is not observed—a “dry” day—Jesus’ promise to satisfy their thirst takes on added impact.
These verses bring to mind Jesus’ comment about “living water” to the Samaritan woman at the well. He said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10, 13-14). After she responded, he went on to say, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
“as the Scripture has said” (v. 38b). The scripture that Jesus cites is not an exact quotation of an Old Testament verse, so we aren’t sure which scripture Jesus intended. Possibilities include Isaiah 12:3; 55:1; 58:11; Zechariah 14:8.
“He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him (ek tes koilias—from his belly) will flow rivers of living water” (vv. 38a & c). The Greek words ek tes koilias mean “from his belly.” The people of Jesus’ time thought of the belly as the center of emotions—our equivalent is the heart. Jesus is saying that rivers of living water shall flow from the deepest part of the believer’s being.
There is a question regarding the punctuation of verses 37-38. Compare the following:
37b “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (NRSV).
37b “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of water will flow from within him” (NIV).
37b “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! 38He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him will flow rivers of living water.” (WEB).
As you can see, the NRSV breaks the sentence after verse 38a, while the NIV and WEB break it after verse 37b. However, in either case, the believer becomes a fount of blessing—becomes a conduit through which the Godly blessings that he/she has received can flow to others.
“But he said this about the Spirit, which those believing in him were to receive” (v. 39a). The evangelist equates Jesus’ words, “rivers of living water,” (v. 38b) with the Holy Spirit.
Again, this verse brings to mind Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, “the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
“For the Holy Spirit was not yet given” (v. 39b). This cannot mean that the Spirit has never existed, because the ruah (breath, wind, spirit) of God is pervasive in Hebrew Scripture:
• The ruah “God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2).
• The ruah “of God came mightily on” Saul (1 Samuel 10:10).
• Ezra prayed, “You gave also your good ruah (Spirit) to instruct them (Israel), and didn’t withhold your manna from their mouth, and gave them water for their thirst” (Nehemiah 9:20).
• When the Lord sends forth his ruah, life is created, “you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30).
• God’s ruah “is as an overflowing stream” that sifts the nations (Isaiah 30:28).
• Etc., etc., etc.
This verse, then, can mean only that the Holy Spirit as Christians will know it has not yet been made manifest.
“because Jesus wasn’t yet glorified” (v. 39c). The reason that the Holy Spirit has not been made fully manifest is “because Jesus wasn’t yet glorified.” In this Gospel, Jesus’ glorification is tied to his death, resurrection, and ascension.
The connection between Jesus’ glorification and the gift of the Holy Spirit is apparent in these words that Jesus earlier spoke to his disciples: “If you love me, keep my commandments. I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, that he may be with you forever,— the Spirit of truth, whom the world can’t receive; for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him. You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you” (John 14:15-17).
Glory is characteristic of God, and refers to God’s awe-inspiring majesty. God shared this glory with Jesus. We saw Jesus’ glory revealed at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) and through his death and resurrection (John 12:23; 13:31-32). He has given his glory to his disciples (John 17:22), and has been glorified in them (John 17:10). The Spirit of truth will glorify Jesus (John 16:13-14). Jesus prays, “Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am, that they may see my glory, which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). At the parousia (the Second Coming), Jesus will return “in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). Then “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
The full manifestation of the Spirit, then, awaits Jesus’ ascension and is found in the book that we call the Acts of the Apostles—but that some would call the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
• That book opens with Jesus’ promise to his disciples, “For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5).
• At his ascension, Jesus promised, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
• On the Day of Pentecost, “Suddenly there came from the sky a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they (the disciples) were sitting. Tongues like fire appeared and were distributed to them, and one sat on each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak” (Acts 2:2-4).
• When some of the people who witnessed these events began to scoff at the apostles, Peter quoted the prophet Joel, who had said, “It will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions. Your old men will dream dreams. Yes, and on my servants and on my handmaidens in those days, I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).
• Peter concluded his Pentecost sermon by accusing the people of killing the messiah. Cut to the heart, they asked, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38).
So the Spirit of God exists, and has existed all along. However, its full manifestation awaits Jesus’ glorification.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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