Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Feast of the Tabernacles

The Water of Life

By Francis Schaeffer

When Jesus attended the Feast of the Tabernacles in his final year, the time of his popularity was past. Once great crowds had followed him everywhere. The feeding of the five thousand had been the high point of this kind of popularity. After that, however, as he stressed more and more who he was and what his work really was, the crowds dwindled. He went through a period of retirement in Galilee just prior to the Feast, and then at this time Peter uttered his words of confession. The context in which this is recorded emphasizes that many had turned away: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:66-69). Peter stands in sharp contrast to those disciples who left Jesus and to the crowds who turned away, for he said, “We believe and know [know is better than are sure for this Greek verb] that you are the Christ.”

As the Feast of the Tabernacles approached, Jesus walked in Galilee, for he would not walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him. Now the Jews’ feast of tabernacles was at hand. His brethren therefore said to him, Depart hence, and go into Judea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth anything in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world. For neither did his brethren believe in him. (John 7:1-5)

Many who become Christians have difficulty with their unbelieving families. They can be comforted by realizing that Jesus himself experienced the pain of such a situation. Those children born to Mary and Joseph did not believe on him until after his resurrection; his own brothers gibed at him harshly.

To understand what came next, we must visualize Jerusalem during the Feast of the Tabernacles. It is estimated that well over a million people from all over the known world, both Jews and proselytes, poured into it. People milled about like ants on an ant hill. The city was full of religious fervor. The crowd was a great mixture, including God-fearers and formalists, Sadducees (the rationalists) and Pharisees (the orthodox who had allowed their orthodoxy to become formalized and dead). True believers would have been in it – people who waited for the Lord’s redemption through the Messiah, like Simeon and Anna. Some were there merely to sell trinkets. Prostitutes undoubtedly walked up and down the streets. The city reflected both the glory of the Old Testament prophecies and the low level of Jewish religious life at that time.

Jesus walked into this scene and associated the Feast of the Tabernacles with himself. (In Luke 22:19 he did the same with the Passover, so when we apply these feasts to Jesus we do so on his authority.) And during the festival he received challenge after challenge to his ever-clear teaching about who he is.

The Great Day of the Feast

The Feast of the Tabernacles was so named because God had commanded the Jews to live in tabernacles during this period each year to remind them that they had had to live in temporary abodes as they moved through the wilderness after the exodus. Through the centuries since then, and still today, the Jews have enacted this reminder. During the wanderings, God twice provided water from a rock, so the feast reenacted this, too. In fact the remembrance of this had developed as a technical part of the festival and had tremendous importance. On the final day, “the great day of the feast,” came the great rite of pouring out water in the presence of the people to represent God’s provision in the desert. Non-biblical sources reveal that the force of the fervor that built up as people waited for this outpouring, the sheer religiosity of the situation, was almost unbearable. As the water was poured out, the Feast came to its climax.

It was just at this point in the festival that Jesus stood up (he must have stood in one of the raised places in the temple area so he could be seen) and gave what was probably the boldest invitation of his entire ministry: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). He said this, we note again, in the context of the remembrance in every Jew’s mind that God had twice given rivers of water from a smitten rock.

He clearly appealed here to the innermost cravings of men and women. The word thirst connotes severe longing. We immediately think of idioms like “a thirst for knowledge” and “a thirst for life.” In the former idiom, thirst communicates a craving for knowledge that will not tolerate being unsatisfied and will do whatever is necessary to have the knowledge. The latter reminds us of tremendous exploits like those so rich in the memory of the Swiss, of men falling into huge ice crevasses and even with broken hips digging themselves out with an ice axe, taking hundreds of steps while suffering horrible pain simply to hang onto physical life.

Those who have experienced a shortage of water always link water most closely with the desire for life. An American Indian from the Western desert was invited to New York many years ago. When he had seen everything, he was asked, “What impressed you most?” He walked to a water tap, turned it on and replied, “Water whenever you want it.” Such a reaction is typical of people who have known thirst.

We can see this in Spanish architecture. When the Saracens came into Spain with its abundance of water, they never forgot the lack they had known in North Africa. They made the magnificent fountains of Seville, which spring up on every side as you walk along the streets and through the palace grounds. The alabaster fountains, which with little water produce the sound of much water, are marvels of Saracen craftsmanship.

And so it was in Palestine. The connection of water with life was deeply imbedded in the collective consciousness of the Jewish race. All Jews remembered the need for water. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been forced to move their flocks to find it. Hezekiah had had to come up with a tremendous engineering feat, a tunnel, to provide water in order to withstand a siege of Jerusalem. Water always brought to the Jewish mind their own struggle for survival.

David in his psalms uses the image of thirst to represent a total, rather than half-hearted, following after something. In Psalm 42 he cries out, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2). In Psalm 63 he declares, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Ps. 63:1). And, of course, we cannot forget Psalm 23, two verses of which involve thirsting and understanding what it means to have water in abundance: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.... My cup runneth over” (vv. 2, 5). The Lord provides ample waters fit for his sheep to drink.

The sources of this imagery, which the Jews had as part of their consciousness and understood deep inside themselves, were both the quest for physical life and the yearning after God. So when Jesus used the word thirst it had a double significance, coming from their culture and from Scripture: It was a strong word literally meaning really-reaching-out-for and metaphorically suggesting spiritual longing.

A Meaning for Life

Jesus, then, was not just using water in its physical sense. What he was talking about has reference to both present life and life after death. Orthodox Christians have always stressed the life after death, and quite properly. This is emphasized much in Scripture. Perhaps we have not stressed sufficiently, however, the meaning for life now, which the aspirations of our own century remind us is also in Scripture. In the Bible these two are never set against each other but are carried together.

Jesus reminded his hearers of this most intense physical longing and related it to the most basic need beyond that for physical life – the necessity for a present meaning to life as we live it. In this sense, the word existential is a good one: Men want an existential meaning for life – a meaning for life at this tick of the clock, at this point in space and time. Then they want a horizontal projection of it into the afterlife.

These are the real aspirations of men. We find them expressed in prehistoric caves and in modern studies in comparative religion. As we examine the cultures of the world, we find individual atheists but no really atheistic society. Atheism is the official position of the Soviet Union, but the mass of people have yet to be seen living out its implications. There remains in men of all cultures a universal longing for both – meaning to life now and life after death.

Walk through the metaphysical strata of men’s philosophies and you find exactly the same thing. It is a special annoyance of mine that men try to separate philosophy and religion. This is a false separation, because both ultimately seek the meaning of life.

As we walk with men from the past and the present, with simple men and complicated men, with men of the East or the West, it makes no difference – wherever men are, they search for a meaning to life. St. Augustine framed this thinking as he addressed God in the well-known words, “Thou hast created us for thyself, O God, and we cannot rest until we find our rest in thee.” Augustine knew the Greek thinking and the metaphysical and religious thinking of his own day, but he spoke from the Judeo-Christian perspective and let in light on man’s search for purpose. He related meaning to a personal God who is the Creator and who is there. At the Feast of the Tabernacles Jesus spoke in this framework.

Man’s thirsting can only be satisfied within a framework that answers two questions: What is the meaning of man, and why is he in the dilemma he is in? The Scripture had already outlined for the Jews the reason for man’s dilemma, namely, man’s Fall, his rebellion against God. It is not because there is no one to speak with that men are lonely, but because they are cut off from the one who can fulfill their loneliness. If man is a being kicked up by chance without any intrinsic meaning for his life, then Jesus’ words would not have been blasphemous, for there would be no one to blaspheme; they would simply have been ridiculous – only one more banner to follow in a hopeless crusade. But Jesus spoke in a definite framework, affirming that man is lost but not intrinsically lost, because he was not made to be lost.

Man is guilty, but there is a solution. Jesus stood up on the great day of the Feast and, in a solid framework which he shared with the other Jews, offered himself to fill the real needs of men: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” “I am the answer,” Jesus was saying. “I am the water of life.” This must have caused upheaval in that intense setting.

Jesus’ Exclusive Message

It is essential to understand that Jesus’ message was completely exclusive. He offered himself not as a solution to life but as the one who can fulfill man’s innermost longings. He was saying, “I am the water of life.” This, of course, parallels many other times when he hammered home the definite articles with great clarity, saying, for example, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Jesus had given promises like the one at the Feast before, but never in an official capacity. In almost exactly the same words, he had offered this satisfaction to the woman at the well: “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that sayest to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.... Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:10, 14). Though the woman was a Samaritan, she understood that according to the Old Testament Scriptures a personal Messiah was to come in history; therefore she responded, “I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25). Then Jesus made a clear declaration of his person: “I that speak unto thee am he” (John 4:26). Jesus said exactly the same thing as at the Feast. The difference is that the one was a personal saying to one person, the other an official declaration.

Later he made this promise to a group of people rather than to an individual, but again it was not an official statement to the nation: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Further on he said to them,
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me and I in him. (John 6:53-56)

So at least twice before the Feast of the Tabernacles, Jesus had declared himself to be the water of life, the one who can quench the real thirst of men.

Jesus’ statement at the Feast was different in one important respect: It was a regal proclamation to the whole nation gathered at the religious center of the world. If Athens is the metropolis of learning, Jerusalem is the metropolis of true religion. It is Zion, the city of God. It is Jesus’ city, and one day he will rule there. As the people of his nation crowded into this chosen scene, Jesus held himself aloft as fulfilling the tremendous Old Testament prophecies. We could think, for example, of a statement by Isaiah, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1).

So on the great day of the feast that commemorated the wilderness wanderings, with the Jewish nation assembled to watch the water being poured out to remind them of miraculous water given twice from a rock, Jesus stood and, in the face of rising opposition to his claim, made one of the strongest statements of his entire ministry: “I am the true water. Come unto me and drink.”

The Meaning of Drinking

What did Jesus mean when he spoke of drinking? Is this simply an incomprehensible metaphor? Not at all, for he himself made the meaning clear. He immediately followed the statement “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink” with the phrase “He that believeth on me.” And John’s inspired editorial comment leaves no doubt that Jesus was talking about faith: “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive” (John 7:39). He was not speaking of a sacramental drinking, in the sense of a cup to be quaffed, but of something much more profound – believing on him.

In his less formal statements about being the water of life, he also made plain who he is. Jesus always connected teaching about his person, who he is, with teaching about his work and his ability to fill men’s needs. In the dialogue recorded in John 6, five times he referred to himself as the one who came down from heaven (vv. 33, 38, 41, 42 and 51). And verse 62 makes it impossible for anyone to maintain, “Oh, he’s only saying he’s an especially heavenly man,” for it puts this description in the special framework in which he meant it: “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?” He is not saying he is a bit more heavenly than other men, but he is making a claim about his own nature, his own person – that he really came from heaven, that he is the second Person of the Trinity, that he is the Son of God. The Jews understood his message well enough to shout, “Blasphemy!”

More than that, some of these listeners would see him going to heaven in a special sense on the day of his ascension. When modern men try to cut out his official leavetaking, they attack Jesus’ own teaching of who he is.

In this conversation in John 6 he also emphasized what it means to eat and drink him. When the people asked, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:28-29). There is only one way for a fallen man to work the work of God, and that is to believe on him whom the Father has sent. Jesus made plain that the eating and drinking is not a sacramental eating and drinking at a communion service: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). It is not by eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper that we are saved. It is believing on Christ that matters.

A Personal Decision

Each person who heard Jesus’ invitation on the great day of the Feast was faced with a decision – would he believe or not? And every person who hears the invitation of Jesus Christ in the second half of the twentieth century is faced with the same decision. Whether you hear it through the preached Word of God or through reading the Scriptures (Jesus himself related his invitation to the Scripture: “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said....”), this invitation gives you only two choices: to accept or reject him, to believe on him or cry with the crowd, “Not Christ but Barabbas. Crucify him!” There is no neutrality, no alternative, no third choice. They could not say, “He is a nice man.” On the basis of Jesus’ claim, either the Jews had to believe on him or they had to cry out against him.

A Spiritual Torrent

When we accept Christ as our Savior, do we receive only a streamlet of blessing? Is it only like the few drops which drip out of a pipe after the water is turned off? As D. L. Moody once remarked about this verse, “No, a thousand times no.” Jesus promised, “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly [his innermost parts] shall flow rivers of living water.” A river, a torrent, a Niagara – this is what flows.

From whence does the river come? From someplace to which I must make a pilgrimage? Must I go to some special place, for example, Huemoz? Happily, no. When a man believes, it is out of himself that the rivers of living water flow. John gives the explanation in an inspired form so we do not need to guess at Jesus’ meaning: “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39).

It is made plain that Jesus must be struck once before the rivers can be given. In the wilderness, when the water was given, the rock had to be struck once, but it was wrong to strike it twice (Ex. 17 and Num. 20). This was because when the rock was struck once that finished the picture of the work of Jesus Christ. In order for the work of salvation to be accomplished and the Holy Spirit to be given, Jesus had to be struck once, but he will not be struck twice. Jesus appeared at the right time and died once for all on Calvary’s cross in space and time. When he was done, he said, “The work is finished.” Later the same testimony was given by Peter and by the writer of Hebrews: Jesus’ death was once for all.

Jesus was hung on the cross, he was pierced, he died. Though he cried out from Calvary, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” this was not his last word. Rather, he said “It is finished” and turned to the Father, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The work is done, and since Pentecost every person who believes on Jesus as his Savior has the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of truth – all these are words for the same Person – living within him. The Holy Spirit, not some inner strength or psychological integratedness, is the source of the overflowing rivers of living water. There are to be living waters, a watered garden in the time of drought. The Holy Spirit lives within!

Not only are these rivers to be copious, they are also to be diffused; the “rivers of living water” are to flow, flow out to others. The Holy Spirit is not to be kept selfishly within myself, like a treasure clutched in a small child’s fist. The waters are not to be dammed up until they become a stagnant pool. They are to be a flowing, flowing, flowing river.

Nor are the rivers to be contaminated before they flow forth to others. As the rivers flow from us, if we are children of God through faith in Jesus Christ, they are not to be contaminated with either impure doctrine or an impure life, both of which bring contamination. There was a day when the Delaware River (I was raised in Philadelphia so the Delaware River means something special to me) was rich in fish. You cannot find a fish there now no matter how hard you try. The contamination in the upper Delaware has killed them all.

I could take you to a stream near Huemoz where women used to go to wash their clothes. They could take pails and carry them home full of clear water. This stream was once teeming with life. Now it is contaminated, defiled by the waste of Villars and Chesieres. I hate to cross it, and I try to find ways around it so I do not have to be reminded that this creation was once beautiful. It still flows, but the life is gone.

Dr. Tom Lambie, one of the great missionaries to Africa, concluded that the height of a civilization can be measured by the amount of contamination in its drinking water. Think of the modern pollution of our water supplies! I would say to you in the name of Jesus Christ that the degree of the infidelity of an individual Christian or a Christian group to the Word of God in doctrine and life is shown by the amount of contamination in the water which flows forth.

So let us ask ourselves as Christians how we contaminate the waters that flow from us. The Bible does not promise perfection in this life. But, by God’s grace, let us stop quenching the Spirit who lives within us so that our lives may show forth the Spirit’s fruit. How terrible it is to be Bible-believing Christians, to fight for orthodoxy, to fight for the evangelical position, and then to contaminate the water we hold out to others. How terrible – for these waters have been given to us without cost, brimming over, pure, directly from the fountainhead!

Are you still thirsting? Christ gives the invitation not only to others but to you. He is the fountainhead. He has died and is risen. He offers the only way to eternal life, asking only that you admit your needs, raise the empty hands of faith and accept his gift. What is eternal life? It is meaning in life now as well as living one’s life forever. Drink deep. Jesus offers a brimming cup.

No comments: