Enlightening our minds – John 8:12-20
Jesus’ words in chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel of John take place during the festival of tabernacles, one of the three major annual pilgrimages undertaken by a pious Jew. This eight-day festival beginning on a Sabbath and ending on the next Sabbath (see Leviticus 23:39) and mandated in Leviticus 23:43, commemorated God’s provision for the Israelites when they were led out of Egypt and into the wilderness. For eight days, the Israelites were supposed to live in tents or booths.
In general, the Jewish feasts were both commemorative and instructive occasions. Activities and rituals during this festival reminded the Israelites of significant historical events during their time in the wilderness. The feast of the tabernacles also had several celebratory processions. For example, the procession carried a lulab in which a plume of branches from a tree or bush was held in their right hands and a citron (a small citrus fruit) in the left. The lulab represented Israel’s traveling through various types of foliage in their journey through the wilderness, and the citron signified the fruit of the land God had promised to his people.
Two other rituals during the feast must draw our attention. In verse 37 we are told that it was the last day of the feast of the tabernacles when Jesus stood and cried out, “let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” This statement must have caused much of stir and we know from verse 40 and 41 that there was a division among the people. So let us examine this statement first before we look at today’s text.
One of the rituals that were carried out on a daily basis during the festival and with a variation on the last day during which Jesus made this declaration, was the procession during which a priest filled a golden flask with water from the Pool of Siloam, returned to the temple via the Water Gate and poured on the altar of the temple. The priest would be joined by other pilgrims who had come to the temple for the feast. When they arrived at the Water Gate, a blast was made on a shofar, or the ram’s horn. The priest would then ascended the altar and pour the water on the morning’s burnt offering. This ritual was performed every day of the feast and in the same way, except on the seventh day, when the priests circled the altar seven times instead of just once.
The Pool of Siloam which received its water from the Gihon Spring, a natural water source, making the water in Siloam “living water,” or water suitable for ritual purification. Now Jesus makes a bold claim; that he is the source of living water which of course caused a stir.
But this is not the only claim that Jesus made and this brings us to the second ritual that was ever so popular during the festival of tabernacles, namely the lighting of the lamp stands in the court of the women. Following the evening sacrifice on the first day of the feast of tabernacles, the gates of the temple were left open so the public could gather in the court of the women and participate in the lighting of four giant lamp stands, each over seventy feet (twenty-one meters) tall. Each lamp stand had four golden bowls filled with oil at their tops. Priests climbed ladders to each bowl and lit the wicks, which were made from the worn-out clothing of the priests collected throughout the year. The light from the lamp stands was so bright that it was said to light up every courtyard in Jerusalem. It was during this festival that Jesus spoke the words: I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” John 8:12. In short Jesus was debunking these empty rituals that lost its meaning with his coming into the world.
Both the claims of Jesus draw the ire of the Pharisees claiming that the witness Jesus bore of himself is not true because he bore witness to himself. The Jews followed the prescriptions of Deuteronomy 19:15 which held that a matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. But having addressed this issue already in 5:30- 38 Jesus responds in no uncertain terms: “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my own testimony is valid” (8:14). This he said because the law applied to man and they were judging him by human standards. Jesus is the law giver and if this was not enough, he cites his father as a witness, “my father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” But the Jews demand to see his ‘father’. In doing this they were talking of his human father. So, Jesus has to make a very strong statement applicable then and applicable now, “you know neither me nor my father. If you knew me, you would know my father also.” I invite you to pause and think of the last line that Jesus says to us.