Commentary on John 7:37-39
This alternative gospel text, John 7:37-39, may seem a strange choice for Pentecost Sunday.
After all, it takes place when Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, not the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).
Although not mentioned often in the New Testament, the Festival of Tabernacles was one of the “big three” annual festivals (along with Passover and Pentecost) for which adult Jewish males were expected to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and it was generally the most joyous and popular of the three. Originally a harvest celebration, by the time of Jesus it had also taken on the significance of remembering God’s provision for the people of Israel during their wilderness wanderings.
At the beginning of chapter 7, Jesus’ brothers suggest that he go with them to the Festival of Tabernacles in Jerusalem and perform some of his mighty works there, in order to become more widely known. Jesus rejects their suggestion because his time has not yet come, and because his mission was not to gain fame and popularity. Indeed, Jesus says that his mission evokes hatred from the world rather than popularity, because he testifies against its evil works (7:1-9).
Having made his point to his brothers, Jesus later goes in secret to Jerusalem, where the crowds are already speculating and debating about him. The rest of the chapter contains two segments of teaching by Jesus (7:15-24 and 7:37-39), each of which is followed by speculation among the people (7:25-31 and 7:40-44), then by Jewish officials plotting against Jesus (7:32-36 and 7:45-52).
Our brief text is the second segment of Jesus’ teachings in this chapter, and it occurs on “the last day of the festival, the great day” (7:37). According to the Mishnah (Sukkah), water ceremonies were an important part of this celebration. A priest would draw water from the pool of Siloam with a golden pitcher, then carry it back to the temple and pour it into a silver bowl next to the altar, accompanied by musicians and choirs. As the priest poured out the water he would pray to the Lord to send rain. In some rabbinic traditions, the water-drawing of Tabernacles is interpreted as the drawing of the Holy Spirit.
It is significant that on the last day of this festival, in which water is an important symbol, Jesus declares: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink; and the one who believes in me — just as the scripture says — from that one’s innermost being will flow rivers of living water” (7:37-38).1
(The NRSV translates koilia as “heart,” but the word really means “stomach” or “belly” — the seat of emotions in Jewish thought.)
Jesus suggests that those who drink of the water he gives will themselves become sources of this living water. This is similar to what he says to the Samaritan woman in chapter 4: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14).
The puzzling thing about Jesus’ statement in John 7:38 is that it is difficult to find a verse of Scripture that matches what Jesus says about rivers of living water flowing from the “belly.” Many Scriptures have been suggested as a reference. Zechariah 14:8, which says that “on that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem,” is perhaps the closest in wording. Psalm 78:15-16 and Psalm 105:40-41 speak of the water that flowed out of the rock in the wilderness.
In chapter 6, Jesus had spoken of himself as the “bread of life” and “the living bread that came down from heaven” (6:35, 48, 51). God provided manna from heaven for the Israelites in the wilderness, which satisfied their hunger for a time, but eventually they died (6:49). Jesus promises that whoever eats of the bread he gives will live forever (6:50-51).
God provided water for the Israelites in the wilderness as well, but its thirst-quenching effects were also temporary. Here, at this festival that celebrates God’s provision in the wilderness, Jesus offers the living water that quenches all thirst and is a source of life eternal. The narrator adds a note of explanation, so that no one may miss the significance: “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were yet to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:39).
Ah, yes, the Spirit! That is the reason for the choice of this text for Pentecost. Water and the Spirit are connected elsewhere in John — for example, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). In Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, living water is the symbol of the revelation of God in Christ which satisfies all spiritual thirst (4:10-15).
Here the narrator makes the connection once again: Jesus, in talking about living water, was talking about the Spirit, which believers in him were yet to receive. In saying that “as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified,” the author is not saying that the Spirit did not yet exist. John (the Baptist) has already testified that he saw “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove” on Jesus, and that the one who had sent him told him, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33-34).
The narrator’s comment, speaking to a post-resurrection community about a pre-resurrection reality, explains that the promised Spirit had not yet been given to Jesus’ followers. In his farewell discourse, Jesus promises his disciples that he will send the Spirit after he is glorified and returns to the Father (14:16-17; 15:26-27; 16:7-14).
This “Paraclete” or “Spirit of truth” will teach them, remind them of all that Jesus has said to them, and guide them into all truth (14:26; 16:12-14). The Spirit will be the abiding presence of Jesus with his disciples, continuing his work in and through them. This promise is fulfilled on the evening of Easter Sunday, when the risen Jesus comes to his disciples, breathes into them the Holy Spirit, and sends them out in mission (20:19-23).
The Festival of Tabernacles celebrated God’s presence and provision for Israel in the wilderness. Not only did God provide manna from heaven and water from a rock, God’s very presence dwelt with the people in the “tabernacle of the covenant.” Now in Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has come to “tabernacle” among us once again (1:14: skénaó, “to dwell in a tent”). Since Jesus could not remain in the flesh, he promised to send his Spirit to dwell with his disciples forever (14:17).
Jesus speaks of this promise at the Festival of Tabernacles — the promise fulfilled at Passover/ Easter according to John, or at Pentecost according to Luke-Acts. John interprets the Jewish festivals anew in light of God’s revelation in Christ. All that the festivals celebrate — the deliverance, presence, and provision of God — find new significance in God’s sending of the Son to tabernacle among us, and sending of the Spirit to abide with us forever, so that rivers of living water may flow from within us to a thirsty world.
1 Author’s translation. There are significant questions of punctuation in this text; my translation follows the punctuation of the Nestle-Aland 27th edition.