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Jesus the Fulfillment of the Jewish Festivals in John's Gospel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

One of the characteristic differences between John’s Gospel and the synoptic gospels is that in John’s Gospel Jesus visits Jerusalem several times to attend the different Jewish Festivals. In John, Jesus visits Jerusalem several times during his public ministry to participate in the Jewish festivals.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus only comes to Jerusalem once, at the end of his public ministry for the final passion week. There is no mention of any earlier visits to Jerusalem. There are clues, however, that leave open the possibility for repeated visits, such as. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Mt 23:37, also Lk 13:34)

In the law of Moses, all adult Jews were commanded to go to Jerusalem for the three main feasts. “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose: at the festival of the unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths.” (Deut 16:16)

The festival of unleavened bread, or Passover, was around April, to remember God’s deliverance of his people out of slavery in Egypt. It was also the time to thank God for the first fruits of the barley harvest. The festival of weeks, or Pentecost, was six weeks later, towards the end of May. It was the time to gather and to thank God for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. The festival of booths, of Tabernacles, was in late September. It was the time of celebration when all the harvest had been gathered, including the fruits and olives.

In John’s Gospel the following feasts or festivals are mentioned, most of which Jesus attended.
First Passover (2:13) - Spring
Unnamed feast (5:1) - possibly Passover or Pentecost
Second Passover (6:1) - Spring (Jesus did not attend)
Tabernacles (7:1) - Autumn
Feast of Dedication (10:22) - Late Autumn
Third Passover (12:1) - Spring (time of the crucifixion)

The feast of Dedication, or Hanakkah, the Festival of Lights, was an extra festival added later in Israel’s history. It celebrated the great victory of Judas Maccabeus over the forces of the Syrians, and the re-consecration of the temple after its desecration by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1). It was celebrated in the winter, close to the modern Christmas time. It was a time of great rejoicing. “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter ...” (Jn 10:22).

From these festivals, it is possible to construct an approximate chronology for the public ministry of Jesus. There were three or four Passovers, which gives the traditional length of the public ministry of Jesus being around three to four years, and being divided into four parts.

1. Early Judean Ministry

This is only described in John’s Gospel (chapters 1-3). This was while John the Baptist was still free and continuing his ministry. Some of the disciples of Jesus were originally disciples of John the Baptist. The first Passover, when Jesus cleared the temple (Jn 2:13), would be during this phase of his ministry.

2. Great Galilean Ministry

The arrest of John the Baptist marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God ...” (Mk 1:14, also Mt 4:12, 4:14).

John records the meeting with the woman at the well in Samaria (Jn 4), which could have occurred when Jesus was returning north from Jerusalem to Galilee.

During his Galilean ministry, Jesus was mostly ministering to the crowds, performing miracles, particularly healing and casting out demons, to demonstrate the coming of the Kingdom of God.. During this time, there was an unnamed feast mentioned by John (5:1), either another Passover, or Pentecost, when Jesus visited Jerusalem. There was also a second Passover (Jn 6:1), but this time Jesus remained in Galilee and fed the 5000.

The feeding of the 5000 was a turning point in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Up to this time, Jesus was very popular with the crowds. John records that following this Jesus began to speak about himself being the bread of life, and the need to eat his body and drink his blood (6:53). Because of this, many people turned away and no longer followed him (6:66). He was not the type of king or Messiah they wanted.

Shortly before the feeding of the 5000, John the Baptist had been killed by Herod Antipas. This is not recorded in John, but is recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke, in particular detail by Mark (Mk 6:17-29).

The Galilean ministry concluded with Peter’s confession and the transfiguration (Mt 16, Mk 8, Lk 9).

3. Travel towards Jerusalem

This is particularly emphasised by Luke (Lk 9-19), who says that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). He travelled through Samaria, as well as Perea, east of the Jordan. During this phase of ministry the emphasis changes from the crowds to the training of his disciples, with the opposition gradually growing in intensity.

Once he arrived in Jerusalem, he stayed in Bethany in the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, which is close to the city. John records that he attended the Feast of Tabernacles (7:1), when he healed the blind man and spoke of being the Light of the world.

Following the feast of Dedication (10:22), he raised Lazarus from the dead, and claimed to be the resurrection and the life.

It is likely that Jesus remained in or near Jerusalem for the three autumn months between the feast of Tabernacles (September) and Dedication (December), and probably for the next few months until the final Passover in the following spring.

4. The last week in Jerusalem - the Passion week.

In the synoptic gospels, this begins with the triumphal entry (Mt 21, Mk 11, Lk 19), which John does not mention. In John’s Gospel, the final week covers nearly half of his gospel (Jn 12-21). Jesus was crucified at the time of the third Passover (12:1).

Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn 7-8)

Both chapters 7 and 8 are set during the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles had various names: Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Booths and Feast of Ingathering (Ex 23:16, Ex 34:22).

The feast of Tabernacles recalled the 40 years spent in tents in the wilderness. The nation recalled the mercies of God through the wilderness years. The people had to dwell in booths (tents) made of palm branches for the seven days as a reminder of their journey through the wilderness. These booths were built all over Jerusalem, on tops of houses, in streets, squares, gardens and even within the courts of the temple. They had to be temporary structures, built specially for the feast. The walls were made of branches to give protection from the weather, but must not shut out the sun. The roof thatching had to be wide enough for the stars to be seen at night, to remind the people that they once had been homeless wanderers in the desert without a roof over their heads (Lev 23:39-43).

This feast also marked the end of the agricultural year, the harvest thanksgiving festival. All the harvests had been gathered and it was a time of great rejoicing (Ex 23:16). Offerings of the fruit harvest were made to God, especially grapes. It was also a time of prayer for rain for the next season, which was recognised as a gift from God (Zech 14:7).

People also looked forward to a new exodus, a final harvest, when the kingdom of God will be brought in. The Feast of Booths was a picture of the great final harvest when before the throne, there shall be those from every nation, tribe and people (Rev 7:9-10).

It was the most popular festival, to remember the time in the wilderness, particularly God’s provision, to rejoice after the annual harvest, and to look forward to the final harvest.

The feast of tabernacles was on the 15th day of the seventh month lasting for seven days. Later, an eighth day was added., which was known as The Great Day (Jn 7:37). The first and the eighth days were to be Sabbaths, days of rest (Lev 23:35-36). During the feast, sacrifices were to be offered to the Lord.

A detailed list of the offerings is given in Numbers (Num 29:12-40). Each day two rams and 14 male lambs were offered as burnt offerings. In addition, 13 bulls were sacrificed on the first day, 12 bulls on the second day, 11 on the third, and one less each day until the seventh day, when seven bulls were offered. Each animal was a burnt offering, plus its appropriate cereal and drink offering. Each day there was also a sin offering of a male goat. On the eighth day, the final Sabbath, there was an extra burnt offering of one bull, one ram, seven lambs, plus the appropriate cereal offering, and a sin offering of a goat. The people during the feast were also expected to bring peace offerings and burnt offerings of their own (Num 29:39).

By NT times, various ceremonies had also become associated with the feast.

The water pouring ceremony

In the morning of each day, one group of priests went down to the Pool of Siloam and drew water in a golden jug. The choir sang, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation" (Is 12:3). At the Water Gate there were three blasts on the trumpet (the shofar, ram's horn trumpet). They returned to the temple courts, poured out the water and the sang the Hallel (Ps 113-118), accompanied by the flutes and choir. The water was brought in, and given to the priest, who poured it into two silver bowls, then poured them out onto the altar. After this the sacrifices commenced.

At the same time, another group went to the Kidron Valley to get branches of myrtle, palm and willow which were bound together, and brought into the temple. These were used to build type of screen or roof, which the priests marched round the great altar. When they came to the words, "O give thanks to the Lord" (Ps 118:1), "Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!" (Ps 118:25), and finally, "O give thanks to the Lord" (Ps 118:29), they worshippers shouted and waved palms towards the altar.

The ceremony was a vivid thanksgiving for God's gift of water, and prayer for rain and a remembrance of God's provision of water from the rock in the wilderness.

The last (Great) day

On the great day of the feast, the priest went around the altar seven times carrying myrtle twigs and fruit, in memory of the seven-fold circuit of Jericho before the walls fell. The priest poured water into a bowl and poured it out onto the ground. This was in remembrance of the water from the rock. They read the passage from Exodus and Ezekiel 47, about the river from the threshold of the temple, the river of living water running to the Dead Sea. People believed that when the Messiah came, he would provide water just as Moses had done. “As the former redeemer (Moses) made a well to rise, so will the latter Redeemer bring up water, as it is stated, And a fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord, and shall water the valley of Shittim (Joel 3:18)”. Qohelet Rabbah 1:9:1.

It was at this point that Jesus called out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 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'" (7:37-38). No wonder the temple police went back amazed (7:45). He was turning people's thoughts from physical water quenching physical thirst to their thirst for God and eternal spiritual satisfaction.

Note also that this event in John’s Gospel came immediately following Jesus feeding the 5000, and then claiming to be the bread of life (ch 6).

The illumination of the temple

Each night except the Sabbath, starting at dusk on the first day of the feast the Court of Women was brilliantly lit by four huge golden lampstands, each with four branches, giving 16 lights in total. The light blazed throughout Jerusalem, lighting up the whole city. Trainee priests were assigned to keep them alight all night. The old breeches and girdles of the priests were soaked in oil and used as wicks (Mishnah Succah 5). There were times of singing, praising, dancing and music until morning.

This was in remembrance of being led by God through the wilderness by the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, the sign of the presence of God. This also looked forward to the final exodus.

At this point Jesus spoke, "I am the light of the world" (8:12). The lights in the temple lit up the city for the nights of the Feast of Tabernacles, but Jesus is the light of the world, which never is extinguished. Jesus was the fulfilment of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Jesus - the Passover Lamb

John repeatedly states that Jesus died on the afternoon on which the Passover lambs were being slain for the Passover meal which took place that evening. It was known as the Day of Preparation (19:14, 31,42). In Israel, each day ended at sundown (6pm), so the Passover was the following day, the evening of the same day as we understand it. This seems to make the crucifixion one day earlier than in the synoptic gospels. The implication is that Jesus is the true Passover Lamb.

At the time of the second Passover (ch 6), Jesus performed the sign of feeding the 5000. Following this, John explains the significance of the feeding of the 5000, by including a discourse about the bread of life. Jesus contrasts the manna in the wilderness which their ancestors ate (6:31, 49), with himself, the true and living bread (6:41). Jesus was the true manna sent down from heaven.

Jesus - the prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15-19)

The Jews expected the Messiah to be a second Moses, who would again bring manna down from heaven. One rabbi said that at the end of time, “As the first redeemer caused manna to descend, ... so will the second redeemer cause manna to descend” (Rabbi Isaac commentary on Ecclesiasties 1:9)

After Jesus fed the 5000, the people responded, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14). Just as Moses had fed the people miraculously in the wilderness, so Jesus who has just fed the people miraculously must be a second Moses. People recognised Jesus as the fulfilment of the promise in Deuteronomy, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people, you shall heed such a prophet.” (Deut 18:15-19).

However, the people responded in the wrong way. They thought that because Moses delivered the people from oppression in Egypt, so now Jesus will deliver them from oppression under the Romans if they take him into Jerusalem to make him king (v16). Jesus had a ready-made army to fight the Romans, but refused to go along with any idea of an earthly kingdom, withdrawing to a mountain by himself. To Jesus, an invitation to be king of an earthly kingdom was a temptation from the devil (Lk 4:5-8). It is ironic, that the people are trying to make Jesus a king, when he already is the king and by doing this, they are missing out on the kingdom he did bring. By the end of the discussion, these people left Jesus and stopped following him (6:66).