by Doug Ward

  The annual Hebrew festival seasons are a very important feature of the gospel of John.  Many of the events narrated in this gospel occurred during those sacred times.  John's accounts of these events have much to teach us about the ways in which the festivals direct us to Jesus Christ.    

For example, John 7 chronicles the last Feast of Tabernacles of Jesus' earthly ministry (see John 7:2).  During that festival, Jesus made the following pronouncement:


``In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, 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, KJV)     


John goes on to explain in v. 39 that the ``water'' referred to in v. 37-38 is the Holy Spirit. Jesus was saying that those who believed on Him could come to Him to receive the Holy Spirit.

Jesus' statements caused great amazement and controversy among His audience (v. 40-53).  Some asserted that He must be the Messiah, that great Prophet spoken of by Moses in Deut. 18:15, 18. Officers who had been ordered by religious authorities to arrest Jesus (v. 32) returned to their superiors empty-handed.   When asked why they had not seized Him, they answered, ``No one ever spoke the way this man does.'' (v. 46, NIV)

Why did Jesus' proclamation in John 7:37-38 elicit such a strong response?   To understand the full impact of this famous passage on its original hearers-and its significance for us today-let's take an in-depth look at these verses and their historical and cultural background.


The Water Libation Ceremony

  John specifically mentions that Jesus spoke the words of John 7:37-38 on ``the last day, that great day of the feast.''  This was most likely the seventh day of the Feast, a day known in Jewish tradition as Hoshana Rabba (literally, the “great Hosanna”).  It is also possible that this was the eighth day (see [3]).In any case, commentators agree that Jesus made his statement in the context of the water libation ceremony, a major part of first-century celebrations of the Feast in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.  This ritual was carried out on each of the first seven days of the festival (see References[1-6]).   

The water libation ceremony began with a priest drawing water from the pool of Siloam in a golden flagon that held about one and a half pints of water.  A procession of men and women then accompanied the priest through the south gate of the Temple (which was called the Water Gate) and up the altar ramp.  In the procession, people waved the lulab, a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle branches, and sang Psalms 113-118.  The singing was accompanied by trumpet blasts and the music of reed flutes.  The procession circled the altar seven times, and the priest then poured the water from the flagon into the western half of an open-drained, twin-tubbed silver bowl on the south side of the altar.  He also poured wine from a silver flagon into the eastern half of that bowl. 

One scripture associated with these festivities was Isa. 12:3 (``With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.''), and this was indeed a joyous time.  It would later be written in the Babylonian Talmud ( Sukkah   51 a-b) that ``he who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the Water-Drawing  has not seen rejoicing in his life.'' [2]

The water-drawing celebration was well-known throughout the Jewish world.   Some archaeological evidence of this has been found in Cyprus in the form of a six-sided glass bottle, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, whose side panels contain pictures of the golden flagon, reed flutes, and other festival symbols (see our cover and p. 27).  Since fragments of an identical bottle have been found in Jerusalem, and many Jews from the Diaspora traveled to Jerusalem for the festivals (e.g., Acts 2:5, 9-11), it has been speculated that this bottle may have been purchased in Jerusalem by a pilgrim from Cyprus as a first-century Feast of Tabernacles souvenir.  Further evidence that the bottle dates from the first century is found in the fact that one of its panels contains the name of Ennion, a prominent Sidonian glassmaker of the first century [2, p. 117].       

The waters of the ceremony held several levels of meaning for first-century feastgoers.  First of all, the water poured out on the south side of the altar represented rain that the people hoped God would provide for the following year's harvests during the coming rainy season.  Prayers for rain were an essential part of the ceremony.  An important scripture in this regard was Psalm 118:25:  ``Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity.''  In Hebrew, ``save, I beseech'' is Hoshana.  This verse was the source of the name Hoshana Rabba as a title for the seventh day of the Feast. 

Interestingly, there is apparently another symbol of the festival prayers for rain on one of the six panels of the ancient glass bottle mentioned above:   two keys.  In Jewish tradition, rain is thought of as a key in the sole possession of God, based on Deut. 28:12:  ``The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season....''  The keys pictured on the bottle may represent the early and latter rains, for which prayer was made at the Feast of Tabernacles and Passover [2, p. 118].  The presence of these keys on the bottle gives further indication of the importance of prayers for rain at the Feast during the time of Jesus.       

Second, the ceremonial water of the Feast symbolized the Holy Spirit.   A link between water and the Holy Spirit is implied in the parallel structure of Isaiah 44:3:  ``For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground:  I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring.''  When the people prayed for rain at the Feast, they may also have prayed for the rain of the Holy Spirit to fall as was prophesied in Joel 2:28-29. 

Third, the waters of the libation ceremony were associated with the waters prophesied to go forth from Jerusalem in the Messianic kingdom.  This connection is founded in part upon the fourteenth chapter of Zechariah, which relates the Feast of Tabernacles to the Messianic kingdom (see v. 16-19) and is a traditional part of Jewish festival liturgy.  In Zech. 14:8, we read, ``And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem....''A second and more detailed source for this symbolism is Ezekiel 47:1-12, which describes a healing river that will flow out from beneath the prophesied future temple. 

These second and third aspects of the symbolism of the water libation ceremony-the Holy Spirit and the cleansing waters of Messiah's kingdom-are of course related in the scriptures, for example in Ezekiel 36:25-27, 33:


``Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean:  from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.... Thus saith the Lord GOD; In the day that I shall have cleansed you from all your iniquities I will also cause you to dwell in the cities, and the wastes shall be builded.''          


  Further insight into the way these different symbols-rain, the Holy Spirit,  and future living waters-fit together in the  theology of the water-drawing  celebration is available in the third chapter of the tractate Sukkah of the Tosefta (see [3]).  The Tosefta (``Tosefta'' literally means ``addition'') is a collection of rabbinic teachings that expand upon the instruction in the Mishnah.  These teachings were probably compiled in written form some two centuries after the time of Jesus, but they are often based on oral traditions that could well have been known to those who heard Jesus' words.           

The Tosefta (Sukkah 3:3-9) explains that the name ``water  gate'' for the south gate of the temple and the pouring of the water  from the golden flagon on the south side of the altar are derived from Ezekiel 47:1, which says, ``The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar.'' (NIV)  In other words, the water poured out in the temple ceremony was meant to symbolize the prophetic waters of Ezekiel 47.  Moreover, Tosefta identifies the healing waters of  Ezekiel 47 with the living water of Zech. 14:8, and it emphasizes the cleansing function of those waters, citing Zech. 13:1.  (In the NIV, Zech. 13:1 says, ``On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.'')

The Tosefta (Sukkah 3:11-12) also brings out yet another  aspect of the symbolism of the water ceremony:  its recalling of the miracle  of Exodus 17:1-7, in which water came out of the rock at Horeb when Moses struck that rock.  The Tosefta refers to those waters as a ``river,'' citing Ps. 78:20 and Ps. 105:41.Grigsby [3, p. 107] adds the interesting fact that one Aramaic paraphrase of Ps. 78:16 (which recounts the miracle at Horeb) refers to the waters that came out of the rock as ``rivers of living water.''

As feastgoers looked back to the miracle of Exodus 17, they simultaneously looked ahead to the Messiah, who they believed would duplicate such miracles.   Grigsby [3, p. 107] points out that a rabbinic commentary on Eccl 1:9 (``there is nothing new under the sun'') gives the belief in a future water miracle as one example of history repeating itself: ``As the first redeemer [i.e., Moses] caused the spring to arise, so the last redeemer [the Messiah] will cause water to rise up.''    

Two Questions about John 7:38

  A knowledge of first-century festival customs can lend insights into two questions about John 7:38 that have often been posed by scholars.  First, to what scripture was Jesus referring in John 7:38?  In our discussion of the water libation ceremony, we have looked at several candidates, including Zech. 14:8, Ezek. 47:1-12,  Isa. 44:3, and Ps. 78:16.  Given that Jewish teachers typically brought together several related scriptures to explain a point or principle, it is likely that Jesus had a number of passages in mind, including these four.

Second, from whose belly would the living waters flow-the believer's or Jesus'?  The explanation given most often is that the waters flow from the believer in a new, spirit-led life.  This is the reading that is implied in the KJV and given explicitly in the NIV.  It is supported by John 4:14, in which Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well,


``But 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.'' (KJV)             


  It is worth noting that the Greek word for ``springing'' in John 4:14 is the same as the one used to describe the lame man ``leaping'' in Acts 3:8 when He was healed by Peter and John [6].  The words of John 7:38 and John 4:14 picture the Holy Spirit as a Producer of dynamic, life-giving results in the lives of Jesus' disciples.                       

The view that Jesus is saying that the living waters would flow from the believer is also supported by the punctuation given in the oldest known punctuated manuscripts [4, p. 160].

On the other hand, there is another reading (used in the NEB and Jerusalem Bible and mentioned in a footnote in the NIV) that is based on a different punctuation of the text.  In this version, Jesus' invitation is rendered,


``If any man thirsts, let him come to me; and let him drink, who believes in me.  As the scripture said, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water.''                 


Here ``his'' could be interpreted as a reference to Jesus Himself.

Those who support this second reading point out that it is consistent with the thrust of John 7:37-39, which pictures Jesus as the giver and the believer as the recipient of the Spirit.  It has also been suggested that v.  38 might look ahead to John's account of the Crucifixion, where John mentions that ``one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.''  (John 19:34, KJV)  Such a connection fits well with the customs of the water libation ceremony, where water and wine were poured before the altar, and with the typology of the miracle of Exodus 17.   Just as ``living water'' came from the rock at Horeb when this rock was struck, so water mixed with the cleansing, purifying blood of Jesus' sacrifice came out from His pierced ``belly'' at the crucifixion.      In addition, a link between John 7:38 and John 19:34 might help explain the statement in John 7:39 that ``the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.'' 

Each interpretation has its merits. We note that in either case, Jesus Christ is the ultimate Source of the Spirit, the One to whom we must come to receive this life-giving ``water.''


The Implications of John 7:37-38

  Having investigated the rich symbolism of the water libation ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles, we are now in a position to grasp the great impact that Jesus' invitation of John 7:37-38 would have had on its original audience.   Consider the following implications of John 7:37-38:

         Jesus is the Messiah.  In the first century, the Feast was a time of great messianic hope and fervor.  The water celebration brought to mind prophecies of the Messianic kingdom like Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 47.   Another messianic reference that would have been on the minds of Jesus' listeners was Psalm 118:26  (``blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord''),  which was sung during the festivities [1].  By proclaiming Himself as the Bringer of the prophesied ``living waters,'' Jesus was implying that He was the Messiah, the one who would follow in Moses' footsteps and perform a new water miracle. 

  Jesus is God.  In Jeremiah 2:13, God referred to Himself as ``the fountain of living waters.''  By calling Himself the source of living waters, Jesus was indirectly asserting His divinity.

 Jesus is the Incarnation of the future eschatological hope in the present.   The healing, life-giving waters of Zech.14 and Ezek. 47 were prophesied to come in a glorious future time.  By announcing the availability of those waters, Jesus was saying that the first stages of the kingdom had arrived with Him. 

         Jesus is the new Temple.  Jesus had previously referred to his body as a temple (John 2:19-22), and He made this connection again in John 7:37-38.  The living waters of Ezekiel 47 were to emanate from the prophesied temple, and Jesus identified Himself with the temple by saying that He was the Source of living waters. (See Rev. 21:22; 22:1 for further development  of this symbolism.) 

             Jesus is the foundation stone and cornerstone.  In Jewish tradition, Israel was the center of the world, Jerusalem was the center of Israel, the temple was the center of Jerusalem, the Holy Place was the center of the temple, the Holy of Holies was the center of the Holy Place, and the foundation stone under the ark of the covenant was the center of the Holy of Holies.  The creation of the world was said to have begun at the site of that stone, and it was believed that the prophesied living waters would spring from it [4, 5].  Just as Jesus identified Himself with the temple in John 7:37-38, He also identified Himself with its foundation stone. He was the pierced rock from which living waters would flow (Ps. 78:20; John 19:34), the stone that would be rejected and become the chief cornerstone (Ps. 118:22-23; Matt. 21:42, I Peter 2:7).

  Jesus' words on that last day of the Feast were remarkable. So, too, was the way in which He delivered those words.  It was typical for Jewish teachers in those days to instruct their disciples from a seated position.  By standing up and speaking in a loud voice (John 7:37), Jesus indicated that He was making an important announcement [6].  He wanted everyone to hear this announcement, even though He knew that it would anger some of those present who sought to  take His life.       

It is no wonder that Jesus' listeners marveled at what He said!   In the brief statement recorded in John 7:37-38, Jesus revealed Himself as the embodiment of all the prayers, hopes and longings that were part of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in first-century Jerusalem.              

As we celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles today, awaiting the glorious return of our Messiah, we can think each year about this wonderful symbolism and give thanks for what it means in our lives.  As we strive daily to advance His Kingdom, we can be renewed and empowered by the living waters of the Spirit which He offers to us freely.             




1.  Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1956.

2.  Anita Engle, ``An Amphorisk of the Second Temple Period,'' Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 109 (1977), pp. 117-122.

3.  Bruce H. Grigsby, ```If Any Man Thirsts...': Observations on the Rabbinic Background of John 7:37-39,'' Biblica, Vol. 67 (1986), pp. 101-108.

4.  Craig S. Keener, The Spirit in the Gospels and Acts: Divine Purity and Power, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1997.

5.  Dwight A. Pryor, ``Born of Water, Born of the Spirit,'' recording available from the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, P.O. Box 293040, Dayton, OH 45475.

6.  Dwight A. Pryor, ``Living Waters,'' recording available from the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, P.O. Box 293040, Dayton, OH 45475.

Issue 5


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