Feasts in John's Gospel

Michael Hardt

From Truth & Testimony 2012

In John's Gospel, the feasts are referred to as ‘feasts of the Jews' (5:1; 6:4; 7:2) in marked contrast to the expression ‘feasts of the Lord' in Leviticus 23 (vs. 2, 4, 37, 44). They were celebrated in an outward observation of legal ordinances by the Jews who, however, refused the one who was central to the fulfilment of all the blessings of which the feasts spoke. However, the feasts mentioned in John 5–7 furnish illustrations for the Lord's teaching.

In John 5 there is the mention of ‘a feast' in verse 1 but we are not told explicitly which feast it was. While various deductions have been made as to this question we wonder whether the point is rather to show the incongruity of the ‘the Jews' occupied with ‘a feast' whilst misery was prevalent: ‘a multitude of sick, blind, lame, withered' were waiting for relief.

Then, in the same chapter, we have the repeated mention of the sabbath (vs. 9, 10, 16, 18). It was true that God had desired to allow man to participate in His rest (Gen. 2:1; Ex. 20) but sin had come into the world and, with it, an extent of misery that was hardly a basis for rest. Nevertheless, the sabbath was still religiously observed by the Jews. But the Lord had to say ‘My Father worketh hitherto and I work' (v. 17) and He healed the lame man in Bethesda on that very day.

In John 6, there is the feast of passover. This feast, speaking of the sacrificial death of the true passover lamb, the Lord, formed a fitting background to the Lord's teaching, presenting Himself not only as the true bread from heaven but also as the one whose death was the starting point of blessing (v. 53) and the continual nourishment for the believer (v. 56). The Jews rejected this precious teaching, being unwilling to recognise Him either in His life (as the bread from heaven) or in His death (as the blood to drink and the flesh to eat). No wonder this feast is here labelled a ‘feast of the Jews' as well.

In John 7 we have the feast of tabernacles, the harvest feast of joy for God's people. And yet, before the end of this feast Christ rises up and speaks of the true condition of things: thirst — ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink' (v. 37). They sought to kill Him (v. 1), and yet He was the only one who could quench their unsatisfied desire. He spoke of the Holy Spirit who would come (before the fulfilment of the feast of tabernacles — i.e. in this dispensation, before the millennium) subsequent to Christ's own death and glorification (vs. 37–39).

While these feasts had been reduced to the outward shell of ritualistic observance by the Jews who refused the one upon whom the fulfilment hinged, the Lord acts in wonderful grace, presenting Himself as the one who works until the true rest of God can be realised; the one who goes into death to bring us blessing and food, and who sends the Holy Spirit as source of abiding joy and refreshment!