The Trial before the Trial—John 7:1-52

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 19

by Reta Halteman Finger

Sukkah Roofs
The tradition of creating booths to live in for the 7-day Feast of Booths comes from Leviticus 23:40, 42-43. “On the first day you shall take…branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook and you shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” Photo of booths where Jewish families eat meals during this festival. Image from Wikipedia.

As you read John 7, think of Judge Judy on TV or some of John Grisham’s thrilling legal cases. Here and in the following chapter, Jesus and his challengers engage in verbal combat before the court of public opinion in Jerusalem. The issues concern the main themes of this Gospel: who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going?

The setting is Jerusalem, probably on the Temple Mount, the only large space where people can congregate. It is fall, sometime in the 30s CE, and crowds have gathered from all over Palestine for the seven-day Festival of Booths (7:2), an event celebrating the agricultural necessities of water and light.

How did we get here?

The Synoptic Gospels collapse Jesus’ ministry into just one year in Galilee before his fateful trip to Jerusalem. John’s Gospel more realistically stretches it to three years, during which Jesus repeatedly visits Jerusalem for various religious festivals. This portrays Jesus as law-observant and one who has deep connections to his scriptures and Jewish traditions. The recurring opposition he encounters there also explains why the animosity toward him has increased to such murderous intensity on his last visit. On the other hand, this Gospel omits much of the actual content of Jesus’ teaching, as well as many healing encounters or meal conversations. Instead, a few detailed healing stories function as “signs” of the coming reign of God—resulting in new believers and angry opponents.

But Jesus’ critiques of the priestly system of temple and law in Jerusalem is nothing new in Israelite history. The offices of king and priest tended to reinforce each other, often leading to apostasy, economic oppression, and political disaster. Thus arose the prophetic tradition, challenging both priest and king, and often serving as a voice for oppressed people crushed by their elite overlords. Jesus stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who suffered for speaking truth to power.

In this way, John’s Gospel presents Jesus as a prophet sent directly from God. He speaks and acts for God to the extent that, like the wife of an absent householder (see Lesson 12), he does nothing on his own (7:28-29). But if Jesus is a true prophet, this means that the temple system in Jerusalem does not speak for God or represent God to the people. Jesus will finally call them children of the devil (8:44)—even more infuriating than Edward Snowden exposing the secret surveillance practices of the NSA! Anthropologists call this an honor duel, where opponents engage in challenge and riposte. It is conducted in the public sphere where the winner receives honor and the loser is shamed.

A closer look at the details

Keep this background in mind as we examine this chapter. Jesus’ brothers want him to go up to Jerusalem and show himself to the world (7:4). How do you read this—as a taunt because they don’t take him seriously? Or do they want public honor for themselves through him? Jesus says he is not going to Judea because it is too dangerous (7:18), but later he goes up secretly and arrives at the Jerusalem temple when the festival is half over, and starts teaching publicly. If you are doing a group study, set up an impromptu readers’ theater for 7:10-31. Choose a narrator, someone to read Jesus’ lines, and divide up the challenges to Jesus among other members. Set a combative tone where it is implied.

Now reflect on how this chapter picks up on incidents and themes from our earlier lessons. For example:

1) In 7:21-24, what “work” from a previous chapter is Jesus referring to? (See John 5:1-18 in Lesson 11).

2) Look within 7:25-44. Find the recurring theme of the Descent of the Word and the Ascent of the Word (Lesson 1). Show how this theme weaves in and out of the questions people keep raising, such as “where are you from?” and “where are you going?”

3) Embedded in this back-and-forth conversation is another emphasis we have seen before—the use of terms with double meanings where people misunderstand Jesus. Explain how this happens in 7:32-36 and 7:40-44.

4) What theology and perspective of the author do Jesus’ statements about his “time” and his “hour” (7:8, 30) imply? But what reason did the temple police give for not arresting Jesus? (7:45-46).

In the middle of this debate, we return to the original setting at the Festival of Booths (7:37). Jesus abruptly stops the argument and instead dramatically announces: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let the one who believes in me drink. Out of her inner being shall flow rivers of living water!” (7:37-38 paraphrased). This claim goes unchallenged. This water relates to the Spirit who will come only later. Jerome Neyrey’s New Cambridge commentary notes that here “Jesus claims to replace this essential element of the celebration of Booths, just as “birth” by spirit replaces circumcision as entry rite (3:3-5) and Bread from heaven replaces manna as Passover (6:1-12).

Last question: What is the significance of ending this episode with words by the Pharisee Nicodemus?

Question for reflection:

Place yourself at the festival on the Temple Mount listening to this strange prophet. How would you feel? Uninterested? Turned off? Wary? Afraid of a public disturbance? Puzzled? Wistful?  Or attracted to Jesus’ words?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.