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John's Gospel and the Feast

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John's Gospel and the Feast

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Are the feast days for the Jews, exclusively? Based on the words of the apostle John, one might be led to believe that is the case. "Now the Jews' Feast of Tabernacles was at hand" (John 7:2, emphasis added throughout). "And the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went from the country up to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves" (John 11:55). But as we shall clearly see from the Scriptures, God's feast days are for all of humankind-not just for the Jews.

The frequent use of the term the Jews is a hallmark of John's gospel. In the four gospels, the word Jews is recorded 85 times-in Matthew it is used five times; in Mark, six times; in Luke, five times; and in John, 69 times. Over 80 percent of the occurrences of Jews are found in John's gospel alone. If we look carefully at John's life and the circumstances surrounding his gospel, we will see that he often used "the Jews" to distinguish between certain Jews, not just Jews and gentiles.

John's Jewish Background

John did not believe that the observance of the feast days was for Jews only. He was a Jew and from childhood he was very familiar with Leviticus 23, "Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: 'The feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts'" (verse 2). Verses 4 and 37 say, "These are the feasts of the LORD...." John understood that all the feast days ultimately belong to God and even though the feast days were first revealed to the 12 tribes of Israel, they are for all peoples, nations and ethnic groups.

John was also familiar with the fact that the Jews associated the Feast of Tabernacles with gentiles, not just Jews. Zechariah 14:16 states: "And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles." During the seven days of this festival, 70 bulls were sacrificed (Numbers 29:12-34), which the rabbis associated with gentile nations. The Jewish New Testament Commentary notes the following, "Rabbi El'azar said, 'To what do these seventy bulls correspond? To the seventy nations' (Sukkah 55b). In rabbinical tradition, the traditional number of Gentile nations is seventy; the seventy bulls are to make atonement for them" (David Stern, page 175, 1992).

When Christ returns, John will be among the resurrected saints who will keep the Feast of Tabernacles along with people from all cultures and races. John lived with this hope, even before converting to Christianity. Therefore, it's erroneous to conclude that he noted "the Jews' Feast of Tabernacles" (John 7:2) to reflect that the Feast is intended for Jews only.

John's Audience

John's audience was heavily gentile, if not predominantly so. He used the Roman reckoning of time in his gospel (i.e., John 19:14). Matthew, Mark and Luke used the Jewish reckoning of time. Therefore, John adapted his language for his primarily gentile audience. He was not saying that the feast days are limited to Jews only, but rather making a distinction about the feasts that Christ attended years ago.

The Jews of Judea

Sometimes "the Jews" specifies those in the region of Judea, as opposed to Jews in other areas. John wrote about an earlier time when Jews within 15 miles of Jerusalem were required to come to Jerusalem for the Feast. Adam Clarke's Commentary, "John, who was a Galilean, often gives the title of Jews to those who were inhabitants of Jerusalem." The Judean Jews were considered to be more committed to the practices of Judaism than Jews outside of Judea were. The phrase "Jews' Feast of Tabernacles" has more to do with the geographical significance of this feast, i.e., the Jews of Judea, and is not meant to be a statement about exclusivity.

John writes, "After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him" (John 7:1). Notice that "the Jews" refers to those Jews in Judea as opposed to the many Jews living in Galilee, who were not seeking to kill Jesus. John used "the Jews" qualifier to refer to the geographical setting of the feasts 60 years earlier. So the "Jews' Feast of Tabernacles" (verse 2) described something pertaining to Judean Jews, as opposed to other Jews.

The Jewish New Testament Commentary states, "The several festivals which John identifies as being 'of the Jews'...are specifically Judean festivals. Of course they are Jewish too; that goes without saying. But all the festivals that John names...are pilgrim festivals, that is festivals during which all Jews-by-religion were required by the Torah to go up to Jerusalem in Judea..." (page 159).

When John associates "the Jews" with a "feast," it's a feast that had a commanded pilgrimage to Judea. For instance, "the Jews" qualifier is omitted in regard to the wedding "feast" in Cana (John 2:8-9), and the "Feast of Dedication" (John 10:22), which did not have a commanded pilgrimage to Judea. But "the Jews" qualifier is included when there is a biblically commanded pilgrimage to Judea-"Passover of the Jews" (John 2:13, 11:55), "Passover, a feast of the Jews" (John 6:4) and "the Jews' Feast of Tabernacles" (John 7:2).

By the end of the first century, gentiles in God's Church had been keeping the feast days (1 Corinthians 5:8; 11:25) for over 60 years. God's Church has always observed these days, but the shift from the Judean setting was most evident during the time of John's gospel.

The Religious Leaders

John also used "the Jews" to specify a small subset of the Judean Jews-the religious leaders. As noted above, "He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him" (John 7:1). This subset of Judean Jews was primarily the religious leaders as opposed to all Jews in Judea. The "Jews" (religious leaders) were largely against Him as they played a vital, instigating role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Thus, John earmarked these individuals throughout his gospel.

After He arrived, "the Jews" (religious leaders) sought to kill Him and "the people" were divided (John 7:10-12). Then verse 13 says, "However, no one spoke openly of Him for fear of the Jews." Notice that the "people" were afraid of "the Jews." But weren't most of these people Jewish? Were they afraid of themselves? John had to be using "the Jews" to distinguish between Jewish religious leaders and the Jewish people, otherwise these passages are contradictory. The "people," those who supported Jesus, were afraid of the religious leaders-"the Jews." The "people," not the religious leaders, were largely divided over Jesus.

This is confirmed in several passages of John 7, "...the Jews marveled, saying, 'How does this Man know letters, having never studied?'" (verse 15). Interestingly, the Living Bible says, "the Jewish leaders...." Then in verse 20, "The people answered and said, 'You have a demon.'" In verse 31, "...many of the people believed in Him...." Verse 43 records more division among "the people." Then in verses 44 to 48 "the Jews" of this chapter are identified as-"the officers...chief priests...the rulers or the Pharisees...."

John uses the term, the Jews, throughout his gospel. John 1:19 states, "Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?'" The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary states the following about John 1:19: "By 'the Jews' here, and almost always in this Gospel, is meant-not the Jewish nation, as contrasted with the Gentiles, but 'the rulers' of the nation.'" The Wycliffe Bible Commentary states: "The Jews. As usual in John, this means leaders of the nation. These priests were of the Pharisees (v. 24)." Robertson's Word Pictures in the News Testament says, "Often he uses it of the Jewish leaders and rulers in particular who soon took a hostile attitude toward both John and Jesus...."

It was the hate-filled religious leaders who later cried out shortly before the crucifixion. "Therefore, when the chief priests and officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, 'Crucify Him, crucify Him!' Pilate said to them, 'You take Him and crucify Him, for I find no fault in Him.' The Jews answered him, 'We have a law, and according to our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God'" (John 19:6-7). After the crucifixion, "the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken..." (John 19:31). Unfortunately, the idea of all Jews hating or killing Jesus has led to anti-Semitism. For the most part, the religious rulers spearheaded this conspiracy, not all Jews.

The Gentiles' Feast Also?

Interestingly, John also includes some other insightful information regarding those who attended the "Passover of the Jews" (John 11:55). During the time of Christ, certain gentiles also kept the feasts: "Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast" (John 12:20). The Greek word for "Greeks" (hellen) typically refers to "a Greek by nationality...in a wider sense the name embraces all nations not Jews that made the language, customs, and learning of the Greeks their own" (Thayer's Greek Lexicon, 2000 by Biblesoft).

These "Greeks" were uncircumcised gentiles; therefore they are distinguished from proselytes. Nevertheless "certain Greeks" observed the Holy Days and other tenets that did not require circumcision. Note the following two quotes.

F.F. Bruce, in his New Testament History, says, "The three great pilgrim festivals were (i)...the Feast of Unleavened Bread...(ii) the feast of Pentecost...and (iii) the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths.... Jews from all parts of the Diaspora made an effort to come to Jerusalem for one or another of these festivals. With them would come proselytes and even God-fearing Gentles..." (1969, page 140).

Paul Johnson writes in A History of Christianity, "Philo, too, projected in his philosophy the concept of a gentile mission and wrote joyfully, 'There is not a single Greek or barbarian city, not a single people, to which the custom of Sabbath observance has not spread, or in which the feast days, the kindling of the lights, and many of our prohibitions about food are not heeded.' This claim was generally true.... A large proportion of these people were not Jewish by race. Nor were they full Jews in the religious sense: that is, few of them were circumcised or expected to obey the law in all its rigour. Most of them were noachides, or God-fearers. They recognized and worshipped the Jewish God and they were permitted to mingle with synagogue worshippers to learn the Jewish law and customs...they were not generally expected to become full Jews..." (1995, page 12).

In all probability, it was from among the feast-keeping gentles that God raised up the core of the gentile converts to Christianity: "The synagogue, then, provided the apostle of the Gentiles with a base of operations as he prosecuted his mission, and in one city after another it was in the God-fearing fringe of the synagogue congregation that he found the nucleus of the church" (New Testament History, page 147).

Thus it is obvious that John often used "the Jews" to distinguish between different groups of Jews, i.e., inhabitants of Judea and religious leaders. And when "the Jews" is associated with the feast days, John highlighted the geographical significance of the pilgrimage to Judea. John, his gospel, history and all of Scripture support the keeping of the feast days by all Christians, Jews and gentiles. UN

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