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John 7:37-39

Teaching About the Spirit

7:37 On the last day of the feast, the greatest day, 1  Jesus stood up and shouted out, 2  “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and 7:38 let the one who believes in me drink. 3  Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him 4  will flow rivers of living water.’” 5  7:39 (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, 6  because Jesus was not yet glorified.) 7 

1 sn There is a problem with the identification of this reference to the last day of the feast, the greatest day: It appears from Deut 16:13 that the feast went for seven days. Lev 23:36, however, makes it plain that there was an eighth day, though it was mentioned separately from the seven. It is not completely clear whether the seventh or eighth day was the climax of the feast, called here by the author the “last great day of the feast.” Since according to the Mishnah (m. Sukkah 4.1) the ceremonies with water and lights did not continue after the seventh day, it seems more probable that this is the day the author mentions.

2 tn Grk “Jesus stood up and cried out, saying.”

3 tn An alternate way of punctuating the Greek text of vv. 37-38 results in this translation: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.’” John 7:37-38 has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate. Certainly Jesus picks up on the literal water used in the ceremony and uses it figuratively. But what does the figure mean? According to popular understanding, it refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit to dwell in the believer. There is some difficulty in locating an OT text which speaks of rivers of water flowing from within such a person, but Isa 58:11 is often suggested: “The Lord will continually lead you, he will feed you even in parched regions. He will give you renewed strength, and you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring that continually produces water.” Other passages which have been suggested are Prov 4:23 and 5:15; Isa 44:3 and 55:1; Ezek 47:1 ff.; Joel 3:18; and Zech 13:1 and 14:8. The meaning in this case is that when anyone comes to believe in Jesus the scriptures referring to the activity of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life are fulfilled. “When the believer comes to Christ and drinks he not only slakes his thirst but receives such an abundant supply that veritable rivers flow from him” (L. Morris, John [NICNT], 424-25). In other words, with this view, the believer himself becomes the source of the living water. This is the traditional understanding of the passage, often called the “Eastern interpretation” following Origen, Athanasius, and the Greek Fathers. It is supported by such modern scholars as Barrett, Behm, Bernard, Cadman, Carson, R. H. Lightfoot, Lindars, Michaelis, Morris, Odeberg, Schlatter, Schweizer, C. H. Turner, M. M. B. Turner, Westcott, and Zahn. In addition it is represented by the following Greek texts and translations: KJV, RSV, NASB, NA27, and UBS4. D. A. Carson, John, 322-29, has a thorough discussion of the issues and evidence although he opts for the previous interpretation. There is another interpretation possible, however, called the “Western interpretation” because of patristic support by Justin, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. Modern scholars who favor this view are Abbott, Beasley-Murray, Bishop, Boismard, Braun, Brown, Bullinger, Bultmann, Burney, Dodd, Dunn, Guilding, R. Harris, Hoskyns, Jeremias, Loisy, D. M. Stanley, Thüsing, N. Turner, and Zerwick. This view is represented by the translation in the RSV margin and by the NEB. It is also sometimes called the “christological interpretation” because it makes Jesus himself the source of the living water in v. 38, by punctuating as follows: (37b) ἐάν τι διψᾷ ἐρχέσθω πρός με, καὶ πινέτω (38) ὁ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμέ. Καθὼς εἶπεν ἡ γραφή, ποταμοὶ ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας αὐτοῦ ῥεύσουσιν ὕδατος ζῶντος. Three crucial questions are involved in the solution of this problem: (1) punctuation; (2) determining the antecedent of αὐτοῦ (autou); and (3) the source of the scripture quotation. With regard to (1) Ì66 does place a full stop after πινέτω (pinetw), but this may be theologically motivated and could have been added later. Grammatical and stylistic arguments are inconclusive. More important is (2) the determination of the antecedent of αὐτοῦ. Can any other Johannine parallels be found which make the believer the source of the living water? John 4:14 is often mentioned in this regard, but unlike 4:14 the water here becomes a source for others also. Neither does 14:12 provide a parallel. Furthermore, such an interpretation becomes even more problematic in light of the explanation given in v. 39 that the water refers to the Holy Spirit, since it is extremely difficult to see the individual believer becoming the ‘source’ of the Spirit for others. On the other hand, the Gospel of John repeatedly places Jesus himself in this role as source of the living water: 4:10, of course, for the water itself; but according to 20:22 Jesus provides the Spirit (cf. 14:16). Furthermore, the symbolism of 19:34 is difficult to explain as anything other than a deliberate allusion to what is predicted here. This also explains why the Spirit cannot come to the disciples unless Jesus “departs” (16:7). As to (3) the source of the scripture quotation, M. E. Boismard has argued that John is using a targumic rendering of Ps 78:15-16 which describes the water brought forth from the rock in the wilderness by Moses (“Les citations targumiques dans le quatrième évangile,” RB 66 [1959]: 374-78). The frequency of Exodus motifs in the Fourth Gospel (paschal lamb, bronze serpent, manna from heaven) leads quite naturally to the supposition that the author is here drawing on the account of Moses striking the rock in the wilderness to bring forth water (Num 20:8 ff.). That such imagery was readily identified with Jesus in the early church is demonstrated by Paul’s understanding of the event in 1 Cor 10:4. Jesus is the Rock from which the living water – the Spirit – will flow. Carson (see note above) discusses this imagery although he favors the traditional or “Eastern” interpretation. In summary, the latter or “Western” interpretation is to be preferred.

4 tn Or “out of the innermost part of his person”; Grk “out of his belly.”

5 sn An OT quotation whose source is difficult to determine; Isa 44:3, 55:1, 58:11, and Zech 14:8 have all been suggested.

6 tn Grk “for the Spirit was not yet.” Although only B and a handful of other NT mss supply the participle δεδομένον (dedomenon), this is followed in the translation to avoid misunderstanding by the modern English reader that prior to this time the Spirit did not exist. John’s phrase is expressed from a human standpoint and has nothing to do with the preexistence of the third Person of the Godhead. The meaning is that the era of the Holy Spirit had not yet arrived; the Spirit was not as yet at work in a way he later would be because Jesus had not yet returned to his Father. Cf. also Acts 19:2.

7 sn This is a parenthetical note by the author.

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