More than seven hundred years before the Word became flesh, the prophet Micah offered God’s people a clue about the identity of the Messiah. And while the Old Testament contains many such clues, this one is particularly clear: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2).
It was as simple as that. The Messiah would come from Bethlehem, the hometown of King David. He would spring from David’s line and receive David’s throne, so of course He would come from Bethlehem of Judea—David’s hometown—unimpressive though it was.
Matthew and Luke both tell us that Jesus was, in fact, born in the village of Bethlehem. We celebrate the beautiful story every Christmas with carols and gifts and twinkle lights. But here in John, there is no Christmas. There are no details whatsoever about Jesus’ birth. Instead, we are introduced to the Son of God by way of a prologue that begins before time itself, and we first see Jesus on the banks of the Jordan River, identified by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God. At that point, He’s a grown man, ready to begin His earthly ministry. There is no mention of the virgin birth, a census by edict of Caesar, or a journey to Bethlehem for Joseph and a pregnant Mary. There is just Jesus of Nazareth. And so, as Jesus’ fame begins to spread, the people start asking questions, one of the big ones being, “Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” (John 7:42).
Jesus never defends His credentials by recounting the circumstances of His birth. Instead, when He talks about where He is from, He goes bigger than Bethlehem and points to the Father. “I am not here on my own authority, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me” (vv. 28–29). Jesus has a mission from God. That’s what He wants to talk about—and the Festival of Tabernacles provides the perfect opportunity.
For at least the first seven days of the festival, priests would march from the nearby Pool of Siloam in a special procession, bringing water to pour out at the base of the altar in the temple. Since Tabernacles commemorates the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, this ritual remembers God providing water from the rock (Exodus 17:1–7; Numbers 20:1–13). But it had also come to have Messianic expectations associated with it.
On the first day of the celebration, there was a reading from Zechariah, which included this beautiful note about water: “On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name” (14:8–9). This water flowing from the altar at Tabernacles had come to symbolize the future reign of the Messiah, whose rule would cover the whole earth, bringing peace and salvation to people from every nation.
And so, on the last day of the festival, Jesus stands up and announces that He is the source of this living water: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37–38). He will give the Holy Spirit to all who trust in Him.
On hearing Jesus’ words, the people are divided. Some say He’s a prophet. Others believe He must be the Christ. And there are those who still can’t get over the fact that He’s from Galilee and (apparently) not Bethlehem. It’s enough that the temple guards are dumbfounded. Jesus’ bold claims, if they aren’t true, are enough to warrant His arrest, but they can’t seem to do the deed. They later tell the chief priests and the Pharisees, “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (v. 46).
That’s the thing about Jesus. He doesn’t speak the way we might expect. He doesn’t often give us the answers we want. Usually He answers the questions we didn’t realize we needed to ask. Nicodemus knows this from personal experience (see John 3:1–21). He’d spent an evening with Jesus and must have left filled with a sense of hope and awe. John doesn’t actually record for us Nicodemus’ state of mind after his late-night encounter, but we know he didn’t leave with any neat, tidy answers. So, here at the Festival of Tabernacles, Nicodemus stands ready to defend Jesus, reminding His fellow Pharisees and Sanhedrin members of their own supposed standards: “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (7:51).
Nicodemus’ question is a simple one, but it’s at the heart of faith. If we come to Jesus with our expectations of what the Savior should be, we will likely be disappointed. If we approach Him with our wish list of blessing requests, we will miss the point of His coming to us entirely. But if we come to Jesus on His terms, listen to what He says, and observe what He does, we will find that the deepest longings of our heart are answered by Him.
In truth, Jesus checks off every biblical prophecy concerning the Messiah, but if we come to Jesus simply because of a checklist, we’ve missed Him. Jesus may be difficult to figure out at times, but that’s because He isn’t a puzzle to be solved. He’s a Person—God in the flesh—who offers us living water in order that we might join Him in transforming the world all around us.