Devil Talk, Part 2

Continuing from yesterday, we continue our look at John 8:44 and the Evangelist’s use of the Old Testament in teaching about the sacrament of Baptism:

This process of relating Jesus to the community goes backwards in time as well as forwards.  Just as Jesus’ words about water and the Holy Spirit are inevitably linked with what John’s audience has lived in the sacrament of Baptism, so they are inevitably linked with what John and his heavily Jewish readership know of the Old Testament.  So when the Evangelist relates John the Baptist’s acclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), he does so with the assumption that his readers are completely aware of the sacrificial Passover Lamb and the whole story of the Exodus.  Indeed, John, like all the New Testament writers, is presuming a full awareness of the entire Old Testament.

All this is vital for us to realize as we approach John 8:44.  Because that verse lives in the middle of a very long and very subtle catechetical meditation, not on the peculiar wickedness of Jews, but on the meaning and effects of Baptism. As I will show, this means that the passage is not directed at singling out Jews as particularly evil, but is instead aimed at declaring the universality of original sin.

John, you see, has a pastoral problem.  His audience consists, in part, of people who are influenced by a sect that elevates John the Baptist over Jesus.  We can see abundant evidence for this in the fact that his gospel addresses a considerable portion of material to disciples of John the Baptist who had heard only of his “baptism of repentance”, but not of his full testimony to Jesus.  This is one of the reasons scholars think he is writing to the Church at Ephesus.  For we know from Acts 18:24 and 19:1-7 that there was some sort sect of centered in Ephesus which fit this description, to whom the apostles repeatedly addressed pleas to follow the Christ whom John the Baptist serves.  And so John has to emphasize again and again that the Baptist was not the Messiah (John 1:20), that he came only as a witness to the Light (John 1:6-8), that he was just the friend of the bridegroom, and that he must decrease even as Christ increases (John 3:28-30).

Not surprisingly then, the Evangelist is tasked with showing the difference between John’s baptism of repentance and the sacramental Baptism given by Christ. But being a first century Jew and not a 21st century abstract thinker, he does so via the medium of stories–true stories–and not via the medium of theological jargon.

John’s instruction on the meaning and effects of sacramental Baptism begins in John 7 and continues all the way to the end of John 9.  As is his custom throughout the gospel, he relates the teaching and work of Christ to a Jewish feast–in this case, the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast celebrated Israel’s living in tents in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:43) and the permanent abode given them in the Promised Land, particularly symbolized by the Temple. Its two dominant motifs were water and light, recalling the water from the rock Moses gave Israel and the light of the Pillar of Fire that led Israel through the wilderness.  In addition, the feast referred to the mysterious vision of Ezekiel 40-48 in which the prophet sees the restored Temple after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and the Babylonian Captivity.   Accordingly, the Women’s Court of the Temple was illuminated to recall the Pillar of Fire and a curious rite was enacted:  Every morning of the celebration a priest went down to the Pool of Siloam (a pool we shall hear more about in John 9), and brought back a golden pitcher of water to the Temple (the successor of the Tabernacle). This water was poured on the altar of holocausts amidst the singing of the Hallel (Ps. 112-117) and the joyful sound of musical instruments.

It is in the middle of all this that Jesus stands up “on the last and greatest day of the feast” and says: “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).

Now the odd thing is, the Old Testament nowhere says, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” John knows that. His readers know that. So why record Jesus saying that? Because John knows Jesus is alluding to, not directly quoting, Ezekiel 47’s vision of the restored Temple that is commemorated in the Feast of Tabernacles:

Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate, that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.

Going on eastward with a line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the loins. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. And he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?”

Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. And he said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be very many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea; from En-gedi to En-eglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47:1-12).

Of course, the rebuilt Temple never had any such river flowing out of it, so what was Ezekiel getting at?  Jesus tells us: the water flowing out of the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision, the water poured on the altar of holocausts in the Feast of Tabernacles is a foreshadowing of the sacrament of Baptism. This should not surprise us.  After all, Jesus has already made clear that his body, not a mere stone building, is the True Temple (“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”[John 2:19]). Moreover, as John is careful to note, water did in fact flow from that Temple when the heart of Jesus was pierced (John 19:34-35). And the Evangelist’s emphasis on this leaves no doubt that John himself saw this as the sign that the sacrament of Baptism had been instituted by the Holy Spirit.  That’s why he writes

This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:6-8). 

So in John 7, the Evangelist is using the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles and the words of Jesus to liken his body and ours to a temple and linking the Spirit to baptismal imagery–baptismal imagery that is likewise all about water and light. In so doing, he sets the stage for all that is to follow in his instruction on Baptism, whereby we drink the Living Water and have our eyes opened to the Light of the world (John 8:12). 

Tomorrow is our final installment!

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