Today is the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles, the “Great Day” which is mentioned in John 7:37, when Jesus went to Jerusalem for the festival, only six months before he was crucified and raised from the dead.
In reading over John chapter 7, I was struck by how the question on the people’s minds in Jerusalem at the Festival was not “Is this man God?”. Rather, the question people were asking themselves was “Is this man the Messiah?” For centuries, Trinitarian theology has claimed that the Gospel of John is the book that presents Jesus as God. But to make that claim a person has to bring his own presuppositions to John’s Gospel, while at the same time ignore that John is really presenting Jesus as the Messiah.
Unfortunately, in most of today’s Gentile world, people have come to associate the title “Christ”, the Greek word for Messiah, with deity. But in the Bible the Messiah/Christ is never God himself. In the Bible the Messiah/Christ is a human person, most prominently a king or priest, who is chosen and anointed by God. The word Messiah/Christ means “anointed”.
The question: “Is Jesus the Messiah?” is a central theme of the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is the Messiah in the first chapter, in a comparison with Moses. “The Torah (Law) came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus the Messiah” (John 1:17). Jesus is parallel to Moses, not God. Both Moses and Jesus the Messiah were human channels through whom God worked.
Also in the first chapter of John’s Gospel people wondered if perhaps John the Baptist was the Messiah. John the Baptist made it clear: “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20, 25; 3:28). Then, still within John’s first chapter (John 1:41), we are presented with the declaration of Andrew to his brother Peter: “We have found the Messiah!’ (which means Christ)”. What excitement must have been in Andrew’s voice! His people had been waiting hundreds of years for God to send the Messiah, and Andrew believed that the time, and the person, had arrived! It is also interesting to note that the author of the Gospel felt it necessary to translate the meaning of the word Messiah for his non-Jewish readers, “which means Christ”.
In John’s Gospel even a Samaritan woman knew that “Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things" (John 4:25). In the next verse Jesus told her that he is the Messiah. Then the woman went to the people in her town declaring, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Messiah?" (John 4:29).
Just before Jesus came to Jerusalem during the Festival of Tabernacles (7:1-2), as John 7:5 tells us, “even his brothers did not believe in him”. This means that at this point Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. There is no way John’s Gospel would be telling us that Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe that Jesus was God. That would be an absurdity. Jesus’ brothers, Jews from Galilee, knew Jesus was a human being whom they had grown up with. The question was not if this human being was God. The question was, is this human being the Messiah.
At the festival Jesus differentiated between God on the one hand, and himself on the other. “My teaching is not mine, but His who sent me. If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:16-17). In the next chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus likewise said, “but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God (John 8:40).
“Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah?” asked some Jerusalemites at the Festival of Tabernacles (John 7:26). They pondered the question of where Messiah was to come from (7:27). “Yet many of the people believed in him. They said, "When the Messiah appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (7:31). The people who believed in Jesus believed that Jesus was the Messiah, not God. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah of God (cf. Luke 9:20).
The last day of the festival is known as the Great Day, today also called Simchat Torah (Rejoicing over the Torah/Law, John 7:37. cf. John 7:19, “Did not Moses give you the Torah/Law?”). On that Great Day Jesus stood up and proclaimed that he was God’s channel of life-giving water/spirit. When the people heard these words, some acknowledged that Jesus was the Prophet like unto Moses that God would send to Israel (John 7:40, Deut. 18:18). “Others said, ‘This is the Messiah’” (John 7:41). Belief in Jesus meant believing that Jesus is the Messiah, not that Jesus is God.
Some in Jerusalem that day were skeptical that Jesus was the Messiah because of where Jesus grew up, questioning also if Jesus was a descendent of David. “Is the Messiah to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Messiah comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” (John 7:41-42). They were apparently ignorant of the fact that Jesus was a descendant of David, born in Bethlehem.
But the question on people’s minds in Jerusalem that Festival of Tabernacles was not, “Is this man God?” The question was, “Is this man the Messiah, descended from David?”
Not many days after that Festival of Tabernacles, perhaps Jesus was even still in Jerusalem after the festival, Jesus healed a blind man in the city. The question also then was, “Is Jesus the Messiah?”. “The Judeans had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Messiah, he was to be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). There is no question at all if Jesus was God dressed up in human flesh, which would be an absurdity.
At Hanukkah, back in Jerusalem later the same year, the Gospel of John tells us that Judeans confronted Jesus, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). Jesus replied that he had already told them so, and that both his words and the works he did testified to that truth.
Just before raising Lazarus from the dead, Martha declared, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). Martha doesn’t declare that Jesus is God, but rather that he is Messiah and Son of God, the biblical title for the coming Messiah King (2 Sam. 7:14, Psa. 2:1-7, 1 Chron. 28:6, John 1:49). Son of God does not mean God the Son.
After Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey just before the Passover when he was crucified and raised from the dead, the question about Jesus was whether he was the Messiah, not God (John 12:24).
Less than a day before Jesus’ death, Jesus prayed to God, “Father…this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus' prayer to God shows us plainly that Jesus knew he was the Messiah, not God.
Finally, the author of the Gospel of John told us the reason he recorded the miracles or signs that Jesus did: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). This is a kind of purpose statement for the entire Gospel of John. John didn’t write so that we would believe that Jesus is God, but rather that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
It is a tragedy that later Roman and Byzantine Period Christians interpreted the Jesus of the Gospel of John to be God, when John is in fact declaring that Jesus is the Messiah. As presented in John’s Gospel, and indeed all of the New Testament, those that believe in Jesus do not believe that Jesus is God. Rather, those that believe in Jesus believe that Jesus is the Messiah. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God” (1 John 5:1).