Despite the mockery and derision from his brothers, Jesus did attend the feast, but only on his terms. He was not going as a pilgrim like everyone else. He had a mission from his Father, and he was going to carry it out.
The festival he was attending was the Feast of Tabernacles. It was also called the Feast of Booths, because for a week the Hebrews were supposed to live in shelters outside made of palm leaves, sort of like camping. It was also called the Feast of Ingathering, since it celebrated the end of the harvest season. Based on Ex. 23:16 and Lev.23:33-36, 39-43 (among others), it reminded the Israelites of the past and also showed gratitude for the Lord’s provisions. The reason they lived in “booths” was to remind themselves of how the Lord had provided for them in the wilderness for 40 years, and the sacrifices they offered was to remind them of how the Lord provided for them in the Promised Land. This was the most popular Jewish religious ritual (both back then and now), so there would be the maximum number of people to hear what Jesus was proclaiming. Pilgrims from all over the nation came to celebrate, people who wouldn’t there at any other time during the year.
Now he was publicly teaching, and the immediate reaction was exactly the same as towards his apostles a couple of years later: astonishment that an unschooled man could teach with such depth and authority. We need to remember that the Jews (like most people throughout history) valued tradition and precedent over innovation (the exact opposite from us). If a teacher could cite a well-known rabbi in support of his position instead of saying “I have a brand-new revelation or insight from God,” that would be far more credible. Then--as now--they valued formal education and distrusted mavericks. But Jesus didn’t quote or cite any rabbis, only the Old Testament itself, and he was not afraid to show how the common or established interpretation of God’s word was seriously flawed and needed correction (a good portion of the Sermon on the Mount is dedicated to this).
But Jesus was not just some crazy teacher who claimed things that he couldn’t deliver on, and he didn’t expect people to just accept him based on his say-so. He had four reasons, listed in this passage, as to why people should listen to him, and eventually place their faith in him: 1) His teaching came from God himself, not something he made up, 2) It could be confirmed by testing, 3) His actions demonstrated his selflessness, and 4) His teaching was right in line with God’s word, not something brand new. By the way, the “one miracle” he referred to was the healing of the paralytic in 5:1-10, and apparently they were “amazed” not because of the healing, but because he'd done it on the Sabbath. He was already well-known as a miracle worker, so he was obviously not just some crank or self-appointed “Messiah” like they'd seen over the years. As he made it clear in vs. 17, he was confident that an honest seeker would come to the right conclusion.
So what does this mean to you and me today? If we’re believers, hopefully we’ve gotten the issue of whether Jesus was really sent by God out of the way. But are we open to what the Lord's saying to us today? His truth might come from an unlikely source, and odds are it's going to be something we need to hear instead of what we'd like to hear. He’s speaking to you right now, if you only have the ears to hear it. Are you listening?
Father God, please give me listening ears and a soft heart, where your truth always has a welcoming home.