Post Series: John 7:37–39
- “If Anyone Thirsts…”: How the Fall Left us Thirsty (John 7:37)
- “Rivers of Living Water”: Why Jesus Gives Us the Holy Spirit (John 7:38–39)
In light of the fact that humanity’s fall into sin has left us thirsty, Jesus tells us that he has come to quench our thirst. But, in John 7:38–39, Jesus announces that this thirst-quenching ministry has two sides to it: First, Jesus came to offer himself as the drink to satisfy our deep, spiritual thirst. Second, Jesus came to give to us the Holy Spirit as the living waters that will fill us up to overflowing. These two purposes are distinct, and yet they stand together so that neither can happen apart from the other.
“…Let Him Come to Me and Drink”
Again, remember the context of the Feast of Booths that we discussed in yesterday’s post: the Feast of Booths was a feast that celebrated Yahweh’s provision of water to his people as they wandered through the wilderness. Yahweh had provided water out of the side of a rock to drink, and he had given the people rain to fall on the promised land, and so ever day of the Feast of Booths was marked with a water-pouring rite where the priest would fill up a golden pitcher from the fountain of Siloah and pour it out into bowls in front of the bronze altar in the courtyard. Then, the people of Israel would sing Isaiah 12:3: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
For centuries Israel had been celebrating this feast in anticipation of the day when someone would come to give them water from the wells of salvation to quench their thirst. And every time they celebrated it after returning from their exile in Babylon, they must have recalled the words of Yahweh spoken through the prophet Jeremiah in the days leading up to that exile:
“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:12–13)
Now, here was Jesus, standing in their midst, announcing that he was the fulfillment of that promise—that if anyone was thirsty, he should come to Jesus and drink. Or, to put it another way, if anyone wanted to stop hewing for himself broken cisterns that can hold no water, Jesus was announcing that he was the fountain of living waters.
So, what does Jesus mean by this? Put simply, Jesus is promising here that, if anyone comes to him in faith, he will give that person the gift of the Holy Spirit in such abundance that living waters will rise up out of that person’s belly (the word for “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” is not the word for heart but the word for cavity or belly) that the living waters will overflow out in rivers. Let’s look at this issue next.
Rivers of Living Water: The Story of the Bible
To understand what Jesus is saying here about the ministry of the Holy Spirit here in John 7, we have to understand the whole story of the Bible. Jesus is not making an off-handed, minor claim—he is tying together the whole story of the Bible here.
Rivers of living water are at the heart of the story that the Bible tells us about God’s creation, our fall into sin, God’s redemption through Christ, and our future glory. In the very beginning, we read that Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden in perfect fellowship with God. Of the few details we are given about the Garden of Eden, one of the most important pieces of information is to read that rivers of life-giving water flowed out of the Garden of Eden to water the whole earth:
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Gen. 2:10–14)
Genesis 1 gives a fly-by account of God’s creation, where Genesis 2 gives us a slower, closer look at life in the Garden of Eden. Still, Genesis 2 tells us very little of the details of what that holy place must have been like. Spending five verses on the rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden stands out prominently in the narrative, which tells us that God wants us to notice these rivers, even if we don’t understand just yet why they are so important.
After the fall in Genesis 3, the rest of the story of the Bible tells us the prominent place that rivers of living waters played in the rest of the story. So, the very first psalm puts this theme front and center:
Blessed is the man…[whose] delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Ps. 1:1–3).
Then, the prophet Ezekiel foresees the day when Israel would have a new temple, out of which would flow rivers of living waters, with fruit trees flourishing all along that river that will heal the nations:
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). 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 around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and behold, the water was trickling out on the south side.
Going on eastward with a measuring 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 waist-deep. 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 to the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw on 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 enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes, every living creature that 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 Engedi to Eneglaim 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.” (Eze. 47:1-12)
Revelation 22 repeats this imagery to describe the New Heavens and the New Earth:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:1-2)
Not only does Ezekiel and Revelation echo the language of Psalm 1 in speaking of the trees beside rivers of water whose leaves do not wither and whose fruit does not fail, but Ezekiel also sees these waters transforming the sea into fresh water. What a stunning picture of reversing the curse of sin! Even recently, a Wall Street Journal article discussed the poisonous nature of salt water which had been spilled in North Dakota in the process of drilling for oil. One farmer said, “There’s probably nothing more toxic to land than salt water” (WSJ).
In fact, C. S. Lewis picked up this idea in his story Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Narnian adventurers sail to the far east toward Aslan’s country. As they approach the utter east, the valiant mouse Reepicheep jumps in the water to exclaim that the water has become sweet (fresh). Although everyone is confused, Reepicheep explains to them the prophecy that had been told of him when he was born, assuring him that he would reach Aslan’s country one day:
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
There is the utter East.
This theme even appears in the Song of Songs, which is a story about how the Davidic king overcomes all barriers to take a bride for himself (a story that reflects that larger story of Yahweh’s pursuit of Israel as his bride). There, we see the living waters showing up again in a garden. At the marriage of the lovers, we read that the Davidic king enters into the “locked” garden and the “locked” spring (Song 4:12) of his beloved bride to restore the flowing waters of that garden:
HE: A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed…a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon….
SHE: Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits. (Song 4:12, 15, 16)
Regarding this passage, Hamilton offers these magnificent thoughts in his commentary:
Solomon has presented the King likening the Bride to land and temple, and in Song 4:12–15 he likens her to the Garden of Eden. The terms ‘garden’ and ‘fountain’ occur in verses 12 and 15, forming a bracket around the whole of this description. She is like the garden the Lord planted in the east, and a river runs through it (cf. Gen. 2:8–10). She anticipates the eschatological temple, whence the healing stream shall flow (Ezek. 47:1-12; Zech. 13:1; Rev. 22:1–2). Solomon’s description of the King here anticipates the one who will meet a Samaritan at a well and speak of living water (John 4:10–15). Solomon poetically depicts the consummation of this marriage as an anticipation of restoration to life in the Garden of Eden. (Song of Songs, 92)
In sum, the whole Bible tells the story about the living waters that humanity lost in the Garden of Eden, along with the living waters that we stand to regain through the work of Jesus Christ.
Rivers of Living Water: The Ministry of the Holy Spirit
If we take a step back from the story and look at it together, the Bible is really telling the story of God’s dwelling place on earth. In the beginning, God dwelt with his people in the Garden of Eden, but after the Fall, God restored his presence among his people through his tabernacle and his temple. All along the way, God insisted that some day his Spirit would pour out of the temple like rivers of living water, giving healing to the nations.
But in fact, it wasn’t that God merely wanted to dwell next to his people—he wanted to dwell within his people by his Spirit. First, God sent his own Son to tabernacle among us (John 1:14) and to be the temple that God himself would raise up after three days (John 2:19–22). But ultimately, the temple God wanted to create is not a building on a mountain in Jerusalem, but God’s own people (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:4–5).
What Jesus is telling us, then, is that he came to give us the Spirit. We were created for the Spirit to dwell within us, but we lost his presence at the Fall. But now, just as water flowed out of the rock for Israel, and just as water was promised to flow out of the eschatological temple built on the rock of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, so now Jesus promised that the living waters of the Holy Spirit would flow out of our bellies when we come to drink from Jesus.
Jesus came to give us the Holy Spirit.
The ministry of the Holy Spirit, then, isn’t about doing something strange and bizarre and different from the work of redemption that the Father conspired with his Son from eternity past—the ministry of the Spirit is the realization of what the Father sent the Son to accomplish. We receive the fullness of Christ’s mercies and blessings through the Holy Spirit.
In this way, we are reconciled to the three Persons of the Trinity altogether. The Father reconciles us to himself through sending his Son, whose death and resurrection atones for our sins. Then, the Father and the Son together send us the Holy Spirit who communicates to us the love of the Father and the Son
John Owen puts it this way:
There never was, nor is, nor ever will be the least particle of holiness in the world, but what flowing from Jesus Christ, is communicated by the Spirit, according to the truth and promise of the gospel. (The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power, 248.)
When we come to Christ and drink, he gives us the Spirit who fills us up to overflowing, spilling out God’s love and grace onto those around us for the healing of the nations.[sc:endcta]