37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as[a] the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Today we pick up a theme that the gospel writer has previously raised, particularly in John 4 with the woman at the well. Jesus speaks to her about living water. Out of the four gospels, John’s gospel is particularly filled with symbolism and a heavily theological and spiritual perspective. We’ve seen so much about wells of living water; water turning to wine; Jesus saying that “this temple” will be destroyed and raised again on the third day, but speaking about His own body; five loaves and two fish feeding five thousand; walking on water; bread coming down from heaven; eating flesh and drinking blood; and so on. Our world is filled with objects that God uses to teach us things. This is what Jesus did in so many of His parables. This is the way that a lot of the Bible is. It is the condescension of God to speak to men in a way that they can understand, using words and images from the creation and world around them. This is the way that God set the world up. It was all His idea. He created all this world and everything in it. He made it to be a big beautiful, communicative world, filled with things that we experience with our senses and minds. So as Creator, God sits above His creation, commanding it all, holding it all together; but then He also enfleshes Himself into His creation, and experiences all these things of creation with which He communicates to us – water, bread, wine, birth, soil, etc.
When we come to Scripture, we need to read the words, break it down, understand grammatically what it’s saying – the prepositions, the clauses, the important transition words and phrases – all of those things, like a science. But then we also need to step back and see the picture and the imagery, and all the color to fill in around the words. God is a Creator. He is a storyteller and an artist. The Bible is a storybook that’s full of pictures, images, and symbols. This afternoon, where we are standing, our eyeballs are staring at a masterpiece, an inch in front of it. If we want to see how beautiful this thing is, we need to take a step or two back, so we can see the whole thing with both of our eyes.
In our text this afternoon, the stage is set. It’s a new day, but we are still at the Feast of Booths. Quick reminder: what was the Feast of Booths? It was a celebration in which the Jews would remember how God led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness, as they dwelt in tabernacles, or booths, or tents. So they would dwell in booths, or tents – little tabernacles – during this feast. They had various activities and sacrifices and things they would do each day of the feast. Not only was it a festival of remembrance, it was also a harvest festival. One of the things that they would do is pray for rain and a bountiful harvest. If they did not observe this feast there was threat of facing a poor harvest. There is an interesting prophecy in Zechariah 14 that talks about the Feast of Booths: 16 Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. 17 And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. 18 And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain;[a] there shall be the plague with which the Lord afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. 19 This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths.
The point today is that those images go together: the Feast of Booths and a harvest rain. So, the Feast of Booths remembered the time of the tabernacle in the wilderness, and was connected with prayer for rain and harvest.
Last Day of the Feast Festivities
Verse 37 tells us that it is the last day of the feast, the great day. The Feast of Booths was 8 days. The 7th day of the feast was really the crescendo of the feast; it was the biggest day in terms of festivities. One of the things they did on the 7th day was to have a procession where they would carry water to the temple to the accompaniment of music, and they would often cite texts like Isaiah 12:3 which says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” So they would proceed around the altar, 6 times on the 7th day, and then the water would be poured out on the altar of burnt offering in the temple. This was a great ritual that helped the people’s hope and imagination in praying for rain, and most importantly, hoping for those wells of salvation to be overflowing with abundance.
So this is the background into which Jesus stands up and cries out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Jesus is not only playing off the imagery within the feast, but He is upping the ante. They’ve got jars and bowls of water they are pouring out and what not, but Jesus says, “He who believes in me, out of him will flow rivers of living water.” This is something greater. This is something you can’t contain in a jar. It’s an endless source of life.
Remember the harvest and rain theme here. Rain is important to harvest, because you have to have rain to have fruitfulness and produce, and reap a bountiful crop. Jesus is not only promising a greater source of water, He is promising a great harvest, great produce, and great fruitfulness! I hope you know we are not talking simply about literal rain and harvest, but New Covenant gospel realities, as we are told Jesus was speaking of the Spirit that was yet to be given. Now, where was it that the Spirit was given? Pentecost, in Acts 2. And what happened at Pentecost? There were Jews dwelling in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and they had all come together because the Spirit came upon them and they all heard the gospel in their own languages as they were speaking in tongues. Then the unbelievers accuse them of being drunk, and Peter gets up and says “No way, it’s only the third hour of the day.” And he preaches one of the all time great sermons ever preached, and then it tells us that there were about 3,000 souls that day that were added to their number. Throughout the book of Acts at various instances there were a great number of people converted at one time. There was the giving of the Spirit, accompanied by a great harvest, a fruitful crop of individuals coming to Christ.
Old Testament Scriptures Concerning Flowing Waters
Not only would the Jews have had the imagery of water pouring at the Feast of Booths, but also the Old Testament had such imagery throughout it that they would have been quite familiar with and recalled to mind. In fact in verse 38 when Jesus says, “as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” it is not a direct quotation of any particular text, but it is a summary or explanation of the Old Testament’s teaching on the subject.
In the prophet Zechariah there is a prophecy concerning a time surrounding the death of Christ. In Zechariah 12:10 it says, “And I will pour out on the house of david the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” Then the same prophecy continues into chapter 13 and verse 1, “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” So here in connection with the crucifixion and the New Covenant we have the imagery of a fountain being opened and cleansing the people from sin and uncleanness. Throughout Israel’s laws in the Old Covenant there were a great many laws that deal with cleanness and uncleanness. They were cleanliness laws or purity laws. They had various washings and things they had to do to be clean, from whatever uncleanliness they experienced. These things were in anticipation of the day when a fountain will be opened for cleansing, not just from the physical uncleanliness, but a cleansing from sin and the uncleanliness from within. This fountain, like rivers do, flowed down from the mountain of Golgotha where the blood of Christ was poured out for the cleansing of sin.
What’s interesting is that in John 7, Jesus is saying that the one who believes, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. Then as we are told in verse 39, He was speaking about the Holy Spirit. So the idea is that Rivers of Life flow out from Calvary where Christ said “It is finished,” and those who believe in Him, receive the promised Holy Spirit as a seal and a guarantee of our inheritance. Rivers flow from heaven, down to us, and out through us as the Spirit indwells us. Isaiah 58:11, “And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” This goes right with what Jesus is saying, “You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water…”
Also Isaiah 44:3-4, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.” This passage helps us see the connection to water flowing out of us. At first glance doesn’t that seem a bit strange that Jesus said out of he who believes will flow rivers of living water? How does that work? Well, the image we are given here in Isaiah 44 is that they shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. The image here is growth and fruitfulness. A Christian is not one who is spiritually saved and then goes off to be hermit and is no good in the world. The Christian is one who is saved, and because they are watered with living waters, they grow and become fruitful. They bear the fruit of the Spirit, and they bear fruitfulness in their lives that are a benefit to the world and people around them: their families, churches, and communities. There are good works that God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in. As Luther would say, those good works are not for God – to justify us – but for our neighbor, to bless them.
Along these lines there is another passage I will mention. The prophet Ezekiel is given a vision in Ezekiel 47. In this vision there is water flowing out of the temple, and it’s a great river flowing out to the sea. This is great imagery of the New Covenant area of the Rivers of Living water that Jesus brings and offers to nourish thirsty sinners who would come to Him by faith. But there is an extremely fascinating element to this vision. Ezekiel is standing on the bank of the river and there were a great many trees along the bank of the river. In the vision, wherever the river goes, so swarms every living creature and a great many fish. Of course the in the image water represents life and vitality, as it gives off refreshment and produces fruitfulness. Fresh water is a life source. Fisherman will go and benefit from the fish who benefit from the water. Then it says in verse 12 of Ezekiel 47, “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.” So in John 4 Jesus offered living water that if drunk would become a spring welling up to eternal life within the one who drinks. Here Jesus again calls whoever is thirsty to come drink and says they will be given the Spirit and thus out of them will flow rivers of living water. Christ, by His Spirit, through us, His Church, will be a blessing and means of life to the world. It’s interesting that in Ezekiel water is flowing from the temple. And in the New Testament, Jesus is our true temple; and in Christ, it is said that we are temples. You see, Christ is the source of all life, and He blesses the world through His Church, His People whom His Spirit indwells, as we go and speak words of life, do good, and are productive Christians. In Psalm 1 the blessed man is like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.
In the Old Testament, the temple was the center of the worship of God. That doesn’t change in the New Testament. It is just that the physical Old Testament temple was temporary until Jesus came in the flesh, our true temple. And because He is the center of true worship, and He dwells within His people, we can now worship in Spirit and in truth, through Christ, wherever we gather together, whether we are in a church building, a home, or a catacomb. Now my point is this: if water flows from the temple, and Christ in us is the temple, and the temple is the center of worship, then that shows us there is a connection between our worship and our blessing to the world and fruitfulness in the world. In John 4, God is seeking true worshipers. I won’t push the point much further this afternoon, but think about that connection between true and pure worship, with the effectiveness of the church in the world. There is a reason why every liberalized and apostate church and denomination in history dies out. It’s not because they weren’t trying to do good in the world. You can trace it back to failure of right, pure, and true worship. So church, if we want to be a blessing to the world, it begins in our worship. We must have true, pure, and right worship before God. Because if we don’t, why would God want to draw sinners to false or impure worship?
Biblical Theme: Garden, Desert, Restoration
So we’ve taken a step back from our text to see the bigger picture and appreciate the beauty of this one paint brush swipe. But I want us to take one more step back. Consider the story and themes of the whole Bible. This idea of rivers of living water giving life is one of those whole Bible themes. In Genesis when God created the world, at first there were no plants or anything yet because God had not caused it to rain. But then it says that God planted a garden, and He put all the trees in the garden, and then He put a river in the garden to water the plants. In Genesis 2:10 it says, “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.” So there in the garden there are rivers that water the plants and give life to the paradise in which Adam and Eve lived when all was perfect without sin in the world. In the garden food was growing off the plants and they ate with ease. But then of course they sin, and they are kicked out of the garden, and part of the curse was that it would take hard work and sweat to bring food forth from the ground and the ground would grow thorns and thistles.
Because of sin, man went from a garden to a desert. Much of Israel’s history was spent in the wilderness. It was so dry at one point God made water come from a rock (which is itself a small type of what was to come). Then we have many of the prophets telling of a time to come when there shall be again be flowing water to bless the nations. Then Jesus comes and He’s offering it, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink!” And then Pentecost and the Spirit comes and is poured out to the nations. And then we have this amazing passage in Revelation, at the end of the Bible: Then the angel[a] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life[b] with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.
You see, God is telling a story. He’s telling the story while the story is taking place. He is using images and symbols and things of the creation to awake the creatures, to alert them that they are in this story. When we read God’s story we should see the images like rivers and trees and fruit and look around and say, “wait a minute, am I in this story?” Yes! We are reading God’s story while we are in God’s story! The symbols in creation that God uses to tell His story is, among other things, meant to wake us up to realize we are in this story, so that we might see the dragon, and the lamb, the wicked, and the righteous and say, “I want the Lamb! I want the one who shed His blood for His people and the One who defeats the ancient dragon! I want to be numbered with the righteous and not the wicked!”
I will close this post with a selection from the late David Chilton’s book, Paradise Restored, which I recommend to everyone. It is still in print at American Vision here.
“Edenic symbolism was also in the feasts of Israel, as they celebrated the bounty of God’s provision and enjoyed the fullness of life and prosperity under the blessings of the covenant. This is particularly true of the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (also called ‘Ingathering,’ in Ex. 23:16). In this feast they were required to leave their homes nad live for seven days in little ‘tabernacles,’ or booths, made entirely from ‘the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook’ (Lev. 23:40). Israel usually dwelled in walled cities, as a protection against their enemies; yet, at the very time of prosperity (the end of the harvest ) – when attack would seem most likely – God ordered them to leave the security of their homes and journey to Jerusalem, to live in unprotected booths made of branches, palm fronds, and fruit! God promised, however, that He would keep the heathen from attacking during the festivals (Ex. 34:23-24), and Israel had to trust in His strength.
The feast was, obviously, a reminder of life in Eden, when walled cities were unnecessary; and it looked forward to the day when the world would be turned into Eden, and the nations would beat their swords into plowshares (Mic. 4:3). For this reason they were also commanded to sacrifice 70 bullocks during the feast (Num. 29:12-38). Why? Because the number of the original nations of the earth was 70 (they are listed in Gen. 10), and the feast celebrated the ingathering of all nations into God’s Kingdom; thus atonement was made for all.
It is important to remember that the Jews did not keep this feast – in fact, they forgot it was even in the Bible – until their return from captivity under Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 8:13-18). During this period of renewal and restoration, God enlightened the minds of the prophets to understand the significance of this feast as an acted-out prophecy of the conversion of all nations to the true faith. On the last day of the feast (Hag. 2:1), God spoke through Haggai: ” ‘I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations; and I will fill this House [the Temple] with glory… The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine,” declares the LORD of hosts” (Hag. 2:7-8). About this same time, Zechariah prophesied about the meaning of the feast in terms of the conversion of all nations and the sanctification of every area of life (Zech. 14:16-21). And hundreds of years later, during the celebration of the same feast, Christ Himself declared its meaning: the outpouring of the Spirit upon the restored believer, so that the Church becomes a means of restoration to the entire world.”