What Did Jesus Really Say in John 7:37-38?
1,567 words 6 min 16 sec reading time
It is the reception of the Holy Spirit—the indwelling presence and power of God—that makes us his people and distinguishes us from those without hope and without God in the world. That revelation is crystal clear to Paul and the New Testament writers.
We've been looking at how the kingship (kingdom) of God was the message of the man, Jesus. And how his proclamations, explanations, and demonstrations of the kingdom were by the power of God's indwelling Spirit. The ongoing work of the LORD's kingship, he tells us, is that which we should seek, first.
For that to happen in our lives, it requires the full presence and empowering of God's good Spirit (Neh 9:20). Just as he was in Jesus, so now he is in and with us. Jesus boldly and provocatively points to all this in John chapter seven.
The context for the story is the Fall Feasts season in Israel. It begins on the first day of the seventh month with Yom Teruah, the day of the blowing, the blasts. Ten days later comes the solemn Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, of covering and pardon. Then five days later comes the great and final pilgrim festival called Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles or booths.
[Editor's note: Learn all about the practical application of the Fall Feasts in our special online workshop, September 28th.]
Our story takes place during Sukkot. It is a wonderful episode in the life of Yeshua. I want to unpack this with you by asking some questions as we read. What is going on here? What is Jesus saying? What are the scriptures that John refers to? And what did it mean for the church?
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and cried 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'" 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. (John 7:37-39)
In order to better understand and capture some of the drama of the moment, let's set the stage. On this day, the last and greatest day of Sukkot, there is a powerful ritual called the drawing of the water or the rejoicing in the water libation. The priests and the Levites would go down to the Pool of Siloam to gather some of these living waters in a golden pitcher. The High Priest would then process with them up to the altar in the Jerusalem Temple.
The Levites going before them were waving palm branches. These were quite large and when they moved together in unison, back and forth, it made a great whooshing sound, like the sound of a rushing wind. The exuberant rejoicing before the Lord was punctuated by joyous dance and the waving of the palms as the procession made their way up to the Temple. What a sight it must have been!
At the climactic moment of this stirring ritual, the High Priest takes the golden pitcher and a silver pitcher and pours them both out upon the altar. The golden full of the living water and the silver of wine, representative of blood. Water and blood are poured upon the altar as the priest petitions God for the outpouring of rain. Sukkot begins sometime in the period of October or late September, it varies from year to year because of the lunar Jewish calendar.
It is at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles that the rainy season begins in Israel. Due to climatic conditions within the land of Israel—based on its geography and topography—it has only one rainy season, roughly from November until February. The rest of the year is primarily dry so the rainfall during this time of year is critical for the life of the Land and its inhabitants.
Sukkot is also the time when the final agricultural harvest of the year has been reaped. It is out of the abundance of this harvest that you come before God and give him thanks. And in the midst of your thanksgiving, you ask him to pour out his rain so that we might have a harvest again next year. Indeed, so that we might survive.
Of course, this dramatic event evokes other scriptures (like Ezekiel 39:29 and Joel 2:28) promising that God will pour out his Spirit on his people. As the High Priest is praying for the outpouring of rain, he is also praying for the outpouring of God's Spirit which is promised—and this is an important point—in the consummation of all things at the last day.
At this very moment, as the water and the blood are being poured upon the altar, Jesus stands and in a loud voice makes his incredible proclamation, full of profound implications. "If anyone thirsts let him come to me, let him drink. For whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'"
John then explains to us that Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit, which has been operational from the very creation but has not yet been poured out in this prophetic, eschatological promise. Why? John goes on to explain that it was because Jesus was not yet glorified. So already we see that somehow the glorification, which we later understand refers to the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to the place of power, is going to be related to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of the prophetic promise.
That is the amazing setting of this amazing revelation. It is not coincidental, and no doubt your mind has already made this connection, that water and blood flowed from Yeshua's side while upon the cross. He is the new temple and from him will flow rivers of living waters.
Now is a good time to pause and review a key idea. From the New Testament point-of-view, Jesus' resurrection was the inauguration of the last day, of the end time, of the new age. Israel's expectations of the future became present in the life, death, and life again of Jesus. What is the evidence that this is so? God's Spirit was poured out without measure, just as he promised.
"But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. [...] And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'" (Acts 2:16-18, 21)
There is a lovely image in Isaiah 44:3. "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." Notice the parallelisms here between water and Spirit, then Spirit and blessing. Behold the heart of our Father in heaven.
When Jesus, at this moment of highest exaltation and messianic expectation during the Feast, speaks forth boldly he's making a dramatic claim that he is Israel's long-awaited Messiah. But what does he actually say?
The traditional reading, like the one I cited from the ESV, reads this way, "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.'"
The original Greek manuscripts do not have punctuation or sentence breaks, just continuous text. The placement of punctuation then becomes a crucial part of translation and interpretation. Reading the Greek permits a different way of punctuating this text, one which many scholars today prefer, and I find compellingly Hebraic (see the ESV footnote in John 7:38).
It can be read this way, "Let anyone who thirsts come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink." This is a parallelism, so common to Hebrew thought. Parallelism is when you say two things that contrast or complement one another to enhance the key idea. But there is more.
Our traditional reading proposes we are the source, that the living waters flow from within us. The alternate reading emphasizes Jesus (as does the parallelism), "As the Scripture has said, 'Out of him shall flow rivers of living water.'" The focus here is Jesus, he is both the source of the living waters and the one from whom they will flow to his people.
Now, this doesn't have to be an either/or. There is truth in both readings. I think it has more to do with a right ordering of kingdom reality; Jesus is the source of the Spirit who the Father gives to dwell in us. Consider how beautifully these truths are knit together in Yeshua's dialogue with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
"Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."