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We are examining the context and content of Yeshua's remarkable declaration in John 7:37-38. He is claiming to be the source of the living water (Holy Spirit). He is inviting anyone who thirsts to come and drink. All who believe in him have this right and will receive. Paul uses this same metaphor in I Corinthians 12:13, "all were made to drink of one Spirit."
John goes on to quote Jesus as saying, "as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'" What scripture is he referring to here? Though it may surprise you, there is not a single text that precisely corresponds to what Jesus is quoting. He is weaving together several scriptures that cluster together around the same theme. The method is familiar to his Hebraic heritage.
I alluded earlier to Joel 2 and Isaiah 44, texts that are part of the discussion. But there are other significant scriptures pertinent to this John 7 context.
Zechariah 14 also speaks of the consummation of all things at the end of the age. "On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one." (Zech 14:8-9)
The terminology east and west, summer and winter connote that which is comprehensive and continual. Verse 16 connects these events and the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem, which is our setting for Jesus' declaration. Zechariah, in prophetic imagery, is saying that in the last days the nations will stream up to Jerusalem, and more specifically as we're going to see in Ezekiel, the Temple in Jerusalem. What is flowing there? Rivers of living water (mayim hayim).
Ezekiel has a parallel vision. "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." (Ezekiel 47:1) In the last days, somehow, water is going to begin flowing, not just from Jerusalem, but from the Temple of the Lord, and even more specifically from the side of the altar.
Now, notice verse 12, "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." Said another way, this describes spiritual fruit that results from living waters flowing from the sanctuary.
You probably recognize this imagery from the book of Revelation. There is a river that flows from the throne of God, which is for the healing of the nations. That river feeds the tree of life.
All these texts relate to water in the last days flowing forth from Jerusalem, from the temple, from the side of the altar.
Amazing, isn't it? Even more, the sages of Israel understood that somehow, the living waters that would be poured out from the temple would be for the cleansing and healing of the nations.
These themes of cleansing (purification) and healing go together in the thinking of Jesus' day. At the Temple in Jerusalem, you have a whole complex of immersion pools. Before you could go up into the holy precincts of the temple, you have to be ritually immersed first, not for physical cleanliness, but for spiritual purification. That is the source, the antecedent, for baptism.
Purification is related to water; the idea of the Holy Spirit is related to water. All of this represents Jewish thinking and Messianic anticipation at the time of Jesus. The Messiah—who is expected to come at the end of the age—will be the Spirit-bearer and the Spirit-baptizer. He is the one, like in the High priestly ceremony, who will pour out the living waters.
And all these scriptures are gathered around this time of great rejoicing at Sukkot in John 7.
We could add to the list of representative texts. Would you like another? How about this stirring envisioning of events from Isaiah 12:3-6,
"With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: 'Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel."
All of this rich background is meant to provide further clarity to the words and deeds of Jesus so that we might appropriate what he desires to give his people. Let me summarize our study of John 7:37-38 with four implications for our faith and practice.
First, Jesus is saying that he is the fulfillment of Israel's messianic hope; he is the promised One. In his typical humble, self-effacing and other-oriented way, Jesus here identifies himself as the Messiah.
Second, Jesus is indicating that he is the one that will bring the Spirit in prophetic fulfillment. He is both the Spirit-bearer and the Spirit-baptizer. To receive, we must come to him, the Lamb who is slain.
Third, Jesus is teaching that those scriptures speaking of the last days are, in effect, being fulfilled today in their hearing because he has come. Israel's eschatological future hope is being realized in the present. The evidence of this is his resurrection from the dead.
Fourth, Jesus is identifying himself as the new temple from which the waters will flow. He makes this idea explicit in John 2 after cleansing the visible temple in Jerusalem. "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
What do we say to these things, dear friends? Amidst all the complexities of church doctrine, traditions, and experiences relating to the Holy Spirit, always remember that we cannot improve upon the counsel of our Lord. Come, believe, and drink.