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Rivers of living water
By Anthony D. Palma
Autumn is an appropriate time for looking at Jesus’ statement at the Feast of Tabernacles, which the Jews celebrate each year in late September or early October. We know that on each of the 7 days of the feast water from the pool of Siloam was drawn in a golden pitcher, carried to the temple, and poured on the brazen altar. This was to commemorate Israel’s wilderness wanderings, with particular emphasis on the water God had miraculously provided from the rock.
“Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’ ” (John 7:37,38*).
Two interrelated questions need to be answered regarding verse 38: (1) Where in the Old Testament is the Scripture quotation found? (2) From whose innermost being will the rivers flow?
Part of the answer may be found in revising the punctuation of these verses and retranslating as follows: “If any one is thirsty, let him come to Me. And let him drink, who believes in me. As the Scripture said. …” (Punctuation is not found in the earliest manuscripts. Consequently, the exegete is not bound by the punctuation of current Greek texts or English translations if there is reason to punctuate differently.)
This is given as an alternate translation in the margin of the New International Version, and similar translations are given by a number of competent exegetes. (Students of Greek know that ho pisteudn eis eme is often regarded as a nominative absolute, which accounts for the translation found in the ASB and most other versions.) We would then have in this passage a form of Hebrew poetic parallelism so common in the Psalms.
The translation suggested above eliminates the necessity of identifying the pronoun his (“his innermost being”) with “He who believes in Me.” Furthermore, there is no Old Testament passage that says rivers of living water shall flow out of the believer. A number of passages speak of spiritual water which is available to believers (Isaiah 44:3; 55:l; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 14:8), but none of them resembles the words of John 7:38. (The closest would be Isaiah 58:11, “And you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.“) Even Jesus’ statement to the woman of Samaria does not include the idea of out of: “The water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
John’s Gospel is well noted for its emphasis upon the fulfillment of Old Testament typology. Jesus undoubtedly had in mind God’s commandment to Moses, “You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink” (Exodus 17:6). And in Deuteronomy 8:15 Moses tells the people that the Lord “brought water for you out of the rock of flint.” In these two passages the Hebrew preposition min is the ek found in our passage, both meaning out of. In the Septuagint, the same word ek is found in these verses.
Another relevant Old Testament passage is Psalm 78:15,16: “He brought forth streams also from the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers.” The Greek words for river and water (potamos and hydh) found in John 7:38 occur in the Septuagintal reading of this psalm, and the equivalent Hebrew words (nahar and may) are found in Hebrew text.
This interpretation, which identifies Jesus as the source of the rivers of living water, is justified when we look more closely at Deuteronomy 8:15,16. Moses refers to the wilderness experiences of the Israelites and mentions the fiery serpents, the water from the rock, and the manna. In John’s Gospel Jesus presents himself as the typological fulfillment of the brazen serpent (3:14), the manna (6:48), and the rock (7:37,38).
Furthermore, Paul says that the Israelites in the wilderness “all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).
What we see is that the quotation in John 7:38 is not of any one Old Testament passage; instead it is a composite of ideas found in a number of passages. It helps to understand that often what the New Testament gives as an Old Testament quotation is not intended to be a verbatim rendering but rather an accurate presentation of the idea of one or more passages.
This interpretation of John 7:38 is borne out by verse 39: “But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
This speaks of believers receiving the Spirit rather than being the ones out of whom the Spirit flows. Virtually all exegetes agree that the word given, which is not in the Greek text, needs to be supplied for theological reasons, since John certainly is not saying that the Holy Spirit did not exist prior to the glorification of Jesus. Here again is an indication that Jesus is the source of the rivers of living water for the believer.
Other Old Testament passages not related to the rock point to the Lord as the origin of rivers of living water. Speaking eschatologically, Zechariah 14:8 says that, “living waters will flow out of Jerusalem.” Ezekiel speaks of a river of water flowing down from under the threshold of the millennial temple (47:1–12). Revelation 22:l picks up on this general theme when John says he was shown “a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb.”
In spite of the main thrust of this article, however, nothing detracts from Jesus’ wonderful promise that He will give “living water” to the one who asks, and that this water will become in him “a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:10,14).
* Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).
Anthony D. Palma, Th.D., is a lifelong Assemblies of God educator who lives in Springfield, Missouri.