On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water."'
Some images are attractive; some are repulsive. This image is attractive. Most people, I think, would like their heart to be like a deep mountain spring overflowing in rivers of living water. Even before we have a clear idea of what this image is referring to, we yearn for it. Because it seems to imply fullness and completeness to the point of overflowing. It implies sweet coolness and refreshment. It implies moisture and growth and life. But Jesus is not merely a poet evoking emotions by images. He is that, but much more.
These very evocative words refer to something real, something that would be true even if we laughed it to scorn or if we ceased to exist. The words are not meant to make us feel good because of their beauty and their associations. They are meant to put us in touch with something solid and powerful and living outside ourselves. Jesus is offering a very desirable experience, but he is offering it only as the result of some real, personal dealings between us and him. And he is no mere image; he is as real today as he was then, as real and personal as the person next to you in the pew. No experience is of any value whatever if it doesn't have to do with this real and living Jesus. Our experience is essential, but it will slip through our fingers and disappear if we focus on the experience instead of on Jesus. So in thinking about this text we must talk about our experience, but it will be all in vain if Jesus doesn't shine through as distinct and powerful and beautiful over all.
The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles
The feast referred to in verse 37 is the Jewish feast of Tabernacles or feast of booths, as we learn from 7:2. According to verse 14 Jesus had gone up to the temple about the middle of the feast. Now it was the last great day of the feast as he stands up to shout the words of our text. The origin of the feast is described in Leviticus 23. Moses says,
You shall dwell in booths (or tabernacles) for seven days, and all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
God ordained that his people bring to mind in yearly feasts the great things he had done for them when he delivered them out of bondage in Egypt. God's purpose in bringing the people out of Egypt and through the wilderness was to show his power and his love for Israel, so that she would always cleave to him and trust him and obey him. The feast of booths reminded the people of this trek through the wilderness and how God miraculously provided all their needs.
One of the needs God had provided was water. In Exodus 17 Moses tells us how the people, soon after their escape from Egypt, moved south from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Rephidim. There was no water there and so, instead of trusting God who had split the sea for them, "the people thirsted there for water and murmured against Moses" (17:3). So Moses cried to the Lord, and God caused water to come out of a rock.
Jesus Fulfills the Old Testament Expectations
Now on the last great day of the feast of booths, Jesus stands up and cries, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink." Whether the people at the feast grasped the full significance of this or not, we can see from our perspective on John's whole gospel that Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts. He was the fulfillment in the sense that the saving power and grace of God which the Jews celebrated were now present and uniquely available in Jesus. The longing for God and for the arrival of his kingdom, kept alive by the recurring feasts, need not be a mere longing any more. God had now drawn near in his Son, and he offered his saving rule to all who would submit. The waiting was over. As Jesus said, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15).
Everything in the Old Testament had pointed forward to a time of fulfillment. Jesus is that fulfillment. Just a few examples from John's gospel: the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple after that were the places where the people met and worshiped God. John shows Jesus now as a replacement and fulfillment of both of these. John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and tented (or tabernacled) among us." And in 2:19 Jesus says, referring to his own body, but also alluding to the Jerusalem temple, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." We no longer meet God at the tabernacle or the temple. We meet him in Jesus.
Another example of how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament is John 3:14, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." Whatever health and hope and salvation was offered in the Old Testament through ceremonies and symbols and sacrifices are now offered through the death of Jesus Christ. They were all foreshadowings of what was to come; now Jesus is here, and the shadows are swallowed up in his light.
In John 6 the Jews ask Jesus for a sign like Moses gave to Israel in the wilderness, namely, the miraculous manna (6:30). Jesus answers,
Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven . . . I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger. (6:32, 35)
Again Jesus fulfills the Old Testament by offering in himself all the sustenance, and more, that was ever had by God's grace in the Old Testament era.
So when we hear Jesus cry out at the feast of booths, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink," we understand him to mean, "If you are thirsty for God, if you are longing for the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25), if you are eagerly looking for the kingdom of God (Luke 23:51), for deliverance from sin and oppression, then no longer look back to the days of old, and don't look forward to the future—look to me. In me all the past is summed up, and in me the future hope has arrived. If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink." O, how important it is for us to know who it is from whom we drink! All the drinking in the world will not satisfy us if we do not see the historical magnitude of Jesus Christ our fountainhead. The water he gives tastes bland to many people because he has not been seen in his true biblical proportions: as the one who dominates all of history, summing up in himself all the grace and power of God manifest in previous ages, and embodying in the present the hope of future glory. All of history exists for the sake of Jesus; God shapes it all for his glory.
One Condition: You Must Be Thirsty
Now perhaps we are ready to hear the words of Jesus as they come to us: "If any one thirst, let him come." The invitation is universal, and yet it is conditional. There are no ethnic, intellectual, or social qualifications for drinking at Jesus' fountain. The invitation goes out to all. Everyone in this room has a personal invitation from Jesus to come to him and drink. There is only one condition: you have to be thirsty.
My father has been in evangelism for about forty years, and he told me one time that the hardest work is not getting men saved but getting them lost. To put it another way, the hardest thing is not to satisfy their thirst but to make them feel thirsty for God. All men thirst. But not all thirst for God. We are the only species of God's creation afflicted and blessed with chronic longing. Dolphins are content to frolic in the sea, dogs are content to lie in the sun, frogs are content to bump their bellies from pond to pond. But man is not content. He is afflicted with chronic restlessness. Everything we set our hand to gets old. We fight without success against an epidemic of boredom. Fad after fad, fashion after fashion, challenge after challenge leave us thirsty in the end. Why? It's a hidden blessing. George Herbert describes the blessing beautifully in a poem called "The Pulley."
- When God at first made man,
- Having a glass of blessings standing by—
Let us (said He) pour on him all we can;
Let the world's riches which disbursed lie,
- Contract into a span.
- So strength first made a way;
- Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone, of all His treasure,
- Rest in the bottom lay.
- For if I should (said He)
- Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore My gifts instead of Me,
And rest in nature, not the God of nature:
- So both should losers be.
- Yet let him keep the rest,
- But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
- May toss him to My breast.
We are afflicted and blessed with a chronic restlessness, an insatiable soul-thirst, for this reason: that we might keep looking until we find Christ. And that having found him we might be turned back to him again and again when we taste of other springs and find them bitter. We were made for God. The taste buds of our souls were made to relish fellowship with the Son of God. But we have become sinners, and the fundamental meaning of sin is thirsting for things other than God. Our sinful nature is a condition of diseased spiritual taste buds. Therefore, the prerequisite for coming to Christ and finding joy in him is renewal of our spiritual taste buds. Paul said, "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him" (1 Corinthians 2:14). The unspiritual man looks at a believer who delights in drawing near to Christ in worship, prayer, study, and witness, and all he can see is a fool or a hypocrite. He cannot imagine that any of those things is a delight. He has no thirst for Christ, and so the invitation of Jesus is a dead issue.
But God is gracious. He frustrates the human race again and again. He causes every wreath to wither, every gold cup to tarnish, every muscle to sag, every face to wrinkle, every sexual exploit to go sour, every sin to sting, until we have put him off too long. He wants us for himself. He wants everything but himself to grow dim in our eyes. He offers to heal our spiritual taste buds. And if you feel the slightest desire for Christ this morning, then you can know that God is doing surgery on the diseased taste buds of your soul so that you will thirst for Jesus. You may only feel a desire to thirst. That, too, is a kind of thirst for God. Do not let it die. Fan it into a flame with earnest pleadings for God's kindling mercy. Let nothing stand in your way. There is only one condition: earnest desire for what Jesus has to give. The very last chapter of our Bibles leaves this merciful invitation ringing in our ears:
The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.
You need no money and no moral track record. You only need genuine desire. "Let him who desires take the water of life without price." May God be gracious to everyone here to heal the tongues of our soul and make us taste the difference between sweet poison and living water.
Drinking and Believing
Let us assume that God has done this work. What now does it mean to come and drink? "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink." Jesus is not with us in a visible or tangible way. Therefore, he cannot be approached geographically, as he could be when on the earth. Coming to Jesus must be an act of the heart. But what is this movement of the heart? What is this soul-drinking? We say sometimes as we stand before some scene of beauty that we are drinking it in; or changing the metaphor slightly, we say our eyes are feasting on it. What do we mean? We mean that we have put ourselves in a position to behold the beauty; then we have said, "Yes," to all that it is; we have not disputed the beauty or called it unreal. We affirm its worth, and we give ourselves up to it to be affected by it because we trust its beauty not to corrupt but to purify. In that way we drink in the scene.
So it is with Jesus. We first put ourselves in a position to behold him clearly. Since he is not here this is always done through his Word, whether read in the Bible, heard in a sermon, or seen in a life. Jesus said, "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63). We meet the life-giving Jesus today in his Word, and when he calls us to come and drink, it is his words to which we come. They carry the living water. Then when our gaze is fixed on his Word, we say, "Yes," to all that it is. We do not dispute its beauty or call it unreal. We affirm its worth, and we give ourselves to it unreservedly to be affected by it because we trust its beauty, not to corrupt but to purify. We rest in the certainty that here is truth that will not leave us empty.
What Jesus means by drinking is the same thing he means by believing or trusting. After he says, "Come to me and drink," in verse 37, he immediately says, "He who believes in me." He could have said, "He who drinks from me." The clearest evidence for this is found in John 6:35, where Jesus says, "He who believes in me shall never thirst." Therefore, the essence of drinking the Word of Jesus is trusting it, banking on it. But the reverse is true, too. The essence of believing in Jesus is finding in him the satisfaction of our deepest soul-thirst. Drinking is believing; believing is drinking.
Not a Receptacle, but a Fountain
But now notice the difference between John 6:35 and our text. John 6:35 promises that if we believe in Jesus, we will never thirst. It focuses on our satisfaction and contentment. It says that if we drink from the fountain of Jesus' promises, our cup will always be full to the brim. We will not feel the need to fill up the cup of our need with some worldly pleasure or achievement. But our text says more. "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" The promise is not only that we will be satisfied, but that we will be satisfying. He promises not only that our cup will be full, but also that it will be overflowing for others. In drinking from Jesus we become not merely a receptacle, but a spring or a fountain. Jesus promises that if we drink him into our hearts, he will flow out from us with rivers of living water.
There are three things we need to see in their proper relationships: 1) our drinking in Christ by a faith which savors his promises, 2) our ceasing to thirst as we gain full satisfaction, and 3) our overflowing with the rivers of blessing for others. A few years ago I would have explained the relationship like this: we drink in Christ, find full satisfaction, and then overflow in blessing out of our fullness of contentment. But two things keep me from explaining these relationships like that now. First, texts like Acts 20:35 ("It is more blessed to give than to receive") seem to teach that fullness of blessing does not precede and enable our ability to give. But rather, fullness of blessing arrives in and because of our giving to others. So the sequence—drink Christ in, feel full satisfaction, overflow to others—does not seem quite adequate. The other reason it seems inadequate is that my own experience (and yours as well, I think) teaches me that the overflow of my heart for the good of others is an essential part of my contentment. My deepest soul-thirst is not just to be a receptacle but to be a river. Experience has taught us that the joy we feel as Christ flows into us eventually turns sour if it does not flow out of us in praise to God and love to men. If our hearts are not rivers of love and praise, then all our religious experience will become a brackish pond.
So, the way I would explain these relationships now is like this: Everything starts with a soul-thirst for Jesus and a drinking in of his promises by faith. Then two things happen in our hearts: first, we sense deep down that we have now discovered the source of lasting and complete joy, and our hearts crave to know more and more of Christ; and second, what we already do know, the water we have so far drunk (to use the words of John 4:14) "becomes in us a spring of water welling up into eternal life." This is Christ's holy magic: when a drop of his water falls on the parched land of our soul, it doesn't make a puddle; it makes a spring. And from the spring there flows a river. And when that river of blessing touches the heart of another person, then, and not until then, do we experience the climax of joy. Not until then is our deepest thirst quenched. So the sequence is: drink in Christ by faith, pour Christ out in praise and love, and never thirst again.
And now one final comment takes us back to where we began. Lest we be tempted to think of our thirst and our spiritual drinking and our giving as merely an emotional, religious experience triggered by our innate longings and some evocative biblical language, John adds these words in verse 39,
Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Do not think that what you receive from Christ by faith and give to others in love is just an emotional experience. It is objective and real and very distinct from yourself. It is God the Holy Spirit. It is he that flows in through faith (Galatians 3:2, 5) and flows out through love (Galatians 5:22).
This is a great help to my faith. It adds marrow to the bones of my subjective experience when I think that all the promissory notes of the gospel are backed by the stable currency of divine objectivity. My prayer for us all is that God the Spirit might make us thirsty for Jesus Christ, that he might remove the calluses from the taste buds of our heart, and cause us to drink deep and savor the magnificence of Jesus who fulfills all of history past and embodies all the glorious hopes of the future. Because if the Spirit will do this for us, we have it on the word of Jesus that "out of our hearts will flow rivers of living water." And that is what we crave above all.