“Jesus stood and cried, If any man thirst, let him come unto
me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath
said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
But this he spoke of the Spirit …” John 7:37-39
AS we come once more to the season of Pentecost, it is most helpful to have in so few words, the Lord’s teaching about the fullness of the Holy Spirit. He uses the phrase, ‘rivers of living water’ to give us a pictorial illustration of the Spirit’s activities and [to] reinforce His own promise by the Holy Scriptures. He tells us who are to have this experience of the fullness — “He who believes in me, out of his innermost being will flow the rivers” — and He also implies a process concerning this fullness. [50/51]
The Picture of the Fullness
First of all we have the picture which the Lord Jesus paints. Since the Bible is full of illustrations it should be no surprise to us that He uses a picture to help us to grasp this very special truth. There is no way in which we can actually see the Holy Spirit. In the very nature of things He is invisible, so the Lord offers us a pictorial explanation.
This pictorial river of God flows through the whole length of Scriptures, as Jesus indicates. At the very beginning it was to be found in Eden where it watered the garden, and it flows on through the books of the Bible. It flows through the history of God’s people as He brings them into the promised land, being found in the book of the Psalms again and again. “You visit the earth and water it … The river of God is full of water” (Psalm 65:9), a reference which I take to speak of God-given rain. This is the river which is said to make glad the city of God (Psalm 46:4). It is beside this river that the man of God finds himself flourishing (Psalm 1:3 — see also Jeremiah 17:7-8).
This river flows on in the magnificent vision given to the prophet Ezekiel. As it flows, so it broadens and deepens, bringing life in its course. On both sides of the river banks Ezekiel saw that all kinds of trees were growing, trees whose fruit was for food and whose leaves were for healing. At the end of the Bible we find that John saw this again: “There is the river, in all its eternal fullness, as it flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city, and on either side of it the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit and its leaves for the healing of the nations.”
The different verses speak of a land which is fresh and green, and there are passages which speak of a desert blossoming and of a watered garden. What is this picture intended to mean?
It is certainly a picture of sufficiency for men. Here they find their needs met, their thirstiness quenched, their problems solved and their emptiness filled. It was Jesus Himself who said that if any man was thirsty and came to Him, he would discover in Him that never-failing river of freshness and fullness. It is not a good thing to preach the Word in a way that focuses primarily on the needs of man, so perhaps it is better for us to think of this river as supplying not so much what man wants — although it does that — as what God wants, because that is also true. The river flows for God.
We can follow the river from Genesis to Revelation and we see that from the first it flows through a garden which is sinless. It waters the ground in the garden of God’s perfection, as does its counterpart at the other end of Scripture. It is the river of paradise. The river of Canaan flows in the promised land when God’s people recognise and obey the law of God and are grateful for His grace. Whenever they turn to God and make Him the centre of their thoughts, there the river of God flows and overflows. When His people want what He wants, then His blessing flows and fruitfulness results.
The landscape through which this river flows is not less attractive, surely, because we can only have it on God’s terms and not on our own, for what God wants for us must be far better than what we want for ourselves. If that river flows out through your life, you will find that God wants something greater and better than all that even you could desire for yourself. It is as if God says, That is where My river will flow; it will flow through My country, through the land where My writ runs, and if you belong to that country you will enjoy the benefits of that river.
It is a marvellous picture of the most desirable life you can ever imagine; it is here, by this river, that all your needs are going to be met, all your questions answered and all your ills cured. You will find all possible refreshment and above all, the fruitfulness of service for the Lord. Jesus was speaking of the fullness of the Spirit when He spoke of these rivers of living water.
The Promise of the Fullness
What the promise means is that the power of the Spirit of God will flow out from the Christian to those around him. It was of this that He cried out to thirsty men on that last great day of the feast. In the first instance it flows out to other Christians in terms of the fruit of the Spirit . Other [51/52] people around you will be affected if you are producing the fruit of the Spirit, if there is love and joy and peace in your life, and long-suffering, gentleness and goodness. If in you there are found faithfulness and meekness and self-control, others around you will know the same blessings as those which God the Holy Spirit gives to you.
The result will be found in another New Testament phrase which is the fellowship of the Spirit. The river will bind you together as it flows out from you to them and from them back to you. That kind of fellowship overcomes all sorts of natural barriers, and brings together people who normally could not mix. This will produce the unity of the Spirit — another great New Testament expression.
That is what the Spirit does, He produces fruit, creates fellowship and unity, and this is what is implicit in the promise which the Lord Jesus uttered. His assertion is that the rivers will flow out of us and beyond us. It is a great thing to belong to a community of Christian people in which the power of the Spirit spreads to and fro in this way, but the Lord intends that it shall spread further than that. The Spirit will flow out into the unbelieving world around the church; the river will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment as it flows out through us. Did the Lord Jesus not say ‘As the Father has sent Me, so send I you? He gave Me the Spirit in fullness, and so He will do to you.’ Having said that, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. It is in that power that you go out from the church into the world, and the Spirit will flow out, a river of living water, unto the unbelieving world outside.’ And so it is.
As we pass on from the Gospels into the book of Acts, we find the Lord Jesus promising that His people will first be baptised in the Holy Spirit, and will then go out to witness in the power of the Holy Spirit. When the church prays, then the Holy Spirit says, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul to the work to which I have called them.” And so He goes on speaking, all down history.
It is the Spirit who directs, because the Spirit is flowing out through God’s people into the world that needs His message. ‘I promise that I will do it’ says Jesus. ‘Out of the innermost being of him who believes in Me, rivers of water will surely flow.’ The inspired comment on this is that the Lord was speaking of the Spirit, saying that where that river flows, everything will live. He made it a promise, so it will surely happen.
I wonder what your reaction is to all that. I suppose that it is possible that when I speak in these terms concerning the wonderful picture of the Holy Spirit and the promise that Jesus made concerning flowing rivers, you may say, ‘I wish this did happen. I see all too little of it. Why is that?’ We must try to deal with that question, but first let us lay hold of the fact that the Lord Jesus really did make the promise.
The Experience of the Fullness
Jesus spoke of the person who has the Spirit — “He who believes”. Now we need to be clear about what He was saying here, because some believers would say that their experience does not measure up to what they were led to believe might happen when the Spirit took hold of them. We may ask ourselves, ‘Why don’t I experience this? Is it a question of how I believe? Perhaps I am not believing properly. I feel so dry. Can it be that I am not believing sincerely or fervently enough?’ But to reason in this way is to talk about a kind of so-called faith which is contrary to what the Bible tells us faith is. The moment you begin to talk about how you are going to believe, you depart from Bible teaching [by thinking] that believing means something that you cannot rely on, as though you were saying that it depends on you. Faith means resting entirely on what the Lord has done. If I ask, ‘Am I believing wrongly?, I am asking the wrong kind of question.
If we ask the question of whom we shall believe, the answer is right here, for Jesus said that this experience is for the one who believes in Him . That is all. It is not believing in some particular doctrine, not even believing in the Holy Spirit, but in Jesus. Those are the terms of the promise. Perhaps you will ask the question of when it will be. Is it a question of something that you must wait for until you are more mature as a Christian, until you understand a bit more, until you have had a special revelation from God about it or until you have had a second blessing equivalent to your original new birth? [52/53]
The question of ‘when’ is dealt with in the next verse, in the explanation which John gives of the promise. The reason that it was to be a future experience for those disciples was simply that the Spirit had not yet been given for Jesus had not yet been glorified. But now Jesus has been glorified; He has sent down the Holy Spirit and the matter is no longer future but is immediate. What you have to do is to put your trust in Jesus and you will have the living waters flowing out from your heart. This is what the Word of God says, even if your experience does not tally with it. The question about your experience is sharpened up more than ever.
The Process of the Fullness
For this reason I want to suggest something which I feel that this promise implies, namely that there is a process in this matter of experiencing the Holy Spirit’s power. For that I want you to notice particularly that the Lord Jesus does not say, ‘Out of him …’ but rather ‘Out of his heart, out of his innermost being, out of the core of his personality, will flow rivers of living water.’ It is as if when we were born again God set, in the inmost core of our being, a spring of unquenchable water, which is the Spirit of God. He is there permanently at the central point of our personality. It follows that before there can be any outflow from me to the world around, the river of living water has to flow from my innermost core, out into the rest of me. I need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit has been given to me by my Father in heaven when I was born again and given in order to convict me first. He has come to teach me, before He can teach others through me, to re-fashion and empower, not simply the Church but me myself. The Holy Spirit is here to sanctify — that is why He is called the Holy Spirit — and as He flows out from my innermost being, He is set to fill me, and to make me like Jesus, and then to flow out through me to other folk around. If there is no outflowing from me to the fellowship of Christians around me or to the world beyond that, it may just be that I am hindering that flow within myself.
The Bible has plenty to say about the Spirit being grieved or quenched. If perhaps you think that quenching does not properly express the right picture of a river, then we can think of a river being dammed up, or blocked off. There are all sorts of ways in which I may hinder the power of the Holy Spirit. He is there, waiting to flow out into my mind, my eyes, my fingers and my feet, waiting to govern the way I walk and act, but I can hinder Him from doing just that. But He is there. When I pray ‘Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me’, I may be praying a good prayer, but perhaps I ought to be rather thinking. ‘Spirit of the living God, enable me to start obeying You quite deliberately in matters where I know I ought to be obedient. Help me to begin to tailor my life to Your wishes as I know I should. I need actually to allow myself to be led by You, actually, in practice, moment by moment, to permit You to conform me to the image of my Saviour.’
If we were to let the Spirit of God flow out into every moment of our day, every thought of our mind, every action of our life, then of course we would overflow. That is what the Lord was talking about, the genuine overflow of His own life through us. His supply is unlimited; our responsibility is to keep the channels clear.