John 7:37-39 KJV
37 In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.
38 He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
39 (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)
The traditional interpretation of this passage has puzzled and confused me for many years. In the past, it was not at all clear to me what Jesus meant when He said “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”
To what scripture was Jesus referring when He said “as the scripture hath said”? And why did He say that when someone believed on Him (and thus, by implication, received the Holy Ghost) they would have “rivers of living water” flow out of them?
Here’s the way most everyone explains what Jesus is saying in these verses:
- “If anyone thirsts let him come to Me (i.e., Jesus) and drink” – this part is fairly obvious and does not present any confusion. “Thirst” here represents a spiritual desire for the things of God. Jesus is clearly stating: that which humanity lacks spiritually can only be supplied by coming to HIM (i.e., Jesus) and “drinking”, i.e., receiving, what HE (i.e., Jesus) will give.
- “He that believes on Me (i.e., Jesus)” – whoever puts their trust in Jesus as their Messiah and Savior; the traditional understanding of this phrase links it to what follows – “as the scripture has said”;
- “as the scripture has said” – he that believes on Jesus in the manner prescribed by what has been written already in scripture; in other words, we must believe on Jesus precisely as the scripture instructs us to believe on Him in order for our belief to be valid;
- “out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” – referring to the believer – “out of the believer’s belly”, implying that when someone believes on Jesus they will have multiple outlets of the Spirit flowing from within them in very large volumes, apparently for the purpose of filling others (?);
- “(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)” – the process of “drinking” from Jesus and subsequently experiencing the “outflow” of “rivers of living water” is explained as being a prophetic fore-view of Pentecost and the era in which we now live when men experience salvation by receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The trouble I have accepting the traditional interpretation of this passage is it results in rivers of living water flowing out of the belly of the believer – ostensibly for the purpose of satisfying the thirst of others.
This, however, does not fit with what we know about salvation as revealed in the rest of scripture. The rivers of living water actually flow from Christ – He alone is the source of the waters of life with respect to actually filling believers with the Holy Ghost. When someone receives the Holy Ghost they are not then able to give it to others. Jesus is the only one who can give someone the Holy Ghost!
The answer lies in the way the KJV has punctuated the text.
Consider the following rendering of this passage:
In the last day, that great day of the Feast,
Jesus stood and cried, saying,
If any man thirst let him come unto me and drink – he that believeth on me;
as the scripture hath said,
out of His [i.e., Christ’s] belly shall flow rivers of living water.
(But this spake he of the Spirit,
which they that believe on him should receive:
for the Holy Ghost was not yet given;
because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)
Jesus actually put a restriction on who actually would be able to come unto Him and drink – only someone who believed on Him.
Then, Jesus refers to the OT prophecies concerning the time when the Lord would “pour out” His Spirit – “out of His [i.e., Christ’s] belly shall flow rivers of living water”. Of course, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would point out that those who THIRST should come to HIM and DRINK because RIVERS OF LIVING WATER WERE GOING TO FLOW OUT OF HIM, precisely as the scriptures had foretold!
Scholars say that there is no OT passage of which this is an exact quotation, but the thought is certainly expressed in scriptures like these:
For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh;
Clearly, the thought being conveyed is that rivers of living water were going to come from Messiah; yet the traditional interpretation of this passage has rivers of living water flowing from the belly of the believer.
Apparently, the traditional view of this passage has conflated it with the words of Jesus to the Samaritan Woman at the Well in John 4:14:
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
However, it should be noted that there is quite a difference between a well and a river; and the water from the well is for the individual believer, not for others to come to and drink. On the other hand, the rivers of living water that flow from Jesus are for “whosoever will”:
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.
The Jews had a tradition where the priests would pour water out as they ascended the temple steps during the 7 days of the Feast of Tabernacles prior to the last “great day of the feast”. It was in this context that Jesus stood and cried, “If any man thirst let him come unto me and drink.”
Prophetically, there seems to be a connection between the priests pouring out water on the temple steps and the scripture where the Lord declares “I will pour out my spirit in the last days”.
I am not trying to suggest that believers will not have “a well of water” as Jesus stated in John 4. But I don’t believe Jesus used the word “river” in John 7 to indicate what he had previously identified as a well in John 4.
I understand Jesus to be inviting believers to drink from the living waters that were soon to be flowing from him when he poured his Spirit out. This does not mean believers will not have the Spirit in them like a well springing up. I just don’t see how that idea has any contextual alignment in this passage. The thought Jesus is conveying is not what will result in the lives of believers but how believers will receive what he is going to pour out.
Here is a summary of what I understand this passage to be expressing:
Jesus invites those who thirst to come to Him and drink if they believe on Him, because He is the source of rivers of living water, according to the scriptures. And the whole “drinking of living water” experience is what happens when someone receives the Holy Ghost.
Final Thoughts on LIVING WATER….
There are 2 distinct passages in Jeremiah [2:13 & 17:13] where the LORD identifies Himself as “the fountain of living waters“.
Also, Jesus told the Woman at the Well in John 4:10 that He would give her living water.
And there is also a reference in Rev. 7:17 where the Lamb (Jesus) will lead them to living water.
With all these explicit scriptures using the term “living water(s)” and applying it to the Lord, would it not be in the realm of possibility that Jesus’ words in John 7 could be construed in that sense?
Jesus said in John 4:14…. “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”
So, in the same passage (John 4) Jesus says he will give living water, and for those who receive it it will become a well springing up into everlasting life. I see a subtle but marked difference in these two expressions—“living water” vs “a well springing up into everlasting life”.
Rev. Tim D. Cormier