Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ ” 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. (7:37–39)
This was neither Jesus’ first public invitation to believe in Him (cf. 3:12–18; 5:24, 38–47; 6:29, 35–36, 40, 47), nor was it the first time He had pictured salvation as living water (4:10–14; 6:35). (The Lord also had earlier used a similar metaphor, describing Himself as the Bread of Life [6:30–59].) Drawing upon imagery from Isaiah’s prophecy (12:3; 55:1), Jesus’ reference to salvation as living water would have been familiar to His hearers. In the relatively dry land of Israel, thirst was an apt picture of one’s need for salvation.
Jesus gave His invitation on the last day, the great day of the feast of Tabernacles. Whether this was the seventh day or the eighth day, on which a special festival assembly was held (Lev. 23:36), is not clear. In either case, it was a different day from the one on which the events of vv. 14–36 took place (cf. v. 14). As He had done earlier (v. 28), Jesus cried out in a loud voice, calling all to hear and heed His invitation. That the Lord stood to deliver His message (rabbis normally sat when they taught; cf. Matt. 5:1; 13:2; 26:55; Luke 4:20; 5:3), further emphasized its importance.
By using water to illustrate the truth about Himself, Jesus capitalized on a very prominent ceremony that was happening at the feast. The major feature of the Feast of Tabernacles was the booths (shelters) which the people prepared (Lev. 23:42; Neh. 8:14). But on each of its seven days there was also an important water ritual. That ceremony was not prescribed in the Old Testament, but had become a tradition in the centuries just before Jesus’ time. It commemorated God’s miraculous provision of water during Israel’s wilderness wandering (Ex. 17:6; Num. 20:8–11; Deut. 8:15; Neh. 9:15; Pss. 105:41; 114:8; Isa. 48:21), and anticipated the blessings of the messianic age (cf. Isa. 30:25; 35:6–7; 43:19–20; 44:3–4; 49:10; Ezek. 47:1–9; Joel 3:18; Zech. 14:8). It was also a symbolic prayer for rain.
Each day of the feast the high priest drew water from the pool of Siloam and carried it in a procession back to the temple. At the Water Gate (on the south side of the inner court of the temple), three blasts were sounded on a shofar (a trumpet made out of a rams’ horn) to mark the joy of the occasion. Isaiah 12:3 (“Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation.”) was also recited. At the temple the priests marched around the altar while the temple choir sang the Hallel (Pss. 113–118). The water was then poured out as an offering to God.
It was against the backdrop of that ceremony that Jesus spoke His stunning words, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.” If He gave this invitation on the seventh day of the feast, it would have coincided with the finale of the water ceremony. (On the seventh day, the priests marched around the altar seven times before pouring out the water.) Our Lord was inviting thirsty souls to come to Him for spiritual, eternal, life-giving water, instead of the physical, temporal water of the ceremony. If it was the eighth day (when there was no ceremony), it may not have been as dramatic an announcement, but the people could still make the connection with the water drawing ceremony each day. In either case, Jesus shifted the focus from the need of the parched mouths in the wilderness to the spiritual need of the thirsty soul for the water of life.
Three key words summarize Jesus’ gospel invitation. First, the thirsty ones are those who recognize their spiritual thirst (cf. Isa. 55:1; Matt. 5:6). Next, if they are to find relief, such individuals must come to Jesus, the only source of living water. But not all who acknowledge their need and approach Him have their thirst quenched. The rich young ruler, though he eagerly “ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ ” (Mark 10:17), in the end “went away grieving” (v. 22) with his thirst still unquenched. Having approached Christ, he was unwilling to take the critical third step and drink; that is, appropriate Him by faith.
Only those who do will receive the living water in Christ; all others prove themselves to be false disciples (6:53), whose repentance is insincere and incomplete. The “repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18) and results in the “forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47) involves far more than mere remorse. Those who manifest genuine repentance acknowledge the deep thirst of their personal guilt before holy God, realizing that they can do nothing on their own to avert His judgment that they deserve. Thus they rely on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (as payment for their sins), affirming Him to be the only Savior (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), and the Lord of their lives (Rom. 10:9–10). In this way, they drink the living water that He provides, which becomes in them “a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). In the words of Horatio Bonar’s hymn, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,”
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one
Stoop down and drink and live.”
I came to Jesus and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in Him.
But God did not intend for believers to be ponds in which the living water of salvation stagnates. Instead, Jesus declared, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ ” The Lord’s words were not a direct quote of a specific Old Testament text, but reflect such passages as Proverbs 11:25, Ezekiel 47:1–9, and Zechariah 13:1. Believers are to be channels through which the rivers of living water are sent to others. Leon Morris writes, “The believer is not self-centered. As he receives the gift of God, so he passes it on to others. Or to put the same thought in another way, when a man believes he becomes a servant of God, and God uses him to be the means of bringing the blessing to others” (The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], 426). By evangelizing the lost (which is the primary emphasis here) and edifying the saints (1 Cor. 12:4–11; 1 Peter 4:10–11), believers allow the spiritual life within them to spill over and impact those around them.
As the apostle John’s inspired footnote indicates, Jesus spoke of the Spirit, through whom eternal life is imparted to those who believe (3:5–8; 6:63; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Peter 1:1–2). The Spirit also empowers them to bring the living water of salvation to other thirsty souls (cf. Acts 4:31; Rom. 15:18–19; Eph. 4:11). When the Lord spoke, the promise that those who believed in Him were to receive the Holy Spirit was still future, for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
This comment needs an explanation so that there is no misunderstanding of the Spirit’s work. Our Lord is not saying that the Holy Spirit was not present or active at that time, or in past redemptive history. He was saying that there was to come for believers a giving of the Spirit by which unique power would be provided for ministry and evangelism.
The words of Jesus in John 14:17 are helpful in this matter: “the Spirit of truth … you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” Clearly in that Upper Room dinner with the apostles, Jesus promised a future coming of the Holy Spirit (14:16, 20, 26; 15:26–27; 16:13–14). But the comment in 14:17 that “He abides with you” affirms the obvious fact that no one in any era of redemptive history could be saved or sanctified, empowered for service and witness, or guided in understanding Scripture and praying in the will of God apart from the Spirit’s presence.
There are Old Testament references to the Spirit’s ministry, such as the following:
Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” (Gen. 6:3)
Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. (Ps. 51:11)
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You. (Ps. 139:7–12)
Teach me to do Your will,
For You are my God;
Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground. (Ps. 143:10)
I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek. 36:27)
Prior to Pentecost the Spirit was the author of repentance (cf. John 16:8–11) and the power behind regeneration (John 3:4–5). He also illuminated believers in the face of persecution (Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11). Still, after Pentecost the Spirit was given to believers in a new fullness that became normative for all believers since (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:13).
That Jesus was not yet glorified (cf. 12:16; 17:4–5) refers to His ascension to heavenly glory (Acts 1:9–11), at which point the Father sent the Holy Spirit. This sending of the Spirit after Christ’s return to heaven made possible the “greater works” believers do (John 14:12).
Those who responded to Christ’s invitation received the living water of salvation He offered that very day. But the Spirit would not be given in fullness until several months later, on the Day of Pentecost, following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension (16:7; Acts 1:4–5, 8; 2:1–4). Since the close of the transitional period in the book of Acts, however, all Christians receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation.
MacArthur New Testament Commentary