By Arden C. Autry, PhD
“He that believeth on Me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” – John 7:38 KJV
In John 7:37-39, Jesus promises “rivers of living water” to those who believe in Him. John explains this figurative language in the next verse: “this He spoke concerning the Spirit” (vs. 39 NKJV). At the time no one understood what Jesus meant, because “the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified” (vs. 39 NIV).
Knowing the rest of the story, we know that Jesus will be crucified, resurrected, and raised to heaven. That is how He will be “glorified.” Neither disciples nor opponents of Jesus understood this in John 7. After Jesus was glorified and sent the Holy Spirit, the disciples would have a “Helper” (John 14:26 NASB) to bring to mind and explain to them everything Jesus said during His earthly ministry (John 14:26; 16:13).
Believers today also rely on the help of the Holy Spirit to understand Scripture. We also can search the Scriptures to provide more context for understanding any given Scripture. In this case we have passages in both the Old and New Testaments to compare and combine with John 7:37-39 to deepen our insight.
The first passage is Ezekiel 47:1-12. Here we find a dramatic climax to a detailed description of a new temple (Ezek. 40-46). A temple with the dimensions given in these chapters has never been built. Many believe it will be built in the future, in the millennial kingdom, but others disagree. In 47:1-12, however, we see a miraculous stream which has definite connections with the person and ministry of Jesus.
Ezekiel sees a small trickle of water coming mysteriously from under the threshold of the Holy of Holies. The small trickle miraculously enlarges into a mighty, life-giving river. It is so powerful it brings life even to the Dead Sea. Indeed, “where the river flows everything will live” (Ezek. 47:9 NIV). Trees on either side of the miraculous stream bear fruit year-round, and their leaves provide healing (47:12).
From that intriguing OT description of a new temple and a miraculous, life-giving river, let’s go to John 2:19-22. Here Jesus says the temple (of His body) will be destroyed and raised up in three days. Of course, no one understood Jesus’ meaning until after His resurrection.
Next we go to John 4. Jesus offers the Samaritan woman “living water” (4:10). Whoever drinks Jesus’ living water will “never thirst” but will have “in Him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (4:14 NKJV).
Now let’s go back to John 7:37-39. As He did in 4:10, Jesus offers “living water” to anyone who is thirsty (7:37-38). All we have to do is come to Him in faith, and it will be as Scripture has said: “out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (vs. 38 KJV). Instead of “belly,” other versions say “heart” (NKJV, ESV), “innermost being” (NASB), or simply “from within him” (NIV). The Greek word is koilia (pronounced “koy-LEE-ah”), and it refers to the body cavity and whatever is inside the body. So koilia can refer to the digestive organs (stomach, intestines, belly), to the lungs, or to a woman’s womb. The various translations of 7:38 all try to communicate the idea of “from deep within the person.”
Clearly the “rivers of living water” will flow from deep within the person. But which person? Our tendency is to read the verse as a promise that “rivers of living water” will flow from us. We’re not wrong to read it that way, but let’s remember that we are not the source of the “living water.” Jesus is! Unless the water flows from Jesus, it cannot flow into us or out of us.
Later, this same Gospel of John shows us that Jesus is indeed the Source of living water. In John 19:34, after Jesus had already died, a soldier pierced His body with a spear, and “immediately blood and water came out” (NKJV). Remember that John also recorded for us that Jesus described His body as the temple (2:19). And this Gospel is the one in which Jesus offers “living water” (4:10; 7:38). But the “living water” of the Holy Spirit could not be released until Jesus is glorified (7:39). Thus, here on the cross, a small stream of blood and water is released from within Jesus’ innermost being, the true Holy of Holies (19:34). Jesus is what the Jerusalem temple could only represent: God’s presence among His people. Just like in Ezekiel’s vision, a stream from the Holy of Holies flows out to bring life and healing, and wherever this “river flows everything will live” (Ezek. 47:9).
John saw the spiritual significance in the flow of blood and water from Jesus’ side. He alone of the Gospel writers gives us this detail of Jesus’ death. He also wrote, in 1 John 5:6-8: “And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one” (1 John 5:8 NKJV). What is the witness, the testimony, in which the Spirit, the water, and the blood agree? 1 John 5:11 tells us: “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (NKJV). The Holy Spirit and the blood and water from Jesus’ side testify to the same truth: eternal life comes to us from Jesus, from His innermost being. In terms of Ezekiel’s vision, Jesus is the Holy of Holies, and the life-giving, healing stream issues forth from Him.
Still another book from the Apostle John can be consulted. Revelation 21:6 sounds like John 7:37, when Jesus proclaims, “I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts” (Rev. 21:6 NKJV). This comes just a few verses before a description of the heavenly Jerusalem, descending to earth (Rev. 21:9-27). In one important feature, however, John’s vision is different from Ezekiel’s. John sees a city that has “no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22 NKJV). There will be no need for the symbol of God’s presence (a temple) because the reality will be completely manifested.
John next describes “the river of the water of life” (Rev. 22:1 NIV). Like the river Ezekiel saw, this river causes trees on its banks to bear fruit throughout the year, with leaves for healing the nations (Ezek. 47:12 and Rev. 22:2). But unlike Ezekiel, John does not see the river coming from the temple, since there is no temple (Rev. 21:22). Rather, the life-giving river flows “from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev. 22:1).
The point of all these passages—especially when taken together—is that Jesus is the true Holy of Holies, the true and everlasting temple. Life flows from Him into us. And since we have become temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16), life and blessing can flow out from us to touch others. But we do not become the Source of life, healing, or any other blessing. Jesus is our Source for the water of life. Jesus remains our Source for the life-giving Holy Spirit, now and forever.