Rivers of Living Water

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 1 - The River of Life

Our key Scripture will be found in the Gospel by John, chapter 7, verses 37-39:
"Now on the last day, the 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 him shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believed on him were to receive: for the Spirit was not yet given; because Jesus was not yet glorified."

The part of that paragraph to which we are giving special attention is the phrase: "rivers of living water".

Around that I want to gather some other passages of Scripture.

First of all in the book of Genesis, chapter 2, verse 10:
"And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads."

Then in the prophecies of Ezekiel, chapter 47, verse 1:
"And he brought me back unto the door of the house; and behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward, for the forefront of the house was toward the east: and the waters came down from under, from the right side of the house, on the south of the altar."

Let your eye run on down the chapter to refresh your memory on the particulars connected with that river.

We pass from there to the Gospel by John again, chapter 4, verse 14:
"But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life."

And finally, the book of the Revelation, chapter 22, verses 1,2:
"And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the midst of the street thereof. And on this side of the river and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve manner of fruits, yielding its fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

"Rivers of living water". John's comment on those words of Jesus, you note - a comment written long after Jesus uttered the words, with all the full and long experience of the Apostle behind the comment - was: "This spake he of the Spirit, which they that believed on him were to receive: for the Spirit was not yet given; because Jesus was not yet glorified." The first part of that comment gives the key to the meaning and the nature of rivers in all the Scriptures. It is the Holy Spirit. If we take all these references to rivers and wells, springs and flowing water, to which I have just turned you, as symbolic of the Holy Spirit, then we have certain quite simple and clearly defined thoughts of God.

God's Intention for His People

To begin with, this, and not the contrary, is God's mind for His people. God's intention is that the Holy Spirit should be as "rivers of living water." That is the mind of God. Anything other than that is either short of, or contrary to, the mind of God. The Bible begins with this, and the Bible ends with this. In a certain sense, the whole Bible is gathered into this: God's thought and God's mind is that which is meant by rivers of living water. That is, all this represents the great disposition of God to give - what we may call the 'givingness' of God. God is set forth as one who desires to give, whose inclination is to give, and to give abundantly. That is the simple, basic fact about God, to be taken hold of by faith.

Sometimes, when we are away in a hot country and we are going to have that very delightful function, a picnic, it is necessary for us to find water. But if we have had long experience in the matter we do not just go searching round for water. We lift up our eyes to see where there is verdure, foliage, and we know that water will not be far away: so we make for the verdant foliage and, sure enough, we usually find a stream. And you can always tell where the Lord really is, or has been, by the, so to speak, spiritual verdure, by the greenery, by the foliage. The Lord leaves His mark in that way; that is His disposition, His very character.

This, then, is God's mind; and, from the Scriptures which we have read, we infer certain other things about that mind of God, very simple things. God's mind for the individual believer is this: "If any man thirst... He that believeth... out of him shall flow rivers of living water..." That is in the singular. The thought of God for us, individually, is that out from us shall flow rivers of living water. The individual side is so clearly noted in the Lord's talk with the woman at the well of Sychar - "shall become in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life."

But this is His thought for the Church also. In the last chapters of the book of the Revelation, we have the city brought into view, with the river "in the midst of the street thereof". If this is a symbolic presentation of the Church, as verily we believe it to be, then God's vision for the Church at the end, toward which He is working all the time, is that out from it to the nations shall go this overflow of fulness, this effluence, this river of the water of life. And what is true of the Church as a whole, universally, is of course intended to be true of every local expression of it. God's idea for every company of His people, wherever they may be, is that out from them shall go rivers of living water. You notice the correspondence between the book of the Revelation and the book of Genesis. In Genesis we read that the Lord God planted a garden (Gen. 2:8). In Revelation: "To him that overcometh... will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Rev. 2:7). The last chapters of the Revelation give us to see the tree of life by the river of the water of life. So that the garden in Genesis is a foreshadowing of the Church, a foreshadowing of the paradise of God: God's eternal thought of something out from which His rivers shall go.

Outflow the Secret of Inflow

Let us be very clear about this: if we, individually or collectively, locally or universally, lose our outflow, we lose the justification of our existence! This matter of outflow must be most jealously guarded. The peril is to draw in, to draw toward ourselves, not only individually, but also collectively. What a vast amount of energy and activity and enterprise and what-not is expended upon trying to get people to come, trying to fill some place, trying to collect and make something! Look at all the attractions that are set up, all the efforts made, to bring, to bring - to bring to some place, or to some thing, and to build that up. That is the common way, is it not? Indeed, no other way seems to be known. But that is not God's way; that was never God's order. You cannot find anything like that in the Bible. God's way is this: pour out, and you will get - it will come back.

The Martin Luther film that was shown in London in 1954 was preceded by a film showing some of the sketches of that great artist Leonardo da Vinci. The last phase of the film showed the last absorbing occupation of his life. We are told that in his last years he was almost entirely taken up with water, water, water - deluges and floods of water, coming down in terrific torrents, with terrific force. It caught his artist's imagination and drew his pencil. But one thing that struck me (especially as I had this present word in mind) was this: that water, flowing out and pouring out in great volumes and torrents, when it reaches a certain limit, recoils upon itself and comes back with equal force, in great waves that roll over and over one another. It is easy to understand how all the beautiful light and shade, swirls and eddies and so on, would catch the imagination of an artist. But this was what came to me from it: if you pour out enough, in great enough volume, in great enough strength, it will come back; it will all come back in overflowing waves.

The Lord put this in another form: "Give, and it shall be given unto you"; and He went on: "good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom" (Luke 6:38). It is a principle, you see, of God - a principle for life. Do you want to receive, do you want fulness, do you want enlargement? Do you want all that this means - "rivers of living water"? It will come from giving; it will be the return from pouring out. Of course, you have to have something to pour out, something to give; but that just brings us back to the Divine thought, and to this statement. I am so happy to think of John, this old man, after his long life of ministry, work and service, at last taking up those words of the Lord Jesus, and saying, 'This is what He meant!' Read into that all that it implies. An old man, who you might think is a spent force - he has been giving all these years, and might now be running out - he says, at long last, 'This is what Jesus meant! The Holy Spirit would be in the believer like rivers of living water, pouring out.' God grant that we may be like that to the last, never running dry.

This is the Lord's mind, and this is the real nature of service. It is the secret of life. If we draw toward ourselves, we become an end in ourselves. But if we are turned outward and are always seeking from the Lord that which we can give, it will be to our own enrichment and enlargement. It is the secret of life. It is the secret of service. See, from the day when the river opened in Jerusalem - the day of Pentecost - the 'givingness' that characterized everybody. Peter and John going up to the Temple and seeing the lame man who asked an alms, said: "Silver and gold have I none; but what I have, that give I thee" (Acts 3:6). It is the disposition to give that characterized the Church at the beginning, because the river had broken out.

There is a story told about Thomas Aquinas and the Pope of his time, Pope Innocent II. Thomas went in to the Pope one day, and found him counting a large sum of money. The Pope said, 'You see, Thomas, the Church can no longer say, "Silver and gold have I none."' 'No', said Thomas sadly, 'neither can it say, "Rise up and walk."'

It is the effect of the outgoing, not just the selfish gratification of the incoming, that is the real secret of life and service. If we, individually or collectively, try to draw to ourselves, things will become artificial: that is, we shall have to do everything, and we shall be extended to all our wit and ingenuity. But if we are of the disposition to give, to pour out, to see that others get the value, it will not be artificial - it will be spontaneous.

Characteristics of Living Water

Now what we have been saying has all to do with function, the function of the Spirit, the function of the Church, the function of the individual believer, to be a poured forth fulness of God. We go on to say a little about the nature of this life, this ministry; that is, about the characteristics of the Spirit as water. They are very simple; here they are. The definition is that it is living water: that is, that the effect of the life of the believer and of the Church, locally and worldwide, is to create conditions of life, to make for 'livingness'; and that is always the test of values. That is always the ultimate proof of truth. The ultimate proof of truth is not rational - that is, we cannot argue it out, and by argument bring somebody to be convinced that we are right. The ultimate proof of truth is vitality; not just what it is in itself, even though it may be truth, but its effect. And the effect of the truth is always intended to be life: life and truth go together. The proof of everything is in the 'living' conditions which may result, can result, and, if given opportunity, will result. The Lord's intention, then, is that our presence, the sum of our life, should mean that others live and that living conditions - conditions of life - have been created.

Another evidence of the river is fertility. I need not take you to all the Scriptures; they leap to the mind at once. Fertility is an essential feature or characteristic of living water. We have in the Bible one instance, at least, of water that was not living - what we might call 'dead water' (2 Kings 2:19-22). It lacked some element, and the result, you will remember, was that all the fruit fell before it ripened - nothing reached its intended end and purpose. It was dead water! And the men of Jericho said, 'The water is evil, is bad'. Well, the prophet put that right.

What are we giving? Are we giving dead water, so that nothing goes on and gets through and gets to maturity? That is not God's thought. Living water means fertility; it means productiveness and reproductiveness; it means abundance. "Upon the bank of the river were very many trees" (Ezek. 47:7). "Very many trees". That is God's thought - that you and I shall leave this scene with a testimony left behind in many 'trees', in many lives, that God has been this way and the water has reached those lives through us. That, again, must be true both individually and collectively.

Further, freshness. Living water is fresh water. The fruit of the tree borne every month declares freshness, does it not? It almost seems as if nothing were allowed to get old. Old age, or 'oldness', if I may use an archaic word, was forestalled, anticipated. Before there was a chance for it to make itself felt, something fresh was produced.

There are other illustrations and metaphors in the Scriptures of this same principle of newness and renewing. We read about 'mounting up with wings as eagles', 'running and not being weary', 'walking and not fainting'. That, as you know, is introduced by this: "Even the youths shall faint and be weary" (Is. 40:30,31). So this is something that is not natural. You look for running without weariness, and walking without faintness, in youth; but here is something that is different from that, superior to that - there is newness, freshness, renewing, all the way along. "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." This is something presented to us for faith's apprehension.

Again, persistence. The word is: "rivers of living water", and there is a tremendous persistence about a great river. I have seen the Euphrates and the Tigris, whose beginnings are referred to in Genesis 2:10. What an immense volume is coming down there, carrying everything before it, almost terrible in its force and power, allowing nothing to stand in its way, persisting, persisting, persisting, irresistible. When we transfer this from the symbol to that which it symbolizes, we can, of course, understand the Holy Spirit being like this - rivers of living water that will go on and on and on again. But remember that what we are really called to realise is that this has to be in us, and then has to go out from within us. Thank God for the repeated and again repeated renewings of the Holy Spirit to keep us going on! Thank God for His persistence! Where should we have been but for the Holy Spirit? Where should we be today but for this persistence? He comes on and He comes on again.

We note another thing: the presence of health-giving trees by the river. "The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." Here is living water with its health-giving properties. How much there is in the Word about the Holy Spirit's work of bringing about healthy conditions! We could spend much time with that alone. The Holy Spirit will, if He has His way, always bring about healthy conditions. All the evil maladies and diseases of a spiritual kind which afflict the Church will be carried away when the Spirit has free course. Unhealthy conditions only say that the Holy Spirit is being hindered somewhere. This fulness of Divine life should make us together healthy people spiritually, full of vigour, full of vitality.

And then: "There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God" (Ps. 46:4). There is gladness by the river.

The Challenge

Now this is all very simple; it is only a beginning, a foundation. But it is a challenge - indeed, it may be a rebuke. Does it rebuke you? It rebukes my heart; it challenges, it calls; it says, 'This is what the Lord wants, and this is what the Lord has provided for, and this is what the Lord does when He has His way.' But I refer you to the Lord's own word: "If any man... He that believeth on me..." It is the challenge to faith: do you believe that this is possible with you - with you? Do you believe it can yet be, in you? Is this just a general, beautiful, grand idea, but which passes by you personally, and you cannot see or think how it can be true of you? The Lord Jesus simply says to you, personally: "He that believeth..." Do you feel dry, dried up? Faith can change that situation. And it is not just faith, mark you, which changes the situation; it is faith in what God has said. It is something that faith lays hold upon - something for you to take hold of by faith "He that believeth... out of him shall flow rivers..."

Further, the challenge is this, as I said earlier: If this is not true of us as the Lord's people, individually and collectively, the justification for our claiming to be the Lord's people is not there. It seems to me that that is the heart of the Lord's challenge and rebuke to the churches in Asia at the beginning of the book of the Revelation. Some of them had become smug and self-satisfied and self-sufficient; some of them had just been turned in upon themselves in other ways. The challenge seems to have been that the rivers were not going out. 'If the rivers are not going out', the Lord says, 'there is no justification for you claiming to be a church, a people of God.' But the comfort, the encouragement, is that, if God has shown it to be His will, and if He has made it the very justification of our existence, and has certainly made provision in that He has given His Spirit - and He gives His Spirit without measure - then it can be, it can be!

I believe that the Lord desires the recovery of this in His people in a new way. But we must always be very sure of our ground; and one thing we must be sure about is: Does the Lord mean it? Can we really prove that the Lord means that, that that is the will of God? If only I can be fully assured that a thing is the will of God, then I have something to go on - indeed I can go ahead. And here it is. The Lord has shown that He is a God of 'givingness' in no mean or small degree, and that He wants to pour Himself through us - just pour Himself through us. "Out of him shall flow rivers of living water": that is His desire. May our meditations together have that result, so that all the dry channels shall become full, all the parched land shall become saturated, all the low ebb of spiritual life shall give place to a full tide; and in a new way, although we know ourselves to be altogether insignificant people, individually and collectively, yet it will be known that the Lord has passed this way. It is not too much to say that there could be enlarged measures unto the nations, unto the very ends of the earth, because of what the Lord does in us. Let us hold on in faith for that.

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