Rivers of Living Water

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 4 - The River in Relation to the Throne and the Altar

"He brought me back unto the door of the house; and behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house..." (Ezekiel 47:1).

"And above the firmament... a throne... and upon... the throne... a likeness... of a man upon it above" (Ezekiel 1:26).

Notice, first of all, that the river coming down from out of the house passed to the south of the altar. In an earlier chapter I pointed out that, if you were to draw a diagram or plan of the whole temple area as it is described in the book of Ezekiel, you would find that that area was a great square, and, if you drew diagonals from corner to corner, the point at which they crossed, right in the centre of the square, would mark the position of the altar. The wall of the whole temple area, as you know, was six cubits wide and six cubits high. You will be impressed with one thing - not for our immediate consideration, although it may take hold of your thoughts - namely, the immensity of the area in comparison with the actual temple, and especially with the inner sanctuary. The temple, or the house, is the thing of intrinsic value and significance - that is, everything is gathered into it; but the area around it, which it sanctifies or consecrates, is a large area, and so there is a very considerable space between the House of God and the world beyond.

The Space Between the Church and the World

Let that say to you what it ought to say! The world ought not to be very near. And the House of God ought not to be very near to the world, in a wrong sense. Some people seem to think that the presence of that distance, that area, that great space of separation, means loss of influence. The nearer you can get to the world, and the more you can bring the world into the Church, the greater is likely to be your effect upon the world - a principle altogether contrary to the Word of God. The Lord Jesus is the very embodiment and personification of the temple of God, the sanctuary of God, the House of God, and there is no doubt about it, that, while He walked in the midst of this world, there was a very great space between Him and it, and no one could cross it except by being born again. The men and women of His day did not even understand Him! They could not cross in mind, in intelligence, in understanding, or in appreciation. The space was there. He walked with God as in Heaven, while here, and He is the figure of the Church of God. Those same principles obtain within the Church.

Now that is not my subject at the present moment, but it is something to emphasize and it ought to impress us. My point is that that great temple area was there - and you remember the word was: "the whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy" (Ezek. 43:12).

Right at the centre, then, of the whole area, where the lines meet, was the altar. It was right at the very centre of everything. That is the word: the absolute centrality of the Cross. That is where God has put it, that is where the Scriptures have put it, that is where the apostles put it. It is central to all New Testament teaching, it is central to all New Testament preaching. The one central reality around which the apostles and the first preachers gathered everything was: Christ crucified and risen - the Cross on its two sides, in its two-fold aspect. That is a statement of familiar fact; but we must recognize that everything centres in the Cross - the Cross is now the Divine centre of everything.

The River and the Altar - the Place of Ashes

Now this is the point: that the river comes down by the Cross - in other words, the Holy Spirit always comes by way of the Cross. The reason is known to us so well in teaching, in doctrine: but we learn it so slowly in experience, and with so many creaks and groans and grumbles, that the Cross is, on the one side, the place of judgment, where all that is not of the new creation is brought to ashes. It is the end of everything. We are slow in learning that because we are so slow in appreciating it. But we know it. We know that it is the place of the ashes. There is no life in ashes, no fruit in ashes, there is no future for ashes. Ashes themselves speak of an end of everything. And the Cross, from one side, is the place where all is brought to judgment and to ashes.

When we were speaking earlier about the features of the tremendous activities of God as we have them in the first chapter of Ezekiel's prophecies, you remember that we noted a combined feature of flashing lightning and burning fire. In the book of the Revelation, which, we said, throws so much light upon these prophecies, we have seven lamps of fire. It is the same principle. The flashing lightning and burning fire in the one, and the seven lamps of fire in the other: it is only another way of picturing the same thing. The flashing lightning, or the lamp, means making known, uncovering, revealing, disclosing, searching out and manifesting. The Cross does that, and it is doing it all the time. And the burning lamp implies the consuming of what is manifested, of what is made known. The Cross does that too.

But, on the other side, of course, it is the place of the new beginning, and from the very ashes there springs into bloom a new garden. "In the place where he was crucified there was a garden" (John 19:41).

With that twofold activity and effect of the Cross, the Holy Spirit is very greatly concerned. He comes down as the Spirit of Life by way of the Cross. Leaving the symbols and the pictures and the types and the figures, we know how true that was in reality, in this new dispensation inaugurared on the day of Pentecost. It was a new age, a new day - the day of being 'begotten again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead' (1 Peter 1:3). They preached Christ crucified on the day that the river came down. What was the ringing note above all other notes in their preaching? "Whom ye crucified, whom God raised" (Acts 4:10). "Ye crucified... God raised" - the story of the Cross in two fragments. The Spirit came on that. Whenever they proclaimed or testified to that, something happened: the Spirit came that way immediately.

And He always does; that is His way. By the Cross He comes and by the Cross He abides. The river may go on, it may go a long way, extend far; its waters may reach far away from that point; but they are never cut off from it, and the course is never diverted to some other part. No matter how far the river goes, no matter how much it accomplishes, no matter how much territory it overruns, no matter how long its history is, it never, either at its beginning, or during its entire course, takes any other way than that of the Cross. What I mean is that the Cross is not merely something that happened, either in history or in experience, at some time in the past - and that is finished, that is done, that is that - it is only being elementary and rather superficial to talk about the Cross when you have been a Christian for so long. That is not the teaching of the Word of God. We shall prove to the last moment of our lives, if we are going on with the Lord, that the Holy Spirit is still working by means of and by way of the Cross, and that every fresh experience of the Spirit in life and fulness will be based upon some fresh application of the principle of the Cross.

The Significance of 'Ashes'

On the one side, there is ashes. Are you knowing anything about ashes? Perhaps you are feeling that everything has gone to ashes. In your own spiritual life for the moment, your own experience, or perhaps in your ministry, in the work of God, it is so dry, so unfruitful, so unprofitable, so barren; it seems so much like death. It is like that sometimes. At one moment the river seems to be flowing at full torrent, and then, somehow or other, it seems as though the waters have dried up. How are we to interpret this?

Now - whether we like it or not, whether we understand it or not, whether we know the Scriptures about it or not - it is true that, in our Christian life and ministry, we have successive experiences of 'ashes'. They do not come at regular intervals - they are very irregular; but they come, and they last for shorter or longer periods. Sometimes it is very intense and concentrated into a short time, but it is so terrible that it would not do for it to go on much longer. Sometimes it extends over months, or a year, or two years - a time when it all seems to be ashes. Now is this right? That is the question. Should it be like that? Do you say, 'No, certainly not'? Well, I am sorry for you, but I am going to say that it should be like that!

Now, such a statement always needs to be covered and protected. Dryness and ashes may be the result of some real hindrance to the Holy Spirit. Then it is wrong - it is not the Lord's thought when it is like that. If we have resisted or disobeyed the Holy Spirit; if we have violated the most conspicuous teaching of the Word of God and its principles; if we have persisted in some way, where the Lord has tried to change us and where, if only we had been ready to let go and not be so strong, things would have been very different: if that has been so, then there will be ashes, but not according to God's will.

If, then, a time of ashes comes, we need to find out whether we have been in self-will, in rebellion, in resistance, in unwillingness to accept what the Lord would have offered or shown; whether in some way we have stood across the path of the Spirit. And, if we are not able to see that we have done that; if, after examining our hearts before the Lord and really getting down in humility, in meekness, in brokenness and in utter openness and pliableness to the Holy Spirit, we can say before God, No, it has not been that; then there is another interpretation, another attitude to take. What does it mean?

Well, as we have said, the principle of the Cross is an abiding principle: the Holy Spirit never departs from it. All the way it is like that, and it would seem that again and again, for reasons known to Himself - they may become clear to us presently - He finds it necessary to get something more of the 'carry-over' of the old creation out of the way, to make room for a larger measure of Himself. It is a difficult and painful process, but it comes that way. We pass through times of great spiritual suffering and distress, where everything seems to have come to an end. The Spirit wants greater room; He is desiring a deeper and a wider channel. He is acting, not primarily to bring us to an end, but to get a larger place for Himself in us, to bring us into a greater fulness of His life, of His power, of His flow. And it is true to principle, that those channels which carry the greatest volume of life and help to others are not shallow ones. They have been ploughed or dredged deeply; they have been dealt with in a very drastic manner.

God's 'Givingness' and Man's Possessiveness

That is for our comfort, our consolation, our encouragement. We can be quite sure of this one thing: that, even when our hearts are wholly toward the Lord and there is no self-will and self-strength in His way, there will be times of ashes. But the Lord's object is to give "a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness: that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord" (Isa. 61:3) - which reminds us of the trees by the river in Ezekiel's vision. The Holy Spirit, who is the river, gives all that ever God wants us to have - and it is a great all - by way of the Cross. We commenced by pointing out that rivers in the Bible - in Genesis, in Ezekiel, in John and in Revelation, and everywhere else - rivers and wells and springs, being types of the Spirit of Life, at least imply, if they do not positively declare, that God is the great Giver. God's thought is to give, to give, to give, not in trickles, but in rivers - rivers of living water. And if God purposes to give like that, we must know that all His giving is governed by the Cross. And all that the Holy Spirit will give, He will give by way of the Cross.

Our flesh wants to get. I suppose the deepest-rooted thing in human nature, the very thing that brought about the Fall and all its lamentable consequences, is acquisitiveness or possessiveness. It does not matter who the person is: whether on the positive side - the aggressive, determined type; or on the negative side - the very, very meek nobody, with the 'inferiority complex', as it is called, which is only another way of looking at this possessiveness. Oh, the self-pity which is born of this wanting to have! Self-pity is a reaction; it is only, after all, another way of trying to draw to ourselves. Yes, possessiveness is there; it is universal - it is in us all. It is the deepest thing in our being.

But God, who has all, is just the opposite: His whole disposition is to give, to let go. We want to have the Lord, to have His blessing, to have the Holy Spirit, to have power - to have Divine things. What for? We might repudiate the suggestion that we wanted them for ourselves: but who knows the human heart? Only God. And that is why so often, in giving us what He wants to give us, He first of all takes us through an awful time before He does give. He deals with that personal possessiveness until we come to the place where we say, 'Lord, if You do not want me to have it, I don't want it.' That is a good place to be! It is not that we become sulky or recalcitrant; far from it. It is simply this: 'Lord - only if You want it, only if You want it. Not for me - for You.' And then the Lord responds. "To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit" (Isa. 66:2). The Holy Spirit gives all that He has come to give by way of the Cross.

The Spirit Interprets the Cross

The Holy Spirit as Teacher interprets to us the Cross. Is that not true of the ministry in the New Testament? Ministry in and by the Holy Spirit is so largely an interpretation of the Cross. There is the statement of fact about the Cross: Christ died, He was crucified, He laid down His life. But what does it mean? We need the later letters of the New Testament in order to understand what it means. And the Holy Spirit has seen to it that we have in them a very full interpretation of the Cross. We shall not get anywhere unless and until we understand the Cross as interpreted to us by the Holy Spirit.

You see, it was "through the eternal Spirit" that Jesus "offered himself" (Heb. 9:14). It was by the very leading and enablement and energy of the Holy Spirit that Christ laid down His life. It required the Holy Spirit to do it. It was not just a man giving away his life, consenting to have it taken away; we know that the death of the Lord Jesus was a far, far greater thing than that. It touched the whole range of the satanic hierarchy: it touched the whole range of the creation, which is itself to be delivered from bondage: and it touched the whole range of humanity. It requires the mighty Spirit of God to make a death do that! - and to make a man do that through death. We cannot exaggerate the greatness of the Cross of the Lord Jesus.

But since it was "through the eternal Spirit" that He "offered himself", so, too, only the Spirit who led Him to the Cross, the Spirit who carried Him through, can rightly interpret to us what He meant by the Cross. Men are all at sea about the crucifixion and the death of Christ: they flounder in the utmost confusion in trying to interpret it and put a construction upon it; and yet all this error about the death of Christ is simply because those who propagate it are not Spirit-taught men. If we are taught by the Spirit, we shall come to understand the Cross. No Spirit-guided ministry will ever come to ignore the Cross or make little of it. It will rather do what the Holy Spirit does - keep it in the centre and make everything circle round it.

Spiritual Men Made by the Cross

The Holy Spirit makes spiritual men by the Cross. The water has come down by the altar. It flows down through the court and the area, and out beyond, and on the banks of the river are very many trees, and the trees bear their fruit every month. Now trees in the Bible are symbols of men. The Bible speaks of people being trees of the Lord's own planting (Isa. 61:3). "He shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water" (Ps. 1:3). These trees, then, are symbolic of men drawing their life from the Holy Spirit and bearing their fruit as the result. They are spiritual men, in the life, the verdure, the fruitfulness of the Spirit.

This is exactly what came about as the result of Pentecost. Spiritual men seemed to spring into being on that day, drawing their life from the river that was flowing. They were men of spiritual measure, of spiritual intelligence. Before the Spirit came, those very men at the centre of things - Peter and James and John, and others - were in the dark, completely befogged! They could not for the life of them see any value in Jesus dying. "Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall never be unto thee" (Matt. 16:22): in other words - if this happens, all is lost; our hopes are disappointed. And those two on the way to Emmaus: what despair, what hopelessness in their conversation, because, as they thought, Jesus had died. None of them could understand it all; it was all death, and dark, dark night.

But on the day of Pentecost they understand it all! They glory in it, and have nothing else to talk about! They have received light on the meaning of the Cross. Now they are spiritual men, in very truth born-again men, with spiritual understanding, spiritual intelligence, spiritual influence. I think the wonderful thing in their hearts would have been this: 'Why - do you remember how we could never see a glimmer of hope or light or prospect, if Jesus died? That is how we used to think of it. What an awful thing the Cross was to us! To us it was the symbol of the end of everything, through all time to come. And yet now, here we are - it is the very thing in which we are glorying! Is it not wonderful? That Cross which we thought was going to be our undoing is our making. The Holy Spirit has used the very thing that we feared and dreaded to make new men of us!'

New Life by the Cross

He brings life everywhere by the Cross - everywhere. "Every thing shall live whithersoever the river cometh" Ezek. 47:9). Everything shall live - that is the work of the Spirit. Everywhere life coming by way of the Cross. Do not let the Devil shut you up over the Cross, but be careful! If you wrongly interpret and apply the Cross, it will mean a kind of end that God never meant. If you are always turning in on yourself in an effort to crucify that self of yours, you are applying the Cross in a wrong way. Leave it to the Holy Spirit! You believe God's truth about the Cross; you see what God means by it; and then you turn yourself over to the Holy Spirit, and say: 'I can't do this - You must do it. I am going on - I shall make blunders, I shall make mistakes, I shall slip up, I shall go wrong; I shall have to go to the Lord again and again, and say I am sorry; but will You please be responsible for this - I can't do it!' You see, if you and I take hold of the Cross to try to crucify ourselves, we are going to become subject to terrible introversion. There is a false meaning of the Cross, making for introspection and self-despair, which God never meant. The Cross is intended, not to throw us in upon ourselves, but to deliver us out of ourselves into new life.

The Spirit's Object a Full Work

Now, one word more. The Holy Spirit always aims at a full work. If men stop with what is partial, something serious will happen. If they make any piece of work a thing in itself, something serious will happen. If they make any line of teaching a thing in itself, or if they treat a part of the truth as though it were the whole, something serious will happen. If, for example, we make evangelism the whole thing, something serious will happen! Sooner or later that thing will go underground, and may disappear. This river relates to the House: it takes its rise in the House - that is, in Christ and His Church, as one House of God. If you take anything away from that full thought - for the House of God is the full thought of God, it is "the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:23) - if you do not keep things closely related to the House of God, something serious will happen - and does happen. There are big movements, and they are not related to the House of God. You look for them after a time, and where are they? What proportion of them can be traced and found? They have disappeared, they have gone underground. If you make a teaching on the Holy Spirit - Pentecostal or whatever you may call it - something in itself, and do not relate it to the full purpose of God, you will get an awful confusion, deplorable situations and conditions, which are a disgrace to the Lord.

The Holy Spirit works in relation to God's full thought and purpose; He purposes a full work. It is only as everything is brought into relation to the full purpose and object of God that the Holy Spirit will go on in increasing fulness. He will stop if we put the limit of 'things' upon Him, whether the things be works or teaching. He will demand a full way in relation to His full purpose. The measure of the Spirit that we know will be proportional to the measure of the purpose of God in our lives. If we are only in a part of what God has purposed and we are not going beyond that part, we shall only have that measure of the Spirit. If we are right in line with the full purpose of God, we shall have the full co-operation of the Holy Spirit.

So the river is related firstly to the Cross, for keeping the way open, deepening and broadening the channel; and then it is related to the House: because everything in the purpose of God, both in this dispensation and in all the ages, is related to what goes by the name of "the House of God" - the Church - that wonderful, Divine masterpiece that God conceived "before times eternal". We need to be in that - a big thing indeed - if we are to know a big experience of the Holy Spirit.

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