"Drink My Water and You'll Never Thirst Again"
by Dr. Dennis J. Ireland
Outside my office window on the Jackson campus is a drain for rain runoff. At certain times of the year (especially the winter) a lot of water goes down that drain. In the summer, however, when it is hot and dry, what little rain we get produces a strip of green grass where the water runs down to the drain. Everything else is thirsty brown. The contrast is striking.
It occurred to me recently that this contrast is a vivid illustration of an Old Testament passage, Ezekiel 47:1-12. In that passage Ezekiel sees a vision of water flowing from the temple in Jerusalem into the dry Arabah to the east and south and down into the Dead Sea. Everywhere the river flows there is life--trees on the banks of the river and abundant fish in the Dead Sea. Everywhere the water does not flow remains dead and lifeless.
What is the point of Ezekiel's vision? When and how will it be fulfilled? To answer these questions we must first put Ezekiel 47 in its context, both within the book and the Old Testament.
WHAT WAS EZEKIEL'S MESSAGE?
Ezekiel was a priest who was deported to Babylon in 597 BC with a group of Judean nobles, among whom was King Jehoiachin himself. According to 1:1-2, Ezekiel's prophetic call occurred in 592 BC, perhaps when he was thirty years old. Judging from the latest date in the rest of the book -- 29:17, the twenty-seventh year of exile, about 570 BC -- his ministry lasted for at least twenty years. His entire prophetic ministry seems to have been conducted in Babylonia.
The Book of Ezekiel can be divided into three sections: words of judgment on the southern kingdom (chaps. 1-24), words of judgment on the surrounding nations (25-32), and words of salvation or restoration for Israel following judgment in exile (33-48). Ezekiel 47:1-12 occurs in and is an important part of the message of hope in this third section.
The glory and holiness of God, centered in the temple and expressed in the oft-repeated words "that they will know I am the LORD," is the theme of the entire book. In chapter 10 the glory of God departs from the temple, picturing and anticipating impending judgment on unfaithful Israel. In chapter 43, which is part of a vision of a new temple following judgment (chs. 40-48), the glory of God returns. It is from the temple to which the God's glory has returned that the life-giving water flows (47:1-12).
Space does not allow me to examine here the Old Testament symbolism of Ezekiel 47:1-12 (temple, water, Arabah and Dead Sea, and the manifestations of new life) and to trace the Old Testament parallels and antecedents (various passages in Isaiah, esp. 44:3; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8). To make a long story short, the message of Ezekiel 47 in its larger Old Testament context can be summarized as follows: the renewed presence of God with His people will bring new life, a new creation, to that which is dead. This prospect is, in a nutshell, the prophetic, eschatological hope of the Old Testament people of God. God's presence with His people--what O. P. Robertson calls the Immanuel Principle--is the heart of God's covenants and the goal of the history of redemption.
JESUS IS THE NEW TEMPLE
Many people interpret Ezekiel's temple vision in chapters 40-48 as a more or less literal blueprint for either the post-exilic temple or a yet-future millennial temple. The New Testament, however, points to a different kind of fulfillment-- fulfillment in a person, not in a building. In Ezekiel 47, the temple to which God's glory had returned is the source of the life-giving water. In the New Testament, we see that Christ is the new and final temple of prophetic hope. This point is particularly clear in John's Gospel.
In the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel we read these well-known words: "The Word became flesh and lived for a while [or tabernacled (NAS margin)] among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (1:14, NIV). Although the Greek verb behind the italicized words can mean simply "to dwell" or "to live," its use here with "glory" strongly suggests it should be accorded its full theological sense as denoting the presence of God with His people. The glory of God, present in the tabernacle and the temple, "dwells in Jesus Christ, whose glorified body, as John will tell us presently, is the new temple" (2:21). In Christ, the Immanuel Principle of Ezekiel's vision and prophetic hope is fulfilled. How fitting indeed is Jesus' name, Immanuel (Matt. 1:23)!
John 2:19-22 expressly warrants the conclusion that Jesus is the new or final temple. Following Jesus' clearing of the temple courts the Jews demanded a miraculous sign from Him to prove His authority to do these things (2:18). Jesus' response-- "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days" (v. 19) --only confused the Jews further (v. 20). John goes on to explain to his readers what Jesus meant: "But the temple He had spoken of was His body" (v. 21). John then makes it clear that Jesus was speaking of His resurrection from the dead (v. 22). Jesus' answer to the demand for proof of His authority was to point to His own person. As God in the flesh, He fulfills in His person and thus replaces the old temple. His death and resurrection are the sign, par excellence, of His authority.
JESUS IS THE SOURCE OF LIVING WATER
In Ezekiel 47:1-12 the temple is the source of life-giving water. Since Jesus is the final temple, we would expect that He is also the source of life-giving water. John's Gospel makes precisely this point.
In the course of His conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus offered to give her "living water" (4:10). By using this Old Testament metaphor (Zech. 14:8; Ezek. 47:9) to describe that which He offered, Jesus implicitly claimed fulfillment of these Old Testament promises. Jesus' words, of course, baffled the woman (vv. 11-12). To her queries about where he would get such water, Jesus answered that the water he gives quenches thirst as well water cannot (vv. 13-14). He then added, in explanation of the living water in v 10: "Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (v. 14). In offering living water Jesus offered new life, eternal life.
John's Gospel makes it clear that the living water Jesus gives "is pre-eminently the Holy Spirit, which alone gives life (cf. 6:63)" The connection between water and the Spirit is explicit in John 7:37-39. In interpreting Jesus' words about streams of living water (v. 38), John says plainly, "By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive" (v. 39a). The living water is the Spirit whom Jesus was to send after His glorification (cf. John 14:16, 26; 16:7; Isa. 44:3). The giving of the Spirit, the living water, is related to Jesus' death and resurrection (v. 39b). The Spirit, given by the ascended and exalted Christ (Acts 2:33), quenches thirst and gives life, eternal life (John 4:13-14).
In His person and work Jesus Christ inaugurates the fulfillment of Ezekiel 47:1-12. Those in union with Christ by the Spirit are the new creation pictured in Ezekiel 47 (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). By virtue of the indwelling Spirit believers are also God's temple, both individually and corporately (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 6:16--7:1; Eph. 2:19-22). The Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing the believers' full inheritance (Eph. 1:14). He is God's pledge that God will complete the good work he has begun (Phil. 1:6). The fulfillment of Ezekiel 47 inaugurated by Jesus continues as he builds His church.
THE RIVER OF LIFE IN THE NEW JERUSALEM
In Revelation 22:1-5 Ezekiel's river of life-giving water appears again. This time the river proceeds from the throne of God and of the Lamb and flows down the main street of the new Jerusalem. The setting is the new heaven and new earth after Christ's return (Rev. 21:1). A new creation or re-creation has taken place with the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment of evil (20:7-15).
A number of striking parallels exist between Revelation 21-22 and Ezekiel 40-48. The river of the water of life in 22:1-5, for example, is the clearest New Testament reference to Ezekiel 47:1-12. Its presence in the new Jerusalem proclaims its ultimate fulfillment then and there. John's description of the new Jerusalem in 21:9-27 also resembles Ezekiel's temple in chapters 40-48. In the new Jerusalem there is, John notes, no temple "because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (21:22). "Now," God Himself has already explained, "the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them, and he will live with them" (21:3). Here is the Immanuel Principle of redemptive history, symbolized and typified in Ezekiel's temple, come to full realization at last.
THE GIVER OF THE WATER OF LIFE
Jesus is the final temple and gives the living water of the Spirit. Fulfillment of Ezekiel 47:1-12 has already begun in Christ and, by His Spirit, in His church. Ultimate fulfillment awaits Christ's return and the new heaven and new earth. Ezekiel 40-48, in general, and 47:1-12, in particular, are thus best interpreted figuratively as symbolic and typical of Christ and His Church.
This interpretation is warranted by the New Testament passages considered above. It is also in keeping with the Christ-centered focus and the redemptive-historical unity of the Scripture. If true, this interpretation also calls into question the literal interpretation of the passage and the expectation of another physical temple sometime in the future. The shadow--even Ezekiel's vivid prophetic one--has now given way to the reality found in Christ.
The next time you water your lawn or shrubbery or see a strip of green in an otherwise brown lawn, pause and praise God for His covenant faithfulness and His grace in giving you new life in Christ. I do so every time I see that strip of green grass outside my window.
Return to REFORMED QUARTERLY SPRING 1999 CONTENTS
Return to RTS HOME PAGE http://rq.rts.edu/spring99/water.html