Religion or Jesus?
"if anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink"
It is a hot day, really boiling hot, and you have been out for a long walk. At last you arrive back home desperately thirsty, all you want is a drink! You switch on the TV and the adverts are on, yes they are advertising Coke, but it doesn't help. Just seeing a drink is not enough, you need to drink it! Then someone in your family says your meal is ready, 3 courses. But it still doesn't satisfy, you are THIRSTY. You need a drink!
But what if your spiritual thirst were like this? Surely you would satisfy it with God himself, and not with some symbol or image, or a substitute! Now in this passage Jesus is talking about a spiritual thirst so you would think his answer "come to me" is obvious, who would go elsewhere? But all is not as it seems when people have a spiritual thirst.
Background to the Passage
Jesus did not speak these words in isolation but at the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles , the last in the year of their three required feasts. It took place about October time and consisted of a week of celebration followed by a special Sabbath.
The feast was primarily a harvest thanksgiving festival and had been kept by the Jews off and on since the time of Moses. Specifically they remembered how God had sustained Israel in the desert, and how he gave them water out of the rock. They would also look forward to the Messiah who they believed would sustain them again.
Part of the festival was to spend the week in tents, like they had in the desert, hence its name! However by Jesus' day the religious ritual had become very involved.
On day one they would read from Zechariah 14:8: On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. Then each day they would read Isaiah 12:3: With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation . Following this they would draw water from the Pool of Siloam and carry it to the altar. There was water everywhere!
But this is religion. This is how they are satisfying their spiritual thirst!
Now perhaps you can see that Jesus picked his moment well to talk about living water. He shouts out the alternative to the great religious festival "come to ME and drink". Context is everything.
Before going on it must be said there are problems with this passage.
Firstly, none of the water pouring ceremonies just referred to are mentioned in the passage, or in the Old Testament. They were not requirements of Moses but additional ceremonies added after the time of the OT. We know about them through Jewish literature. Now John's readers were scattered through the Roman Empire and would never have seen these festivals and not have picked up the cross-references to Zechariah and Isaiah. If we follow the principle that Scripture means what the author intended his readers to understand, then we must conclude that all these water pouring ceremonies, though they may have been relevant to the people there with Jesus, they are not directly relevant to John's intended meaning of the passage, and therefore not to us.
Secondly, Jesus says "As the scripture says streams of living water will flow from within him ". There is no such scripture in the Bible. It may be an amalgam of different passages, or he may be referring to an inscription in the temple, as the word for scripture can mean "writing". Either way it is meant to be something obvious to them, which they haven't fully understood.
Thirdly, there is a problem with the source of water: streams of living water will flow from within him. "him" could refer to Jesus, or to the believer, or to Jerusalem itself! Much has been written to defend all three interpretations, thus showing it is far from clear.
Religion or Jesus?
The challenge for us is not to be sidetracked by what is not clear but focus on what is clear. Are we coming to Jesus to satisfy our spiritual thirst, or are we, like the people at the feast, satisfying it with religion alone. I put it to you, do you drink from religion or Jesus?
I will ask, what is religion, why is it attractive, and why it fails. Then I will go on and explain why Jesus is different from religion and how you can go about satisfying your spiritual thirst with him.
A. "Religion" is What We Believe
If we go to a dictionary we find there are two definitions of religion. The first is that religion is what we believe about God and supernatural powers. Different religions believe different things. The Jews believed in one God, although not all religions do. They believe that God saved them from Egypt and gave them 10 commandments etc.
As Christians we also believe these things. We also believe in the Bible. We believe Jesus came to die for sinners and that whoever believes in him will live forever. Those beliefs are summarised in the creeds and confessions.
Religion defined like this is good, as long as it is from the Bible. God has revealed himself to us in the Bible and expects us to believe these things about him.
B. "Religion" are the Things We Do
The dictionary also gives a second definition of religion, that it is any expression of man's dependence on God. Different religions express that in different ways, often involving different rituals. For the Jews they kept the Sabbath as a day of rest, certain times of the day for prayer and festivals, including the feast of Tabernacles. All the readings referred to, and the pouring of water, were all part of their expression of their dependence on God.
As Christians we keep the Lord's Day including attending worship and the big festivals such as Easter and Christmas, and maybe even occasional ones such as Spring Harvest.
Again all these expressions of our dependence on God are good. They are what he requires of us and he blesses us through them.
Both the above definitions of religion would be recognised by anyone taught religion in school: what we believe and what we do as a result.
It must be said religion is not attractive to everyone. Those who think they don't need God, those who think they are good enough, or those who think they can achieve everything by themselves. However many others are attracted to religion. If you have read this far then I guess you are one!
Jesus describes such people as "thirsty". Thirsty for what? What is a thirsty person, what are they looking for in religion?
(i) A Thirsty Person Needs God
Religion talks a lot about God. At the feast of Tabernacles they would have heard a lot about him in the scripture readings. Thirsty people know they need God. They know there is that need to gaze on someone bigger than themselves. We don't go to look at God to give ourselves self-esteem. Like going to the Grand Canyon - we go to be awed. We feel better for looking on one greater than ourselves.
God is truly awesome, and religion presents to us this awesome God that we need.
(ii) A Thirsty Person Needs Relationships
We were not made to be alone but to relate to people. Religion has a very strong social aspect. We get to meet like-minded people and get good friends.
This would have happened at the Feast of Tabernacles, it was a huge social occasion; a time to renew old friendships and make new ones.
Likewise church is a good place to make friends. The most likely reason a person will stay in a church is not the preaching, doctrine or worship, but because they make good friends. Religion is good at giving us human relationships.
(iii) A Thirsty Person Needs Something that Lasts for Ever
Thirsty people thirst for eternal life. Religion gives that hope, something beyond death. This was one of the emphases of Tabernacles, hope with an eternal perspective, the Messianic kingdom. The church likewise gives hope: "We believe in the resurrection of the dead", firmly based on the resurrection of Jesus. No wonder thirsty people find the Christian religion attractive - they are meant to!
(iv) A Thirsty Person Needs a standard to live by - fit for God
Standards help us live right, a lifestyle acceptable to God and to those around us. Without those standards, society breaks down, families break down, people break down. Without them how would we dare approach a holy God? Thirsty people crave standards. Biblical religion in its commandments, laws and teaching give us that standard.
(v) A Thirsty Person Needs Comfort
All of us get hurt and carry the scars of past hurts, whether distant or recent. Sometimes they are self-inflicted, more often others have caused them. Some people bury these hurts, but a thirsty person desires comfort, something to take the pain away. Being thirsty for God does not make you immune from hurts, but you know something needs to be done about it.
A psychologist will tell you that familiarity helps pacify a person. Religion provides that familiarity in its rituals, seasons etc. It has much to comfort and help us forget our ills. Think of Tabernacles. Every year it has the same readings, same rituals at the same time (hopefully not the same water!). It has routine and that routine is a comforter.
The Christian church has this familiarity, be it liturgy or well-known songs, word or sacrament. There is much to soothe the pain away and comfort the hurting. Do you not just feel better for being in church, or reading a well-loved Bible passage?
(vi) A Thirsty Person Needs Uplifting
A person thirsty for God knows there is more to life than physical things, be they possessions, good holidays, or a well-paid job. We need something to stir the soul, to move us inside.
Religion gives us a lift. Church services are good at uplifting, encouraging us, especially the big occasion. Tabernacles was as big as at gets, especially the "last great day". This day was exciting, a buzz - there was water everywhere! Ever been to Spring Harvest or some other big festival? Have you felt the buzz, the expectation? Religion is good at uplifting us.
What more do you want? God, friends, a sense of eternity, rules, comfort and excitement. Religion provides it all. Is this what you are searching for O thirsty person? Have you been reveling in religion to this end? Does it work? Perhaps not.
Religion Only Works for a Time
Religion as described above is like a great and powerful show. Excellent while it lasts. But when the show is ended, when "the last great day" is over, the power fades, and you are as thirsty as you started!
In the religious show God has been talked about, but not met.
You have had relationships , for a while. But they don't last. Eventually the cracks show, people let you down, take advantage of you.
You hear about eternal life , but you are not sure you have it.
You receive a wonderful high standard to live by. So high you feel permanently guilty and unfit for God for not achieving it. And rightly so, you have fallen woefully short of his standards!
The hurts are comforted for a time, but they haven't gone or been healed. Religion is like a painkiller, treating the symptoms but not the disease. After a while the effect wears off and the hurts hurt even more.
The excitement is great, but falls flat when the show stops. Down you go again. Those who have been to Spring Harvest (and a super event it is) talk of the "post Spring Harvest blues". That is the way they feel when it is over and they have to go back to the local church!
And Jesus shouts to them "after all this you are still thirsty - you looked in the wrong place - come to ME ." But away they go and struggle on to the next bout of religion.
Are you frustrated that religion delivers less than it offers? You may be in a traditional church, or a modern one, but the effect is the same. Nothing changes, nothing lasts. You are still thirsty. Why?
Religion Has No Power to Change us
Religion is all about what we do - works. Not about what God does - grace. It cannot satisfy a spiritual thirst any more than reading out the ingredients of coca cola can satisfy a physical thirst. To be satisfied spiritually something has to go in. Religion puts in nothing that was not there already. Religion cannot satisfy.
Amazingly it was never meant to! God never intended religion to satisfy a spiritual thirst. Consider again Jesus' timing. He timed his comments at the Feast of Tabernacles, and his timing is critical to understanding this passage.
The prophet Haggai delivered a prophecy on the feast of tabernacles, the 21st day of the 7th month, (Haggai 2:1). Referring to the fact that the rebuilt temple was not a patch on the original destroyed by the Babylonians, he looks to the future in order to encourage them. A future where the nations, and even heaven and earth, will shake. He says there will be a new "temple": 'The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,' says the LORD Almighty. (Haggai 2:9).
Of course he is not referring to a physical building, but a Messiah. It was on this passage that the messianic hope at the feast of tabernacles was based. Haggai's message was that it was the new "temple", a person - the Messiah, who would satisfy their spiritual needs, not the old temple and its religious activity. The old temple was only meant to be temporary, pointing to the true satisfier of souls, God in the person of his Son.
The whole thought is similar to Jesus statement in John 4 that worship will no longer be in Jerusalem or Samaria, but in spirit and in truth. It is not religious activity that will satisfy the spiritual thirst, but a relationship with the Messiah, with Jesus.
That was the whole point of Tabernacles, in the light of Haggai's prophecy. But they had completely missed the point, buried under a heap of religious activity. That very Messiah was standing in their midst, offering them satisfaction, and they had missed him!
Sadly many Christians, and others, also miss Jesus because he is buried under a heap of religious activity. Are you one such person? Learn well that religion, not even Christianity, was meant to satisfy that spiritual thirst you have. Only Jesus himself. Before we go on. Learn why.
(i) Jesus IS God
If you believe in Jesus you will meet God, not just hear about him. Jesus is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, (Col 1:3) . If we gaze on Jesus we see God in all his splendour and majesty.
One look at Jesus is worth a million words about God and WILL satisfy your soul. The apostle John said he beheld his glory (John 1:14), and he was a man who had his spiritual thirst satisfied. Are you thirsty to see the glory of God in Jesus?
(ii) Jesus Gives a Relationship WITH God
God can be known personally, through Jesus. He can be closer than a friend. He will never let you down or take advantage. He will always listen. He is always there. You can cry out to him when you are in desperate need and he will be your lifeline. Yet he is still there to be enjoyed when things are going well. Are you thirsty for that?
(iii) Jesus Gives Eternal Life
The promise is whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). If you believe in Jesus you will live forever, and be absolutely certain of the fact. Think of the profundity of that. The one certainty in everyone's life, death, is defeated for you if you believe. You WILL live with him into eternity.
The facts speak for themselves. He rose from the dead, seen by many witnesses. Scripture promises abound that he will give eternal life to all who believe. And if that is not enough he will tell you himself. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children (Rom 8: 16). You will know deep within that death holds no fear for you.
Are you thirsty for that?
(iv) Jesus Makes us fit for God
He does not do this by pushing us to meet God's standards, like religion, but by keeping it for us. God will see you as perfect because when he looks at you he looks at Jesus in all his perfection. He can do this because Jesus took our punishment upon himself. He kept the law for us, and took the consequences of our disobedience. If you believe in Jesus you will be declared "righteous", just like Jesus. Fit for God because HE is. All your sins, however horrible, are forgiven.
Are you thirsty for that?
(v) Jesus Heals Hurts
Religion may comfort us in our hurts, but Jesus is the only one who will take them away. He alone has the power to change us. In the passage he offers living water. In Hebrew this has the idea of running water, contrasted with the stagnant water of religion which can do nothing. The running water of Jesus changes everything.
Whatever has been done to you, whatever you have done, the damage the emotional baggage, the pain, in Jesus they will run away and no longer stagnate in your heart. Once you know Jesus the hurts just melt away as he becomes more important than the pain. The old, goes the new comes. That is the message of Tabernacles, that is the living water. That is what he offers you.
Are you thirsty for that?
(vi) Jesus Gives Spiritual Life Now
John in his text makes it clear the living waters are the Holy Spirit, and that at that point he had not been given. But for us, he has been given. Jesus can fill us with his Holy Spirit and gives us that spiritual life now.
Jesus can put an excitement inside us just from knowing the one true God and being set free. That beats excitement that comes from anything outside of ourselves.
Do you like good services, to sing great songs? Does that give you excitement? There is nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't last. Compare that with the Holy Spirit inside you, giving you such a sense of God, that it bursts out of you in praise. The water of the Spirit flowing from within you? That lasts!
Are you thirsty for that?
The Invite is to anyone who is thirsty
Jesus gives a clear invite to those who have a spiritual thirst. Do you long to know God, to have spiritual reality, for the healing of the soul, freedom from sin, the certainty of eternal life, life in all its abundance?
Then seek Jesus. Come to him, you will be satisfied.
There is Also a challenge
But Jesus is doing more than giving an invite, he is giving a challenge. Maybe you do not feel thirsty. But his challenge is that you ARE thirsty for him, whether you feel it or not.
Think of the context. He speaks this text to those happily going about religious activity. To those so caught up in festivals they are not seeking him. Perhaps you are wrapped up in church life, services, housegroups, singing worship songs, youth groups and have never thought of yourself as thirsty for Jesus. He is challenging you. You are thirsty for more of him, whether you feel it or not.
Do you notice in the passage that Jesus has to shout, to get himself heard? Also he is not sitting like a good teacher should, he is standing, shouting. He can't get their attention; they are so lost in their religion!
Is he trying to get your attention? Are you so lost in religion that he is having to shout, "you are more thirsty for me than you think. It is time you met me, sought forgiveness had you hurts healed, or were filled with the Spirit".
Religion is a good place to hide. You can hide from yourself, convincing yourself you are holy by doing religious things. You can hide from others, who think you are holy because you do all the right rituals, turn up to all the right meetings. Yet all the time you can sin away, under the cloak of religious respectability.
But religion is no good for hiding from God. Jesus knows everything about you and everyone else. Jesus called this type of hiding religious "hypocrisy". And the people who practice it were the only people he was ever harsh with. But his invite is to such people. People like us. You are not alone, this is what we are all like, me included. Using religion to mask our thirst for Jesus.
So he says to us. "Get real, you are desperately thirsty for spiritual things, for me." "Stop hiding behind religion, come to me and drink." "Get all that stuff you hide inside you sorted out once and for all."
How? Jesus interprets "come and drink" as believe and receive. This will govern the way we approach him, the way we worship, whether publicly or in private. We are about to enter a long period of sustained sung worship, what can you do during this?
Need to Believe
Trust him to do what he has promised. As you come to worship think about those songs that speak of him giving mercy, forgiveness, healing, knowing him, seeing his glory. Meditate on these and accept them as fact, they come from the Bible. Ask for the faith to believe they will happen.
We will be singing. "I believe in Jesus, I believe he is the Son of God" "I believe you are here now, standing in our midst, here with the grace to heal now, and the power to forgive" (1). Trust that it is true, don't look for evidence particularly, though he may well give it. Accept the words at face value and move to him
Believing is "coming" to Jesus. Allow him to come close, mention in prayer to him all areas of your life, especially those that hurt, or those where you know you are doing wrong. Be determined not to hide from him by just singing the songs, but take time out to speak with him and listen.
Need to Receive
The best place to receive from Jesus, be it forgiveness, healing or his glory, is to be totally focused on him, not on yourself. Once you have taken time with him on all areas of your life, let the issues go and dwell on him. Ask him to reveal his presence as you worship him. Worship is not about singing the songs but about meeting Jesus, the only one who will satisfy you.
We will be singing, "One thing I ask, one thing I desire, is to see you" (2). He will do this for you, believe him and you will receive his presence, and all your issues will be dealt with in the light of his glory and grace.
You do not have to sing all the songs. Just sit and meditate on the words, let them be your prayers. You will soon forget the service, the songs, and all your attention, as CS Lewis once put it, will be on God. There will be no interruptions from the front, no announcements, no exhortations, no prophecies even. If the worship leader speaks, then all his words will be directed to God. They want to drink his living water as well. The time for religion is over, this is about the presence of Jesus in our midst, and we do not want him to have to shout to get our attention.
Streams of Living Water will flow
Jesus will do things in our lives. Expect him to send his Spirit. And when he does, the Spirit will flow from you and me and all of us in worship and praise. And the glory of the majesty of Jesus will consume all our attention
Are you thirsty for that? That must be better than religion!
(1) I Believe in Jesus,Marc Nelson, Mercy Publishing, 1987.
(2) One Thing I Ask, Andy Park, Mercy Publishing, 1987.