John 7:37 On the last day of the feast, the greatest day, Jesus stood up and shouted out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and 38 let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.'” 39 (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.) (NET Translation)
During today’s sermon, I argued that when Jesus said, “From within him will flow rivers of living water,” the “him” refers to Jesus Himself, not to the believers. If this is correct, then what is Jesus referring to when He prefaces this statement with “Just as the scripture says”? Is there a specific Scripture He has in mind, or could this be referring to a number of passages?
The simple answer is, no one Old Testament passage matches up exactly with Jesus’ reference. So this is not a quotation. However, there are several passages in the OT that get rather close to what Jesus says and contextually fit John 7. Among the more popular suggestions include the following (in no particular order; all citations ESV):
Isaiah 12:3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Isaiah 44:3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.
Isaiah 49:10 they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.
Isaiah 55:1 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Isaiah 58:11 And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
Zechariah 13:1 “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.
Zechariah 14:8 On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.
Psalm 78:15-16 He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. 16 He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
Proverbs 4:23 Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.
Joel 3:18 “And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD and water the Valley of Shittim.
Ezekiel 39:29 And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.”
A few of these passages are more intriguing for this context than others. Isaiah 44:3 connects the “pouring out” of the Holy Spirit with the concept of pouring out water on those who are thirsty. These connect well with John 7:37-39. Though linguistically it still does not constitute an exact (or even near-exact) quote, the passage still may form the background for Jesus’ pronouncement.
Zechariah 14:8 is another passage that is particularly strong here. Like John 7:38, it uses the phrase, “living waters” to refer to that which will one day flow when the Messiah comes. Again, the conceptual and contextual links are strong.
Psalm 78:15-16 also offers some strong links, especially in connection with its OT background and NT interpretation. It describe the water from the rock in Numbers 20 as “flow[ing] down like rivers.” The NT interpretation of this event in 1 Corinthians 10:4 strengthens the possibility that Jesus had this passage in view: “and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Paul spiritually interprets the rock from which the Israelites drank in Numbers 20 (and which Psalm 78:15-16 refers to) as Jesus. If our interpretation of John 7:37-39 was correct in that the “him” that the rivers of living water will flow from is Jesus (not believers), then this connection becomes all the more pertinent.
Ultimately, though, we cannot be sure if Christ had in mind one of these passages in particular, or all of them as a background to His statements in John 7:37-39. Whether or not we can pin down the exact referent(s), it is crucial to acknowledge that Jesus’ statement was indeed based upon Scripture, and He had come to fulfill all that the Feast of Tabernacles (the background holiday of John 7) had anticipated.