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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Whole-Book Context, Part 2, by Craig S. Keener

With the exception of Jesus, all the people God chose in the Bible were people with weaknesses rather than those who might think they ‘deserved’ to be called. God chose broken people whose triumphs would bring glory to him rather than to themselves.

So what does Jesus mean by the rivers of living water in John 7:37-38? Even though we will deal with background and translations more fully later, we need to use them at least briefly here to catch the full impact of this passage. First, in most current translations, at least a footnote points out an alternate way to punctuate 7:37-38 (the earliest Greek texts lacked punctuation, and the early church fathers divided over which interpretation to take). In this other way to read the verses, it is not clear that the water flows from the believer; it may flow instead from Christ. Since believers “receive” rather than give the water (7:39), and since they elsewhere have a “well” rather than a “river” (4:14), Christ may well be the source of water in these verses. (This is not to deny the possibility that believers may experience deeper empowerments of the Spirit after their conversion.)

Jewish tradition suggests that on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, priests read to the people from Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 47, which talk of rivers of living water flowing forth from the Temple in the end time. Jesus is now speaking on the last day of that feast (7:2, 37), probably alluding to the very Scriptures from which they had read (“as the Scripture said,” 7:38). Jewish people thought of the Temple as the “navel” or “belly” of the earth. So Jesus may be declaring, “I am the foundation stone of the new temple of God. From me flows the water of the river of life; let the one who wills come and drink freely!”

Normally (as we will point out below) one should not read symbolism into biblical narratives, but the end of John’s Gospel may be an exception, a symbol God provided those who watched the crucifixion. (John uses symbolism a little more than narratives normally do.) When a soldier pierced Jesus’ side, water as well as blood flowed forth (19:34). Literally, a spear thrust near the heart could release a watery fluid around the heart as well as blood. But John is the only writer among the four Gospel writers to emphasize the water, and he probably mentions it to make a point: once Jesus was lifted up on the cross and glorified (7:39), the new life of the Spirit became available to his people. Let us come and drink freely.


13. Moses’ Character in Exodus 6:10-30

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2004

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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