Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Stories Behind Christmas

Christmas Traditions: The Feast of Stephen 

by John Loeffler World Affairs Editor 

Good King Wenceslaus went out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.

O.K., Christians of the world: Church history for one hundred. When is the Feast of Stephen and to whom does it refer? (Pause for hemming and hawing.)

It's December 26, the day after Christmas, when the death of the church's first martyr, Stephen, is traditionally commemorated. Trivial, yes, but most Christians can't give me the correct answer.

My preoccupation with this began a year ago, when I found myself sitting in an evangelical church in early December listening to the singing of Christmas carols. "Could the church have lost its mind?" I thought. It has become so much like the world.

In the ancient church, Christmas was celebrated on... Christmas. Everything prior to that was a preparation for the big day but Christmas itself wasn't celebrated until midnight, December 24th, when the Christ child was welcomed into the world.

Christ wasn't actually born on December 25th. The actual date is a subject of debate. But in 336 a.d. the church set the date at December 25th (Julian calendar) to offset the pagan celebration of the winter solstice at the Saturnalia, much as churches today have "harvest parties" to offset what is becoming an increasingly occult Halloween.

Following the time of the apostles, the early church began to develop organization and worship in five major centers around the Mediterranean: Jerusalem (naturally), Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome.

Just as the Jewish calendar had an annual series of liturgically rotating feasts that God ordained in the Old Testament, so the form of worship in the early churches rapidly developed into a liturgical calendar centering around the Lord's Supper, which originally they all shared in one form or another.

Distance caused the different liturgies to diverge in the selection of prayers, requirements and customs, but after the Great Schism between the Roman and Orthodox churches in 1054, the liturgical form of worship was still retained. The western church followed the Roman rite (the Mass) and the Orthodox churches followed the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Both still today have major portions of their rites in common.

The Roman church developed a hierarchical structure centered around the papacy and the bishops. The Orthodox churches developed a more networked approach, centering around the bishops, all of whom were in affiliation with each other in what were called autocephalos or independent churches, who reported to a Metropolitan.

During the Reformation, the Lutheran church retained the form of the Roman liturgy and much of the church structure but corrected what it believed were non-Biblical errors that had crept into the Roman church over the centuries. The Anglican church likewise retained the church structure and worship.

Other Christian groups opted to throw out all of it in favor of different, more simplistic and often stark forms of worship. In retrospect, they may have thrown out the baby with the bath water, retaining only key dates such as Christmas, Easter and possibly Pentecost. Some introduced a few new ones, such as Reformation Sunday.

In trying to counter the secularization of its holy days, the church is having a difficult time because it has forgotten the origins of its celebrations.


In western churches the four Sundays prior to Christmas were called Advent, coming from the Latin verb advenire, meaning "to come towards."

The church was decorated in purple, along with the priest who wore the same color, signifying penance. Prior to December 25th, the church was in a period of penance, preparation and anticipation of the Messiah's birth. Fasting was observed several times a week. All of the hymns and prayers reflected this repentance and preparation; a period of darkness into which the Lumen Christi (the light of Christ) must come.

Scripture readings from the Old Testament and the Gospels matched the season, such as the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and Gospel passages about the ministry of John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ.

Hymns included "On Jordan's Bank the Baptists Cry" and "O Come Immanuel" but never a Christmas carol. Christ had not yet arrived.

Then Cometh Christ's Mass

For centuries the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was a radical change from the previous four weeks this liturgical text became the centerpiece of a number of Baroque and classical compositions.

Christmas itself means Christ's Mass the mass celebrated on Christmas Day. The church was decorated and ablaze with lights. Colors had shifted from purple to gold and white and the traditional green/red themes. Much incense was used. Christ had finally come. This was a time of great celebration, and hence the use of the word "feast" to designate the day.

Other Christmas Traditions

The Middle Ages saw the beginnings of liturgical dramas (often called "mystery plays") designed to portray Biblical stories surrounding Christmas. Recall that the majority of the population of Europe at the time was illiterate and so the mystery plays provided a method of teaching Biblical things. Over the centuries the mystery dramas started to become profane and secular in nature (sound familiar?) and so performances in churches were eventually banned.

Also, manger scenes (or crches as they were called in French) began to appear, and it was a Christmas custom for every family to visit the crche.

The Advent Wreath

The custom of the Advent wreath evolved in northern Europe. The wreath has four candles: three purple and one pink. In some cases, three red and one white candle are used.

One candle is lit on each Sunday of Advent at dinner time and the family sings "O Come Immanuel" prior to the blessing. The third Sunday of Advent is a different color, signifying that while we are still in darkness, there is hope and the light of Christ is coming.

In the western church it was called Gaudate (gow-day-tay) Sunday, meaning we should rejoice, for there is hope.

In America, the tradition has started of adding a white candle in the center on Christmas Day to signify that the light of Christ has come into the world.

Some Lutheran churches reverse the Advent wreath process, using a ring of candles, one for each Sunday of Lent prior to Holy Week. Sunday after Sunday one less candle is lit until finally, on Good Friday, the center Christ candle is extinguished.

There are as many Christmas traditions as there are countries and centuries. Many had strictly Christian origins. Others are a mix of vestiges of pagan custom adapted into Christianity. This, and the observance of Christmas itself, has been the source of much debate, which is not the subject of this article.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas ranks as part of the regular Christmas carol fare. So what are they? They are the days when Christmas was traditionally observed, between December 25th and January 6th. January 6th was the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three Wise Men finally arrived, thus the twelve days when Christmas was celebrated.

In some places presents were given each day of the twelve days instead of tearing into a big wallop of presents on December 25th. Traditionally the Christmas tree went up on December 24th in the evening and came down on January 6th.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on December 28th, commemorating the children who were killed in Bethlehem as Herod sought to destroy the child Jesus.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus means Holy Claus, short for Nicholas. The word "santo" is "holy" in Latin as well as its descendent tongues, such as Spanish and Italian. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, St. Nicholas was born in the ancient city of Patara. As a youth he traveled to Palestine and later became Bishop of Myra. He was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian and was later attendant at the First Council of Nicea in 325 a.d.

Legend says that he showed unusual kindness to the poor and the weak; oftentimes leaving things for them while they were asleep. In the Middle Ages he became patron saint of charitable fraternities, children, and other things as well as patron saint of the City of Moscow, Russia. After the Reformation, the legend of St. Nicholas died out everywhere except in Holland. It migrated to the U.S. with Dutch Reformed Christians.

Later in Germany, St. Nick would traditionally arrive on his Feast Day, December 6th. A man dressed as St. Nick would go door to door loaded with a giant sack. To those children who had been good during the year, he gave presents. To those who had been bad, a lump of coal was their lot. "How did he do that?" the kids would wonder.

St. Nicholas's red outfit was derived from the red colors bishops wore. The modern version of St. Nick originated in a series of Thomas Nast engravings, which appeared in Harper's Weekly between 1863 and 1886.1

Other Traditions

The Night before Christmas was first published in 1822 and picked up widespread popularity and republishing. During Queen Victoria's reign in England, tree decorating was well under way. Martin Luther is reported to have been the first person to actually put lights on a Christmas tree. (One can only speculate whose house was the first to burn down as the result of a Christmas tree.)

In 1880, Woolworth's first sold manufactured Christmas tree ornaments and they caught on very quickly.2

In Mexico and southern parts of the United States, Las Posadas has been a major tradition, which is now spreading in popularity. Las Posadas sees children going door to door asking for shelter, just as Joseph and Mary did when Mary was about to give birth to Jesus. The answer from the person who answers is always a negative head shake and the response, "no posada" (no shelter). Candles placed in paper bags (luminarias) serve as chains of lanterns on the ground leading up to the doors to show the expectant couple the way.

Rudolph, the genetically mutant reindeer, is a latecomer and has absolutely no religious significance whatsoever. In 1939, Santas at Montgomery Wards gave away 2.4 million copies of a booklet called "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." 3 It was written by Robert May, an advertising executive in the store. In 1949, western singer Gene Autrey did a musical rendition of the poem and it became an overnight best-seller.

Christians today tend to fight the ongoing secularization of their holidays. Some have rejected anything to do with them, saying they are not Biblically ordained. Others have tried to go back to keeping the Jewish feasts instead. It should be pointed out that the New Testament doesn't really ordain anything other than the Lord's Supper. But it does not prohibit it either, and under grace Christians are free to honor different days if they wish.

Those families who want to keep Christ as the center of Christmas may find it easier to do by understanding the various symbols that have been used to celebrate Christ's birth through the ages and using them to retain the uniqueness inherent in the mystery of the incarnation: the birth of the Son of God.

1. Brain, Marshall. "How Christmas Works The guide to Christmas Tradition," Howstuffworks.com
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Is The Rapture Still 300 Years Away?

Q. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your website. I pray for you, that you always teach God’s Truth with love in your heart. Thank you for so kindly answering my questions. I have another:

Today (a writer on another website) said that in Ezekiel God promised the Jews that in 3 days they would get their kingdom back and a thousand years is as a day and this was in about 600 BC so we’re halfway thru the 2nd millenium and the 3rd will be the promised millenium after the Tribulation – I think I’m explaining that right – so he says there should be about 300 more years til the rapture.

I like his articles, he seems like a knowledgeable and sincere Christian – I’m just a common saint. I look to people like you who are more learned than I to explain scripture – and I’ve read a lot of your articles including the ones about why the rapture is imminent. What do you make of what he said. His thinking is flawed, right? Could you explain why he’s wrong?

A. There are several errors here. First of all the passage is from Hosea and here’s what it says.

Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me.”

“Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. (Hosea 5:15-6:2)

When you look at the whole passage it says that the Lord was going to go back where He came from until they admit their guilt. This can’t refer to the Babylonian captivity which began in 586BC because its duration was fixed before hand at 70 years and wasn’t dependent on them admitting their guilt.

No, it was fulfilled when the Lord left the Earth after His Resurrection. He confirmed this in Matt. 23:39 when He said, For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ He’s not coming back until they admit that He is who He claims to be. So the count began with the Resurrection, not the Babylonian captivity which began about 600 years earlier.

Then Hosea’s prophecy continued, saying that after 2 days God would revive them. If a day is as 1000 years that means 2000 years after He left, He would revive them, bring them back to life. The reviving began in 1948 and will be complete after the Battle of Ezekiel. (Ezekiel 39:28)

Then on the third day they’d be restored. Not after the third day but on the third day, at it’s beginning, after they’ve admitted their guilt (Zechariah 12:10). This refers to the Davidic Kingdom which will be restored at the beginning of the Millennium, the third thousand years after the resurrection.

Finally, we should note that in this passage the concluding event is the restoration of the Kingdom for Israel. It has nothing to do with the Rapture of the Church which can happen at any moment. Using his calculations and beginning at the Resurrection, Hosea’s prophecy of Israel’s restoration will be fulfilled around 2032, within the window of time I’ve previously established of 2018-2037.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Can we judge others?

Are We The Sin Police?

Q. I just got around to reading “The Way It Was Meant To Be” and just wanted to say you’ve got to be careful making it sound like we are never to confront sin in others. Some like to call it “judging”, which is a favored term for those who shy away from possibly offending a brother or sister over doing the right thing and in a loving manner helping/correcting them. It’s not “judging”.The Bible tells us to confront sin. Jesus did it often. One example was the woman at the well. He didn’t just chat with her and then say “have a nice day”. He confronted her with her sin and told her to sin no more. There are times when believers are to do the same. When they don’t, they can easily be construed as approving of the sins being committed around them.

A. In Matt. 7:1-5 Jesus said,

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Each of us has enough to worry about with our own sins to preclude being so eager to correct others. Jesus could confront people because He was without sin. Remember, He also said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) It’s not our responsibility to approve or disapprove of the behavior of others. In 1 Cor. 4:5 we’re told to judge nothing until the appointed time, when the Lord will come and expose man’s hidden motives.

When someone sins against us specifically we can confront them (Matt. 18:15) But even if they don’t apologize we are to forgive them 70 X 7 times if need be (Matt. 18:23). If their behavior is a public embarrassment to the Lord we’re not to associate with them (1 Cor. 5:11) but nowhere in the Bible are we called to be the “sin police”.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is healing received by faith or obedience?

I Am The Lord Who Heals You

Q. I recently read an article that says if we, believers, ask the Lord to heal us, there are certain terms. We have to live obedient lives and if somebody is living in sin, he mustn’t expect the Lord to heal him. I immediately remembered my besetting sin. So, to those of us who have besetting sins praying for healing is in vain? According to the author when the Lord first called Himself our Healer He promised to the Jews that He would only defend them from all the Egyptian diseases if they kept His commandments and were obedient to Him.

A. By now you should know that men are always adding extra-biblical conditions to God’s word. Can you find anything in the Bible that confirms this teaching? Did Jesus ever refuse to heal a person until they stopped sinning?

Israel was in a conditional covenant with God that required faith and obedience to receive healing (Exodus 15:26). The Church is in an unconditional covenant that requires only faith. (By His stripes we are healed.) It’s a whole different set of circumstances.

James 5:15-16 says the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. The Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so you may be healed. The prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective. When we confess we are forgiven and are purified from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9) making our prayers for healing powerful and effective.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Leadership Lessons



The epic saga of Tiger Wood’s fall from being touted as a model citizen and athletic superstar to a reckless, self-centered, out-of-control sex addict serves as a leadership lesson for all of us. The following are important principles we need to take seriously for ourselves and those we are leading:

I. Leaders need to build their lives upon the solid foundation of good character and morals, not on gifts and abilities. You can master the art of making money but miss it in the arena of developing moral standards. This will eventually drag you down. Character serves as the wind beneath our wings carrying us into a successful future! Abilities will give us immediate recognition and possibly fame but will only last a brief period of time!

II. Leaders must understand that having great career success does not cause us to experience or feel internal significance and satisfaction. Numerous are the celebrities who overdose on drugs or commit suicide. If we are not internally healthy human “beings” then we will not experience health as a human “doer”.

III. Leaders need to develop good coping skills so they can courageously confront reality instead of escaping from it. All leaders experience incredible relational, financial and strategic stress. While we are trying to serve other people we enter into various crises and often neglect ourselves and our families in the process. When crisis or stress comes we need to learn to cope by getting alone with God and receiving His grace in the midst of the battle. If we are too weak to do this, then we need a leadership community that will hold us accountable so we learn how to cope correctly in each situation instead of reacting with our emotions or running away to “fantasy land” to alleviate our stress.

IV. Leaders must not feed an ego-driven lifestyle. Often, powerful people have huge egos and need to constantly feel powerful. When they are not in the spotlight they need to capture the attention of someone new who will cater to their need for adoration, sometimes because they continually do not get this from their spouse and family. This will drive a person away from their spouse and into the arms of a paramour who will give them pseudo-love that is not weighed down by the usual marital responsibilities and stress. Ego-driven leaders often desire a fantasy-filled relationship in which everything is light, superficial and based on sex, fun and entertainment. Having affairs makes them feel constantly adored and significant.

V. Leaders need to understand that love doesn’t come easy. It takes continual time, focus and energy to make a marriage and family healthy. When you are married you have to deal with the daily tensions of raising children, finances, schedules, intimacy and other issues too numerous to cite here. If a leader is inundated with work and vocational responsibilities often they will not have the emotional energy needed to keep their marriage and family afloat. To be successful in life leaders need to make sure they don’t continually deplete their emotional reserves with their work, thus leaving nothing but the crumbs that fall off the table for their spouse and children.

Also, we need to spend at least the same amount of money we invested into our wedding day for counseling, vacations, private dinners and resources to secure a healthy marriage for the rest of our lives!

VI. Leaders must understand that money, material possessions and a beautiful spouse cannot fill the vast empty space of an unhealthy emotional soul. Marriage, money and material things don’t complete or change a needy individual: they just accentuate and magnify the undealt with issues of the soul. The more money I have, the more I will spend it to feed my dysfunction. The more material things I have, the more I will use them to placate myself and my family instead of using my time to deepen my relationship with them so it is authentic and not role-playing.
When lonely and insecure people get married their marriages don’t do away with these issues but actually make them worse because an essentially lonely person will feel more alienated when the emotional connection between them and their spouse isn’t always present.

Also, instead of investing all our energy in the accumulation of money and material things, we need to invest time getting to know ourselves and our God so that we can be conformed to His image and be a blessing to our family and those we serve.

VII. Leaders need to understand the underlining motivation behind what drives them. In Tiger’s Wood’s case it may have been the enormous pressure placed upon him by his father, who prioritized his performance on the golf course since he was only 3 years-old. This can instill in a child the concept of being accepted by others based on performance instead of developing loving, trusting relationships based on friendship and unconditional love and sacrifice. These “father issues” need to be dealt with in order to have a healthy, balanced emotional life.

VIII. Leaders often equate performance with acceptance. Biblically speaking, Jesus was accepted by the Father before He entered into the ministry and performed one miracle (read Luke 3:21-22). This prepared Jesus emotionally for the rigors of ministry and the 40 days of satanic temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2). When a person isn’t happy with themselves within themselves, then they will attempt to feel good about their life by performing to feel the affirmation and approval of others. Because this is a black hole that sucks a person deeper and deeper into an abyss, the craving for that short fix of attention becomes an addiction in the same way a person becomes a substance abuser. Soon, that attention-craving person will compromise their life, family and standards in order to satisfy the deep yearning of their soul to feel loved and approved. We need to make sure we are getting our primary emotional and spiritual affirmation from God as our Father before we venture out into the world to transform it. If these areas are undealt with, then the world will transform us into its image and likeness before we see transformation in the world!

Read more here: www.nydailynews.com

The Feast of the Tabernacles

The Water of Life

By Francis Schaeffer

When Jesus attended the Feast of the Tabernacles in his final year, the time of his popularity was past. Once great crowds had followed him everywhere. The feeding of the five thousand had been the high point of this kind of popularity. After that, however, as he stressed more and more who he was and what his work really was, the crowds dwindled. He went through a period of retirement in Galilee just prior to the Feast, and then at this time Peter uttered his words of confession. The context in which this is recorded emphasizes that many had turned away: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:66-69). Peter stands in sharp contrast to those disciples who left Jesus and to the crowds who turned away, for he said, “We believe and know [know is better than are sure for this Greek verb] that you are the Christ.”

As the Feast of the Tabernacles approached, Jesus walked in Galilee, for he would not walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him. Now the Jews’ feast of tabernacles was at hand. His brethren therefore said to him, Depart hence, and go into Judea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth anything in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world. For neither did his brethren believe in him. (John 7:1-5)

Many who become Christians have difficulty with their unbelieving families. They can be comforted by realizing that Jesus himself experienced the pain of such a situation. Those children born to Mary and Joseph did not believe on him until after his resurrection; his own brothers gibed at him harshly.

To understand what came next, we must visualize Jerusalem during the Feast of the Tabernacles. It is estimated that well over a million people from all over the known world, both Jews and proselytes, poured into it. People milled about like ants on an ant hill. The city was full of religious fervor. The crowd was a great mixture, including God-fearers and formalists, Sadducees (the rationalists) and Pharisees (the orthodox who had allowed their orthodoxy to become formalized and dead). True believers would have been in it – people who waited for the Lord’s redemption through the Messiah, like Simeon and Anna. Some were there merely to sell trinkets. Prostitutes undoubtedly walked up and down the streets. The city reflected both the glory of the Old Testament prophecies and the low level of Jewish religious life at that time.

Jesus walked into this scene and associated the Feast of the Tabernacles with himself. (In Luke 22:19 he did the same with the Passover, so when we apply these feasts to Jesus we do so on his authority.) And during the festival he received challenge after challenge to his ever-clear teaching about who he is.

The Great Day of the Feast

The Feast of the Tabernacles was so named because God had commanded the Jews to live in tabernacles during this period each year to remind them that they had had to live in temporary abodes as they moved through the wilderness after the exodus. Through the centuries since then, and still today, the Jews have enacted this reminder. During the wanderings, God twice provided water from a rock, so the feast reenacted this, too. In fact the remembrance of this had developed as a technical part of the festival and had tremendous importance. On the final day, “the great day of the feast,” came the great rite of pouring out water in the presence of the people to represent God’s provision in the desert. Non-biblical sources reveal that the force of the fervor that built up as people waited for this outpouring, the sheer religiosity of the situation, was almost unbearable. As the water was poured out, the Feast came to its climax.

It was just at this point in the festival that Jesus stood up (he must have stood in one of the raised places in the temple area so he could be seen) and gave what was probably the boldest invitation of his entire ministry: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). He said this, we note again, in the context of the remembrance in every Jew’s mind that God had twice given rivers of water from a smitten rock.

He clearly appealed here to the innermost cravings of men and women. The word thirst connotes severe longing. We immediately think of idioms like “a thirst for knowledge” and “a thirst for life.” In the former idiom, thirst communicates a craving for knowledge that will not tolerate being unsatisfied and will do whatever is necessary to have the knowledge. The latter reminds us of tremendous exploits like those so rich in the memory of the Swiss, of men falling into huge ice crevasses and even with broken hips digging themselves out with an ice axe, taking hundreds of steps while suffering horrible pain simply to hang onto physical life.

Those who have experienced a shortage of water always link water most closely with the desire for life. An American Indian from the Western desert was invited to New York many years ago. When he had seen everything, he was asked, “What impressed you most?” He walked to a water tap, turned it on and replied, “Water whenever you want it.” Such a reaction is typical of people who have known thirst.

We can see this in Spanish architecture. When the Saracens came into Spain with its abundance of water, they never forgot the lack they had known in North Africa. They made the magnificent fountains of Seville, which spring up on every side as you walk along the streets and through the palace grounds. The alabaster fountains, which with little water produce the sound of much water, are marvels of Saracen craftsmanship.

And so it was in Palestine. The connection of water with life was deeply imbedded in the collective consciousness of the Jewish race. All Jews remembered the need for water. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been forced to move their flocks to find it. Hezekiah had had to come up with a tremendous engineering feat, a tunnel, to provide water in order to withstand a siege of Jerusalem. Water always brought to the Jewish mind their own struggle for survival.

David in his psalms uses the image of thirst to represent a total, rather than half-hearted, following after something. In Psalm 42 he cries out, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2). In Psalm 63 he declares, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Ps. 63:1). And, of course, we cannot forget Psalm 23, two verses of which involve thirsting and understanding what it means to have water in abundance: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.... My cup runneth over” (vv. 2, 5). The Lord provides ample waters fit for his sheep to drink.

The sources of this imagery, which the Jews had as part of their consciousness and understood deep inside themselves, were both the quest for physical life and the yearning after God. So when Jesus used the word thirst it had a double significance, coming from their culture and from Scripture: It was a strong word literally meaning really-reaching-out-for and metaphorically suggesting spiritual longing.

A Meaning for Life

Jesus, then, was not just using water in its physical sense. What he was talking about has reference to both present life and life after death. Orthodox Christians have always stressed the life after death, and quite properly. This is emphasized much in Scripture. Perhaps we have not stressed sufficiently, however, the meaning for life now, which the aspirations of our own century remind us is also in Scripture. In the Bible these two are never set against each other but are carried together.

Jesus reminded his hearers of this most intense physical longing and related it to the most basic need beyond that for physical life – the necessity for a present meaning to life as we live it. In this sense, the word existential is a good one: Men want an existential meaning for life – a meaning for life at this tick of the clock, at this point in space and time. Then they want a horizontal projection of it into the afterlife.

These are the real aspirations of men. We find them expressed in prehistoric caves and in modern studies in comparative religion. As we examine the cultures of the world, we find individual atheists but no really atheistic society. Atheism is the official position of the Soviet Union, but the mass of people have yet to be seen living out its implications. There remains in men of all cultures a universal longing for both – meaning to life now and life after death.

Walk through the metaphysical strata of men’s philosophies and you find exactly the same thing. It is a special annoyance of mine that men try to separate philosophy and religion. This is a false separation, because both ultimately seek the meaning of life.

As we walk with men from the past and the present, with simple men and complicated men, with men of the East or the West, it makes no difference – wherever men are, they search for a meaning to life. St. Augustine framed this thinking as he addressed God in the well-known words, “Thou hast created us for thyself, O God, and we cannot rest until we find our rest in thee.” Augustine knew the Greek thinking and the metaphysical and religious thinking of his own day, but he spoke from the Judeo-Christian perspective and let in light on man’s search for purpose. He related meaning to a personal God who is the Creator and who is there. At the Feast of the Tabernacles Jesus spoke in this framework.

Man’s thirsting can only be satisfied within a framework that answers two questions: What is the meaning of man, and why is he in the dilemma he is in? The Scripture had already outlined for the Jews the reason for man’s dilemma, namely, man’s Fall, his rebellion against God. It is not because there is no one to speak with that men are lonely, but because they are cut off from the one who can fulfill their loneliness. If man is a being kicked up by chance without any intrinsic meaning for his life, then Jesus’ words would not have been blasphemous, for there would be no one to blaspheme; they would simply have been ridiculous – only one more banner to follow in a hopeless crusade. But Jesus spoke in a definite framework, affirming that man is lost but not intrinsically lost, because he was not made to be lost.

Man is guilty, but there is a solution. Jesus stood up on the great day of the Feast and, in a solid framework which he shared with the other Jews, offered himself to fill the real needs of men: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” “I am the answer,” Jesus was saying. “I am the water of life.” This must have caused upheaval in that intense setting.

Jesus’ Exclusive Message

It is essential to understand that Jesus’ message was completely exclusive. He offered himself not as a solution to life but as the one who can fulfill man’s innermost longings. He was saying, “I am the water of life.” This, of course, parallels many other times when he hammered home the definite articles with great clarity, saying, for example, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Jesus had given promises like the one at the Feast before, but never in an official capacity. In almost exactly the same words, he had offered this satisfaction to the woman at the well: “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that sayest to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.... Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:10, 14). Though the woman was a Samaritan, she understood that according to the Old Testament Scriptures a personal Messiah was to come in history; therefore she responded, “I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25). Then Jesus made a clear declaration of his person: “I that speak unto thee am he” (John 4:26). Jesus said exactly the same thing as at the Feast. The difference is that the one was a personal saying to one person, the other an official declaration.

Later he made this promise to a group of people rather than to an individual, but again it was not an official statement to the nation: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Further on he said to them,
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me and I in him. (John 6:53-56)

So at least twice before the Feast of the Tabernacles, Jesus had declared himself to be the water of life, the one who can quench the real thirst of men.

Jesus’ statement at the Feast was different in one important respect: It was a regal proclamation to the whole nation gathered at the religious center of the world. If Athens is the metropolis of learning, Jerusalem is the metropolis of true religion. It is Zion, the city of God. It is Jesus’ city, and one day he will rule there. As the people of his nation crowded into this chosen scene, Jesus held himself aloft as fulfilling the tremendous Old Testament prophecies. We could think, for example, of a statement by Isaiah, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1).

So on the great day of the feast that commemorated the wilderness wanderings, with the Jewish nation assembled to watch the water being poured out to remind them of miraculous water given twice from a rock, Jesus stood and, in the face of rising opposition to his claim, made one of the strongest statements of his entire ministry: “I am the true water. Come unto me and drink.”

The Meaning of Drinking

What did Jesus mean when he spoke of drinking? Is this simply an incomprehensible metaphor? Not at all, for he himself made the meaning clear. He immediately followed the statement “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink” with the phrase “He that believeth on me.” And John’s inspired editorial comment leaves no doubt that Jesus was talking about faith: “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive” (John 7:39). He was not speaking of a sacramental drinking, in the sense of a cup to be quaffed, but of something much more profound – believing on him.

In his less formal statements about being the water of life, he also made plain who he is. Jesus always connected teaching about his person, who he is, with teaching about his work and his ability to fill men’s needs. In the dialogue recorded in John 6, five times he referred to himself as the one who came down from heaven (vv. 33, 38, 41, 42 and 51). And verse 62 makes it impossible for anyone to maintain, “Oh, he’s only saying he’s an especially heavenly man,” for it puts this description in the special framework in which he meant it: “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?” He is not saying he is a bit more heavenly than other men, but he is making a claim about his own nature, his own person – that he really came from heaven, that he is the second Person of the Trinity, that he is the Son of God. The Jews understood his message well enough to shout, “Blasphemy!”

More than that, some of these listeners would see him going to heaven in a special sense on the day of his ascension. When modern men try to cut out his official leavetaking, they attack Jesus’ own teaching of who he is.

In this conversation in John 6 he also emphasized what it means to eat and drink him. When the people asked, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:28-29). There is only one way for a fallen man to work the work of God, and that is to believe on him whom the Father has sent. Jesus made plain that the eating and drinking is not a sacramental eating and drinking at a communion service: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). It is not by eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper that we are saved. It is believing on Christ that matters.

A Personal Decision

Each person who heard Jesus’ invitation on the great day of the Feast was faced with a decision – would he believe or not? And every person who hears the invitation of Jesus Christ in the second half of the twentieth century is faced with the same decision. Whether you hear it through the preached Word of God or through reading the Scriptures (Jesus himself related his invitation to the Scripture: “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said....”), this invitation gives you only two choices: to accept or reject him, to believe on him or cry with the crowd, “Not Christ but Barabbas. Crucify him!” There is no neutrality, no alternative, no third choice. They could not say, “He is a nice man.” On the basis of Jesus’ claim, either the Jews had to believe on him or they had to cry out against him.

A Spiritual Torrent

When we accept Christ as our Savior, do we receive only a streamlet of blessing? Is it only like the few drops which drip out of a pipe after the water is turned off? As D. L. Moody once remarked about this verse, “No, a thousand times no.” Jesus promised, “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly [his innermost parts] shall flow rivers of living water.” A river, a torrent, a Niagara – this is what flows.

From whence does the river come? From someplace to which I must make a pilgrimage? Must I go to some special place, for example, Huemoz? Happily, no. When a man believes, it is out of himself that the rivers of living water flow. John gives the explanation in an inspired form so we do not need to guess at Jesus’ meaning: “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39).

It is made plain that Jesus must be struck once before the rivers can be given. In the wilderness, when the water was given, the rock had to be struck once, but it was wrong to strike it twice (Ex. 17 and Num. 20). This was because when the rock was struck once that finished the picture of the work of Jesus Christ. In order for the work of salvation to be accomplished and the Holy Spirit to be given, Jesus had to be struck once, but he will not be struck twice. Jesus appeared at the right time and died once for all on Calvary’s cross in space and time. When he was done, he said, “The work is finished.” Later the same testimony was given by Peter and by the writer of Hebrews: Jesus’ death was once for all.

Jesus was hung on the cross, he was pierced, he died. Though he cried out from Calvary, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” this was not his last word. Rather, he said “It is finished” and turned to the Father, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The work is done, and since Pentecost every person who believes on Jesus as his Savior has the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of truth – all these are words for the same Person – living within him. The Holy Spirit, not some inner strength or psychological integratedness, is the source of the overflowing rivers of living water. There are to be living waters, a watered garden in the time of drought. The Holy Spirit lives within!

Not only are these rivers to be copious, they are also to be diffused; the “rivers of living water” are to flow, flow out to others. The Holy Spirit is not to be kept selfishly within myself, like a treasure clutched in a small child’s fist. The waters are not to be dammed up until they become a stagnant pool. They are to be a flowing, flowing, flowing river.

Nor are the rivers to be contaminated before they flow forth to others. As the rivers flow from us, if we are children of God through faith in Jesus Christ, they are not to be contaminated with either impure doctrine or an impure life, both of which bring contamination. There was a day when the Delaware River (I was raised in Philadelphia so the Delaware River means something special to me) was rich in fish. You cannot find a fish there now no matter how hard you try. The contamination in the upper Delaware has killed them all.

I could take you to a stream near Huemoz where women used to go to wash their clothes. They could take pails and carry them home full of clear water. This stream was once teeming with life. Now it is contaminated, defiled by the waste of Villars and Chesieres. I hate to cross it, and I try to find ways around it so I do not have to be reminded that this creation was once beautiful. It still flows, but the life is gone.

Dr. Tom Lambie, one of the great missionaries to Africa, concluded that the height of a civilization can be measured by the amount of contamination in its drinking water. Think of the modern pollution of our water supplies! I would say to you in the name of Jesus Christ that the degree of the infidelity of an individual Christian or a Christian group to the Word of God in doctrine and life is shown by the amount of contamination in the water which flows forth.

So let us ask ourselves as Christians how we contaminate the waters that flow from us. The Bible does not promise perfection in this life. But, by God’s grace, let us stop quenching the Spirit who lives within us so that our lives may show forth the Spirit’s fruit. How terrible it is to be Bible-believing Christians, to fight for orthodoxy, to fight for the evangelical position, and then to contaminate the water we hold out to others. How terrible – for these waters have been given to us without cost, brimming over, pure, directly from the fountainhead!

Are you still thirsting? Christ gives the invitation not only to others but to you. He is the fountainhead. He has died and is risen. He offers the only way to eternal life, asking only that you admit your needs, raise the empty hands of faith and accept his gift. What is eternal life? It is meaning in life now as well as living one’s life forever. Drink deep. Jesus offers a brimming cup.