The River of Life
September 30th, 1979 @ 10:50 AM
THE RIVER OF LIFE
Dr. W.A. Criswell
9-30-79 10:50 a.m.
It is an infinite gladness for us, the First Baptist Church in Dallas, to welcome the thousands and the thousands of you who are sharing this hour on the two radio stations and on television. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The River of Life. A beautiful song that illustrates it; sung by our sweet friend and prayer partner, Mrs. Linda Smith-Almond. It’s an exposition of the first twelve verses of the forty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel [Ezekiel 47:1-12]. And if you will turn to Ezekiel, chapter 47, the vision reads like this [Ezekiel 47]:
Afterward the angel brought me to the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued from under the threshold of the house…
then the angel had a line in his hand and went forth eastward and he measured a thousand cubits—1,800 feet—And he brought me through the waters. And the waters were to the ankles. Then he measured a thousand cubits, and brought me through the waters . . . the waters were to the knees.
Again, he measured a thousand cubits, and brought me through . . . the waters were to the loins, to the waist
Afterward he measured a thousand cubits, and it had become a river that I could not pass over.
For the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over.
And the angel said unto me: Son of man, hast thou seen this?
Then he brought me, and caused me to return to the bank of the river.
And when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other.
Then he said unto me, These waters issue out toward the east country, toward the desert, and go down into the desert, and go into the Dead Sea: which being brought forth into the Dead Sea, the waters shall be healed.
And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.
And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi even unto Eneglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great Mediterranean Sea, exceeding many…
And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for food, whose leaf shall not fail…
it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary—they were fed by the river of God—and the fruit thereof shall be for food, and the leaf thereof for healing medicine.
No more dramatic imaginary of the grace, and truth, and blessing of the Lord pouring forth into the world could be found in God’s Book than in this incomparable, prophetic vision. The Book of Ezekiel is an amazing prophecy. Beginning at the fortieth chapter of Ezekiel and going through the twelfth verse of the forty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel is his vision of the millennial kingdom [Ezekiel 40:1-47:12]. His vision closes with another one which describes the allotment of the land to the twelve tribes in the millennial age [Ezekiel 47:13-48:35].
Now in this section from Ezekiel, the first verse of chapter 40 to the last verse that I just read—47 and [verse] 12 [Ezekiel 40:1-47:12], there is a picture, a vision of the millennial kingdom, and the millennial worship, and the millennial temple, and the millennial worship. And it is this climactic part of that vision that I have just read. In the previous chapter, in Ezekiel 46, the prophet is in the outer court of that millennial temple [Ezekiel 46:21]. Then the angel takes him and brings him to the door of the sanctuary [Ezekiel 47:1]. As he stands there, at the door of the sanctuary, there pours out from the inner heart of the temple, over the threshold of the door, down by the altar of sacrifice [Ezekiel 47:1], into the dry wadi Kidron, and through the tortuous course of the burned and scorched desert—finally, precipitously falling into the Dead Sea [Ezekiel 47:2-8].
And in the vision, the angel takes Ezekiel the prophet, and he has him wade in the water. He measures a thousand cubits and the waters are to the ankles [Ezekiel 47:3]. He measures another thousand cubits, and he causes Ezekiel to wade in the water up to the knees [Ezekiel 47:4]. He measures another thousand cubits and Ezekiel wades through the water, they are up to the waist [Ezekiel 47:4]. The angel then measures a fourth thousand cubits, and the prophet found himself unable to walk on the bottom of the river any longer—it’s a great, swollen, broad stream; waters abounding, waters to swim in, waters overflowing [Ezekiel 47:5].
It is then that the angel brings him back, and he looks at the banks of the broadening river. They are filled; the banks are covered with great and beautiful trees. “And the trees,” he says, “are for meat,” for food, “and the leaves are for the healing of the people.” Then the angel takes him to the Dead Sea and there the river, pouring its waters into that briny, and sulfurous, and doomed lake, it becomes beautifully and gloriously alive [Ezekiel 47:6-9].
“Even from Engedi,” I have stood there on the west bank of the Dead Sea; in that awful, scorching waste and sterile barrenness is a fountain that flows copiously. “From Engedi to Eneglaim” [Ezekiel 47:10]; that’s on the other side, that’s in Moab, that is the whole breadth of the sea has been born anew; it is alive and teeming with fish. “And the fishermen spread their nets on Engedi, on Eneglaim” [Ezekiel 47:10], and all of it is a beautiful paradise of Edenic luxury, foliation emerald green, and food, and healing for all. What a marvelous, wonderful, glorious vision! [Ezekiel 47:12].
The source of the vision of course in the mind and heart of the prophet is easily understood. I would think that many times Ezekiel had brooded over the location of Jerusalem. Most cities are on a great waterway, but Jerusalem is high in a barren, and rocky, and desert land, and the need of water has always been a part of its history. Do you remember Pontius Pilate infuriated the Jews when he took money from the temple treasury and built a conduit from the pools of Solomon, bringing water into the city? But not only did military leaders and political leaders see that dearth and need, but in prophetic vision, all of them, as they look forward to the millennial kingdom and the glorious New Jerusalem, they will describe it as a city abounding with water.
In Psalm 46, the psalmist will say: “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, Jerusalem” [Psalm 46:4]. In Isaiah 33: “Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eye shall see Jerusalem a habitation, a tabernacle not taken down. For there, the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams” [Isaiah 33:20, 21]. Look again in Joel: “It shall come to pass in that day, that the mountains shall drop down new wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the rivers of Judah shall flow with waters, and a fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord, and shall water even the valley of Shittim” [Joel 3:18]. That is the desert of Moab. Turn again in Zechariah: “It shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem…and the Lord shall be King over all the earth” [Zechariah 14:8-9].
And then in the beautiful picture of the New Jerusalem that we just read together:
I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely
And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.
In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and the fruit yielded every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
[Revelation 22: 1-2]
What more beautiful symbol of the grace and mercy of our living Lord who brings life to us than this incomparable vision?
Now it means many things. It certainly refers to the millennial day when the Lord shall come down, and His capital shall be in Jerusalem. And out of Jerusalem shall go forth those laws that shall govern the entire earth in peace, in happiness, in joy. But among other things that vision means, I think it certainly means the outpouring of the Spirit of God in Jerusalem, and its growth in continuation to the furthest reaches of the earth. For in that city, and in that sanctuary, the Lord God poured out the fullness of His Spirit [Acts 2:1-4].
First, a rivulet, a streamlet, only one hundred twenty disciples of the Lord, they could all be seated, contained in one upper room [Acts 1:14-15]. Then it began to grow and to expand, and the river continued. Herod Agrippa II sought to leap it and to dam it, but his persecutions only made the stream more swollen. Finally, the Roman Caesars were alarmed by it, and they sought also to drain it, and to doom it, and to dam it, but the stream continued to grow, and to grow, and to grow—finally, it covered the earth [Acts 1:8].
Do you notice in the vision that the stream begins in the sanctuary in Jerusalem? [Ezekiel 47:1]. Always that is a prophetic picture of the outreach of the blessings of the gospel of Christ. It begins in Jerusalem, always in “a Jerusalem”:
- The Jerusalem of Judea, and then the stream begins to flow outward [Acts 1:8].
- The “Jerusalem” of Syria, Antioch, and the stream of foreign missions flows outward [Acts 11:19-26].
- The “Jerusalem” of Asia and the stream flows outward. The seven churches of Asia [Revelation 2:1-3:22] grew out of the great outpouring of the Spirit of God in Ephesus [Acts 19:8-41].
- The “Jerusalem” of Macedonia, Thessalonica. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 1:8, “For from you sounded out the word of God to the whole world.” The stream goes out from the “Jerusalem” of Macedonia.
- The “Jerusalem” of Italy—Rome—and from Rome were those missionaries that spread over Europe, came to the Angles and won our forefathers in the land of England.
- The “Jerusalem” of America, the sanctuary of the Lord, flowing out from God’s house, from God’s people, those rivers of water that bring life and healing to the people.
Always in the prophetic vision and in its historical realization, the pattern never fails. It always follows the same prophetic outline. First in Jerusalem, from that sanctuary [Ezekiel 47:1], then the great mighty influences for God proceed outward. Paul wrote of it like this:
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?
Always the Word of God proceeds out of the sanctuary of the Lord from which the gospel messenger and message is sent. Do you want a man to go to the heart of equatorial Africa and there build a hospital? Do you want a man to go down to the Stone-Age Indians, in the Amazon jungle, and there translate the Word of God? Do you want a man to go to the Arctic Circle and there build a mission station for those Eskimos? Do you want a man to go without thought of recompense or reward in this life? Where would you find a man like that? I’ll tell you where you can find him; you can find him in the church! Out of the sanctuary of God goes those marvelous streams of love and mercy that heal the hurt of mankind.
Friday there came to me two young men from our Bible Institute, and they had the most unusual request of me I think that I have ever remembered. They said, being from that part of the world, they said, “We would like, in New England where the faith is so tragically dying, we would like to go to New England and there find us a church that is closed. And we’d love to open the doors of that church and build a sanctuary for God in the church that has ceased to exist. Or in a community where there’s no church at all, we’d like to go and to build a witness for Christ in that community.” Do they expect riches, and rewards, and affluence for that dedication? The young men would be surprised that I mention it in the sermon, this hour. They have just one hope, and that is that God would bless them in that commitment.
Where do you find people like that—dedicated, consecrated? You will always find them in the church. And that is the glory of our Lord. This is the arsenal of the gospel; this is the great home base from whence the Word of Life goes out to the ends of the earth. And it brings to us the deepening sense and realization that we must be strong in the faith here at home if we would propagate it, and propagandize it, and preach it beyond our borders.
I was moved one time, deeply so, as a young fellow listening to Dr. J. B. Lawrence, who was for a generation the executive secretary of our Home Mission Board. He described a visit of a man in a Southern city to a very rich Chinese grocery man. The man had become a millionaire and beyond in the luxurious grocery business that he had built, among others, there in that Southern city. So this man was in there talking to that Chinese gentleman about his work, and his business, and his success; and finally he asked him if he was a Christian. And the businessman said no, he was not a Christian. So as he talked to him, why, he asked him if anybody had ever spoken to him about the Lord. And the Chinese businessman said, “No, no one ever has.”
“No one has ever talked to you about Jesus, invited you to the church, invited you to the faith of the Lord?”
“No.” said the man “In these twenty years that I have been here in America, no one ever has.”
Dr. Lawrence said that when that report came to him, in one of those strange coincidences of life, a few weeks after that he picked up the paper, and he read where that affluent and successful Chinese grocery man had returned to China to his homeland and to the town in which he had been brought up. And Dr. Lawrence, in a very dramatic way, described the homecoming of that man in China. And as all of his people and friends gather around him, they finally ask him about the missionaries who have come to China to tell them about Jesus. And they ask him about that new religion and about that new God. And this Chinese businessman replies, he says, “Yes, I know of it. I lived in America for twenty years. And that religion and that new God that the missionaries preach about, they have beautiful and spacious churches. And they have great Sunday schools and they have beautiful worship services. But,” he says, “they don’t care anything about you and me. For I lived in America among those people for twenty years, and nobody in twenty years ever said anything to me about the faith, or about the Lord, or about my soul.”
You can see why, as a young fellow, I remember that as poignantly today as when I sat there and listened to that secretary of home missions describe that story. The strength of our witness is here, and if we are not interested in people here, why would we persuade ourselves that God would bless us over there? It is in this effort that we dedicate to God to win our city to the Lord, and our people to the Lord; that we find strength, that the river will grow and increase and bring healing, and blessing, and salvation to the other peoples of the world.
Do you notice in this marvelous vision, do you notice the course of that river? It began in Jerusalem, in the sanctuary—among the people of God. Then where did it flow? Watch it; it flows into the dry Kidron wadi, and follows its course through the tortuous, scorched and burned-up desert and finally, it falls into the Dead Sea [Ezekiel 47:1-8]. That sea is about thirteen hundred feet in the depths of the earth below the level of the Mediterranean. That sea has no life in it; it is devoid of any life at all. There’s not a fish in its waters; there’s not a flower on its shores; there is no vegetation around it. There is not even a bird that flies over it—it is completely dead, it is a doomed lake, it is a dead lake.
And in the bosom of that lake, there is hidden a deep mystery, for the cities of the plain are buried beneath those waters. In the fury of God, when Sodom and Gomorrah were cursed and burned from heaven [Genesis 19:24-25], they were buried beneath the deep, dark, bitter waters of that Dead Sea. Now I want you to look; the river in its two termini, look at it; this side of that river is in the depths of a doomed lake. This is the sea of Sodom, this is the lake of Gomorrah, this is the doomed and damned cities of the plain. This is the death of all life—that is the Dead Sea! [Ezekiel 47:8].
This is the sanctuary of God [Ezekiel 47:1]. This is the fountain of the source of all blessings. And do you see they are joined together by that wonderful and marvelous river. That’s God! Where does that river proceed? It proceeds where there is death, and damnation, and iniquity, and deepening doom, and sin. And where it proceeds, there do you find life; an Eden of trees, fish abounding, and all things for the healing of the hearts of the people [Ezekiel 47:9-12].
Sin is in human hearts; sin is in our great cities; sin damns lives, and families, and people, and nations. Sin brings misery and despair. That’s where the river of life flows! Man, we should never be discouraged, no heart is too hard for God, no city is beyond the possibility of a great revival, no house or home or family is so sunken in misery that it cannot be lifted up to the light of the glory of God that shines in the face of Jesus Christ [2 Corinthians 4:6]. Look at the course of that river [Ezekiel 47:1-8]. It proceeds in its tortuous path through the deserts of sin and despair and finally heals the very lake of Gomorrah and the sea of Sodom itself.
We ought to be encouraged. Man, if we’re not blessed today, we will be tomorrow. If we don’t succeed this hour, brother, we will the next hour. Let’s stay with it; let’s preach the gospel, let’s visit, let’s point to Jesus the Lamb of God [John 1:29]. Finally, ultimately in God’s providence, the river will grow and it will bring Eden, and healing, and health to the people [Ezekiel 47:9-12].
May I point out one other unusual thing in this incomparable vision? Do you notice that it grows? I don’t mean it grows because of tributaries pouring into it, it grows of itself. The angel took Ezekiel and he had him wade in the waters and they were to his ankles. Then he measured a thousand cubits and had Ezekiel wade in the waters again, they were to his knees. He measured a thousand cubits again and had the prophet wade through the waters, they were to his loins. Then he measured a thousand more cubits, and it was a river you could not pass over—great and broad and deep [Ezekiel 47:3-5].
All life is like that. In whatever direction we go, it deepens. We become more like whatever we are—on, and on, and on. If my direction is God-ward, if I face Christ-ward, and heavenward, I will grow in those things of God, of Christ, of heaven. It deepens; my knowledge will deepen as I read the Bible and as I pore through the Scriptures. As I come to the services of the Lord’s house, as I share in all the things of the blessed Jesus, I grow in my understanding and in my knowledge.
All of Christian life is like that. There is a dawn, then the daybreak, then a noon time. There is a tender leaf, then the stalk, then the corn in the ear. There is the babe who is just born into the kingdom, then there is the growth and finally, the mature man. All of our lives are like that. However direction we are turned, we become more like that with the passing days and years.
The opposite is sadly true. If the direction of my life is away from God, and away from Christ, and away from heaven; if the direction of my life is worldly, I grow in that. I deepen in sin and iniquity. I become more and more and more worldly or indifferent. And the misery of my life grows and grows, and the despair of life finally overwhelms me. A family is like that, a heart is like that, the home is like that—all of life is like that. We increasingly grow in the direction toward which are turned.
Ah, Lord, that’s what God’s Book says eternity is; eternity is nothing but an extension, a continuation of what I am in this life. He that is unholy, let him be unholy still; he that is unjust, let him be unjust still [Revelation 22:11]. As Ecclesiastes 11:3 says, “As the tree falls so shall it lie.” If the direction of my life is away from God, it continues that way through this life and through all eternity. I turn aside from God who is light, and life, and joy, and happiness, and blessing, and I become increasingly enmeshed in darkness, and in misery, and in despair forever.
But if I turn—and all I need to do is to turn—the Bible calls that repentance; repentance actually is turning. All I need to do, God says, is to turn. And when I turn the direction is God-ward, and heavenward, and Christ-ward, and the joy, and the happiness, and the fullness, and the abounding love [John 3:16], and grace [Ephesians 2:8], and mercy [Titus 3:5] of God are increasingly bestowed upon me. I just need to turn [Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9].
That’s the most amazing and miraculous thing that I could ever think for. If I’m going this way, and my life increasingly falls into depths of despair, all I need to do is just to turn. And when I turn God-ward and heavenward, life becomes filled with hope, and joy, and peace, and the fruits of the Spirit, and the enriching presence and blessing of God.
Then when I die, it is just a continuation. There is more life, and more joy, and more blessing, and more of Jesus, and it continues forever. I don’t think we’ll remain the same even in heaven, if our direction is toward the Lord. I think we will grow in heaven in appreciation and understanding, in love. Every wonderful and marvelous thing that God has in store for us, it will just expand and expand. And there is no limit, no boundaries to the glorious grace of God that shall fill our souls in that wonderful world toward which our faces are turned. May we stand together?
Our Lord in heaven, there could be no greater tragedy than that a man would turn his face away from God. And increasingly find his life empty without purpose, without meaning, in a dry and dreary desert, devoid of life and hope, more miserable as the days come and go and finally to fall into the grave without purpose, without meaning, all of life dark and dismal. Then an eternity to come without any hope, increasingly just that away from God in the dark, in the night. Dear Lord, save us. Save us. And the Lord just says, “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death in any man. But that the man would turn and live. Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die?” [Ezekiel 33:11]. When all I need to do is just turn, just turn, turn toward God, turn toward Jesus [Romans 10:9-10, 13]. Turn toward the light. Turn toward that fullness of life that can only come from His gracious hands. Life then full of meaning and purpose, we are bound for the Promised Land. We are headed for heaven. We are on the high road of salvation. We are in a pilgrimage from this world to the better world to come [1 Peter 2:11]. Dear God, grant that we all may turn fellow pilgrims, fellow believers, loving Jesus, walking in the precious way of the footsteps of our redeeming Lord [Matthew 16:24]. What a blessing to the children, to the home, to the family, to the work, to the life, to everything that we hold dear, God makes it so bringing healing and health to our hearts.
With no one moving except down here to the altar, out of that balcony, from the press of people on this lower floor, “Pastor, I have decided for God. I’m turning and I’m coming,” down one of those stairways, down one of these aisles. Our men, we shall be here to receive you. Make the decision now in your heart. And in a moment take that first step; the greatest step you will ever make in your life. Do it now. Make it now, while our people pray, while we wait for you, “I want to take Jesus as my Savior [Romans 10:8-13]. I want to put my life in this church [Hebrews 10:24-25].” As God shall press the appeal, answer with your life, while we wait, while we sing.