Reading: Ezekiel 47–48; Revelation 21–22
Ezekiel 47:1-12 describes a river that flows from the temple, the design of which Ezekiel just set forth. It starts as a trickling stream coming out from under a threshold of the temple. As it goes, it gradually becomes larger and deeper. After only 1000 cubits (about 1/3 mile) it is ankle deep. In another 1000 cubits, knee deep; another, it is waste deep; and still another... it is swimming time! This river is lined with trees on both sides that produce fruit wherever the river goes—the fruit provides food; the leaves provide healing. The river produces life wherever it goes—fish teaming as in the days of creation (Genesis 1:20-21), and fishermen hauling them in (recall the loads of fish Jesus created for the fishers of men) (Luke 5:5-11; John 21:5-8). Life happens everywhere the river goes.
In John 7, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the feast of tabernacles. On the last day—the most important day—of the feast He stands up in the temple and cries out...
"If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and 38let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, 'From within him will flow rivers of living water.'" (John 7:37-38 NET)
On that day the priest would take a pitcher of water from the pool of Siloam and pour it over the altar. It was anticipated that one day, when Ezekiel's vision was fulfilled, that the water would keep going—out under the threshold, growing and growing until the vision was fulfilled. Jesus is effectively saying, “I am that water of life. I am the river of life. It flows from within me.1 Earlier Jesus had already described Himself as the temple; now He is the river that flows from the temple (by the Spirit He would later give to those who believe; see John 7:39). The Pharisees didn't understand—they thought he meant a literal temple (“Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days”). They couldn't understand that He was the temple and the water would flow from Him to the world. (See also Revelation 21:22.)
Ezekiel goes on to describe the city around the temple—Jerusalem, presumably. The gates are named for the twelve tribes of Israel. But the name given the city will be, not Jerusalem, but “Yahweh is There.” (Ezekiel 48:36) Ezekiel is describing the temple and the city looking forward, prophetically. Revelation 21–22 describe it with similar prophetic imagery but from the fulfillment side—after Christ has come and we have a vision of how it is transformed. As always, the fulfillment is significantly better than the prophecy.
We know John is hearing about the “same” city because just as Ezekiel tells us the name will be, “Yahweh is There,” so John, as he sees “the Holy City, new Jerusalem,” is told “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.” And just as Ezekiel's new Jerusalem has twelve gates named for the sons of Israel, so John hears that the New Jerusalem will have twelve gates named for the sons of Israel. John hears an added detail: It has twelve foundations named for the twelve apostles of the Lamb. It also has a river flowing down the middle of it with the tree of growing on each side of the river bearing fruit that is healing for the nations (Revelation 21:2-3, 12, 13; 22:1-2).
John also tells us that the city is the bride, the wife of the Lamb. We know that the bride, the wife of the Lamb, is the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). So the city is the New Jerusalem, is the church, the people of God. This mixing of metaphors (city/woman) should not seem so odd. Isaiah 54:1-17 describes the people of God in their devastation as a once beautiful bride, now an abandoned, barren woman, and a once beautiful city, now a slum. Then Isaiah goes on to describe how the city will be made beautiful and re-inhabited; how the wife will be taken back by God and have more children than the wife never abandoned. Paul mixes the same metaphors as well (Galatians 4:22-29). (For more on these texts go to A Reconciled Marriage, A Re-inhabited City, An Amazing Love – Isaiah 54.)
As would be expected, the fulfillment outshines the prediction. The city as Ezekiel pictured it was 4500 cubits square (about 1½ miles square). John was aware of that, but in his vision the city is 12,000 stadia square—that's about 1400 miles square (Far exceeding the prediction). It reminds me of the scene in Revelation 7:1-9 when John hears the number of the elect: 144,000 from every tribe of Israel—12,000 from each tribe. He hears of a perfectly countable, Jewish, kosher group. But then he looks to see it and what does he see? A vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, so large that it can't e counted. He hears of the restored Israel of God and when he sees the fulfillment, he sees the church. Ezekiel describes a restored Israel; but when John sees the fulfillment, he sees the church, the bride of Christ. This is the New Jerusalem, the city whose name is, “YHWH is There.” Jesus is the son of David who will build a temple for God and He is building His church (1 Kings 5:5; 8:19; Matthew 16:18).
I write this on Christmas morning, 2012. I can't help but recall the name given to Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. In Jesus Christ God is still with us, for He lives in us by His Spirit. He is the river running through the streets of the city. And though one day it will come in its fulness, God has already begun making everything new. If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation—the Israel of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15-16) Have you gone to Him to drink? Streams of living water flow from within Him.
1I used the NET (New English Translation) above because it shows that by simply changing where you end the sentence, or add quotation marks (remember, no punctuation was in the original text) it changes the location of the river from the believer to Jesus. Traditional translations add punctuation that makes it read the the river flows from within the drinker of the water. I believe it is best understood to see the river as flowing from within Jesus and the drinker (the one who believes) as the one who is satisfied by the Spirit that Christ gives. This is far more consistent with John's Gospel and the theology of the book. (See also John 4:13-14)