In my last post I talked about how, and potentially why, in the Bible God is symbolized by a flowing river. I settled on three reasons—the three aspects of a river (source, course, flow), its continuity, and its relation to life. In these three characteristics of a river, the persons of the Triune God, the move of God, and the eternal intention of God are all profoundly symbolized. Ultimately, the Bible explicitly identifies this river with the Spirit (John 7:37-39). So, in short, we can simply say that the river of water of life is a biblical symbol for the Spirit.
Why does the Bible use symbols when talking about God?
Witness Lee gives three reasons:
The Spirit is the reality of all the divine entities and matters… As such a reality, the Spirit is mysterious. Because the Spirit is mysterious and beyond our understanding, the New Testament uses many different symbols, figures of speech, to describe Him.
The symbols [of the Spirit]… indicate that we need the Spirit in many different ways.
The symbols of the Spirit are illustrations to portray how our God, after being processed and consummated, becomes our enjoyment. The Bible uses all the symbols to describe and to portray how God becomes so enjoyable and so available to us through all of His processes.
Here they are again, rephrased:
- Figurative language enables us to grasp something of the reality of the divine mysteries
- The many symbols of the Spirit underscore our many needs
- The many symbols of the Spirit portray how enjoyable and available God is in His economy
Paul exhausts his adjectives to convey just how rich and vast our Triune God is. He uses phrases like “all the fullness of the Godhead” (Col. 2:9), “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8), and “the bountiful supply of the Spirit” (Phil. 1:19). In His eternal purpose, God intends to dispense Himself in all His riches and fulness into the church. This dispensing IS the bountiful supply of the Spirit, which is conceptualized by a river of water life flowing in and then flowing out of the believers. What God is dispensing into the church is just the Spirit. This is because the Spirit is the reality (1 John 5:6).
In fact, the Spirit is so key in our experience of God, the Bible gives at least 20 symbols for Him to help elucidate our spiritual experiences.
20 Symbols of the Spirit
- A brooding bird—Gen. 1:2; Deut. 32:11; Isa. 31:5
- A dove—Matt. 3:16; John 1:32
- A seeking woman—Luke 15:8
- Breath—Ezek. 37:9-10, 14; John 20:22
- Wind—Ezek. 1:4; 37:9; John 3:8; Acts 2:2
- Clothing—Luke 24:49; 2 Kings 2:9, 13-15
- Living water—Exo. 17:6; 1 Cor. 10:4; John 4:10, 14; 7:37-39
- A gift—Acts 2:38; 10:45
- The firstfruit—Rom. 8:23
- The cloud—Exo. 14:20, 24; 40:34-38; Numb. 10:34; 1 Cor. 10:1-2; Ezek. 1:4
- Fire—Ezek. 1:4; Acts 2:3-4
- Rain—Gen. 2:5; Deut. 11:14; Joel 2:23, 28-29; Hosea 6:3; Zech. 10:1; Acts 2:16-18
- Olive oil—Psa. 45:7; Heb. 1:9; Isa. 61:1; Zech. 4:6, 11, 14; Matt. 25:3-4, 8-9; Luke 10:34
- The compound ointment—Exo. 30:25-26; 1 John 2:20, 27; 2 Cor. 1:21
- A seal—2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30
- A pledge—2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14
- Ink—2 Cor. 3:3
- The seven lamps of fire—Rev. 4:5
- The seven eyes of the Lamb—Exo. 25:37; Zech. 4:2, 10; Rev. 5:6
- The river of water of life—Rev. 22:1, 17; 21:6; Gen. 2:10-14; Psa. 36:8; Ezek 47:1, 5, 7-9, 12
These 20 points were adapted from Witness Lee’s Conclusion of the New Testament, messages 81-82 and The Spirit, chapters 3-4; two excellent resources for further reading on the symbols of the Spirit.