He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross. He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?” Then he led me back to the bank of the river. Ezekiel 47:5–6 (NIV)
Ezekiel presents us with a vision. There is a life-giving river flowing from the temple. In essence, it is the blessing of God coming from his presence. We see a river over 2 miles wide. For those with a desire to swim in this mighty river, they must wade for quite a while before the water is deep enough. Some will be content with splashing around in ankle-deep water. Others will settle for water that comes up to the knees, but we must persevere until we reach the deep water to be fully immersed.
The deep water is where I want to be. Some may settle for splashing around close to shore, but we must venture out to the middle to get to where the flow is more vigorous. There is life near the edges. Great trees line the river. The trees will produce fruit continually. Even the leaves of the tree will provide healing.
In the natural, swimming in deep water is for the experienced and the mature. There can be uncertainty and even risk, but once we have experienced being immersed in God’s presence, the shallow water will never again be satisfactory. There is blessing and life, even along the edges of this river, but there is so much more for those who will “let the shoreline go.” As pastors and leaders, what can we do to lead others into the fullness of his presence?
Jump into the Deep End?
Have you ever watched how various people get into a swimming pool? Some will dive into the deep end without giving it a second thought, while others will tepidly enter the shallow end, carefully testing the water with their toes. The former is immersed in a moment while the latter acclimate themselves slowly. Personalities and experiences can vary greatly. The real question should not be, “How did you get into the pool?” Instead, “What did you do once you were in?” If you dive right in but don’t do anything else, you will not be ahead of the person who gets in slowly but stays and swims.
One of the ways to stir up lively discussion among Christians is to bring up the subject of “Seeker Sensitive Churches.” Inevitably, blood pressure will rise, and charges will be thrown back and forth. For some, “Seeker Sensitive” is a code word for a gospel message that has been compromised or watered down, while others view it as a way to introduce people to Jesus in a nonthreatening manner. A question that often comes up in my mind is this: “What do we call the opposite of seeker-sensitive?” Perhaps, “Seeker insensitive?”
There is great wisdom in giving milk to newborns. No one in their right mind would insist upon forcing a newborn to eat meat. The problem comes when there is no transition from milk to solid food. “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:13–14 (NIV) There is no shame in being an infant because, after all, that is where everyone is when they start. A child who develops normally will naturally reach the point where they are no longer satisfied with milk alone but will instead crave solid food. However, if they do not receive solid food, they will not correctly develop to maturity.
The Goal of Discipleship
We must be careful not to be critical of those who offer milk to infants or assume that those who desire to introduce others to Jesus through the shallow end of the swimming pool do not want to lead them eventually into deeper waters. The ultimate validation does not come from the number of people who test the shallow water, but instead, how many learn to swim proficiently? It is probably true that many never leave the shallow water, but likewise, some who are thrown into the deep end don’t make it either.
The goal of Christian discipleship should not be to boast about how deep our water is; instead, it is about the transition from milk to solid food or from the shallow end of the pool to the deep. It is not good to boast that you do not offer milk or that your spiritual swimming pool only has a deep end. Maturity is a process that takes time and patience, but it is the proven way of making disciples. “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.“ 1 Peter 2:1–3 (NIV)
Flow in the River of His Presence
Whether we are talking about swimming pools or the mighty river of God, there’ll always be the bold and adventurous who head for the deep waters. Others will need to be coaxed, helped, and encouraged to leave the comfort and seeming security of staying close to the shoreline or edge. It will require patience because everyone is different. Many will linger in their comfort zone for extended periods, but the spirit of God wants to draw them into the middle of the flow. Ultimately, not only can we flow in that river, but the river will also flow through us.
On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” John 7:37–38 (The Message)