by Alan Parfitt
This is an edited transcript of Alan Parfitt’s message at Equip Gauteng 2016.
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1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
This Psalm paints an incredible contrast. It has a picture of the earth giving away, the mountains moving, the seas roaring and foaming, the nations raging, and kingdoms tottering. In the Bible, when it talks of the sea, it’s usually a reference to the restlessness and disturbed state of humanity. We can roar and erupt into terrible storms. Even right now in the world we feel this disturbance of ‘turbulent seas’. But in contrast to this there’s a river. The Hebrew word for the “river” used here speaks of a perennial (lasting) river, not a river in flood. In other words, it’s not referring to some event but a constant river, always flowing.
The Psalmist tells us that there are three results this river brings:
- The City of God is not moved.
- The City of God is assured of the constant presence of God.
- God will help her in just the right time (“when the morning dawns”).
So in all this shaking and turmoil, the perennial river of God still flows, regardless of the season. The City of God will not be moved, even though the nations roar around it; it will be assured of the constant presence of God. And there’s this promise: though there is trouble, God will help at just the right time. This speaks volumes to us.
Rivers in the Bible
The picture of a river is prominent throughout Scripture. You find it in Genesis, where God has a river run right through the middle of the garden, watering Eden where Man has been set to work. You find it often mentioned in the Psalms – Psalm 36 speaks of “the river of God’s delights.” Ezekiel speaks of a river flowing from the throne of God and bringing life and healing to the nations. (Ezekiel 47.) Then in the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the river which will flow from a person’s innermost being. (John 7:38,39 – in reference to the Holy Spirit.) In Revelation we read of the river that flows from the throne and through the very center of the heavenly city, the Holy City of God (Revelation 22). These examples show how, right throughout the Bible, this theme of a river continues. I believe this is because it is revealing to us one of the ways of God.
He creates a garden and sets a city in place. He puts a man or a woman to work that place. Then he provides a river to flow through it, so that we produce fruit. It’s not by might, nor by power, but by the very Spirit (presence) of God. This is the way that he works. He has not make us able to produce the necessary results without the river of His presence.
Now the river very clearly is referring to God’s presence. The river is not some arbitrary experience, but is a reference to God Himself – his very life – the Lord Jesus Christ, the fountain of life. Psalm 46:4 above tells us about the river and then in the next verse it says “God is in the midst of her.” It’s the presence of God that causes us to stand firm, to bear fruit, to bring forth life. As we consider these things we need to see that God’s way is always to provide Man with the river of His presence. That’s the only way he does things, there is no other way in God’s economy.
A Perennial Flow
God’s presence is a perennial flow. It’s important for us to realise that God doesn’t equip us through flash floods – events and special occasions – but through a constant flow, day and night, in season and out of season. That is God’s way. When we are equipped by the river of God as his Church and as individuals that follow God, this river of His presence will keep us unmoved. Though the mountains quake and the sea storms around us, we have this assurance: God is with us. We know His help will be there at exactly the right time.
Verse 4 in Psalm 46 refers to streams of the river that make glad the city of God. It makes use of the words “river” and “streams”. Why use both words though? These streams are not tributaries. That’s sometimes what we think. But here there are no tributaries feeding into the river because God’s river is complete. He needs nothing.
But when you study this deeper you find that the streams are referring to channels. In the time this was written, city engineers or farmers would dig channels to connect into a river and bring its water into a city. When the water from the river was flowing into the city it made the city glad. They would draw the water through channels into their lands so that fruit would be produced. These city engineers or builders of these trenches had to be very skilled at doing this. They had to have a good understanding of the river, how it flowed, what would work most effectively. They had to be careful that the way the water was delivered into the city was useful and available and easy for people to come and drink and draw from.
We can learn from this picture. In Jerusalem is a tunnel that archaeologists say was dug during Hezekiah’s time. The goal was to bring in water from the Gihon Spring, Jerusalem’s fresh water supply. So they dug a tunnel through the bedrock, which apparently must have taken a minimum of four years. The historical evidence shows that Hezekiah probably organised two teams of engineers, one to dig from the side of the river and the other from in the city. They had to chisel the tunnel by hand. Where the two teams met you can find an inscription, even to this day, which says that, at the last phase, what guided them was the sound of the chisels of the other team. As they heard this sound there was great joy and they started to chisel towards one another. Then the breakthrough came and the water ran into the city.
It runs into a fountain called Siloam. If you can recall, Jesus sent a blind man to the pool of Siloam for healing (John 9). The picture here is that a ‘stream’, a channel, from the fresh water supply was brought into the city. When we consider these things we want to apply it into our lives as individuals and churches. God’s perennial river makes the city glad through its channels, its streams. We need people that hunger so much for the presence of God that they will break through the bedrock of things that are impossible, with patience and perseverance, and in prayer, desperate for the presence of God to come into our cities so that it can make glad our cities. Because it’s only the very presence of God that can make the city glad. It’s not our programmes, our efforts, or our achievements. We must be those channels, and we must be bringing in the river of God, not some other river. We’re not bringing in all the things that we could do on our own without the presence of God. It is the very life of God that will make the cities of our nations healed and glad, and not anything else.
The Church is called to be a channel
The Church is called to be such a channel, to keep the streams flowing. So you’ve got to connect well with the river and make sure the outlet is clear. If either of those are interfered with, there’s going to be a problem, and there won’t be life-giving water flowing into the city to make it glad.
As churches, therefore, we need to make sure we’re connected to the life of God – that we are connected to His presence. We must make sure this is our vision and our focus: Christ. Because without His presence we can never make our cities glad and we cannot be healing to the nations. The Pool of Siloam was designed to bring water into the city in a way that the city could draw from. It wasn’t a rushing flood coming in. It became a blessing to the city. Likewise, we should be the same as churches, so we can say: taste and see that the Lord is good.
Sometimes we can get problems on the outlet side. I’ve recently heard it said that God does not give churches a city but gives cities a Church. This impacted me because sometimes we get the idea that God has given us our city and we’re going to go in and conquer it, taking it for Jesus, rooting out all evil. But actually God loves the city so much that he gives the city a Church, which is there to be a channel that brings God’s life into that city – a channel to shine a light. In the first several chapters of Revelation we read that churches are described as a lampstands. In the place where Satan dwells, Jesus comes and puts a light there, because he loves the city. The church is there to bring gladness to the city.
So when there are problems with this channel, what is to be done?
Love is the essence
The essence of this stream that makes glad the city, as churches and as individuals, is love. It’s love for Jesus, for our fellow believers, and love for the lost. Since God Himself is the river in this picture we see being painted here, and since God is love, it’s obvious that the essence of the channels or streams that come from the river into the city is love.
Without love, God Himself will not be manifested through us. Love is who God is. If we were to neglect this, the stream – the church – no longer makes the city glad. This is what happened to the church at Ephesus in the Bible:
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
This church was doing a lot of work. They were renown for their work and put in tremendous effort to keep their doctrine pure and deal with false teaching. When it speaks of this church ‘abandoning’ their first love (verse 4) it doesn’t mean that they had lost it. What the word means is that they had exchanged it for something else. It’s much like when Jesus told his disciples to follow him, and they left their boats and dropped their nets and intentionally took hold of something they considered better. Ephesus was renowned for their love – 30 years earlier Paul had written to them and said, “I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” (Ephesians 1:15.) But now Jesus is telling them they’ve exchanged their love for something else!
This is a great warning to us because it only took thirty years for a church to exchange its renowned love for something else. Their works were carrying on but their love had been abandoned. Jesus doesn’t tell them to stop their works, but he says they must do the works they did at first – the works that flow from love. Sometimes we get so busy and just work based on momentum and other things motivating us, but we’ve abandoned love. We’ve taken on things that we’ve learned some way or another. The problem is that these sorts of works don’t make the city glad. They might be impressive but they don’t make the city glad. Because it’s only that which comes from the river of God (and God is love) that makes the city glad and brings healing.
Ask yourself: am I working the works that flow from love? As churches, as individuals, we must make sure we’re always working works that flow from love.
Keeping our connection
We need to make sure we are keeping our connection with the river of God’s presence. We’ve got to keep the channel open by understanding our works flow from love. Otherwise, there will be problems with the water coming into the city.
So how do we keep our connection?
- We’ve got to be convinced that the river is God Himself. I’ve got to be so persuaded every day that that which is working through me is the life of God Himself. It’s a supernatural life. I don’t want to do it. I’m dependent on God. God’s way is that we will be fruitful through the supernatural provision of Himself – of His life flowing through us. He doesn’t want us to achieve success any other way. So we’ve got to ask ourselves the question: is God’s life in this? As churches, we need to ask that over and over.
After about a year of leading our church we found ourselves really crying out to God. We just didn’t know what we were supposed to do. We hadn’t been trained for the challenges we were facing. A word then came to us: “the trickle will come into the church.” That very Sunday, with no change in anything we do or the way we do it, people started coming in. It’s just carried on being that way – the trickle coming into the church. When we looked back at this we realised God was showing us that His life brings them in, not us. This has encouraged us over the years. We’ve seen this happen quite often: God says something, and supernaturally it happens. This is to assure us that it’s about His life, not our works. We’ve got to continue to live in that as a church because this keeps us plugged into the river. We have to keep asking: Are we living in the supernatural provision of the life of God to keep us going, or have we reverted to something else?
- We’ve got to remember that, in all the scriptures that speak of the river, it is always in the centre. For example, Revelation 22:1,2 says the river was “flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” We need to realise that the river of God must run right through the middle of everything we are and everything we do.
The danger is that we can begin to think that we’ll manage quite well by shifting the river of God’s life more and more to the outskirts. The problem is this is a subtle thing – we do it just a little bit each week, each month, each year. This is what happened with the Laodicean church: “…you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:17.)
When we get to a place where we think we can do this and we can make it happen, that we can achieve our vision, the centre of our lives and hearts has changed. Think about how sad it is that Jesus had to tell a church, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20.) Jesus, the very fountain of life, is knocking on the door of a church. This verse is often used in the context of evangelism, but it’s actually a church that needed to open its door! Jesus had to send them a letter to tell them he was waiting outside!
Now that is the end point of disaster. But you don’t get there in one day. We’ve got to make sure in our lives that every day we are saying, “Lord, are you central?” Gerald Coates said at our church not too long ago: “My last thought, just as I’m about to go to sleep at night, is Jesus. My first thought when I open my eyes in the morning is Jesus.” It’s not complicated. It’s just every day we keep him at the center.
You can ask yourself a few simple questions to see how central He really is. You make sacrifices for what’s important to you. You spend your treasures there. You make time for it, even in the busiest times. So, where do you spend your treasures? Your time?
- We need to always remember the promise: there IS a river. There is always a river provided for you in your situation. We can be assured of this, it’s God’s way throughout scripture. Where he puts you to work he provides a river.
God doesn’t expect you to be fruitful without a river of His presence. Sometimes it might be hard to find the river and to connect with it because seasons change and challenges come. Consider Elijah. He prayed for drought, then he got the drought, and then he was sitting in the drought and the river dried up and God effectively said to him, “I’ve got another river where I will provide for you.” And he goes off to a brook and lives there. Then that dries up and God provides another river through the widow’s jar.
We’ve got to be like those workers of Hezekiah who just kept chiselling on, breaking through the bedrock. Pray and seek and break through. When the river dries up in one area you need to know that sometimes God does that because He doesn’t want us to be those that are tied to the way we’ve always done things. We often drink at a river and then it dries up and we decide we’ll just die there. No, there’s another river, and we must go to it.
- We don’t control the river. Some people seem to think they can. But we do have a say over how much the river controls us. That’s an important difference!
3 Going on eastward with a measuring line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water, and it was ankle-deep. 4 Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was waist-deep. 5 Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen. It was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. 6 And he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?”
When we read about measuring lines in scripture they speak to us about considering the cost, like a quantity surveyor calculating the cost for you to decide to build or not. So there’s a cost to being in this river. Am I going to say, “Lord I am willing to surrender my ability to control where I go, to the purposes of God”? because that river goes in the direction of the purposes of God and that’s the question that Ezekiel was asking. There’s a price: not my will but yours. I want to go with your purpose, not mine. I will take up my cross and follow you.
- Persevere in faithfulness. Think of Jesus, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and all he had during that time was “it is written”. He had no great boost of circumstances that could back him up and encourage him. He had no circumstances that could say everything’s going to be okay. There was just the wilderness and “it is written”. The devil was going for him, but all he had was “it is written, it is written”. He held onto that and eventually the angels came and ministered to him. There was a sudden increase in the supernatural working of God, and after that, Luke describes how Jesus goes out of the wilderness in the power of the Spirit. What happened? He broke through.
There are times we will be in the wilderness and all we have is “it is written”. Just God’s promises. Like Hezekiah’s team, you keep chiselling. You know there’s water ahead, so just keep going.
- Come back to loving the individual.
36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Here Jesus is at a party with a very upright man, but in came a woman of the city. Simon was very devoted to his doctrines and so forth, but his love for his city, for the individual, had dried up. But Jesus loved this woman and pointed out her love and faith. Through His love He opened up a channel for the supernatural life of God to flow into this woman’s life and she left knowing her sins were forgiven. That’s supernatural. No man can do that. You can’t just be told you’re forgiven, it requires a supernatural move of God for you to live without guilt. She knew she was saved. She left there in peace, because Jesus said “go in peace.” It was all through Jesus’ love for her.
I believe God is calling us deeper. I know that’s a word easily used, but I hope we can understand this is not an experiential thing as such, but is about the very life of God Himself. The call to go deeper means we have to learn and know that the river is God Himself and that we need to get back to love. Yes, there’s a cost, but this is God’s way. This is how he makes the city glad. There is no other way. So we pray, “Lord, let your will be done and not mine. Amen.”