There’s no need to ever be stuck in past, present, or future.
A college student celebrates two landmark moments. One is when he receives his acceptance letter through the mail. This usually happens somewhere near the end of his high school senior year. The whole house is excited. Lawn banners go up announcing that Johnny so-and-so is OSU bound. The other celebration occurs when Johnny graduates. The lawn banner goes up again announcing “Johnny so-and-so, OSU Grad!”
No celebrations tend to happen in the middle though, during late night cramming and Ramen noodles.
Years ago, I led campus ministry. Typically, gifted students would find their way into our fellowship and stick with us. A few of them hadn’t gotten the memo that you have to study at Ohio State. Back at their hometown high schools, they’d skated by on raw intelligence. Then they ran into “Ouch” State University, and learned that there would be something more to their academic career than start and finish—a middle that included going to class, taking notes, studying. We even had a few parents show up, to reinforce that hard fact to a few of them.
Often when it comes to the Christian life, there’s one time zone we like better than the others. We’re either excited about the color and drama of the beginning (and bored with the rest), or embroiled in the flurry of Christian busyness in the middle, or we’re looking forward to the end, thinking nothing right now matters that much.
However, God is the God of our entire process—our precious beginning, our critical middle, and our glorious ending. We should regularly experience the blessings of each phase.
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:5-6a)
There it is: beginning and end. But God loops back in the rest of the verse, encapsulating the entire Christian life, including the middle:
“To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son’” (vv. 6b-7).
First, God promises the water of life as the beginning of the Christian life. Everyone starts here, but a surprising number of us aren’t aware of what happened the moment we came to Christ. Listen in on a conversation Jesus had with a woman at a well long ago after He had asked her for a drink of water:
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
According to Jesus, the problem with the woman, as well as the rest of us, is that we don’t know the gift of God, and we don’t quite know who Jesus is. He calls the gift “Living water,” which He later describes as the Holy Spirit. Secondly, Jesus Himself is the Son of God, the giver of the gift. That means the giver was there, with the gift, and ready to give it.
Just as then, even today, the Father is in the Son, offering the Holy Spirit to whoever wants Him. Jesus said, if you knew that, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to ask for it.
A few verses later, He says in John 4:14, “but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
And a few chapters later, the same theme comes up again:
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:37-39).
All of this believing, receiving, and drinking, describes the beginning of our faith. We only need to be thirsty, that is, to sense an inward vacuum, an emptiness, dread at the prospect of an uncertain eternity, a foreboding related to our own darkness, a numb purposelessness.
These describe the requisite thirst Jesus spoke of.
He says, “Come to me.”
That’s the beginning, and describes what happened when we first truly came to Christ.
Then God mentions the middle of the Christian life starting in verse 7, contained in one short sentence fragment:
“The one who conquers” (v. 7).
Some other versions use the word “overcomes.” Either way, it is appropriate to the middle segment of the Christian life. After the first big gulp of living water, we quickly find out that not everything celebrates with us. Plenty of factors are not faith-friendly, such as the corruption of the world, as well as the “Christian” sins mentioned in Revelation chapters 1-3—loss of love for Christ in favor of religious stuff, fear of persecution leading to compromise, heresies and idolatry that distract, spiritual death that numbs, the temptation to let go of the Word, and lukewarmness.
All of these must be overcome, but the sheer immensity of the challenge sounds impossible. It would require supernatural spiritual power. But remember, we started with the water of life, a power beyond this world. It is more than possible for us to conquer and possess the good land of God’s promise. Together with Joshua and Caleb, we should declare, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Num. 13:30).
Admittedly, not every day in the life of a Christian will be a winning play. We will drop the ball, strike out, slam into one another on the field. But if we continue drinking the Holy Spirit, the sum total will eventually by victory. The middle experience then, is all about learning how to rise above.
Then God’s amazingly brief summation of the Christian life, ends. Whoever overcomes, “will have this heritage, [some versions say, “will inherit these things”] and I will be his God and he will be my son.” This refers to all the rewards and promises of the new heaven and new earth in the earlier part of this chapter, as well as the mind-boggling rewards of chapters 1-3. Ultimately, the saved and overcoming believer will, as a son, stand with God in solidarity for His interests, and His kingdom.
But as for those who didn’t drink the water of life and overcome—never started, and never had a middle—what ending will he or she have? What will they “inherit”?
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (v. 8).
This is the awful portion, or, inheritance of those who failed to drink the water of life, who saw it as unnecessary, and something not to be desired. As a result, they overcame none of the behaviors listed in verse 8, indeed, saw no reason to overcome them. They treated such sins as normal, and the biblical standards that forbade them as being hateful. They are so overtaken by these sins, the very sin itself becomes their identity—instead of those who lie, they are called “liars,” rather than those who worship idols, they are “idolaters.”
Honestly, we’ve been most, or all of the things mentioned in verse 8. Even if we didn’t defend them with hand-painted signs, we at least quietly lived out their corruption. But God promises a free drink that leads to a better destiny. As Revelation draws to a close, He reminds the reader in short gospel bursts, about that living water, and where it can take you.
Back before I came to Christ, I got in line at a foodie truck. Two guys in line ahead of me were talking about the Christian faith, and one of them said, “Man, I tried it out, and just couldn’t keep going.” I knew exactly what he was talking about. I had already experienced a couple of false starts myself, like the time I decided to attend church regularly (It lasted one Sunday), or my attempts to read the Bible (It always ended at Leviticus).
Faith-wise, I had no idea how to get started, let alone keep going. Then I gave up and one night just came to Jesus. I had no plan, no pride left. That was my first drink of living water, and immediately I began to overcome. Now, thirty-six years later, I’ve gone through many troubled seasons, and backsliding episodes, but I’m still here, excited, inspired, and loving Jesus.
I’m in the middle of the Christian life, and therefore not done yet, but I’ve found if you start with the Giver and His gift, and you stick with the Giver and His gift, you’re going to overcome. And that means you will eventually inherit all.
I think we run afoul of this simple pattern because we’re so busy trying to give God a gift rather than receive His. We’re proud of ourselves and our goodness, our humanitarianism, and compassion. No wonder we stall. It’s as though we’ve started some kind of new demanding diet, say, the Easter Island Diet, where you eat nothing but Fiddler crabs. We’re doing well on it, looking good in a swimsuit again, and posting photos on Facebook. And then one day it’s over. You can’t eat another crab, and so you eat four cheesecakes in one sitting.
But the Christian life doesn’t start with what you can give to God. It starts with God giving to you, and that gift of living water enables you to live an actual, authentic Christian life. The beginning enables the middle, and the middle flows right into the end.