The River of Life
And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Rev 22:1-4 NKJV
The River of Life is a Healing Stream
One of the most vivid images in Scripture of the power of worship is the River of Life, seen in Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22, two strikingly parallel passages. Other references include the Psalms (1; 36, 46) and the words of Jesus (John 7:38). In Ezekiel’s vision we see four depths to the river: ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep and waters over the head. Ezekiel and his angel-guide passed through the first three levels but found the fourth depth to be too large to cross. It was a river in which one must swim.
I observe four levels, or depths, in our common worship experience: thanksgiving, proclamation, adoration and communion. These correspond to the four depths of the river in Ezekiel’s vision. In my thinking, we enter the ankle-deep waters of life when we give thanksgiving to the Lord. Psalm 100 identifies thanksgiving as the gateway to the presence of the Lord. Like standing ankle deep in a stream, thanksgiving is refreshing to the soul. But this is a level intended as a passage, not for a dwelling place, so we go out deeper. When we are standing knee-deep in a river, we can feel the current. In fact, we have to counter the force of the river with every step. When we go beyond thanksgiving and begin to proclaim the Lord’s excellence, His character, deeds, and love, we also move from refreshing to a state of being impressed with the Lord’s power. Thanksgiving and praise refresh and impress us with God’s power, but these are levels of expression which we must pass through.
When we move from knee-deep to waist deep in the waters of life, to my mind we are going from the proclamation of praise to the expression of adoration. We move from praise to worship, from speaking about God to speaking to Him, from an emphasis on what He has done for us to who He is in us. Now change begins to happen. Learning from the image of wading into an ever-deepening river it is clear that ankle-deep and knee-deep does not bring about lasting change. We can exit the river at the exact spot we entered. But the next passage to waters that are waist deep, begins the process of being altered by the waters. The river carries us downstream with every step. This explains why churches can be active in praise but still not progress toward the holiness the Lord expects from us. Praise is refreshing and impressive but it is not transforming. Paul said that to contemplate his glory was to be changed. When we begin to worship the Lord, we begin to be changed. This, of course, takes time; time we are sometimes reluctant to allot to corporate worship. For decades this time was found in those wonderful, long altar services in the American Pentecostal tradition. But, as the altar service has fallen out of vogue, we have put praise and worship on the clock and we have lost the sense of tarrying, of waiting on the Lord. No wonder our strength is not often renewed.
Still, this incredible privilege of standing waist-deep in the waters of life is also a passageway and not a destination. Ezekiel’s angel-guide brought him out another thousand steps. At this point Ezekiel had to swim, to let go of the safety of the riverbed and launch himself onto the presence of the Lord. The first result was that he got wet all over. Many of us know what this is in worship, to be immersed in the presence of the Lord. These experiences change us for ever. This the place where baptism in the Spirit happens, calls to the ministry are heard, miracles and healings take place, bondages are broken and shackles of sin are destroyed. I am afraid the ranks of our churches are filled with people who have never been wet all over. This level of spirit-deep communion with God is still available to us in the secret place and in the public place. The river still flows in its fullness from the Throne of God and of the Lamb.
In Ezekiel’s vision, the shallow marshes were not healed. His words are stark: “But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt.”  I fear the shallow, me-centered, time-conscious worship of the contemporary church. Do you hear the Spirit calling us out farther into the waters of life? Do you hear Him calling us deeper? That’s where the healing is.
 2 Cor 3:17-18 NIV “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect (contemplate, see footnote in text) the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Thus the many translations which use the verb, “beholding.”
 Isaiah 40:27-31
Dr. Steve Phifer received a Doctorate in Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. He has taught at Valley Forge University and Southeastern Assemblies of God University. For many years he was the Worship Pastor at Word of Life Church in Alexandria, VA.
More of Dr. Phifer’s materials can be found at stevephifer.com.