Water is an important motif used throughout God’s story in Scripture. In the beginning, God’s Spirit was hovering over the waters, (Genesis 1:2) before Father, Spirit and Son created order out of chaos. In the end, God declares these trustworthy and true words via his servant John, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. 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.” (Revelation 21:6-8)
A motif is defined as a usually recurring, important thematic element in a story or book that has symbolic significance. I think the author of the Fourth Gospel, likely the apostle John, was mesmerized by God’s identification with water throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. From its creative significance to its redemptive and cleansing power to its prophetic importance, water was synonymous with the Spirit of God, promised to be poured out on His people. As an aging John set out to pen a very unique gospel account in the late first century, he seemed to want to tell the story of his beloved friend and Lord, Jesus, from a deeply personal yet spiritually rich perspective. He aimed to reveal Jesus as God, uniquely Son, intimately connected with Father and Spirit, and used literary techniques to signify what cannot be explained by words alone, His glory! One of many literary techniques employed by John, the motif of water as a symbolic and thematic element representing God’s Spirit, was used to accomplish this task.
John’s origin story of Jesus parallels God’s origin story in Genesis beautifully. In the beginning, God created with spoken words. (Ge 1:1-2:3) In the beginning was the Word…He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through him. (John 1:1-3) In the beginning, God said into the chaos of darkness, “Let there be light, and there was light (before there was a sun.)” (Ge 1:1-3) John said, “The light (Jesus/the Word) shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) As the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of Genesis 1, God’s Spirit hovered over the baptismal waters of Jesus and descended and remained on Jesus as he began his ministry. (John 1:32-34) As the writer of Genesis describes 7 days of creation, so John, in his first chapter, marks 7 days in the life of Jesus (from John 1:19-2:1), leading us to the first miraculous sign in John 2, pointing to God’s glory.
In Genesis, God separated the waters below from the waters above (where His Spirit had hovered) with an expanse called Heaven. (Genesis 1:6-8) In John, this divide between heaven and earth was bridged by the divine Word made flesh and dwelling among us, so that all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, born not of blood or the will of the flesh nor man, but the will of God. (John 1:10-13)
What amazingly good news, a gospel that I want to drink in, be filled with, and overflow with in songs of praise! (Ephesians 5:18-21) As we seek out the motif of water through the pages of John’s gospel, may we allow the Spirit of God to penetrate our hearts and minds as we witness the glory of God!