Be appalled, O heavens, at this, and shudder, be very desolate," declares the LORD. For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (NASB)
God calls upon the very heavens to be appalled at what His people, Israel and Judah, have done. What sort of sin could elicit such outrage? They have forsaken God Himself. But more than that, they have substituted something for God that they imagined would satisfy them in a similar way. The imagery is water, one of the most basic necessities of earthly existence. Of course, God is not talking about physical water in this passage: but the image of what water does -- refreshes, replenishes, cleanses -- is applied to the spiritual life. God's Old Covenant people had forsaken the LORD Himself, the fountain of living water -- that is, a virtual artesian well of spiritual refreshment, replenishment, and blessing -- in favor of man-made "cisterns," religious rituals and activities that could not really hold spiritual blessings.
The church today, especially in America, is doing the same thing. Professing Christians -- I say "professing" because one cannot be certain whether these types are truly born of God -- are seeking to satisfy their spiritual thirst by hewing out three types of leaky cisterns.
The first type of leaky cistern is formality. This is the easiest, though it does intrude into some time the "worshipers" would like to devote to other interests. Still, it is not difficult to participate in formal services, repeat formulas of faith, sing hymns, partake of sacraments, and go one's way. This may temporarily and superficially assuage one's spiritual thirst, but the leaky cistern soon runs dry. The drought of real spiritual replenishment soon becomes evident. The person's life is not changed, and everyone around that person feels the effects of the emptiness, the dryness, within. The character of the formalist is no different from the non-believers around him. In John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, the man named Formalist is one who limbs over the wall of salvation, rather than entering by the strait gate and narrow way that leads to the Cross. Formalist and his companion Hypocrisy inform the pilgrim Christian that they "were born in the land of Vain-glory, and are going for praise to Mt. Sion." They explained that to go by way of the gate was too far out of their way, and their habit was to "make a short cut of it." Reader, there is no "short-cut" to salvation and to nourishment and growth in the Christian life!
The second type of leaky cistern is legalism. This is in some ways very much like formality, but it takes more effort and extends beyond the walls of the church. While formality be based more on laziness, legalism is firmly rooted in pride. The legalist seeks to be justified and sanctified through his own supposedly righteous deeds, especially religious deeds, like tithing and charitable acts. No heresy is so strenuously condemned in the New Testament as legalism, chiefly because it strikes at the heart of the Gospel: The sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins! If we can be justified by our own works, the shed blood of Christ was in vain. If we can be sanctified (made more holy) by our own fleshly efforts, then the power and ministry of the Holy Spirit is unnecessary. Paul made both aspects clear to the Galatian Christians who were falling under the spell of legalists:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Galatians 3:1-7 ESV)
It is by faith in the finished work of Christ alone that one is found justified in the sight of God. And it is the fellowship with Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, again by faith, that we grow in the likeness of Christ. Good works are the fruit of that relationship, not the root of it. Paul wrote to the Ephesian church:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV)
The last leaky cistern is emotionalism. This type of cistern is the most popular today. Cisterns are being hewed out all over the world in an attempt to hold the water of emotional religious experience. Professing Christians, instead of seeking a daily fellowship with Christ through faith and obedience to His Word, are seeking an emotional high, a physical sensation or audible revelation that will assure them that God is pleased with them. A dream is of more import to these Christians than the clear revelation of God in the Bible. These folks need to understand the finality of God's revelation in His Son, whom to know is life eternal (John 17:3). The writer of Hebrews makes it beautifully clear:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV emphasis added)
Only a personal intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, a walking, talking, loving relationship, will ever satisfy the spiritual thirst that God has put into the heart of every human being. Only sin will keep us from the fountain, the spring of living water. Why drink from the leaky cisterns of formality, legalism, and emotionalism, when Christ offers you a never-ending stream of living water?
The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 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." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock." Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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." (John 4:9-14 ESV)
Have you repented of you sins and received Jesus as Savior and Lord? If so, are you cultivating your relationship with Him? Or are you drinking from leaky cisterns?