Archive for the ‘Sunday school’ Category

“How can this be?”

Posted: December 29, 2012 in Sunday school
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Nicodemus Comes to Jesus (3:1-9) – A clandestine meeting, where Jesus reveals a new (but not really new) paradigm to replace the existing Jewish ideas of election and justification: faith in the One sent from God, and the transformation that informs that faith, is the only way to heaven – it’s not “Who’s your daddy?”, but rather “Who is your Father?”

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs You are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at My saying, You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked

(v.1-4) – The Apostle introduces a new character, Nicodemus, who is called “a Pharisee…of the ruling council”. This sect of Judaism prided itself on study and knowledge of the Scriptures, and scrupulous adherence to the fine details of the Law, or at least their intricately detailed interpretations of it. Theses are the very people we saw questioning Jesus is the previous chapter about His authority; also note these are the same officials, asking the same questions, that we saw interrogating John the Baptist in Chapter One. For them, everything revolves around “authority”, because theirs has not been challenged in centuries; they are used to having their way, and intend to keep all dissension suppressed. However, this one man, Nicodemus, comes at night, seeking a private audience with Jesus. There are several small details in this introduction that bear a closer look.

In v.2, Nicodemus makes a startling admission with the words, “We know…”. Whether this “we” is but a small group within the Council, or reflects the general consensus is not clear; in either case the effect is the same: the public accusations of blasphemy that are later leveled against Jesus are not believed by all of those making them. John includes this statement as an indictment of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, as evidenced by their own words and actions – a theme Jesus repeats in nearly every subsequent encounter with them. This hypocrisy is highlighted by the fact that Nicodemus chose to come to Jesus at night, when he had a reasonable certainty that he could escape public scrutiny, and thereby protect his reputation, and by extension that of the Council as a whole. 

While Nicodemus may be using this approach to “butter up” Jesus, in v.3 we see that He is having none of it. He bluntly dismisses the Pharisees’ presumption of superior knowledge of God with His statement that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  (emphasis added)  He is informing Nicodemus that the concept of election used by the Jewish leaders is fundamentally flawed, and He does so by the distinctive phrase, “born again”. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, leading to his puzzled response in v.4. It is important to see that Jesus says, “born again”, not “re-born” – He is using this very particular wording on purpose. That phrase could be understood as “going through the natural birth process a second time”, but “re-born” is the idiom more commonly associated with that meaning. “Born again” would be more familiar – and in fact should be, to a Pharisee – as referring to “the process of being adopted into a Jewish family”; it is the exact term applied to Gentile converts to Judaism, after going through the ritual cleansing (read: baptism) that was required of proselytes seeking entry into “the family of Abraham”. These “new born children of Israel” were not returned to the womb, as Nicodemus protests, but treated as if they had been “born from heaven” or “born from above” – the very words Jesus uses.

(v.5-9) – Jesus is patient with Nicodemus (and perhaps any around them, listening in on the conversation – sometimes the words we say are most intended for those not directly addressed). He explains again His meaning, adding more depth and detail to assist Nicodemus as Jesus draws him from darkness into light. Commentators have given many and various interpretations of the phrase “born of water and of Spirit”, but I personally believe that what the original audience would have most naturally understood in that time and place is the most correct meaning. Jesus is clearly referring to the baptism of converts, AND the regeneration of the Holy Spirit which allows conversion to occur – just as John the Baptist preached that, while he was baptizing in water for repentance, he would be followed by Another who would baptize in the Spirit (1:19-28). Jesus’ use of the wind as a metaphor supports this, as the Greek word pneuma (wind) was also used to mean the Spirit. This would be a direct contradiction of traditional Jewish belief that the Spirit of God resided only in the Temple, and only occasionally would visit Himself upon a person.  Jesus is declaring a “new” status quo – the Spirit of God will truly inhabit the people of God personally. This is not really new, but only a fulfillment of Old testament prophecy; again, something a Pharisee should have been aware of and expecting. Nicodemus, however, does not seem to understand…something stands in the way of him apprehending this vital truth, and his plaintive cry in v.9, “How can this be?” only underscores the separation from God that this world, being in darkness, labors under. In the next lesson, we will see how Jesus responds to this distress – a response aimed not only at Nicodemus, but at all of us who would seek to understand.

I am presenting short versions of the Sunday school lessons I have taught at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

Jesus Clears the Temple (2:13-25) – John now shifts the scene and the focus (remember, this Gospel jump-cuts). In Cana we saw Jesus replacing in Himself the Jewish ideas of purification; here, in Jerusalem, He is being held up against the traditional heart of Jewish worship and identity…the Temple. Jesus’ famous righteous anger is on display, but also famously misinterpreted…used to justify all manner of things not intended by the Lord. Let’s go to the text:

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts He found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves He said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then responded to Him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple He had spoken of was His body. 22 After He was raised from the dead, His disciples recalled what He had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

23 Now while He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs He was performing and believed in His name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for He knew what was in each person.

(v.16-17) – Jesus tells us as much about the nature of His anger by what He doesn’t do, as by what He says and does. Notice that He does not open the cages and release the doves (contrary to every movie director’s dramatic vision) – that would deprive the vendors of their livelihood, adding injustice, not relieving it. No, Jesus tells them to get the merchandise out of the Temple, and return it to its original purpose: a holy place, set aside to the Lord. Jesus also again identifies Himself explicitly as the Son of God by calling it “My Father’s house”; the text quotes Psalm 69:9 as the thought that comes to their minds (a direct Messianic claim), but other passages surely resonated in their memories: the prophets Jeremiah, Zechariah (read “Caananite” as “merchant”), and Malachi all spoke against the manner in which the people regarded the house of the Lord, and the consequences of it. So the injustice that outrages Jesus and inspires His anger is the injustice of the people disregarding the house of the Lord – turning a holy place into a market place, and in the process making themselves the true objects of worship.

(v.18-22) – I find it interesting that the Temple authorities (“the Jews” to John) do nothing to stop Jesus during His rampage, or even to restrain or dispose of Him once He is finished; instead, they ask Him for His credentials! Remember how they questioned John the Baptist about the source of his authority to baptize? For these Jews, it’s all about authority, and they are quick to confront anything or anyone that challenges them. They demand a sign to prove that Jesus has the right to do such things and make such statements – but in all truth they do not expect one. This is a legal formality which allows them to bring a charge of heresy and blasphemy, citing the lack of a sign as proof of falseness.  In His response, Jesus makes the ultimate claim, foreshadowing His death on the cross (“My hour”, as He called it in verse four above) and resurrection on the third day. “This temple” obviously (to us and to John) refers to Jesus’ own body; to the Jews this was nothing short of a declaration of war on their status quo. By naming His own body as “the temple”, Jesus asserts that He will replace it as the economic/cultural/religious center of the Kingdom of heaven. This is so radical an idea that the Jews miss it entirely, pointing at the brick-and-mortar building instead of what it represented – another of the classical misunderstandings that John employs again and again, to illustrate the darkness of the world and how Jesus comes as the true Light. Note that we see the seeds of faith being planted; as the disciples “recalled” these words and events after the resurrection, their fulfillment was biblical-grade proof of the truthfulness of the prophet speaking them, and inspired belief. It is this kind of reasonable faith that Jesus seeks to inspire – we can believe in God, because we have seen proof of Him in Jesus Christ.

(v.23-25) – This closing passage is another evidence that John is not trying to give an exhaustive account of Jesus’ life and ministry; he chooses to highlight specific examples that make the case for him. However, we also see one common thread: whenever Jesus acts, people are drawn to it, and in the heat of that moment they can believe anything, and make sincere professions of faithfulness. But, in a display of His divine nature, He knows that many, if not most, of these shallow commitments will wither away, and so “Jesus would not entrust Himself to them.” This passage, to me, is another evidence that not all those who profess His name are actually His – clearly the text says He can and does withhold Himself, and this would explain how He could say to them, “I never knew you.”

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

Jesus Clears the Temple (2:13-25) – John now shifts the scene and the focus (remember, this Gospel jump-cuts). In Cana we saw Jesus replacing in Himself the Jewish ideas of purification; here, in Jerusalem, He is being held up against the traditional heart of Jewish worship and identity…the Temple. Jesus’ famous righteous anger is on display, but also famously misinterpreted…used to justify all manner of things not intended by the Lord. Let’s go to the text:

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts He found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves He said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then responded to Him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple He had spoken of was His body. 22 After He was raised from the dead, His disciples recalled what He had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

23 Now while He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs He was performing and believed in His name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for He knew what was in each person.

(v.13) – Passover (Unleavened Bread) was one of three mandatory annual festivals (Pentecost Firstfruits and Tabernacles Ingathering being the other two) prescribed by Mosaic law. Jesus’ attendance is another demonstration of how He came to live in righteous fulfillment of the Law on our behalf. As a side note, this is the first of three distinct references to a Passover in John’s Gospel, which is internal evidence that Jesus had an earthly ministry lasting 2 1/2 -3 years.

(v.14-15) – Both the sale of animals and the exchange of currency were not uncommon practices in Jewish history: as Judaism spread, proselytes remained in their native lands and cultures, rather than relocating; yet, with laws stipulating attendance at the Temple, offerings of ritually clean animals, and payments of the temple tax due only in shekels, it should not be a surprise that vendors would exist to supply these needs. In ordinary circumstances, one would find these sellers and traders in the street marketplace, convenient to the Temple, the travelers, and to food/water/stalls for the animals. So why are they inside the Temple courtyards? Once again, we need to turn to cultural context for our answers. Think about what is was like for the Jews living in Roman-occupied Palestine: the Empire financed its operations on the taxes, tariffs, fees, and permits levied against subject populations; one rare exception was a general exemption on activities related to and occurring within the local “holy temples”; Rome had adopted a policy allowing indigenous religious practices to remain in place, as long as at least token worship of Caesar was included, and sedition was not preached.  This had a calming effect on the people, making keeping the peace much simpler. The Temple officials faced a dilemma: allow the Romans to tax and regulate the sale of sacrificial animals and currency exchange (which would happen if they remained out in the streets), or move it all inside the compound, into the Outer Courts, also known as the Courts of the Gentiles…as far inside as any non-Jew could go.  They chose the latter. Sure, there were some trade-offs – the noise, the smells, the crowds – but they consoled themselves with the facts that 1. They could go further inside to get away from the distasteful stuff; and 2. They kept all the money collected in fees from the “preferred vendors” allowed inside, and largely avoided Roman oversight. Of course they would not allow blatant cheating or gouging (in fact, they did), but buyers lose most or all of  their haggling position when faced with a single source and an unavoidable demand. Given the realities of the times, why would Jesus have such a violent and dramatic reaction? Where is the love, man?

Unfortunately, the mental picture many readers have of Christ brandishing a bullwhip and wreaking havoc are more products of Hollywood than a clear reading of the original language of Scripture. John does not linger on the details, he is assuming a great deal of prior knowledge, but the “cords” Jesus fashions into His whip are better thought of as long slender grass stalks, much like hay, which would naturally be found anywhere animals were; braiding these is a slow, tedious, deliberate process, and yields something more akin to a drover’s brush than Indy’s leather lash. Jesus is going to empty the room, yes, but He has no desire or reason to injure anyone. He moves the people and animals out with an unmistakable demonstration of authority, and nobody gets hurt in the process. (Besides, weapons were not allowed within the Temple complex, so what observant Jew would sit down in the Courts and make one?) Jesus is not reacting emotionally to the scene, He is responding to something which offends Him – but what? Many teachers focus on economic injustice and racial bigotry as justifications for Jesus’ anger, and these are indeed themes that the Lord addresses several times, but  He is about to make it abundantly clear where His priorities lie.

(Check back tomorrow for the conclusion…the depth of background info needed to receive the message in context requires a lot of words, so I will break here for now.)

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

A Wedding in Cana  (2:1-12) – Chapter Two opens with one of the best known – and least understood – stories about Jesus in the bible. Here we have one of the clearest illustrations of the need to read Scripture with a mind toward the times and culture of the original audience; knowledge of certain conventions of Jewish society and religious practices are entirely relevant to understanding the comparisons that the Apostle John is making between traditional interpretations of the Law, and their fulfillment in Christ. As we read through the passage, notice how this entire episode can be seen as a live-action parable, using a significant social event – a wedding feast – to challenge Jewish ideas about purification.

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and His disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to Him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?”  Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

(v.1-5) – John includes a time reference, “the third day”,  to help build a structural parallel for the later half of his Gospel: when added to the “four days” recounted in Chapter 1, we see a representative “first week” of Jesus’ ministry;  just as Ch.13-21 covers the last week of Jesus’ life before His appointment with the cross. John is not at all picky about “time management” when it comes to getting to the parts of the story that express the divine nature of Jesus.

So why is Mary at a wedding, and why is Jesus there, with His disciples? We need to recall what weddings were like among first century Jews; the ceremony would be the culmination of an extended betrothal, and a highly anticipated social event in the community. Invitations would be issued to extended family and close friends, and in these small villages, that would involve sometimes dozens of guests. It is most likely that Mary was either related to or a very dear friend of the groom’s family; Jesus would be included as family member, and since He was living out the role of rabbi, it would be natural for His followers to be allowed to accompany Him wherever He went. It is likely that His desire to return to Galilee (1:43) was spurred by His wish to attend this very event. The idea that Mary was somehow related to the groom is supported by her reaction to the wine running out. Given the importance of the event, and the underlying cultural responsibilities of hospitality, such a faux pas would be terribly embarrassing to the hosts, and Mary looks to Jesus to do something about it.

Jesus sounds uncharacteristically rude in the way He responds to Mary’s request, but this is not actually the case: the “woman” Jesus uses to address her is the same word He uses in speaking to Mary Magdalene, to the Samaritan woman, and to the woman accused of adultery… a general term of formal respect, but not the term normally used by a son for his mother. Jesus is making a declaration: He is no longer just the good Jewish boy doing as His mother says; He is “on mission”, with a different set of priorities than before. This helps explain His question about becoming involved…He is already starting to draw distinctions between the concerns of this world and the interests of the Kingdom. It is significant to note how he refers to His future role…the NIV’s rendering of “My time has not come,” is somewhat inaccurate, as the Greek word “hora” is better understood as representing a natural season, or a preordained point in time, when a specific event or activity is supposed to occur. With this simple phrase, Jesus is making three distinct claims: 1) there IS a specific purpose for His being here; 2) this moment has not happened yet; 3) we can be sure that it is going to come to pass. (We will in fact see this moment when it occurs – Jesus calls it out as it happens to be sure we don’t miss it.) However, He apparently gives some sign of consent, because Mary turns to the servants and orders them to assist. Here is another hint that Mary has some intimacy with the host family, that she can give orders to them and they obey, as well as an implicit statement of her faith that Jesus is willing and able to do meet this need.

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water” ; so they filled them to the brim. Then He told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”   They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

(v.6-11) – John wants us to pay special attention here to the purpose of the water jars – they are not the normal clay pots for household use, but stone vessels. Mosaic law was very specific about the containers used for religious purposes – they needed to be ritually clean, free from impurities (stone jars could be burned in a fire and re-purified, if necessary) to hold the water, drawn from a flowing source, that would be used in the required cleansing rituals that would naturally accompany both the marriage ceremony and the many meals that would take place over the course of the festivities. The text makes no mention of what the servants were thinking as they drew water and filled the jars, then drew back out what they took to the emcee…but the reaction of the master to this “new wine” reveals much. His statement about the this being “the best” indicates that the Jews’ water of purification had been replaced with something far superior – the wine represents the blood He has come to shed on our behalf, when His hour finally comes. Notice also the enormous quantity He has provided…not just enough to get by, but an abundance, filled to the brim – reminiscent of both Psalm 23 and Amos 9.

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which He revealed His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. After this He went down to Capernaum with His mother and brothers and His disciples. There they stayed for a few days.

(v.11-12) – The Apostle John closes out this account with a brief commentary, asserting that this miracle, this sign as he prefers to name it,  is a revelation of the glory of Jesus, and  is the cause of the belief by the disciples. This is one of John’s recurring themes: when it comes to Jesus, seeing IS believing! (There are a total of seven signs which John will showcase in his effort to display the glory of Christ.) John ends the scene by having Jesus return to Capernaum, which, being on the main north-south trade road from the coast, made a better base of operations than remote Nazareth for His ministry in Galilee. (Matthew’s Gospel reveals another possible reason for Jesus working from another town.) Jesus and His natural and adopted families would travel home for now, but much work remains.

Next week we will see a different side of Jesus – and learn a lesson in righteous anger, and the proper way it should be used.

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

Before we move forward into Chapter Two, I think it would be helpful to “step back” for a moment and re-examine the structure of John’s Gospel, to better comprehend the message he intends to convey. John is writing a theological text, an apologetics primer, and an evangelism training manual all at the same time. He carefully selects incidents and events that illustrate particular aspects of the person of Jesus, as He revealed Himself on earth. In Chapters 2-4, John focuses on Jewish cultural institutions and religious festivals, contrasting the peoples’ habits and expectations with the abundant fulfillment promised in Jesus. Usually, He is misunderstood, giving us some irony, humor, and conviction all at the same time.

In this section we also see the first of John’s Seven Signs, his name for Jesus’ miracles. Five of these seven are unique to this Gospel, but that makes them no less valid. Jesus obviously performed untold numbers of  healings and other miracles which are not explicitly detailed in the bible; John even tells us that. But the ones he does highlight particularly fit the circumstances they occur in, to allow John to develop his themes. Next week we will begin to examine these themes in Chapter Two, verses 1-12, as we attend a wedding with the Lord and His disciples, and see Jesus challenge Jewish ideas and traditions about purification.

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

 Day Four: Philip and Nathanael (1:43-51) -The Apostle John now moves the scene to the “home office” of Jesus’ earthly ministry, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus reveals another aspect of His heavenly warrant, by knowing what could not be known by men; He also promises an even greater revelation still to come.

 43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, He said to him, “Follow Me.”  44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”  48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”  50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”  51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,  you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’  the Son of Man.”

The apparent abruptness of Jesus’ decision to return to the northern region (v.43) hides a very real truth – at around 100 miles, a two- or three-day walk, the journey from Jerusalem to Galilee (specifically Cana, as we will see in the next chapter) was not undertaken lightly. Surely only dedicated disciples would be willing to travel this far beside their master, so in a sense this is also a kind of winnowing…one in a series of decision points that each of us must face as we “walk with Christ”. Upon His arrival, Jesus continues to call His disciples. He finds Philip, and offers the same invitation we saw previously given to Andrew and John, and Peter: to follow after Him, and accept Him as their master. Given John’s recurring theme of evangelism, v.44 would lead us to understand that Philip had probably been approached earlier by Peter and Andrew (they were all from the same small town, they may have even grown up together!), so Jesus is merely giving confirmation that he has been called.

The next verse repeats the scene we saw in Judea, when Andrew went to find his brother; Philip even uses the same words: “We have found Him!” But we also see one of the first skeptical responses, when Nathanael hears Jesus is from lowly, simple Nazareth and gives his famous reply, “Can anything good come from there?” What is that all about? We can think of it on two levels: first, he is expressing a typical prejudice that great things must come from great places, and Nazareth is certainly not a great place! Second, however, he is posing a well-grounded objection: the Scriptures clearly state that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. He was born there, as we know from both Matthew and Luke, but only under unusual supernatural circumstances…if not for the census ordered by Herod, that required Joseph to travel to his hometown, Jesus would have been “from” Nazareth…and He would not have been our Messiah. Philip responds with the best answer he has…”Come and see.” He knows that meeting Christ will remove all Nathanael’s doubt.

The greeting Jesus uses when He sees Nathanael, one single sentence, exposes a depth of personal knowledge not readily understood by modern audiences, so let’s look at v.47 closely to glean all the details as Nathanael would have understood them. First, Jesus calls him “truly an Israelite”, making a particular distinction in a diverse region equally populated by Hebrew and Greek Jews. In the language of the New Testament, being “an Israelite” was considered worthy  of honor, a claim of descent from Jacob, the first Israel and patriarch of the Twelve Tribes. The rest of the greeting is a tacit recognition that, before God changed his name and his nature, Jacob was not a very nice person…he is perhaps best known for cheating his brother Esau out of his birthright (trading a bowl of stew for it) and their father’s blessing (aided by his mother and some goatskin). By declaring that “no deceit is in Nathanael, Jesus is affirming that He has intimate knowledge of his character…a bold claim for a man who he never met before! In v.48 Nathanael questions the source of this knowing (notice he does not deny anything Jesus said…He was right!), and Jesus comes right back with another, bolder statement – “I saw you.” Again, there are layers of meaning behind the words. “Under the fig tree” is more than a physical location, it is a cultural idiom peculiar to the Jews – a call to pray specifically for the coming of the Messiah; this is what Nathanael would have been doing when Philip found him…praying for the Messiah to come. Further, by claiming to know his thoughts and his heart from afar, Jesus is calling to mind the words of King David, writing in the Psalms to glorify the Lord for His intimate and inescapable knowledge of us.

In v. 49 Nathanael receives these assertions as sufficient, convincing evidence, and declares his belief in Jesus as “Son of God…king of Israel”.  The final two verses of the chapter contain that promise of more revelation, as if all we have seen so far is not enough. Jesus again reaches into the Old Testament for a familiar image, and applies it to Himself; Jacob is once more featured, or rather the heavenly vision he received of God’s servants traveling to and from the earth, attending to the Father’s will. By placing Himself, the “Son of Man” in the place of the ladder, Jesus explicitly makes Himself the conduit of God’s will on earth…and of God’s grace, as well.

Before we leave this chapter, I would like to make a  couple of quick comments about some words and phrases Jesus uses here, which have a recurring significance: First, “Son of Man” is the self-applied title most preferred by Jesus; in John’s Gospel alone it appears 13 times. This is a particularly non-political appellation, compared to “king”, “Lord”, “son of David”, etc. as commonly applied to Him by others. Second, Jesus introduces His final remarks with an unusual construction of words. Various translations render them as “surely, surely”, “truly, truly”, or “most assuredly”, but Jesus is actually using a variant style normally reserved for the closing of corporate prayers – His, “Amen, Amen,” at the beginning of speaking, would naturally provoke strict attention to the words that followed, a “signature move” that we will see repeated anytime He has a particularly important point to emphasize.

Next week we will begin  Chapter Two, verses 1-12, and see the first of the Signs of Glory (as John calls the miracles of Jesus), which proclaim testimony to His heavenly origin and mission.

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

John the Baptist, Day Three (1:35-42) – The Apostle John  grants us a look “behind the scene” at the genesis of Jesus’ earthly ministry – the calling of His first disciples in Judea.

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.  Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”  They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are You staying?”  “Come,”  He replied, “and you will see.”  So they went and saw where He was staying, and they spent that day with Him. It was about four in the afternoon.

(v. 35-39) – This second day begins much as the previous one: John the Baptist is out with two of his disciples; sees Jesus; and repeats his identification of Jesus with the prophetic Messianic title “Lamb of God”. This time, though, we see a response to John’s message – the disciples leave him to go follow Jesus!
“Following” someone, becoming a “disciple”,  in this time and place involved something very like a contractual agreement between teacher and student, and in this passage we watch the negotiations as they occur. First, because of John’s testimony, these two men recognize that Jesus is someone worthy of learning from, and so they begin to (literally) follow after Him, going where He went  and doing what He did, hoping to attract His notice (it was considered unseemly to demand the attention of a teacher). Second, Jesus does acknowledge them, asking them what they want; this is an important question, because not everyone who is interested in a teaching is automatically committed to learning. Jesus wants these men to declare their intentions – both to Him… and to themselves. Next, they do exactly that: by addressing Jesus as “Rabbi”, they express their desire to become His students; by inquiring about His current residence, they are saying that they understand that following Him will mean leaving behind the lives they already know, and living instead in the place and manner of their Teacher. This is the hallmark of discipleship – to live in the same manner as the teacher, under complete submission to his authority, in a desire to wholly absorb and reflect the likeness of the one followed. Jesus responds to this by extending an invitation – “Come and see.” Jesus lets them know that they need to be aware of what they are in for, to “count the cost” of being His disciple. This same invitation is the crux of the whole of John’s Gospel, and in fact the basis for Christian evangelism. Finally, we see the men complete the negotiation by deciding to remain with Jesus, and continue to follow Him.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

(v. 40-42) – The Apostle now reveals the name of one of these first two disciples – he is Andrew, son of John, brother of Simon Peter. Andrew is not prominently featured in John, only appearing two other times (6:8-9, 12:20-22), but it is worth noticing that every time we do see him he is bringing someone to meet Jesus; evangelism has become a priority for him – we see his motive in the words he uses with his brother,“We have found the Messiah.” All Jews placed their hopes in the promised coming of this person, the Chosen One to rescue and redeem God’s people; by using this name for Jesus, Andrew is expressing his belief that He is the fulfillment of the hopes of generations. He believes so completely he brings his brother to see for himself, so he may also be convinced.

Simon Peter must have been very puzzled by his first meeting with Jesus – by the text, His first words seem almost arrogant, calling Simon by name, then giving him a different name. But there is more going on than we see on the surface; in fact, two different sub-texts are in play. One theme is disguised by reading in English, rather than the original languages. Jesus is making a play on words by exchanging the Greek petros, meaning “stone”, for Cephas, a transliteration of the Aramaic kephas, meaning “rock”. The difference is in the way these names are used. Simon Peter could be loosely rendered “Hard-headed Simon”, or “Simon with a head like a stone” – not the most encouraging thing! But Jesus uses Peter as his first name, implying steadiness and dependability – far more inspiring. So how would Jesus know anything about this man He has only just laid eyes upon?  This is the second theme: Jesus is asserting His identity (as being privy to the knowledge of God) and authority (having the power of God) in a unique way, by naming someone. The privilege of naming is normally reserved for a father, and expresses some aspect of the recipient’s character or personality. We see God the Father exercising His privilege to change a name several times in the Old Testament (Abram/Sarai becoming Abraham/Sarah, Jacob becoming Israel), with the change being a sign that God will intervene to make the person live up to their new name. Peter as we know him from the Gospels is not the stable, steady influence his new name would suggest; rather he is impulsive, temperamental, and proud. Later, however, God would use Peter (and Paul, another disciple who received a new name) to found and lead the great churches at Antioch and Rome, which would spread the good News of Jesus far and wide.

One final note: who is the other disciple? No name is mentioned here, but the Synoptic Gospels list the first disciples as Peter, Andrew, James…and John, the writer of this account. By habit, John rarely names himself in his writings, preferring to keep the focus on Jesus; he is often described simply as “the beloved disciple”. We may imagine that when Andrew left to find his brother on that very first day, John remained at Jesus’ side; this special period of one-on-one interaction may very well  have led to a deeply intimate bond between them.

Next week we will finish Chapter One, verses 43-50, as Jesus returns home (there’s a wedding He has to attend).  He also calls more disciples to follow Him, and reveals more of Himself along the way.

“God’s Chosen One”

Posted: October 1, 2012 in Sunday school
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On Mondays I present abbreviated versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

John the Baptist, Day Two (1:29-34) – Continuing from the previous “day”, John the Baptist gives us a unique first-person account of Jesus’ baptism, revealing along the way his commission, the promise he receives from God, and its fulfillment.

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the One I meant when I said, ‘A Man who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ I myself did not know Him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that He might be revealed to Israel.”

(v. 29-31) – This second “day” begins with John the Baptist, presumably out walking with his disciples, encountering Jesus. John immediately calls attention to Jesus with the startling description, “the Lamb of God, who takes away sin…”. Any reference to “lamb” and “sin” in the same breath to a Jewish audience would naturally invoke images of the Passover, the final plague against Pharaoh that caused him to release Moses and the Hebrews from slavery, and began the Exodus to the Promised Land.  However, it is important to note that, in Levitical law, lambs were a required element of two other significant types of sacrificial offerings: the peace offering, made as a sign of desiring restoration of communion with God; and the Standing, or Daily sin offerings, made in perpetual acknowledgement of the sins of the Covenant people. By identifying Jesus as the Lamb, the Baptist declares Jesus’ ultimate destiny: to die and shed His blood, both to permanently restore the broken communion between God and man, and to become the new Standing Atonement for the sins of all men, which then qualifies them for membership in the New Covenant.

John’s next clarifies something he has said previously, apparently more than once: a Man, the one about whom he is preaching, is going to come after him (John has already identified that he is coming before the Messiah, “making straight the way”); Though John has preceded in time, this Man Jesus is preeminent because He has preceded in eternity. This echoes the apostle’s words in verses 1-2, where he posits Jesus, as the Logos, to have existed “in the beginning”. The Baptist continues, stating that, while he had no previous knowledge of the identity of the Messiah, he did know that He was coming…making Him known is John’s entire purpose in his ministry of baptism.

 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Him. And I myself did not know Him, but the One who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The Man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

(v. 32-34) – John now recounts the actual baptism of Jesus, describing the same apparition reported in the Synoptic Gospels: the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove, resting and remaining upon Jesus. This is a crucial detail; many times in the OT we see the “Spirit of God” coming upon a person (usually a prophet) to empower and authenticate, but it is always a temporary state. The Spirit only remains (dwells among us) when He inhabits the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the Holy of Holies within the Temple; but eventually the people become so turned away from God that His Spirit vacates the Temple.  This begins the period of waiting for the return of the Lord, still going on until the the birth of Jesus. During this wait, the Jews experienced a 400-year hiatus in direct revelation, the so-called Intertestamental Period, broken by John the Baptist, who is actually the last of the OT prophets. The image of the Spirit residing in Jesus complements His statements (seen later in John) referring to His body as the Temple. The Baptist also shares with us the promise given to him by God at the time of his commissioning: that he would see be allowed to see and know the Messiah when He came – He would be known by this Sign. Having heard this word from God, and then having seen this word fulfilled, John is absolutely confident in using the words of Isaiah 42:1 to point to Jesus:

“Here is My servant, whom I uphold, My Chosen One in whom I delight; I will put My Spirit on Him, and He will bring justice to the nations.”

Next week we will continue in Chapter One, verses 35-42, and see Jesus calling His first disciples, the prelude to beginning His public ministry.

One Calling in the Wilderness…

Posted: September 24, 2012 in Sunday school
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(On Mondays I will be presenting an abbreviated version of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, verse-by-verse, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wants us to…as the holy Son of God, the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament, the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption.  Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.)

Having set the stage with his prologue, the Apostle John now introduces the actors through a series of “the next day” stories. John recounts the baptism of Jesus from a unique perspective – that of the Baptist himself. We are allowed the glorious opportunity of seeing a prophet of God witness about the fulfillment of what he has been proclaiming. We also have insight into the earliest roots of Jesus’ public ministry on earth – calling His first disciples, and demonstrating who He is to them and to all who will see: He is the Son of God. Verses 19-28 comprise the “first day” of the series, and we see John the Baptist being interrogated about his identity and authority.

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”  He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”

(v. 19-21) – When reading John’s Gospel, it is necessary to keep historical context in mind. When John uses the Greek word “Ioudaios” (lit., “the Jews”) to describe those who question and persecute Jesus and His followers, he is not condemning an entire race. He has in mind a specific group of Jews…the political and religious leaders of the Sanhedrin, represented by two main sects – the Pharisees, who taught in the synagogues, monitored adherence to the Law,  and controlled public opinion; and the Sadducees, who oversaw worship, commerce, and the courts from within the Temple. John clarifies here when he says. “the priests and Levites”, referring to both those who studied Mosaic Law, and who by tradition served in the Temple.

So why would the Temple officers be questioning some guy who spends all his time standing in the river, yelling about repentance and the Messiah? Well, for one thing, John the Baptist is already a minor celebrity in Jerusalem – his father was a priest, troubled by disbelief; his mother gave birth at an advanced age; and he was vowed a Nazarite at birth, a vow which he kept his entire life. (Luke 1) His ministry of baptism in repentance, in preparation of the coming Messiah, had been received very well, and rather a large group of followers had formed, and word was spreading.  Also, what John preached did not make sense from a Jewish perspective: While it was necessary for a convert to Judaism to be baptized to “purify” them from Gentile uncleanliness, there should be no reason to baptize a Jew – being Jewish was enough! They were “born ready” for the return of the King…or so they thought.

They accost the Baptist, demanding he identify himself, by suggesting a series of historical figures, each having a return foretold in the Scriptures: first, the Messiah, literally “the Appointed One”, promised to save God’s people from death and despair; next, Elijah, the OT prophet predicted to return just before “the day of the Lord” (Mal 4); last, the Prophet, a unique individual expected to appear in fulfillment of God’s promise to Moses to raise up a prophet “like him” to lead the people in repentance and freedom. (See also this reaction to Jesus.) The Baptist rightly declares he is none of these.

 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ” Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands One you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”  This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

(v. 22-28) –  The priests, having run out of people for the Baptist to be, and getting desperate to get the answers they were sent to get, finally ask the plain question, “Who are you?”, and wait for an answer. The Baptist obliges them with an answer that carefully establishes his reliability as a witness in Jewish courts of law. We will see later why this is important to the structure of his testimony.

He first explains his mission and his particular role in it, by quoting Isaiah 40:3, claiming to be nothing more that a voice – with no recognition of self, not even his name. The Baptist views his role in terms of how it serves God’s larger plan of salvation, not how it serves the Baptist (an implied contrast to the familiar self-promoting nature of many contemporary “prophets”).  Implicitly accepting that explanation,  and his previous denials, the priests then question the authority by which he baptizes. John replies by pointing indirectly at Jesus as his authority, further declaring that He is already among them, they just do not know it yet. (The Apostle makes a frequent refrain of this theme that Jesus is present in but not received or recognized by the world, and it is only by and through God’s power that He is revealed.) The Baptist then uses a familiar image from daily life to illustrate the magnitude of glory revealed in Jesus – the lowly task of removing sandals. He is making a contrast between the apparent status that he is held in (as evidenced by the crowd of followers, and by the interest in him shown by the priests) and his actual status, relative to Jesus. Since the Jews have seen the Baptist and know him, they have a reference point to apprehend how much greater than he Jesus really is. Here again, cultural context is critical to understanding the whole text.  All the prominent cultures of the New Testament – Jewish, Greek, and Roman – contained the idea of levels of social status, extending even to the servants and slaves of the time. The worst jobs went to those of the lowest status, and one of the very worst jobs involved cleaning the feet and footwear, and as such only the very lowliest slave would be subjected to such humiliation.  It is this abject subjugation, John says, that his own worldly status falls short of, when seen relative to Christ, God”s Anointed One. John the Baptist, here as always, preachs that he would be surpassed by the One to come, as it should be.

Next week we will continue in Chapter One, verses 29-34, as John the Baptist, having established his credibility,  continues his testimony the next day.

In the beginning was the Word…

Posted: September 14, 2012 in Sunday school
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(On Mondays I will be presenting an abbreviated version of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, verse-by-verse, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wants us to…as the holy Son of God, the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament, the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption.  Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.)

Prologue (1:1-18) – The Apostle John sets the stage and scope for the story he is about to tell; and in the process crafts one of the most elegant theological statements ever written.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

(v. 1-5) – Unlike the other Gospel writers, John takes us back to The Beginning, in his carefully worded retelling of the Creation Story. John first introduces us to logos, the Word, and identifies Him as co-existing and co-eternal with God, and in fact the Word is God…all that God is, the Word is. He then tells us that the Word was present at the creation, not a part of it, and that He was the active agent for creation, it all passed through Him. This tells us that all that God does, the Word does. John next explains that what the Word does is bring life and light into the darkness. For John, “darkness” is a metaphor for the fallen human condition, lost to sin and death, forever separated from the glory of God.  So absolute is this separation, that we in darkness have become hostile to the light, afraid that it will show us exactly how desperate our situation really is. The light of God’s love is beyond our unsaved comprehension, and so we fear and hate it instinctively.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 

(v. 6-9) – To overcome this fear, God uses men who are receptive to Him, to reach out and spread the message of hope, the coming Messiah, who will bring the light back into the world. John the Baptist is one such man, dedicated to serving God and calling out for repentance in preparation for the One to come. He knew he was not the Savior, he was only a witness that He was coming soon. But it is significant that for there to be a witness, something really had to happen, something for him to witness about…that something is Jesus.

 He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him. Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

(v.10-13) – This passage summarizes the heart of the Gospel message – the Word has come into the world, to His chosen people, but they have rejected Him because they did not recognize Him. This is the key, because all who do recognize Him, receive the blessings promised to His people: membership in God’s family, with all the rights concurrent to that. John also affirms that we are not saved by who we are, or what we do or even what we think, but by the saving grace of faith in the Word of God.

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning Him. He cried out, saying, “This is the One I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’”) Out of His fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made Him known.

(v.14-18) – John now makes an even bolder statement: having identified the Word as God, he now tells us that God has come to the earth, living among us in the flesh, and we know who He is! We have seen Him with our own eyes, and His name is Jesus Christ. The apostle then cites The Baptist again, who, after seeing and baptizing Jesus, regularly and loudly pointed Him out to others with these words, fulfilling his mission of making Jesus known. John then makes the same distinction between the Old and New Covenants that Jesus Himself does: the Law (OT) shows us what is required to be holy before God, and convicts us of our failure, and our need for a Savior; while Jesus (NT) brings the necessary grace to forgive our sin, and the truth we need to know to be able to remain faithful to God. Jesus reveals God to a world that has forgotten what He looks like, and when we truly see Him, we truly see God.

Next week we will continue in Chapter One, verses 19-28, with more detailed testimony from John the Baptist about his identity, and that of Jesus.