Posts Tagged ‘John’

How Do We Follow Him? (Rev. 2-3)

Posted: February 4, 2013 in sermons
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(delivered 2-3-13)

Well, yesterday was Groundhog Day – a silly ritual we have where about a million reporters gather around some poor little animal, shine enough spotlights on him to roast the poor thing, and then make predictions about the weather based on his behavior. Let me note, however, that the groundhog has an 80% accuracy rating – better than most weathermen! This year is the first time I can remember hearing that he didn’t see his shadow, which is supposed to signify an early spring. I try not to believe in superstitions…but it did hit 80 degrees while I was out training for the 5K race I’m running in next month…so maybe there’s something to it, after all. Another thing that date brings to mind is of course the movie, “Groundhog Day”, starring Bill Murray as a weather man covering this very event, and getting trapped in an endlessly repeating cycle of living February 2 over and over again. After hundreds, maybe thousands of repetitions, he finally learns how to overcome the dead-end nature of the life he has been living, escapes the loop, and emerges a far better person than before. I hope that you will leave here a better person for having this experience today, but I promise that I will not repeat it over and over thousands of times to get us there, OK? You have my word!

The last time I was privileged to speak before you, I shared my thoughts on the story found in John 21, of how Peter was redeemed by Jesus after denying Him before men three times, and re-instated into the service of the kingdom of God. I told you how I feel the commands that Jesus gives to Peter, in the form of parables about caring for sheep, comprise a pretty fair job description for a pastor, a word which has its roots in the name given to the person who cares for herds of animals, especially flocks of sheep; Jesus uses this word, which we see translated as “shepherd”, when describing Himself in John 10:14 –

“I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me.”

I ended that message with the statement that none of us are exempt from those duties; that each one of us who claims Jesus as our Lord and Savior is expected to bring new lambs into the fold, to guard and watch over one another in our day-to-day lives, and to help each other find the “good pastures” of nourishment in God’s Word, so that we may continue to prosper and grow in Him. Now, while all of that is still true (it better be, that was only two weeks ago!), I also said that the Lord calls some to be especially gifted in these areas: persons who become great teachers, or powerful evangelists, or trusted leaders within a particular body of believers. There is nothing wrong with that – we can all be more effective with someone out in front, leading the way. We see God use strong leaders throughout the bible story: whether it be Moses, bringing the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt; or Joshua, heading up the army of God in conquest of the Promised Land; Zerubbabel, who led the first wave of exiles back to Jerusalem from Babylon, or Ezra, who followed and helped re-establish the covenant relationship between the Jewish people and their God. In the New Testament, the best examples might be Peter, whose stirring sermons after Pentecost brought literally thousands in to the newly forming church; and Paul, whose missionary work carried the Gospel of Jesus throughout the entire known world. These men had the Holy Spirit directing them, and were completely submitted to the will of the Lord, right?…or were they? In truth, didn’t they have some of the very same shortcomings as many of us do today? If you read the stories closely, you will in fact see some very human things going on…in Acts 11 we see Peter dealing with racism and prejudice from some of the Jewish Christians against the Gentile believers – disagreements over what kind of people would be allowed into the church, and how they would have to behave – ideas Peter had probably shared, until the Lord sent him a vision to change his mind. Later, in Acts 15, we see Paul and Barnabas having an argument over the staffing for a mission trip, which leads to them breaking up the team and going two separate ways! How many times have we seen similar things take place, sometimes even bringing the work to a stop? None of the troubles we have today are anything new are they? And neither are their sources…merely the human constants of pride, self-assurance, and self-righteousness.

We have a tendency to put these heroes of the bible up on pedestals, and pretend they could do no wrong, and so make them examples of the best we can ever be; but we do them – and ourselves – a great injustice in this; I touched briefly on this tendency as well, when I spoke about how we can get distracted by looking at these men and judging our efforts against theirs…we tell ourselves that we can’t possibly do the job as well as they can, so why don’t we just sit back and let them do it? This is a subtle trick of the enemy, and it’s pretty effective – he doesn’t have to spend nearly as much energy to destroy us, if he can get us to take ourselves off the battlefield, does he? And don’t ever forget: this world IS a battlefield; even though we know the fight is already won, sin and death have been defeated by the victory of Christ on the cross; we must remember that Satan cannot see into the future and realize he is already defeated. He may know the Word of God, but he does not believe it, so he fights with all the determination of one who still thinks he can win (or at the very least, cause as much damage as possible on the way down, I’ll give you that much)…and we are his best and clearest targets. He cannot strike against the One he really wants to destroy, can he? So he injures us to cause God to grieve for us – and sometimes, unintentionally, we help him do it; sometimes we ourselves cause God to grieve. How do I know this is true? Because the bible tells me so, as the old song goes. According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (emphasis added)

All of this would not be necessary if we always did what we are supposed to do, now would it? But we don’t…sometimes we need some reproof, sometimes we need some correction, and the bible is here to do that very thing for us, praise God.

Today, I am thinking in particular about the book of Revelation, where Jesus appears to the Apostle John, late in his life, and gives him a glimpse ahead of things to come. In Chapters Two and Three, the Lord dictates a series of letters to the churches in Asia Minor – some of the very churches we see Paul planting and ministering to throughout the later part of the book of Acts. Let me give you a little context with that – Paul’s missionary journeys took place during the 50’s and 60’s, some 20-30 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry; John is commonly thought to have composed this narrative of his visions around 96 AD. This span of 30-40 years certainly would have been long enough for many of the indictments raised by Jesus in these letters to come into being: time, after all is the great enemy of all human endeavors; as William Butler Yeats says in  “The Second Coming”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

Many of us are simply afraid of the book of Revelation, because much of it is confusing and difficult to interpret, I admit that…but these two chapters are as straight-forward and clear as anything else in all of Scripture, and should be considered a “maintenance and repair manual” for churches. I feel we can simply read it for what it plainly says, and be better off for doing so; the author of the book would agree with me, according to 1:3 –

 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

I would like to skim through these seven letters and see what we can learn about  how we follow Jesus; some of the ways we can – and do – fall short of what He expects of His children, ways we bring grief to our Lord; and then perhaps we can glean a few ideas about what He wants us to do about it. There is some good and some bad in nearly all of these churches, and the same is true for all of us, as well. Now, this may not seem fair, but in the interest of time, I am going to focus on the “bad” stuff, and skip over the “good”; however, I encourage you to spend some time reading over these letters on your own.  Notice the pattern Jesus establishes with each of the churches: first, He acknowledges their strengths; then He may point out a particular weakness, and indicate the necessary correction; He spells out the consequences if they do not take the necessary action; and finally leaves them with a word of encouragement. I believe you will agree that we all fall short in at least some of these areas, and could use a little nudge in the right direction; by highlighting how Jesus responds to these situations, that’s what I hope to do. So, here we go.

We start off in chapter two, with Jesus speaking to the church at Ephesus; let’s look at verses 4-5 –

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

Verses 14-16, to the church at Pergamum –

“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of My mouth.”

Verses 20-23, to the church at Thyatira –

“But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing My servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am He who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”

We move into Chapter 3, v. 1-3 and the church at Sardis –

“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of My God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”

Verses 15-20, to the church at Laodicea (perhaps the most famous example)-

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of My mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me.”

Let me just mention that the other two churches – Smyrna and Philadelphia – get by without a specific reproach, but they aren’t exactly having it easy either. The church in Smyrna is enduring heavy persecution and slander; Jesus tells them He is aware of this, but relax…soon enough, things will get worse! Then He instructs them in 2:10 –

“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”

The church at Philadelphia receives what some might call a left-handed compliment: Jesus tells them in 3:8 –

“I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept My word and have not denied My name.”

That’s five of the seven churches to whom Jesus says, “I have a problem with you!” Let’s summarize the failings first, then I will address them individually. These churches have:

  • Abandoned their “first love”; falling away from how they began
  • Honored idols
  • Engaged in sexual immorality
  • Been tolerant of false teaching
  • Refused to repent
  • A hollow reputation
  • A tepid, bland, complacent attitude
  • A high valuation of themselves

When you look over that list of faults that Jesus finds with His churches, (and we do remember that they are His churches, not ours, right? He has every right to call us out for our failings, and we have every obligation to sit and listen!) we see that many of these condemnations stem from the very same things we talked about last time, don’t we? Peter denied Christ before others from a desire to blend in with them, to appear like everyone else so he would not face persecution or pain. That is the essential complaint that Jesus has, when he points out those churches who are eating food offered to idols, or practicing immoral behavior – they are simply doing what everyone else around them is doing. A little more cultural background may be helpful here: these churches existed in pagan cities – places of international commerce, where every “god” from the known world would be represented. Worship of these pagan gods would very often become a matter of ostentatious show, where the larger the “sacrifice”, the more favor the worshiper could expect to curry. Thus, enormous offerings of rich foods, especially meat, would be made, and the priests in the temples, not being able to eat it all themselves, would see an opportunity for profit, and sell the excess to the public, with the funds going back into the temple (and their pockets, of course). By going into these pagan temples, and buying this “meat offered to idols”, the Christians were sinning in two ways: they were putting their money onto the altar of a foreign god, and they were giving implicit approval to the offerings themselves! Likewise, the issue of sexual immorality is twofold: not only does God prohibit any and all sexual activity outside the confines of  marriage, but the world seeks not only to excuse, but also to justify these immoral acts, by covering them in a veneer of  worship (as with the temple prostitutes, both male and female), or entertainment, or “natural desire”, or any number of other reasons. The problem is, we who would follow Jesus are called to a higher standard. Remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2 –

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

If we claim to be “Christians”,  yet say and do the same things as everyone else, what exactly is the difference that Christ has made in our lives? If we live together without being married, or allow our churches to sanctify (?!?) same-sex unions; or we watch a TV show like Dancing With the Stars, (which I really did enjoy, but have stopped watching) that tells us that entertainment requires women to be nearly nude; or buy tickets for movies with explicit sexual content and situations; or any number of other things that God’s Word tells us He is displeased with, but we find reasons to make them “OK”…who are we fooling? Who indeed? The world doesn’t believe us – we don’t behave any different, so our beliefs must not have any real impact on our lives; or worse, we’re a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites, condemning the very things we ourselves are doing. We certainly aren’t fooling Jesus, who says over and over in these letters, “I know your works,” We aren’t really even fooling ourselves, or else we wouldn’t be so miserable, wondering why our lives are in the condition they are, why we don’t feel close to God, why nobody wants to come to our churches…why would they, when they can’t see anything here that they can’t find a thousand other places, doing what they already do, where they already are? If there is no reason to change, there will be no change. (Click here to tweet that.)

Hand in hand with this, Jesus condemns the churches for allowing teachers and leaders who tolerate, or even encourage these behaviors. So many today would hide behind the excuse, “I’m only doing what I was taught, it’s not my fault.” Well, who hired the teacher? Who selected the preacher? Who called the pastor? It’s the church, the body of believers, the people, who have the responsibility for their leaders. You hold us accountable, and there is one clear standard you are to use for that – the Word of God. Look with me in Acts 17: Paul has been traveling and spreading the Gospel of Jesus. It was his custom to preach first at the synagogues, where men studied the Scriptures, and already knew of the One True God, and thus should have been more receptive to the Good News of Jesus. This was not always the case , but see verse 11 –

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (emphasis added)

The believers at Berea did not merely accept what they were told, they checked it against the Scriptures. If every gathering did that, the careers of many so-called men of God would come to a short and sudden stop, amen? So why doesn’t that happen? Well, how many of us want to hear that we are in the wrong, that we need to change? Isn’t that one of the things I listed earlier, a refusal to repent, to turn away from the direction we are going? We do what we do because we think it will get us what we want, to steal a quote from Dr. Phil McGraw (I don’t agree with everything he says, but this is pretty much on the mark, isn’t it?) And we choose leaders who will tell us what we want to hear, even if it isn’t the best thing for us, don’t we? Scriptures repeats this truth to us, 2 Timothy 4:3-4 –

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, (hey, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, there’s got to be some football in here somewhere!) spoke to the opposite side of the coin –

“Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve.”

Almost anyone will tell you they want to achieve happiness; those who believe in heaven will say they want to get there some day; people who follow Jesus will tell you they want to meet Him face-to-face in the end. But are we willing to make the changes necessary, to do the things it takes to achieve these goals? Ask yourselves, brothers and sisters: What is it you want to achieve? Then select leaders who will really help you get there.

The last few items that Jesus holds against the churches also have a common thread, which I have addressed before – sometimes we stop looking at Jesus, and instead look at others to compare ourselves to them, or look into our mirrors, to admire our own beauty. Either one will only give us a distorted view of reality, leading us to believe what others say about us, and become proud of our reputation, thinking that WE have made something of ourselves, and therefore have the right to be proud. This pride can often cause us to coast along, riding the wave of past successes, past glory…and forgetting our first love. We become like Peter: Jesus asks us to agape love Him, to sacrifice everything for His sake; but the best we can do is phileo, to have some good feelings for a little while, but then fade back into what we were doing before. Jesus gives us the remedy to all of this, not just here in this text, but in the heart of the Gospel message – Repent, return to ME, He says; confess your sins and be healed; then, go and sin no more.

You may have noticed that I titled this message “How we follow Him”, and spent most of my time talking about leaders? Well, isn’t that one of the major decisions we make in life: deciding who we are going to follow? Of course, the Sunday-school answer is that we ALL follow Jesus, and this is the correct answer; but what is the mechanism for that? Most of us are not blazing a trail for ourselves in the world; that is a hard, thankless job, and perhaps there is much wisdom in finding gifted leaders to help us along the path. Jesus told His disciples – the men and women who followed Him –  to go and make more disciples; those who, in the words of Paul –

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

We, as disciples of Jesus, have this same two-edged sword in our hands: we must follow Christ as hard as and well as we can, so that others can follow after us in His footsteps; and we must be sure that those we place in positions of leadership are likewise following only Him, and not some other agenda. We must search the Scriptures daily, to see if the things that are taught are true; and we must pray to God daily, that He will continue to guide and direct us by His Holy Spirit into the ways that are pleasing to Him; to renew our minds, to consecrate our bodies, to offer our whole selves to Him, as our true and proper worship. I invite you to come to the altar, right now, and ask the Lord to examine your heart, to call you out for the things He has against you, to repent of your sins and be forgiven…come, He stands at the door and knocks – will you answer?

“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.

In the spirit of Christmas, I present to you the text of the message I was blessed to preach this week at my home church. I extend the same challenge to you as I did to them –  follow the link at the end, and join with us in spreading the love of God throughout the world.  I encourage you to respond in the comments with how God moves you to answer this challenge, as well.

Have a Merry Christmas, and I hope to see you again in the New Year, and in the glory to come.

Gifts are surely on the minds of many this time of year, aren’t they? Children have agonized through days and weeks in eager anticipation of diving into that pile of presents under the tree (even if some of them will spend more time playing with the boxes than what was in them!) We adults are not immune to a sense of expectation about what we are going to receive, but sometimes age and experience leave us a little…shall we say, wary… about the value of what we might be given? I know I have opened some presents that made me very concerned about the expression on my face, you know what I mean, don’t you? You tear off the wrapping paper, lift up the lid…and think, “What in the world is this, and what am I going to do with it?”

Now, tell me the truth – how many of you have received a gift that was so unsuited to you, that the only thing you could do was hide it in the closet, let some time pass, and then wrap it up again and pass it off to someone else? Hopefully you didn’t forget who gave it to you and try to give it back to them by mistake! This situation occurs so much that our culture has come up with a name for that solution – we call it “re-gifting”, and it has become mostly accepted, as a better alternative than throwing stuff away, or spending money that, face it, none of has that much of anymore. Personally, I see it as a drawing away from the unbridled consumerism that has overwhelmed our country in the last couple of decades, the idea that everything is disposable, and you can just toss out what you don’t want and buy something else that will make you happy. This is not really a new idea, is it? Just last week we were talking in Sunday school about the lessons we learned during the Great Depression, and learned again during the shortages and rationing that went along with World War II…“Use it up, wear it out, make it do…or do without!” was the word of the day, and it was sound, reasonable advice; advice that has found a resurgence in the “Green movements” and recycling efforts of today. My message is titled, “The Greatest Re-Gift Ever”, and that may seem like a strange idea when you tie it to Christmas, but I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a bit, and let me explain how I connect those dots, can you do that? I believe that when I’m done you will agree with the point I am making. Don’t misunderstand me – in this case, the gift is not something we don’t want, something without value; but maybe there is another way to understand the idea of re-gifting, and that is what I want to talk about this morning. So here we go.

First off, we need to discuss the nature of the gift…after all, you cannot re-gift until you receive something, right? So what is the gift we have recieved? We find the answer in the famous, beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 9, verses 6-7…you know the text, from the King James Version –

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

This is the promise of God which the angel of the Lord was referring to in the passage our friend Mr. Van Pelt so beautifully read for us a few minutes ago. (I personally love that reading, the words have such an impact when heard in the voice of a child, don’t they?)  [Note: the Scripture reading for the day was  a video presentation of the scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” where Linus recites Luke 2:8-14]  Remember verse 11?

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

The angel tells the shepherds specifically that the Child, the Christ, the Anointed One, is being given to them, as representatives of all mankind. He did not come to the religious leaders of the times; He did not come to those who felt they were deserving or holy or righteous; He did not come to no one in particular; this gift was given to all of us, to be our Savior…because we needed a Savior, in the most desperate way. There are many many places in Scripture where this promise is repeated in one form or another; let’s look at just a few of them:

In Genesis 3:15, we see the very first instance. God is speaking to the serpent after the deception in the Garden, and He says,

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He will bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”

In Deuteronomy 18:15, a passage I have referred to many times, Moses tells the people,

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.”

In Zechariah 3:8-9, the Lord says,

“I am going to bring My servant, the Branch…and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.”

I could go on, but I think we have a pretty good idea of what, or rather who we have been given…and His name is Jesus. So now, let’s take a look at the reason for the gift. We have already seen one reason: that verse in Zechariah tells us that God intended to “remove the sin of the land”, but Scripture further expands on that idea, and tells us why He wants to do that. The most famous bible verse in the world is a good place to start, plus some extra to complete the thought – let’s look at John 3:16-18 –

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

I don’t think I need to say much more than that, do I? It is because of the unfathomable, indescribable love of God for His creation that we receive this great gift…and for no other reason. However, the Apostle Paul, prompted by the Holy Spirit and  realizing that, being the prideful, self-centered creatures that we are, we need to be reminded, does so in Ephesians 2:4-5,8-9 –

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

We have talked before about what faith really means – not just believing something with your mind, but changing the way you live based on that information. Last week Brother Charles spoke beautifully about idea of trust, in Hebrew batach: a confidence that allows us to move, live and act on the basis of what we have learned about God’s goodness, even when we don’t understand all that is going on around us. So what is it exactly that we are supposed to be doing while we are batach-ing? I am going to let Jesus Himself tell us about that – no better place to turn for the truth that He who IS the truth, right? Let’s turn our focus to the Gospel of John, Chapter 5, my anchor passage for today. Jesus has just healed a man crippled for 38 years. The man draws the attention of the Jewish religious authorities, not for the miracle of the healing, but because he dared to violate their prohibitions against “working” on the Sabbath. They in turn question Jesus about His authority to sanction such an act, and it is His answer I want to study. Let’s read the passage together, verses 19-23:

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does. Yes, and He will show Him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom He is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him.”

There is a key idea I want you to see, where Jesus echoes the words of that angel who spoke to the shepherds. You may have missed it, because in the King James rendering of Luke 2, the translators were slightly inaccurate in verse 14. Look back at that with me, it reads:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

That does not accurately represent God’s intent, however; let’s see that verse in the NASB, where it reads,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”

Do you see the difference, and how that makes more sense when you consider the state of the world today? Peace is surely not a universal condition, is it? When you read what the angel actually said, it becomes so much more clear why that is true. God only promises His peace on those with whom He is pleased. So, it seems to me, that we need to understand what it is that pleases God, so we may receive His peace, and for that answer let me turn back to John 5.  Jesus gives us the beginning of it here, when He describes His work on earth with the words,

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does.”

This is a perfect picture of submission to the will of God, even from the Son of God Himself. God predicted that His Messiah would behave this way – we see that in another of those promise verses I spoke about earlier, this one coming in 1 Samuel 2:35, where the Lord says,

“I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in My heart and mind.”

Jesus is not making up things as He goes, or following His own agenda. He certainly had the power to do anything He wished; He could very well have come as the conquering King that the Jewish people were hoping and waiting  for, to drive out the Roman oppressors, and return them their kingdom on earth. (Many today are still waiting for this Messiah, and so reject Jesus because He did not fulfill these expectations.) Instead, Jesus is doing only that which Our Father has already done and revealed to the Son. So, the question becomes, How can we relate what Jesus is doing, to what we are supposed to be doing? We don’t have to guess, Scripture gives us the answwer explicitly. Turn with me to chapter 15 in John, verses 15-17, and read what the Lord says to His disciples, and by extension, to us:

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in My name the Father will give you.”

The Lord has chosen us, appointed us, and sent us, to do those things which He has revealed to us, the very same things which the Father revealed to Him. God called Jesus “My faithful priest”, because He does according to God’s heart and mind; so if we wish to be known as faithful, we will also do according to His heart and mind, and we know exactly what that is, because we have our “marching orders”, don’t we? We know it as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20 –

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Brother Charles and I have both preached this passage to you in recent weeks, because we want you to understand your purpose here on earth and here in the body of believers. We do not come together just to soak in the goodness of God, or to encourage one another in a bubble. No, we come together to be equipped to GO OUT, and bear fruit, and do according to the will and heart of God; to proclaim the Gospel, to make disciples, to baptize and teach all that Jesus has commanded. We are given this great gift of a Savior only so that we can re-gift it to someone else, don’t you see? If, and only if, we do these things, will God be pleased with us, and only then will we be assured of receiving His peace. That is something I want very much, to receive His peace, and I am willing to bet that it’s something you want very badly to receive as well.

Today I would like to offer you one practical, real world way to do just that. There is an organization I belong to, called The Pocket Testament League. Their mission is to evangelize the world by spreading the good news of Jesus in the form of small, printed booklets containing the Gospel of John. They publish these in a variety of translations, languages, and attractive cover designs, and send them at no cost to anyone who requests them. They encourage a small financial donation of $20 for thirty copies, to cover the expense of printing and postage, but will gladly supply them for free, with the costs being underwritten by other donors who give above and beyond this nominal amount. Membership is also free, and members are asked to submit testimonies through their website to encourage others in their evangelistic efforts. The League has been in existence since 1893, distributing over 110 million copies of the Gospel; in 2012 alone they sent out 1.6 million copies, including reaching into China for the first time in their history. I regularly order Gospels to pass out during outreach opportunities, and I have a supply of them here with me today. The cover shows a present, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with string, with a tag reading, “The Greatest Gift”. My challenge for you today is simple: This week, you will go out to lunch or dinner, or do some last-minute Christmas shopping; and you will meet some harried, stressed-out waitress, or sales clerk – someone who could definitely benefit from some of the peace of God in their lives. Take one of these Gospels with you today, and pray that God directs you to that person. Then, place a generous amount of cash inside to minister to their physical needs (I will leave the amount to your discretion…it may be five dollars, it may be $500, that’s between you and the Lord) , and perhaps write a brief note to explain that what’s in this book will minister to their greater, spiritual needs, and hand it to them. Tell them you are praying for them, because God loves them, and wants them to enjoy this great gift as well. Then come back here next week, and share your testimony of how God called you to be His faithful priest, and how you did what He first showed you that He was doing,  by sending “the Word became flesh” on that first Christmas. Will you do it? Will you do that which pleases God, and allow His peace into your life this week? I dare you!

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
Tags: , , , ,

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.