Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

There are those who who teach that women should not have a public role in Christian leadership; surely these people are not reading the same Bible I am? Scripture is rich in wise, powerful, inspired females used by the Lord. We find a particular example in the book of Judges, chapters 4-5, in the person of Deborah. Now, I must admit, the first few times I read through the Bible, I skimmed over this section, in a rush to get to King David. We do ourselves (and the glory of God) a grave disservice if we do this…ALL of Scripture is inspired by God, we should try to take all of it in, as best we can. I had always assumed that the Judges served pretty much the same purpose as a Sheriff in the Old West – keep the peace, administer the Law, maintain order; but that is not at all what they were doing…there is barely a consistent character trait between any of them – other than one very important one: they listened to God, and as best they could, they obeyed what He said. Some served as leaders, some as warriors, some as prophets – but all served God, not the people.

Deborah is listed as the fourth Judge in Israel, but to me she is more of the classic OT prophet: she hears the word of the Lord and pronounces it to the people. I imagine her administration of justice resembles that of Moses – people realized that she is not following her own standards, or those of the world, but only those of God, which provides the wisdom and correct moral compass to steer the people. Her other function as we see it in chapter four is to reinforce the commandments that God has given to the leaders of Israel; when she confronts Barak, she is reminding him of what God has already said…metaphorically tugging his ear to get him to obey. I believe this is what inspires the description she uses in 5:7, when she calls herself “a mother in Israel”; “mother” here is rendered from the Hebrew as “one who provides what is needed” – the people (and Barak) had gotten off course again, following after false gods, and needed a swat on the backside to remind them whose they really were!

One version of the old saying goes “Behind every great man stands an ever better woman.” In this case, perhaps the man isn’t so great, but God raised up a mighty woman indeed to stand beside and behind him. Maybe we should take a minute and consider the Godly women in our lives, and praise Him for the Deborah’s He has provided for us.

In the book of Ruth, we meet two people listed in the genealogy of Jesus, as detailed in the first chapter of Matthew: Ruth and Boaz. Ruth is the daughter-in-law of Naomi, whose husband and sons had died while residing in Moab. This circumstance had forced Naomi to return home to her family in search of support, as the culture of the times held little hope for widows with no sons to care for them. Ruth had been married to one of Naomi’s sons, and in a rare display of loyalty, had left everything she had known and returned to Judah with Naomi.

Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s husband, and he was a wealthy landowner and respected member of the community. As a means of supporting herself and Naomi, Ruth asks for and receives permission to glean the fields belonging to Boaz, as provided by Jewish law. But Boaz, upon learning who this young woman is, and hearing her back story, makes extraordinary provisions for her well-being. When Ruth reports this to Naomi, she identifies Boaz as a relative, and “one of our redeemers.”  A redeemer was a person who had the right and obligation to re-purchase a parcel of land that had been sold away from a clan by its rightful owner. Naomi’s husband had indeed sold his land, and the deadline for repurchase, or redemption was drawing near. Naomi sends Ruth back to Boaz to request that he perform this duty on her behalf, which she does. Boaz tells her that he is blessed by her request, but there is another with a better claim, who must be appealed to first. He goes the next day to present this appeal.

When he learns of the opportunity to acquire the land, this other man is eager, but there is a catch: if he takes the land, he also must take the responsibility of caring for the deceased man’s women, including giving them an heir – passing all the privileges on, and sacrificing his own rights in the process. While the short term gain is inviting, he has no interest in getting a wife and losing his own fortune in the process. He defers the honor to Boaz, who promptly accepts, receiving both the land, which he really did not need or want, and Ruth, which was his entire desire; in a sense, he bought the land to gain the woman. They are married, and the child Ruth bears is Obed: father of Jesse, grandfather of Israel’s great King David.

In Matthew 13:44, Jesus relates a parable which mirrors this story:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

For Boaz, Ruth is the great treasure hidden in the field, and he gives up his inheritance – “all that he has” – to get her. So how does this apply to us? To Jesus, we are the treasure hidden in the field of the world. Our field was sold to Satan when Adam chose sin over obedience to God; but Jesus comes to repurchase the land, by paying the price for our sin with His blood; and in the process, we are redeemed. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and has no need of the earth, but as it says in Rev 5:9-10:

“Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Jesus is our kinsman-redeemer, paying the price to buy us back from sin and death; Boaz serves a type of Jesus, an example to aid in our understanding of the eternal plan of God to save His people. Blessed are we to be covered by the blood of the Lamb!

Most of us are  familiar with this guy: according to the bible, he and his wife Eve were the prototypes for the human race, created by God in His image and His likeness (and yes, those are two different things – one speaks to appearance, the other to characteristics, but that is a topic for another time).  Sometimes Christians can be harsh and judgmental towards this “first couple”, which is a shame; in truth we are not really very different, and certainly not any better!

The bible tells us that from the very beginning, God’s plan was that His creatures were integral elements of His plan; as we read the first two chapters of Genesis we see that Adam and Eve lived together in this perfect world, with all their physical needs met; their roles and purposes established; and enjoying the companionship of their Creator. So what went wrong? Adam did, that’s all…he did what came naturally to him, even though he knew better.

Adam was given power, and authority, and above all else, the one thing that separates humanity from the animals: free will. With this gift came an opportunity to either succeed or fail, of his own volition; to submit himself to the commandment and intentions given to him by God (remember, at this point there was only one explicit prohibition – to not eat the fruit of one particular tree), or to set out on his own path, contrary to the wishes of the One who made him. We know which path Adam chose, and the consequences of that decision, and it is easy to blame him for all that has happened since – I have heard more than one person joke that the first thing they wanted to do upon reaching heaven was to kick Adam in the shin! But what makes us think we would have done any differently? How many of us have been given everything we ever wanted or needed, at the cost of simple obedience, and yet cannot maintain this minimum standard? No wonder we needed a Savior, a new Adam to replace the original and restore humanity to the original purpose, free from original sin.

Jesus, in His incarnation, was also given power, and authority, and the same free will as Adam – yet He consistently chose to submit His will to the will of the Father; there are dozens of verses, but allow me to quote one of my favorites – John 6:38-40:

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

As we approach Easter, I am reminded again that I am grateful that Jesus came to be the New Adam, and that by Him, we have opportunity to be restored to our original place and purpose in God’s plan. This wonderful gift is available to any who will acknowledge the grace of God which supplies our need, and accept the words of Christ right above,  and receive eternal life.

(Originally delivered 1-20-13)

Today this nation observes one of its most significant rituals – Inauguration Day, a time set aside for the administration of a solemn oath to the President-elect for his upcoming term of office. By law, the Inauguration takes place on January 20, so Barack Obama, honoring the precedents set by the six previous occasions this date has occurred on a Sunday, will participate in a private ceremony at the White House this morning, with the public event occurring tomorrow in front of the Capital Building. The oath which he will swear requires the President to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. This is not a mandate to serve any specific group of people, or a government, or even a nation; it is instead a calling to preserve a set of ideals: a way of thinking about what our leaders should and should not do to and for those under their authority.

In New Testament times, the religious leaders of that era, the Sanhedrin, were likewise not concerned with serving a people, or protecting a nation – in truth, as a puppet state under Roman occupation, they had very little say in these matters. Instead, they also felt called to preserve a set of ideals: the Torah – the Law of Moses – and the Talmud – a compilation of the remainder of the oral traditions of Judaism (Mishna) and centuries of accumulated commentary (Gemara). One sect, the Pharisees, considered themselves the “experts” on the Law and its many detailed interpretations, and jealously guarded their authority to tell the people what they could and could not do in their service to God.

Whenever Jesus interacted with the Jewish religious leaders, they always brought up the subject of “authority” – usually in the form of demands that Jesus explain or defend His actions, and demonstrate the source of His authority to do and say the things He did and said. When He responded to them (He didn’t always), He often cited the very Scriptures the Pharisees claimed such expertise over, particularly the writings of Moses, such as we see recorded in John 5:39-40, and then in verses 45-47:

 “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life…But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

 Over and over, Jesus stated that His authority was from the Father, and His calling was to do the will of the Father, to make the Kingdom of heaven present on earth, as we see when Jesus teaches His disciples to pray in Matthew 6:10-

 “Your kingdom come,Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When Jesus had completed His work on earth, having shed His blood on the cross, been buried in the tomb, and risen again; and was about to return to the Father’s right hand, He passed that authority on to His disciples, and to us, the church of Jesus Christ, with an unmistakable mandate, a Great Commission:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This appearance of the risen Christ occurs at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, but it is not the last time Jesus speaks to His followers in Galilee. Scripture shows us another meeting by the shore of the sea, this time at the end of John’s Gospel, Chapter 21:15-22, our anchor text for today. We heard it read earlier, let’s look at it together now:

 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”  The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.”

 Today I want to examine in more detail the way Jesus poses His questions, the way Peter responds, and how Jesus in turn commands Him…because we read it today and see the same words used in each instance; but language and cultural differences obscure the fact that there are two different ideas being discussed, and three distinct mandates. And those distinctions are important…perhaps the MOST important things for us today, as we ask ourselves, “How do we love Him?”

We cannot look at this story without thinking of how Peter had previously denied Jesus three times…the parallel is so obvious that I can only believe it is intentional; that we are meant to compare this scene to the other. I am referring, of course, to the events occurring after Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Let’s pick up the story in Luke 22:54-62 –

Then seizing [Jesus], they led Him away and took Him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with Him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know Him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with Him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown Me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Recall that, only a short while before this, Peter had made some very bold claims about the quality of his faithfulness, saying he would follow Jesus to his death if need be; the bitterness of his tears comes from the realization of his weakness. Indeed, at the beginning of John 21, despite having seen his Lord risen from the grave, Peter has returned to fishing, with several of the others accompanying him on the boat. Scripture is not explicit about Peter’s emotional state, but let me hazard a guess: I have been in the place of having made big promises that I could not live up to;  feeling unworthy because of it; deciding that maybe it would be better if I just went back to doing what I knew I was good at, and leaving the boldness to others…and I would be willing to bet that I’m not the only one. Today, on this side of history, we have the advantage of knowing how this story works out: Peter, along with the other disciples and followers of Jesus, receives the infilling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, becoming a powerful and persuasive preacher and leader of the church in Jerusalem, and later in the great churches of Antioch and Rome; in fact, the Roman Catholic tradition venerates Peter as the “First Pope”. But Peter doesn’t know that, does he? He certainly believes in Jesus, but I have to wonder how much he believes in himself right at this moment. I believe this is why Jesus speaks to him directly, to restore Peter from “fisherman” to “fisher of men”, to bring home to Peter the truth of forgiveness and redemption – the same truth that applies to each and every one of us here today: the truth that the grace of God overcomes all our weaknesses, and provides the means for us to carry on the work of the Kingdom here on earth.

I said a minute ago that language obscures some important distinctions in this passage, so let me now unpack that, by looking at the text in the original Greek. Let’s begin in v.15, and you’ll see what I mean – (I will address Jesus’ responses in a minute; for now let’s focus on the question and answer portion):

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.”

The word for “love” that Jesus uses – agapao – speaks of unconditional love; love with no regard to circumstance, worthiness, emotion, or behavior; love based on intention and commitment; a decision instead of a reaction. His comment “more than these” is a direct reference to Peter’s bragging in the upper room – since that is what it was – when Peter said that, no matter what anyone else did, HE would stand the test…and then he didn’t. Jesus wants Peter to confront his shame and failure, but at first Peter dodges the issue; the word he answers with – phileo – carries the idea of affection for someone, liking a person because you have something in common, or some situation that would build closeness: the “band of brothers” kind of love that develops between teammates; or coworkers; or soldiers; …or disciples of one master. This kind of love depends on the situation; once the bond is broken, the love can fade away. This is all Peter is willing to own up to, at this point….but Jesus know better than that. In v.16, Jesus repeats the question, but more directly –

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”

This second query follows the pattern of the first: Jesus says agapao, Peter answers phileo – Jesus is asking for total commitment, but Peter can only promise the passion of the moment. He knows that he has failed his Lord: when it came down to it, his fear for his personal safety was greater than his love for the One he followed – the promises of what was to come were overshadowed by the certainty of what he could see right in front of him. (In all fairness, Peter was not alone: all the disciples scattered; most of them were on the boat fishing with Peter at the beginning of Chapter 21; but I believe Peter is singled out because he did the loudest boasting, and thus had the greatest shame.) I can understand the nature if that fear: the Jewish authorities were working hand in hand with the Romans to preserve the “peace” in Jerusalem, as well as their own position; had they allowed the uprising of Jesus and His followers to continue,  Rome would have certainly brought down brutal retribution to squash any dissent – and replaced those in leadership with someone more effective, something that had occurred more than once within the experience of all those present. Peter believed that Jesus was who He said He was, the resurrection was His obvious testimony…but Peter also knew that death by the sword was ever-present, lurking in the background, waiting for any excuse to manifest itself. Being human comes with human fears, and dependence on human sensibilities for survival; and at this point, human ability was all Peter had to go on… Pentecost was still to come, the Holy Spirit had not yet descended upon the church.  Jesus knows this, too, but He wants Peter to see beyond that – to remember the trust developed in the years they have spent together, the bond they had formed while sleeping, eating, walking, talking, teaching, preaching, healing, 24/7/365… so He persists in His questioning – look at v.17:

The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep.”

This time, Jesus meets Peter halfway – phileo instead of agapao – saying that He knows this is the best Peter can do, but if he will commit that much, it is enough. This is important, because the pain Peter feels comes from his acknowledgment of his own unworthiness, his confession made in repentance. Jesus has finally brought Peter to the point of surrender, of submission, the place where each of us must come to before we can fully receive what Jesus has to offer us. As long as we are willing to make excuses for ourselves…to say, “It’s too hard to follow Jesus, and live for Him, and love Him like I should…I’m just a fisherman, I quit”…we will never be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus looked right at Peter after he had denied Him three times, and Peter ran away in shame. This time, Jesus is looking right at Peter after he has confirmed his love for him three times – the only love he is capable of, but love nonetheless…and Peter does not run away; and because of that, Jesus responds with compassion and forgiveness…and a promise, a prophecy – let’s read v.18-19:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!”

That image of “stretching out your hands” had a very specific connotation to the people in first century Palestine – it meant that person would be crucified, their hands tied or nailed to a cross to be executed. Remember Peter bragging that he would follow Jesus to death if it was required of him? Jesus had answered him that it would not happen as Peter imagined it, but that it would happen – here Jesus repeats that prophesy, and in fact Peter did die by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, as an older man, some thirty years after Jesus; church tradition states that he was tied to his cross, rather than nailed, and hung upside down by his own request, since he considered himself less worthy than Jesus, and wished his head to point down towards earth, rather than up towards heaven. Jesus last words in v.18, “Follow Me!” should be considered at a renewal of Peter’s calling as an apostle, a command to continue in what he had been doing all along – living out the fulfillment of the Kingdom of heaven on earth.

Now, let me back up and collect the loose ends: the responses Jesus has each time Peter affirms his love. At first glance it might seem that each is a simple repetition, but this is not the case – none of us here today are farmers or shepherds, so we are simply unfamiliar with the care of sheep, and we miss the nuances. I feel, however, that the subtle differences in these three statements actually comprise the job description for a pastor, so I want to quickly go over them. Let’s put all three statements together, and you will see what I mean:

v.15 – “Feed My lambs.” – means to nurture the newborns and get them started

v.16 – “Take care of My sheep.” – means to watch over and guide the flock

v.17 – “Feed My sheep.” – means to ensure the flock is well fed on good pasture

If we compare this to the Great Commission we looked at earlier, we see that each has a correspondence: “lambs” refers to new believers, those to whom we preach the Gospel and baptize into the community of faith; “caring for sheep” can be seen as the work of correction and rebuke that is required on an ongoing basis to make disciples; “feeding sheep” refers to the instruction in God’s Word that we who are more mature are called to do to for and among our brothers and sisters, that they may also grow in spiritual maturity and godliness…a process that all of us should be willing to be a part of, in submission to the Holy Spirit and the ongoing work of sanctification we are expected to participate in, as we await the return of our Lord, on that day when we are lifted up by Him and presented to the Father. I personally believe that we are all under these commands, but especially those of us called into leadership – the preachers, the teachers, the pastors – we have a special gifting that allows us to serve the Kingdom of God in a special way, and this interaction we see between Jesus and Peter is a blessing and a reminder that, even when our human natures cause us to stumble or fail, Jesus will hear our confessions, and receive us back to resume our ministry, to be His hand and feet here on earth. We may not be capable of agape love on our own; in fact I am certain we are not; but Jesus is, and by His Spirit residing in us, we can love Him as He loves us.

Let’s close with the final verses of this passage. I believe this serves us as a reminder that we are to say focused on what God is doing in OUR lives, and how we are only responsible for how WE answer the calling He places upon each of us. Often times, we are distracted, or even discouraged, by the way another brother or sister is being used by God – we look at them and say to ourselves, “Wow, what a great work he is doing! I can’t do anything like that, why should I even bother? The Lord doesn’t need me when He has workers like that!” Peter nearly falls for this same trick of the enemy, when he asks about what Jesus has in mind for “the beloved disciple”, who is probably John himself. Jesus tells Peter straight out, “Mind your own business!” He has His entire plan in mind, and He instructs each of us in our part of it…and frankly, managing that is about as much as any of us is capable of, isn’t it? We must not get confused about this, which can happen when we take our eyes off of Jesus, and start looking at others, or ourselves. His final words are neither a suggestion nor a statement..the verb is an imperative: “You MUST follow Me!”

The ideas I have shared from this passage have been on my heart and on my mind for about a year now – in fact, ever since our pastor announced that he was leaving, and moving his ministry elsewhere. That act made real to me something I knew intellectually, but not internally….that the ways we serve God will change as we mature in Christ…or, at least, they should, if we are doing it right! Thinking that things will never change is in fact a sinful quenching of the Spirit, such as we are warned against by the writer of  Hebrews in 5:12-14 –

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

All of us should be desiring to respond to our callings, to get up from our seats and move in His grace, to do the work He has set for us to do…so I invite you now, as we prepare to close our worship in singing today, to pray now for God to reveal how you can best serve His kingdom…to confess your fears and failures – He already knows them, after all, so He won’t think less of you for doing it – and allow Jesus to restore you to your rightful place as one of His ministers, one of His shepherds, one of those who tends His flocks. Will you stand? Will you pray with me? Will you love Jesus today?

Reblogged from a good friend of mine on Blogger…not new information, but very well spoken.

What About Those Who Have Never Actually Heard the Gospel?

“How can this be?”

Posted: December 29, 2012 in Sunday school
Tags: , , ,

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.

Recently I wrote about how well-meaning people sometimes try to use a bible verse to comfort or reassure Karen or me, while she is doing cancer treatments and I am trying not to feel helpless or sorry for myself. These people want to be supportive, and who wouldn’t think that a favorite exhortation or encouragement from the bible would be appreciated? Well, in principle this is a great idea – the Word of God is an awesome place to find support or advice in trying times; but what usually happens is the person will take some verse out of context, or misappropriate a promise or command that was not intended for what they are doing with it. Being who I am (a word geek with an acquired taste for exegesis and hermeneutics – not one to trifle with when bible quotes start flying), I call these “Inigo Montoya moments”, after the character from one of my favorite films, The Princess Bride. Here is a clip of the classic scene:

Evangelism centers on the idea that the whole world needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus, so they may be saved. This is in fact one of our assignments as His followers remaining on earth until He returns, but…my heart is broken for those people in the world who have heard the Word, but they either heard it wrong, or someone interpreted it for them incorrectly, and they just accepted it without checking for themselves. Given that I now have a platform to help combat misinformation, I have decided to periodically take one of these misused Scriptures, look at it in its proper context, and figure out what it really says; if it’s not appropriate to that application, I will try to suggest a better passage instead. I shall call these The Inigo Files, in homage to both the movie, and to my secret passion, The X-Files, because I want to believe…

In this installment we will examine a classically misused verse: Philippians 4:13. Here’s a typical scenario – a friend at church will notice I seem kind of down, and will ask how I’m doing. I will answer that I’m struggling with trying to balance my responsibilities at home against my tendency to compulsively volunteer  over-commit be involved in many activities. (I refuse to confirm or deny whether any of these actual events actually happened or not.) Friend will make sympathetic sounds; tell me about all the commitments she is currently holding up (since nothing soothes more than shame, right?); and then drop this on me:

“Remember, the bible says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’  Just pray for strength, and God will help you accomplish everything you want!”

Really? Anything? To borrow an extreme example from a pastor friend who used it in a great sermon on Philippians 4: Does that mean that I can, through Christ who strengthens me, finally do a 360-degree tomahawk slam dunk like Michael Jordan, even though I’m 5’8″ with bad ankles, if I just pray hard enough? In a word, no…and while that is a pretty specific misuse, it does illustrate my point – this verse gets co-opted to justify almost anything and everything that someone wants to do, by appealing to the idea that being a Christian gives us some mystical access to success in any endeavor; the power of God is on our side, how can we fail?

How, indeed? Well, for starters, we can fail by reading only one verse. As the famous quote says, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” So our first step to determine the meaning of a verse is to see it in its larger context. Here is the entire relevant passage, Phil 4:10-13 from the NKJV:

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

The Apostle Paul is closing out his letter to the church at Philippi, taking a moment to give thanks to God for the way He has used them to supply his needs while in prison in Rome. Paul makes it a point of instruction to tell them that he was not suffering for the lack of support, because he has learned to trust that God will always provide for his needs…so there is no reason to be worried, or unsatisfied with what we have – whatever we have is what God wants us to have, and His strength is promised to make up for any deficiency. This echoes the words of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, when He tells us not to worry about the necessities of life, because God preserves and provides for those who seek after Him. Paul, in verse twelve, spells out specifically what things he is able to do, by the strength of Christ living within him, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a gift promised to all who follow Jesus. This becomes even more clear if we see this passage in a different translation, the NIV, which renders the Greek more accurately.  Here is verse 13 in that version (emphasis mine):

 I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.

So, what Paul is teaching is that the power of Christ is the means by which he can trust and believe that God will provide enough for his needs; this faith frees him from some of the greatest temptations we face – greed, envy, bitterness, resentment; and what a great gift this is! But a promise that Jesus will help me live like Jesus is not going to dunk that ball…or fix my schedule, either. So what passage (remember, never read just a verse!) should Friend be holding out to me in my time of need? Here’s one from Colossians 3 that really helped me learn how to prioritize my time and commitments. I would love to hear what others have to say, so post yours in the comments below, I promise to respond to every one!

23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

When I weigh the various opportunities and obligations before me in light of how they serve the Kingdom, it gets much easier to say Yes, or No, as required to allow sufficient effort and attention to a few things, rather than a flurry of distracted activity that actually does very little, and costs the heart so much. This is an accurate, effective, and Christ-honoring use of Scripture, which is why we have it in the first place; I am humbled and honored by the calling He has placed on me to help combat false doctrines and errant teachings, that He may be known as He knows us – in Spirit and in truth. I hope you, Dear Reader, find value in what I do here, and if so, please share what you learn with those around you – we all need a little more truth in our lives, and a little more Jesus, too.

Following hard after Him,