Please open up to John 3:1–21.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’”
What is a Pharisee?
If you recall, last week we covered the passage just before this one that acts as a sort of introduction to the next section of the Gospel. It’s a sort of paragraph header in the midst of the chapter division that comes through the sign miracles, meant to key us into seeing a change in perspective, but not really a change in theme or signs.
Jesus has taken the torch from His forerunner John the Baptist, has inaugurated His kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, and has cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover. While He was there, the Jews demanded a sign, but Jesus refused them – and went on to perform other signs for those around Jerusalem who weren’t demanding it of Him. It was a pretty substantial kickoff to His earthly ministry and we’ve talked a lot about it.
Last week John, the author of the gospel tells us that though a lot of people believed in Jesus, Jesus didn’t believe in them, because “he himself knew what was in man”. We covered that a lot last week, but we need to remember it as we enter into the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is introduced as a “man of the Pharisees… a ruler of the Jews.” The Pharisees were known as the “separated ones”. Not that they isolated themselves from others, but that they were extremely zealous for ritual and religion and considered themselves better than everyone else. They followed the Mosaic Law to a ridiculous degree, even adding 613 of their own laws and regulations on top of it to make it even more stringent.
For example, God had written into the 10 Commandments that no one was supposed to break the Sabbath, right? Work 6 days, and then set aside the seventh day for rest and worship. The Pharisees heard this and came up with 39 extra rules so that no one would accidentally break the Sabbath – and Jesus broke them all the time. In John 5:10 Jesus heals a lame man and tells him to pick up his bed and walk home. The Pharisees were upset because they had made a law saying no one was allowed to carry anything on the Sabbath. In John 9:16 Jesus heals a blind man by mixing dirt and spit. This broke the Pharisaical law about not making mixtures. In Luke 13 Jesus heals a disabled woman who was bent-over for eighteen years. The Pharisees were angry because he had broken the law about not straightening a deformed person’s body – and maybe even the one where they weren’t allowed to untie knots. And these rules got weird. For example, they were allowed to eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath – but only if they killed the chicken who laid it the next day for violating the Sabbath.
At the time, there were about 6000 Pharisees around. They were mostly middle-class people and had a great influence on the common people because the Pharisees not only made up these crazy laws but enforced them. If they saw you tie your shoe or even grab a bit of grain to eat as a snack, they would get you publically embarrassed, punished, and maybe even kicked out of your synagogue.
But Nicodemus wasn’t just a regular Pharisee, he was a “ruler of the Jews”. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, their 71 members “Supreme Court”. Rome had given them civil and criminal jurisdiction over people. They weren’t allowed to use capital punishment (as we learn from Jesus’ trial and crucifixion) but they were the most powerful group in the whole of Judaism.
You can begin to see why this man came to Jesus after dark. Jesus had been causing trouble in the Temple and defied the Sanhedrin, but had also shown Himself to be a powerful miracle worker and teacher. Nicodemus was curious but cautious. His whole life, and likely going back generations, he had known only the strictness of religion as the way to please God – and here stands a powerful Rabbi, teaching things that seem contradictory to everything he holds dear – but is also able to do amazing miracles. How could this be?
There are a lot of people like Nicodemus today. People who think they have it all figured out, who have worldly power and influence, who have (what they believe to be) a rock-solid understanding of reality, of spirituality, of how life works. Whether its atheism, deism, spiritualism, some other religion, or a version of Christianity that they grew up with or have created in their own head, their brain-cement is set. If you ask them the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” they’ll give you some kind of answer. It may be nihilism or some version of karma. It might be self-actualization or pseudo-spirituality. It might be traditionalism or moralism or humanism. Whatever it is, they’ve got it all figured out – right up until they hear about Jesus.
Many people here today either suffer from or have recovered from this. You have your own version of God. You have your own version of Jesus. You have your own version of how life, and work, and church works. You have your own rules about how marriage and family works. You may use the same words as people around you, but they have wildly different meanings.
For example, if I said the word “submission”, it would conjure up a certain picture in your mind. What does it mean to be a submissive Christian? Who are Christians supposed to submit to? James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves to God.” Everyone is on board with that. But what about Ephesians 5:21 which says we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Does your definition of “submission” extend to submitting to the people around you today? What about the next verse in Ephesians 5:22 which says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Wives, does your submission to God, submission to Jesus, extend to humble submission to your husbands? Husbands, do you understand how to respond to that submission, by, as verse 25 says “lov[ing] your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”?
And further, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 says Christians are to,
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”.
Does your submission to God extend to all the laws of the land and those who have been elected to government or positions of authority above you? Ephesians 6:5-8 tells us to submit to our employer and work for them as we would work for Jesus. Does your submission to God include humble submission to your boss?
And further, Hebrews 13:17 tells the church to,
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Does your submission to God include humble submission to the church leadership and eldership?
Pretty much everyone here today says they believe the Bible and want to do what God says – but most people here also have a different interpretation of who God is, what God wants, what God said, and how far they are willing to go in that obedience.
Pretty much everyone here would say they agree that “submission” to God’s will is important to them. If I asked for a show of hands as to who is willing to submit their lives to God’s will and God’s word, I would see a lot of hands.
Here’s the thing: The Pharisee would have raised his hand. And every single person in our church, every single person in Jerusalem, would have said that there was no one better at submitting to God than Nicodemus – everyone except Jesus. Why? Because regardless of how confident he was, how popular he was, how much affirmation he received from other people, how deep his traditions went, and how powerful his influence was, his understanding of God’s will and priorities was totally out of whack. And his understanding of “submission” was radically different than God’s.
He prayed loudly in the streets, tithed with trumpets, and lorded his power over people to force them to be like him. But God wanted him to pray in his closets, give secretly, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him. (Matt 6; Mic 6:6-8) The Pharisees weren’t humbly submitting to God and holding up a high standard for God’s people to follow. They were proudly, arrogantly, willfully, though perhaps unwittingly, destroying their religion and driving a wedge between God and His people.
Consider Jesus’ woes in Matthew 23. One said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15) Everyone they converted to their version of the faith wasn’t closer to God – they were closer to Hell. Jesus spent a lot of His ministry untying the knots the Pharisees had wrapped the people in.
Jesus Knows Nicodemus
The Pharisees had hundreds and hundreds of laws that were designed to please God and make them “separate” and better and holier than everyone else, and all kinds of people were patting Nicodemus on the back for how knowledgeable and spiritual he was. And all these laws did was “separate” Him from God. And I’m convinced that He felt it. I think that’s why he walked up to Jesus that night. Jesus had a connection to God that Nicodemus longed for, but had never been able to achieve through a lifetime of Pharisaism. It reminds me a lot of the story of Martin Luther.
As Nicodemus walks up to Jesus, Jesus knows exactly what’s on his heart. Jesus knows why Nicodemus came. He knows his past, his preconceptions, his confusion, and his greatest need. Remember, Jesus “[knows what is] in man” (2:25)
Nicodemus opens with “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (3:2) I don’t know who the “we” is but it could be either him invoking his position as a member of the Sanhedrin, or that he was perhaps sent by a few curious Pharisees to see what was so special about Jesus. He’s respectful, even acknowledging him as a Rabbi, a teacher, who is clearly connected to God. That’s what brought him out that night. How could Jesus, the one who overturned tables in the temple and drove out the money-changers, who defied the Sanhedrin and then scorned them with His words, teach and perform miracles with such obvious spiritual power. No one in the Jewish ruling class had this kind of power, and none of them taught with such conviction and authority. What made Jesus different? What gave Him this connection?
Jesus cuts to the chase. Nicodemus wants access to this kind of power, conviction, authority, and relationship with God. Jesus answers His question. You want to know what it takes? “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (3:3)
Have you ever sat in a conversation with two people who obviously knew way, way more than you about something, or who had spent a lot of time together, and the longer they talked, the more jargon they used, the more they finished each other’s sentences, the more shorthand and half-stories they mounted up, the less you understood – but you knew that they were 100% understanding one another? That’s sort of what was happening here. They were using rabbinical shorthand.
Jesus cut to the chase and answered the question that Nicodemus hadn’t even asked yet. “Nicodemus, I know what you want – and you need to know that it requires a complete spiritual transformation, a total regeneration that can only come by the power of God. You need to reject everything you think you know about religion and God and the path to salvation – all of the outward things you think are right, all the hypocritical rules, all the grasping at power – everything you have been thinking up until this point needs to be dumped out and you need to realize that the change you are seeking, the power you are seeking, the connection to God you are seeking, the salvation from the wrath of God that you fear deep in your heart, only comes if you are “born again” (or “born from above”). It is only produced by God doing something inside of you – not by anything you can do yourself.”
Now, remember Nicodemus isn’t dumb. The question that he asks next sounds dumb, but it’s not. It’s how rabbis talked. Nicodemus totally gets what Jesus is saying and responds with, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4). It’s not that Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus was saying, it was that Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was saying but had no idea how he was supposed to start his whole life over again. Jesus had just told him that everything he thought he knew about God, all the ways he’d been trying to achieve holiness and salvation, all the good works and religion, all the self-denial, were utterly futile, and now he didn’t know what to do. What he was really saying is, “How can I possibly start over now? I’m old, set in my ways, a public figure, an important member of the Sanhedrin. Doing what you say would cost me – everything. My own group would turn against me. I would be removed from my own Synagogue and kicked out of the Temple. If I believe what you say, my life is over. How can I begin again now? I’d have to start from scratch, with nothing.”
Jesus’ response is to say, “Yes. It will cost you everything. You don’t have the power to do this. No one does. It must come from above.” “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5–8)
“You don’t know how to do this anymore than you can predict where the wind will blow next. All of the things you’ve been trying to do are human efforts, fleshly works. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that if you have a spiritual problem you need a spiritual solution. You’re powerless against sin, not connecting with God, can’t get rid of your guilt, can’t teach with power, totally misunderstand what God wants. How can you be surprised that no human effort can fix this? A spiritual problem need a spiritual solution! You cannot be fit for the Kingdom of God unless you are utterly changed from the inside out.
This reminds me of another of Jesus’ woes to the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:25–26)
The solution to your problems isn’t more work, more elbow grease, more good works, more rules – it’s submission to God’s Will, God’s Way, God’s Spirit, and allowing Him to do the work in your heart that you cannot.
When Jesus said, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus knew Jesus was talking Ezekiel 36:25.
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22 and let’s read the context. Notice that it is God who does the saving, and notice especially verse 25.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Who does the work? God. Who does the cleansing? God. Who does the saving? God. Who does the washing? God. Who removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a soft heart of flesh? God. Who gives the Spirit to convict, encourage, strengthen, and help His people obey these ever-so precious “rules” the Pharisees were so concerned about? God.
This world is ripe with self-help books and inspirational blogs and Instagram posts telling you how to fix your soul, life, marriage, family, finances, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, depression, work, and church. And they’re 99.99% wrong.
Jesus is so clear here. The only way to be saved is not through willpower, education, politics, religion or finding your own path to God – it is submitting to Jesus and asking the Spirit of God to fix your heart. The only way to have a good marriage is to submit to God and allowing the Spirit of God to change your heart and cause you to love your spouse with the love of Jesus. The only way to be a good citizen in a land as confused as ours is by wholly submitting to the Spirit of God for hope and guidance. The only way to be blessed through your work, and have your work be a blessing to others, is if you completely turn it over to God, submit every job to Jesus as your boss, and give your employer the respect God requires of you – even if you don’t feel like it.
The only way to be a godly church, grow into a godly church, reconcile our relationships, to see the schemes of the devil for what they are and be the church that Jesus wants us to be, is not to try to arrest control from Him for ourselves, or start up a zillion ministries, or to keep one foot out the door in case something goes wrong, or ignore problems, or tighten our financial fists – but to wholly submit ourselves, our church, our plans, our ministries, to God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Salvation has never been a “reward for human works”. We must realize that whatever we do in the flesh is going to be of no account, and ultimately harmful, but whatever is done by the Spirit – by prayer, by study, by humility, by submission – will produce fruit.
Let’s close out this section of the story by turning back to John 3:9. What’s Nicodemus’ response?
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’”
John MacArthur once wrote,
“People have always stumbled over the simplicity of salvation.”
And I would add that people have always stumbled over the simplicity of the whole Christian life. We are forever trying to complicate things, when God keeps trying to simplify it.
We are presented with a problem – in our heart, in our relationships, in our work, or in our church – and we immediately make it complicated. We make calendars, plans, committees, appointments, lists and more lists. We run far and wide, googling our hearts out, amassing books and articles and videos and counsellors. We jump ahead with emails and phone calls and travel plans and requests for money. We take out loans and get credit cards.
Before it even crosses our mind to pray and seek God’s will, we’ve already done 40 things to help the situation – and then we hit our knees and tell God to bless what we’ve come up with.
That’s not how it works. It’s actually very simple.
Stop. Pray. Wait. Read scripture. Pray. Wait. Talk to a mature Christian. Pray. Wait. Go to church and worship and listen. Go to the prayer meeting and pray and listen. Go to small group and learn, and pray, and talk, and listen.
We’ve talked many times about “the ordinary means of grace”, about how unexciting, uncool, but how profoundly simple and effective they are. Prayer and Fasting to cleanse the soul and connect to God. Obediently attending church so you can hear the Word of God and connect to fellow believers. Being baptized and attending the baptisms of the people in your church so you can be mutually encouraged and show your commitment to Christ and one another. Take the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of what your salvation cost, how much Jesus loves you, and as a reminder to get right with those who you’ve sinned against or who have sinned against you. Meet in each other’s homes regularly for times of celebration and support, and visit the sick and needy. Meet with your spiritual elders for training and teaching and wisdom.
The Christian life isn’t complicated and so many of our spiritual problems are solved by submitting to these simple things regularly and obediently.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur, Pg 53.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.
**Sorry, no audio this week**
“So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:18–25)
We talked last week about the cleansing of the temple and how important that event was – and how it’s connected to the miracle of water to wine during the wedding in Cana – but we never got to the response from the people. In John, the miracles of Jesus, whether it was water to wine, healing the sick, or raising the dead, are called “signs”. “Signs” are meant to point to something greater than themselves. So when Jesus does a miracle it’s never just about the thing He was doing – it’s a sign that points to more. We’ve talked about that a lot over the past few sermons, so I won’t belabour that further, but it is important to remember.
This whole section here is about how people are responding to the signs Jesus was giving them – the nature of their belief. After inaugurating His Kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, Jesus travels to Jerusalem with a few of his disciples and walks into the temple with a whip and starts flipping over tables, releasing the animals from their pens and cages, and telling people to stop turning His Father’s house, the place where the nations were to come and meet Him, into a shopping mall that exploits the pilgrims. It offends God on a deep level and Jesus demonstrates that in no uncertain terms.
“The Jews”, meaning the religious authorities like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin, were obviously offended by this because the whole shopping mall was their idea. So they demand that Jesus demonstrate His authority to tell people to take the things away and call the temple His “Father’s House” by showing them some kind of spectacular miracle that would convince them that He was a prophet. Jesus refuses. From the context, and the rest of the gospels, we know that it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Whenever Jesus did a miracle, the Jewish Authorities never responded with faith and humility, but instead more hatred and another plan to try to kill him.
His response, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” was a multifaceted answer that required a lot of digging and interpretation.
First, it was Jesus saying that He knew exactly what the Jews were planning to do with Him. He would spend the next couple years demonstrating in no uncertain terms that He was God in the flesh, and they would respond by murdering Him. They would never accept His authority.
Second, it was an indictment against their religious corruption, implying that the temple and their whole religious structure was so corrupt that it needed to be torn down completely and that He was the only one who could rebuild it the way God had intended it.
Third, it actually was a declaration of His power and authority. They demanded a sign that would prove He had the right to cleans the temple – He basically said that He doesn’t just have authority over matters like these, but in fact has authority over life and death itself.
Of course, the Jews didn’t want to hear any of that – they couldn’t hear any of that. Their hearts were so hard that the only thing they could hear was the absolute surface meaning of what Jesus had said. Sin had so overcome their hearts, their hearts had become so calcified through their false religion and hypocrisy, that the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words just bounced off without having any effect. Notice that later, Jesus’ true followers thought back to this moment and were able to begin to grasp the deeper meaning. But for the Jews, Jesus’ true meaning was impenetrable.
He Had No Faith in Their Faith
And that’s what this whole section is really about – especially from 23-25 – about how people perceived Jesus, what they believed, and the depth and substance of that belief. It’s a sort of summary of what had happened in Jerusalem over the course of Passover, and acts as an introduction to the stories that will come next.
The disciples see the sign of water to wine and believe. The Jews see Jesus cleanse the temple and refuse to believe. But Jesus performs some more signs among the people and many of them believe. But then, if you notice the next story, Jesus meets with the Pharisee Nicodemus – perhaps one of the men who had challenged Him at the temple, but certainly one who knew what Jesus had done there. Nicodemus is given a long teaching about the importance of being “born again”, of rejecting everything he thinks he knows about religion and instead of being utterly changed from the inside out by the power of God, and throughout the gospel, we see Nicodemus slowly coming to faith (7:50; 19:39). Then, in chapter 4, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, who is also given a long dialogue about who Jesus really is, the “living water” (4:10) who offers “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14) and she and many fellow townspeople believed in Jesus as “saviour of the world” (4:42).
We go from the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus believing in Jesus, to the Samaritan Woman believing in Jesus, to the final story in this section in John 4:46-54, about a Gentile Centurion in the service of Herod, coming to Jesus for a miracle, and then believing in Jesus.
Jews, Samaritans, and Romans. Religious experts, ignorant sinners, and desperate pagans. Men and women, young and old, teachers and wives and government workers, all meeting Jesus and believing.
That’s what makes this section in 2:23-25 such an important transition. Jesus is at the very beginning of His earthly ministry and is standing in Jerusalem at Passover and every type of person is there. Jews, gentiles, men, women, young, old, believers, unbelievers, religious, atheist, pagan, all there in Jerusalem with many witnessing His signs and “believing”.
But the undercurrent of this section is that we need to be very careful about how we read the word “believe”. The disciples believe Nicodemus believes, some ordinary Jews believe, the Samaritans believe, the Roman official believes. But what is the substance of that belief?
Do these Jews at the Passover, and all the others from then on, after witnessing the signs, believe that Jesus Christ is the true Messiah, the Son of God, the saviour of their souls who would have to die on a cross for their sins to be atoned for? Had they given their lives to Him? Was He their Lord and Saviour? Would they follow Him to the end?
Look at what it says,
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (2:23-25).
There’s a bit of wordplay here in this section. It basically says that even though people entrusted themselves to Him, He didn’t entrust Himself to them. They believed in Jesus, but He didn’t believe in them. He had no faith in their faith.
Why? Because as God, as our creator, as One with divine omniscience, He knew exactly what was going on inside of people’s heads and hearts – and knew how the story ended. He knew the Jews that demanded a sign weren’t going to believe it even if they saw it. He knew that Nicodemus didn’t really need a rabbinical debate about what Jesus did at the temple, but needed to be born again through faith in Him. He knew that the Samaritan woman at the well didn’t just need water, but needed acceptance and compassion and conviction and hope – and when she tried to dodge Him confronting her sins and struggles, He didn’t fall for it. He knows people’s hearts and knows exactly how to clear away the smokescreen to get to their true needs.
Jesus isn’t fooled by us. He knows all our secrets, motives, reasons, and excuses. He knows how fickle we are and how easily we can deceive ourselves. He knows how squirmy we can be when confronted with our sin, or told to submit to His will, and knows how great we are at denial and self-deception. He wrote Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Not us! Only Jesus understands it.
We should be very thankful for this. No one is better at lying to us than we are. Self-deception is a hallmark of what it means to be human. And couple that with our natural tendencies toward believing whatever we want to believe regardless of the truth and rejecting authority even if they’re right, and we’ve got a recipe for trouble.
Consider yourself for a moment, and how many times you have lied to yourself or winningly believed a lie because it’s easier. I googled examples of ways that we lie to ourselves and found a really interesting article on Psychology Today that outlined a few of them. See if any of these apply to you.
The first way that we lie to ourselves is to convince ourselves that “ignorance is bliss”. “Strategic ignorance” for the sake of not getting burdened with reality. Doing things like avoiding information sources that give differing opinions or refusing to study something too much because you’re worried you’ll learn something you don’t like. Do you do that? Only listen to news sources and podcasts you agree with? Only read books that tell you what you want to hear? Only hang around people that share your worldview? Have you ever refused to learn more about something, even something theological or mechanical or personal, because learning more means more responsibility, so you prefer not to know? “Don’t tell me how to add washer fluid to my car because then I’ll have to do it!”
The second was called “reality denial”. And it simply means rejecting information you don’t like so you can build a false sense of security. Someone gives you bad news and you just ignore it. An addict insisting they don’t have problem and can stop anytime. An abuser telling themselves that it’s the fault of the person their abusing. Ignoring your bank and credit card balance and heading to the store, hoping that the debit machine will work.
Another way we lie to ourselves is “overconfidence”, believing we are stronger than we really are – while another was the opposite, called “self-handicapping”, where we are afraid to see what we’re really capable of, or are afraid to fail, so we never really try.
Other ways were doing things like, excusing our own faults while judging others harshly for the same ones. Or “cherry-picking data” that supports our own preconceived beliefs. Another was our tendency towards “sour grapes” where we see something we want, but when we find out we can’t have it, say that it wasn’t probably that good after all.
The quote at the bottom of the article was really interesting. It said,
“Self-deception can be like a drug, numbing you from harsh reality…”
This was a secular article – but how much more should Christians, who know that “the heart is deceitful… and desperately sick”, understand our human tendency towards self-deception? And yet we keep falling for it. Take a moment to consider how many times you’ve lied to yourself, just this week!
Or if that’s too uncomfortable, consider how many times you’ve tried to convince someone else of the truth but they simply wouldn’t hear it. You could get the Bible, the dictionary, the encyclopedia, three peer-reviewed studies, and ten testimonies that all agree with what you’re saying – but if they don’t want to believe it, they just won’t. Instead, they react with argument, anger, rejection, running away. Why? They want to believe the lie because the truth is too inconvenient or difficult. They prefer the drug of self-deception. That’s human nature, and that’s what Jesus knew.
He knew that almost every single one of the people that claimed belief in Him, from the disciples who travelled with Him to the desperate Jews looking for a saviour from the Romans, to all the variety of gentiles, would reject Him in the end. Jesus’ could not count on them to carry Him through to the end of His mission. It was not He who needed them to surround Him with love and support and help – it was they who needed His love, support, and help. They were the walking dead, He is the life bringer. They are those trapped in darkness, He is the source of light. They were the ones who had fallen to temptation, He was the One who proved He never would. They were the blind fools, He was the only one with His eyes open, and who had the power to make them see. Jesus is the doctor, we are the sick. Jesus is the righteous one, we are the unrighteous. Jesus is the curse-breaker, we are the cursed. Jesus doesn’t need to believe in us – we need to believe in Jesus.
What conclusion can we draw from this section of scripture? I supposed it is twofold.
First, that we recognize our tendency towards self-deception, toward believing what we want to believe, toward rejecting truth because it’s difficult or requires us to humble ourselves and say we were wrong. If we can recognize that we are capable of being deceived, that not everything we think is right, that not all our feelings are accurate, that not everything we think about ourselves and others is true – we go a long way towards having a teachable spirit that God can infuse with truth and light. So long as we believe everything we think and feel is right we make ourselves an easy target for the enemy because He traffics in lies and is happy to tell us whatever we want to hear so we will remain steeped in sin and error. Then He can manipulate us into hurting ourselves and others – and we’ll think we’re right for doing it! Satan wants us to continue to believe lies because when we live in lies, we reject God – because God only speaks truth (John 17:17).
And second, once we humble ourselves to realize that we are easily deceived, that we need to pursue truth. Jesus prayed for us in John 17:17,
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
He wants us steeped in truth because the more we know the truth, love the truth, and learn the truth, the more we will be free from evil and live in the presence of God.
This is why God’s word says things like, if you have something against someone, go and talk to them, and seek truth and reconciliation (Matt 5:23; 18:15-20). Satan wants us sitting at home concocting stories and having imaginary arguments. God says, “Go and seek the truth.”
This is why Jesus says in John 8:31–32,
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Keep reading my word, stay in it every day, study it, listen to it read and preached and taught, because then you won’t be deceived. Satan wants you to read a verse or two and then come up with your own ideas, your own interpretations, your own conclusions about God and His will. He wants you captive to guessing and uncertainty and confusion and fighting with others based on your confident ignorance. God wants you to know the truth, because ignorance and self-deception is a prison, and truth is the path to freedom. Doing this takes work and humility though…
This is why God says go to church and submit to those more mature than you – those who are more steeped in the truth. Consider what it says in Ephesians 4,
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:11-14)
We keep ourselves from being tossed around by lies by submitting to Christians that are more mature than us.
And this is why God warns us over and over not to trust our own feelings. says,
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” (Proverbs 28:26)
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs. 3:5)
Turn to Romans 7:15–25 and see what the Apostle Paul, a godly man who loved Jesus, said.
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Jesus is Always Faithful (Even When We’re Not)
And so what is the ultimate conclusion – to realize our weakness, that God doesn’t need us, that Jesus doesn’t “count on us” or “believe in us”, but loves us anyway.
It should amaze us that Jesus knows the wickedness of our hearts and loves us anyway. When we are unfaithful, He is faithful. Consider the words of 2 Timothy 2:11–13,
“The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”
What an amazing saviour! That even when we are “faithless”, even when we have a momentary lapse in trusting Jesus, a momentary fall into temptation, Jesus doesn’t reject us. He remains faithful because He has so totally identified with us, has so completely saved us, has so totally changed us, that we become like Himself. He found us when we were lost, forgave us when we were enemies, and adopted us when we had completely rejected Him. That’s the miracle of the cross – our sin exchanged for His holiness, our imperfection exchanged for His imperfection, which has allowed us to become brothers and sisters to Christ and children of God. We never lose our salvation – not because we are so faithful – but because Jesus is faithful to us.
He’s faithful even though He knows what’s in our hearts. Even though we keep failing, keep falling, keep fighting, keep sinning, keep trying to wrestle power back from Him – He remains faithful to us anyway. That’s one, big reason that we love Jesus so much and try to live in the light of His truth. We are easily deceived, but He is not. And therefore, we need His light, His life, His word, His Spirit, His mind, to overtake our own so we can rightly perceive the truth and by that truth know Jesus and be set free.
Please turn to John 2:1–12 and let’s read it together.
“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.”
The First Sign Ripples Out
This is the very first “sign” of the seven miraculous signs of the Gospel of John. John calls them “signs” because they are not meant to stand alone, but to point to something greater. Like a road sign that points to a city or a store, the miracles of Jesus aren’t singular events for one person at one time but are meant to be a big arrow pointing us to something special about Jesus, His mission, His character, and His person.
When you’re reading the Gospel of John it’s quite helpful to use these miracles as sort of chapter divisions. As I’ve said before, there are more ways to divide up the book because it’s such an intricate tapestry of stories and themes, but using the signs is perhaps the most straightforward. Let me tell you what I mean:
This first sign, the first miracle Jesus ever performed, was Jesus turning water to wine at a wedding in Cana in Galilee. It’s rich with symbolism. It is an inaugural miracle not only displaying God’s mercy to the people who ran out of wine but as a way for Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth and tell us something special about Himself.
Two key phrases to look at here are when Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come” and at the end when it says Jesus “manifested his glory” and his “disciples believed”.
In the Gospel of John, the “hour” always refers to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and glorification when he would receive his true position and sit at God’s right hand. The hour where He accomplishes His greatest work in being an atoning death for all who believe, conquering death by resurrection, and then claiming victory in His ascension and giving of the Holy Spirit. But at this point in His ministry, especially since most people didn’t understand what the Messiah was really going to be like, it wasn’t the right time for Him to reveal Himself openly as Israel’s Messiah. He was telling His mother in no uncertain terms that her timeline was not His, that she didn’t have the right to demand things of Him, and that He was going about His heavenly Father’s business, not hers. Her response is to give control of the situation over to Him, “Do whatever He tells you.” and to step back.
After all, this was only the “third day” of His ministry. He’d gone about 10 Kilometers out of Nazareth, had just gotten the baton from John the Baptist, hadn’t gathered all the apostles yet, and had some things to do. But there He stands, His mother having requested help, the servants waiting for a command, the wedding party embarrassed… and He acts out of grace. But he takes that seemingly small miracle and makes it something huge. At that moment, by God’s appointment and His power, He uses that miracle to inaugurate His Kingdom in a very special way.
And that first sign ripples out all the way to chapter 4:42 – because in this first sign Jesus “manifested His glory” or “displayed” or “showed who He really is by demonstrating His sovereignty over the whole of the material universe and nature itself.” And that power, that demonstration, ripples out. Because Jesus didn’t just make wine – He showed people a “sign” of who He really is.
Wine is a powerful biblical symbol representing things like joy, happiness, conversion, and life itself. It was used in Jewish worship rituals and given as a sacrificial offering to God. It represented God’s covenant with Israel, which He would withhold for disobedience. It was served at times of celebration and to cheer hearts, and given to help the weak and sick as a source of healing and life.
Israel at the time of Jesus was, in a sense, all out of wine and only had dirty water left over. There was no celebration in the land because they were under great oppression from Rome and their religion had been almost thoroughly corrupted by the oppression of the Pharisees and the rest of the wicked Sanhedrin. For Israel, just like the wedding guests, the wine had run out, and all they were left with was dirty water. They needed a miracle.
And so, in this first miracle, Jesus inaugurates the His kingdom, declares his intention, and shows His power, by making wine. He is the wine-giver, the celebration maker, the life bringer, the healer of bodies and souls. But, in a way very typical of Jesus, this multidimensional, world-changing miracle was done in a very small place with very few people. He’s in the town of Cana, at a private party, and only a few disciples. It was a small inauguration but it rippled out.
Consider that Jesus’ next act was to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. From little Cana to big Jerusalem. Jesus has just inaugurated His Kingdom, turned dirty water into choice wine, and comes into the temple as a warrior prince, defending His father’s castle, demanding they remove the corruption from His kingdom. Just as He had miraculously turned a bunch of dirty washbasins into the best wine anyone had ever tasted, He would also miraculously remove the corruption of sin from people’s hearts and flood it with His own presence and power, so everyone could see what real prayer, real worship, real faith looks like. Just as He purified the water, so He would purify His People and their worship.
Then in chapter 3, Jesus meets Nicodemus, a Pharisee and teacher of Israel, and says that the only way people can be part of His newly inaugurated Kingdom is to be miraculously born again. The Pharisee thought it had to do with obedience and strictness to the law – and Jesus says that’s impossible – and that the change must be far more dramatic. More than simply going through religious motions, a person’s whole being must be radically transformed. He says, “The only way to please God, the only way to enter His Kingdom is if you are completely renewed, reborn, changed from within, born of water and the spirit.”
Just as Jesus turned ordinary water into the best of wine, miraculously overcoming the laws of nature, so He would use His power to cause people to be reborn from worldly beings into spiritual beings. He would make the impossible possible. Just as it’s impossible to convince people that dirty water is amazing wine, so it is impossible for a dirty, corrupt soul to please God. No matter how much you stir or heat or cool or add to that dirty water – it’s going to taste like dirty water. No matter how many good deeds or religious actions you do, no matter how many donations you make or volunteer hours you work, no matter how bad you feel about your wrong or how much you try to ignore it, you’ll never make your soul palatable to God. You need a miracle of transformation.
And so, just like Jesus made dirty water into the best wine, so He takes dead spirits and corrupt souls, and makes them alive, and good, and holy, and acceptable to God. He takes sinners and makes them saints. How? It says at the end of the story with Nicodemus. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that any of the cursed people who looked upon it would be saved from the poisonous snakes, so anyone who would look upon the Christ who was lifted on the cross for their salvation would be saved. They would turn from water to wine the moment they looked to Christ for salvation.
Then, in 3:22-36 the miracle ripples from Cana to Jerusalem to all of Judea. Jesus is on the Judean countryside John the Baptist declares Jesus to be the source of eternal life. Just as the wine was used for ceremony and sacrifice, celebration and healing, and became a symbol of a good and blessed life – so Jesus would show Himself to be the perfected source of sacrifice, celebration, healing, and eternal life. Jesus was the life-giving wine-maker.
Then the ripples of the first miracle move out further, from the town of Cana in Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem, to the whole of the province of Judea, to world of unbelievers as represented by Samaria. And the similarities of the story of the woman at the well and the wedding in Cana are too obvious not to be a thematic echo of the first story.
Consider that both stories start with needing a drink and have water in jars. The first takes place at a wedding, the other is about a woman with many weddings and was currently living with someone out of wedlock. For those at the wedding Jesus provides wine, showing He is the life-giver, and for the Samaritan woman who came for water at the well, He says He is Living Water. At the wedding, He says, “My hour has not yet come” and then inaugurates His Kingdom but to the woman at the well He fully declares Himself to be the Messiah. At the wedding the disciples see the sign and believe, at the well, the Samaritans hear the gospel and believe.
The first four chapters of the Gospel of John all point back to that first sign, and use story after story, interaction after interaction to show Jesus declaring Himself to be the saviour, showing His power, inaugurating the coming of the kingdom of God, and then spreading that kingdom from a few people to the city, to the province, to the world. From insiders, like the few disciples and Jesus’ mother, to the outsiders like Pharisees and Samaritans.
So many people get caught up in arguments about what kind of wine Jesus made and how alcoholic it was (or wasn’t). They get caught up on Jesus calling his mother “woman” and wondering if Jesus was being rude to her or not – He wasn’t. They get caught up on these minor details that they completely miss what the “sign”, the “miracle” was pointing to! That Jesus is the King, Healer, Life-Giver, Reason for Celebration, and Lamb of God who’s precious blood will be poured out as a sacrifice for people who wouldn’t understand, consumed by people who don’t deserve it, just as that unique and amazing wine Jesus made was poured out to the unsuspecting wedding guests in an act of grace.
There are two points I would like to pull out of this story as an application today.
The first is that things like this are why you need to study your bible. Not just read it devotionally, not just pick out favourite verses, not stick in your favourite books, but to actually study your Bibles. Stories like this one are like onions where you see the first layer and think you understand what’s going on – but then as you connect the story to the Old Testament, the sacrificial system, the imagery of wine, the timing of the story, the locations within, the author’s intention and themes – then the story really comes to life and starts to teach you about Jesus.
It’s one thing to know that Jesus is gracious enough to provide wine to people who needed it, it’s another to understand that this whole section is about the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, the promise of Eternal Life, of the picture of Jesus as not only the wine-giver but the sacrificial wine itself. Of watching that miracle rippling out from town to city to province to the world, and thereby seeing that Jesus’ love isn’t merely for the individuals at the party, or the few disciples that saw and believed – but his love extends to those who do not understand what He did, who drank the best wine not knowing where it came from. It extends to the Jewish people who rejected Him, to the Pharisees who kept challenging Him and made themselves His enemies, and then that to every other person in the world.
He gave His new-wine, His blood, His gift of eternal life to ordinary tradesmen, to his neighbours and friends, to the self-righteous hypocrites, the social rejects, the ones who worship wrong and reject His laws, those steeped in sexual-immorality, the abused, the anguished, the ones who don’t even understand how God or love or sacrifice works. He gives that wine, that grace, that love, that living water, the fruits of His sacrifice, to everyone.
But you can’t see all that unless you study!
Second, I want you to notice that this story speaks to us today.
Consider how this story should inspire us to celebrate our connection to Jesus and His love for us. Dirty water to wine, Repentance to Faith, being confronted by our sin and then offered forgiveness and eternal life from the hands of Jesus, should cause us to celebrate. When life is dark or difficult, the knowledge being part of Jesus’ Kingdom because He chose you from the beginning of time, is something to be thankful for. Knowing He is victorious and has destroyed death is always and ever something to motivate worship. When you are down or sad or afraid, take a minute to consider this story from John.
Jesus loved the disciples enough to show them His glory. Has Jesus shown you His glory? In your life have you witnessed His power?
Jesus loved the wedding guests by providing that which they did not deserve at a quality that astounded them. Have you seen Jesus’ hand of provision giving you undeserved grace? Have you ever gotten something from Jesus that was of such quality, such a gift, that you know it was a miracle? During difficult times, it’s helpful to recall the list of things Jesus has done in the past – for His people and for you.
Jesus loved His mother by reminding her that everything happens by His will and on His timeline. Has Jesus ever set you straight and told you to be patient? Have you ever jumped the gun on His will and ended up regretting it? Sometimes the love of God is shown in making us wait, or sternly reminding us to trust His will.
Jesus loved the Pharisee who kept making excuses and arguments by telling Him the truth and refusing to compromise. Jesus is the way, truth, and life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. The Pharisee made excuses, and Jesus told him there was only one way. Have you been trying to argue with Jesus about how you should get into heaven, how He should operate in this world, how the church should go, how your future should be? Is He loving you right now by reminding you that He is Lord, He is the Way, He is the wine-maker, the life-giver, the living-water, and you are not? Is He showing you love by demanding you submit to Him and Him alone?
Jesus loved the woman at the well by – well, everything. He spoke to her when custom said not to. He indulged her arguments. He gently confronted her sin. He acknowledged her pain and fear. He worked with her wrong religious beliefs. He gave her forgiveness when, maybe, the whole community, and certainly a Jewish rabbi, wouldn’t. Then He used her, the social reject, as His vessel to carry his Living Water, His New Wine, to a whole bunch of people from her neighbourhood, changing their lives forever. All in the span of a few hours!
Has Jesus been confronting your sin, your wrong beliefs, your pain, and telling you to submit to Him as saviour and Lord, to forgive and be forgiven? Has He been gently reminding you of His love, entering into your pain, sitting through your arguments, telling you the truth, and then inviting you to give it all to Him? Has He shown you grace and is now offering to use you, one who went from dirty water to new wine, to help carry His gospel to your friends?
There’s a lot going on in this story – but it doesn’t just stay on the page. How is Jesus using this story in your life today? He’s still the wine-maker, the living-water, the grace-giver, for you today. My prayer is that you would discover Him in His word, in your prayers, and in your service to His Kingdom.
Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Cana. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 405). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘’You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).’
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” (John 1:35–51)
We’re back into our study of the Gospel of John and have come to a transitional moment where Jesus begins calling his first disciples. It will help you to recall what we have studied already because we’re going to keep noticing important themes throughout the whole book.
What Are You Seeking?
John is obviously fast-forwarding the story a bit, but there is some really key phrasing to see here. For example, notice the theme of “seeing”. The whole passage starts with Jesus walking by John the Baptist and him saying, “Behold!” to his disciples. “Behold!” is the same word as “See!” The two disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and John, leave to go walk behind Jesus.
Jesus hears them coming behind Him, turns and says His first words of the whole book, “What are you seeking?” or “What are you looking for?”, another reference to “seeing” used all over the New Testament for people who are looking for something or someone.
Considering how important the themes of light and seeing are in the Gospel of John, we shouldn’t pass by this too quickly – especially since that question and theme dominates the rest of this section.
John and Andrew dodge the question by saying, “Where are you staying?”, meaning “Our rabbi just told us that you’re the Lamb of God, one like the Passover lamb, through whom deliverance from death will come by the shedding of their own blood. And we would like to spend some time with you.”
Jesus’ answer? “Come and you will see.” Now, I promise that when Jesus, the One who created light, the One called the light of the world, says, “Come and you will see.” He doesn’t just mean “Come and see where I’m staying tonight.” He means, “I’m about to open your eyes wider than you could ever imagine.” And then, He does.
And that light shines from John and Andrew to Peter. What was Jesus’ first question? “What are you seeking?” What does Andrew say to Peter? “We have found the Messiah?” Can’t find something without seeing it, right? Seeking and finding. John says, “See!”, then Jesus says, “Come and you’ll see!” and then they say, “Peter, come and see!”
Now, look at verse 43 and we see something interesting. Who does the “finding” now? Jesus does. John and Andrew “found” Jesus. Jesus “found” Philip. Jesus looks for Philip, finds Him, and calls Him.
Excurses: Varied Responses
Pause for a moment and marvel at the different responses to Jesus here. First, notice that Jesus is always the first one to say or do something, but the responses are so varied!
John and Andrew leave their rabbi and Jesus turns and asks them a direct question, but they respond by wanting to spend the whole day talking to him. Jesus is presented to them as the “Lamb of God”, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, they call him “rabbi” or “teacher” and then spend the day working that out. It seems studious, careful, theological.
Jesus and Peter are different. Peter is introduced to Jesus as “The Messiah”, the “Christ” the “Anointed One”, the Great King and Saviour in the Line of David. Jesus is still the first one to speak, but it’s bold and direct – like a King. Bold and direct like Peter. “This is who you are, Peter. And this is who I will make you.” Peter’s response is to obey and follow, seemingly without a word.
Everyone up to this point is either sent or brought to Jesus, but Philip is different. Jesus seeks Philip out. How does Philip describe Jesus? He uses biblical language, describing Him as the one the scriptures spoke about, but then uses Jesus’ name and address! “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Philip, at this point, sees Jesus as the man sent by God. That definition will very soon be changed to see Jesus not merely as a man sent by God, but as God become man.
And now, in verse 44 we see another, completely different response to Jesus. What’s really neat here, if you look at verse 45, is that when Philip goes to Nathanael he uses the words “we have found” meaning that John, Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael might have been close friends. Nathanael probably already knew who the “we” was; studious Philip, passionate John and Andrew, headstrong Peter. They had all had some kind of radical experience over the past day or two and wanted to share it with Nathanael. But Nathanael wasn’t an easy sell.
The whole crowd is headed off to follow Jesus, but Nathanael is a sceptic. He knows his Bible. Nathanael being “under the fig tree” may be pointing to the custom where scholars and rabbis would study under vines, fig and olive trees. It meant that Nathanael, a serious student of the Bible, had probably been studying when Philip found him, knew his stuff, and was absolutely committed to God’s word. But here’s the thing. He knows what Moses and the prophets wrote, and there’s nothing in there about Nazareth. Plus, he lived just a few miles away and knew it wasn’t a nice place. The Roman army garrison that lived there gave the town a pretty poor reputation for immorality and lack of commitment to God. Nathanael did the mental math and realized that there is zero chance he will follow any Nazarene as the Messiah.
What does Philip respond with? “Come and see.” There’s our theme again. There was zero point in Philip arguing with Nathanael. He’d probably lose anyway! So Philip says the only thing that would work: “Hey man, you’re smart enough to decide for yourself, but you gotta come and see. I’m convinced. John, Andrew, Peter are convinced. Just come and meet Jesus and you’ll see what we see.”
And to his credit, despite thinking he knows better, despite his prejudice against Nazarites, despite all the scriptures and stereotypes flowing through his mind that said, “This is dumb. Your friends are dumb. I’m not dumb.” he followed his friend anyway. Imagine if he’d been stubborn, stuck to his doubts, thought himself smarter than everyone else, and just stayed by the fig tree. He would have missed Jesus! But, for whatever reason – out of love and trust for his friends, or curiosity, boredom, or to save his friends from throwing their lives away, he went. He would go and “see” for himself.
He went and what does Jesus say? “Behold!” There’s that word again! John the Baptist said it of Jesus, now Jesus says it of Nathanael, “See! Look! Behold! A true Israelite, a man who loves the Word of God, a man in whom there is no deceit, no guile, no trickery, nothing shady. He’s 100% a straight-shooter. This man only cares about one thing: truth. You can’t fool this guy.” It’s an even more complex compliment, because, if you recall where the name “Israelite” comes from, you’ll remember that it was when Jacob, the usurper, the trickster, the one who got his way through deceit and guile and trickery, was wrestling with God. Jacob means “one who wrestles or struggles with God”. That’s how all of Israel related to God. They questioned Him, debated Him, dialogued with Him, tested Him, even aggressively confronted Him. And when they obeyed God, it was with ferocious obedience. 
That’s probably the kind of man Nathanael was. He didn’t just accept anyone’s word, even God’s. Instead, he wrestled and studied and made sure that when he believed something it was 100% true – and no one, like no one, was would have an easy time change his mind.
That sort of personality is a double-edged sword. How does one breakthrough to that kind of person? With a hard that stiff, eyes that focused, and a mind that skeptical, what can God do to breakthrough? Argument won’t help. No amount of conversation is going to change Nathanael’s mind at this point. How is Jesus going to shine light into Nathanael’s soul? Nathanael doesn’t need to hear something about the light – he needs to “see” it.
So Jesus performs a miracle of omniscience. He identifies himself as Messiah by displaying supernatural knowledge. Super-natural knowledge. Knowing things beyond the ability of normal, natural people. And more specifically, not just super-natural knowledge – super-Nathanael knowledge. Jesus demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that He knows more, sees more, and understand more than Nathanael ever has or could. And Nathanael gets it immediately!
Evidence confirmed, mind changed, allegiance given, 100% absolute commitment to Jesus as his new “Rabbi”, the “Son of God” and His “King”. He says, in effect – “You are now my teacher, my mind is yours to shape. You are now my saviour, my destiny is yours to control. You are now my King, my life is yours to command.”
And then, in an act of grace, Jesus says, “If you’re willing to believe because of one piece of evidence – just wait until you see the rest!” And tells Nathanael, the “true Israelite”, to recall another story about Jacob, often called Jacob’s Ladder – the vision of God’s heaven being connected to Jacob’s earth. Jesus was saying, “Nathanael, you call me Rabbi, and Son of God, and King, but there’s so much more. I’m Jacob’s Ladder, the one who connects heaven and earth – I’m the one you’ve been looking for, Nathanael. The one who will connect everything that you’ve been studying, and thinking, and pondering, and wondering, and wrestling with for your whole life with, together.
There are four things in this story that I want to connect together as some practical applications today.
First, I want you to go back to the first thing Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “What are you seeking?” This is the single most important question you can ask yourself in life and when talking about Jesus. What do you want out of life? What is the most important thing for you right now? What do you desire? Do you know what that is? I promise you it’s not money, or fame, or education, or food, or a mate, or a better job, or more stuff. All that is merely a means to an end. You might think you want freedom from pain, money in the bank, a healthy body, lots of friends, a perfect spouse, and lots of fun – but you don’t. Those are all too small. We’ve been talking about this over Christmas, but it applies today too. What you really want is love, hope, peace, and joy. You want to know you are loved no matter where you are or what you’ve done. You want to have the hope that no matter what happens in this world, it will all work out for your good. You want to have your life built on a foundation so strong that no matter what storms occur outside of you, you will not be shaken, but will always be at peace. And you want to know a joy that can never be taken away. Joy that goes beyond feelings, beyond fun, beyond momentary stimuli, beyond distraction, but comes from a spring deep, deep down in your heart that never seems to stop – even when things around you feel sad. Joy that destroys feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. That’s what you really want.
And so, when you come to Jesus, He’s going to ask you, “What are you seeking?” and if the answer is, “More money. No sickness. Something more interesting to do. A place where I can feel important. Some religion that makes me think I’m better than others because I’ve earned God’s love. To keep everyone I love happy and safe.” He’ll simply say, “No.”
But if you want True Love, Abiding Hope, Peace that passes understanding, and Joy that never fails – then come to Jesus and He will say, “That’s what I offer. But you must submit to me giving it to you the way that I deem best. Let me be your Saviour, Rabbi, God, Master, Lord, and King, and I will give you what your heart truly desires.”
The second thing I want you to notice is that everyone who comes to Jesus has the same story but different. Jesus always approaches first, confronts the person with their need, and presents Himself as the solution to that great need – but the responses and story that is written from that point are often very unique and special. Jesus is a real person, someone you can get to know, who listens and speaks and relates to us not only on a corporate level as humanity but on an individual level too. Everyone connects to Jesus in similar and different ways, not because we get to make up our own version of Jesus, but because Jesus meets us where we’re at and treats us like real, unique, special, people.
I personally resonate with Nathanael’s story. In fact, John 1:47 has made itself my “life-verse” because I want to be a man within whom there is no guile, no trickery, no deceit. If you know me, then you’ll know I don’t do secrets and sneakiness well. I have a skeptical mind that tends toward lots of arguments and trying to see lots of sides to things – and I can get trapped in arguments with myself, with God, with others, all in the pursuit of clarity and truth. I love truth, hate lies, and feel like I’m not easily swayed by opinions. Jesus meets me in a very Nathanael way: I study His Word, wrestle with obedience and understanding, and then Jesus shows His power and authority in my life with unquestioning clarity, proving Himself to know more than me.
And I’m sure many here have a similar relationship with Jesus and maybe relate to one of these stories yourself. Everyone does, and that’s ok. I shouldn’t measure your relationship with God by my standards, and vice-versa. Instead, I should share my special relationship with God with you, and you with me, so that we can see an even larger picture of who Jesus is.
Third, I want you to notice that no one really finds Jesus. Sometimes people use the phrase “I found Jesus.”, but it is always Jesus who found them first. Jesus is never lost. He’s the shepherd who finds the sheep. In Luke 19 he says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus is never lost. He is the way, the truth and the life, and is the only way to be found. He invites you to seek Him and says anyone who does seek will find (Matthew 7:7-8), but it’s not like He’s hiding. He’s there, ready, available, open, willing to listen at all times. If you feel a tug on your heart, He’s found you. The only question is, are you willing to be found or do you want to stay lost?
And fourth, I want you to notice that a living relationship with Jesus Christ is one that naturally leads to being shared. Being excited about Jesus, who Jesus is, what Jesus is doing, what He’s been teaching you, how you’ve been learning, and all the things He is doing through you should naturally lead us to be sharing it with people who either don’t know Him or who have forgotten.
I’ve used this example many times. If you find a great product, like a super good razer that shaves like nothing else, or a restaurant with amazing food, or a book that really impacted your life, or a new habit that has helped you sleep better than ever – it is your natural inclination to share it because you want the people you care about to have a better life too. You want them to celebrate what you’ve found, and you want them to experience the same thing.
Why is our relationship with Jesus any different? It’s because there is no spiritual enemy constantly telling us to be afraid to share how great our razer. I’m not saying that we share Jesus as the answer to everyone’s problems – because we all know that committing to Jesus doesn’t mean everything in this world gets easier, in fact, it often gets harder. I’m saying that once we’ve experienced the Love, Hope, Peace and Joy that Jesus has given us – it should be natural for us to tell people where it came from. But Satan hates that, and so he makes us afraid to speak, afraid to share, afraid we’ll lose a friend, afraid we’ll embarrass ourselves, afraid we won’t use the right words, afraid we won’t be able to answer all the questions…
But that’s the thing. There is no right way to share. We just share our own stories in our own way. And Jesus has promised that when we speak He’ll be there to help us. And if we come up against a Nathanael we don’t need to argue. We just simply say, “Hey, why don’t you ‘come and see’? See my life before and after Jesus. Come see some people I know who have met Jesus. And, why not just talk to Jesus yourself? Ask Him to show Himself to you because you want to meet Him. He’s no performing monkey who is going to do magic tricks for you – but if you want to meet the real Jesus, just ask Him. He’ll respond. Talk to me, come to church, and then talk to Jesus yourself. Just be ready because this is no small thing to do.”
Let Jesus do the hard work of shining the light in their dark souls and converting them. All you need to do is introduce them to Him by sharing what He’s done in your life and then inviting them to “come and see”.
 (Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, pp. 147–148). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)
I’ve been encouraged by the Church Board, the Leadership Team, to take some time to clear the air and confront an issue that has been percolating in the background of the church for some time now. It’s a difficult issue to pin down though, which makes it difficult to address. The Board, for the last month or so, has taken the time to come to many of you to try to root out what seems to be troubling the church. They’ve heard a lot of things, but after listening to them it seems to come down to this: “Pastor Al is angry with the congregation and has offended people in that anger.”
I’ve asked on multiple occasions – in the pulpit, to the board, and to individuals in the church – if anyone has any “personal offence” with me that I need to pursue reconciliation for, but I’ve been told that no one has accused me of anything personal. The issue is a corporate one and so I want to address it corporately. So, I want to spend a little time today presenting a couple biblical points and then address the issue.
Anger in the Bible
First, I think it’s important that we briefly talk about the Biblical view of anger. The first thing to know is that anger is not a sin. God gets angry. “Wrath” and “Anger” are part of God’s personality. God was angry when the Israelites fashioned and worshiped a golden calf right at the foot of Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:8 says that Israel
“provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with [them] that He would have destroyed [them].”
And let me read Mark 3:1-6. It says,
“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
Why was Jesus angry? Because when he asked this painfully obvious question to the leaders and teachers of Israel, their hearts were so hard that they refused to answer. Of course the answer is “to do good”, right? But their hearts were so hard, their stubbornness so complete, that they wouldn’t even acknowledge that the man had a need and be able to rejoice in His healing. After asking the question, His eyes swept the room and he saw hypocrite after hypocrite, men who had already decided to “destroy Him” even though He had only done “good”.
But that anger was tempered by grief. We see divine wrath mixed with divine love. Anger is not a sin, but what we do with our anger can be sinful. Paul says in Ephesians 4:26-27,
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
In other words, anger is not a sin. There are things that we should be angry about – but anger out of God’s control can lead to sin. Unrighteous anger, misplaced anger, anger that sits and festers for a long time, or even doing wrong things because of something you should be angry at, can give an opportunity for the devil to cause a lot of grief. That’s why Paul says, “be angry and do not sin” and then follows it up quickly with “deal with that anger quickly” because anger that sits and festers can be like a caustic acid to the soul, eating away, and giving the devil a foothold.
This is why Jesus takes anger very seriously. Turn to Matthew 5:21-26. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says this,
“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.’”
Jesus uses a common form of poetic exaggeration by stacking three similar phrases on top of one another to shows how serious this issue is. But what’s going on here? Some people think Jesus is saying that being angry is the same as murdering someone. That anger condemns people to hell. But clearly, if God gets angry and Jesus gets angry, that’s not what it means.
So, what Jesus is saying here, and what we see a lot of other places in scripture is that strong emotions, like anger, will show what’s really going on inside someone. (Pro 29:22, Gal 5:20; Eph 4:31). As he says in Matthew 12:24, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
What Jesus talking about here is someone whose anger is out of control. Their anger leads them to hatred and insults and the desire to harm the other person in some way. In other words, they may not physically stab the person, but their hearts are full of terrible thoughts about them and bad things they wish they could do to them. They may never say it out loud, but they harm and murder people in their heart and God see that as the same thing.
But Jesus goes even farther to show that anger doesn’t just stay in the heart. It leads to insults and division and accusations and court and all kinds of terrible things.
And so Jesus teaches us how to deal with this kind of anger. If you know someone has something against you, if you know they are angry with you – or if you are angry with them and have something festering in your heart – Jesus commands us,
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
I want you to consider for a moment how serious that is. Jesus is looking at a sea of Jewish people who have been commanded by God’s Law to bring gifts and sacrifices to God’s temple, to the altar, as an act of worship, of obedience, and so they can be reconciled to Him. Jesus says, “God doesn’t want your worship, your sacrifices, your religious actions, your songs, your tithes and offerings, or anything else from you – until your heart is right with your brothers and sisters of the faith.” This echos throughout scripture, in Old Testament and New. God is more interested in what is going on in our hearts than in our religious activities. There are a tonne of places in the Old Testament where God rejects people’s offerings because there are human relationship problems (Isaiah 1; Proverbs 15:8; Jeremiah 6:20; Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 66:3; 1 Samuel 15:22).
Consider Micah 6:6-8, for example,
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
God’s priority is not merely our relationship with Him. God doesn’t want a bunch of religious activity. God cares deeply about our relationships with those around us. And if there’s something wrong with our horizontal relationships, then our vertical relationship is affected too. And so Jesus says, “Go quickly, get right with whoever you must, and then come to worship.”
This has been part of the issue with me of late. I’ve heard a lot of rumblings about people being upset with me, but it’s all very unspecific. I don’t know who is offended, so I can’t go to them. And I don’t know the actual offence, so I don’t know what to do to make it right.
I know in my heart that I am not angry with any of you. I promise you I’m not. I’ve been frustrated at times, even hurt, but I’m not angry. And certainly, not anything like Jesus is describing here. I deeply want you to understand that I love this church, only want the best for you, and want to be in a good relationship with you.
You can ask the members of the board how many times I’ve asked who has a problem, what the specific issues or accusations are, and have promised to make myself available anytime for anyone so that I can be reconciled with them. I take Jesus’ words very seriously and try to keep very short accounts with people. I know I’m not perfect and want to know what I need to do in order to be a better Christian and pastor. It is terrifying to me that God would refuse my worship and withhold His blessing from me or this church because I haven’t pursued reconciliation with someone. It’s a very serious thing, and I take it seriously.
When I was a younger pastor I didn’t do well at this. If I heard someone had a problem, I would often just wait to see what would happen. I’d let them come to me. I’d hope the problem would just go away or resolve itself. But it usually didn’t. So I’ve learned that if I hear anything about anyone having any kind of issue to just obey Jesus, make the call, set up a meeting, and go and talk to them. And if they’re not comfortable with just me, I ask if they want someone else to be there. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun, but it’s what Jesus wants, and it’s what’s best for the church and my soul.
But this current issue, this question about me being angry at the congregation, has not revealed any individuals I can deal with. I’ve begged the Board for names so I can come and talk about what has happened, to ask forgiveness if necessary, to fix it if I can, and to seek reconciliation so we can move on. But there have been no names. And so, I’ve been told to take some time today to talk about it. The idea was for me to tack a message on to the end of a sermon, but I didn’t feel right about that, so that’s what you’re getting today.
Gifts, Limitations, and Personality
But before I do get personal, there is one more place I want you to turn. Please open up with me to Romans 12:1-8 and let’s read together.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
This section is about our spiritual giftedness and our human limitations. The right response to all the grace that God has given to us, especially the sacrifice of His Son, is to return to give him our whole lives as an act of worship. Not a one-time, big sacrifice, but just as God gives us grace every day in every way, we return worship to Him every day in every way.
But we live in a sinful world and that’s going to be difficult. The world is going to try to reclaim us, to manipulate us, to conform us back to itself, to draw us back into sin with a myriad of temptations. How do we combat those temptations? By “testing” to “discern” the will of God to see what is “good and acceptable and perfect” to Him – and consequently, best for us.
The word “testing” there is an important one, because it is an active word. It means to actively seek out the will of God in prayer and study, actively pursue the will of God in training and counsel, actively obey the will of God in service and obedience.
Which is why the first word in verse 3 is “for”. It’s a transition word meant to show us what a Christian community will look like when it is actively seeking, testing, discerning the will of God, so they can make their whole lives an act of spiritual worship. What does that look like?
There are three things that a Christian needs to do in order to actively participate in seeking God’s will and worship. First, in verse 3, we see we need to have humility. Second, in verse 4-5, we need to recognize our function. And third, in verse 6, we need to do what God designed us to do.
Notice verse 3. It says,
“I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
In other words, no one person has everything a church needs. No pastor, no teacher, no missionary, no singer, no evangelist, no matter how talented, is an island to themselves. No one has all the spiritual gifts. No one is all talented. No one has enough resources. No one is wise enough. No one is perfect. Part of having “sober judgement” about yourself and others is knowing that everyone has limitations. Even in the arena of “faith”. Some people have strong faith, others have weak faith (Rom 14:1-15:3). The first point here is to remember that you and I, as individuals, have God-given flaws and weaknesses – and so does everyone else. Therefore we need to help one another and cut each other some slack.
Which leads to verses 4-5,
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
We are told here that the body of Christ, meaning individual churches and the global church, is made up of individuals who “do not have the same function” but are all important. God saves us unto Himself, and then gives us a new Christian family called the church, and then gifts us to serve our new family, and says that by serving them we are serving Him. That’s what Jesus says over and over, right (Matt. 10:40; 25:31-46)? You, if you are saved, regardless of your level of maturity, have a special place in service to the church.
And then third, in verse 6, we are told,
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…”
We are not saved by our good works, but we are saved unto good works that God expects us to do (Eph 2:10). And most of those good works are meant to be done for the church. That’s why there are so many “one anothers” in scripture.
So what do we see here? That God saves us, God gives us gifts, God gives us limitations, God designs what our function in the body of Christ will be, and then God tells us to use them. And that use is limited to our function.
It says that if God has given you the gift of prophecy, meaning that you are one who preaches the word of God, then do that at whatever level the Holy Spirit is working in you – but nothing more than that in an attempt to impress people or look clever. Just tell them what God has said in whatever “proportion” God gives you.
But not everyone is a preacher. Some have the gift of service and they are meant to find a ministry and serve in it. Servants don’t lead the ministry, and they’re not supposed to volunteer for all the ministries, but are meant to humbly serve in whatever capacity you can.
If God has gifted you to be a teacher (and teaching and preaching are different in scripture), then you ought to be teaching people about God and His Word. If you are “one who exhorts”, meaning you are specially gifted to encourage and spur believers on to living godly lives, then you’d better be doing that because you can do it like no one else – and your exhortations will be spiritually empowered to have an effect like no one else. If God has gifted you with the ability to make money and gather material wealth, then you ought to be using it to help people in need and further God’s kingdom through generous giving. If you’re a gifted leader, do so with zeal. If you’re especially gifted to be merciful, meaning you have the heart of the Good Samaritan, a Christian social worker, caring for the sick, dying, or imprisoned – then go do so with cheerfulness, because you are being sent as a light to a dark place.
What I want you to notice here is that not only are we all called to different forms of service but that that we are not all meant to serve the same way. God wants us to do what we’re called to do, not what He called someone else to do.
Consider the contrast between the person gifted with mercy and the one gifted with generosity. The merciful person is usually a volunteer or working way too many hours, for a lower wage than they deserve, in a very difficult job that no one else wants. But they are glad to be there to bring mercy to those who need it. Meanwhile, the generous person is usually busy at work, making money, diversifying their portfolio, maybe even missing some services and unable to volunteer much because they are so financially successful.
Part of what is being said here is that we shouldn’t be guilt-tripping the merciful person into giving up their little bit of wage for the sake of their mission – nor should the merciful person feel bad for not being able to contribute more. That’s the generous person’s job. And conversely, we should be guilt-tripping the generous person into giving up making money so they can volunteer more. Nor should they feel guilty about being able to make money. We should be thankful that God gave them to the church so the money they make can financially sustain the work of the merciful person. It’s teamwork. That’s how the body of Christ works.
Which brings me to my conclusion, and the thing I’ve been building to for this whole message. I needed you to hear what the scriptures say before you heard what I say because I hope that in hearing both you will hear my heart.
I want you to know that when I hear reports that people believe that I am angry with you that it makes me sad. Not because of the accusation, but because it means that I have polluted the church and the preaching of God’s word with my own sin.
A few weeks ago I stepped to the side of the pulpit and gave a five-minute chastisement about not coming to Bible study. I’ve gone back and listened to it again and though I believe all the words were right, and I believe my motives were good, it seems that my personality, my countenance, and whatever baggage is in my heart clouded the message, caused some of you offence, and made you to think I’m angry with you.
I said last week that “A servant is just a delivery system for someone else’s greatness. Their whole job is simply not to forget it, drop it, or change it.” and I cannot escape the fact that in my delivery I dropped and changed the message. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to. But my sinful nature came through, my personal junk garbled up the message, and I offended some of you with how I spoke. Not necessarily what I said, but how I spoke.
Ephesians 4:15 says to “speak the truth in love”. Colossians 3:12–14 says,
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
I missed the mark on these. I was not loving enough, compassionate enough, kind enough, or patient enough – and I want to ask you for forgiveness. Please forgive me for not being more careful with my words. If I had a do-over would I say it again? Maybe. But I would take more time to pray about it, study about it, write it down, and not speak off the cuff. You all deserve better than that and I’m very sorry that my personality and sin clouded and marred what God wanted to say.
I also want to ask you for your patience and to recognize my limitations, as I will try to be patient with you and recognize yours. I told you last week that I know who I am. I’m the prophet and teacher that Romans 12 is talking about, and that means I have certain gifts, but it also means I have a lot of weaknesses. I don’t say this to make an excuse for bad behaviour, I simply ask you to realize that I have personality quirks and flaws just like anyone. I’ve been working on them for a long time, but they still come up.
I’m not ashamed of my personality. God gave it to me from my genetics, parents, and experiences. To be ashamed of who God made me is a sin. However, I am ashamed when my personality flaws, the other edge of the double-edged sword that is personality, corrupt my ministry or hurt the people I care about. I’m sure you know what I mean. Our personality strengths are also our greatest weaknesses.
One quote I read this week, from an 18th-century missionary said,
“Every man is unique, both in mind and experience. Every man, therefore, has his own way: and is natural and graceful only in that way. But it is a great error to think there is no danger peculiar to him. Every man has his peculiar danger, as well as his peculiar forte. A wise man will remember this, and guard.” (Josiah Pratt)
And so my request to you is fourfold – and these are things I will try to do for you as well – and hope that you will do for everyone. I’m sure these are things that all of us have had to ask for at one time or another:
First, please, as I’ve said, forgive me.
Second, please, bear with me. Ephesians 4:2–3 says we should be
“…bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
I’m still a work in progress and always will be. I hope that you will “bear with” my weaknesses, seeking to understand me as an individual, as I try to “bear with” your weaknesses trying to understand the unique person God created you to be.
And third, please don’t listen to or spread gossip about me, as I also promise not to listen to or spread gossip about you.
There have apparently been some very slippery, slimy, malicious things shared about me through private conversations and e-mail about me – but none of them are being brought to me. It’s all behind the scenes stuff that does not honour or obey God’s word.
When you hear these things, consider these scriptures:
- James 1:26, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”
- Proverbs 18:17, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”
- Proverbs 16:28, “A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.”
- Proverbs 26:20-22, “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.”
If you hear someone talking about me, or anyone else for that matter, don’t treat it like a “choice morsel”, but instead say, “Have you talked to them about this?” Realize that Satan is working hard to divide our church and he’s a very sneaky, slippery foe. If you have any specific issues or accusations against me, you need to bring them to me directly or to Jason Proud. How can I grow more Christlike and work on my problems – or pursue reconciliation – if people don’t come to me? I promise I will do whatever I can to either explain or ask forgiveness and make things right.
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
This is a psalm of lament. The psalmist is lamenting, or complaining, that he is alone. He feels forgotten. That even God is hiding on him. He’s been attacked by his enemies, has run away in defeat, and is now left alone with only his own resources to work with and only his own terrible, inner thoughts as company. And, it seems, he’s been there for a while. It feels like he’s been forgotten “forever”. (Psalm 13)
Loneliness at Christmas
There are a lot of people these days who know how this psalmist feels. Christmas is only a few days away and a lot of people are in the full swing of the holiday season. Trees and decorations are all up, the radio is playing holiday music, the TV is playing Christmas movies, the Nativity Play is tonight, Christmas Eve service is around the corner. It’s at this time of year you get to ask people the very weird question, “How many turkey dinners have you had so far?” and for a lot of people here the answer is usually more than two.
When you ask people on the street their favourite part of Christmas, or even just “what is Christmas all about”, you’ll usually get the answer, “Time with my loved ones.” Most of society doesn’t recognize the “Christ” part of Christmas anymore, but they’ve certainly been conditioned that this time of year – usually from about Thanksgiving to New Years – is about making excuses to spend time with family and friends doing something special.
But it’s not like that for everyone. While many people are taking time off and flying and driving all over North America to be with their families and friends, others are not so blessed. Part of the problem with making the holidays all about family is that those without family are often lost in the shuffle, forgotten, and their feelings of loneliness can get very intense.
I saw a heartbreaking post that went viral online a couple weeks ago. There was a woman in Tulsa who posted this to Craigslist under the heading “Anybody need a grandma for Christmas”: “I have nobody and would really like to be part of a family. I cook and I can cook dinner. I’ll even bring food and gifts for the kids! I have nobody and it really hurts! Let me be part of your family.”
That’s sad, but the response to her plea was even sadder. She had to quickly take down the post because many of the responses she got were very negative. She was accused of trying to trick people, others calling her a “parasite” trying to prey on a generous family, and one person told her to go kill herself. Such is the risk we take when sharing our feelings online – and such is the nature of how toxic the internet can be.
One article about the post this week said how this is a reminder of the “loneliness and social isolation acutely felt during the holidays, particularly among [those] who have no family or have become isolated from relatives.” This problem is increasing as fatherlessness and divorce are common, children move farther away for school and work, life has gotten so much busier, and fewer people are having children at all. According to the article, fewer and fewer people are even feeling the need to visit their relatives anymore.
It’s quite well known by now that some governments around the world have said we are having a loneliness public health crisis. Australia and the US have official government agencies dedicated to ending social isolation. And the UK, after doing a yearlong study on the problem even created a government position known as the “Minister of Loneliness” to try to help their nine million citizens (14% of the population) who suffer from loneliness.
A Universal Problem
Bringing the problem closer to home, I saw another article in the Ottawa citizen about the “Cost of Loneliness”. The gist of the article is that if we can solve the loneliness problem, we’ll save a lot of tax-money because loneliness has connections to things like early death, heart disease, dementia, depression, and suicide. One shocking statistic I read is that according to the 2016 census “for the first time in recorded Canadian history, one-person households are the most common household type in the country.” Another amazing statistic was that “being disconnected is just as dangerous to good health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” A 2008 study apparently said that “loneliness is contagious”. It said that “every additional day of loneliness per week led to about an extra day of loneliness per month for those in the social network.”
Of course, this all costs tax-payer money in a country with public health care, but it also costs businesses money too. Everyone, in the western world anyway it seems, is trying to fight a “war on loneliness” with everything from prescription drugs, free bus service for seniors to go do things, an international summit’s on isolation, encouraging people to play online video games, asking doctors and social workers to give people a ‘social prescription’ to take dance lessons, and giving them companion animals or even companion robots to keep them company. They’re throwing everything they can at the problem to try to ward off the crippling despair that seems to be growing in the nation.
Men and women, young and old, married and unmarried, may experience the problem differently but there’s no segment of the population that doesn’t feel it. Seniors seem to feel it worse than the rest, but teens have some deep feelings of isolation too – even as they are surrounded by friends or family.
Pastors aren’t immune to this either. You’d think that a group of men dedicated to Jesus and His people wouldn’t feel lonely. But that’s not the case. You might think that if you just went to church more, served the community more, kept busier with work, or just invited more people out, that you’d never be lonely – but that’s not true. The busiest, most diligent, friendliest, most godly men I know are also some of the loneliest.
Why Loneliness Hurts
The North American world has tried almost everything to combat this epidemic of loneliness in society, but it’s only getting worse. I don’t want to speculate as to the myriad of causes because I’m sure you can all come up with a dozen off the top of your head. But I want you to consider for a moment the danger of loneliness and the root causes of it. And, clearly, it’s far more than just being sad or bored. It’s a far deeper issue – so much so that it affects every part of life. We just talked about how it’s linked to depression and suicide and even has the power to infect others. That’s a powerful influence.
And I think it comes down to three things: Loneliness isn’t an end in itself. Loneliness leads to three even more powerful problems: Lovelessness, Joylessness, and Hopelessness.
There’s a big difference between being alone, being isolated, and being lonely. One can be alone and still feel loved, joyful and hopeful. If you’ve ever had the flu or a bad cold and have been stuck in your bed, even sent away from the family so they don’t catch it too, you know what it’s like to be alone, or isolated, but not feel lonely. People are avoiding you, but not because they don’t love you. You lie there miserable, but you still know you’re loved, feel joy that they’re around you and not sick themselves, and have hope of feeling better to join them.
Being lonely is different. You can feel lonely while in a crowd. You can feel lonely while smiling and serving people. You can feel lonely while sitting across from someone you love. Loneliness can be like an infection, a disease that latches onto your soul and won’t let go. For some people, loneliness is like a wave that crests on them out of nowhere. While for others it’s an enemy that crouches in the corner of every room just waiting for a moment of silence, a distraction-free moment, to strike and cripple – which is why they are always listening or watching or doing something.
I think that’s what the psalmist means when he says, “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” He’s tired of listening to his own bad thoughts – and back then he didn’t have an iPod to plug in or a radio to turn up.
He doesn’t feel love because his enemies have overcome him. He doesn’t feel joy because everything’s gone wrong and there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix it. No one has come to help – not even God – and that is leading him into a very dangerous place: hopelessness. You see, loneliness doesn’t end with feeling lonely. Once you feel lonely, it’s not a far journey to believing that no one loves you… which means you think you’ll never feel joy… which means life is only pain… which, if that thought process isn’t interrupted, if there is no other “counsel” for their “soul”, it will ultimately lead to the feeling of utter hopelessness.
Hal Lindsey once said, “Human beings can live for forty days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope.” That’s why loneliness hurts so much.
But why is loneliness so powerful? I want you to consider Genesis 2:18. It’s the verse where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone…” I’ve mentioned this many times, but remember that God said this before the Fall of Man. The world was perfect. No sin, no problems, no bad weather, no bad news. Adam is standing in the Garden of Eden, has been given a meaningful job and an abundance of resources, and is standing in the direct presence, in the very glory of God Himself – and God says, “There’s something wrong.” “It is not good that the man should be alone…”
That reveals something. The fact that the presence of God Himself and the perfect environment of Eden wasn’t enough to combat loneliness tells us something very meaningful about the power and danger of loneliness.
What’s the Solution?
I think secular society is starting to figure this out, which is why they are trying to fix the problem. But they simply do not have the resources – because loneliness cannot be fixed by giving someone a dog, making them go to a community centre lunch, medicating away bad feelings, or giving them access to the internet so they can post on social media or play video games online. That’s like trying to treat cancer with a Band-Aid. The problem is deep, and so the treatment must be deep.
Humans were not designed to be alone. And that loneliness isn’t merely a sociological problem – it’s an existential one, a spiritual one. Our greatest problem is not a physical or sociological problem and therefore it cannot be solved by man-made ingenuity. Our greatest enemy is not economic or political or familial or even mental or emotional. Our great enemy is the spiritual problem of sin and our spiritual enemy called Satan. He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pe 5:8), and just like a lion he doesn’t take on the strongest member of the pack, instead, he chases the herd until the weakest fall behind, until the ones who cannot run well, or who are immature, or injured, get left behind, become isolated, alone, and then feeds on them. Loneliness isn’t just miserable, it’s deeply dangerous.
And therefore, since the problem is spiritual, the only solution must be spiritual. And our spiritual solutions are found in Jesus.
We’ve been lighting advent candles for the past month and doing readings about those candles. Do you remember what they stand for? Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope – all surrounding the Christ Candle. Why? Because having Christ at the centre of our lives is the only way to solve our greatest problems. Jesus’ greatest gift to us is not to solve our worldly problems. When He inaugurated His kingdom He didn’t save us financially, politically, or physiologically. If Jesus would have come to give everyone health, wealth, and worldly peace – a lot of people would have been happy. But they would have still been suffering from the effects of sin – broken relationships with God and each other, a spirit that longs for wrong things, and ultimately death and judgement before a holy, wrathful God who would send us to Hell. We should be very thankful that Jesus’ solutions weren’t worldly ones, but spiritual ones – because our greatest issues are not physical, but spiritual.
I want to show you something from another Pastor named Paul Tripp for a moment because in an advent message he gave recently he absolutely hits the nail on the head.
Come back to Psalm 13. Look at how this lonely man responds. Start at verse 3,
“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.” He turns to God and says, “God, look at me, listen to me, and please answer me. You are my Lord and my God and I know that you’re the only one that can keep this loneliness from dragging me into death, the only one who is going to keep the enemy from claiming victory.”
And certainly here Christians can say the same thing about our spiritual enemy.
He says to God, “Light up my eyes!” Another translation says, “Make my eyes clear!” He’s saying what we’ve been saying about Jesus in our study of the gospel of John. He is the source of light and the only one who can bring light in the darkness, who can restore sight to the blind. Psalm 19:8 says,
“…the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…”
In his moment of weakness, he’s turning to the word and promises and person of God.
Listen to Ephesians 1:15–21,
“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”
What is Paul’s prayer? That the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened by knowing the hope that is found in Jesus. Hope comes from knowing our souls are secure in Jesus. Joy comes from knowing Jesus as saviour and friend. Peace comes from knowing that Jesus is victorious over our enemies. And love comes from knowing that God loved us while we were unloveable. As Romans 5:8 says,
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
This is why we come to God and says, “O Lord my God, light up my eyes…”
Look back at our passage in Psalm 13. What is his conclusion? How does the Psalm end? At the beginning of this short psalm, this man is almost overwhelmed with loneliness and grief. He’s almost lost hope. But he turns to God and asks for light in the darkness. What happens in verses 5-6?
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
What we see here is that God has answered his prayer. What did God do? Send friends? Conquer his enemies? Give him abundance of wealth and health and power? No. This man’s problem was a spiritual problem, and God solved it with spiritual power.
God shone a light in the darkness and said, “Here. See the truth.” And in that moment this lonely, hopeless man says, “Wait. What am I saying. I’m not alone. God is here. And God is trustworthy. And God’s love never fails. I know that. I’ve seen it. I’m sitting here right now alive because He saved me. Sure, I got pounded, but I’m still here, and God is still good. The story isn’t over. God is always victorious and His people always win in the end. And when I think of all the ways that I’ve been saved and blessed up to this point I can see that I’m not at the end of my rope – in fact, I can see a lot of ways that God has “dealt bountifully with me.”
It reminds me of another passage we studied recently that said,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (1 Cor 4:7-9)
In verse 6 we read something amazing. He says, “I will sing to the Lord…” From loneliness and hopelessness and joylessness and fear and feeling forgotten and unloved – to “I will sing.” How does that happen? Did his circumstances change? No. Did his enemies get conquered? No. Did he get a windfall of money or some new weapon? No. What changed? What takes a person from “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” to “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”?
There is only one thing. God answered the prayer for Him to “light up his eyes.”
Let’s turn to one more place in scripture; to Isaiah 9:2-6, a passage we read every Christmas because it’s a prophecy about the birth of Jesus and what He would do. Ever wonder why baby Jesus is usually glowing in nativity pictures? Isaiah 9 is why.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
What is that light? It’s Jesus.
“You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In this room, right now, there are people who know this truth, have seen this light, and have met the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace”. There are people here who have lived on both sides of this psalm – and who still struggle on both sides. I can tell you today that the solution to your problem of fear, sadness, hopelessness, joylessness, and loneliness is not a worldly solution. I think, deep down, you know this because you’ve tried it.
You’ve tried to distract it away with work and entertainment. You’ve tried to control it with schedules and exercise and rules. You’ve tried to medicate it away with pills and food and porn and alcohol. You’ve tried to ward it off by serving people, going to parties, staying busy. You’ve tried to find your solution in another person – a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend – and whether they’ve let you down or they continue to try, they are simply not enough, which is why you blame them or push them away or cling to them so hard that you suffocate them.
It doesn’t work because the only solution to your loneliness is to have God Himself light up your eyes, to restore you to Himself through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The only way to go from hopeless and lonely to singing about “steadfast love” is to, like the advent wreath, have the light of Christ at the centre of your life.
There seems to be a feeling of flux right now in the world. I’m sure you’ve felt it. A feeling of instability in our hearts, community, country, and world. There are people going through relationship transitions as the dynamics of their marriage, friendships, partnerships and workplace change around them. Some are facing personal transitions as their body changes with age. Some are making decisions that will bring about a new season of life and the lives around them. On top of that, we have all the environmental changes happening around the globe, wars and rumours of wars, and of course the recent elections in our own nation, the one coming in the US, and political instability around the world. Sometimes, with all this uncertainty, it can feel like the ground beneath our feet is shifting. The question comes, then, what can we do to ensure that while the world around us shifts and moves, we are on solid ground?
Please open to Luke 6:46–49,
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
The Fruit of Obedience
What we have just read is the end of one of Jesus’ sermons, called The Sermon on the Plain. We know that Jesus didn’t just speak a message once and then never repeat it again, so this is likely a second telling, and summarized version, of the longer Sermon on the Mount from Matthew where He described what life in the Kingdom of God is like –the laws of the Kingdom, the attitudes and character of His people, and how they will relate to God and live in this world. I want you to notice that at the end of this message, He concludes with a question and a story:
The question was:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
and it is just as sharp today as it was the day He spoke it. He contrasts the difference between hearing and doing, confession and obedience. If you look at the previous verses you’ll see Jesus tell the parable of “The Tree and its Fruit”,
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43–45)
This whole section is talking about hypocrisy: saying one thing (“Yes, Jesus is my Lord, I got saved, I’m a Christian, I go to church, blah, blah, blah…”) but not having a life that reflects it. How can you tell a good tree from a bad tree? They might look the same on the surface, but the real test of a tree is whether it produces good fruit and seeds and offspring. In the same way, the definition of a disciple is not simply someone that calls Jesus “Lord, Lord”, it is someone who produces spiritual fruit.
What is spiritual fruit? Let me give you a couple of verses for that so we know what we’re talking about.
- Think of John 15 where God is presented as the Gardener, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)
- Philippians 1:11 and Hebrews 12:11 speak of the “fruit of righteousness”.
- Colossians 1:10 speaks of believers, “bearing fruit in every good work”.
But flip over to Galatians 5:16–25 and we get to see a much clearer picture,
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
Does this mean that we are saved by doing good deeds or having a good attitude? No. The New Testament is very clear that we are not saved by good works, we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus isn’t talking about how He wants us to perform good works to earn our salvation, but instead is being clear that anyone who believes in Him, who is reborn as a Christian, who has had the curse of sin lifted and is now a new creation in Christ, will demonstrate that by leading a changed life. Will it be a perfect life? No. We still suffer from the effects of sin in our bodies and are surrounded by temptations – but will we hate sin, want to be free from it, and seek to do good works? Yes.
Consider James 2:14–19,
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
Believe it or not, the demons have better theology than you do. They know Jesus, the Bible, the plan of salvation, and have seen everything from the beginning to the end. They believe in Jesus. They know Jesus is the Saviour of the World. They fear Him as God and shudder at His name. Knowing about God isn’t enough. What matters is faith that leads to repentance which leads to obedience. Knowing you are a sinner that cannot save yourself, knowing that Jesus is the only way of salvation, isn’t enough. You must believe in Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord, and demonstrate that belief by turning away from sin and self and obeying Jesus. That’s what the demons won’t do. They believe all the right things – but they won’t submit to Jesus as Lord.
God hates hypocrisy. He often warns about people who look and sound like believers but are not.
- He calls them “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt 7:15)
- or “rocky and thorny ground” (Mark 4:10-20).
- The Apostle Paul warned of “false apostles [and] deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” Saying, “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2 Cor 11:13-15)
How can we tell the difference between good trees and bad, good soil and bad, someone that claims to be a Christian but isn’t and a true believer? How can you tell within yourself whether or not you are a real Christian or merely a “cultural Christian” or just going along with what your family says? The answer Jesus gives is simple: Do you call Jesus Lord and then do what He says? Does your life bear the fruit of obedience to Jesus? Have you ever asked yourself, “Do I really love Jesus? How do I know if I really love Jesus? I feel like a sinner. I feel guilty and shameful. I don’t feel like I love Jesus enough.”
Listen to Jesus words in
- John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
- John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
- John 15:10, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
Believers turn away from sin and towards Jesus. Ask yourself: Do you want to obey Jesus? In your heart of hearts, does Jesus get the last word in your life? Is He your highest authority? When you slip up, fall to temptation, sin against Him, is He the first person you turn to in order to ask forgiveness – because you know that your sin, guilt, shame, and all the mess that came from it, was because you didn’t obey Him? Do you readily accept His discipline because you know that even though it’s painful at the time, you know that He’s trying to produce “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” in your life (Hebrews 12:7-11)
Turn to and listen to the words of 1 John 5:1–5,
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
A true believer knows that the commands of God are “not burdensome”, which is why we readily and joyfully and eagerly obey them.
For example, say someone has seriously wronged you. What does the world tell you to do? What does your sinful flesh tell you to do? It wants you to blame, and get bitter, and stay angry, and punish them, gossip so their reputation is ruined, seek revenge, avoid people because they might hurt you again, get angry at the world because you were wronged, hang around other bitter people, make that pain your entire identity, have it colour every relationship and decision you make for your whole life. Right? And how does that all feel? Awful.
What does Jesus want us to do? Forgive the person. See them as a fellow sinner. Grieve, share, pray, and then let God mete out the punishment – either on that person in Hell or on Jesus on the cross. To see that Jesus weeps with you, and will one day rescue you from all that pain. That one day it will be forgotten. And further, God wants you to even recognize that He is bigger than the pain and can even cause it to produce fruit in your life. That He can allow you to become a source of help, inspiration, and healing for others because you are now equipped in a way no one else is.
Now, which is more “burdensome”? The world’s way or God’s?
It’s the same with so many things. The world says, “Use alcohol, chemicals, and porn to make yourself feel better.” God says, “Practice self-control, turn your burdens over to me, and openly share your weaknesses with others so they can help you.” Which one is more burdensome?
The world says, “Hoard your money because the future is uncertain. Gather up possessions because having stuff will make you feel good. Don’t share with anyone because no one can be trusted. Don’t lend your stuff because it might get broken.” God says, “Trust that God will provide what you need when you need it, so be generous with each other. Love people instead of things because all the stuff is going to rust and break anyway. Hold all your things in a loose hand and share generously because it’s not yours anyway, you get to feel the joy of giving, you won’t get upset when something breaks, and more people will be blessed.” Which one is more burdensome? Greed or Generosity?
Christians know that trusting God, following God, loving God, turning from sin and self to obeying God, isn’t just a bunch of religious rules to try to get heaven points – it’s literally a path to freedom laid out by Jesus Himself.
And so, God treats us like fruit trees or vines. Because He wants us free from the burden of sin and the world, and to bear fruit that leads to an abundant life, He prunes us. God doesn’t have much interest in fruitless branches. And then tells us that the difference between a good tree and bad, a good branch and bad, a true believer and a hypocrite – is fruit.
Jesus doesn’t care about the number of people that call Him “Lord”. But He does care very much about producing fruit. Jesus isn’t planting a forest. He’s cultivating an orchard.
The Struggle of Obedience
And so, at the end of this sermon, Jesus looks at the crowd – and to us – and says,
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
We all struggle with this, don’t we? We pray, “Dear Lord, God…” and then almost immediately disobey Him. We read a scripture, hear a sermon, feel a conviction in our heart from the Holy Spirit, and we absolutely know that our Lord God, Creator of the Universe, has just told us to do something – and then we don’t do it.
God says, “Forgive that person. Be reconciled to your brother or sister. Stop pursuing worldly gain and start looking after your spirit, your family, and your church. Go be a peacemaker to that troubled situation. Go tell those people about me. Get rid of that unrighteous anger. Stop lusting after people that you’re not married to. Stay married to your spouse and do everything you can to love them. Quit lying and breaking your promises. Show love to your enemy. Be generous with the needy. Read your Bible and talk to me every day. Take time to rest and fast. Smash the idols you have in your life. Stop worrying about things and trust me. Show humility and stop putting yourselves above others. Obey your parents, teachers, and elders. Submit to God in all things.” And then says, “Will you do what I tell you?”
That’s the Sermon on the Mount and on the Plain in a nutshell. And at the end of that incredible list, Jesus asks us to evaluate our hearing and our doing, our confession and our obedience, our talk and our walk. He wants us to check to see if they line up.
Why? Because, as we live in this world, we are going to face a lot of storms and He wants to make sure that we’re safe. It’s an act of love! He knows that until He comes again, this life is going to be filled with difficulty, uncertainty, and temptation. There are liars and cheats that want to manipulate us, charlatans who pretend to love us but don’t, huge decisions all the time, pain and sorrow beyond our ability to handle, immense temptations, and our enemy, the devil, prowling around like a lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pe. 5:8). Jesus wants us secure in Him so we’re not overwhelmed by the storms of life. He knows that if we do what He says, we’ll be safe.
It’s kind of like a parent sending your teen off on a road trip. We tell them, “Ok, be careful. Do you have your itinerary? Did you check the oil in the car? Do you have gas? Washer fluid if it rains? Don’t do anything stupid while driving. And when you get there, call me. Your hotel room is going to be full of temptations, so how are you going to handle that? Your friends are going to ask you to do dumb stuff. How dumb are you planning on getting? I know you’re going to want to live on pizza and pop, but please eat a vegetable and drink some water. And remember, if you need anything, or you get in trouble, just call me!”
We’re not doing that because we’re mad, or we want our kid to obey us to prove something, or that we’re trying to load them with burdens. Why do we do this? Because we love them and want them safe! Jesus’ sermon isn’t about rules – it’s about love!
I want to close by asking you to consider the story Jesus tells about the two builders for a moment.
First, notice that both of them hear the message. One “hears… and does” while the other “hears and does not”. We’re not talking about people who have not heard the message of the Gospel and the teachings of scripture. Jesus is talking about people who have heard what God wants and expects from them but doesn’t do it.
Second, notice that both of them build. In the story, the house represents a person’s life. Everyone builds a life. Both builders are placed in the world, both are given the materials they need to for a good house. Both builders use their skills and abilities and God-given resources to build.
Third, notice that they both build near the stream. They are neighbours. Similar materials, similar environments, similar issues. We all, for the most part, are working with the same stuff. Yes, we all have our own uniqueness –physical or mental advantages, more or less money, some more prone toward certain temptations, some differences in upbringing or personal baggage. We all have things that make us us, and God has certainly gifted each one of us with a special purpose, but our similarities vastly outweigh our differences. We all live by the same stream. We all have skills and abilities, we all face temptation, fear, grief, and pain.
Which leads us to the fourth similarity between the builders: they both experienced a flood. The flood represents the troubles of this world and the final judgement before God. In other words, immediate consequences and eternal consequences.
What’s the difference? Both hear the message, both build a house. On the outside, to anyone else, they look identical. As the two trees from the parable, they look the same for most of the year. The difference is only shown during the storm. And it’s something unseen, something under the house. Something neither builder built. The foundation.
One dug deep and built on the rock. He did the work. He put it into practice. It took time and effort to dig a hole the size of a house in the sandy land by the stream until he hit bedrock. He had to put off building his house. He didn’t do the fun stuff first. He dug down, down, down, until he found the solid bedrock near that stream and then built on that.
Hearing is easy. Obedience takes work. Getting saved is a free gift from Jesus, living with Jesus as Lord requires sacrifice. It might mean putting off things like career advancement, certain relationships, or things you enjoy – so you can dig into God’s word and practice obedience, removing the shifting sand from beneath your house, one shovelful at a time, knowing that leaving it there will cause problems later.
It might mean removing some things you go to for comfort or getting rid of things that distract you from your relationship with Jesus. I remember as a college student destroying over a hundred CDs in my music collection because – at the time – they were a stumbling block between me and Jesus. It hurt, but it had to go – there have been many more since.
It might mean removing things from your schedule so you can pray, read scripture, attend church each week, and have a Sabbath rest. It might mean changing your finances so you can live a generous lifestyle. It might mean throwing out or selling something you enjoy because it causes you to sin.
Each shovelful of sand you remove that separates you from the foundation hurts a little at first, but obeying God in these ways actually removes burdens. There goes my pride. There goes my selfishness. There goes my Sunday morning sleep. There goes that TV show I like. There goes my favourite addiction. There go my internet privileges. There goes my gossip group. There goes my vacation. There go my career plans. There go my marriage plans.
As empty the hole and dig down deeper and deeper to the bedrock of Jesus Christ we aren’t leaving ourselves empty though. It’s not like God’s perfect plan is for us to sit alone in an empty room, meditating. As we empty our lives of ungodly things, choosing to obey God, He back-fills the hole with good, godly things. As God helps us remove the sand, he replaces it with strong stone after stone, replacing our thoughts with His thoughts, our ways with His ways, our heart with His heart, our will with His will, our habits with His habits, our words with His words, our plans with His plans, the things we use to enjoy, with things that bring us true and real joy, until we have built a solid foundation on Him and how He wants us to live.
The Joy of Obedience
And then when the rains come down and the floods come up, and the stream grows into a river – we face death, loss, fear, persecution – we are able to experience the greatest joy of all as our house continues to stand. Others around us are falling apart – marriages exploding, addictions growing, debt mounting, anxiety overcoming, sadness overwhelming – and there we stand, secure in the midst of the storm. Not because of anything we’ve done – but because of who we are built on. All the work of faith, all the pruning God did, all the discipline, makes sense. And then, instead of that water washing us away – it actually becomes the food, the nutrients, that allows us to bear more fruit than before! We see what Romans 8:37 means when it says that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And of course, in eternity, when we face Jesus after we die – those who believe and obey stand, and those who do not, fall. And as we stand, we don’t pat ourselves on the back – we give thanks to our foundation!
You’ve probably experienced a few storms by now, and it has shown you a few things, hasn’t it? It’s shown you where your foundation lies. Maybe you fell apart, maybe parts of you fell apart. The storm showed you the sand that remains between you and your foundation. And, hopefully, it’s shown you how firm a foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. If you did fall apart though, hopefully, it’s shown you how feeble your foundation is and how much you need Jesus.
Remember, the one that listened to Jesus and built their life on His word stood secure. The ones that listen to Jesus, and didn’t do what He said, fell apart. The story is a warning to people who act religious, act like Christians, attend church, use Christian language, claim to be believers, but who see God’s commands as burdensome, don’t do what Jesus says, and who, when difficulties come, fall apart – and in the end, will go to hell.
You may think that you’re doing pretty well with a foot in both worlds – you get the security of feeling like a believer and get to be around a bunch of Christians, while at the same time living a worldly life where you get the pleasures of sin – but here’s the thing: the storm is inevitable. Jesus says very clearly that “the flood” is not an “if” but a “when”. Pain will come in this life… and you are going to die and face the Judgement Seat of Christ. (2 Cor. 5:10)
Jesus’ question is, “What’s the point of calling me ‘Lord’ and pretending to be a Christian if you’re not going to do what I say? It won’t help you avoid the storms, your life will be insecure, and it won’t help you in eternity. What benefit is your hypocrisy? If you call me ‘Lord’ do what I say, then you will get the benefits of what I’m trying to give you!”
Please open up to John 1:19-34.
But before we get into the reading, just a quick reminder about the context. The Apostle John is writing his gospel to introduce his readers to who Jesus really is. The rest of the gospels had already been written and circulated for about 30 years by the time John wrote this one and so what we read here is a sort of supplement to them – which is why some of the details that are in the other gospels are left out and other details are added in.
God inspired John to write something different than the other three synoptic gospels – something that would answer different questions and present a clearer picture of Jesus.
We talked last week about how important John the Baptist was during his time. A lot of people around the world had heard of him and had even participated in his baptism of repentance. We talked about the importance of that baptism last week and why it was important for the Apostle John to differentiate him from Jesus because there were still a lot of people confused about who John the Baptist really was and whether or not following Him was what God wanted in order for people to be saved.
The Apostle John wanted to be absolutely clear to everyone who read his gospel about who John the Baptist was and what his role was in the story of salvation. He was important, powerful, popular, divisive, courageous, certainly vital to God’s plan, and definitely prophesied about in the Old Testament – but he wasn’t Jesus. Jesus, as we talked about last week, is “the Word” of God that “became flesh”, the source of all “life” and “light”, the one who gave people the “right to become children of God”, the only one who “has ever seen God” because He “is God” (1:1-18).
But the next, natural question for anyone to ask would be, “What about John the Baptist?” He came out of nowhere, looked like an Old Testament prophet, said he was chosen by God to speak prophecies, was a powerful teacher who challenged the religious establishment, baptized followers and had many disciples, and even died as a martyr. A lot of people following John the Baptist would need to know what makes Jesus better than him?
That’s where we come today. Now, the assumption that the Apostle John seems to make here is that people already know a lot about John the Baptist, which is why he leaves out some details, like the miracles around John’s birth in Luke 1, that him and Jesus are cousins, John’s connection to the prophecies about Elijah in Malachi 4, how he dressed like Elijah was dressed in 2 Kings 1, or how so many of the Jewish people, from the highest to the lowest, had been anticipating and longing (Luke 2:38) for the coming of the Messiah for the past century since the Roman Empire took over the land of Israel (63BC) – and that when John the Baptist came on the scene that Messianic hope was at its absolute peak. He doesn’t even tell the story of John baptizing Jesus because it’s already in the other gospels.
The Apostle John leaves a lot of that out because it’s already in the other gospels, but He gets to the meat of the question: “Then who was John the Baptist anyway?” and the best way to answer that is through John the Baptists’ own testimony.
Who is John the Baptist?
Let’s read from verse 19:
“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, “’I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’ (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.)”
The Pharisees had come up with four options as to who John the Baptist was. John was either the prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, essentially a second Moses who knew God “face to face” (Exo 34:11), who could perfectly interpret the Law, and who spoke with the authority of God. Or John was the second coming of the greatest prophet, Elijah, as foretold in Malachi 4:5, who would perform great signs and wonders and challenge the corrupt rulers of the people. Or, John was the Christ, the Messiah himself, a great King and military leader in the line of David who had come to rescue the people from their Roman oppressors. Or, John was a false prophet.
John the Baptist made the whole of the Jewish leadership look and was a source of great embarrassment for them, but they knew he was something special and wanted to pin Him down. Not necessarily to follow Him (as we learn from how they treated Jesus) but to clarify his claim and see if they could disqualify and then get rid of him.
But John, like Jesus, didn’t fall for their games. He refused to take the bait and wouldn’t claim to be something he knew He wasn’t. All he knew was what God had called Him to do: to speak one very specific message: repent and prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord.
Essentially, John was saying, “Don’t look at me. I don’t matter. Stop stereotyping and arguing and trying to wiggle out of what I’m saying by some kind of loophole. Just listen to the message. The significance is not in the speaker but in the message. I’m not talking about me; I’m just the herald to someone greater. I’m not pointing to myself, I’m pointing to Him. I don’t want attention on myself; I want it on what I’m saying. Listen: Repent from your sins, prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. He’s coming very soon.”
But did they listen? No.
Look at their next question:
“They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’”
Ok, if you’re not going to let us ignore you by pinning you down to disqualify you by claiming to be something you’re not – then we’ll try a different tack. Maybe we can disqualify you by what you’re doing. Then we won’t need to listen to what you’re saying.
Do you see how hard they are working so they don’t have to hear the message of repentance? They can’t argue with the message, but they sure can argue with the man.
Their argument was that since John wasn’t claiming to be a prophet or messiah, and He wasn’t a Jewish leader, and he didn’t work in the temple, then by what right does he baptize people? New, gentile converts to Judaism were baptized as an initiation rite. Part of becoming a Jewish proselyte was to go through the waters of baptism.
But John the Baptist was calling Jews to be baptized! This was new. What religion was he calling them to join? Was he a cult leader? Was he a schismatic? Was he going against the temple and God’s Laws? The Pharisees, who were especially concerned with obeying the Law of Moses as perfectly as possible, would be especially interested. Look at John’s answer in verse 26, “John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
John’s answer is, essentially the same as our own: “I’m just using water to symbolize something that has happened on the inside. I’m just giving people a practical, obvious, public, way to show what has happened in their hearts. I tell people to repent, to realize they are sinners who need cleaning up, and then I use the water to symbolize that they have obeyed the word of God. The cleansing of their bodies in the water shows that they desire the cleansing of their souls.”
But John then takes it one step further with a big “but”. He says, “But I have a surprise for you. The Messiah, the One I’ve been talking about is already here. He is already walking among us. He will be revealed very soon. Stop arguing. Repent. Prepare yourself. Now is the time.” When John the Baptist talks about his unworthiness to carry or even tie Jesus’ “sandals” it points us to something he has skipped. Those words are in Matthew, Mark and Luke and all point to the story of Jesus’ baptism. So at this point, as the Jewish Leaders stand before Him, John the Baptist has already baptized Jesus in the Jordan, has seen the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove, has heard the voice of the Father commissioning Jesus’ earthly ministry, and seen Jesus sent for the 40 days of temptation in the desert. And, it seems that the very next day after the Jewish Leaders questioned John, Jesus comes back from the wilderness.
Look at verse 29-34,
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’”
And so now we hear from John the Baptist himself who he thinks he is, and who he knows Jesus to be. His whole life was meant to point to the coming Messiah, and when Jesus came, John stepped back. But before he did, he “bore witness” that Jesus was the One he had come to prepare the world for. He said he didn’t know in advance, but when Jesus came for baptism it became absolutely clear. God showed up, God spoke, God showed Him exactly who Jesus was. And so John pointed people to Jesus. When John was preaching he deflected all attention away from himself to his message – and now that He knew who the Christ was he reflected every bit of attention onto Jesus.
That’s what the Apostle John wants everyone who is reading this to know. John the Baptist’s message, witness, and ministry all pointed to Jesus. So if you are following John, now is the time to follow Jesus.
Jars of Clay
There’s something I want to chew on for a bit though here. It must have been very tempting for John the Baptist to try to take some of the credit, to accept some praise, to want to share the spotlight with Jesus. According to chapter 3, even John’s own disciples were jealous on his behalf when Jesus started to gain popularity.
What prevented John from getting puffed up with pride? How did he stay humble?
If you’ve ever done something well, something that you know you couldn’t have done without God, you’ll know it’s not easy to deflect praise. Whether it’s a piece of art you have designed, a successful ministry, having good kids, doing well in a difficult class, learning a skill few people have and then using it to bless others, having the ability to make money, or a great sense of humour, or strong administrative skills, or the ability to be patient and kind during difficult times, you’ll know that when people see you, they automatically want to give you credit – and it can be extremely difficult to reflect that praise back to God. Even when you say, “It wasn’t me, it was God”, they want to give you extra credit for being humble!
So how did John do it? How did he keep his heart in the right place? If I had to guess from what we’ve read and know about John the Baptist it was that he knew who he was and who Jesus is.
Think about when you go out to a restaurant. You sit down at the table, the server comes over and gives you water, takes your order, and then delivers the food. As Canadians it’s our habit to thank everyone for everything all the time, right? A lot of us even thank inanimate objects like ATMs and traffic lights for doing their job. So when the food comes we automatically say thank you, right? What are we thanking the server for? For bringing the food, right?
But, then, inevitably – and usually when you have a mouthful of food – they come by again and ask how the food is. And we say, “Oh, it’s so good! It’s amazing!” Now, imagine if the server started to get a big head about it. The owner buys all the food and the chef prepares everything – but who gets to hear everyone “mmming” and “wowing” and “this is so good”? Who gets to hear the thank-yous and watch people smile? It’s the server.
But wouldn’t it be crazy if the server tried to share the credit with the chef? “You’re absolutely welcome for that dish. It was half me, half the chef. Because without me, the food would have just stayed in the kitchen and no one could eat it. So, actually, I should get more of the credit for being the one who allowed you to have such a fine meal. And really, since I’m the one who gave it to you, I’m the one in the fancy suit, I’m the one who listens to you and brings you what you want, and no one else, then I must be the most important person in the room right now. You would go hungry without me. You would starve without me. No one would even know the chef exists without me. The whole restaurant would close if I weren’t here to bring you your food. In fact, I was the one who recommended that meal to you in the first place, so you don’t even get any credit for ordering it! I get all the credit! This whole place revolves around me!”
That’s crazy, right? But that’s what Christians sound like we sound like when we try to share glory with God for something we’ve done. A server, a servant, is just a delivery system for someone else’s greatness. Their whole job is simply not to forget it, drop it, or change it. Regardless of what your gift is – music, art, speaking, generosity, crafts, administration, physical strength, even physical beauty – it is, and you are, merely a delivery system for God’s glory and greatness. He gave it to you as a gift, has used the experiences of your life to hone that gift, and has designed you in such a way that when you use it not only are other people blessed, and not only do you get to receive pleasure from using it, but in doing so He gets glory. We often realize the first two of those and forget the last. We’re happy to use what we have to help people, happy to feel good doing it, but when it comes to who gets the credit, who gets the glory… we often want to steal it, or at least share it, with God. That’s crazy when you really think about it.
Consider 1 Corinthians 4:7 where the amazing apostle Paul said,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
The “treasure” is the gospel, and the “power” belongs to God – he’s just the clay jar it was carried in. Throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as a potter and His people the clay (Isa 64:8). In Romans 9:20–21 when Paul is talking to people who complain to God about their lot in life he says,
“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”
In other words, he’s the potter, you’re the clay. In this context, the Apostle is talking about saved versus unsaved, but the lesson is still sound. God knows what He’s doing, knows what you’re good for, knows what your strengths and weaknesses are, and knows where you are of best use – because He made you. And if you do things His way and you’ll be a lot better off.
If He wants to make you into a fancy vase that sits on a shelf meant to hold and feed and water some pretty flowers for all to see, but are changed out often, then be content in that. If He wants to make you into a coffee cup that gets filled up and emptied every single day, loved and useful but certainly not fancy or special, then be content in that. If God has designed you to be a cookie jar, full of good and helpful things that you never get to keep but are always meant to be for others, then be content in that. If he wants to make you into a cooking dish that has to face the heat of the flames over and over and over so others can be fed, then be content in that.
Why? Because when you are doing what God has called you to do, using the strength God gives you and returning the glory to Him, He will be there with you and you will know peace and an abundant life. Yes, it may come with difficulty, but you’ll know you’re where you’re supposed to be, and you’ll see God’s hand in your life.
But, if you try to be something you’re not, you’ll be very discontent. If the flower vase gets bored of feeding the flowers and sitting on the shelf and tries to become the coffee mug, it’s going to wonder why it can’t do the job and keeps getting hurt. If the cookie jar gets tired of being generous and decides to try being a cooking dish, it’s going to break and won’t be good to anyone. I hope you see what I mean.
John the Baptist knew the secret to contentedness, peace, fruitfulness, and staying humble before God. He knew who He was and who Jesus is and gave all the glory away. John was the herald, Jesus is the king. John was a mirror, Jesus was the light. John was a voice, Jesus is the message. John baptized with water, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John called people to prepare themselves by repentance from sin, Jesus is the one who conquered sin and death.
John never forgot who he was.
Who is Jesus?
Turn briefly to John 21:1–14. The question, “Who are you?”, which we see twice in our passage today, is asked all over the Gospel of John. In John 5, the Jewish leaders see a man who had been an invalid for 38 years get up and walk, and they ask who would dare perform a miracle on the Sabbath. In chapter 8, after Jesus declares Himself to be “the light of the world” the Jewish authorities ask twice more. In John 9 a group of Pharisees argue about who Jesus is with a man who was healed from blindness. In John 11, after Jesus says He’s “the resurrection and the life”, right before He raises Lazarus from the dead, he asks Martha if she believes Him. In John 18, as Jesus is on trial everyone keeps asking who He is, then Peter denies who he is to Jesus, then Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Everyone, through the whole book, is asking, “Who are you?”
In John 21:1–14, at the very end of the Gospel during the epilogue we read this,
“After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.”
They had seen Jesus’ miracles, heard His message, saw Him die, met Him as the risen Lord, and saw one more miracle before Jesus serve them breakfast. Finally, at the end of the book they stop asking, “Who are you?” They’ve figured it out.
Conclusion: Who is Jesus? Who Are You? Why do you exist?
My questions to you are simply this: Do you know who Jesus is? Do you know who you are? (and consequently, who you are not?) Do you know why you are here?
Everything hinges on those questions. Who is Jesus? Who are you? Why do you exist? These are questions you must answer.
John the Baptist knows. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the “lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Who is John? “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’…” (1:23) Who is John not? Moses, Elijah, Jesus, or a false prophet. Why did John exist? “…For this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31)
I know this. Who is Jesus? My Saviour and my God. Who am I? I am a child and servant of God. Why do I exist? To be a godly husband and father, and as a gift to the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11-16) through preaching, teaching, counselling, and creativity. It’s taken many years, and certainly there have been times of difficulty and doubt, but I can say this: I know Jesus, I who I am, I know who I am not, and I know my purpose.
But I ask you today, do you know who Jesus is? Do you know who you are? And do you know why you exist? If not, you have some soul work to do. And we are here to help you in that journey.
I think it’s appropriate that we start off the Christmas season with the very beginning of the Gospel of John today. We’ve been working on “context and structure” for about a month now and I feel like we could keep talking about it for another few weeks. The structure of John is absolutely fascinating! But we need to get into it and we’ll hit some of those interesting structural points along the way.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” ( John 1:1-18)
If you have a study bible there’s a good chance that there are a LOT of notes about this first set of verses, because John packs a LOT of stuff in there. In fact, this section is like a summary of the whole rest of the book.
When Jesus God Speaks
John begins by calling Jesus “the Word” who “was with God” and who “was God.” He was there before “the beginning” and was the one who made everything. We’ve already discussed the Trinitarian aspects of this – how this affirms that Jesus is the same God who created the universe – but I want you to notice something else. John here is setting up one of the major themes of the book which is that when Jesus speaks God is speaking.
Over and over Jesus says things like, to the Jewish authorities in chapter 5,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19).
Or to the crowds and Pharisees in chapter 8,
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28)
or to His disciples in
“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10).
This was, and currently is, a major point of contention in regards to Jesus. Some people claim that Jesus never claimed to be God and that Christians came up with that idea later. Other religions claim that Jesus was merely a prophet sent by God but not God Himself. Some non-religious people hold Jesus up as a great moral teacher but refuse to believe in His divinity. This is absolutely wrong. Jesus absolutely presented Himself as God in the flesh.
Turn over to John 10:22-33,
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’”
When Jesus was crucified, this was the charge against Him: Because He claimed to be God. Pilate knew this and knew it wasn’t a good enough reason to sentence Jesus to the cross, which is why he declared him innocent and tried to free him. Jesus wasn’t killed for any other reason than claiming to be God. This incensed the Jews and they used all the political pressure they could, even claiming to support their Roman oppressors and threatening Pilate with disloyalty to Caesar, in order to have Jesus punished in the worst way possible.
Jesus didn’t just claim to be a prophet who was told what to say by God. He wasn’t just reporting what God says – He was saying that when He spoke, God spoke. No one else claimed that. Every other prophet said, “Ok, most of the time I’m just sinful, old, me – but sometimes God speaks His word to me and I tell it to you.” That’s not what Jesus claimed. There was nothing He said, no judgement He made, no miracle He performed, no woe he pronounced, no action He performed or word he spoke that didn’t carry the weight and authority and perfection of God.
So, that’s the first thing that John wants you to know, right upfront and throughout the whole book: Jesus is God and when He speaks, God speaks. Jesus is the Word of God.
And it’s also the first thing we are confronted by and are forced to reckon with. When we think of Jesus and by extension the scriptures which contain His words – and not just the Gospels, but every other word spoken in every other book – are we giving them the proper weight and authority in our lives? Do we take what Jesus says, or what the Bible says, as one opinion of many that we weigh against a bunch of others – or do we listen and obey as though God Himself has spoken to us? Because that’s exactly what is happening.
Jesus is the Source of Light and Life
The second big theme that we see throughout the gospel of John that is introduced here is that Jesus is the source of light and life.
Jesus was the one who said, “Let there be light” and “Let there be life” in Genesis 1. He spoke into the darkness and created the light. But, after sin entered the world in Genesis 3 there was a problem: darkness came back and death entered the world. Then, even in Genesis 3, right after the Fall of Man, God said that someone would be coming to fix the problem. The whole of the Old Testament points to the one who would come and do that. Then Jesus, the source of all light and all life, came. Darkness tried to reclaim the world for itself, but because of Jesus, it couldn’t.
We talked about this one a couple weeks ago, so I won’t repeat it, but as you read John, look for that theme too. And as you look, consider that not only are you being asked to see Jesus as the source of all light and life, the one who came to bring light to the darkness and to make a way through death into life, but you are being asked if you come to Him that way. That was what John was saying to his first readers too. Persecution and martyrdom and death were rampant among believers… and the political drama and insanity of the Roman Emperors like Caligula and Nero bringing death and famine by their own whims made everything very dark for almost everyone else… so where should people turn? John’s answer was, to Jesus, the source of light and life – in short, hope.
When you face dark things – sin, rebellion, temptation, unrighteous anger, bitterness, strife, lack, storms, struggles, sickness, and death – is your first instinct to come to the source of life and light or to go somewhere else? Because where you go first is probably the thing that you hold above Jesus as your functional saviour and source of hope.
Something difficult happens, darkness invades. You get sick, you feel pain, someone betrays you, fear and uncertainty starts to creep into your heart – what do you do? Where do you turn first? You want direction, comfort, freedom, an anchor for your soul. You are looking for a light in the darkness, so where do you turn first? Alcohol? Chemicals? Pornography? Sleep? Social Media Post to get some attention? Search the Internet for an answer? Lash out and hurt someone?
Or, do you come to Jesus and say, “Things are dark and I need some light. You are the light of the world. I feel death encroaching and need some hope. You are the source of life and hope.” And then wait on Him to provide you with what you need?
John the Baptist: Herald of Jesus
The third big theme of John, found in verses 6-8, and then again in 15, as we are introduced to John the Baptist. If you’ve heard the Christmas story at all, then you’ll know that things were getting darker in the world – for the Jews and Gentiles alike. The Gentiles knew nothing of the One, True God because paganism had utterly taken over their land, and the Jewish religious system was almost totally corrupted, totally divorced from the religion that God set up to draw people to Him, so even the people of God were far from Him. Things were dark.
But when things were at their darkest, a voice was heard, the voice of John the Baptist, the herald of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist, a man chosen before he was born to prepare the way for Jesus, starts preaching a few years before Jesus begins his earthly ministry, and he has a simple, three part message. The Messiah is coming soon, repent from your sins and get ready for it, and live out that repentance by a changed life.
John the Baptist was a powerful preacher, used by God to call many people to a baptism of repentance, but John knew He wasn’t the Messiah. He didn’t know who He was heralding for most of His life, but He knew that the Messiah was imminent – and that that the Messiah wouldn’t just get people wet and tell them to change their behaviour – He would change them from the inside out by freeing them from the curse of sin altogether and coming to live inside them through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In John 1:29-33 (turn there), after He has baptized Jesus and right before he hands off the baton to Jesus, even sending his own disciples off to follow Jesus, John says to them,
“‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’” (Matthew 3:11–12)
You’ll see John the Baptist come up a lot in the first half of the book as Jesus is compared to him. Everyone seemed to know John the Baptist and he had some serious street cred. We learn in Acts 18:25 and 19:3-4 that people throughout the whole world had experienced “John’s Baptism” and so a lot of people reading this Gospel would have already known how important John’s ministry and prophecy was. And, even though the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all speak of Him, the Apostle John makes absolutely clear that as important as John the Baptist was, he was only the herald, the forerunner, the announcer, of Jesus Christ. John wasn’t the light – he was only the voice who was crying out in the darkness saying, “The Light of the World is coming – be ready for it!”
But I think the Apostle John’s question for all those who read is this: Do you know that it is not enough that you feel bad about your sin. It is not even enough that you have repented from your sin by saying you want to stop. The end of repentance is not merely the change of behaviour – it is faith in Jesus. The question is, has your sorrow over your sin lead you to seek salvation and cleansing from Jesus, who can free you from the curse and grant you the gift of the Holy Spirit – or have you stopped at merely thinking you just need to change your behaviour? Because the testimony of the whole of scripture is that your problem isn’t that you are mostly good and just need a little “help from above” or that you have one or two big problems and that once God fixes those you’re ok.
The testimony of Jesus is that repentance isn’t enough – you must be “born again”. You must be utterly changed, from the inside out, by giving all your sin, all your self, your entire being, past, present and future, to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to offer the baptism of repentance. He doesn’t come to offer a little encouragement to assuage your guilt. He comes to offer the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a new life, a re-birth, to everyone who will believe.
I think of 2 Corinthians 7:10 which says,
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
There’s a big difference between feeling bad about your sin because you were caught, or because it blew up in your face, or caused problems for you and others – and realizing that you are a complete sinner, that your sin infects every part of your life, that your sin has caused spiritual death, and that you need a complete renewal, a complete (what theologians used to call) revivification, to be reborn as a new person who died and rose again because of the work of Jesus. That’s a huge difference. Think of the difference between Judas and Peter. Judas had worldly sorrow leading to death – Peter felt just as bad, but was restored by Jesus to new life. Worldly sorrow, or even the mere baptism of repentance, still leads to death. It is Godly sorrow that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.
Saying a prayer one time and then getting wet in a baptismal ceremony does not save you. Sorrow for your sin, leading to hatred of sin and a desire to be free from it, which leads to you the foot of the cross where you confess your sin and need, asking Jesus to take the punishment for it and to give you new life – and then living out that faith through trust and obedience to Jesus is what saves.
The Response to Jesus
There are more introductions to big themes here in John’s prologue, but let’s only do one more: How people responded to Jesus.
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (vs 9-13)
Throughout the whole book, you’re going to see Jesus do miracles, make claims about Himself, and then see people’s reactions. Jesus talks to every kind of person in the Gospel of John. Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, men and women, pious religious people and social rejects, beggars and nobleman, crowds and individuals, rich and poor. And we get to see their reactions. Sometimes it is faith, but most often it is rejection – even from those who first believed.
For a variety of reasons – whether it was because Jesus didn’t give them what they wanted, because Jesus said things they didn’t like, because Jesus claimed authority over them, because they didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, or because Jesus refused to do things their way, Jesus’ teachings, claims, and miracles were often accepted at first but then rejected. This happens over and over and over until we see finally Him at the end of His life, almost totally abandoned – only a handful of people willing to admit they even know Him. The cost and risk of believing in Jesus, following Jesus, admitting to being Jesus’ disciple was too high.
And so the question, implied here and asked throughout the gospel is this: Where do you stand? After hearing what Jesus has said and done, have you turned from darkness to the light, believed in Jesus for your salvation, and become a child of God who will obey Jesus in all things – or, after hearing all this, do you still refuse to believe and obey? Will you surrender everything to Jesus as your Saviour, Lord and God, and be born again as a child of light – or do will you continue to live in the darkness? There are only two roads. Only two teams to play for. Those who follow Jesus to eternal life and those who will suffer eternal damnation.
To our modern ears that sounds intolerant and closed-minded. We’re used to leaving room for differing opinions, allowing for individual expressions of belief, letting people make decisions about God for themselves. We’ve been taught that it’s not polite to talk about religion and that it’s a faux pas to say that there is only one answer about something so important or controversial.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us any wiggle room and He doesn’t allow us to make up our own beliefs about Him or God or ourselves or the way of salvation. Jesus claimed to be God in human flesh, our Creator who may claim the highest authority over us. Jesus claimed to be the light of the world and the source of life and that anyone who does not believe in Him will walk in darkness and death. And then He simply asked, “Will you believe what I say – and show that belief through faith and obedience to me? If not, you will remain in your sin and in darkness.”
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). John the Baptist. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1201). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
The Art of John’s Gospel
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
We’ve been talking a lot about why John wrote His Gospel, and this passage, coming at the end of the book, is where John himself tells us why. And, as I’ve been studying the structure of the book, I find this sentence to be more and more complex.
I told you before that this gospel is a series of stories, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of John’s writing. Remember how I said that John’s gospel has many different types of divisions and threads woven through it – like a tapestry? Well, as I continue to study it I’m more and more impressed, and even overwhelmed by how intricate and complex that tapestry really is. This book is less a series of stories and more a work of art.
My family and I went to the National Gallery of Canada a little while ago and were specifically on the hunt for abstract and impressionist paintings.
Impressionist or Abstract art is designed not to show you a specific picture but to elicit a reaction. Impressionists are a little easier to understand because they usually have recognizable forms in them and just mess with the shapes and colours, but Abstractionists pretty much do-away with reality altogether and just try to convey, or “abstract”, the feeling or idea without presenting an actual form.
We sort of whizzed by the more realistic artwork full of old buildings and portraits because we really wanted to see some of the weirder stuff. And the National Gallery did not disappoint.
I had two favourites. The first was a huge room where the artist had set up four different living rooms from four different decades, complete with couches, tables and tv’s all playing the same show. I have no idea what it was meant to convey, but I liked that there were couches.
The other – and I promise you’re not prepared for this – was a video being projected on the wall of a dark hallway. I’m just going to play this one for you.
[Not Available – Just think of a really weird video of mice caught in a window with intense music playing on a loop]
I have no idea what that meant – but it definitely caused an emotional reaction.
I’m no art critic, obviously, but in my opinion the best art is something you can look at and study over and over and over and each time, still feel something special, discover new things about it and yourself through it, and come to new realizations about the artist, time-period, or whatever they were trying to convey.
A lot of people get that sort of thing from Vincent van Gogh in a painting like Starry Night. The first time they see it they feel a connection to the colours, see the beauty of the whole, start to feel the pull of the brush strokes. But then, as they look at it further they see more intricacies in the lines, more shapes, and things like the tree in front of the exaggeration of the church steeple. Then, as you read about the author you start to understand more. Van Gogh suffered greatly from depression but he knew God. He painted eleven stars in the sky and a great light. The windows in the town are lit, but the church is dark… the perspective is far from the town, but the sky is intensely close. A huge, dark tree stands blocking his view but points upwards to the lights of heaven. Is this how Van Gogh felt? Was this meant to point to Joseph’s vision from Genesis 37. Joseph was a dreamer, outcast from his family. Was Vincent an outcast because of his mental illness, unjustly suffering like Joseph did, but was also conveying his hope in God. Maybe? And I’m sure there’s more.
With that in mind, I want to read you what one commentator I read this week said about the gospel of John:
“The Gospel of John is a text that constantly creates the impression that more is going on than immediately meets the eye. The author deploys the power of metaphor and symbol in a masterful way, so that the stories and teachings of Jesus are constantly and mutually illuminated by referring to other texts within the book. Each story has been coordinated with other parts of the narrative, so that stories acquire more layers of meaning than the surface one. John is a master of irony, so that characters constantly say more than they intend, and sometimes even the opposite of what they mean. Jesus is consistently misunderstood, foregrounding the question of what is the true meaning of his words. The Gospel is also shot through with intertextual connections to the Hebrew Bible that expand the meaning of any given story when they are observed and then pondered. This book was written not only to make some sense to first-time readers, but it was also designed to be studied in order to yield it’s full cornucopia of meaning to only the most attentive of students. Its frequently riddling character… is meant to tease the intelligence and entice the readers into its world of multidimensional meaning.” (Richard Bauckham, The Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology, 131-132)
As I’ve been studying it this week, and hopefully as you’ve been reading in preparation for this series, these “multidimensional meanings”, “symbols” and “intertextual connections” are all starting to come to light – and it’s fascinating.
Did You See the Signs?
Which brings us back to our main text today. When John gives the why he wrote the book he said,
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
This too has multidimensional meanings. John uses very specific words to address the mega-themes he’s been weaving through the book. Have you ever gotten to the end of a mystery novel or one of those movies with a twist ending, and immediately wanted to start the whole thing over just so you can see what you were supposed to be seeing all along? And then when you do, you’re like, “Wow, how did I miss this? It’s so obvious!”
I think this verse is like that. John says, “My book is arranged by ‘signs’, did you see them all? Do you know what they were pointing to? Do you know why they were there? Did you see how many people in the stories saw the same signs and yet didn’t understand them? Are you doing the same thing? Which side are you on? The side of seeing and believing or seeing and rejecting? And further, these signs weren’t just pointing out that Jesus is the Christ, but that Jesus is the Son of God! Did you notice that? Did you see that Jesus did things no one else can do? Did you realize you weren’t just reading a history book, but the story of the Word made Flesh, the Creator of the Universe, the Son of God walking the earth? And if you did see all the signs, and understand who I’ve been saying Jesus is… will you believe in Him as the only one who can give you the thing I’ve been pointing at over and over again – eternal life? I have written all these signs down so you can meet the real Jesus – but not just meet Him as an historical figure – but as the one who can bring you from eternal death to eternal life. Will you believe?”
The whole book is designed that way. It’s sign upon sign, layer upon layer, meaning upon meaning, revelation upon revelation – all culminating in the big question: Do you believe?
What I want to do now is play for you one of “The Bible Project” videos describing this. I think they do a great job of visualizing all of these intricacies and dimensions. They don’t cover them all, because there are many, but they do a really great job and I think you’ll appreciate John’s Gospel more after watching it.
I’ve spent so much time talking about the structure and themes of the Gospel of John because I want you really open your eyes when reading it – and to be inspired to sit down and read it in big chunks so you can get the whole story. I’ve provided the handout from The Bible Project so you can see all the divisions and get a general idea for what these sections are trying to convey.
And while you read. I want you to not only be studying the words with your mind but to be opening up your heart to what John is trying to say about Jesus. He’s not just showing you what Jesus did but wants you to identify with the characters in the story so you can be confronted by the person and works of Jesus and be forced to reckon with them. In what ways are you like Nicodemus? What if you were the Samaritan Woman? How have you been like the crowds coming to Jesus for bread, but refusing to accept His Words? What does it mean that Jesus, the Word of God became human, the Glory of God was housed in flesh, and that He laid down his life for you? And finally, in light of all this – do you believe? And has that belief shown itself in a changed life filled with thanksgiving and obedience to Jesus?
May you be blessed by the reading of God’s Word this week.
A few weeks ago I told you that the gospel of John is all about explaining who Jesus really is. If you recall, I said that by the time the Gospel of John was written, the gospels and letters of the New Testament had already been written and been circulating individually for some decades, so a lot of people had already been introduced to Jesus, but there was also a lot of false teaching going on.
So, when John wrote his gospel he wanted to make it absolutely clear that everyone who read it would understand the singular claims Jesus Christ made about Himself and why the Christians followed Him. Remember, most of the first believers were Jews, so it was a pretty big deal that so many of them had started worshipping a man the same way that they had been worshipping Yahweh. These Jewish people had stopped following the Sanhedrin, stopped believing in the Old Testament sacrificial system, started meeting in their homes, said that there was no need for the priesthood anymore, and changed their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. That’s a pretty radical change.
And as John was writing, the message of this Jewish Messiah named Jesus of Nazareth was shaking the whole world. Everyone from trade union leaders to city officials to pagan temple leaders to the emperors themselves were having to figure out what to do with these people known as “Christians” because their message was upending everything.
We live in what is known as the “information age”, a time where news stories from around the world can be shared instantly with almost every person on the planet – even directly to their pocket no matter where they are in the world. I saw this great tweet a while back that said, “Do y’all remember, before the internet, that people thought the cause of stupidity was the lack of access to information? Yeah. It wasn’t that.” I totally agree. Even in our “information age” where we have access to a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, people are still making up and believing lies about almost everything.
Imagine how difficult it was to keep the story of Jesus Christ straight in the first century as the gospel spread throughout the Roman world. After the post-Pentecost diaspora, when thousands of new Christians left Jerusalem because of the persecution, even the Apostles couldn’t keep up. They would sometimes go into a city and find a Christian church there already set up and would have to straighten out some of the things they’d not understood, gotten wrong, or just plain made up. That’s why we have the letters of the New Testament and the gospels. It’s God’s way of giving the world the straight truth about Jesus.
So, when John was writing this gospel, he already knew what all the other letters said, and since his home base was in Ephesus, probably at the most important seminary in the world, he also knew the majority of the false teachings. Now, he could have written a letter like Paul’s, combatting the false teachings point by point, but that’s not what he did.
You’ve probably heard the old illustration that when they teach a bank teller or cashier to spot counterfeits they don’t teach them every way it someone can counterfeit a bill, right? What do they do? They teach them what a real bill looks like so that they know everything that doesn’t match it is wrong. That’s what John did. With all the misinformation and confusion and false teaching about Jesus, God had Him write a supplement to the other gospels and letters that would give an abundantly clear picture of who Jesus is and why Christians worship Him.
Which brings us to the structure of the letter. John didn’t write the way we might normally think a biography is written. He didn’t start at birth, go year by year hitting the high-points, and then ending with the death. John, instead, writes thematically.
Imagine you’ve been asked to describe what a person is like. Maybe it’s a eulogy at a funeral or you’re the reference for someone on their resume. You’re not really being asked to give a chronological outline of their life, right? You’re being asked what kind of person they were. How would you do that? You wouldn’t give their resume. You’d start with a single character trait and then give an example. Then you’d talk about how people responded to him.
For example: “My friend is a really hard worker. Let me tell you about a time he went over and above for a group he was working with. Some people get annoyed with my friend because he tends to set the bar really high for himself and it tends to point out the lazy members of whatever team he’s on, but he’s not showing off. He just really believes in working hard.”
Or: “My grandfather was a really brave man. Let me tell you a story about something he did to show his bravery, not just when he served in WWII but when he was at home too. Some people thought my grandpa stuck his nose where it didn’t belong, and some of us relatives kept telling him to stop jumping into help people all the time, especially when he got older, but it didn’t make any difference. My grandpa was willing to jump in and help anyone, anywhere no matter what.”
That’s what John does. Matthew and Mark already gave Jesus’ resume and Luke already gave an orderly biographical account of Jesus’ life, so God inspired John to write with a different purpose. John wants you to meet know Jesus the way He does, and so he tells stories.
The Thread of “Light”
But these stories aren’t merely disconnected events pointing to a few character details – far from. These stories are woven like an intricate tapestry. If you’ve ever seen the backside of a cross-stitch, sewing project or tapestry you’ll have an appreciation for all the crazy connections that you don’t really see at first. And if you’ve been unwise enough to pull on a thread from one of those projects, you’ll know just how surprising it is to see how much that one thread is holding together.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by an intricate thread. When John starts his gospel he begins with
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
John uses some very simple language to convey some huge concepts. “In the beginning” points to the very first words of the Bible and how God created all that there is simply by speaking, “Let there be light.” Then John says, in effect, “You know how the words you speak are not you but are you at the same time? You know how your mind and will and personality is conveyed by your words? Well, Jesus is the Word of God and was with God before time began and, in fact, is God. Jesus made all things. Jesus is the source of life. When God said, “let there be light” and then “let there be life”, that was Jesus. Jesus is the source of all life and all light.
Now look at verses 9-11,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
Jesus, the creator of light, the source of all light and life, came into the world, but was rejected. Why? Flip over to John 3:19-21:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Now flip to John 8:12. Jesus is being confronted by some Pharisees, who, even though they’ve seen Jesus’ miracles and heard his message refuse to follow Him.
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
Now look at John 9:5. Jesus says,
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Huge claim, right? John says that Jesus is God and is the source of all light and life. He says that when Jesus came into the world He was the true light and that the reason anyone rejected Him was that they preferred darkness and continued to live in darkness. Then John says that he didn’t come up with this concept, Jesus Himself kept saying He was the light of the world. So what did Jesus do to prove He was the creator of light and the light of the world? Look at the sub-heading of chapter 9. He healed a man who was born blind. He brought light to a place no one could ever bring it before. Then, we see the Pharisees argue with the man who was healed from blindness. A simple man who saw the light (both figuratively and literally) standing before a bunch of religious professionals who refuse.
Now flip to John 12:27. We’re now in the last week of Jesus’ life. Judas has agreed to betray Jesus and He has just performed the Triumphal Entry. He’s been preaching and teaching and performing miracles for a few years now and is standing before the crowds who have just been chanting “Hosanna!” Read from verse 27,
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
There stands Jesus, after the Triumphal Entry where he has declared Himself King and Messiah before the crowds. But He knows they don’t get it. He prays and God Himself responds. But the people can’t understand. They are in the dark. Jesus explains, again, that he’s going to be crucified.
And what do we see?
“So the crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’”
He’s standing right in front of you! The skies have just answered his prayer! He’s raised the dead, caused the lame to walk, the blind to see! He has been calling Himself the “Son of Man” non-stop for three years! But even then, they are in darkness. He’s one week away from having them chant “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” and send Him to the cross.
Look at verse 35,
“So Jesus said to them, ‘The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.’ When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him…”
Now look at verse 44, which contains the last time we read the word “light” in the Gospel of John, completing the thread. Jesus has shone His light everywhere, but has been rejected over and over by people who love the darkness. Verse 42 said that the Pharisees had so much influence over people, had kept them in the dark so effectively, that even people in authority were afraid to declare their belief in Jesus. Now, He’s days away from being crucified at the hands of the people He’d come to save. It was so overwhelming that for a time he went away and hid himself, an act declaring His sadness, God’s imminent judgment, and that His work as the light of men, the revealer of God, was done.
At the end we read Jesus’ last public declaration – His one, final, ultimatum before He would go off with the disciples to the Last Supper, Gethsemane, and then the cross. This is his very last public teaching. He turns to this crowd and it says,
“And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.’”
Then, those that loved the darkness, who would not receive His words, tracked Him down, brought Him before an illegal court with false charges and fake witnesses, lied to Governor Pilate about what Jesus did, who found no guilt in Him but still had Him flogged and mocked and then crucified. One of the soldiers even stabbed Jesus through the heart to make sure he was dead.
One would believe that the darkness had won at that point.
Have you ever gotten to what you thought was the end of a book or movie and then checked to see how many pages or how many minutes are left – and been surprised how much there still is to go? I wonder if the first people reading the story of Jesus felt that way. How can there be another two chapters after this! What else is there to say?
But let’s go back to the very first verses of John’s gospel, the first mention of “light”.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4)
Death was not the end. Darkness didn’t win. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to many, many people.
Now look at 1:9-13 again,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Remember? Jesus is the originator, the source, of “life” and of “light”, right? Those two concepts are woven together and then threaded all through the tapestry of John’s Gospel. If you leave the darkness and follow Jesus, the “true light”, you not only gain “true light”, but “true life” – a life that doesn’t end. Eternal life.
What amazes me is that we only tugged on one thread today. “Light”. There are so many more. I hope to cover a few more threads before we get into the into the verse-by-verse study because it will help us see the big themes before we study the individual stories.
But I cannot end without giving an invitation. Over and over Jesus gives the invitation to walk away from the darkness and into His light. God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to show us His light and to bring us freedom from the darkness of death and sin. And anyone who believes in Jesus – who believes Jesus, the man who is God, sacrificed Himself on the Cross for their sins, and then rose again on the third day – can be saved. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, He came to save it. But that salvation requires something of you.
You must believe – and demonstrate that belief by walking away from darkness. As Jesus said, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
So, I ask you today. If you are a believer, if you have seen the light, have you walked away from darkness? Has Jesus been exposing dark parts of you, and your response has been to pull away from Jesus and try to remain in the dark because you love the things of darkness more than you want Jesus? More than you want life? I beg you to repent. To drag that sin into the light, confess it to Jesus and to another believer, and let Jesus kill that sin before you are overcome by that darkness.
And, if you are not a believer today, is it because Jesus has asked you to give up something you know is wrong, but you want to keep doing it, so you are simply refusing to believe? You’ve felt the presence of God, seen the work of God in your life, even felt the conviction to give up your sins and come to Jesus – but you know He requires that you drag that sin into the light so He can kill it forever?
What do you hope to gain? Why would you trade light for darkness, life for death? What good will it do you if you gain this whole world by giving your heart to darkness – but end up forfeiting your soul to eternal death in Hell?
All you must do is stop, get on your knees, renounce the darkness and accept that Jesus is the one, True light and only source of true light. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”
Now is the time.
Update on CLRA Meeting
I thought it important to start with a quick update on the meeting Jason and I went to this week. I don’t want to take up the whole sermon time with it, but it’s important, and you are all invested in what is happening so I want to make sure you’re informed.
There were actually four meetings in a row. We began with worship and a quick orientation by the leaders of CLRA outlining why we were there and a quick discussion to make sure we were all on the same page. Pastor Paul Carter, the point leader of CLRA, explained that the whole point of the day was to be a one-stop-shop where we could pray together, hear from the CBOQ leadership about how they are dealing with the LGBTQ issues, talk amongst ourselves as church leaders, and then get a presentation from another denomination that has already dealt with the issue properly.
To be honest, this has gone on far longer than I even knew. I told you last week that this all came about because of Danforth a few years ago but it was actually 7 years ago that this came up in the Norfolk association. One of the pastors there tried to go through the process of confronting another pastor who was giving some false teaching but ended up getting in trouble himself at the CBOQ head office. That event is actually what spawned the creation of CLRA and Danforth is only the most recent example of the same issue they’ve been trying to deal with for a long time.
I could get into more detail about what’s been going on for the past years, but suffice to say that there hasn’t been a lot done. People have talked, committees have been struck, paperwork has been shuffled, emails sent, plans made — but ultimately nothing has been done to confront the actual issue of what to do with pastors and churches who are teaching and doing unbiblical things. And that’s where the frustration comes from. Lots of talk, not enough action.
To give an example of what’s been happening, let me tell you about one e-mail. The CBOQ struck a committee to discuss how they could deal with these kinds of issues. This committee took a long while to come up with six phases they would go through to “deal with challenging issues”. We are currently on phase 3 where they encourage churches to talk to about the issue before moving on to phase 4 where they get feedback from the churches.
They decided to send out an e-mail telling people that they were planning to launch phase four soon, but apparently, the first draft of the e-mail wasn’t to the liking of the CBOQ staff, so they took it to another group so they could edit the e-mail. That tweaking on one email took over a month. I got it a couple weeks ago and it absolutely reads like it was written by a committee more interested in not offending anyone than actually saying anything. This caused confusion among the churches and head office was inundated with calls by confused church leaders. And the churches who want to see decisive action taken on what they see as an obvious issue are very frustrated.
When the president and former president of CBOQ came into the meeting, it felt tense. The two men were obviously nervous and defensive. When they sat down their tone was immediately aggressive and accusatory towards the pastors and leaders of CLRA. They talked for a long time and were given a chance to answer questions from the crowd, and it was a very frustrating thing to listen to. We kept asking pointed, specific, questions like, “Do you believe that homosexuality is a sin?” or “Will the CBOQ be decisive and deal with this issue?” or “We already agreed on this in 1988 and 2003 and have systems in place to deal with it at an association level, will you support those systems?” – and they just refused to give clear answers. If you’ve ever watched a politician bob and weave around reporters questions and dodge issues they don’t want to talk about, you’ll know how it felt. It was very disappointing.
When the two of them eventually left, the gathered leaders only had a short time to talk but I think they all felt the same way as I did. Pastor Paul voiced his frustration, as did some others, said it was generally agreed that the CBOQ was badly broken, hopelessly divided, the head office woefully inadequate to the task, and that the conference is probably unfixable outside a mighty work of God. Pastor Paul then made the suggestion that there was really only one, last ethically right thing left to do: Present one final, clear, decisive, formal motion at the next CBOQ Annual Assembly Meeting in June that essentially presents them an ultimatum. Stand by the word of God, stick to the principles the CBOQ has historically agreed on, and create a discipline and policing mechanism to deal with the churches who refuse — or don’t.
And that’s the current plan. Pastor Mark Bertrand, who has been part of this process from day one and has even been sitting on various CBOQ committees, will get a few smart folks together to draft that motion, send it out to the CLRA churches, and then we’ll probably meet one more time before the meeting to nail down the exact wording.
The general consensus is that a motion like that will be thunderously defeated at the floor, but at least then everyone will know where they stand. And that’s where we’re at as a church too. Jason and I are waiting for CLRA to get back to us with a draft of that motion, and we’re waiting and praying for the next Annual Meeting.
(There was a brief Q&A at this point. To hear it, listen to the Audio Podcast version.)
Why This is Important
I know I said that I wanted to get back into the Gospel of John this week, but I really feel like we need to cover why this topic is important enough that many churches would consider leaving the CBOQ over. I can absolutely see people saying, “Why can’t we just all get along? Why do we have to argue at all? Why not just let them do their thing and we’ll do ours and then we don’t have to divide? Hasn’t there been enough division in church history? Doesn’t God talk about the importance of unity? Won’t it affect our church’s reputation if we are the ones to leave? Can’t we just all stay together for the sake of the things we actually agree on?”
And those are very good questions. No church, and no Christian, should take division, divorce, or disfellowship lightly. Whether it’s us talking about the churches of our denomination, the individual congregation we attend, or our ministries, work, contracts, friendship, families, or marriages, our hearts should be oriented toward unity, working things out, being gracious, open-minded, forgiving, putting up with one another’s issues.
Consider the words of Romans 12:9-21:
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
That’s an extremely clear passage of scripture dealing with human relationships. It covers inside the church and outside. It covers friends and family, troubled people, and enemies. It keeps telling us to be kind, gracious, humble, loving, and extremely patient with everyone who we come in contact with — just as Christ has been with us.
And so, you’d think that it would go doubly when dealing with other churches, right? The Bible is super clear about Christians seeking unity. Paul pleads with churches to remain united under the banner of Christ. So why would we be talking about division and disunity with the CBOQ? After all, shouldn’t we be doing what Romans 12 says?
Leaving a Church
Yes, and no. Yes, we need to be loving and patient, but no, we should not remain in partnership with everyone who calls themselves Christian. And the nuance is important.
Right now, there’s a huge problem in the Christian church with division and what is sometimes called “church hopping”. A lot of Christians tend to treat churches like restaurants. They go, try the food, if they like it they stay, but if they get bored, the chef changes the specials, or one of the waiters has a bad day, they take off and go try a different restaurant. The consumerism of the culture has seeped into people’s brains so much that they believe that they can treat the local church like a store and their ministries like a product. And they sometimes leave a church with as much thought and prayer as they would give switching from Freshco to Independent, or from Petro-Canada to Pioneer. They only think as far as their own feelings.
I would argue that most Christians who leave churches leave for non-biblical reasons. They don’t follow through on Romans 12, they don’t go through Jesus’ teaching on how to deal with offences from Matthew 18, they don’t get council or humble themselves like Paul wanted Euodia and Syntyche to. They just leave. And that’s bad for the church they leave because the church can’t grow past whatever issue they left because of, it’s bad for the church they go to because these people are bringing baggage with them, and it’s bad for the people themselves because they are missing the blessing of what God promises to those who humble themselves toward their fellow believers.
We don’t want to be like that. But, does a person have to stay in one church forever? Are there good, biblical reasons to leave a church? And, as to our own issue, are there good reasons for a church to leave a denomination? Yes, there are. There are actually 4 I found in my study.
Four Reasons to Leave a Church/Denomination
The first reason to leave a church is if heresy is being taught from the pulpit about foundational, scriptural truths. Listen to Galatians 1:6-9:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
There is a lot of wiggle room for different opinions about secondary teachings in the Bible. A person’s view of the end times, their view of creationism, or what version of the bible is the best one are all good discussions, but they are not primary and they’re not reasons to leave a church. What we’re talking about are things that are in the Apostles Creed. If the church has a dozen amazing ministries, a great kids program, and an awesome band, but doesn’t preach the Gospel, God wants you out of that church. They are accursed.
The second reason to leave is “If the leaders of the church tolerate seriously errant doctrine from any who are given teaching authority in the fellowship.” (I got a lot of help from this blogpost by John MacArthur on these four reasons.) In other words, if there is no system in place to discipline and remove false teachers. If the first reason to leave is that they’re teaching heresy, the second would be that the church simply isn’t interested in correcting heresy. Listen to Romans 16:17-18,
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
This is the church that has a good preacher and lots of good foundational documents on their website — a good statement of faith, membership covenant, etc. — but if anyone teaches anything different from what is in scripture, they have no system, no way, even no desire to confront that teacher. You go on Sunday and hear a decent sermon, but the Sunday School teachers are unskilled and full of wrong ideas, or the Small Groups are studying dubious books or false teachers, the music leader speaks with biblical falsehoods or sings unbiblical songs, or the library is full of contradicting and heretical materials. This is also a red flag — and is, in fact, the main reason why the conservative wing of the CBOQ is considering leaving. There are churches who are in clear violation of scripture — on the LGBTQ issues and others — but the CBOQ has not demonstrated a will or desire to discipline them or allow the associations to deal with it. Letting wolves roam around the sheep is a huge problem and a reason to leave.
The third reason to leave is similar to the second one, but it is if the church refuses to confront sin or discipline members who are sinning blatantly. I won’t get you to read it, but you’ll hopefully remember from 1 Corinthians 5 that Paul gives the church a lot of trouble for letting people in the church get away with some pretty disgusting stuff. And not only refusing to discipline them but actually bragging about how open-minded and non-judgmental their church is. This is another red flag — that they don’t take sin seriously.
Not that they are all spying on one another, breathing down each other’s necks with everyone afraid to move lest they get hammered by the pastor — we’re talking about people who are in obvious sins. I’ve heard of churches who have caught men molesting the kids in the church but refused to call the police or tell the church. That person just leaves and goes on to do it at a different church. That’s terrible. We’ve talked about the dangers of not confronting sin many times and that the most loving thing we can do is to drag sin into the light and deal with it. If a church doesn’t take discipline and sin seriously, then they don’t take God, salvation, scripture, or love seriously. We would all agree that a parent who doesn’t discipline their child, or who doesn’t pull them back from danger, does not truly love them.
We, as a church, cannot say we love the people of Danforth or Norfolk or any other church in the CBOQ who is teaching and practicing error if we are not willing to step up and say so. It is cruel of us to allow a group of people we are in association with to go on listening to and believing wrong things about God because we are too afraid to tell them the truth and bring their pastor or leadership to account.
The fourth reason to leave a church is if the church is marked by hypocrisy, giving lip service to biblical Christianity but refusing to actually live it out. We read 2 Timothy 3 last week, but turn there anyway. Hopefully, you’ll remember this list describing people in the church who want to be called Christians, who even want to be pastors and leaders in the church, who want everyone to see a “form of godliness” but are in fact hypocrites who will not submit to Jesus.
How can you tell if you are attending or in fellowship with this kind of church? Paul describes it this way, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be…” now look at this list:
“Lovers of self”. This church promotes itself, not Jesus or the Gospel. They talk about how great their pastor is, how cool their ministries are, how good their band sounds — but not about the work God is doing there. The fruits of repentance, obedience, and humility are nowhere because the church doesn’t love Jesus, they love themselves, so that’s what they talk about.
Next, this church is full of “lovers of money”. Having a big building and a gym and fancy tech isn’t bad — and having a small church full of old stuff doesn’t make you better than them. How can you tell if the church is a lover of money? All the conversations seem to revolve around money. Maintenance issues, how to spend the money, how to save the money, they argue about budget items, they talk a lot about how much tithing there is, the rich people are in places of authority even though they’re not godly, and things like that. Whether a church is rich or poor, if they spend more time talking about money than they do praying, studying the word, and presenting the gospel, it’s a bad church.
Next, this church is “proud, arrogant”. How can you tell? Because they constantly compare themselves to other churches. They think they’re better than them. When other churches or preaches or ministries come up in conversation it’s always comparative — who is better, who has bigger numbers, who has bigger building, who raised more money. The preacher slams other churches in his sermons, and the culture of the church shows that they think they’re better than others.
I’ll stop there, but consider the rest of the list for yourselves. Have you ever heard of or been to an “abusive” church or seen an abusive pastor? They absolutely exist. And they’ll abuse under the guise of being “fundamentalist” or even “tolerant”. There are churches and pastors and ministries who teach their youth to be “disobedient to their parents” under the guise of being radically sold out to Jesus. Some churches are “ungrateful”, others “unholy”. There are “heartless” churches who don’t care about the marginalized or oppressed. There are “unappeasable” churches who are always complaining and arguing about something. There are “slanderous” churches who promote gossip and talk about people behind their back – even from the pulpit.
And there’s more for you to consider. These are churches and church leaders, as verse 5 says, who have “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” What does the Apostle say we should do when we come across churches and ministries like this? “Avoid such people.”
Why? Because a little yeast works its way through the whole dough (1 Cor 5:6). Because bad company ruins good character (1 Cor 15:33). Because if you partner with willfully sinful, unrepentant, heretical people, you are guilty by association and they will invariably drag you into their sin.
Now, let me be clear. That doesn’t mean you’ll ever find a perfect church. We’re not a perfect church. What we’re trying to be is a church that is actively working towards godliness through the power of God. That’s all that can be expected. A good church, a good Christian, a good association, a good friend, a good partner, is not one that never sins – it’s one that recognizes their sin and is working on it. They see the hypocrisy in themselves and want to deal with it. They see greed and they want it to stop. Not because they are trying to earn God’s love or show off, but because they trust God’s way, trust God’s Word, fear and respect God as Lord, and know that sin is dangerous, sin is corrupting, sin is a trap, and sin cost Jesus His life, so they want to be free of it. And they preach a message that tells people how to be free of it by the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The CBOQ, if they keep going the way they are going, doesn’t seem to want to do that. They have tolerated sin and error for years, and have had ample opportunity to deal with it. That’s why we’re on the fence waiting to see what they’ll do with this final ultimatum.
So my encouragement to you is to pray for the CBOQ that the leadership would repent. For the churches that are in sin, that they would repent. For the leadership of CLRA, and for us to make wise and careful steps over the coming months.
My further encouragement to you is to consider your own history with churches. Have you ever left a church for wrong reasons and need to repent and ask forgiveness? Are you here for the right reasons? Are you considering leaving, and are those reasons godly? Do you know people who have left their church, this one or another, and need to be confronted about why they did it? Perhaps God is calling you to do that.
And finally, I would ask you to consider our own church’s issues. Are there any weeds in our garden? Are there sins that we, as a church family, need to repent of? Are there things we’ve let slide that God has convicted you of, but you’ve been afraid to bring up? Let’s deal with them so that we can all stand clean before God and not be mired in sin. How can we ask for the Holy Spirit to bless our gatherings and grow our church if we have sins God has been telling us about, but we refuse to confront? God will not bless disobedience.
Let’s take the speck out of our own eye, before we go and try to deal with the log in the CBOQ’s.
We’re just beginning a new series on the Gospel of John. Last week we did a bit of an overview of who John was, and his audience was, how John’s gospel fits in with the other three, and that the major theme is introducing and defending who Jesus really is. He’s writing decades after the other three gospels were written. The Apostle Paul had written his letters to all the churches many years before and had already died.
The people reading and hearing this book about Jesus were now 50 years away from when the actual events occurred. Many of them lived far away from Jerusalem, where they took place. And many of the people who saw the life, death and resurrection had already died, so the information about Jesus was almost all second-hand. But John hadn’t died, and when he was quite old, maybe 90 years old, the Holy Spirit compelled him to write his own eye-witness account of his experiences with Jesus, addressing not only the false-teachings about Him, but also giving another side to the story, another aspect that would complement the already existing gospels to give a much bigger, much clearer picture of Jesus so no one would be able to doubt who He really is.
Why Context is Important
You might be asking, why is all this context so important? Why not just jump into chapter 1 verse 1 and get going with what the book actually says instead of spending so much time on the background. My answer is because doing that leads to mistakes in interpretation. Context is critically important to our understanding of the Bible.
We sometimes have the unfortunate habit of actually disconnecting Bible verses from the Bible. Many of you likely have a bible verse on your phone, on a mug, a shirt, or your wall at home. And while that’s good to do, for the most part, it can sometimes lead to pretty serious misunderstandings of what God actually meant in that verse.
My favourite version of this, for example, is how many times you hear people quote Matthew 7:1 where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” I’ve heard this used, most often, as the reason why everyone should mind their own business and never, ever, tell someone that something they are doing is wrong.
Is that what it means? No. That takes it out of the context. What about John 5:24 where Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” What about Luke 17:3 where Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him…” Obviously “Judge not” doesn’t mean “never judge”. So what does it mean? Well, let’s look at the context. In Matthew 7, Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount and is just about to say, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (7:5). In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “Don’t ever judge”, He’s saying, “don’t judge like a hypocrite”. Don’t be unduly harsh or arrogant in how you look at other people’s sins, or God will do the same thing to you. In other words, when you judge, because you will absolutely need to judge right and wrong, good and evil, wise and foolish… do so with as much generosity and grace as God has given you.
That’s just one, obvious example of what is called “proof-texting”, and it comes from not understanding the context of the verse. And in not understanding it, we apply it wrong. And when we apply it wrong, sin isn’t confronted and people are left miserable in the clutches of the enemy. We don’t want to do that, so before we study any book of the Bible, before we start taking apart the chapters and verses and words, we always spend time talking about the background of the whole book.
Who wrote it? Who were they writing to? What genre of book is it? Why did they write it? Is it poetry, history, proverb, instructions, allegory, a letter addressing a certain topic? That will change how you read it, right? When was it written? Before the Babylonian exile or after? Before the destruction of the Temple or after? Before Jesus or after? That matters because it all helps in interpreting what God was saying to the people who originally heard the message and how we should be reading it today.
Context, CLRA, & the CBOQ
Let me give you another example, this time with a bit more contemporary controversy. Right now, in the CBOQ (our denomination, the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec) there are a few churches who are now accepting members, teachers, leaders, and elders who are actively part of the LGBTQ community. This all came to a head a few years ago when Danforth Baptist Church in Toronto, which is associated with the CBOQ, released a statement saying they will no longer consider “sexual orientation or gender identity” when choosing leaders for their church.
This has caused division in the churches of the denomination. Some are in favour it, others are against it, and some don’t know what to think. The more conservative churches that are against the idea of LGBTQ leadership in the church formed a coalition called CLRA or the “Covenant Life Renewal Association” and came to the leadership of the CBOQ demanding action be taken against Danforth and other churches that would follow their example. So, for about three years now the leadership of the CBOQ has been trying to figure out what to do – and stalling. They’ve refused to take a stand on the issue and it has frustrated the conservative wing greatly – to the point where some have left or are considering leaving the CBOQ altogether.
I’m actually headed to a meeting this coming Thursday where I’ll be part of something I’ve never heard of happening before. Two different denominational leaders, one from the CBOQ and the other from the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists (FEB), will be giving separate presentations to the same group of pastors and church leaders. First, the president and former president of the CBOQ will give an update on how the committee is dealing with the LGBTQ issue (which I do not expect to go very well, considering I recently received an update email from the committee where they just kicked the can down the road a bit farther). Then, in the afternoon, Steve Jones, the National President of all of the whole Fellowship Baptist denomination will explain how they dealt with the LGBTQ issue and then give information to anyone who wants to transfer to their denomination. It is absolutely wild to me that two denominational presidents will be in the same room with the same pastors giving pitches about their denominational stances on this issue.
Consequently, this could be a very important week in the life of our church. Why? Because in our church we believe that as much as we love people in the LGBTQ community, as welcome as they are in our church and ministries, and as much grace and generosity we want to give them, we must draw the line where God draws it. And that means that people who live and promote an LGBTQ lifestyle cannot be members, leaders, or teachers in our church.
We don’t say this because we believe that we are better than the people in the LGBTQ community. We don’t hate them or think they are undeserving of God’s love. We hold to this standard because this is what the Bible teaches and no matter what culture says or what pressures we face, “We must obey God…” (Acts 5:29)
What does all this have to do with context? Well, it goes back to that statement made by the Danforth church and what brought about the big split in the CBOQ. I want to read part of it to you so you can see how it went down.
It begins, “Because God has welcomed us into his family through faith in Jesus Christ and calls us to pursue love and justice for all, Danforth Church is welcoming and inclusive of all people regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health.” With that, we wholeheartedly agree. Everyone is welcome at our church and at the feet of Jesus.
Then they get into their statements and they need to be read very carefully. Statement 1 is, “We share and uphold the values of love, justice and equal rights for all people, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health; and we desire to reflect the heart of God and the attitude of Jesus Christ towards those who have been marginalized”. That sounds good, and upon first glance seems right on, but it really needs some clarification.
We totally agree with the idea of everyone being worthy of love and justice and that we should love the marginalized like Jesus does – but what do they mean by “equal rights for all people”? For example, they say that they believe that people of any “age” should have “equal rights”. Does that mean a 3-year-old should have the same right to vote as a 21-year-old? Should a 3-year-old be allowed to borrow money, get a tattoo, or quit school if they want to? Probably not, so “equal rights” sounds nice, but really needs some clarification.
Statements numbers 2, 3 and 4 is where things really become problematic. Number 2 says, “We find our agreement in the core and primary beliefs of the Christian faith reflected, for example, in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds; and we accept a diversity of views among us on many other theological and/or disputable matters….”. Certainly, those creeds give the basic outline of the Christian faith. I’ve taught both of them here. But they are certainly not comprehensive statements of everything we believe. For example, neither creed covers murder or greed or lying. It doesn’t say they’re right or wrong. Is murder one of those “disputable matters” we should “accept a diversity of views” about? Probably not. But it’s not in the Apostles Creed, so…. In the same way, why would we say that something as foundational as human sexuality and gender, which are also not covered in the creeds, are “disputable”?
The third statement goes even farther saying, “We acknowledge that the cultural, social and religious contexts of the scriptures are significant in our interpretation of biblical passages and that humility is required in holding positions on secondary and/or disputable matters…” There’s our word for today: “context”, except it’s using it the exact opposite way we are using it today. What they are saying is that because the bible was written in a different culture, with different social norms, and different religious contexts, it must therefore no longer be applicable to today – and we can, therefore, dismiss much of what the Bible says and interpret it much more broadly because it was written for a different people at a different time.
These are the same people who argue that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say to contemporary audiences about human sexuality and gender because it was written to a bunch of backwards people in ancient times. I hear the argument all the time that if Christians believe homosexuality is wrong, then they shouldn’t be eating shellfish or wearing polyester-cotton blends either because the Bible forbids those too – and we’re hypocrites for picking and choosing which verses we obey.
They grab verse like Leviticus 19:19 which prohibits wearing cloth of two kinds of material and equate it to verses in 1 Corinthians and Romans and 1 Timothy that teach homosexuality is a sin. But that’s terrible biblical interpretation! That’s worse than the “judge not” proof-texting we were talking about before. It’s a non-argument for anyone who knows anything about the Bible.
The laws about not eating shellfish or wearing mixed cloths or all the other ones about how to treat menstruating women or not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk were laws given specifically to the nation of Israel, not everyone. It was partly to make them look weird and different from the rest of the nations around them – to show their holiness, their set-apartness. In fact, many of the food laws specifically say that they are for the Israelites and not everyone.
I don’t want to get into the whole thing right now, but in the Bible, you will see three different kinds of laws: Civil Laws given specifically to the Israelites, Ceremonial Laws that defined how they practiced worship, and Moral Laws based which are universal for all people.
When Jesus came, He expanded the kingdom to include gentiles who don’t have to follow the Civil Laws of Israel, and He fulfilled all the Ceremonial Laws, creating a new way to worship God that wasn’t based around the Temple anymore. The only Laws left, and which are universal for all people, for all time because they are based on God’s nature and not one group of people, are God’s Moral Laws. Part of Biblical interpretation is understanding these different kinds of laws and which ones are applicable to believers today.
So, are blending cloths on the same interpretive level human sexuality and gender? No. Not even close.
But are the fact that these laws were written to an ancient culture significant? Yes, as is the fact that they are being taught to and interpreted by people who live thousands of years later in different cultures all over the world. So yes, culture is significant. Part of my job as a preacher is to grapple with the texts so I can “understand the principles and imperatives within” and then present them to a contemporary audience in an understandable way. That’s my job. That’s been the job of Bible preachers and teachers forever. Figure out what God was saying and then sharing the meaning and application for today.
But, when I’m looking at a verse I do not have the right to contradict what God is saying because it disagrees with my current, contemporary context. Regardless of how much our society wants to reinterpret morality, humans do not get to dismiss something that God plainly teaches as truth-for-all-time just because they don’t want to believe it anymore.
I was reading another pastor’s interpretation of the Danforth Statement and he pointed out how ironic it is that Danforth would say that Christians must come by our interpretation of biblical passages with “humility” – because they’re not using the word in a biblical way. What they mean is that a humble person should never think they really know what the Bible means. That somehow, as Michael Krueger said, “To be uncertain is to be humble. To be certain is to be arrogant.”
But that’s not biblical humility. Biblical humility says, “God has been crystal clear about some things and I’m going to believe it and obey it regardless of what I feel about it or what pressures I face from society.” In the words of Isaiah 66:2, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Or 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands.” That means that Jesus has clearly commanded us to do specific things. In Luke 11:28 Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
That means we study, study, study, using all the resources at our disposal to figure out the clear meaning of what God is saying in any given passage and then work hard to do what He says. That’s biblical humility. If you can make a good, biblical argument for something – then Christians should teach and obey it. If you want us to support LGBTQ, don’t appeal to culture or feelings, appeal to scripture. Let God’s Word be the final voice to speak on the issue.
That’s not what Danforth is doing. Let me read statement 4 so you can see how they believe people should interpret the will and word of God. “We hold that people have the right and responsibility to seek and hear God for themselves, and to determine and respond to God’s will for their lives within the context of the Biblical values of love, faithfulness, monogamy, respect and integrity, and within a community of accountability…”
Again, on the surface, this seems to be something we can agree with. God does meet people as individuals, and each believer does have access to the same Word and the same Spirit, and each is invited to pray and be led by God. But the context and application of this statement are dangerous. The implication here is that a person’s “seeking and hearing” can be divorced from proper, biblical interpretation. They cherry-pick words like “love, faithfulness, respect, and accountability”, but they neglect to say that every believer’s interpretation of God’s will must come under the authority of His revealed Word. We can’t just go off and make up a god of our own design, or pick and choose the biblical values we like while getting rid of the ones that make us uncomfortable.
And that’s what Danforth and the other churches like them are doing, and that’s why Jason and I are headed off to a meeting in Hamilton this week. Because clear biblical interpretation and obedience to God’s word are critically important – and we only want to be associated with groups that hold to that standard.
We weren’t able to get much into John today, because of this discussion of the context and the meeting on Thursday, but we’ll get into it more next week, and then I hope to start in chapter 1 verse 1 the week after. But before I close this message I want to read a passage of scripture that perfectly summarizes the issue that we’ve been talking about today: interpretation, misinterpretation, contextualization, and pressures that preachers, and really all Christians, face when it comes to obeying God’s word. It comes from 2 Timothy 3-4.
2 Timothy is from the Apostle Paul to his protégé Timothy as Paul was sitting in a Roman prison, awaiting death. He’s writing to Timothy about persevering in the gospel and care for the churches, even in spite of great suffering from outside and within. Paul figures this may be the last message he may ever give to young Timothy and tells him to keep on fighting for the faith. Paul speaks of many who used to call themselves faithful followers of Jesus, but who have abandoned him and the gospel because of persecution and compromise.
He writes to Timothy about suffering being normal for all believers and how the only way to persevere is by God’s power. He says the only way to access God’s power is to know God’s Word and to believe the true and only Gospel of Jesus Christ. He says that the only way to know the Gospel is through the scriptures. He says that those who believe those scriptures will persevere, but those who do not will show themselves by leaving the faith. So he entreats Timothy to keep preaching, keep teaching, keep studying, and to deal with all false teaching as though it is deadly cancer that needs to be cut out or the church will die.
Even at the close of the letter, Paul asks Timothy to come and visit him one last time and to bring his books with him so Paul can keep studying and writing until the very end. The gospel, the Word of God, is constantly under attack and Paul wants to keep helping believers to rightly interpret the scriptures so they won’t believe lies and lose their connection to God.
In truth, I want to read the whole of the book, because it is one, solid argument from front to back about what we are talking about today – the importance of rightly studying God’s word – but we don’t have time. So, as I read, listen to how Paul speaks of the dangers of misinterpretation and the importance of studying so we can know the truth.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
That’s what I want to do, and what I want for each of you as well. I don’t want you seeking out people to tell you what you want to hear. I want you to know the truth about by that truth be set free. I want all of us to stand on the firm foundation of the Word of God, to preach and teach His Word, to be sober-minded, endure whatever suffering comes as a result of our beliefs and to fulfil the ministries and good works God has given us to do.
An Introduction to the Gospel of John
Please open up to John 20:30-21, but before we jump in and read it, we need a little context. We are starting a series on the Gospel of John today, but I don’t’ want to jump straight into verse one. In fact, we’re going to start near the end. But first, some background.
The Gospel of John is just that, John’s presentation of the Gospel, the good news, about Jesus Christ. John’s is the last of the gospels written and tells the story of Jesus differently than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are a “synopsis” or “summary” of the story of Jesus. They were all written within a couple decades of each other, from 50 to around 70AD, and each to a different audience. Mark wrote to convince the Gentiles of why they should follow Jesus as God, Matthew wrote to the Jews to show them that Jesus was their Messiah, and then Doctor Luke wrote his gospel and Acts together as an eye-witness account of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the birth of the church, for everyone.
These Synoptic Gospels were copied and circulated all over the place for about 20 years. At that time, most of, if not all of the Apostles died, except John. In 90AD, 50 years after he witnessed Jesus earthly ministry, John was still alive and ministering in Ephesus, a central hub and ministry training centre for many of the churches around the world. It wouldn’t be too long, maybe only 5 years, until even greater persecution against the church would cause John to be arrested, boiled in oil, and then exiled to the penal island of Patmos where he would write the Book of Revelation.
As he grew older in his ministry in Ephesus, God placed upon his heart to write his own Gospel, his own explanation of why people should believe in Jesus. But he would do it from his own perspective. Matthew, Mark and Luke had already written their defences of the Gospel so he didn’t need to re-write those again. He wrote something different. He wrote a “spiritual gospel”, a sort of supplement and complement to the other three. (Macarthur Study Bible – Pg 1569-1570) That’s why many of the stories in John’s book are different than Matthew, Mark and Luke’s – and why, when they overlap, John gives some more information and explanation.
So, for example, John’s gospel doesn’t start with the birth narrative. That’s already covered really well in Matthew and Luke. Instead, John starts with a greater understanding of where Jesus came from. Matthew starts with Jesus’ lineage and then tells the birth narrative because he was convincing his Jewish audience that Jesus was the Messiah and rightful King in the line of David. Luke begins with the story of John the Baptist because he’s picking up right where the Old Testament left off, and then gets into the birth narrative from an eye-witness account, likely after talking to Mary herself.
John didn’t’ need to do that. How does John start?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1–3)
John goes all the way back before the beginning of the Bible, before the beginning of time, to explain to His readers who Jesus really is. They’ve probably already read the other Gospels, and we all know that the first 50 years of the church was full of non-stop false-teaching about Jesus. By the time of John’s writing, the Apostle Paul had already written all his letters to the churches and been dead for over 20 years. As John writes his gospel, he does so with one eye on combatting the false-teachings about Jesus and the other on making an apologetic, a defence, for who Jesus really is. So, when the Apostle John starts his gospel, he expands his readers’ minds helping them understand something about Jesus that people weren’t grasping – so no one would ever have a doubt about who He is ever again. This Jesus, whom he is about to present, is fully God and fully man.
John is writing as an evangelist. He’s trying to convince people of who Jesus really is. Throughout the Gospel, John arranges the stories thematically to as “signs” that point to who Jesus not only said He is but showed He is. Like in John 6 when Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people and then says, “I am the bread of life.” (6:35). John tells the story of Jesus do something miraculous, shows people misunderstanding that miracle, demonstrates how the current religious leaders are wrong, and then connects that story to Jesus explaining in no uncertain terms who He is and what the miracle meant. John does this over and over, using seven different miracles as the outline to explain seven different perspectives, so no one reading would have any doubts about who Jesus really is.
In John’s own words, near the end of the Gospel, John gives his mission statement: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30–31)
One Beggar to Another
John’s mission wasn’t merely to present facts about Jesus, to correct people who got the story wrong, or to show us how Jesus lived so we could do the same. That wasn’t his main motivation. He wrote this Gospel, as did the other gospel writers, as did Paul and Peter and everyone else who wrote a book of the New Testament – to tell the truth about, and convince people to follow the one, true, Jesus. Not a version of Jesus that fit with their worldview, not a pick-and-choose, buffet-style Jesus assembled from a bunch of different sources, not the Jewish version of Jesus, the Greek version of Jesus, or any other version of Jesus – and not because they just wanted everyone to think they were right or special or unique.
The Gospel writers wrote, as someone else put it,
“as one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” (D.T. Niles)
That’s what evangelism, the sharing of the gospel, is all about. I’m subscribed to a bunch of different Christian YouTube channels and one thing that keeps popping up in my feed are videos of street evangelists with megaphones arguing with other people with megaphones. That’s not really the kind of evangelism we see in scriptures, but it’s the sort that gets clicks and attention. As they say though, it seems to be all heat and no light.
I remember being out in downtown Ottawa one night and there was a man standing on a street corner holding a sign that I think simply just had Matthew 3:2 on it,
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
As I walked past him I read the sign and tried to catch his eye to wave at him. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he had good motives and I wanted to give him a sort of a, “Hey man, I don’t know you, but good for you for standing out here holding a bible verse.” But he wouldn’t acknowledge me. He just stood there with a gloomy look on his face, staring into nothingness. I kept waving though and I watched as he looked at me, and then looked away. So I started waving more. He didn’t move. So I stopped walking, stared right at him, and started waving and waving. Eventually, about a minute later, he begrudgingly gave me a little hand-twist and I smiled and went on my way.
From what I’ve read and experienced, that dude is basically what the world thinks we are when we say we’re Christians. A bunch of grumpy, judgemental, joyless people who generally dislike the world around them, and are carrying a message that no one really seems to understand. It’s not true – well, it’s not true for most of the Christians that I know – but it’s the stereotype, right?
And honestly, no one reading that guy’s sign is going to understand what it says anymore. What percentage of people in the Byward Market on a Friday night, do you think, know what any of those words mean? What does “repent” mean? What is the “kingdom of heaven”? What does “at hand” mean? It’s basically gibberish to 95% of Canada.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t gibberish. It’s not religion or opinion or a methodology or a good, old story to tell to make us feel better, or a hammer to beat down our enemies. It’s the difference between life and death. “…these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That, at the very least, implies that those who do not believe in his name do not have “life”. It means they are “dead”. People who share, and teach, and defend, the gospel of Jesus – whether we’re talking about Matthew, Luke, John, or Paul – or Billy Graham or Dwight L Moody – or Pastors and Small Group Leaders and Sunday School Teachers – or just you sitting in a coffee shop or at your kitchen table telling your story to someone else – are not coming from a “high-horse” down to the ignorant masses to explain how we know the right way of doing religion.
No, we are just “one beggar telling another beggar where we found the bread.” The Apostles don’t elevate themselves in their books, but instead, debase themselves, showing how they were lost, blind, and afraid. The hero of the gospels, or Acts, or the letters, is never the author, nor any the apostles. The followers of Jesus don’t come off in a very good light. Matthew was a despised tax collector, Mark was a coward who took off on both Jesus and Paul, Peter stuck his foot in his mouth over and over and then denied Jesus at His most desperate hour. All of the men who would become the apostles repeatedly showed their ignorance, sin, selfishness, and cowardice. When they told the story of Jesus, they didn’t shine – Jesus did.
When Paul tells the story of His conversion he pulls no punches either. He loved himself above all, hated Jesus, and got great pleasure from abusing Christians as much as he could. Over and over Paul marvels at how much grace Jesus showed him. When Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy near the end of his life, after serving God for many years and suffering much for the faith, he said,
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:12–17)
The closer Paul got to Jesus, the smaller Paul got and the larger Jesus got. I love that line in verse 16, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul often wondered why Jesus would save him, one who hated Him so much and did so much damage to His people. And after a long while, this is what he had figured out. Jesus gave him mercy because if he could be saved – if Jesus could save Saul of Tarsus, the most fearsome opponent to the church alive, a man even the apostles were nervous around – anyone could be saved.
The Heart of Evangelism
That’s the heart of evangelism, that’s the heart of the New Testament, the heart with which John writes his gospel with, and the heart of every good preacher, teacher, and Christian who is sharing their faith. We don’t speak about how great we are because we found Jesus – we tell people how great Jesus is because He found us.
When we weren’t looking for Him, Jesus showed Himself to us. When we were up to our eyeballs in sin and self, spiritually dead, unable to even recognize good from evil, Jesus broke through and showed us the consequences of that sin, died for those sins, killed those sins inside of us, and then raise us to new life. When we were desperately seeking a way to rid ourselves of guilt and shame and fear through our own willpower, through religion, through lifestyle, through spiritualism, Jesus broke our wills and told us the truth about where salvation, freedom, and life really comes from. When we were hurting, afraid, lonely, and lost, using all sorts of means to distract and numb ourselves from pain – Jesus broke through the fog, shared His love with us, offered us a new life, a new path, with Him as the Lord of our lives instead of us, and made it possible for us to conquer those sins and feel what life is really like.
When we share the gospel, I mean really share our story, our testimony, the good news of Jesus Christ, it comes from the same heart that Paul wrote with. Someone asks us, “Why do you live and talk and think like you do? Why do you have hope when everything is so hopeless? Why can you say you feel forgiven when I know the terrible things you’ve done? How can you possibly forgive the person who hurt you so badly? Where does your strength of character, your peace, your patience, your kindness, your love, your joy, your generosity, your gentleness, your courage, come from?”
Our answer is the same as every other Christian’s. “Listen, man. Any good you see in me doesn’t come from me. I’m a sinner. I still sin a lot. I still love myself far more than I should. If you were inside my head sometimes, you wouldn’t be asking that question. But here’s what happened. Even though I was steeped in my own ignorance, even though I thought I was better and smarter than God, even though I kept doing things my way, Jesus changed my life. He showed me grace. Something happened one day that I can’t explain. At that moment, Jesus met me. It was like seeing light or hearing sound for the first time. And when I saw that bit of light, I wanted more and asked Him to help me. So He pointed me at His word, His people, and His way. He told me to step off the throne of my life and give it all to Him. And I did. He showed me my ignorance and sin, and how my life was no life at all but was steeped in death – and then He offered to save me from it. He was gentle, kind, and patient, but firm. Whereat one time I hated authority, I despised anyone telling me what to do, now I craved it. I want life the way He offers it, the way He lives it. That change wasn’t me. He did it all.
He helped me see what was wrong and still is. He helped me get clean from it and still is. But it wasn’t just that He gave me people to help me – which He did – He worked a miracle inside me. It like He took out my old heart and replaced it with a new one. I’m not the same person I was. He didn’t just change a couple things – He changed all of me. My priorities are different, my outlook is different, my interests are different, the way I see the world, and people, and politics, and work, and life, and death, and eternity are all very, very different than before. And that’s because of Him. It’s because, in His mercy, He changed me.
And so, here’s the secret. Every day, I go to Him. When I wake up, I talk to Him and He talks to me through His word and in my spirit – in my heart. As I go through my day, no matter what’s happening, I know He’s with me. I’m never alone. When I need wisdom, I ask and he gives it to me. When I sin and mess up – which is a lot – He always, always forgives me and then tells me what I need to do to fix it. When I’m frustrated and angry, or tempted, or afraid, I talk to Him, I read His Word, and He always, always, shows up. I can’t explain it. All I can say is that Jesus is real and alive, and I know Him personally – but more important… He knows me. That’s what’s different about me.”
That’s the heart and message I want to start this series out with. Yes, we may get into some more academic, systematic theology, jargony bits, because explaining the truth accurately is important – but I want it to always be at the front of our minds that John’s Gospel, and by extension this church, the ministries we have here, my ministry, and everything we do is motivated by the knowledge that true life, the meaning of life, abundant life, is only found by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as He is found in the Bible.
My encouragement to you is to read and study and pray along with me so that we can grow together in faith, hope, and love for Jesus, His Gospel, His people, and His Word.
Turn with me to 1 Kings 18:1–40 and I want to read two stories about the prophet Elijah today, but we need to read a large section so we can get the whole story. A lot has already happened up to this point, but you’ll figure out how things are going as we read. The only thing you really need to know is that the current king of Israel is an evil guy named Ahab who married an even worse, pagan woman named, Jezebel, who did everything they could to insult God and provoke His anger.
Elijah comes on the scene as God’s messenger and tells Ahab that because of the horribleness in Israel, He was going to bring a three-year drought. God then tells Elijah to take off for a while. During this time, a good man named Obadiah becomes governor under Ahab, which is a pretty difficult job for a faithful man of God. We pick up the story in 1 Kings 18:1.
“After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.
And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him. And Obadiah recognized him and fell on his face and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”’ And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where. And so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have feared the LORD from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, how I hid a hundred men of the LORD’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”’; and he will kill me.” And Elijah said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah.
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”
That’s what I call a power encounter. Elijah, the man of God called during a very difficult time, stands alone on the mountain, surrounded by hundreds of enemies – but he’s bold, brash, and confident. So much so that he not only builds his altar but soaks it with buckets and buckets of water. And then BOOM, God shows up in an amazing way! The people’s hearts melt. They have seen firsthand that the Baals are fake and the Lord is God. Elijah is vindicated, the people turn on the false prophets, then as the people repent God ends the drought with a great rain. Elijah even tells Ahab he better get going because the whole country is about to be one, big, flooded, mud pit and if he didn’t leave now his chariot was going to get very stuck.
Wouldn’t we all like to have God use us in such a way?
The book of James in the New Testament actually uses this passage to say that this sort of encounter isn’t outside the realm of possibility for Christians. In fact, James 5:13–18 says that the same God, the same Spirit, the same power that was at work on Mount Carmel is available to the people of God in the church. He says,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
A Nature Like Ours
Our first instinct might be to say, “Nah. That’s Elijah. He’s the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. I’m not like him!” Today’s message isn’t about prayer. What I want to focus on right now are the words, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…”
Other translations say that “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” (NIV) or “Elijah was just like us…” (BSV) or “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are…” (KJV) and James’ point is to argue against the idea that Elijah was special somehow.
Remember the story in Acts 14(:8-18) where Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and God heals some people through them, but everyone starts to worship them as Zeus and Hermes instead of believing in Jesus? The whole crowd starts getting ready to treat them as gods and offer sacrifices to them and Paul tears his clothes and cries out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are men of like nature with you, and we bring you good news…” “We’re not gods! We’re just regular people! Jesus is God! Jesus has the power! Jesus did the miracle! Let’s talk about Jesus!”
That’s what James is saying too. Elijah was just a guy that God chose to work through. Elijah was just a guy who did what God told Him to do. When God said to pray for a drought, he did. When God said to pray for rain, he did. Elijah didn’t make the rain start or stop. No one can do that except God. Elijah was just a regular guy who just said what he was told to say. God had the power. God did the miracle. Let’s talk about God.
That’s the whole message of the book of James. You want an answer to prayer? You want to see Jesus at work in your life and others’? Here’s how: It’s not believing that you’re super special and powerful, it’s knowing you are not but trusting Jesus and just doing what He tells you to do anyway. Then you’ll see His power.
What Was Elijah Like?
But I want to go back to 1 Kings for a bit and take a look at the kind of guy Elijah was – because it’s easy to think, “Oh sure, you say ‘he’s just a guy’, but he’s, a super-saint. He was always praying, always trusting, super humble, charismatic, organized, full of joy and trusting God all the time…. that’s why God used him. I’m not like that. If Elijah had half the problems I had, then the story would have been different…”
But let’s look at 1 Kings 19. These verses come right after the Mount Carmel power-encounter, right after the rains come, right after all that amazing God stuff….
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree.”
Elijah hears that Jezebel is after him and what’s his reaction? You’d think it would be to put the boxing gloves back on, ring the bell, and call round 2 – but no. We see terror, depression, suicidality. This often happens to people after great battles, even if they are great victories. You’ve probably experienced this. Things don’t go so well for a while, but you’ve been putting up a fight – or you have a bunch of days where some really cool stuff happens. You focus on a project and it goes really well… you have an awesome, busy vacation… you have some kind of personal breakthrough… you run a race or paint a picture the best you’ve ever done… and then, for some reason, the next day you feel totally deflated, depleted and depressed. You were flying high yesterday – proactive, energized, able to get the job done – but today, now that the stress has let up, you can’t handle anything. You’re foggy. You get sad. You get sick. The amazing thing you just did yesterday looks worse than it did. You spiral into a funk. Ever felt that? Where does that come from?
Some people call it the “Let-Down Effect” or “Adrenal Fatigue” and you’ve probably experienced it. It basically means that our bodies are capable of squirting all kinds of helpful hormones into our system to keep us going when we need energy, but those resources are finite and once the stress is over (whether it’s good stress or bad) those helpful hormones are depleted, our systems start to crash, and our bodies and minds start to unravel. You’ve probably felt this if you jump into an exercise you haven’t done in a while. Day One goes great, you’re surprised how well you do, but the next day you feel like you’re going to die.
That can happen mentally too. You tell your body that you can’t afford to be grumpy or tired right now – so you hold all those negative feelings in, push down that stress reaction, overlook all the stuff that’s bothering you – so you can get the job done, enjoy the vacation, or whatever – but those brain chemicals run out too. And living in fight or flight for that long has filled your body with stress chemicals and other issues. That box of emotions you’ve been packing inside your heart gets full and starts to leak. I’m sure you know the feeling. This may be part of what Elijah was going through.
Some people, if they are naturally or usually more anxious or depressed than average, or naturally have less energy than average, or have learning or physical disabilities, start with a deficit and end up requiring more of their minds and bodies than others. An introverted person has to psych themselves up to go to a party, or give a presentation, or have a discussion they’re not looking forward to. A person with ADD has to psych themselves up to be able to buckle down to study for a long time or pay attention during an important family dinner or meeting. Your average person can wake up to an alarm clock, eat breakfast, take a shower, and go for a walk – but for someone with depression, that takes way, way more energy to do and then actually requires some recovery time! Maybe Elijah was that kind of person too. Wouldn’t surprise me.
Look at what happens here. Elijah, the man who had just confronted thousands of armed zealots with great courage, knowing that God absolutely had his back – is now scared of one woman. So much so that he takes off and “ran for his life” 200 kilometres South. He’s not praying or doing anything positive. He’s running as far away as he can, to the very edge of the Promised Land. He gets there and is utterly exhausted. He’s so scared he won’t even tell his servant where he’s going and takes off into the wilderness, alone, and collapses under a shady tree. At that moment, depression really takes hold. He ran away to escape death. But what does his exhausted, depleted brain say?
Look at what he prays. He says, “It is enough.” Literally, that means, “Let it be enough.” “I’m done, Lord. I can’t take anymore. Please let this it.”
Then he says, “Take away my life”, meaning, “I want to die. Kill me, God.” He ran away to escape death! How muddled are his thoughts? How messed up are his emotions? How depleted are his mental and physical reserves? He’s so down he wants God to kill him. “God will do it better than Jezebel”, he may have thought.
He says, “I’m no better than my fathers.” Here we see how utterly disappointed he is with himself. He feels like a total failure. Keep in mind the Mount Carmel encounter was only a week ago! But now, all of that is forgotten. All he sees is how cowardly he is, how fruitless his ministry has been, how impossible the fight against Jezebel is, how nothing will ever change, how he’s not the right man for the job, how he has no help, no support, no comfort, no hope.
Now, keep in mind, these are all lies – but that doesn’t matter. His brain is incapable at this point of processing truth. He’s so stuck in the dark that he can’t see the light.
He prays this one sentence prayer and passes out.
Consider our phrase from James again, “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…”. We see Elijah on Mount Carmel with fire from heaven or confronting the evil Ahab, or praying for rain and seeing a flood and we think, “Wow! That’s amazing!” But we often forget about Elijah under the broom tree a week later. Elijah wasn’t super-human. He was just a guy who said “yes” to God. That’s James’ point. God showed Elijah grace in choosing him even though he was a very weak vessel. Elijah obeyed and God gave him everything he needed on Mount Carmel. But the story isn’t about how special Elijah is. All Elijah did was say “Yes” and then go where he was told to go and say what he was told to say. God did everything.
God’s Gracious Response
I don’t want to leave the story without looking back at 1 Kings 19:5-8 to see God’s response to Elijah’s prayer. Did he kill him? Rebuke him? Let’s see.
“And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”
How does God respond to this utterly spent man, who is totally depressed, took off on his responsibilities, gave his resignation, and then seriously contemplated suicide? Wind and fire? A booming voice from the mountain top?
No. He sends an angel to deliver some pancakes. No sermon. No judgment. No guilt. No pressure. Just some pancakes. And then the angel left him alone to sleep some more. Elijah’s problem wasn’t lack of faith – his problem was physiological. He was physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. He didn’t need a lecture or pep-talk or guilt-trip. He needed pancakes and some rest. God knew that. God knows our physical limitations. He’s not disappointed with us for being human.
What does God do next? What does the angel say, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” God acknowledges that Elijah’s problem isn’t faith, it’s physical. “Dude, you’ve rested, but now you need to eat some more.” God, for now, completely ignores the content of Elijah’s prayer that he prayed in that depressive funk, and just says, “Ok, eat something. You’re not done yet, but I totally agree that you need to recharge. Take some rest. Eat some food. Once you’re ready, I’ve got something else for you. Now that you’ve slept, sit up and eat and you’ll feel better.” What’s the prescription? Prayer time? Meditation? Worship songs? Big meeting? A new schedule? A better list? Nope. More pancakes. And these were like, seriously good pancakes too. Had to be like Lembas Bread from Lord of the Rings. Because they fuel him for a while.
With his body rested, his belly full, things started to look a little better. Is he fully recovered? Heck no. Is he 15% better than when he laid down and wanted to die? Sure. He’s got enough in the tank for whatever thing God has next. Elijah’s depression prayer is forgotten, Elijah gets up, says “Yes” to God again. And God doesn’t send him to take on the world again. God gives him a break for over a month, but keeps him moving forward. And sends him to mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai, where God first spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel. In other words, instead of sending Elijah back to work right away, God bring Elijah back to Him. He brings Elijah back to the genesis of his faith. Back to basics. Back to what brought Elijah and God together in the first place. And they have a long talk.
I’ll leave the reading of the next part of 1 Kings 19 to you, but suffice to say that after Elijah has recovered a bit, God meets Elijah in a powerful way, deals kindly but appropriately with his needs, his attitude, and his sins, but also brings him back for about 15 more years of ministry – even mentoring God’s next prophet. God saved Elijah by His loving kindness.
God Prefers the Weak But Willing
Let me close with this: When God calls a person to salvation and wants to use a person for His kingdom, He doesn’t call the strong, talented, powerful, influential, wise, and smart. He prefers people who are weak but willing. They know they are weak, but they are willing to say “I’m not sure why you chose me, but Yes, I will go. I will do it your way, in your strength, in your time, because I know I can’t do it on my own.” And then He equips them to do the job.
That’s the strange part. God bypasses the already capable so He can equip those who are incapable. God bypasses those who seem to have it all put together, in favour of people who are a mess. God bypasses the intellectually superior in favour of those who know they don’t know it all. God bypasses those who are secure unto themselves and chooses people with great insecurities because they are the ones who know they need Him most. God prefers the weak but willing. Then He equips those people, making them stronger, smarter, more powerful, more influential, wiser, and more talented. All He requires from us is to say “Yes, Lord.” And since that person knows where they came from – and everyone else knows where that person came from too, and the wild improbability that they would be able to pull off what they are doing – God gets the glory. God blesses us, we feel useful, and He gets the glory. It’s a good deal.
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” Flawed, emotional, prideful, prone to depression, anxiety, even suicidality – but God chose Him, equipped Him, put Him in the right place at the right time to do amazing things – and all Elijah had to do was say “Yes”. And then, even when Elijah had a total meltdown, God didn’t turn His back on him and head off for someone better who wasn’t so damaged. No, God was gracious, loving, kind, patient, truthful – and gently scooped Elijah back up, set him on his feet, strengthened him, and kept using him.
That’s what God does. That’s how God sees you, your family, and this church. No one is too messed up, too far gone, too weak, too stupid, to be saved and to serve. What disqualifies someone is pride and a hard heart. What matters is simply saying, “Yes, Lord. Despite my weakness, insecurities, failures, and fears, I will serve – but I won’t go unless you go with me. I can’t do anything of value on my own.” (Ex 33:15) That’s a heart God can use.
So, my encouragement to you is the same as before. Don’t write yourself off – or anyone else. If you’re in sin, stop, repent, and ask for God’s forgiveness and healing and He promises to do it. But your past or current mess, or the past or current mess of that person who has been blowing up their life, doesn’t mean God is done with them, and it doesn’t mean God can use them or you to serve His kingdom.
Maybe it’ll take some time. Maybe you need some recovery time. Don’t feel bad if you’re under the broom tree right now. Don’t feel guilty that life wiped you out. You are a human being, even as we are. Don’t feel bad that your brain and body are depleted and all you can do these days is sleep and eat some pancakes. That’s ok.
But – but while you are there under the broom tree, don’t think God’s done with you. Don’t think God’s mad at you. Don’t think that God is disappointed with you. He’s not. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) You need to accept help, accept that you’re depleted, accept you are weak and let him and God’s people minister to you.
And for that person you are concerned about, that seems like they’ll never recover? All that needs to happen – literally the one thing that needs to happen – is for them to ask God for help. Consider the prodigal son. Consider Peter who denied Jesus. Consider Elijah. He ran as far as he could, gave up, and passed out. But, in that dark moment, he simply said, “God, I’m done. I’m spent. I’m a mess.” It was a cry for help, and God used it. Sure, what He asked God to do was wrong – but that didn’t stop God from helping him. God took that cry for help and used it. God knew what He really needed. Why did God answer that prayer? Because it had the single, most important ingredient God can use to change a life – humility. All the words were a mess – but within his heart was the ember of humility that God could use to restart his fire.
So that’s what we’ll pray for. We’ll pray for those who are weak, and we’ll pray for humility. Humility to accept our limitations and receive God’s amazing grace.