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.
I’ve decided to take some of my older sermon series’ and put them into e-book format. My hope is that they bless God’s church and bring Him glory. Right now, I’ve only put together my 2008 series on James (it also has a Small Group study guide) but I hope to be releasing more over the coming weeks and months. You will be able to find them on the “My Books” page.
**UPDATE: I just posted my series on Hebrews too!
Caveat Emptor: Please note that these are the scripts I preached from on Sunday mornings and though I’ve tried to fix a few things and update the footnotes they are 99.9% as they were first delivered. I think they’re fairly readable, but then, I wrote them… ☺
How to Use: Download the ZIP file by clicking the book or the link provided. The ZIP file contains the ePub, Kindle (mobi), and PDF versions of the book so you can use them on any kind of e-reader. If the ZIP file doesn’t work for you, here’s a PDF version.