Useless Beauty (John 6:25-59)

Jesus was one of the most controversial and misunderstood men who ever lived.  We’d already seen Him stir up trouble among the religious leaders.  Now He brings the controversy to the level of the common people.  Jesus provided bread for the 5,000 in a dramatic retelling of the exodus.  He would provide freedom, He would provide nourishment for the journey ahead.  Having crossed the sea the previous night, the crowd is confused to find that He arrived ahead of them.  Verse 6:58 tells us that at least part (maybe even all) of this lengthy speech happened in a synagogue at Capernaum.  It was there that Jesus’ massive following revealed their underlying motivation: they were after another miracle:

John 6:25-59   25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”  26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  27 Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”  28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?  31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”  32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

They want bread.  More bread.  In the 1700’s, a great movement of religious revivals swept the country—or at least the original thirteen colonies.  One of the most prominent leaders was a revival preacher named Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards believed that “the grace of God may appear lovely and beautiful in two ways: as bonum utile, or what is most useful or profitable to me…[or] as the bonum formosum, which is a goodness and beauty in itself.”

The crowds that surrounded Jesus worshipped Him as bonum utile.  Jesus was useful.  He provided bread.  An impressive miracle.  They would return home with stories to tell.  Even today there are times when we worship God for being “useful.”  We serve a God who best serves us.  I am most content in God when He helps me with my finances, my relationships, my day-to-day problems.  For me, He’s not a Savior, but a sidekick.  Edwards goes on to explain why this can be so damaging:

“If we merely serve God as the ‘Bonum Utile’ or for what He can do for us…then we are not truly living consistently with ‘Thy will be done’ and so we can undermine His sovereignty. This may be the reason why many who profess Christ cannot fathom a God who is completely holy and sovereign.”

Imagine if you only loved your spouse, your friends, or your kids when they served you best.  That’s not real love; that’s just another form of selfishness.  “Give us this bread always,” the crowds demand.  The gift was more important than the Giver, and the same could be true of you and me.

 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.  36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.  37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.  38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.  39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves.  44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.  45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me–  46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.  47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.  48 I am the bread of life.  49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus now gives voice to His earlier action.  Moses provided bread.  Jesus is the bread.  Moses pointed Israel to God.  Jesus is God.  The religious leaders had objected to such claims on theological grounds.  The crowds are a bit more practical.  They knew His family; they knew where He came from.  He wasn’t fooling anyone with this claim to be God.

To follow Jesus is to actually feast on Him.  It’s easy to think He’s referring to the bread and wine of communion—but surely we can see the whole scene as symbolic.  Jesus is saying that to follow Him means to digest His teachings.  To let Him become a vibrant, living part of us.  In Edwards’ terms, to love Him not just for being “useful,” but for being truly beautiful:

“If we serve God as the ‘Bonum Formosum’ or for Who He IS as the holy and beautiful and sovereign God…then there is nothing he cannot ask of us. We must recognize that God is Most Holy, Beautiful, and His Sovereign will is the best for us, come what may, as hard as it may seem, because we can confidently cry: ‘Thy will be done!’” (Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections)

No wonder the crowds are growing weary of Jesus’ cryptic metaphors.  Beauty isn’t terribly useful.  “What’s to be done with all this useless beauty?” sings rock star Elvis Costello.  But beauty needs no use; beauty is its own reward.  And that’s what Jesus is saying: Don’t follow me expecting me to be a means to your ends.  I am the end.  I am the true Bread.  Don’t come to me expecting more blessing.  Come to me expecting more of me. 

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.  58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”  59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.

Are you satisfied with God?  Do you find that you love Him more when He does what you want?  Our spiritual lives become transactional: we ask for things, and thank Him for things He gives us.  When was the last time we thanked Him not for what He does, but for who He is?  Take some time today to do just that.  Take some time to encounter a God of tremendous power and useless beauty.

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The True Bread (John 6:1-24)

I love food.  My mother encouraged me to start eating at a very early age.  One of the saddest aspects of returning to Maryland was the absence of Texan food options.  Tex-mex.  Barbecue.  And these were only the regional favorites.

Can a meal ever be more than just a meal?  We often associate particular meals with different events or even family traditions.  Though not a meal per se, one of the most common traditions for Western culture is serving cake at weddings and birthdays.

So in a way, a meal can tell a story.  Think about it: consider the following two “stories” below.  What does each one tell you?

  • Last night I ate cake.
  • Last night I ate cake with candles on it.

The first “story” tells you very little.  But the second one surely conjured up a whole host of potential images: party hats, brightly wrapped gifts—if you have kids, maybe even a few rounds of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.   The point is clear: add a few minor details, and you’ve done more than simply serve a meal.  You’ve told a story.  That’s what Jesus does in John 6:

John 6:1-24  After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.  2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.  3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples.  4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.

Here is our first clue: the Passover was approaching.  John’s mentioned the Passover before.  The Jews regarded the Passover as one of their most significant Holy days.  What did it mean?  The Passover celebrated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.  They had been enslaved for 450 years before God sent Moses to free them.  On the night of their escape, God killed the firstborn sons in all of Egypt.  The sons of Israel would be spared only by marking their homes with the blood of a lamb—God would literally “pass over” their home.  God delivered Israel by parting the waters of the Red Sea, and sustained His people by providing them bread in the wilderness.  A lamb.  A crossing of the sea.  A provision of bread.  These elements (and others) became as much a part of Israel’s story as the candles on a birthday cake.  These elements reminded Israel that she was God’s chosen people, and He would relentlessly fight for her no matter the cost.

5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”  6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.  7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,  9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”

The problem is clearly identified.  Jesus had attracted followers, but what could He do to sustain them?  Bread was a staple for the first century world, but barley loaves were consumed only by the lower class.  What could five loaves possibly do?  The disciples remained committed to earthly, human solutions.  God had other plans:

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number.  11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.  12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.”  13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.  14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

The people were amazed.  Jesus had offered a miraculous provision of bread.  The basketfuls of leftovers reveal just how extraordinary the whole scene is.  But Jesus is cautious.  He’s not interested in having people follow Him just for the thrill of seeing miracles in action.  So He retreats with His disciples.

15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.  16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea,  17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.  18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.  19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened.  20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”  21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.

22 On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone.  23 Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.  24 So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.

Do you see some familiar elements to this story?  A provision of bread.  A crossing of the water.  The sequence may not perfectly match, but Jesus seems to be retelling the story of the Passover.  He is introducing a new exodus—not merely from political captivity but from the entrapment of sin itself.  Jesus is therefore the true bread—God’s true sustenance in our spiritual journey.

Do you feel trapped in the story you’re in now?  Maybe you feel trapped by your circumstances, your pains, your doubts, your struggles.  Trapped financially, trapped relationally, maybe even trapped by some physical affliction.  Jesus wants to rewrite your story.  Jesus wants to offer you a taste of life in His kingdom.

Law and Order (and the Gospel) (John 5:16-47)

No one likes disruptions.  Routine is the nectar of the civilized man.  But the gospel isn’t very civilized, nor is it reserved for the dignified.  Jesus had just healed a man’s lifelong illness.  But the religious community was outraged that in doing so, He violated the carefully manicured Sabbath traditions:

John 5:16-47   16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.  17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”  18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

When Jesus faces His accusers, things go from bad to worse.  Not only is He violating their Sabbath traditions, He is claiming to be equal with God Himself.  The religious community was incensed over such arrogance.

There are some people who thrive in an environment of order.  In many ways, this is how the religious leaders had come to view God’s Law.  By carefully adhering to their traditions—those of God and a few they made up—they hoped to maintain some measure of order and civility in a fragile political and religious climate.  Jesus threatened all of that.

As much as we like to think we’d be on the side of Jesus, there’s a good chance we’d join His opponents.  We’ve come to rely on law expecting order to follow.  We deeply desire a society of morals, of righteousness—and rightly so.  Problems emerge when we—like Jesus’ opponents—hope to engender morality through our own obedience.  Years ago a Christian leader posed the question: “What would it look like if Satan took over a city?”

“Over half a century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio.

Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.” (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church)

The gospel isn’t just an assault on our immorality.  It’s also an assault on our righteousness—or, more specifically, our self-righteousness.  The gospel tells us that no sin is so great that the cross cannot cover it, but it also proclaims that no sin is so small that our religious obedience alone can cover it.  So, in a way, the paralyzed man had an advantage over the religious crowd: he knew he was sick.  The religious community had spent so much time clothed in their own self-righteousness that they failed to recognize that they were afflicted with a profound spiritual sickness.

Jesus responds with an extended speech designed to defend His right to perform miraculous works on the Sabbath.  There are three distinct elements to this speech.  First, Jesus insists that His authority comes directly from God.  This means that He can grant healing and life to those He wishes:

19 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.  20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.  21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.  22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son,  23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.  24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.  26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.  27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.  28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice  29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

Second, Jesus brings forth “witnesses” to testify on His behalf—including John the Baptist, but most significantly God Himself:

30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.  31 If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true.  32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true.  33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth.  34 Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved.  35 He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.  36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.  37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen,  38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.

Finally, Jesus turns the tables on His opponents.  The problem isn’t with Jesus; the problem lies with them:

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,  40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  41 I do not receive glory from people.  42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.  43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.  44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?  45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope.  46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.  47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

Do you see what Jesus is saying?  The Bible isn’t a moral code.  It’s a story about Jesus.  Everything they’d been searching for is now standing among them: this is God up close.  If we treat the Bible as if it is a rulebook, we become angry when those rules are threatened or broken.  Jesus says that the book is about Him, about His power to save.

Jesus is therefore more than just another teacher.  Other religions have holy books: the Qur’an, the Gita, the I Ching, etc.  But whether or not I find their poetry moving, the books offer little more than moral guidance.  Jesus is saying that the Bible is more than that.  Other religious teachers point to the authority of the book.  In Christianity, the holy book points to Jesus Himself.  While religion is largely about “teachings,” Christianity is about a person.  This is why, as C.S. Lewis so famously insisted, we can’t simply dismiss Jesus as another moral teacher—another Ghandi.

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 56)

Jesus can never just be your “teacher” because that’s simply not what His life was ultimately about.  He came instead to reveal God’s character, and pay the penalty for our sins so that through His guidance, we can be conformed to this same character.  That’s a goal that good intentions can’t meet.  That’s the power of the gospel.

“Institutional Man” (John 5:1-15)

John 5:1-15  After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 

2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.  3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.  4   5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  But when one’s needs remain unmet, necessity becomes the grandmother of desperation.  John gives us a sparing number of details.  In fact, it wasn’t until nearly 400 years after John’s death that scribes started including a clarifying remark.  Some English Bibles include verse 4: “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.”

This small detail completes the scene.  Apparently it was believed that from time to time, an angel would stir the waters of the pool.  The first one in received total healing.  Did it work?  We don’t know—but then again, maybe it didn’t have to.  Desperation can make a man do strange things, and shape and distort his soul like clay.

Jesus finds a man who’d spent 38 years in the shadow of desperation.  For all we know, this man lived his whole life in this condition.  In today’s world, a physical handicap like this would be a setback.  In this man’s world, it was a death sentence.  A paralyzed man had to rely on others for everything.  Food.  Hygeine.  And over time, pity came to outweigh hope.

INSTITUTIONAL MAN

6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”  7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”

Jesus, we’re told, “knew what was in man” (John 2:25).  So His question seems strange.  “Do you want to get well?”  But the man never exactly answers the question, does he?  Instead the man offers an excuse.  He has no helpers, only competitors.  It’s here that for the first time, the man’s sickness begins to take shape.

We may not be able to draw a straight line between first-century paralysis and present-day desire, but that doesn’t prevent us from defining ourselves by our flaws.  If you had to define yourself by your worst experience, what would it be?  See, there’s some words that package a whole litany of stories and emotions in just a few syllables.  Single.  Infertility.  Alone.  Divorce.  Cancer.  These words haunt us.  Taunt us.  Betray our confidence that the world could ever be good to us.

On a long enough timeline, these words become strangely familiar—if not comforting.  The film The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne, imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.  He befriends his fellow inmates, including Red who reminds him that the world inside is not at all like the world outside.  Stay inside long enough, he warns, and the world outside loses luster.  He calls this being “institutionalized:”

“These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized…They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.”

For the “institutionalized,” the condition matters more than the cure.  Loneliness, divorce, cancer—these become sources of my identity.  “Do you want to get well?” Jesus asks.  His question is simple, though haunting: “Are you prepared to let your life be defined by something more than this?”  The “institutionalized” person gets used to getting by on pity.  The kind words of others become the only reminder of being alive.

Jesus offers more.

GET UP…WALK

8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.”

9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.

The Sabbath referred to the day when God finished His work of creation.  For devout Jews, it was meant to be a day of rest.  But the Sabbath is also used to refer to a time in the future when there would be a true rest, a better rest for all of God’s people (Hebrews 4:9-10).  “Get up,” Jesus says.  “Walk.”  The whole scene hints at a time in the future when all of God’s followers would be granted the power to stand—not just from earthly disease but from death itself.

If Jesus embodies this kind of power, if Jesus offers this kind of promise, why would I pursue identity elsewhere?   Hope replaces fear.  Wonder replaces doubt.  If suffering and death are going to be reversed—nay, eliminated—then my identity is not found in my flaws, but in the spectacular promise of resurrection.  I “get up;” I “walk”—not because of a strength that lies within me, but a strength that is given to me through the miraculous provision of the gospel.

SPIRITUAL SICKNESS

Unfortunately, in the first century there were those that were more concerned about Jesus’ Sabbath violation.  Resting on the Sabbath wasn’t just an option; it was a strict requirement.  The religious authorities were too preoccupied with maintaining order than in celebrating the miracle.  So they pursued answers from the man:

10 So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.”  11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.'”  12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”  13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.

The man can’t give them the answers they want.  It wasn’t until later that Jesus attached His name to the man’s experience:

14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”  15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.

There’s something unsettling about this final encounter.  Stop sinning?  Something worse?  Was this a threat?  Could Jesus have meant that the man’s earlier sickness was some sort of cosmic punishment?  Suffering is a product of a sinful world, but as Jesus makes clear later, not all suffering is a direct result of human sin (John 9:3).  Not that this makes Jesus’ message any less troubling.

Think about it.  What if Jesus could give you exactly what you wanted?  Would that really make you happy?  If your greatest problem is loneliness, would a new relationship really make you happy?  If your greatest problem was a lack of income, would money really make you happy?  So you see what Jesus is saying: Don’t assume that being paralyzed was your greatest problem.  If the problem was only physical, a physical cure would solve everything.  But the problem—for him, for you, for me—is more than that.  External cures won’t help an internal problem.  Our problem is spiritual.  Our problem is sin.  Only the gospel can cure this inner, spiritual sickness.

The most shocking news of all is that on the cross, we see exactly what Jesus meant by “something worse.”  On the cross we see the shocking nature of God’s just and righteous anger at human sin.  On the cross, God demands blood.  On the cross, God offers His own.

Like this man, my identity can be wrapped up in my own circumstances.  It can be wrapped up in my choices, or even the choices of others.  The gospel says that I am defined not by my circumstances, my failures, or my flaws, but by the unending love of an unfailing Savior.

Which defines you?

Hey Jesus, What’ve Ya Done For Me Lately? – John 4:43-54

Some folks say it is difficult to grow up and go back to your home town… Been there; done that! I love this second verse in our reading today (4:44), which John adds as a parenthetical thought – (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.)

My first full-time ministry after seminary was in my home town (though not in my home church). I built a house about one-half mile from where I grew up and just a stone’s throw from my childhood elementary school. It was immediately across the street from the home where I attended cub scouts, and we even played on the property I would ultimately buy almost 20 years later.

In reflecting on those 11 years in New Jersey, I often make the wry statement that I had more success in my home town of Harmony Township, NJ than Jesus had in his home town of Nazareth, Galilee!  But, he was a prophet; and I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet, and I’ve spent my life serving in non-profit agencies (that is uproariously funny – admit it!).

In today’s passage, we see Jesus returning to Galilee where he is welcomed by the locals. Many of the people had made the journey to Jerusalem for the Passover and had seem him roll heads and tables while cleansing the temple, and they also witnessed some other miracles (2:23).

He was indeed a local boy who was making a splash in the big-time world of Jerusalem and Judea. This sounds good, right? So why the downer tone in the statement of Jesus, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will never believe”?

What did the people believe? Well, they believed he was a miracle worker and healer, perhaps a prophet or specially-empowered great teacher. But did many see him as the Messiah, the fulfillment of Scripture? And very few were tuned in at all to the idea of spiritual life and a savior from sin.

One who really did believe, along with his household, was the man whose son was healed from a desperate, certain death situation. This is written at the conclusion of today’s passage as the second sign performed by Jesus – signs that were in accord with prophesies of the Promised One.

As will become more evident in later chapters, the Jews loved Jesus so long as he was providing for their immediate needs. They loved the bread and miracles, and some dreamed of the political overturn possibilities from such a worker. Yet the larger message of healing from sin and the gift of eternal life seemed shallow as compared to the immediate needs of daily life.

The Jews loved Jesus when he worked for them. And the fact is that many Christians only love Jesus when he is working pragmatically for them as well. There is the expectation that being aligned to Christ through relationship with him should result in ideal life circumstances and freedom from pain and sadness. And yes, there is a new resource in the midst of the inevitable sorrows of life in a sinful world; but Christ’s larger message and greater gift is the forgiveness of sin and the eternal life offered and secured through faith.

Insufficient views of Jesus abound in our generation. The lost of this world do not truly understand him to be the son of God and savior of the world. They fall short by seeing him merely as a great spiritual teacher and moral resource, but they do not understand anything of the issues of the debt of sin being paid by the redemptive work of the Lamb of God. And then Christians too are insufficient in understanding the work of Christ in their lives – that it is not about candy and popcorn and freedom from the pain and sorrows experienced by others. We are not promised a deliverance from all things, but rather that we have one who walks with us through all things and redeems our mortal flesh at the end for a life eternal with him.

Let’s not fall prey to a Galilean sort of “So … Jesus … what’ve ya done for me lately? Eh?” kind of rabbit’s foot faith.

Jesus Heals an Official’s Son (John 4:43-54)

43 After the two days he left for Galilee. 44 (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.) 45 When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, for they also had been there.

46 Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

48 “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”

49 The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”

50 “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.”

The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51 While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52 When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.”

53 Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.

54 This was the second sign Jesus performed after coming from Judea to Galilee.

More Energizing than a Philly Cheese Steak – John 4:27-42

There’s not much in life better than a genuine Philly cheese steak sandwich – if you can find a real one anywhere beyond Philly and the suburbs.  Oh yes, lots of places advertise them; but I don’t even try anymore. The pure Philly-style steak of my childhood and college years in and near the City of Brotherly Love has been corrupted with all sorts of accoutrements not native to the real deal. Get rid of those green peppers and mushrooms and lettuce, etc. That is simply junking up the genuine article!

So when I find the real delight, it is quite exciting. But there are things in life that are more energizing and exciting than favorite foods we eat … maybe even more energizing than any food, even when we are particularly hungry and in need of nourishment. It could be a reunion with a long-lost friend or relative, or perhaps the unexpected arrival of incredibly good news … whatever, but something so great that it makes you even forget you are hungry, and now you feel revived and ready to go!

That is something of an illustration of what we see in our passage and reading today. Jesus is tired upon the journey from Judea to Galilee, he is sitting by a well while the disciples have gone into the town of Sychar to buy food, and he has been engaged recently in an incredible custom-breaking conversation with a Samaritan woman.

27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

The disciples are surprised by the whole scene upon their return from the town, while the woman with incredible excitement that she has apparently spoken to the Messiah forgets her water jar and rushes into town. There she relates her unique story to the people. Imagine that scene! Here is a woman of ill-repute status encouraging everyone to come see the fulfillment of religious faith and centuries-old expectation. Would you have believed her? Would you have followed her out of town to the well? Would you expect such news to come from such a person?

31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

So as the crowds are coming out from Sychar to see what the woman has excitedly been talking about, the disciples are merely concerned with Jesus’ physical well-being. He is clearly refreshed; though they are quite sure he has had nothing to eat from any other source. Jesus tells them that he has “food” about which they do not understand – the nourishment and joy of accomplishing the Father’s will and being about his mission on earth.

34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Jesus recites for them what were likely some proverbial agricultural sayings at the time – sort of like how we might say of the weather, “Red at night, sailors’ delight; red in the morning, sailors’ warning” – ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? Jesus tells them to look up and see what a harvest is now available – possibly even gesturing and drawing their attention to the crowds of people moving toward them from the town.

Planting a garden is great; growing seeds and seeing them emerge is fun; but the best part of it all is actually getting to the harvest and picking those red-ripe tomatoes or large green peppers!  I’d like gardening a whole lot more if I didn’t have to do any of the planting, weeding, or watering. And the disciples were in that category – the prophets and Christ himself had done the hard work. The season of the great harvest had now come with the advent and work of Jesus, the Christ.

And that harvest was even at that moment going to be witnessed by the disciples, as …

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

For two days, Jesus and the disciples stay with these outcast people, and the harvest is great among them as many believe – both based upon the testimony of the woman AND the teaching of the one whom they termed the Savior of the world.

So what lights you up? What excites you and gives you purpose and meaning in life? Hey, it is great to find success in what you do … I loved coaching and winning state championships. But honestly, that’s the “food” of this world. Maybe for you it is your family and vacationing that means just about everything to you. But if all you’re doing is enjoying this in the context of the stuff of this world, it has no eternal nutritional value.

None of us on the ministry staff at TSF apologize to any of you one little bit for encouraging you to invest your life in matters of eternal relationship. We can direct your energies in no better direction than reaching out to others, especially those who are yet to come to know Christ, and serving also with others in this great task of the spiritual harvest. Here is where your soul will be satisfied; here is where your hunger for meaning in life will be satiated. Because, at its best, everything else doesn’t rise above a Philly cheese steak!

Cooties in Samaria – John 4:1-26

I presume that the childhood game of the passing of cooties from one person to another was not a phenomenon known only to New Jersey where I grew up. Beyond the simple presumption between boys and girls that the opposite gender embodied cootiedom, a more perverse version went something like this: There were always a few kids who for whatever reason were deemed social outcasts and therefore infected with the ultimate disgrace of possessing “cooties” – a sort of mythical disease of dreadful humiliation that could be easily caught, but just as easily transmitted by touching someone else and saying, “Now you have Isabella’s cooties!”

I know you are going to be shocked to hear me say that the word does not have a Greek or Hebrew origin. Sorry. I actually did look up its etymology (language roots), and it is rather complicated. But what is not unclear is the experience we have all encountered of people who possess a social stigma that makes them outcasts. And in today’s reading about the Samaritan woman at the well, we meet the ultimate case of a person with multiple layers of first century Palestinian “cooties.”

Around these parts of Maryland, it is sometimes true that we pick on the state of West Virginia and its inhabitants. Most of this is in the category of good-natured humor. But imagine if it were so nasty that some people from Hagerstown and Maryland despised West Virginians so much that they would not ever talk with them nor even go through the eastern panhandle. Imagine someone like this who needed to drive home to Hagerstown from Winchester, Virginia. Of course, that is a simple straight shot north on 81 through Martinsburg. But imagine the hatred being such that they went east from Winchester to Leesburg, then north on Route 15 across the Potomac to Frederick, and finally west on 70 to get home – all to avoid even touching the soil of West Virginia!

Wow, that’s strong feeling – and that is exactly how it was for many Jews. The three regions (south to north) of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee were comparatively like the areas of Winchester, Martinsburg, and Hagerstown. Jews travelling between Jerusalem and Galilee would most often take a circuitous travel route around the east of the Jordan River to be sure to completely avoid Samaria and its dirty inhabitants.

Though Samaritans and Jews had a common ancestry from the time of Solomon and before, Samaritans were a mixed breed descended from interbreeding with Gentile peoples who had taken the ten northern tribes into captivity in the 700 BC era. The Jews retained the pure blood from those who had returned from Babylonian captivity under Ezra and Nehemiah. This is a macro version of the ultimate family feud! And then add to this a theological dissonance, as the Samaritans had an unusual mix of beliefs.

As we begin today’s reading in John 4, we see that the early ministry of Jesus was occasioned with much success. People were identifying with it to the extent that even more were being baptized by the disciples than by John the Baptist. This came to the hearing of the Pharisees in Jerusalem, and not wanting the ministry to heat up to a confrontation at this early stage, Jesus decides to withdraw north to Galilee.

It says in verse 4 that he had to go through Samaria. One might read this as saying he was taking the Palestinian version of the quick Interstate 81 route north to Galilee. Rather, it is more appropriate to see this necessity as a lesson in reaching out beyond the immediate ethnic/religious context to demonstrate that he was indeed to be the savior of the world.

As the disciples at midday go into the town of Sychar to buy food, Jesus sits by the famous well of Jacob where he encounters a Samaritan woman of whom he requests a drink.  The very asking of a question breaks several cultural barriers – the issue of the Jewish/Samaritan divide, her gender as a woman, and her sketchy character as a woman of ill repute. Her conversation acknowledges the reality of these divisions. Jesus draws her mind away from the chore of drawing and drinking physical water to that of the spiritual water that quenches the thirst of the soul unto eternal life.

Though both traditions anticipated a messianic figure to come, there were differing ideas about where worship was to be located. Jesus says that though the Jews were correct in possessing the line through which salvation would come, the issue of place would be rendered inconsequential – that true worship would be in the Spirit. And Jesus plainly identifies himself to this woman as the Christ.

A lot of people feel that they possess spiritual “cooties” – a sense of separation from God and truth because of sin that could never be forgiven. Others fail to see the gravity of their lost condition due to the curse of sin, believing that they are honestly not that bad and certainly not in a position of needing a spiritual/religious answer. The appropriate balance and fact of the matter is that we all possess “cooties” as born sinners with an inheritance of separation from God. But a greater truth is that Jesus was not put off by this … that he reached out to people like the woman at the well and to all others, right on down to each of us today – taking all our sin upon himself and paying the price of redemption through his blood.

Jesus is the true well – the true source of water for life… for us to drink, for us to share.

Jesus Talks With a Samaritan Woman

4:1  Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

The Gospel Goes Up to Eleven (John 3:26-36)

The film This is Spinal Tap follows the exploits of heavy metal group Spinal Tap.  The film is shot “mockumentary” style.  That is, it’s a comedy masquerading as a documentary, much like the television series “The Office.”  In my favorite scene, the interviewer speaks with Nigel (the band’s guitarist) about their amplifiers:

Nigel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…

Interviewer: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel : Exactly.

Interviewer: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Interviewer: I don’t know.

Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Interviewer: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Interviewer: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel: ……These go to eleven.

There was a time when John the Baptist faced a popularity contest.  Jesus’ other biographers tell us that John was originally a pastor’s kid, but later in life emerged from the wilderness smelling like Grizzly Adams and talking like Billy Graham.  His major achievements weren’t about himself.  They were about his cousin, Jesus.  But as Jesus’ popularity grew, John the Baptist’s popularity began to fade:

 John 3:26-36  26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness–look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”  27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.  28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Too often life becomes nothing more than a big popularity contest.  We fool ourselves into thinking ambition is the fuel for our achievement.  We live and die by our promotions and our accolades.  But John the Baptist wanted none of this.  His whole life was spent pointing toward someone else, someone far, far greater than he.  And it was of this person that John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  At Tri-State Fellowship, our own High School ministry uses this verse as the basis for their name: “Amp,” short for “Amplify.”  Our students learn that John the Baptist offers a very different message than that of the world.  In a world that thrives on self-promotion, John the Baptist offers a message of self-denial.  In a world of self-satisfaction, John the Baptist offers a message of self-sacrifice.

The things our world offers—pleasure, wealth, satisfaction—these are all the things that beg—nay, scream—for our attention and our devotion.  But amidst all the clamor and noise, the gospel is even louder.  The gospel goes up to eleven.

John the Baptist continues to address his lingering supporters:

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.  32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.  33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.  34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.  35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.  36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

John drives home that Jesus is far more significant than he could ever be.  And John—that is, John the author of this gospel—wants to include these statements for a strategic purpose.  John had been assembling his gospel in the city of Ephesus, a city where Jesus’ later followers knew only some of the basics they’d heard from John the Baptist (Acts 18:25).  John the author wanted to fulfill John the Baptist’s mission: to point people to something greater than the fragments of knowledge they possessed.

In our own world, we face many challenges.  Many things will compete for our attention.  The desire for achievement, the seduction of “celebrity.”  Other things will wound us deeply.  But the common thread in all of these things was simply this: they focus on ourselves.  On our best days, we like to think that our lives are vibrant, successful, full of life.  But John was onto something important: nothing is more damaging than self-absorption.

The world around me, the thoughts within me—these things are all ramped up to the level of a “ten.”  But the gospel goes up to eleven.

Are you listening?

Born Again (John 3:1-21)

What do you think of when you hear the words “born again?”  For me, I can’t help but think of Ned Flanders, the uptight religious neighbor of Homer Simpson.  An all-around nice guy, but someone whose religious views and narrow moral code are a constant annoyance.

Ned FlandersBut who needs to be born again?  We might think of those who come from a shady background who need to “see the light.”  It’s certainly not for the educated, or the sophisticated.  And it’s certainly not a need for people like Ned Flanders.  If you’ve grown up in church, there’s a possibility that you think you’ve got the Jesus thing figured out.  You grew up in Youth Group.  You go to church every week.  You listen to Hillsong in the car.  You even attend a small group.  What else is there? 

Let’s meet Nicodemus.

John 3:1-21  Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Remember how earlier Jesus had basically started a small riot in the Temple?  It was a public way of saying: “The Messiah is now here.”  The religious leaders wouldn’t have missed this—and certainly not one so prominent as Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews.”  So it’s understandable that Nicodemus would come under cover of darkness—why risk his reputation by being seen talking to this rabble-rouser?

3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus had spent the better part of his life serving the Temple.  Yet he fails to grasp what Jesus is saying.  Jesus isn’t offering another religious program to attend.  He’s proclaiming radical spiritual renewal: being “born again.”

Do you see the irony?  The Temple was the one place where you’d expect to experience the presence of God.  Yet for Nicodemus, the Temple was what he used to hide from God.  And we live in the same danger.  It’s very easy to get caught up in church activity and the “busyness” of our faith—and miss the radically transforming power of Jesus.  In fact, in many ways it’s easier to hide from God in church than in a brothel(!).  In the latter, it’s easy to know that you’re far from God.  But in Church, you can hide from God while looking like a pillar in your community—a man of great respect.  But inside you are dying.  You have all the religious language, but none of the spiritual intimacy.

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?  11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Nicodemus is still baffled.  So Jesus does what He does best: He tells Him a story.  In the film V for Vendetta, an police inspector is trying to unravel a massive governmental conspiracy.  As his search nears its end, he meets with an unnamed informant.  “I believe you have some information for me,” he says.  “No, inspector,” the informant replies.  “You have all the information already.  All the facts are inside your head.  What you want—what you really need—is a story.”  Nicodemus didn’t need another sermon.  He was one of the smartest men in Israel.  No; what he needed was a story.  He needed some way of organizing the separate pieces into a cohesive whole.

Jesus tells him the story of the snakes in the desert.  Israel, during their years of wandering, was afflicted by a plague of poisonous snakes.  To deepen their trust in Him, God tells their leader Moses to craft a bronze snake and attach it to his staff.  If you were bitten, you had only to look at this raised staff and be cured.  Do you understand what Jesus is saying?  He’s saying there’s something wrong with each of us—something poisonous inside our hearts—that no amount of religious duty can cure.  John goes on to editorialize this very point:

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  18 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.  19 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.  20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.  21 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.”

Our hearts are darkened. Poisonous.  The great tragedy is that men like Nicodemus had become numb to this fact because their lives were so clearly defined through religious observance.  But Jesus says: That’s not good enough.  You need to be born again.  Into the darkness of man’s heart, God speaks a wisdom unsearchable, a love unthinkable, a grace incalculable, and a mercy unending.  When Jesus is exalted in His death and resurrection, the poison is drawn from the wounds of our soul, and into those same wounds Jesus pours the water of His Spirit.

Are you like Nicodemus?  Have you been active in church activities your whole life, but have no true experience of the gospel?  Don’t let moments like this one pass you by.  Today could be your day to experience God up close.

The True Temple (John 2:13-25)

What’s the value of a “temple?”  No doubt even the word “temple” conjures up images from an Indiana Jones film.  Ancient ruins.  Stone colonnades.  But for nearly every major religion, the temple serves as the focal point to their faith.  And what’s all the more interesting is that the temple has a similar function in every religion.  What is a temple?  The temple is where heaven and earth are thought to intersect.  Think of it as a cosmic crossroads, where the gods come down to interact with man.  The Jewish Temple was no different.  The Temple was built as a means for Israel to experience the presence of God.

Now I know what you must be thinking.  What is the value of a “temple” in today’s world?  Surely the concept itself is leftover from a primitive, superstitious past.  Without science to explain the world, our ancestors tried to explain their world in religious terms.  We’re past that.  Our faith doesn’t rest in the temple, but the laboratory.  We don’t need a religious system.  We need a social welfare program.

There’s just one flaw in that thinking: it never happened.  As technology increased, as science progressed, it didn’t eliminate religious belief.  Instead, religion continues to flourish worldwide.  In 1994, an article in Newsweek magazine highlighted the strange relationship between faith and science:

“A funny thing has happened on the way to science’s [replacement] of faith in the last years of the millennium.  Among researchers as well as laypeople, discoveries in physics, biology, and astronomy are inspiring a sense of cosmic piety, of serene holism and even a moral code.” (Sharon Begley, “Science of the Sacred,” Newsweek, 28 Nov. 1994, 56)

This tells us that we don’t turn to the supernatural as a way of filling in the gaps in our understanding.  Spirituality is deeper than that.  We long for connection to God not merely for cognitive enrichment, but to infuse the whole of life with meaning, purpose, and significance.  It’s no wonder that so many in today’s world find themselves searching for a spiritual experience.  Even without temples made of brick and stone, people long for a way to experience God’s presence here on earth.

We see this timeless principle at work in Jesus’ day.  If you were a devoted Jew, the Temple was the centerpiece of your entire religious life.  But this wasn’t just the Jewish temple anymore.  In the ancient world, there was no “separation of church and state.”  This was Herod’s temple.  It was King Herod who—in 19 B.C.—ordered that the temple be rebuilt.  Peace was only maintained by Herod’s agreement to remodel over time rather than tear down and start from scratch.  Jewish men were trained in architecture so that outsiders would not defile the bricks with their hands.  The end result was something of a love-hate relationship with the temple: the Jews still loved and revered its purpose, but resentment lay beneath the surface like a low-grade fever.  Maybe you know the feeling; you long for the spiritual connection that church promises, yet resent the empty hypocrisy that church delivers.  It was into this very world that Jesus now strode.

John 2:13-25   The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.  15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.  16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”  17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The time was Passover—the first of three that John records.  We’re at the beginning of Jesus’ three year ministry.  The city would have been crowded with worshippers, some of whom traveled from great distances to worship at the Temple.  Rather than drag a sacrificial animal along on the journey, these Jews often purchased their sacrifice from the salesmen in the courtyard of the Temple.  It was there that Jesus causes a riot.

Usually we assume that Jesus is simply angry.  But why?  God commanded sacrifice.  Were they charging unfair prices?  Were these sacrifices unacceptable?  The answer is actually found in the pages of Zechariah, one of the last books of the Old Testament.  Zechariah says that when the Messiah comes, “there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord” (Zechariah 14:21).  Are you beginning to see the significance?  When the Messiah comes, the traders are gone.  So if Jesus chases the traders away, it is a powerful and singular message: the Messiah is here.  It’s doubtful that the religious leaders would have missed this not-so-subtle point.

18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”  19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”

For leaders whose allegiances were divided between Jewish custom and Roman authority, Jesus’ actions were an act of treason.  When they ask for a “sign,” what they’re really saying is: “You better be able to back this up.”

Jesus delivers a cryptic promise about the temple.  Destroyed? Rebuilt?  Three days?  The leaders are incredulous—it had taken 46 years to build just that small section of the temple; who could be so arrogant as to suggest such supremacy?

Even Jesus’ closest followers must have been speechless.  It wouldn’t be until much later that they would realize the full weight of this experience:

21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.  22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Jesus was the true Temple.  Jesus was the place—nay, person—where Heaven and earth intersected.  You want to experience God’s presence?  Look to the Temple.  But no—it’s no longer a temple of mortar and stone.  It’s a Temple made of flesh and blood and sinew.  It’s the body of Christ.  This is why Paul would tell a divided Church that Jesus is the true cornerstone of a true temple, and in Christ, we “also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).

This changes everything.  Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion; He came to transform it.  He didn’t come to remove religion; He came to redeem it.  What’s the value of a “temple?”  It’s the same as it has always been.  We are connected—to God, to each other—and because of this deep and vital connection we gather to celebrate and to express our gratitude through worship.  “Church” can be a frustrating place.  But Jesus shows us that being part of a church has less to do with being part of an institution, and more to do with being part of a body.  Therefore, we do more than merely tolerate one another; we need one another, as an arm needs a hand.

The final verses reveal that Jesus’ presence hardly went unnoticed:

23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.  24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people  25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

These verses also serve as an important transition.  Jesus is about to meet some unusual characters.  Some of them aren’t the type you’d expect to find in a “temple.”  Others possess more knowledge than understanding.  And all of them, each in their own way, look like us.