From Consumers to Christians (John 17:1-26)

Black Friday has become something of an American tradition.  As much as decry the holiday distraction, it’s hard to resist the siren song of the deal of the century.  Today’s religion is one of consumerism.  There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a bargain.  The problem comes when we let our identity be ruled by things.  “[Where] do we derive identity today?” asks Barry Taylor, artist and professor:

“I contend that it is largely derived from our imagination. We shop for ‘ourselves’ in the marketplace of ever-expanding ideas brought to us when we enter cyberspace or media culture, or when we engage with the seemingly endless possibilities presented to us by a global consumer culture.” (Barry Taylor,Entertainment Theology, p. 46)

In John 17, Jesus concludes His time with His disciples.  His “commencement speech” now over, He kneels in prayer.  It’s often been called the “high priestly prayer.”  Jesus is performing the role of a priest—praying before the sacrifice is offered.  But now, the sacrifice being made is Jesus Himself.

JESUS PRAYS FOR HIMSELF

John 17:1-26  When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you,  2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.  5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

Jesus had previously said: “when I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).  The hour was now upon Him.  Jesus’ death on the cross would be a payment for man’s sin, but also a clear display of God’s incredible power.  This was God’s plan all along.   Even Christ’s suffering was an integral part of God’s plan to reveal Himself to the world.

JESUS PRAYS FOR HIS PRESENT DISCIPLES

6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you.  8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.  10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.  11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.  12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.  13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.  14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.

What does it mean to be “sanctified?”  To be “consecrated?”  It connects to the idea of being “holy.”  Usually we think of the word “holy” as meaning “really, really good.”  But in the Bible, the word “holy” carries the idea of being “set apart.”  Being different.  So when Jesus prays for His disciples, He prays that they be clearly represent His truth to the world around them.  And they do that not by being physically separate from the world, but by being “not of the world.”  Christians are called to pour into the culture around them without being tainted by it.  That’s what it means to live on mission.  And it’s the same call that is issued to Jesus’ future disciples.

JESUS PRAYS FOR HIS FUTURE DISCIPLES

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,  21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,  23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.  24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.  25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.  26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Anyone who believes in Christ becomes His disciple.  And any disciple of Christ is called to reveal God’s significance by making other disciples.  Do you notice the radical nature of Christian community?  Jesus says that Christian unity is meant to mirror the unity found between God the Father and God the Son.  This is a oneness we could not comprehend apart from the Trinity itself.  The Trinity says that God exists as an eternal community—Father, Son, and Spirit.  All three are unique, yet all three are God.  I realize that’s hard to grasp.  But just because our understanding can’t be perfect doesn’t mean our understanding can’t be accurate.  Jesus is praying that Christian unity would be a reflection of the Godhead.

That’s hard.  Too often we get lost in the endless sea of preferences.  If we define ourselves as consumers, then we define ourselves by style.  Worship styles, preaching styles, clothing styles, you name it.  What complicates this further is that so often style becomes associated with a generation, such that style gaps become generational divides.  We can’t bridge this chasm through style alone.  We build unity by shifting our focus away from consumerism and back toward Christ.

Don’t you see how immensely practical the gospel is?  The best way of being multi-generational or even multi-cultural is to be trans-generational and trans-cultural.  That is, focus on the things that transcend—go above and beyond—the preferences of one culture, one generation and one setting.  That’s what Jesus does.  On the cross, He is glorified.  He draws all men to Himself in a way that no Black Friday sale possibly could.  For Christians, our identity will not be found in Black Friday, it can only be found in Good Friday.  Cooperation replaces competition.  And everlasting joy replaces buyer’s remorse.

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“In a little while” (John 16:16-33)

Today, you’ll be sitting down at a table with your closest family and friends.  And yes; this really is as good as it gets.  For some, dealing with relatives is only a matter of putting up with a few quirks and eccentricities, like Uncle Edgar’s bizarre fascination with UFO conspiracies, or the way Grandma Myrtle feeds the Pomeranian from the table.  For others, family always feels like crisis.  You don’t get along.  You’re nursing past wounds.  And if faith is not something you share, even this becomes a divide that makes the table seem all the wider.

Jesus’ time with His disciples is coming to a rapid close.  He is trying to prepare them for a tough journey ahead.   But the gospel tells us that suffering is never the end of the story.

John 16:16-33  “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”  17 So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?”  18 So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.”  19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’?  20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.  21 When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.  22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.  23 In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.  24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

In “a little while,” He says.  Sorrow is temporary.  Did you notice the illustration He uses?  Childbirth. Childbirth is one of the most physically demanding things a person can go through.  The weight gain, the late-night cravings—and that’s just the husband. In all seriousness, couples go to great lengths to have a child, despite the physical (and emotional…and financial) demands that come with it.  But it’s hard to find a couple who look back and said it was anything but worth it.  In fact, if you’ve ever been around an expecting couple, they’ve probably pulled out their wallets (or smartphones) to show you a black-and-white blurry photo.  Try and be polite.  “Oh, you’re having a…potato.”  But it’s not a potato.  It’s a sonogram—a picture of the child developing in the womb.  The sonogram tells us that the baby isn’t here yet, but the baby is coming soon.  That’s what the gospel teaches us, and that’s what Jesus is telling His disciples.  The resurrection of Jesus is like the sonogram.  God’s victory isn’t here yet—but it’s coming very soon.

25 “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.  26 In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf;  27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.  28 I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”

29 His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech!  30 Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.”  31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe?  32 Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.  33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

The gospel never offers a single promise of happiness.  But the Bible offers radical promises of lasting joy.  Isn’t it ironic that as we stand at the cusp of Black Friday sales and mobs of mall shoppers, that all of this is takes place in the season we traditionally celebrate Jesus’ birth?  The happiness these sales promise will fade long before the next year.  Only Jesus offers lasting joy in  a world full of sorrow.  What if you really believed this was true?  What if, through the cross and resurrection, Jesus really did overcome the world?  But that’s what the gospel promises.  He overcame your family strife.  He overcame Black Friday greed.  He overcame sin, overcame death, overcame the mockery of the crowds, overcame the shameful burden you and I placed on His shoulders.

In a little while, He promises.   In a little while we’ll be free of the cares of today and live in the joy of tomorrow.  So as you gather at your table today, remember that sorrow lasts through the night.  Joy comes with the morning.

The Role of the Spirit (John 16:1-15)

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the nature and mission of the church.  Now, we take a look at the actual experience of the church.  Jesus is preparing His disciples for life after He departs—a life that will be marked by the same kind of suffering that He experienced.

SEPARATION FROM “ORGANIZED RELIGION”

John 16:1-15  “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.  2 They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  3 And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.

Christianity represented a major break from the traditions of the past.  The early Jews couldn’t tolerate this, so Christians found themselves increasingly unwelcome in Jewish places of worship.  In fact, there’s even some evidence to say that within John’s lifetime, some local synagogues actually banned all Christians from attending.

These days that almost seems preferable—or at least fashionable.  We don’t like to be associated with “organized religion.”  But the early Christians struggled because of this.  The seeds of faith had been planted, but they remained a long way from blossoming.  Peter and Paul had tended the soil, but both men died in John’s lifetime.  Christians were becoming untethered from the past without a secure future to hold onto.  Only through the promised Spirit could the church hope to continue forward.

THE ROLE OF THE SPIRIT

4 But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.  5 But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’  6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.  7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.  8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:  9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;  10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer;  11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

The Spirit would serve as a “Helper.”  The “advantage” of Jesus’ death is that we receive the promised Spirit.  But notice that the Spirit has a role to play in relation to the world: one of strong conviction.  One of the surest distinctions between the church and the outside world is the recognition of sin and righteousness.  In today’s world, these terms have blurred.  No one can say with absolute certainty what is “good” or “true.”  In fact, the only true “sin” in today’s world is to infringe on the “rights” of another.

In the Christian community, we rightly recognize the standards set for us by God’s character—revealed in Jesus and magnified through the witness of His Spirit.  Do we take sin seriously?  Do we take God seriously? We have to take sin seriously to take God seriously.  And it is through the cross that our sin is dealt with and God is further revealed to us.

A LIFE LIVED FOR GOD

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The Spirit has another role: to point us to God.  He “glorifies” Jesus.  Do you remember what “glory” meant?  The word “glory” has its origins in a Hebrew word meaning “weight” or “mass.”  It’s not that different from when we talk about a “heavy subject.”  So for God to be “glorified” means that God is revealed to be “significant.”

Is God the most significant thing in your life?  If my life is guided by self, then I become the center of my own universe.  Left to my own devices, my life implodes.  My soul shrivels.  Nothing is more damaging than self-interest.  But if my life is guided by God—by His Spirit—then God takes His rightful place at the center of my universe.  And nothing is more healing than self-denial—so long as we replace “self” with God.

As we continue on, we’ll see that these values run counter to those of our surroundings.  But we also see that the gospel offers the greatest and lasting solution to the hostility thrown at us by an unbelieving world.

The True Vine (John 15:1-27)

What do you think of when you hear the word “church?”  If you’re like most people, your mind immediately goes to an image of a building.  Childhood memories of mornings languishing in high-backed pews.  There’s also a good chance the word “church” brings back painful memories—pushed away from Jesus by the very people who claim to represent Him.  Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, refers to this as a form of “spiritual abuse:”

“Spiritual abuse is rather like any kind of physical or sexual abuse.  It brings you to a place where you can’t face the subject ever again.  It’s rare for the sexually abused to ever enjoy sex.  So, too, people who are spiritually abused can rarely approach the subject of religion with fresh faith.  They wince and they twitch.  My religious life has been trying to get through the minefield without coming out of it at the other end in a wheelchair.”  (quoted in Kathleen Falsani, The God Factor, p. 11)

So why church?  In John’s gospel, Jesus rarely refers to the church through institutional language.  It’s not a building.  It’s something organic—something vibrant and alive.  In John 10, the relationship between Christ and His Church was that of a shepherd and a flock.  Now, in the second part of Jesus’ “commencement address,” Jesus refers to the church through the familiar language of a vine and branches.

A POINT OF TRANSITION

Let’s pause a moment and return to John 14:31.  Jesus tells His followers: “Rise, let us go from here.”  John 15-16 consists of the second part of Jesus’ “commencement address.”  It may have taken place in the upper room—they may have stood to leave.  But it may also have taken place as they journeyed from the upper room to the Mount of Olives to pray.  Because Jesus is making reference to a vine and branches, it’s easy to imagine that He was drawing analogies from the lush outdoor surroundings—though we have to admit that this is speculation.

THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH

Perhaps the most famous metaphor for Christ and the Church is found in these verses:

John 15:1-27  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.  4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.  6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.  9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.  10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

Jesus is the True Vine.  Our connection to Him is one of intimacy and necessity.   A branch cannot find life except through connection to the vine.  Now, some branches try.  They put down a secondary root system, but this kills the plant.  Vinedressers have to lift these branches to keep them from doing this, and increase their dependence on the vine.  Jesus says that the same thing happens between Himself and His followers.  Branches that don’t bear fruit are “taken away”—or better translated “lifted up”—so that they can be more fruitful.  Those that are unfruitful are in danger of being discarded and burned.  We don’t need to assume Jesus is saying we can lose our salvation, but the verse should still make us sweat a bit to think that we can  lose intimacy and reward.

So why church?  In the context of this image, the question might better be: what’s the alternative?  The life-giving connection between Christ and His followers can hardly be said to limited to a Sunday morning experience.  Instead, it is a constant connection.  We don’t attend church.  We are the church.  There’s no alternative.

These days it’s increasingly common to put down other “roots.”  We can be connected to other things: sports, hobbies, career, etc.  In a post-everything world, Sunday mornings are no longer off-limits for sports practices or other activities.  In this setting, it’s tempting to see church as another option in a sea of endless activity.  But a connection to church is not optional.  It is essential.  Regardless of my frustrations and past hurts, regardless of the endless sea of alternatives that beckon my attention, I am part of a network of branches that find their strength and life from Jesus Himself.

THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH

Jesus now turns to the mission of the church, one characterized by love:

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.  14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.  15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.  17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

Some of these words are familiar, the kind of thing you might see on a coffee mug.  We’re used to hearing the command to “love one another.”  But pay close attention to verse 16.  What is the mission of the church?  To “go and bear fruit,” Jesus says.  Go?  The church has a mission to perform.  Love must extend beyond the walls, grafting outsiders into relationship with the True Vine.

Do you see what’s happening here?  Jesus is saying that Christian love has a vertical component—between man and God—as well as a horizontal component—between man and man.  Place the vertical and horizontal pieces together and what do you see?  The shape of the cross.  Christian love is found in the cross of Jesus, and if we seek to follow Jesus we find ourselves drawn ever closer to the criminal wood of crucifixion.

THE POSITION OF THE CHURCH

This tells us that our position in life will be marked not by a crown of glory, but a crown of thorns.

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.  21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.  22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.  23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also.  24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.  25 But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’  26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.  27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

We bear an unpopular message.  We will face rejection.  We will face suffering.  Pain.  To represent Christ in our world is to experience the same rejection that He did.  But the cross also reminds us that suffering is only temporary, and that this crown of thorns will one day be exchanged for a crown of glory.  This is why Jesus now turns His followers attention to life lived through the Spirit as they away God’s glorious future.

The Promised Spirit (John 14:15-31)

In John 14, we find ourselves in the first of what will be a two-part “commencement speech” given by Jesus on the night of His arrest.  He knows the fate that awaits.  His desire is to offer His disciples some measure of comfort.

In the first section, Jesus had emphasized the nature of the Church as the true temple of God—the Body of Christ expressed in and through the diverse people that follow Him.  This is important for what comes next.  The original temple was where God was experienced through what was called the shekina glory—an overpowering cloud of smoke that overwhelmed the worshippers.  What was the message?  Every religion believed their god inhabited a building.  But for Israel, their God’s presence would make the rafters shake and the people tremble.

If Jesus equates the Church with the temple, then we need God’s Spirit to once again take up residence among God’s people.  And if the Church is to be Christ’s body, then we need that spark of life to once again animate us and help us grow.  Thus, Christ’s death comes with a most sincere and most significant benefit: the promised gift of God’s Spirit.

THE PROMISE OF THE SPIRIT (15-21)

John 14:15-31   15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

Jesus calls His followers to a life of radical obedience.  But how?  Obedience seems impossible.  Our hearts are eternally bent inward.  In the fourth century, St. Augustine famously asked God to “Command what You will, but will what You command.”  We need help.  That’s part of what God does for us.

16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever,  17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

The Holy Spirit comes through both Father and Son (cf. John 20:22).  It is through this Spirit that God’s presence would be experienced.  Now, Jesus turns His attention from the immediate future (the coming Spirit) to the ultimate future (His second coming):

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.  19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.  20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

Jesus knows that there will be a day when all will be made clear; all will be made right.  So vital was this knowledge that Paul would later see the Spirit as a “guarantee of our inheritance:”

Ephesians 1:13-14   13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,  14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Paul is saying that the Spirit is like an engagement ring.  It is a promise of life that will be experienced in the future.  It is a life that has not yet arrived, but it is not a life rooted in fantasy.

INTIMACY > EFFICIENCY

22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”  23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

It’s tempting to wonder why God does not simply make His presence more clear.  More obvious.  That’s what lies at the heart of this disciple’s question.  But notice that Jesus doesn’t even answer the question.  Why?  Because in the first half of John’s gospel, Jesus consistently made Himself known through various signs and teachings.  Instead of widespread success, Jesus found Himself the target of a murder plot.  This tells us something important.  When Jesus addresses the issue, He reveals that the gospel is not found in efficiency or immediacy, but in intimacy. 

Corrie Ten Boom said it best: “Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you.”  Sometimes the greatest spiritual breakthroughs happen when we stop looking to God for a product and learn to take comfort in His presence. 

POWER SOURCE

25 “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.  29 And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe.  30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me,  31 but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.

Here, the first part of Jesus’ farewell speech winds down.  Part of this speech helps us understand exactly how the disciples could have known some of what they did.  God’s Spirit uniquely revealed this information to them.  Jesus will soon be gone, but God’s Spirit will be alive and active.

God’s Spirit is the central power source of the body of Christ.  A number of years ago I read an essay by Isaac Asimov.  Asimov had substantial training in my former field—biochemistry—and so I was endlessly fascinated by his sharp mind and clear writing style.  This particular essay was trying to explain the difference between a living body and a dead body.  This was the first time I’d ever seen a scientist flounder in an attempt to explain something as mystifying as death.  I believe strongly in science’s power to explain our world.  But here was something that couldn’t be explained merely in the language of molecules and atoms.  Asimov’s answer left me deeply unsatisfied.   He compared the body to a house.  The living body has its “bricks”—that is, atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, etc.—carefully and deliberately arranged.  But after death the “bricks” crumble; the house falls apart.  I remember thinking: “That’s it?”  Surely we can’t restore life simply by putting our atoms back into their correct positions.

If the life of the human body can’t be understood without referring to the soul, how much less can the body of Christ be understood without referring to the Spirit?  If this body is the temple, then without God’s Spirit we truly are gathering in a house of crumbling bricks.  Without God’s Spirit, we can no more energize Christ’s body than we can a corpse.  If we try, we create a monster.  Instead of the body of Christ, we create a religious version of Frankenstein’s monster—lurching around composed of dead body parts.

All the more reason we need to lift our eyes above the horizon of self to gaze upon the beauty of Christ Himself.  The Church is His body, unveiled not in the spectacular brilliance of earthly success, but in the lowly display of the cross.  If we are to follow after Jesus, if we are to be His Church, then our eyes must be turned away from ourselves.  This is a theme to which we will return as we continue to explore Jesus’ speech to His disciples.

Commencement Address (John 14:1-14)

I’ve been to my fair share of graduation ceremonies—for myself as well as for friends and family.  All of them have featured some sort of “commencement speech.”  Most of it is the standard inspirational, get-on-with-it, we’re-just-here-for-my-kid kind of variety.  Every so often someone will pull out Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You Go as if they’re the very first people to ever read this at commencement (really?).

Commencement.  The root word “commence” refers not to an ending but to a beginning.  And that’s what commencement ceremonies are meant to do.  Students have spent all the time they need (or can afford!) with their instructors.  Now it’s time to test their knowledge in the crucible of the real world.

So when we turn to John 14-17, we find what Dallas Willard calls Jesus’ “commencement address.”  If you have one of those Bibles where Jesus’ words are all in red, you can easily see that most of these chapters consist of Him teaching.  We find two distinct speeches—one in John 14 and another in John 15-16.  Both “speeches” are concluded with a prayer.

In this opening section, Jesus is comforting His disciples.  He is about to return to the Father; He wants them to know what it means to stay connected to God.  In broader terms, we can see these chapters as describing what it really means to be a “church,” something new that would begin after Jesus’ death.

THE TRUE TEMPLE

John 14:1-14  “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  4 And you know the way to where I am going.”  5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Jesus returns to an earlier theme.  He refers to His “Father’s house.”  But do you remember what “Father’s house” referred to in John 2?  Jesus “was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:21).  Jesus’ death would secure His followers a place in the body of Christ.

And do you remember the actual function of a temple?  A temple was a place where God was encountered—a kind of “cosmic crossroads” if you will.  Jesus is saying that what took place in a building would now take place in a body—referring to what would later be called the church.  So it’s interesting that Philip would take this moment to ask Jesus about seeing God.

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

Today’s world is more spiritual than ever.  Many, like Philip, long to see God up close.  But far, far fewer expect such a radical encounter to happen within the walls of a church.  Instead of finding Jesus in a church, many people find themselves disillusioned, disheartened, disgusted.  Still others are content not to find Jesus—at least not the Jesus of Scripture—but are satisfied with moral lessons and self-help seminars. 

But Jesus is saying that if you want to truly know Me, if you want to truly know God, sooner or later you have to get real with this whole thing called “church.”  Too often we look at church as a building, the sum total of its canned programs and a martyr to its own shortcomings.  Jesus says that the church is more than that—it’s a body, a living, breathing organism, rich in life and saturated by His gospel.  This is why church can never merely be a service to be attended but a community to be embodied.  It was a gift—purchased through the blood of Jesus (John 14:3) and given to His people.

DO BIG; DREAM SMALL

Jesus begins to describe the mission of the church:

12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.  13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

It’s easy to get lost in the extravagance of Jesus’ words.  Whatever I ask?  Anything?  But let’s not forget the most immediate context.  Jesus had displayed an attitude of a humble servant by washing the feet of even those who would betray Him.  When Jesus is talking about “greater works,” I somehow can’t imagine He’d taken the towel  from around His waist to put on a royal robe.

Again, as I think back to commencement addresses and other such inspirational moments, it’s always been within the context of “dreaming big.”  Success means chasing after your dreams—no matter how larger, no matter how foolish they are in the eyes of others.  Do you see how dangerous this could be to our spirituality?  Think about it.  If we only view God as One who accomplishes “big things,” only moves mountains, only causes the sun to stand still, we have placed Him in a very confined box.  We have limited His power.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I believe in a God powerful enough to accomplish these “big things.”  But do you really think that God has a separate category for “big things” and “small things?”  If God’s “glory”—His significance, His importance—is  about to be revealed in a humiliating death, what does this say about the tasks that lie before us?  Is it possible that the power of God is revealed not when we accomplish much, but when we are simply faithful?  Is it possible that like Jesus, God’s power is revealed not only in our achievements but in our scars, our wounds?  Is it possible that like Jesus, God’s power is manifested in us when we humbly serve others in simple, small ways?  Is it possible that like Jesus, God would use our lives to impact only a few people—but carry on a movement that would stretch into eternity?

That’s what church really is.  That’s why one’s experience of church can never be fully evaluated on the basis of a Sunday morning experience alone.  “Doing” church starts with “being” church.  In the next few chapters, Jesus will reveal all the more what this will look like when we throw our hats in the air.

What’s love got to do with it? (John 13:18-38)

Love.  It’s the subject of countless songs.  It’s the center of countless films.  But in many ways “love” has become a bankrupt word.  I can love anything—or at least say I do.  Like, I don’t know…tacos.  I love tacos, but somehow I doubt that the love I have for tacos is anything close to the width and depth of the love expressed on today’s Top 40.

Then again…maybe it’s not that far off.  These days a marriage is considered a success when it lasts past the honeymoon.  Celebrity marriages epitomize the way we’ve become far too comfortable with transient, insubstantial forms of love.

In the religious world, love is a pivotal virtue.  Though best known for his Narnia series, C.S. Lewis used his classical training to provide a thorough analysis of love in his book The Four Loves.  There’s more than one kind of love, he says.  Need-love, for instance, is the love of a child for a parent.  And the word “need” is not used lightly.  Children born in the poorest of countries have actually died from a lack of a mother’s love—a condition called marasmus.  Gift-love, by contrast, is the love of God for humanity.  It’s the love most fully expressed in the arrival of Jesus, and His sacrifice on the cross.

The sad news, however, is that there will always be those for whom God’s gift-love does not satisfy.  Judas was such a person.  Countless writers have speculated as to why he chose to betray Jesus.  Was it money?  Was he angry that Jesus wasn’t there to overthrow the oppressive government?  John doesn’t answer these questions for us.  Instead, John points his finger past these questions and into the shadows of the human heart.

AND IT WAS NIGHT

Jesus and His followers reclined at the table—in some cases leaning on one another—as was the custom for that culture.  This wasn’t the first Passover meal they’d spent together, but tonight as the oil lamps lit the room the air hung thick with smoke and heavy with meaning.  The cross loomed on the horizon;  Jesus now turns to the realities that faced all of them in the days ahead:

John 13:18-38   18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’  19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.  20 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

21 After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”  22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.  23 One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table close to Jesus,  24 so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.  25 So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?”  26 Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.  27 Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”  28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him.  29 Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor.  30 So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

In the ancient world, to “eat and run” was the ultimate insult.  But this would hardly be the worst thing Judas would do to Jesus.  John tells us that “it was night.”  Throughout his biography of Jesus, John uses the imagery of light and dark—sometimes to refer to good and evil, sometimes to refer to ignorance and understanding.  Here, John seems to allude to the fact that Judas’ life had become defined by moral darkness—by evil.   In our lives, we will meet people like Judas—people who live apart from the love of God.  But as we take a step back, we see that even an act of betrayal is not outside the plan of God.

Jesus is now left with the rest of His followers—and He turns more specifically to the subject of love.  In my counseling courses, I can remember learning that one of the hallmarks of emotional maturity is the ability to both give and receive love.  It seems that an essential part of our life with Jesus is our ability to give and receive love—though not our own love, but the kind of love the Savior demonstrates.

TO GIVE LOVE

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.  32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.  33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’  34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

A “new” commandment?  Surely this isn’t the first time that Jesus had given this kind of command.  Jesus’ other biographers all record Jesus echoing the Biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27).  But in John, Jesus gives His followers a command that is even more radical: to “love one another just as I have loved you.”  Jesus sets the standard for love.  In the immediate context, the command refers to the servant’s heart demonstrated through the washing of feet.  But in the whole of John’s story, we see that Jesus refers to the way He stepped from the throne of heaven to the dusty roads of our humanity.

Do you see how radical this kind of love is?  And don’t miss this “minor” detail: Judas had been there earlier.  Jesus washed the feet not only of the faithful, but also of the faithless.   It’s easy to love those who love us back. But that’s not real love.  That’s a shallower, self-serving kind of love.  What Jesus calls us to is a deeper, self-sacrificing kind of love.

We can see this expressed as we return to Lewis’ book.  Lewis comments on the writings of a man named Augustine, who mourns the loss of a friend.  Augustine concludes that the pain he feels is the consequence of loving anything except for God.  Lewis can’t disagree more.  Pain is a part of the process, he insists.  Lewis writes:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries, lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that coffin–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”  (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

Self-protection and self-defense are the greatest and surest barriers to self-sacrifice.  To follow in the steps of Jesus is to experience betrayal and loss alongside the experience of joy.  As we learn to love people, some will bless us, others will curse us.  All will be used to shape us more and more into the image of Jesus.

TO RECEIVE LOVE

36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.”  37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”  38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.

Peter is brash.  Headstrong.  But these features won’t prevent him from denying Jesus.   It’s easy to demonize Judas, to think “betrayal” is more severe than “denial.”  But what separates these two men is not some difference in the magnitude of their offense, but in the magnitude of God’s grace.   Earlier, Peter had refused to let Jesus wash his feet.  Little did he realize how much grace and love would be necessary, and he realized even less just how much grace and love he would receive.

The same is true for us.  In his commentary on this passage, a professor from Asbury Seminary writes:

“This is a story that dashes spiritual arrogance, false pride, and triumphalism which has always plagued the church.  We see a Peter resistant to foot washing, just as many of us are frequently resistant to the idea of repenting and seeking forgiveness and cleansing.  Yet this story calls us to remember that even if a Peter can deny Jesus, if even a Judas…can betray Jesus…this ought to cause us to soberly evaluate ourselves to see what sort of work the Lord still needs to do in our lives in order to remove arrogance and other un-Christlike traits.”  (Ben Witherington III, John’s Wisdom, p. 240)

Everything in our culture says that love is given and received purely on the basis of performance.  Within that system, we languish between the extremes of pride and despair.  The gospel says that love is given based not on performance but on the basis of grace.  When I realize that, it changes everything.  Only then am I able to truly receive the extravagant gift of God’s unfailing love.  Only then am I truly able to extend this love to those that seem least deserving.  And only then am I soft enough to be molded more and more into the image of Jesus.

Heart and Sole (John 13:1-17)

The first half of John’s gospel had focused on Jesus’ public ministry.  In fact, it’s the only account we have of Jesus’ ministry spanning three years.  This “book of signs” had focused on the way Jesus revealed Himself to the world.  But now the scene shifts.  Time slows.  The “book of glory” (John 13-21) focuses now on Jesus’ final week.  Chapters 13-17 even focus on Jesus’ final meal.

What can we make of this?  I can remember that when Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was released, it was panned by countless critics who were baffled to devote so much attention to the man’s death rather than His life and moral teachings.  If Jesus was a moral teacher, then their criticism holds weight.  But if Jesus was Savior—if Jesus was God who came to give His life in our stead—then it makes more sense that we’d want to fully understand His death.  And that’s why John gives us so much detail about Jesus’ final hours with His disciples.  In John 13 we find Jesus at His final meal:

John 13:1-17  Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

John goes out of His way to connect Jesus to the Passover.  The Passover was a Jewish holiday that memorialized the day they were finally set free from Egyptian slavery.  They shared a meal—the centerpiece being a lamb, whose blood they used to mark the doorframe of their houses so that God’s horrific anger might “pass over” them.

Tonight, this house was marked by the blood of a different Lamb—not a Lamb whose blood was shed but a Lamb whose blood was about to be shed.  John gives no details of the meal itself, only that Jesus used the meal as a teachable moment—a time for an additional symbolic act.

2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him,  3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,  4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.  5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.  6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”  7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”  8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”  9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.”  11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?  13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

I actually grew up in a church tradition that took this quite literally—my church washed each other’s feet when we observed the Lord’s table.  It was…pretty weird.

I can say that with no hesitation because the act itself was radically cross-cultural—especially in Jesus’ day.  In  a world of dust and sandals, it wasn’t uncommon for servants to wash your feet when you entered a home.  It was unheard of for the master of the house to do it himself—as if we visited Bill Gates and he offered to do our laundry.  No wonder Peter objected; this was an act that seemed beneath Jesus.  It might have even been a little embarrassing.

Jesus connects the act to the idea of being “clean.”  Did you know that all cultures have strong categories of clean and unclean?  In 1965 Mary Stuart Douglas wrote a book called Purity and Danger.  It’s a fascinating book, really.  One of the things she found was that centuries before we discovered “germs,” cultures maintained strong boundaries between clean and unclean.  Douglas wouldn’t go this far, but I would take this to mean that every culture recognizes the reality of “sin,” and the way it tends to defile us.

Think of our own culture.  What do we mean by “dirty?”  I’ve often observed the way we connect this image to sexuality: dirty movies, dirty bookstores, etc.  What phrase do we use when a young woman returns home in the morning after a one-night-stand?  The “walk of shame.”  “Ah,” you say, “but isn’t this just another example of Christians trying to make everyone feel guilty?”  It’s true that Christianity has a reputation for being something of a killjoy.  But look at what’s happening: if guilt and shame are nothing more than the pointed finger of Christianity, then why is it the further we run from these values, the dirtier we feel?  Maybe we’re dirtier than we first thought, and in more need of grace than we let on.

That’s what Passover was about.  By this time in Jewish history, all blood sacrifice purified sin.  It made us clean.  And Jesus was, after all, the “Lamb of God who lifts away the sin of humanity” (John 1:29).  On this night, of all nights, He portrays Himself as a humble servant, washing the feet of His followers—even Judas (we’ll return to Him tomorrow).

His closest followers were clueless what this all meant, but we have the benefit of hindsight.  We know that the shadow of the cross looms large on the horizon.  And in that shadow we understand—as if for the first time—just how shocking this act truly is.  If a servant washed your feet, it was expected.  If the master of the house washed your feet, it was unusual.  If God Himself washed your feet, it was an act of pure grace.  Did you know that the Hebrew word for grace comes from a word that meant “to bend” or “to stoop?”  In Jesus we see a picture of what God did for each of us.  He doesn’t wait for us to “get clean” before we come to Him.  He doesn’t roll His eyes and wait for us to realize our own filth.  He stoops down, with towel in hand, to handle even the filthiest parts of our souls.

The Paradox of Faith and Life – John 12:20-50

There are many paradoxical elements of faith, not the least of which is that God should choose to love the sinners who rebelled against him, and that Christ would die for the very ones who put him on the cross.

The Scriptures are filled with paradoxical statements and counter-intuitive realities. A list of a few that come immediately to mind:  He who would be great among you must become the servant of all; the first shall be the last, and the last shall be the first; whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me; enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction.

In the verses immediately following the presentation and coming of the King to Israel, rather than a mass of Jews seeking out the Lord, we see a group of Gentiles coming to meet Jesus. They apparently pick out the most Gentile sounding of the disciples – Philip – with hopes that he can get them an audience with Christ. He goes to Andrew, and together they go to Jesus.

20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus speaks in paradoxical terms that, as in the plant world, life and abundant fruit and growth come only after the death of the seed. And so it would be that the Savior would give life through his sacrificial death, while even his followers must also understand that death to this world is the price of discipleship.

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

As the climatic moments of Christ’s life and ministry are approaching, the confusion of the crowds mounts as they misunderstand the message and illustrations that Jesus gives …

27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

34 The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?”

35 Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. 36 Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.

Though certainly the clarity we see about who Jesus is and what he meant by the teachings he gave was not as easily understood at this time before the cross, enough had been done and said that the people should have connected it with the messianic prophecies, particularly of Isaiah. But even the rejection was prophesied, as God was working a master plan of redemption to extend to the whole human race …

37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:

“Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:

40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”

41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.

Even with the general mass rejection that was officially rendered by the Jewish leadership, John records here that there were many others, even among the leaders, who did believe in Jesus and recognized the signs as Scripturally true. Yet out of fear to publicly acknowledge their faith and suffer humiliation, they kept it secret – ultimately preferring the comfort of man more than the pleasure of God.

42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human praise more than praise from God.

44 Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. 45 The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

47 “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. 49 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”

Life is difficult in a sin-saturated world. But in Christ, there is light in the darkness, life that is eternal, and peace in the bigger picture of the great work of God that transcends this world.

The Priority of Christ as King – John 12:1-19

As we open chapter 12 today, John’s Gospel will “turn the corner toward home,” as this marks the end of Jesus’ public ministry and brings him triumphantly into Jerusalem as the promised Messiah King.

The scene is in the home of Simon the Leper (we know this from the parallel passage in Mark 14), which is in Bethany – the hometown of Martha, Mary, and the recently-resurrected brother Lazarus. In typical fashion of the two sisters with opposite personality types, Martha is serving and Mary is creating another “awkward moment.”

12:1  Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”  He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

This aromatic nard from India was incredibly expensive. In today’s terms, it would be about like a bottle of perfume that would cost approximately 50-60 thousand dollars!  And the bookkeeper of the disciples – Judas Iscariot – runs the math through his head and sees this as an incredible waste of money. And on one hand, we can sort of understand that … imagine what a $50,000 gift to the REACH Cold Weather Shelter here in Hagerstown could accomplish. On the other hand, think of the personal benefits that Mary could have accrued for herself had she sold the nard and pocketed the proceeds (which is really what Judas would have done and actually wanted to do). The passage in Mark gives us some additional understanding of the scene:

From Mark 14:6-11 … “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

Dead Men Don’t Tell Tales

According to the authoritative Urban Dictionary (insert smiley face), this is a saying that has existed for a long time but became famous through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, in which a pirate-ish skull and crossed bones on the wall utters this very phrase. It means that to keep something quiet, kill anyone who knows about it and, since that person is dead, it would be pretty much impossible for them to tell your secret. A similar saying is “Three can keep a secret if two are dead,” invented by Benjamin Franklin.

The chief priests in Israel would love these sentiments, as they essentially come to the same conclusion: the only way to stop the growing popularity and distraction of this magician dude from Galilee was to kill him and his #1 carnival prop – Lazarus …

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him. 

… and let me momentarily skip a few verses to put the end of today’s reading at this point …

 17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

The event that we know and celebrate on Palm Sunday was a scene fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. The “blessed is he who comes” is from Psalm 118:25,26; and the entrance on a donkey fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 …

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Blessed is the king of Israel!”

14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

A professor friend of mine from Dallas – whom I knew well from his service as an elder at the church where I was the Minister of Music – had done research for his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and later published what he believed to be the exact date that this event occurred. Dr. Harold Hoehner took the passage from Daniel 9:24-25 – which says that from the time of the decree of the Persian King Artaxerses to rebuild Jerusalem until the time of the official presentation of Jesus as the King of Israel (this triumphal entry) would be 483 years. He then went through all the calculations of dates, calendar changes, etc., and arrived at a final date of Monday, March 30, in the year A.D. 33!  Is this absolutely true? We don’t know for sure, but it could be … and it powerfully does argue for the incredible accuracy of Scripture and the overarching plan of God for the ages.

Application:  It is all about Priorities

We have to set priorities every day. Seldom are our priorities about what is “good” or “bad,” rather, it is about what is “better” or “best.”  It is good to care about the poor, but it is best to care deeply about God himself – loving him and serving him together with God’s people … which, of course, involves serving the poor as Jesus did. Yet the greatest priority of seeing Jesus for who he is – the King of Kings – is fully lost on the masses of humanity in our culture and world, even as it was on the religious “in crowd” when they rejected his offer as their king in March, A.D. 33.  Don’t be like that … set your priorities well.