Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Month: February, 2018

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #8. Water into Wine

Related image

Thinking Spiritually:

The first sign that Jesus preformed in Cana of Galilee was turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). When reading the signs, we must remember not only to see what literally happened, but to search for the spiritual message behind it (cf. Reflection #7). This message might be overtly stated or it may be left intentionally ambiguous as a challenge for the insightful reader to ponder, ruminate, and meditate over. There are usually clues in the text that help guide our thoughts and control our Scriptural imagination to point us in the proper direction. This can admittedly get subjective and perhaps shouldn’t be pushed too far, but it can also be a useful exercise, as those who have been born of God, in opening our spiritual eyes to see the deeper meaning of the signs. The Gospel of John specifically invites this kind of reflection.

Take, for example, the first sign in John.  If you see the “water into wine” sign, and solely think about a doctrinal study on the use of alcohol, you have missed the sign. That’s an irrelevant question for understanding the text or sign. Or if you focus only on the miracle and how it saved a family from social disaster and embarrassment, you perhaps have properly seen the sign post, but missed the spiritual destination. We certainly want to see the physical demonstration, but then also ponder how this spiritually points to the identity of Jesus.

Water into Wine:

This is where the fun really starts when studying John; digging into the signs and searching for clues. What could this be pointing towards? What could the spiritual message be? This is when you scour every word and ask yourself: “Why add that detail?” “Why word it this way?”

I believe the true spiritual meaning of this sign is in the final phrase: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10).  This breach of social protocol is significant; it’s the whole point. And in it, the sign somehow “manifest His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). So let’s think. How could turning water into wine manifest the glory of Jesus?

Certainly, it was miraculous. That’s one way. But looking deeper, notice that small, innocuous detail about the waterpots: “there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification” (John 2:6). These waterpots are for Jewish customs and purity regulations; the very issues that Jesus regularly ran into conflict for ignoring. These Jewish pots were filled with unsatisfactory water. It’s only after this Jewish purification water comes into contact with Jesus that it becomes “good wine” (John 2:10).

Wine as a Blessing from God:

In the Bible wine is often a symbol of God’s blessing, a gift to mankind. God brings “forth food from the earth, And wine which makes man’s heart glad” (Psalm 104:14-15). Abundance of new wine was one of the blessings of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; 33:28).

In Joel, God demonstrates His wrath through a locust plague (Joel 1:4). The “drunkards” and “wind drinkers” (Joel 1:5) mourn because the locusts destroy all the vines (Joel 1:7) and “the new wine dries up” (Joel 1:10). But after a call to repentance, God promises to “make up to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25). God restores the “new wine, and oil…the fig tree and the vine have yielded in full…And the vats will overflow with the new wine” (Joel 2:19, 22, 24).

Wine was part Jewish celebrations (Deuteronomy 14:23-26). If you couldn’t bring the tithe of your produce to Jerusalem because the journey was too long, you could sell your produce, and “spend the money for whatever your heart desires; for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice” (Deuteronomy 14:26). In fact, one of God’s curses for disobedience, like in Joel, would be the removal of wine from the land (Deuteronomy 28:39, 51; Hosea 9:2; Amos 5:11; Zephaniah 1:13).

Wine was also a symbol of the Messianic age (Mark 2:22). The book of Amos demonstrates the outpouring of God’s wrath on unfaithful Israel. But it ends on a rare positive note, looking for future blessings from God for “all the nations called by my name” (Amos 9:12; quoted in Acts 15:16-18). In this hopeful passage, God promises to bless His people so that “the mountains will drip with sweet wine…They will plant vineyards and drink their wine” (Amos 9:13-14).

Meaning of the Sign:

Against that backdrop, perhaps this sign is meant to symbolize the time has come for God to bless His people. These waterpots, meant for Jewish purification, were filled with water. Apart from Jesus, this would not have saved the wedding feast; the celebration is over. But with Jesus, “the good wine” comes and saves the day!

Jewish customs apart from Jesus do not bring about God’s presence and blessing. But with the coming of Jesus, a new and glorious age has arrived; a time of rejoicing and blessing from God. Perhaps that is the significance of that breach of custom, “you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). Jesus did not come at the beginning. He came, as the very presence of God, to bless His people and to turn their water into good wine. In this, the glory of Jesus is made known (John 2:11).

Is this the precise meaning of the first sign in Cana of Galilee? Maybe not. But the manner of Jesus’ teaching and signs invite this kind of thinking. In John 6, Jesus performed the sign of miraculously multiplying bread. The crowds only focused on the “meal” and forgot to look for the spiritual “sign” behind it (John 6:26). In that case, Jesus explained the sign: “I am the bread of life…He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…” (John 6:35, 54-56). In this case, we are left to examine for ourselves, to open our eyes to see the spiritual possibilities. Perhaps in the way that Jesus is “the bread of life,” He is also “the good wine” who comes along, just in the nick of time, to usher in God’s blessings and Messianic Age. Like new wine that bursts old wineskins, Jesus brings God’s new age bursting on to the scene. What a great first message for an introductory sign.

Advertisements

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #7. Reading the Signs

Image result for gospel of JOhn

The Gospel is John is a collection of signs. This is most obviously true in the first 12 chapters. The exact number of signs is debated but the greatest sign, and the culmination of all the others is the death and resurrection of Jesus. But in addition to the resurrection, there were “many other signs Jesus also performed…which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). John carefully chose a collection of signs intended to persuade the reader to believe. When you read through John, remember to associate the word “sign” with the word “believe.” That is their stated purpose.

Some of the signs are specifically detailed in the story (John 2:11, 18-20; 4:54; 6:14; etc.), while others are briefly referenced in passing: “a large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick” (John 6:2), and “many believed in His name, observing the signs which He was doing” (John 2:23). These signs caused Nicodemus to come up to Jesus at night saying, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). What signs did Nicodemus see? We don’t know exactly what they were, but in addition to cleansing the temple, apparently Jesus was doing a bunch at Passover in Jerusalem (John 2:18, 23). Nicodemus saw these and started to come to some conclusions about Jesus. But we’re not told what they were and they aren’t recorded, but every sign was recorded, “the world itself could not contain the books” (John 21:25).

At this point, let us step back and talk about what a sign actually is. If you think “It’s a miracle,” there’s a good chance you are missing the point.  The King James Version does not help us when it translates the word “sign” as “miracle” in the Gospel of John. I put this post after the last two about Misunderstanding Jesus, because I think they serve as a good introduction to it. Jesus would often say physical things, but the true meaning was found on a deeper, heavenly level. To only hear the physical was to miss it entirely. To think Jesus was talking only about the physical temple (John 2:19-21), or physical birth (John 3:4), or physical water from a well (John 4:10-15), or physical bread (John 6:27), or physical sleep (John 11:11-13) is to miss His true point. I believe the same can be said about the signs.

A sign is a physical display that points to something else. A sign pointing to California is not California. It’s a sign. But following it leads you to California. That’s why it’s important to distinguish between a sign and a miracle. The word sign does not fit our modern definition of a miracle. In fact, no word in the New Testament means “a suspension of natural law” or “a supernatural act from God.” The words translated as “miracle” in your Bible are literally the words for “sign” and “power” and “wonder.” Each of these words sometimes refers to things that we would call miracles. But, they also refer to things we wouldn’t call miracles. The New Testament doesn’t really use a word that exactly correlates to the modern English word “miracle.”

A “sign” is a symbolic display which might or might not be miraculous. In John it usually is miraculous, but the miracle is supposed to serve as a teaching point. There is a rich history of “signs” in the Old Testament. The rainbow after the flood was a “sign” (Genesis 9:12, 13). It has a meaning outside of itself. Circumcision was a “sign” (Genesis 17:11). Sabbath observance was a “sign” (Ezekiel 20:20). Isaiah walked naked for three years as a “sign” (Isaiah 20:3). Ezekiel reclined on his left side for 390 days and on his right side 40 days as a “sign” (Ezekiel 4:1-8). Signs are an important part of the Hebrew Scriptures and to say that Jesus performed “signs” puts Him right within this great prophetic tradition. When Jesus cleansed the temple, He was asked what the meaning of that sign was (John 2:18). They saw the physical demonstration, but they wanted to know what it meant. That’s like seeing Isaiah walk around naked and wondering why. What does it mean? Jesus’ signs mean something.

Remember the question that was asked, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (John 7:31). When they saw the signs they realized Jesus was a prophet, perhaps like Elijah. But He did so many that they started questioning if even the Christ (Messiah) would do so many. It hadn’t quite donned on many of them that Jesus was the Christ. But that came shortly after, “Some of the people…were saying, ‘This certainly is the Prophet.’ Others were saying, ‘This is the Christ’” (John 7:40-41). The signs were teaching people the true identity of Jesus.

So when you are reading the signs, you should not just be looking at the physical action of Jesus. Don’t just marvel at the miracle. But search for the spiritual meaning of it. Where is the sign pointing? What does it tell you about the identity of Jesus? This is where things get interesting and fun. Sometimes the text will indicate very strongly what the spiritual meaning of the sign is. Healing the blind man was clearly illustrating how Jesus, as the Light of the World, gives spiritual sight, but those who reject Jesus, even though they may see physically, are blind to the things of God (John 9).

But some signs do not explicitly tell you what the spiritual meaning is. They leave textual clues that make you wonder. It is in those times that I think we are called to dig a little deeper. To use our Scriptural imaginations and try to find what God has left buried for us. It is admittedly a little more subjective, but I think it can be a good exercise in “seeing the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). When you read the signs in John, don’t miss the spiritual substance. Think about them, pray about them, ponder them, meditate on them, and look for clues. Read them over and over again, and see what you find. That’s what we’ll start doing in the next few posts.

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #6 Misunderstanding Jesus (Part 2)

Image result for the gospel of JOhn

Last week we discussed how often people misunderstand Jesus in the Gospel of John (If you haven’t read it, it may be a helpful background for this post). It happens all the time in nearly every conversation. I use highlighters to note certain themes or important ideas in my Bible. John is lit up with pink on nearly every page. Why? That’s the color I use when there is some sort of misunderstanding in Jesus’ heavenly teaching. I’d encourage you to read the Gospel of John and pay particularly close attention to how often people don’t understand what He is truly saying.

We posited an explanation that the real reason is because Jesus is from heaven and speaks in heavenly figures, while His audience is from the world and hears only worldly ideas. Or, to use John’s opening illustration, Jesus is “Light” and the world is “darkness” and darkness does not comprehend the Light. In John 9 the illustration is Light vs. Blindness (John 9:5, 35-41).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

Perhaps  Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic, can shed an interesting light on this theme. The allegory deals with Forms and Ideas, enlightenment and ignorance, and it goes like this: Imagine a deep underground cave with several prisoners, bound and chained in a fixed position so that they cannot even turn their heads. They can only look directly in front of them to a dark wall. They have been in this situation their entire lives; it’s all they know. Behind them a fire is burning and there are people and objects that pass by the fire, casting a shadow on the wall in front of them. All they can see are shadows. Having been in this situation their entire lives, never able to turn around, would they not think that the shadows are reality? They would name the shadows thinking that they are true objects. They would even have competitions to see who was smartest by recognizing the shadow the fastest.

Then imagine that one of these prisoners is released from his chains, and he turns back to see the fire. It would hurt his eyes, and cause confusion when he saw the actual objects.  But eventually he could grow accustomed to it. Then imagine that he is pulled up out the deep underground cave to stand free under the sunlight.  His eyes would hurt and he wouldn’t understand, he would take comfort in shadows. But eventually he could grow to look around, to see the true objects and eventually see even the sun itself. The light would become natural and comfortable and then he’d understand the wretched state in the cave.

Imagine now that he is taken back to the cave, rechained, and able only to see the shadows on the wall. Now, he would struggle to see in the darkness. As his fellow prisoners would compete to name the shadows and he’d be unable. They would think he understands less than them all; that leaving the cave made him crazy!

The one who becomes enlightened and sees the forms and ideas of reality, understanding the shadows, the fire, and the direct sunlight, Plato would classify this man as the rare “Philosopher King” with a duty to lead the people. But the common people who stare only at shadows, they cannot understand for themselves unless they also leave the cave. They arrogantly and incorrectly think they truly understand.

Now, after discussing His role as the Good Shepherd, consider the reaction in John 10:19-20: “A division occurred again among the Jews because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?’” Jesus is the enlightened One from Heaven. Jesus is the One who sees true reality. But they are still staring at shadows. Jesus brings truth from outside the cave, outside of even the world. The shadow is on earth, but the truth is in heaven. They may see physical light but Jesus is true Light (John 1:9). They can eat bread, but Jesus is true Bread (John 6:32). They may see vines, but Jesus is the true Vine (John 15:1). This is why they have a hard time finding God through Jesus: “He who sent Me is true; and you do not know Him” (John 7:28).

Heavenly Language and Heavenly Birth:

The Philosopher-King Jesus, the wise and enlightened One, is entering the cave to teach and free those who arrogantly stare at shadows. Jesus does this in figural, heavenly, language: “This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand…” (John 10:6). Jesus rebukes Nicodemus, saying, “I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:9-12). Jesus clearly distinguishes between “earthly” and “heavenly” language.

But notice the change in how Jesus speaks to His disciples right before His death: “‘These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father…I came forth from the Father and have come down into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.’ His disciples said, ‘Lo, now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech. Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God’” (John 16:25, 28-30).

There are some who do come to understand and believe. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). This is what Nicodemus is told in John 3:3, “unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

This rebirth allows to you see the kingdom, which previously could not be seen. This is how you leave the cave. Jesus and His kingdom both came from Heaven to earth (John 3:13; John 18:36). Spiritual rebirth allows you to see heavenly things, rather than just the fleshly and worldly. It allows you to leave darkness and comprehend the Light. John invites you to join in this spiritual rebirth, to be born of water and Spirit, and to both see and enter the kingdom (John 3:3, 5).

One of My Favorite Laws: Making Your Marriage Happy

Image result for marriage happy

One of my favorite laws from the Torah comes from a passage in Deuteronomy 24 concerning marriage. This passage (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) is well known as the backdrop for the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 10 and Matthew 19. But right after those first 4 verses is a law a lot of people forget about, but it’s a really cool one.

When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken (Deuteronomy 24:5).

This law is easily forgotten. It doesn’t ever really come up again or play a prominent role in any major Old Testament narrative. But I bet the young men and women of Israel remembered it.

Jewish Rabbinic tradition viewed it as the reason that King Asa “was diseased in his feet” before his death (1 Kings 15:23). For his building projects, Asa compelled all the men to work: “King Asa made a proclamation to all Judah, none was exempt, and they carried away the stones of Ramah and its timber… (1 Kings 15:22). This would be a violation of Deuteronomy 24:5 because newly married men were supposed to be exempt from mandatory public service. Whether that is really why Asa’s foot was diseased, I have no idea. But there are a few things I think we can know:

  1. God cares about happiness in marriage. God wants married couples to be happy with one another. The phrase “to be happy with his wife” could also be translated “to make happy his wife.” Husbands, I know you have important work to do. I know you have expectations put on you. But the Lord wants you to make your wife happy. Take that job more seriously than any other.

 

  1. God sees time together as an important part of happiness. The way God wants the husband and wife to be happy together is by spending time with each other. Free up your schedule. Take a break from your hobbies. Slow down at work. Time management is a difficult skill to learn. But when you examine how you spend your time, there is usually a pretty strong correlation to where you priorities are. You spend more time doing the things you prioritize. Prioritize quality time with your wife.

 

  1. God sees the home as more important than public affairs. I realize that this is only for one year, but I think the principle is that you first and foremost make sure your home is happy, then you can move on to other matters. This passage does not say, before you spend time with your wife, make sure you have done your military service or served your community. God wants us to make sure our homes are in order and places of peace and happiness before we go out and serve in other capacities. The home comes first.

This is an area in which I think we can all strive to improve: Prioritize your wife and home life, spend quality time together, and make sure your home is a happy place. Scaling back at work, giving up a few hobbies, throwing away your phone, whatever it requires, make sure you are willing to make the sacrifice for your wife and family. God bless and have happy lives and happy homes.

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #5. Misunderstanding Jesus (Part 1)

Image result for the gospel of JOhn

Have you ever had a conversation that just seemed to go nowhere? You are talking about one thing, even an important thing, but the other person seems to miss the importance, or worse, they steer the conversation in a way that shows they’re clueless as to what you are really trying to communicate.  Serious conversations can easily turn into a “Who’s on First, What’s on Second” routine, if you don’t take the time to really listen to the other person.

This happens in friendly conversation, but also political and religious disputes. Regarding abortion, the prolife proponent may emphatically argue that murder is wrong. But the prochoice party isn’t persuaded, because, 1. They already agree murder is wrong and 2. They don’t think abortion is murder. But then the prochoice person argues that the mother has freedom over her body. However, the prolife person isn’t persuaded because 1. They already agree a mother has freedom over her body and 2. The baby’s body is not the mother’s body.  They both stare incredulously at the blindness of the other person, raising their voices louder and louder, but they are simply talking past each other.

This hindrance to communication is not new. In fact, it’s one of the main features of dialogue in the Gospel of John. If two people from earth can talk past each other, how much more will it happen if one of them is from heaven? That’s what John is going to show. Almost every single time Jesus opens his mouth the audience misses the point, sometimes by an embarrassingly wide margin. He speaks of heavenly things, but people only hear earthly. Note the following exchanges:

The Misunderstandings:

After cleansing the temple, Jesus proclaims, “‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking about the temple of His body” (John 2:19-21). Jesus makes a dramatic point about His connection to the temple. The temple is the dwelling of God on earth, the meeting place between God and man, and Jesus links it to His body through His death and resurrection. Yet, all the audience gets is, “He thinks that he can build a new temple that quickly?!”

During Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, He explains, “‘Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’” (John 3:3-4). This miscommunication is particularly interesting. The word “again” in verse 3, can literally be translated “from above.” In fact, that exact same word is used in John 3:31, “He who comes from above is above all…” Since spiritual birth comes from God (John 1:13), Jesus is saying you need to be born of God, born “from above.” But that word can also mean “again.” Thus the confusion. Nicodemus is so earthly minded that the idea of being “born of God” never enters his mind. He thinks you somehow have to be born from the womb again. He is thinking “born of flesh” but Jesus is thinking of a spiritual rebirth (John 3:6).

Introducing Himself to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus says that if she knew who He was, she “‘would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’ She said to Him, ‘Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water?’…Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw’” (John 4:10-15).  See the miscommunication? Jesus is not just talking about H2O. He is talking about something life-giving and spiritual (John 7:37-39), but her concerns center on her physical thirst and walking all the way to the well.

These miscommunications happen about bread (John 6:26-66), slavery (John 8:32-24), shepherding (John 10:6-7), death (John 11:11-13), Judas (John 13:27-29), returning to the Father (John 14:3-6), Jesus’ death and resurrection (John 16:16-18), His kingdom (John 18:36-37), and about how long the Beloved Disciple would live (John 21:22-23), etc.  They are a common occurrence.

A Proposed Explanation:

But, why do they happen? Perhaps it is because “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5). The word “comprehend” can also be translated as “overcome” or “grasp.” They did not grasp the plain on which Jesus stood and spoke. “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:9-11). This introduction to Jesus foreshadows many of these conversations. These conversations evidence the fact that Jesus is Light and the world is darkness. It is really difficult for darkness to receive or even understand true light.

There is so much more that needs to be said about this, which is why this is only part 1 on Misunderstanding Jesus. But the primary explanation, which will be explored next week, is that Jesus came from heaven as Light and spoke in true, heavenly figures. His audience came from earth and darkness, understanding only physical ideas. The way to make the switch from seeing earthly things to heavenly things is to “be born of God” (John 1:12-13; 3:3).

So here is what we need to ask ourselves: Are we really listening? When you’re accustomed to a dark room, it hurts when someone turns on the lights. The darkness is comfortable and the light is painful. That’s one reason why Jesus was rejected. The world was comfortable in its darkness, but Jesus exposed it. So let’s rub our eyes and adjust to the change. Let’s get comfortable with the Light and listen to Jesus. Despite our natural inclinations towards darkness and worldliness, let’s bathe ourselves in Light and seek a heavenly perspective, being born from above.

%d bloggers like this: