Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Month: May, 2018

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #16. Healing the Blind Man (Part 1)

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“Why do bad things happens to good people?” This is a huge question. It’s been asked over and over and over by people all around the world. Why? Because we find ourselves in a world full of injustice and suffering.  Some have attempted to answer this perplexing question by assuming that it’s just incorrect. All bad things are deserved because all people have done bad things. So, if a man loses his health and job and family, it must be because he did something awful to deserve it. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar shared this type of worldview and it did not help their spiritual journeys. In fact, they offended God by it, saying things about Him which were not correct (Job 42:7-8).

There are, however, entire religious structures predicated on this idea. If you see someone with a disability, it must be because some sin in their life or possibly it’s punishment for a grievous sin committed in a previous life. Even at a non-spiritual level, many people assume this to be the infallible standard of life. When a homeless man is sitting on the ground, in dirty clothes, missing teeth, thin and hungry, many (without knowing him, his experiences, or his story) will immediately assume the worst about his character: “He’s just lazy and needs to get a job!” “If you give him money, he’ll just spend it on drugs and alcohol.” “I heard about someone who just faked poverty to rip you off, then got in their Mercedes and drove home afterwards.”

This is the type of setting which introduces the next great sign of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Jesus and his disciples are walking along and they see a man who had been born blind. Rather than feeling compassion, seeing his humanity, or trying to find any small way to help, the disciples turn to Jesus and ask about whose fault it is: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2). That’s just kind of a heartless question to ask when you see a person in need. “Is this guy awful or is he just from an awful family?” Notice the logic though. If someone is experiencing suffering, there must have been some grave sin committed. In order for God to be just, there must be some sort of just explanation for this suffering.

Jesus rejects this idea. His answer is, “he neither sinned nor his parents” (John 9:3). Jesus in fact wants to change the way His disciples think about those in need. He wants to change the way we think about those in need. Rather than seeing the pain in others as evidence of their sin, try instead to see it as an opportunity to glorify God. See it as an opportunity to display and “work the works of God” (John 9:3-4). Perhaps the disciples would have been content to walk right passed this man as they debated the theology of individual VS inherited sin. Jesus won’t have that. When you see someone in need, it’s not the time to judge and it’s not the time to theologize, it’s the time to work.

Jesus then stresses the need for them to be busy working. It’s because day is here and night is coming. It’s really hard to work when the lights go out. In John there is a constant contrast between Light and Darkness, Day and Night, Seeing and Blindness. While Jesus is on earth He is bringing light to the world. He is the Sight and the Day and the Light. Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world” (John 9:5). This is how Jesus was first introduced in John 1:4-9: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” So from the beginning we’ve known this about Jesus. Now, in John 9, we’re about to get some evidence as to what it really means.

Darkness pretends not to see the man. Darkness walks right passed him. Darkness judges and wags its head. Darkness treats this man the way the passerby’s treated Jesus on the cross. They look, they see suffering, and they immediately blame. Jesus will put an end to the darkness. He will shine the light right on this man, and many will see it. Jesus will enlighten this man. Jesus will change the definitions of “light” and “dark” and “blind” and “sight.”

At the beginning of this story, the blind man is the one without sight and the one assumed to be a sinner. At the end of the story, the blind man sees and those who see are truly blind. At the end of the story the blind man believes and worships (John 9:38) and the spiritual leaders are called sinners. Jesus explains, “‘For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see and those who see may become blind.’ Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see,” your sin remains’” (John 9:39-41).

In the next reflection we’ll look a little deeper into how this reversal actually happens. But for now, just consider a possible change of mind. When you see a stranger on the street, what is your first thought? When you see someone in prison, are you quick to judge? How many were guilty of passing by this blind man assuming the worst? How many were guilty of passing by Jesus as He was executed by the Romans and assuming guilt? Would you have been one? What if we saw these as opportunities to be lights in a dark situation? To show the love and glory of God instead of the darkness and neglect of the world? I want to suggest we just hold our judgment a little bit longer. I want to suggest we proceed with caution before we say “We see clearly, but you are blind.” Sometimes the one who “sees” is indeed the one in darkness and Light is coming to the one who is blind.

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52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #15. Walking on the Water

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Jesus has just done something remarkable (again!). He just miraculously fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. John 6 is primarily about this sign and its meaning. John 6:1-15 is about the sign and John 6:26-71 is about the sign’s meaning and the crowd’s response. Shoved right in the middle, however, is this incredible moment where Jesus defies every human ability and expectation; he physically walks on water.

After feeding the 5000 several thoughts had entered into the minds of those who saw it. They said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). This is a likely reference to Deuteronomy 18:15-18 where God promises to raise up a prophet like Moses. When Moses was leading the people, they had bread miraculously provided. When fleeing from Egypt the Red Sea parted and they crossed over on dry land; the sea was no longer an obstacle. When the disciples see that Jesus is this prophet like Moses, “they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king” (John 6:15). It makes sense they would want a king like Moses. Moses was favored by God, performed mighty signs, destroyed the enemy Egyptians, and gave bread to the people.

They want Jesus to be this type of king. They know He is favored by God, He has already performed mighty signs, and He just gave bread to the people. Perhaps He can also destroy the Romans and establish peace in the land? But as they come to make Jesus king, He does a very unkingly thing. He left His people behind and escaped and ran off to the mountains alone (John 6:15).

Were the disciples wrong? Is He not the prophet like Moses? Is He too cowardly to lead a charge against the Romans? The timing is perfect! He just fed an entire army! A Roman centurion has charge over 100 men (a century). A Roman cohort was generally made up of 5 or 6 centuries. And a Roman legion was made up of 10 cohorts. A legion was roughly 5000 men. Do the math! Jesus has a legion at His disposal right now!  He could destroy the Roman occupying forces and establish Himself as king right now! The successful Jewish Maccabean revolt which gained independence from their Greek oppressors and established the Hasmonean dynasty was relatively recent history for these people. They could do it again. They could do it right now! But instead, their Hope, their Prophet, their Leader, their Savior, fled to the mountains and abandoned them.

The daylight began to wane and evening came. His disciples were still alone, confused, and depressed.  It became dark and Jesus was still gone. What to do? Is He coming back? They can’t just stay there forever.  Without waiting any longer, they decide to get in the boat and go back home to Capernaum, leaving Jesus behind on the other side of the sea. As it turns out, this will not be any ordinary seafaring journey.  Soon the winds pick up and the waves begin to rise. A storm is brewing and their lives are in peril. They are too far from land (3 of 4 miles out) to disembark. They must ride the storm and hope and pray for the best.

Then all of the sudden, while they are struggling with wind and the waves on the sea, crushed with disappointment and lost hope, something appears on the horizon. Something, miles away from shore is coming towards them. It can’t be another boat. It doesn’t look like anything ever seen on the water before. It looks like, a human form? It is! It’s Jesus! He’s walking out towards them. And terror grips them. How would you respond? The guy you just abandoned on the other side of the sea is coming out to you, walking through a storm on the water.

But then they hear a comforting voice and words of assurance, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20). What an amazing moment. After feeding the 5000 they saw a connection between Jesus and Moses. Jesus can provide miraculous food just like Moses did! Now again, just as Moses couldn’t be stopped by the Red Sea, Jesus makes His way through the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has no need to split the sea though, He has no need for dry land, He can walk for miles right on top of the water. He has that much control over the creation around Him, which is why Jesus is so much more than just a prophet like Moses. He controls even the winds and the seas (Psalm 107:23-32).

When Jesus introduces Himself, it’s translated as “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20). But that translation alters an important aspect of this declaration. He does not literally say, “It is I”; He says, “ἐγώ εἰμι· μὴ φοβεῖσθε”, literally, “I Am; do not be afraid.” This is the same phrase He utters in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was born, I Am.” It is regularly used by Jesus in John and is a direct reference to the divine name of God described in Exodus 3:14.

Jesus comes in an unprecedented way to His disciples, not only confirming to them that He is like Moses, but so much more, He is the I Am who sent Moses. He is so much more than an earthly king who can defeat the Romans. He is so much more than they could have ever expected.

So what do they do? “They were willing to receive Him into the boat” (John 6:21). That might not be as simple and straightforward a statement as it seems. John likes to word narratives in a way that brings about theological truths in the story. To “receive Him” is a really important phrase and idea in John: “As many as received Him, to them He have the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12; c.f. John 5:43, 12:13 [meet is literally receive], 13:20, ironically 19:6 [take is literally this same word]).

Jesus was not what His disciples were expecting. He crushed their dreams as an earthly king. But when they saw who He truly was, they received Him on those terms. Are we willing to do the same? Can we receive Jesus as He is, rather than just what we want Him to be?

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #14. Bread from Heaven (Part 2)

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In Part 1, we noted a radical rereading of Psalm 78:24 and the Exodus narrative, specifically regarding the manna which came from Heaven. The manna is a source of life that comes from God. Jesus is a source of life that comes from God. The link between the two jumps off the page. John reads about the manna but sees Jesus.

Problem #1:

There are, however, some problems with this interpretation. The crowd soon points out one of these problems: “the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, “I have come down out of heaven”?’” (John 6:41-42).

The setting for this conversation is Capernaum, Jesus’ hometown. The problem is that they know His parents. It might be easier to convince a group of distant strangers about your divine origins, but to people who know your parents? That’s gonna be a problem. Jesus doesn’t see the problem this same way, however. Jesus sees the problem as a lack of divine education. They trust in their own minds rather than what God has taught. Don’t look to Joseph and Mary to see if Jesus has come from heaven, look to God.

Jesus warns, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me” (John 6:44-45). To Jesus, the problem is that they aren’t reading their Bibles correctly. When John reads Torah, He sees Jesus nearly everywhere. Jesus says, “For if you believed Moses, you would have believed Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (John 5:39-47). (Our next article will focus on how often John sees Moses writing about Jesus).

Jesus’ true identity has been screamed out by God in the writings of Moses and will culminate in the cross, where Jesus says, “‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die” (John 12:32-33, cf. John 3:14-15). Jesus’ adversaries are ignoring God’s teaching in Scripture, which is how He teaches and draws you to Christ. They’re reading wrong, getting the wrong information, and missing Jesus. They’re unwilling to look at Jesus in a new light. In God’s light.

Problem #2:

The second problem is that the manna only gave temporary life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever…” (John 6:47-51).

Jesus gives eternal life. In this way, He is dissimilar from the manna in Exodus. Jesus draws a distinction between the “bread out of heaven” and the “true bread out of heaven” in John 6:32. The manna in the wilderness is an excellent picture of Jesus, as it came directly from God to give life to mankind. But it’s incomplete. All who ate still died. Jesus is not just the “bread”, but the “true bread” and the “living bread” (John 6:51).

By adding the word “living” Jesus is indicating that He will continue to be a source of life. He offered the woman at the well “living water…the water that I give…will become…a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). About the bread, He says, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27). Jesus offers living water and living bread, both of which lead to eternal life.

Jesus isn’t the literal manna in the wilderness. He is an even truer form of that manna. He gives life, not only at the time of consumption, but for all eternity.

Consuming Jesus:

So how do we consume this bread? One way that John indicates is through coming to Jesus and believing: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35).

I’d like to suggest another way as well. Jesus, in striking and vivid language, continues by saying, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:54-56). The echoes of Lord’s Supper terminology in this passage are just too loud to ignore. I don’t think it’s possible that early Christians hearing these words read at the Sunday gathering would miss the connection to the meal they just shared.

Consider how often John teaches in spiritual terminology with multiple levels of meaning. He says very little about baptism, but He does speak of new birth in water. The Gospel of John is the only gospel to contain this conversation about eating the flesh and blood of Jesus. It also happens to be the only gospel not to describe Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper.

Perhaps this is the spiritual way John teaches about the Lord’s Supper. If so, it’s a tremendous word of encouragement about our connection with Christ through that weekly experience. If so, our Eucharist is a powerful promise that we abide in Him, He abides in us, we have eternal life, and we have hope of resurrection. What a tragedy it would be for us, like Nicodemus, the woman at the well, or the 5000, to miss the rich and deep meaning of the words of Jesus. These words can add greater depth and hope to our thinking as we gather around the Lord’s table.

Wouldn’t it be great to hold the bread and wine and remember, “This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).

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