Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Month: May, 2018

Thinking about my 10 Years as a Full-Time Preacher

It was May 2008. That’s when I began preaching fulltime for the Morton Street church of Christ in Denison, TX. I had just graduated from Bear Valley in February. In those few months in-between, I worked building railroad switch points and I married the lovely Lauren Bookout. But now it’s May 2018. 10 years later. I’m now living in Monroe, LA, still married to the somehow even lovelier Lauren Bookout, father of Oliver and next monthish I’ll get to meet son #2, Levi. A bit has changed in my life over the last 10 years, but one thing has remained consistent: I can’t imagine doing anything other than preaching.

I have never wanted to switch careers (probably because I don’t really have any other skills to fall back on and building railroads was pretty “eh”), and I’ve never dreaded getting up for work the next day. Preaching is awesome. This post is intended more for preachers, ministers, or anyone who may be interested in getting into that field.  Here are 10 things you should know about ministry in the church.

10. You can’t make the church grow: This is true and frustrating and true and heart-breaking and true and humbling and true. It’s just true. And you should know it from the get-go. There are two really important reasons why you should remember this. 1. If the church grows, awesome! You need to know it wasn’t you. 2. If the church doesn’t grow, that’s tough. You need to know it wasn’t you.

No one person can make the church grow. That’s not how the church works. When a church grows, there are generally several/numerous/many people involved in that process.  When a church dies and shrinks, there are several/numerous/many people involved in that process.  Besides, if Scripture is to be believed, humans can’t really make stuff grow anyway. I can plant a seed, I can put it in a sunny spot, I can make sure it’s well watered, I can work hard on providing a healthy atmosphere, but growth does not come from me: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).

Remember God’s words to the discouraged Zerubbabel: “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). You can control how hard you work. You can control if you are divisive or friendly. You can control how much you prepare, engage, visit, support, and care. You cannot control growth. You just work hard and let God do His thing.

9. You’ll never be perfect: There are many people who are scared away from full-time ministry because they don’t believe they are “good” enough. Not necessarily talented enough, but “good” enough. They believe they are too weak and sinful. Sure, some of these folks may be right, but I believe many have an unrealistic view of “the minister.” No minister is perfect. Every single minister struggles with sin. Every. Single. One.

Hypocrisy is not committing sin, while saying that people shouldn’t sin. Hypocrisy is excusing or overlooking your own sin, while condemning others for the same things. You will sin. You will do a poor job sometimes. But the church is not held up by the perfect preacher. The church is held up by the mercy and love of God for all Christians who struggle to do what is right and strive to be pleasing to Him. That’s the preacher as much as the elder and deacon and parent and widow and new Christian and long-time stalwart of the faith. Plus, Christians are usually better at forgiveness than the world. They at least know Jesus wants us to forgive. You’ll mess up, but people will encourage you through it.

8. I’m a way better minister when I work with others. There are things I love about ministry and there are things that I struggle with. Some folks love visiting hospitals and making phone calls and checking up on people. I guess this makes me sound awful and uncaring, but those are my struggles as a preacher. I love study and teaching and preaching. I love making spiritual connections and growing and trying to encourage growth in others. But I struggle walking into a hospital room. I don’t know what to say. I feel unhelpful and awkward and out of my comfort zone.

But you know what? Whether I’m comfortable or not, visiting is important. This is why I say, work with others. I’m a much better visitor when I go with an elder. Or a member. I go visiting every week with one of our elders. When I preached in Texas, I would do the same thing. I have visited with my wife, my sister-in-law, my friends and peers in the church, elders, former ministers, and new members. It’s an awesome help to me, but it’s also encouraging for them.

Visiting is just my personal illustration, but this applies to most any area of ministry. Work with others on sermon ideas. Bounce illustrations off of people. Ask for help visiting, teaching a class, or writing. You are part of a whole church, use the resources at your disposal.

7. Use sources wisely: Study on your own. Exegete the best you can. Read the Bible and read it again. Read whole books of the Bible at once. Study and be honest and trust yourself. BUT, you are not the only Christian. You are not the only thinker. Again, you are part of a whole church, use the resources at your disposal. Consult others on your conclusions. Read books written by wise Christians who have also studied. Further your education. Follow good blogs. Listen to sermons. Email preachers who don’t live near you. Get coffee with preachers who do live near you. Find sources and use them wisely.

Do not use bad sources. Your illustrations or preaching points better not be coming from some random meme, or article that popped up on your facebook page. Peer review is an important process. Multiple attestation, criterion of dissimilarity, criterion of embarrassment are not only helpful tools in ascertaining history, but also checking your sources. Do others agree with this source? Are my sources biased? Are there people who don’t agree with me, yet admit this source is accurate? Confirmation bias is both pleasurable and extremely dangerous. Think critically. Check yourself and your sources before you say (or post) anything publicly.

6. Grow: If you are supported to work with the church, you have an obligation, a moral responsibility to grow. You have time to study that others do not. And that’s an amazing opportunity. You have the benefit of time to practice Christian disciplines that others do not. If you do not have that time, then you are probably using your time poorly. Study things you have not studied before. Learn interesting things. Pray. Try to learn original languages. Challenge yourself. Set goals. Go to lectureships, get on iTunes/Youtube and listen to lectures. Pray. Practice things you are not good at. Get ideas from others, think about them, pray about them, use them. Memorize Scripture. Read scholarly books that are hard to understand at first. Learn early church history. Pray. Pray for hours. Fast. If you’ve never fasted, start. Meditate, if you don’t have time, change your schedule. If possible, further your education. Go to the BETTER Conference, go to Polishing the Pulpit, get involved in a church camp. Write more. Read more. Pray.

5. Godly elders are the best thing in the world: I could not imagine working with a congregation that does not have elders. I seriously just couldn’t imagine that burden. I certainly don’t want to imagine working with a congregation with bad, ungodly, or uncaring elders. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk about good elders. I have always been privileged to work with godly elders who trust me, support me, and are as active as I am. They are my shepherds. They defend the truth, they defend me, and they visit with me and for me. They know the sheep. They know the Shepherd. They encourage me, facilitate my growth, and give me suggestions based on their years of wisdom and experience. They are kind to my wife, love my son, and are good to my family. They don’t treat me as bosses or managers, but as fellow workers in the kingdom. Get to know your elders. Learn from these good men. Ask for advice. Be honest. And be fed as a sheep, just like the rest of the congregation.

4. Be picky, but remember no church is perfect: When I say be picky, I’m particularly talking about where you choose to do ministry. If there is even a hint that my wife will be mistreated, or burdened with unnecessary responsibilities, or does not want to go, we will not go. If I cannot spend quality time with my family and be a godly husband and father because I’m too busy with other church duties, there is no way my family will go there. Some churches are awesome. They understand that a minister must be a faithful servant of Jesus first, and that includes being a present, godly father and husband. Some churches are oblivious. Be very picky about where you work.

At the same time, remember that no church is perfect. That church that says they are interested in you is not perfect. No church will always do the right thing or always treat you perfectly well. No church is absolutely right on every single doctrinal question you can think up (and you probably aren’t either). No church is without sin. No church always makes the right move, does so quickly, and never suffers a setback. No elder is perfect, no preacher is perfect, no song leader is perfect.  People will say dumb stuff during prayers or while giving announcements. People will say rude things after sermons. People will sin. You have to be honest about what you are willing to work with. But you also have to love flawed people, recognize your own flaws, and strive to serve Jesus together. No church is perfect, but many are very good. There’s is no better work environment that a loving group of God’s flawed people. If you have that, you are blessed.

3. Let stuff go: Remember that “no church is perfect” point? Yea, you have to deal with that. Your ministry can’t halt every time your idea is rejected, someone is rude after a sermon, or someone gets mad at you. Not only let other people’s flaws go, let your own go. If you make a mistake, do better next time. I have 300ish other people out there listening to me every week. Every one of them has their own experiences and knowledge base. Everyone of them has their own lives, concerns, health struggles, fears, heart-breaks, disappointments, idiosyncrasies, etc. If you use a word in the pulpit and 98% of are fine with it, but 2% aren’t, you may hear about it. That’s fine. Let it go, choose a different word next time. You may accidentally neglect or forget an event in one person’s life because you are working with other people or other things. That’s not good. But do better next time.

You cannot have an ego. Sometimes people who know way less about the Bible and about ministry and about what’s going on in the church will criticize you. Their criticism may be right, or it may be unfounded, based on ignorance, or just flat dumb. That will happen if you are in ministry. That’s fine. Let it go. The vast vast majority of what you’ll hear will be kind, encouraging, and uplifting. You cannot be thinskinned. You cannot be overly sensitive. You cannot please everyone. But you can do your best. You can try, improve, let stuff go, and move on. In fact, there’s really nothing else you can do.

If you want to dwell on something, don’t choose the rare negativity or frustration. Dwell on the good, pure, exciting parts of ministry. Dwell on the funny stories. Dwell on the unique, encouraging experiences. Dwell on that recent baptism. Dwell on that young child being raised by godly parents. Dwell on that faithful lady whose funeral just passed, whose goal is being achieved, who is experiencing bliss after a life of struggles.  Dwell on that member who serves anytime you ask. Dwell on Jesus. If you focus on the right areas, you’ll remember how incredible a life of ministry can be.

2. You have to remember what really matters: that breakfast you advertised but no one showed up to may have been a bummer, but that’s not ultimately what really matters. When you had that guest speaker, and people prioritized other things on that Monday night, that’s discouraging, but it’s not what really matters. When you told the elders about your new plan to encourage visitation, and they say it’s unfeasible, that’s frustrating but not what really matters.

There are so many things. So many jobs. So many ideas. So many words spoken. There are so many distractions that can cause us to forget the main goal. Don’t let the peripheral disappointments distract you from the job at hand: The glorification of Jesus Christ through His people. Remember to preach and encourage and rebuke and exhort and do it all for the glory of Jesus. Remember the good and work for more.

1. Be a sincere servant of Jesus: This is what really matters. People care about this. This is the most important part of any ministry. I have grown as a Christian because of the ministry. I didn’t make “Pray” one of the top 10 (although it deserves it), because I have referenced it so much in the others, and I’ll reference it here again. Talk to God. Pray about the ministry and your own spiritual well-being. It’s essential to serving Jesus well. Spend time with your family. I also didn’t list that one, because it fits right here. Be a godly example. Prove yourself an example in word, conduct, love, faith, and purity. Love Jesus and let others know. Show them how to let discipleship to Jesus manifest itself in all you do. Study, pray, be kind, encourage, disciple, teach, be pure, deny yourself, be selfless, be sacrificial, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, do good to those who are cruel to you, pray without ceasing, in all things give thanks. That will cover up a lot of other flaws. People will love you even after a bad sermon if you get this one right. People will forgive you even after you messed up if you get this one right. Get this one right for yourself, for others, and for God. Seriously, that’s your primary ministry. That’s what matters.

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #18. Healing the Blind Man (Part 3)

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There’s not much I hate more than not being able to see. When a person or an object blocks my view, I might stand on my tip toes, turn my head, stretch my neck, and do whatever I can, but sometimes you just miss it. It drives me crazy when I miss it. At the same time, there’s not much I enjoy more than seeing. Seeing my wife and child playing in the yard when I get home from the office. Seeing a beautiful sunrise over the mountains. Seeing a friend. On vacation my favorite things to do are to go somewhere I’ve never been, eat their local food, hike, and see incredible stuff. There is so much I still want to see.

In John 9 Jesus meets a man has never seen anything. Never seen a smile. Never seen the stars at night. Never seen a friend or a stream or a tree. Nothing. He was born blind. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t support a family. He was a beggar. Until Jesus changed all that. In an instant, Jesus gave this man a gift that no one else could. What indescribable joy and opportunity now lay in front of him. And as amazing as that story truly is, that’s not actually the true point of the event.

John doesn’t just tell stories for the purpose of learning history. There are levels to his stories. Levels of what the characters in the story are experiencing. Levels of what the original readers are thinking many years later. And deep spiritual levels of truth from which we are all to glean. The “signs” are truly about that deeper spiritual level. Jesus did an amazing sign by giving sight to this blind man. But what does that sign point towards? What does it actually mean?

I think the true point of the sign is seen at the beginning and the end of the event. Before healing the man, Jesus is asked whose fault it was that this man was born blind? Jesus responds, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I Am the Light of the world” (John 9:3-5). This is how Jesus introduces the sign.

When Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World” His point is not that He is literally the sun, or that his face or appearance is astoundingly, blindingly, bright. “Light” is used metaphorically to describe spiritual enlightenment: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:9). In our last reflection we saw how this description, this whole story, is a picture of New Creation. It compares strongly with Genesis 1, where God saw darkness over the whole earth, so He said, “Let there be light.”

Think for a moment about God’s original creation. Think about the blissful Garden of Eden. There was no sickness, infirmity, or death. There was no blindness. When Jesus restores this man’s sight, He is not necessarily only doing a brand new thing. He is also doing a very old thing. He is restoring this man to what He was originally created to be. In God’s original creation no one was to be blind. Jesus is engaging in New Creation, He is giving this man a glimpse (literally) of what life on earth was supposed to be.  Jesus does it over and over again. Eden seems to be the goal of so much of His ministry. His teaching on divorce goes back to Eden (Mark 10:6-8). His reversal of the Adam’s sin (Romans 5:18) is a return to Eden. His miraculous healings show people what their lives were supposed to be, what they would have been in Eden. Resurrection goes back to the ideal in the garden with the tree of life, when there was no death. Sin is responsible for our expulsion from the garden and all the darkness and pain and suffering and death which are present in the world. Not because “this man or his parents” sinned, but because the entire world is in darkness and “men loved darkness rather than the Light” (John 3:19).

This blind man is a picture, an illustration, of what Jesus is doing in the world. He is, in a very real way, recreated Eden. He is redoing what God did in Genesis 1. Perhaps this is how Jesus will “work the works of Him who sent Me” (John 9:4). God’s work is creation, light, and goodness. By being the Light of the World, and giving sight to the blind, Jesus is doing God’s work. This blind man represents the world without Jesus. Giving him sight is a picture of Jesus’ ministry, an illustration of His Light which shines in the darkness and enlightens the world.

However, not all will come to see. The flip side of Jesus’ ministry is that many who think they see will be revealed to be blind. The blind one who was believed to be a sinner (John 9:2, 34), ends up believing and worshipping and justified. This is the positive side of Jesus’ ministry. But to those who think they can see without Jesus, He says, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39). This healing really shows the blindness of the Pharisees. An incredible, unprecedented, miracle has taken place right in front of them, The obvious thought is stated by the man born blind: “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing” (John 9:32-33).

The Pharisees had eyes to see this man. They had eyes to see Jesus. They had eyes to see an incredible sign had taken place. But rather than seeing the Light of the World, they were blinded by it. What does this sign mean? Jesus is Light. Some will begin to see everything because of Him. Some will be blinded because of Him. What we must answer is what will the Light of the World do with us?

Thanks be to God that He can give sight to the blind!

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #17. Healing the Blind Man (Part 2): “I Am the Light of the World

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Several really important themes converge in John 9 when Jesus heals the blind man. One of the famous “I Am” statements is uttered. One of the important “Signs” is witnessed. And the theme of New Creation which John has been echoing from the beginning of the book emerges again. You see all of this come together when Jesus describes what He is about to do: “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world” (John 9:4-5). “Light” in John has very little to do with lumens, watts, or photons. It describes the spiritual vision that Jesus is bringing the world. In this short section we see three pictures which describe the spiritual state of humanity: sight vs. blindness, light vs. darkness, and day vs. night.

Throughout the Gospel of John there is a call to not be blind, but to actually see and behold. When the Word became flesh, “we saw His glory” (John 1:14). John was told the Messiah was the One on whom “You see the Spirit descending and remaining upon” (John 1:33). Two times John exclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36). Jesus tells two disciples, “Come, and you will see” (John 1:39). Philip says to Nathanial, “Come and see.” Jesus tells Nathanial “I saw you” and “You will see greater things than these” and “you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:48, 50, 51). During Passover, “many believed in His name, seeing the signs which He was doing” (John 2:23). Jesus warned Nicodemus, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Regarding John the Baptist, “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies” (John 3:32). The Samaritan woman told her city, “come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done” (John 4:29).

This list of passages could go on and on and on (John 19:35; 20:8, etc.). This concept will literally be on every page of you turn in the Gospel of John. Which makes the ending so ironic, and beautiful, and incredible: “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29). This is a message to the reader who cannot literally “come and see” but many years later has come to believe anyway.

But what of this blind man? Is He able to “come and see?” On his own He never could. But he is about to meet, “the Light of the world” (John 9:5). This is one of those foundational “I Am” statements of Jesus which are so popular in John. The “Light of the World” is a picture of New Creation.  “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1), God said, “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the Light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:3). Compare that with the beginning of John: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1), “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” (John 1:4-5).

Remember in Genesis the Light was created on Day 1 but the sun wasn’t created until Day 4. So, what was that light? I’m not speaking scientifically here, but hinting at something theological: Jesus takes for Himself the role of giving light to the world.

In Genesis the “heavens and the earth” were in “darkness,” (Genesis 1:2) but God gave it light which “was good.” That same story is being told in John. When the light of the world comes, He “shines in the darkness” (John 1:5) and gives light and sight. The critical tension, however, is that “the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:19-21).

Jesus will be loved by some because they once were blind but now they see. Jesus will be hated by others because He will reveal them for what they truly are. That very thing happens in the healing of the blind man (John 9:39).

Going back to Genesis, “God called the light day, and the darkness He called night” (Genesis 1:5). Darkness comes over the world at night time. Two times we are told that Nicodemus, seemingly out of fear, came to Jesus “by night” (John 3:2; 19:39). When Judas goes off to betray Jesus there is a small little note added by John which says, “And it was night” (John 13:30). Why does this matter? Because “if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him” (John 11:10).

So again, what does all this actually mean? There is far more to the story than just a physical miracle, Jesus is the embodiment of the “Light of the World.” He is the only hope for the world to leave darkness, blindness, and night.  While Jesus is on earth, as the Light of the World, it is daytime. But night is coming (Remember, His betrayal and crucifixion are at night). So He must work now. What work must He do? Give light and sight to those who are blind and in darkness. He does this physically in John 9, and spiritually for the rest of time. Some will certainly hate Him for it. Others will rejoice. John 9 is not just about giving light to a blind man, but it also shows how his neighbors, his parents, and the Pharisees respond to that light. They all respond in darkness. What a tragedy to see a great sign of Jesus, to see Light from God, and choose to be blind. The blind man chose sight. All who saw it chose blindness.

*A strange final note about that phrase “I Am the Light of the World” is that Jesus applies it to Himself in John. But terrifyingly, Matthew says, “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). I like John better. I’d much rather that burden be on Jesus. He is a bit more qualified than me and you. Nevertheless, the job of bringing the spiritual vision of God into the world is not solely upon Jesus. It’s on each one of us called by His name.

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.

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)

Image result for bread bakery

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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