Jesus’ surprising idea about work – John 6:22-51, Part 2

In our study this week, Jesus doesn’t seem too thrilled with the idea that people want more of him.  You’d think Jesus would be ecstatic that a crowd was seeking after him, right?  Isn’t that the goal?  That more people would want Jesus in their lives?  As we continue with the rest of the passage, see for yourselves.  Look at John 6, verses 25-29,

“When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, ‘Rabbi, when did you get here?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval’.”

Consider what Jesus must have felt in this moment.  I don’t know what it is like to be a celebrity on Jesus’ level, but I’ve heard celebrities talk about their experience of celebrity.  Celebrities are visible.  They’re up front, on TV, on social media.  They get followed around, as crowds of people want photo ops, autographs, and reporters try to interview them. It can be hard for celebrities to find privacy.  Some celebrities go to elaborate lengths to have privacy for themselves and their families.  But there are still plenty of films, books, interviews, videos about them.  They can’t escape being known.

The result is that we can get to know them, or rather, we get to know about them.  As I’ve written previously, the celebrity I know the most about is, Bono, the lead singer of the band, U2, but I’ve never met him.  The closest I’ve gotten is the two times I saw U2 in concert.  If I did meet him, I’m sure I would be awkward.  I could converse with him about all sorts of things in his life, but he knows nothing of mine.  I already feel I have a rapport with him.  I’ve often thought that I bet we would really get along well.  But that’s a very one-sided, isn’t it? It’s all about me.  It’s really about what I feel, what I know, what I can get out of him. 

Think about how Jesus might be feeling, surrounded by a crowd of people who are a bit star struck.  They think he just might be the promised Messiah, and in fact, just the previous day they were talking about making him king…by force.  That was not something Jesus asked for.  It was not something he wanted. His mission was not to be a governmental or military ruler.  But that’s how bizarre celebrity worship can become.  We can place our hopes and dreams on a person, who is just another human.  We can say things like “They are so cool.  They are so amazing.  They are so good looking.  They are so talented.”  This crowd was projecting their desires on Jesus, and they wanted more and more from him, for what they could get out of him. 

Notice what he says to them.  He reveals their hearts, their intentions.  Look at verse 26, “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill’.”  Let me try to put Jesus’ words another way.  I believe Jesus is saying, “Look deep inside, people.  You’re so eager for me because of the miracles, because they make you feel good.  But you’re thinking shortsightedly.  You’re thinking about yourself, about your stomach.  That’s not what you should be thinking about!” 

In verse 27, he sets them right.  He focuses them beyond themselves.  He turns their gaze from the inward to the outward.  He says, “You need to think eternally.”  They wanted food, but Jesus wanted to give them the food that endures to eternal life.  That’s the kind of food they should work for.  Then Jesus concluded with one of his mysterious sayings, “The food that lasts for eternal life, the Son of Man will give you that food because the Father has placed his seal of approval on him.” 

We’re going to find out that the crowd doesn’t understand this.  But before that, notice what Jesus says.  He says “The Son of Man,” which is his most common way of referring to himself, will give some kind of eternal food that doesn’t spoil, because the Father has placed his seal of approval on him.

It got me thinking about the packaging that food companies put on our food.  Seals of approval.  Best by dates. Sell by dates.  The food Jesus offers has God’s seal of approval, saying this food will last forever. But what does that mean?  Forever?  It sure sounds good.  What is God’s seal of approval?  It could be that Jesus is referring to his baptism when God said in a voice, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”  That statement by God was God’s seal of approval.  Jesus is good to go.  He will not spoil.  In Jesus’ day there was no refrigeration, and very rudimentary preservation, so they knew about spoiled food. To hear that food that could endure for eternal life probably seemed outrageous.  I wonder if they were a bit confused.

So they ask Jesus a clarifying question in verses 28-29,

“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’.”

I find their question interesting.  They refer to works God requires.  They seem to have a sense that Jesus isn’t talking strictly about real food here.  Maybe the idea of food that lasts forever clued them in.  They are right.  There is work that God requires.  And Jesus spells it out.  The work is to believe that in the one God sent. 

There has long been a debate about how we are saved by grace apart from works.  Aren’t we working, doing something, when we choose to place our faith in Jesus?  Jesus even calls it a “work” to believe.  Some people think there should be quotation marks around that word “work” in verse 29.  Jesus doesn’t mean that it is work in the literal sense of the word “work.”  When we place our faith in Jesus, we are not working in the sense of keeping the law, or doing a variety of good deeds.  We are simply saying, “Jesus, I trust in your work, your birth, life, death and resurrection, which are work that I could never do.”  

Ill admit that Jesus can be confusing when he says, “believe.”  We hear “believe” and we think, “I believe in that. Check.”  We hear “believe” and we understand Jesus to mean that we should agree with an idea.  But Jesus is not simply talking about a belief in our minds.  We show what we believe by our actions and our choices. 

“But isn’t that work?”, someone might say.  Yes, in the sense that we are making choices, and we are acting with our bodies.  But we are not believing that our work is what will save us.  Only Jesus could do that work.  Instead, the work we do with our bodies, the actions, the choices, the real-life following of Jesus in the moments and days of our lives, that is work that shows what we believe.  That is a very different work than the work only Jesus could do. 

After hearing Jesus talk about believing in him, you’d think that the people would say, “Oh yeah! I believe in you Jesus.  Check.”  Especially after they just experienced his miracle of feeding the 5,000 and especially after they were so excited they wanted to make him king.  “Yes! I believe!”  But nope. That’s not what happens at all.  Maybe it is Jesus’ slant way of answering them.  Maybe it was because he disappeared the day before.  The people now seem to be a bit suspicious.

There’s tension in the air between Jesus and the people. How will Jesus respond? Check back into the next post to learn his surprising next move.

Photo by Firmbee.com on Unsplash

When it’s wrong to want more of Jesus – John 6:22-51, Part 1

If you attend church worship services, why do you go to them? Whether you wake up on a Sunday morning in time to participate, or whether you give up valuable free time on Saturday night, or any time you attend a worship service, why do you go? I suspect that there are a variety of possible answers. Here are few. Did you think any of these?

I enjoy it. I want to praise God. I want to hear from God. My parents make me. It’s tradition, how I grew up, and so it feels right. I feel lost without it. It’s a duty. I want to get on God’s good side. I want God’s blessing. If I go to church regularly, I believe I will earn God’s favor. I need to be fed from God’s word. To see my family and friends. To make sure my kids go to Sunday School. I don’t want people to think I’m an apathetic Christian. 

Some reasons sound good.  Some not so good.  I’m referring to the motivation of our hearts.  Turn to John 6, verse 22. This week on the blog we’re going to learn about a very interesting conversation Jesus has with people, revealing their motivations. 

Before we start reading the passage, let’s take a minute to review, because this passage is directly related to what we studied last week.  Last week, starting here, we studied John 6, verses 1-21, where Jesus miraculously multiplied a boy’s lunch of 5 loaves and 2 fish, feeding 5,000+ people, leaving 12 basketfuls of leftover pieces of bread.  Then Jesus went off by himself, while the disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee toward their hometown, Capernaum.  On the way, a dangerous storm kicked up, and then they saw a figure walking across the stormy waters to them.  They were terrified until they realized it was Jesus.  When they got him in the boat, immediately the boat reached shore. Last week it was miracles galore.

What happened next?  Look at verses 22-24. 

“The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.”

The previous day the crowd was massive.  5000 men, plus women and children.  Total of 10,000?  15,000?  We don’t know.  It was a lot of people.  Did they all just camp out there overnight?  I doubt it, because in verse 22, John describes the people as “the crowd that had stayed,” which likely means some did not stay.  How many stayed?  We don’t know. Perhaps the crowd thinned out quite a bit. Yet a decent amount of people remained the next day, and they were still looking for Jesus.  They are eager for more of him, which sounds good, right?  To be eager for Jesus.  We should be eager for Jesus, shouldn’t we?

This reminds me of the hymn, “More About Jesus.”  Hymnary.org tells us that the author of the hymn, “Eliza Edmunds Hewitt was born in Philadelphia, in 1851. As an adult she became a teacher. However, she developed a spinal malady which cut short her career and made her a shut-in for many years. During her convalescence, she studied English literature. She felt a need to be useful to her church and began writing poems for the primary department. She was in a body cast when she wrote many of her poems, of which we have hundreds, including ‘More About Jesus’.”  

The hymn’s chorus says “More, more about Jesus…/More of His saving fullness see/More of His love who died for me.”  The lyrics are predominantly self-focused, though there a couple lines that say, “More of His grace to others show” and “More of His kingdom’s sure increase”.  I’m not saying that hymn is wrong, or that we shouldn’t sing it.  I’m simply suggesting that most of its lyrics sound a lot like the crowd that day.  The lyrics and the crowd seem like their motivations are good, for more of Jesus. But were their motivations as pure as it seems?

It doesn’t seem like the people looking for Jesus were singing those few lines in “More About Jesus” that encourage us to look beyond ourselves.  The crowd searching for Jesus in John 6, verses 22-24, seem rather focused on “More Jesus, more Jesus, more for me.” 

That’s what I want us to think about as we continue reading what happens through the rest of the week.  What is our attitude about Jesus?  Is it “more Jesus for me”?  While the idea of wanting more of Jesus sounds excellent, I wonder if it might be rooted in a self-focused attitude.  Do we want more of Jesus because it makes us feel good?  Because we hope to get more blessings?  Because we want eternal life for us?  What is our motivation? 

I ask these questions because what we’ll learn is that Jesus doesn’t seem too thrilled with the idea that people want more of him.  You’d think Jesus would be ecstatic that a crowd was seeking after him, right?  Isn’t that the goal?  That more people would want Jesus in their lives?  As we study the rest of the passage, see for yourselves.  In the next post we’ll learn how Jesus responds to the crowd.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Have you ever felt like a relational vending machine? – John 6:22-51, Preview

How would you like to be a human vending machine?  I’m talking about a situation in which you feel used.  It can happen to all of us, and we usually don’t like it.  Maybe in your job, you feel like people are constantly asking more and more of you.  Parents can really slip into this way of thinking, primarily because our kids actually do need us a lot.  We can also feel this way in friendships and in church families, as some people come to us with their needs.

Have you ever thought of someone as “needy”?  If you have a person like that in your life, they tend to ask a lot of your time, energy, and maybe money.  What can greatly help is when they are aware of how much they ask of you, and they at least thank you.  When a person is unaware of their neediness, however, we can become very negative about that person.  When we see them, we can walk the other way.

Have you ever seen a person in the store, before they saw you, and you thought to yourself, “Where can I hide so they don’t see me?” because you know that if they see you, the next 30 minutes of your life will be gone as they talk, talk, talk about their lives.  Interestingly, they not only seem unaware of how much they are talking, and how much time they are taking, they also do not ask how you are doing.  Or if they do ask about you, it’s usually one or two brief questions.

The result?  You can feel used.  You can feel like a human vending machine.  If you’ve ever felt like that, you’re in good company.  Jesus seems to have felt that way too.  In our continuing study of Jesus’ life as told in the Gospel of John, next week we’re going to study John 6:22-51.  In this passage, it is the day after Jesus has just done the amazing miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.  Now the people are hungry again.  What will Jesus do?  Is he a vending machine that will crank out another miraculous feeding?  What Jesus attempts to teach the people is of vital importance to us too.  Jesus teaches a principle of discipleship that each of us would do well to consider and apply to our lives.

Read the passage ahead of time, and then we’ll discuss it further on the blog next week. 

Photo by Estera on Unsplash

If you believe in miracles, then how do you respond? – John 6:1-21, Part 5

This week we’ve been studying two of Jesus’ most famous miracles, which we read about in John 6:1-21. I don’t know which miracle is more astonishing.  The feeding of the 5000 or Jesus walking on water?  They’re both amazing.  But notice the disciples.  They have seen each of these astounding miracles…in the same day. How will they respond?

In each story, the disciples face a problem.  First, how to provide food for a huge crowd.  Second, what to do when they see a figure walking on the lake in the middle of a storm.  Both times, the disciples demonstrate their limited view of potential solutions to the problems.  In each story, the disciples’ thinking is bound by their mindset, grounded in the assumption of that the physical world is the only reality.

The disciples, however, forget who they are dealing with.  In both cases, Jesus astounds them by demonstrating his unlimited view of potential solutions.  Jesus helps the disciples rise above the normal human answers such as “It can’t be done,” or “There’s no hope,” allowing fear to rule us.  Jesus wants us to trust in him to rise above the fears and limited views we have about life.

I love biographies, and one I read last year was about Dorothy Day, written by her daughter.  In the 1900s Day started the Catholic Worker, that was one part rescue mission, one part magazine, and eventually it expanded to include numerous residences and properties around the nation and world, and is still in existence to this day.  Day’s story is that of a women who placed her faith our supernatural miraculous God, depending on him to provide for the hundreds and thousands of people in her care.  There were numerous awful moments when food or heat or health care was seemingly nonexistent, and the number of people asking for help was great.  Sometimes a facility needed to be shut down because the Catholic Worker couldn’t pay for upkeep.  Sometimes they had to turn people away because the food ran out.  Or there was no more space for people to sleep.  But Day trusted in our miraculous supernatural God.  Though he doesn’t promise us fame and fortune and ease and comfort, we can give our needs and fears to him, knowing that he cares for us, loves us.

This past week someone asked me, “Does prayer matter?” How would you answer that question?  Is prayer just for fellowship, just to ease our emotions, but doesn’t really affect anything?  Is everything just determined, and prayer “changes us, not God”? 

The question “Does prayer matter?” is a question about whether God interacts with us in a supernatural miraculous way.  Are we praying together just to share concerns, or is there a very real care from and interaction with a supernatural God who loves us?

Isn’t prayer basically asking God to do miracles, to intervene supernaturally in our lives?  Yes!  God has said numerous times in his word that he wants us to bring our requests to him.  Not that he is guaranteeing the supernatural miraculous result we want every time we pray.  Instead, God is saying that he wants to be in relationship with us.  That’s what he desires the most, our hearts, a relationship with us because he loves us.  In other words, God is saying to us the future is not determined, and he wants to work with us to create that future together.  Growing closer with him.

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

When fear gets the best of you – John 6:1-21, Part 4

Fear can be crippling. As a kid, I was afraid of our dark basement. If I had to go down there alone at night, I would turn on all the lights, quickly do what I needed to do. Then in one final motion, I would turn off the light and race up the stair, taking three at a time, to get back upstairs before whatever might be lurking in the dark could grab me. Of course there was never anything lurking in the dark. It was a figment of my overactive imagination. But the fear felt real. The fear had my heart racing, and me acting a bit wild. Have you been there?

While my fears of the dark were unfounded, the truth in our world is that there are plenty of very real, very dangerous situations that cause us to have fear. What is a distinctly Christian response to the many fears we feel? In today’s post, we’ll read about some people who were terrified.

In our study this week of John 6, 1-21, what did the disciples do after Jesus miraculously fed the crowd and then left to be by himself?  Probably the disciples fielded a bunch of questions from the crowd, responding, “We don’t know where he is!  We promise.  He left, and we’re here.  We’re telling the truth.  Go back to your homes.  It’s getting late.  We’re going home too.”

For the disciples, home base was the city of Capernaum, just across the lake.  What seemed like a quick trip after a long day is anything but.  Look at verses 16-18,

“When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.”

Archaeologists have found remains of the kinds of boats that the disciples likely used.  They are small.  The Sea of Galilee can get really choppy, and those small boats were no match for the storm.  That alone probably had them nervous, even the fisherman among them.  This was their primary fishing location.  They knew the lake very well. They were aware of what could happen in a storm.  But what they saw next took things to another level.  In verse 19, we read,

“When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened.”

Come on.  This is too much.  There are videos on social media that make it look like people are walking on water.  At first glance they look real, but when you look closer you realize that the people first installed clear platforms just below the surface of the water.  You can barely see the platforms, or not at all, and it truly appears as if the people are walking on water.  That’s not what Jesus did.  He is actually walking on water. 

That alone is unreal, but he is also walking on the water, steady, under control, in the middle of a storm.  When we imagine him walking on water, do we imagine it as a flat lake.  We shouldn’t though, because this was in the middle of a storm. Consider the waves and wind.  The surface of the water is moving up and down with force.  Was water drenching Jesus?  Splashing all over him?  Did he have to dive through waves? 

The disciples see him, and they go from caution to terror.  The only explanation for what they were seeing was, at least in their minds, a ghost.  A spirit.  In their culture, that was really bad news.  A ghost was coming for them.  I wonder if they tried rowing away. 

But they weren’t seeing a ghost.  In verse 20, we read, “He said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid’.” 

What important words.  The world is full of terrors.  Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.”  We know that he is not with us in the same way that he was with the disciples in the middle of the storm on the Sea of Galilee.  He is with us through his Spirit who lives with us.  The Spirit is even closer to us than a physical person could be. That’s a powerful truth we can dwell on.  God the Spirit lives with us, to guide us, comfort us, and empower us.  That’s how much God loves us.  God the Spirit wants to fill our lives so that his Fruit might grow in us and flow from us.  No matter what is going on in the world or in our lives, God is with us. 

Imagine how the disciples felt when they realized that it was Jesus walking on the water toward them.  I bet they felt good, but also maybe a bit freaked out.  He walks on water?  What in the world?  What do they do?  How do you react to that?  Here’s how they reacted, as we read in verse 21,

“Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.”

Of course they bring Jesus into the boat, not because he needed rescuing, but because they needed him to comfort them.  When Jesus enters the boat, John tells us immediately the boat reaches shore.  Immediately?   Immediately.  Was that a miracle too?  It sure seems like it.  So the miracle was not simply that Jesus did was humans are not able to do, walking on water.  Jesus also enabled the boat to find safe passage to shore.  He protected all the disciples in the midst of the storm.

They didn’t need to fear because he was there.  The same power that Jesus demonstrated that day is available to us.  Not to multiply food.  Not to walk on water.  Not to have some kind of Star Trek immediate transportation.  What is available to us is the presence of God to provide and care for us in the midst of life’s difficulties. 

That doesn’t mean God will always provide what we want him to.  He is not a genie who grants wishes.  All humans will eventually die, and all humans will go through difficult times.  But God is with us.  When we struggle with fear, we have a God that is with us.  He is in relationship with us.

But again, what about the disciples? They were the primary witnesses of both miracles we’ve looked at this week in our study of John 6:1-21. What did the disciples think? What did the learn? We’ll talk about that in the next post.

Photo by Frans Ruiter on Unsplash

The real purpose of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 – John 6:1-21, Part 3

A boy is standing right in front of Jesus, and the boy has a packed lunch of five small loaves of bread and two small fish. He looks across the hillside and sees the crowd of hungry people that, like him, have come to experience the miracle-worker. How is it possible that he, a boy, is the only one with food? Now Jesus’ friends are talking about taking him lunch to share with all those people.  Will Jesus take his meal?  We read in John 6, verses 10-11,

“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.”

The food just kept going.  It multiplied somehow.  I wish I could have seen it.  I also wish my coffee beans and Cheerios and granola and blueberries would multiply.  In the history of the world, there have been many ingenious solutions to food shortage.  I once listened to an audiobook that talked about the development of corn through the past couple hundred years.  Originally, corn cobs were small.  But through science corn is what it is today, with tall stalks yielding lots of huge ears of delicious corn.  Science is miraculous in its own way, but science hasn’t replicated what Jesus did.

We can’t explain it.  Did a disciple break off a piece of bread, hand it to someone, and then when he went to break off another piece, the bread had regenerated itself miraculously so there was always more to break off?  It had to be more than just regeneration.  It had to multiplication.  How do we know this?

Hear what we read next in verses 12-13,

“When they had all had enough to eat, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.”

What is so amazing is that what started out as five loaves has now turned in 12 basketfuls of pieces of bread.  Though we read in verse 11 that Jesus also multiplied the fish, maybe the fish was more popular than the bread.  It’s certainly more nutritious.  So only bread was left over, but, my goodness. Not only did all 5000+ get their fill of bread, there were now 12 basketfuls left over. 

Observers have pointed to the number twelve as potentially symbolic here.  Twelve disciples, not each with their own basket full of bread.  Jesus not only took care of the crowd, he took care of the disciples, and not just for one meal, but for many. 

Think about that answer to Jesus’ question in verse 5.  “Where shall we buy bread?”  Buy?  At the end of lunch, with no money exchanged, the bread was overflowing to the tune of 12 baskets of leftovers.  Jesus has answered his own question in miraculous, supernatural fashion.

My wife and I have some friends that spent time as missionaries in Mozambique.  On an outreach one day, they were in a village ministering, having brought some cookies to hold them over till they returned for dinner.  A few children from the village came to greet them, and my friends began sharing cookies with them.  They remembered only having three cookies left before the children came, but far more than three children came over asking for a cookie.  When Shannon and Josue reached into the bag, there was always enough cookies to give another one.  Was the purpose to feed the people of Mozambique?  No, not even close.  Those children needed nutritious meals every day for years, not a random cookie here and there.  The miracle was a sign, pointing to Jesus.

Likewise, what was the result of the Jesus’ miracle of multiplication?  Look at verses 14-15.

“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

This miracle was not the start of food distribution program.  It was a sign, to the disciples and to the people in the crowd.  Here’s the shocker.  The people read the sign correctly.  Jesus was the Prophet who is to come.  They are referring to a prophecy that Moses made in Deuteronomy 18:15 (which I blogged about here), almost 1500 years prior, that God would send a prophet like Moses.  What was one of the astounding miracles that God did through Moses?  God provided manna and quail for the people of Israel while they wandered in the wilderness.  And what did the people on that Galilean mountainside see Jesus do? What they saw looked an awful lot like Moses.  Jesus provided bread and fish.  The people made the connection.  They accurately identified Jesus as the Prophet, and they were ecstatic.

The Jewish people in the previous 750 years or so had faced repeated turmoil.  Invasions from foreign superpowers.  Of course, it was their own fault, because they rebelled against God.  So God allowed them to face a litany of struggles. Exile.  Oppression.  Occupation.  The Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, and in Jesus’ day the Romans, all took their turn ruling Palestine during those years.  There was only one period of 100 years when the Jews were self-governing.  But Rome came in and crushed them and ruled with a heavy hand.

You can imagine how the Jewish people hated being occupied by the Roman military.  They longed for a savior.  Their Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament was loaded with passages that predicted a savior to come, passages just like Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses says a Prophet will come.  To those people on the mountainside, having heard about Jesus’ miracles, and now seeing him provide food like Moses, they believed they were seeing prophecy unfold before their very eyes.  And they were right!

The logical next step was for the people to act.  The Prophet, the Messiah, who was to be a new king of the lineage of the great King David, should become king.  The people wanted to start a political, military coup.  For some leaders that might be tempting.  Power is a very enticing thing.  When you have 10,000 people on your side, you are a force to be reckoned with, and thus if Jesus wanted, he could make a go of it.  Attack the local Roman garrison.  With 10,000 freedom fighters on his side, he would have had a good chance of winning.  Grab the armor, the weapons, raise up more militia, keep attacking.  Did the Romans have enough soldiers stationed in Palestine to overcome 10,000? The people wanted Jesus to find out.

But no, Jesus is not here for that.  The miracle was a sign, not to start a war, but a sign pointing to the reality that Jesus was a different kind of king than they realized.  So he leaves, and goes off by himself.  He doesn’t even ask the disciples and their bread baskets to come along.  Not one.  He heads out alone.   Perhaps it was easier to hide that way.   Put space and time between him and the crowd and their grand ideas of making him king.  Not to mention the fact that Jesus often went by himself to be with his Father.  He is yet again a wonderful example for us.  It is important for us to spend time alone with God, listening for God, talking with him.  We need a steady diet of silence and solitude in our lives, directing our hearts and minds back to God.  Even the extroverts among us need silence and solitude!

What did the disciples do?  Did they also find silence and solitude. Nope. They got themselves in trouble. How so? We’ll find out in the next post.

What will Jesus do when a hungry crowd is following him? – John 6:1-21, Part 2

We Americans tend to default to thinking that bigger is better.  But is bigger always better? No. Not always.  “More people, more problems,” as the saying goes.  On a mountainside in Galilee, Jesus has a problem…well…5,000+ problems, and he asks his disciples what they should do about it.  What I am referring to is one of Jesus’ most famous miracles, the Feeding of the 5,000.  Look at John 6, verses 1-4,

“Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.”

While chapter 5 took place in Jerusalem, now the scene has shifted back to Jesus’ home area in the north, Galilee.  We don’t know how much time has passed between chapters 5 and 6, but clearly, by now Jesus is extremely popular.  John tells us a great crowd is following him.  We’re about to learn that it is a massive crowd. 

I encourage you to read Matthew’s version of this story in Matthew 14, as Matthew adds some interesting detail about when this happened.  If you read Matthew 14, specifically notice that Jesus has just learned that John the Baptist died. Imagine how Jesus is feeling emotionally about that. Especially as a huge crowd comes to him. I wouldn’t blame him if he was thinking, “Not now…” and wanted to run away. What did he do? Look at verses 5-9,

“When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’ Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’”

Jesus sets the disciples up, doesn’t he?  Jesus knows what he is about to do, but he wants to get the disciples thinking, invested in the situation.  How do you feed a huge crowd?  You need a lot of money. Philip’s response shows he’s the numbers guy.  He’s done some quick math in his head and figures it would take half his annual salary to pay for each person in this multitude to have just one bite. 

What Jesus is asking, in other words, is beyond possibility.  We know from other passages in the Gospels that Jesus and his band of disciples received financial support from patrons.  Jesus and the disciples were missionaries who existed on the benevolence of generous people.  But they didn’t have anywhere near enough to pay for the huge amount of food it would take to feed this crowd. 

Another disciple, Andrew, points out a nearby boy holding the lunch his mom packed him.  Obviously that’s not going to cut it, and Andrew knows it.  But perhaps Andrew wants to leave no stone unturned.  Socially, what Andrew does, just simply mentioning the boy’s packed lunch, is risky, and it makes me appreciate Andrew. 

Here’s what I mean.  Andrew could have thought to himself, “Five small loaves of bread…two small fish…I’m not even going to mention it, because if we want to feed this crowd, we’ll need that lunch times 10,000.  Also there’s no way Jesus is going to be okay with us taking a kid’s meal.  Worse, the rest of the guys would make fun of me if I even mention it.  It’s obviously not the right solution, so I’m not going to mention it.”  At least that’s how I tend to think about things.  Don’t put yourself out there.  You don’t want to be shamed or embarrassed. 

But Andrew does put himself out there.  Yes, he covers for himself by pointing out that the boy’s meal was obviously not going feed many people.  It would feed the boy, which is all it was intended for in the first place.  You can imagine the boy’s mom lovingly throwing a few things together for him as he went out with many others to get a glimpse of the miracle-worker prophet who was causing such a stir.  Now the boy is standing right in front of Jesus, and Jesus’ followers are talking about eating his food.

I wonder if any of the disciples said, “Andrew, stop.  Are you seriously suggesting that we take a kid’s lunch?  Jesus, tell Andrew he’s wrong.”

Will Jesus take his meal?  How will Jesus respond to Philip and Andrew?

We’ll find out in the next post.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Do miracles still happen? – John 6:1-21, Part 1

Have you ever had a miracle in your life?  I’m not talking about how it was a miracle that you got a front row parking spot at the mall on Black Friday.  I’m talking about a time you know God intervened and there was either no doubt or very little doubt. 

I don’t know that I ever have.  Maybe.  There have been a few times that some would say, “that was a miracle.”  For example, I spent the summer between my junior and senior year in Guyana, South America, doing a missionary internship with a church planting team.  One night early in the summer, I was going to bed in the guest house in the back yard of my missionary host’s property.  Down the road, just a couple blocks, I started hearing drumming.  Ritual drumming.  It was pitch black outside, and I felt really alone, and scared.  Worse, the missionary had told me to expect that drumming, as it was from a Hindu temple where they sacrificed animals for worship.  In my neighborhood. 

I’ve always had an overactive imagination.  That night, hearing the drums, I imagined drunk demon-possessed men crashing through my door with machetes.  That had me praying hard.  And then my heart which was already amped up started pounding as I heard footsteps walking up my stairs to my front door!  What in the world was happening?  Then the footsteps stopped, and I heard a noise of someone sitting at my door.  I peaked out the window, and it wasn’t someone…it was the missionary’s two Dobermans.  In the previous couple weeks they hadn’t done that, and they never did it again all summer.  Was it a miracle?  Dogs have supersmell.  Maybe they caught wind of my fear pheromones and came to help out.  Dogs are like that.  Anyone else’s dog seem to have a sixth sense about when you are feeling fear or emotion?  But was it a miracle? It felt like one to me, and I thanked God.

What do we do about miracles?  Many people around the globe live in advanced cultures and societies, and we can believe we don’t need miracles.  Think about it. Do you live in such a way that you have to have miracles to get by?  Even the rare person that needs a miracle doesn’t need them often.  Most contemporary cultures have mostly made miracles unnecessary, and therefore it can be difficult to have any kind of faith. 

What do we need God for?  To get to heaven?  Yeah, at least that’s what we say, but even there, the miracle that is heaven can be hard to wrap our minds around.  Some of us in the depths of hearts and minds wonder how heaven can really be so amazing, so miraculous.  My point is not to talk about heaven, but instead to point out that we can live in a non-miraculous, non-supernatural way, and that just might be a massive concern when it comes to having a relationship with God, who is by definition supernatural.

I mention this because the miraculous is what we are going to study this week as we continue our blog series about the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel of John.  Specifically, we are going to study John 6:1-21.

Before studying that passage, let’s get a bird’s eye of what has been happening in Jesus’ life in recent chapters of the Gospel of John.  Starting in John 4, verse 43, after launching his ministry in Jerusalem, Jesus returns to his home region of Galilee.  There he heals a royal official’s son.  Then in chapter 5, he travels to Jerusalem for a feast, and on the Sabbath Day, Jesus heals a man who had been waiting for a miracle for 38 years. 

Immediately the Jewish religious leaders confront Jesus about his work of healing on the Sabbath.  Jesus, in response, launches into a teaching that covers chapter 5 verses 19-47, and one of his primary themes in that teaching is to prove that he is who he said he was.  Last week we saw him call four witnesses to the stand in a kind of mock trial.  One of those witnesses is the work he was doing, and that work was his miracles.  Jesus’ miracles were excellent evidence proving that he was truly the Son of God, the Savior.  This week in John 6:1-21, we learn about two more miracles. 

So to review: Jesus does two miracles, the leaders question Jesus’ authority, then this week we’ll learn about two more miracles.  Do you see the structure?  Two miracles leads a discussion about how miracles prove Jesus’ claims, and that discussion is followed by two more miracles!

If I had to place a bet, the writer of this Gospel, who we believe is Jesus’ friend, disciple and apostle, John, seems to be intentionally saying to us that the miracles of Jesus are excellent evidence for us to give our lives to believe in, serve and follow him. 

What are the two new miracles? In John 6, we find out that they are two of Jesus’ most famous miracles: the feeding of the 5,000 (+) and Jesus walking on water.  My guess is that you might have at least heard of these stories before.  But let’s try to read these stories with new eyes, asking the Spirit to speak to us.

Photo by Tory Hallenburg on Unsplash

How supernatural does our faith need to be? – John 6:1-21, Preview

Over a decade ago, Faith Church sent a mission team to work with sister churches in another country, during which time we attended worship services in a couple local churches.  In the middle of the first worship service, the entire congregation was vigorously singing praise to God, and a worshiper one row in front of me starting swooning, and then she fell to the ground.  My immediate thought was, “We have a medical emergency here!”  But no one around her seemed the slightest bit concerned. Instead they just kept worshiping. I would soon learn that I was witnessing not a medical emergency, but a manifestation of the supernatural power of God. A miracle. A miracle? Was it really?

In our study of the life of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the miracles are piling up.  Now in chapter 6, Jesus’ miracle-working powers are taking center stage. Think about him changing the water to wine.  Or healing a lame man. Don’t you wish you could have seen Jesus in action, healing people left and right?  Maybe you wish you could see just one miracle? Did I witness a miracle on that mission trip?

While there are people in our world who talk about miracles as if they are happening nearly as frequently as during Jesus’ ministry, I suspect most of us don’t believe it.  Not only have we seen the stories of fraudulent televangelists, we’ve been raised in a scientific culture that has often disproved miracles.  We live in skeptical times.  Have you seen a miracle?  Are you skeptical?

On that trip, more and more people fell during that worship service.  I learned that what was happening was not medical, but people were being slain in the Spirit.  When someone is slain in the Spirit, the Spirit fills them to the point where the people simply cannot stand and they slump over, as if unconscious.  But how do we know if it is the Spirit at work? Could it be a manufactured experience?

The occurrence happened so frequently in our sister churches, that the church had volunteers ready to catch people so they didn’t injure themselves during the fall.  The volunteers also had small blankets used to cover women’s mid-sections, should their skirts not do the job skirts are supposed to do as a result of the fall.

But that was just the beginning.  I was even more shocked when some people in our group, people from Faith Church, fell during worship!!!  Worse still, I wondered, would it happen to me?  I didn’t feel like I needed it to.  But if God wanted to give me that miraculous experience, perhaps I needed it more than I realized.

At a worship service a few days later, the church members called our team members to come forward for prayer, group by group.  First the women, then the men.  During the prayer, some of our women fell, and I was very nervous watching.  What would the people back home think?  This never happens in our worship services. And especially, what would the parents of our teenagers think?  Should I intervene to stop this?  Then they called the men to come forward, and I didn’t want to go.  Imagine, though, the awful optics if the visiting pastor didn’t go forward for prayer.  I felt loads of pressure.  

As I slowly walked forward I thought, “Lord, if you want to knock me flat, I trust in you…but I don’t think I need it.  Well, here goes nothing…”  For the next few minutes, I had a great prayer time, but I didn’t fall.  Afterwards, some of our team members who fell described that they felt God’s Spirit had miraculously met with them.  No one felt they had a negative experience.  I was very glad to hear that, but still I wondered…Was this a genuinely miraculous experience?  Was it just a manufactured worship experience in the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition?

We don’t read much in the New Testament that might related to being slain in the Spirit.  In John 18:6, when Jesus reveals himself to the mob who had come to arrest him in the Garden, we learn that “they drew back and fell to the ground.”  In Acts 9, verse 4, Jesus flashes a light from heaven and speaks with Saul, knocking him to the ground. Maybe they were slain in the Spirit? Maybe, but why don’t we read about being slain in the Spirit as a worship experience in the New Testament writings? In my denominational heritage, that of the Evangelical Association in the USA, there are numerous accounts of people falling to the ground during revival meetings. Should we expect being slain in the Spirit to occur with any regularity?

My point is that whether miraculous manifestations of the Spirit, healings, or other miracles, while we pray for them and desire them, we can have a very hard time verifying if they are true.  We can doubt. We can explain it away.  We can think, “I don’t need a miracle.”  The result is that our faith can become less and less supernatural.  Evaluate your own life of faith.  How supernatural has your experience of discipleship to Jesus been?

As we continue studying the life of Jesus in John 6, verses 1-21, Jesus does two more miracles.  Check it out for yourselves ahead of time.  My guess is that most of you will be quite familiar with these two miracles, as they are two of his most famous.  But what I encourage you to pay attention to is not so much Jesus or the miracles, but the disciples.  How did they interact with the miraculous?  How did they experience the supernatural?  I believe we have much to learn from the disciples in these stories.

We’ll start talking about the disciples’ reaction to the miracles next week.

And if you want to dig deeper into the specific practice of slaying in the Spirit, consider reading this article.

Did Jesus win his trial? You get to choose! – John 5:31-47, Part 5

The situation is bleak.  The religious leaders refuse to believe Jesus.  Even after such rock-solid witnesses, four of them, which you can read about here, here and here, who each give powerful testimony about Jesus, most of the religious leaders are not convinced, and they leave plotting how to take him down. 

What about us? How will we respond to Jesus’ witnesses?  It seems to me that there are two common responses to the evidence Jesus presents in his trial.

One response is to say, along with the religious leaders, “Nope.  I don’t believe.  You haven’t convinced me.”  There are plenty of people who, if they believe the stories in the Bible are true, might say Jesus was an amazing person.  But to believe that Jesus was God, the Messiah, Savior of the World?  No.  That’s a stretch too far in their minds. 

Another response is to say, along with many of the crowd that day, “I believe!  Do another miracle, Jesus.  Let me take you to visit my cousin’s wife’s sister’s mother-in-law.  She isn’t feeling well.”  Plenty of people believe in Jesus intellectually, hoping they will get something for their belief.  The most common idea among evangelicals is, “Believe, so that you can go to heaven when you die.”  That’s belief so that you can have some kind of inner peace about the afterlife.  No doubt, Jesus offers us eternal life. So often, though, our believe is mostly motivated by what we get out of it.

But there is a third response that is so much more.  In the end, the disciples and some of Jesus’ other followers responded this way.  That is faith that gives up one’s life to follow Jesus’s way of life.  It is self-sacrificial. 

Some people bounce between the second and third response.  We believe, but we can struggle to give our lives fully to serve Jesus in our day to day choices.  I can struggle with this too.  God doesn’t want us to be radicals, does he?  Or so we think.  I will admit that I am nervous about going on a mission trip in March.  I don’t know if it is radical or not.  But it feels like it, as I will be gone for a month.  I’m not saying that you need to be a missionary or pastor or even to do something outwardly that seems like a big step.  It doesn’t have to be a change of vocation.

It could be an inward step.  It could be the step of choosing to forgive.  It could be choosing to believe that God will take care of you.  It could be choosing to release being controlling of people, of situations.  It could be choosing to not have the last word.  You can release your anger to God.  Sometimes a step of faith is choosing to be vulnerable, to get help, including professional help. 

God wants more room in our hearts and minds because the more he is in those vital, deep inner places, the more you and I can experience the abundant life he wants to give us.  That means we choose to get rid of what is in the way.  It means a vulnerability to place our faith and trust in God.

Each of us needs to examine our lives, then invite others to examine our lives, to face the possibility that we are apathetic or shallow in our faith, in our discipleship. 

The evidence is strong.  Jesus is who he said he was, and that invites a response from us to give our lives to him, in gratitude that he first gave his life for us. 

Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash