India Trip / Blog hiatus

To all readers of the blog, I am in Northeast India for the month of March teaching at my denomination’s seminary. So the blog is on hiatus. Here are a few photos of the trip so far. First, Mt. Everest, as seen from from our plane.

A church conference we attended and preached at:

I got to sound the gong, one of 75 people. One gong for each year of their 75th anniversary jubilee.

A view of the hills surrounding us.

My class!

How Jesus sets us free to live a flourishing life – John 7:53-8:11, Part 4

In the temple courts, Jesus is standing alone with a woman who had been caught in adultery. With her accusers now gone, Jesus responds to the woman, in John chapter 8, verses 10-11:

“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’.”

What does “condemn” mean?  It is a legal term, referring to a judgement of guilt.  The woman had been caught in the act of sin.  The religious leaders had brought her to Jesus essentially putting him in the role of judge, asking him to proclaim her guilty.  He turns the tables on them, and they leave without condemning her, and then he also does not condemn her, removing himself from the role of judge. 

Wouldn’t you love to see the transformation that comes over this woman when she hears Jesus say, “I don’t condemn you.”  Instead of condemnation she receives grace. 

But grace is not a ticket to do whatever she wants.  He says, “Go and sin no more.”  Do you hear the grace and love in his statement?  Do you also hear him encouraging her to make new choices, good choices?

We could easily think that Jesus is letting her off the hook, that he should deal more harshly with her, “She committed adultery, Jesus!”  In our contemporary purity culture, sexual sin is often seen as the worst possible sin.  By our standards, it seems like Jesus is neglecting the accountability this woman needs.  “Go and sin no more?  Are you kidding me, Jesus?  That’s not going to help this woman.  What’s to stop her from jumping right back into bed with the guy?  She’s getting off easy here.  You need to deal with her.”  But our purity culture is so quick to misunderstand the amazing power of grace.

As Paul writes in Titus 2:11-14,

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

You and I have received this grace too.  We need it every day.  You are not condemned.  Think about that.  It’s powerful.  You are not condemned.  God says to you, “I do not condemn you.”  In fact, Paul wrote in Romans 8:1-2,

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

We are set free to receive grace which motivates us with grateful hearts to say, “No” to sin.  So see yourself in that woman’s shoes.  Jesus says “I do not condemn you, go and sin no more.”  Is there a sin or sins in your life about which he is saying to you, “I do not condemn you, receive my grace, sin no more.” 

Receive his grace and follow his way. His way is so amazing.  They way of choosing to remove sin from our lives is the abundant, flourishing life that he said he gave to give us. 

Frankly, though, receiving grace can be difficult.  It means ridding ourselves of shame, accepting that God really does love us fully as we are, failures and all.  Some of us have a really hard to receiving that truth, believing that truth. 

God invites us to see ourselves as we know we are, with all our faults and bad habits, and yet rest in and believe in and receive his grace and love. Then we become people who, like Jesus did with the woman, give grace more easily.

Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash

The fallacy of the slippery slope argument in helping us become more like Jesus – John 7:53-8:11, Part 3

Did you know that Jesus once stayed an execution? He actually decided to not do what the Mosaic Law said to do. The religious leaders brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus, asking him, “The Mosaic Law says this sinful woman should receive the death penalty. What do you say, Jesus?” As we learned in the previous post, the religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus. But there was no execution that day. Instead, Jesus has an astounding response, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” Not a single stone flew that day. What did happen is what we read in verses 8-9,

“Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”

Why did no one say, “Forget you, Jesus, we’re doing this anyway”?  Is it possible that Jesus’ principle of self-reflective non-judgement toward others was more impactful than the human instinct to violence retribution?  I think so.  The religious leaders knew they had been bested.  They knew that Jesus tapped into something deeper, something more in tune with the heart of God.

Jesus exploited their faulty use of the Law.  They were focused on a punitive part of the Law, the judgment, and they were ignoring the heart of God.  They were bent on a legalistic approach, something that they did quite well and quite often.  In their minds, the more you can legislate morality, the better.  Make rules for as much of life as possible, so that there is a clear-cut line separating the keepers of the rules and the breakers of the rules.  Subjectivity and opinion and nuance are just trouble in their minds.  Life will be better if we can punish rule-breakers, because the punishment will be a deterrent to any further rule-breaking. 

This is the primary justification of the modern-day death penalty.  How has that worked out for us? How often have we seen people unjustly on death row for years, decades even, only to be exonerated? How many innocent people have been executed? And further, has the rationale for the death penalty actually been effective? Has the imposition of the death penalty been a deterrent to crime? Given the amount of crime, and especially murder by gun violence, anecdotal evidence suggests that the death penalty has little impact. Here in John 8, Jesus shows us that you cannot legislate morality, you cannot scare people straight.

There is another reason the religious leaders try to legislate morality. They wanted to avoid the slippery-slope argument.  The slippery slope argument basically says that if you do X, you will be much more inclined to also do Y, and then Z, and before you know it you’ll be so far gone, you’ll never come back from the Abyss.  So therefore, you must go back up the slope aways.  If you don’t want people to do X, you must make new rules that will keep them from U, V or W. 

Let’s make this very practical.  If you don’t want to become addicted to pornography, the slippery slope argument says, then you should not only delete your social media accounts, you should also get rid of your computer, smart phone and internet.  It’s a slippery slope, if you get internet, soon enough you’ll be addicted to porn.  So the legislate morality, let’s just make it a crime to have the internet.  Abolish the internet!  That will save our society! 

But is that true?

The problem with the slippery slope argument is that it can be very misleading. Doing X does not always lead to Y.  If you have the internet you will not automatically become addicted to porn.  You might, but you might not. The slippery slope is, however, something to pay attention to. It would be wise, for example, if one has a predisposition to porn addiction, to consider that they might not be able to handle having the internet without any accountability measures. Options such as web filters, blockers or accountability software can be a helpful deterrent.

More importantly, though, we cannot rely on the slippery slope to help us become more like Jesus.  Following rules does not transform our hearts to be more like the heart of Jesus.  We cannot rely on laws and rules to help us become more like Jesus.  Instead, we need to be changed inwardly, by the Spirit, growing the Fruit of the Spirit.  This is why Jesus points us to the heart of the Father, a heart of self-reflective non-judgmental grace.  That’s the posture that will help people actually desire to become more like Jesus.  And then, following him, with a new heart, that will impact our life choices.

Think about it this way. Imagine if Jesus said, “We have to follow the letter of the Law. If we allow her to go unpunished, we be on the slippery slope to anarchy. Isn’t that what led our ancestors into rebellion against God and exile from the land? Stone her to death!”  What would that accomplish?  A life lost, as well as more people convinced about the legalistic, slippery-slope way of understanding God.  It would be total loss for all, actually pushing people away from who God really is, away from what God’s heart really is.

Instead, Jesus presents a beautiful balance of self-reflective non-judgmental grace, removing condemnation from this woman who, if she really was caught in the act of adultery, was probably mortified, shamed, and feeling doomed.  More than likely, she was heaping more self-loathing on top of the self-loathing and bad habit of looking for love in all the wrong places that was already the norm in her life. 

In the next post, we’ll hear Jesus’ shocking response to this woman.

Photo by Itay Peer on Unsplash

How Jesus got into a dangerous no-win situation – John 7:53-8:11, Part 2

When I was dating my wife, one day her parents had us over for dinner. Around the table, her father asked me, “So is Michelle wearing on you yet?” Have you ever felt trapped in life? Had people accuse you of something, and there seems to be no good answer? That’s how I felt in that moment.

If I answered, “No,” I could be accused of giving the impression that my girlfriend is the kind of person who would wear on me. If I answered, “Yes,” then I would be accusing her of wearing on me. Neither choice was attractive. I was trapped. So I said, “Well, you’ve really backed me into a corner there…” After some laughter, as the question was meant to tease me, I eventually said the truth, which was “Yes, sometimes she wears on me.” That was a humorous situation, but as we will learn, Jesus got trapped in a no-win situation that was absolutely not humorous. Jesus’ situation was downright dangerous.

Look at John 7, verse 53, and chapter 8 verse 1,

“Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.”

The Mount of Olives is located just outside the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had just been visiting for the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 10).  Remember what we studied last week in chapter 7, that the relationship between Jesus and the religious leaders has degraded to the point where they are out to kill him.  This murderous sentiment infected some of the festival crowd, but there were also some who placed their faith in Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles  Verse 53, though, tells us that the Feast concluded and the people went home. 

Then chapter 8, verse 1, tells us that Jesus goes to one of his favorite places, the Mount of Olives.  Perhaps he goes to stay with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus who live in the village of Bethany, which is very close to the Mount of Olives.  Or maybe he needs time alone, away from the intense scrutiny of the city, and he goes to the Mount of Olives for silence, solitude and prayer. 

Either way, we must remember the tension of John chapters 6 and 7.  In chapter 6 Jesus gave the freakish “eat my flesh, drink my blood” teaching that resulted in many disciples turning away from him.  In chapter 7, we learned how he had tension with his siblings, tension from the crowd in Jerusalem, and how the religious leaders wanted to kill him.  Things in Jesus’ life at this point are conflicted.    

What happens the next day is legendary.  Look at verses 2-6,

“At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.”

What is going on here?  Jesus heads back into the city, and the crowds flock to him.  Even though it is early morning, enough people are fascinated by Jesus to want to be with him.  At some point the religious leaders, having caught a woman in the act of adultery, bring her to Jesus, in the temple court, with loads of people watching.  It’s the stuff of TV dramas, and it makes you wonder how they caught the woman. 

The main drama of this situation, though, is that not the religious leaders were trying to trap the woman, but that they are trying to trap Jesus, and they really have come up with an ingenious ploy.  They are right in saying that the Law of Moses addresses this issue. 

Here’s what the Law actually says:

Leviticus 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.”

And Deuteronomy 22:22, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.”

Wait. Both must be put to death?  So where is the man?  He should be there too.  But he’s not, which could be evidence that this all a big set-up.  Or perhaps the religious leaders are not keeping the Law strictly.  Jesus could have said to them, “Where’s the man?”  That would make for an interesting exchange. 

That brings us to the pickle that Jesus is in.  He is in a very tough spot.  If he says, “We must adhere to the Law of Moses and execute the woman,” then Jesus would have been in violation of the Roman Law which forbade the Jews from enacting the death penalty.  We will see that very Roman Law come into play at Jesus’ crucifixion, when, though the Jews had condemned Jesus to death at their sham trial, they had to take the matter to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, because only he had the authority to enact the death penalty. 

When Jesus is looking at this woman who is accused of committing a crime punishable by death, Jesus must decide if he is going to abide by the Mosaic Law and place himself at risk of disobeying Roman Law. Or will he say, “You may not stone her under Roman Law,” and place himself at risk of being accused of not following the Law of Moses?

It seems the religious leaders have Jesus in a no-win situation, which is exactly where they want him.  But do they actually have him in a no-win situation?  Is this the end for Jesus?  Is he about to be arrested?  Take a look at the middle of verse 6,

“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.”

By the way, some trivia for you: this is the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus writes.  Don’t you wish you could know what he was writing???  There has been so much speculation.  Maybe he was just doodling as he considered his response.  Some have speculated that he was writing the names of the religious leaders and listing out their sins.

We don’t know.  The religious leaders seem unphased.  Look at verse 7,

“…they kept on questioning him…” 

Perhaps they were pressing him to respond.  What does he have to say about this woman caught in the act of adultery, and the fact that the Law of Moses commands them to stone her?

Eventually, Jesus responds.  Maybe he’s just had enough of their trumped up ploy.  Look at the rest of verse 7,

“When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’.”

Jesus is the master theological escape artist.  His response is so genius.  His responses in these kinds of tense, seemingly no-win situations are often so simple, yet so wonderfully insightful.  He diffuses the situation with just a few, powerful words, words that reveal an important principle we disciples of Jesus should incorporate in our lives.  It is the principle of self-reflective non-judgment toward others.  More on that in the next post.

There was not a single person in the crowd that day who could throw the first stone.  Why?  Because they all had sin in their lives.  Jesus has leveled the playing field and redefined how to approach the Law. 

Certainly, someone there could have said, “I disagree with your reasoning, Jesus.  If we have to be without sin in order to follow the Law, then we’ll be in violation of the parts of God’s Law that says we should hold people accountable. We’ll never be able to hold anyone accountable, because none of us is without sin.  So I’m going to throw the first stone, even though I am a sinner too.” 

That person could have started the execution, and maybe a bunch of people would have joined in. But an execution didn’t happen that day. Why? Check back to the next post, and we’ll find out.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Why I’m studying a disputed text from the life of Jesus – John 7:53-8:11, Part 1

This week on the blog, we are talking about a disputed story in the life of Jesus. Disputed? What does that mean? Open a Bible to John 7, and look between verse 52 and verse 53.  There’s something important written there we need to talk about.  If you are reading from the New International Version, 2011 edition, do you see the horizontal line?  Below the horizontal line there is a text note, and this is what it says:

“[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53–8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]”

The editors of the 2011 edition of the New International Version (NIV) wrote that.  All the major English versions of the Bible include a similar note, except one: the King James Version (KJV).

What does the note mean?  Simply put, it means that biblical scholars are uncertain if John wrote this story, because the story is not in the earliest known manuscripts of the Gospel of John.  So the editors of our English Bibles bracket it, alerting us.

Why doesn’t the KJV bracket it?  Because the KJV is very old, translated in 1611, using one of the later manuscripts that included the story as a normal part of the text of the Gospel of John.  Earlier manuscripts were not available to the translators of the KJV.  In other words, when they published the KJV, they didn’t know it was an issue.  Now we do. 

So why is John 7:53-8:11 included in the major English versions of the Bible if we’re not sure that it is authentic?  Because the KJV was nearly ubiquitous for centuries in the English world, all following English versions of the Bible have continued to follow it’s lead, such as the chapter and verses divisions it used (which in most cases predate the KJV), for the sake of consistency. It would be odd if John chapter 8 began with verse 12, and there was no text note explaining what happened to verses 1-11.

But that is a pragmatic reason. I think there are at least two other more important reasons for teaching this story, and those two reasons get at why I am blogging about it this week.  First, while we don’t know if John 7:53-8:11 is authentic, we also don’t know that it is not authentic.  We just don’t know.  It might be, it might not be. 

But maybe you’re wondering, “Isn’t it dangerous to focus on a story that is even possibly inauthentic to the Bible?” That is a very important question. It could be dangerous to teach any story for which we do not have a high degree of confidence that it is genuinely biblical. We should be cautious.

In my opinion, though, it is not dangerous to teach this story. Why? The answer leads to my second reason why I’m blogging about it this week: this story utterly sounds like Jesus, and it is incredibly similar to how he behaves in other Gospel accounts that we are confident of their authenticity. 

To contrast, there are other disputed passages in the Gospels that do not sound like Jesus.  The ending of the Gospel of Mark, for example, is one of those disputed passages, and its content is theologically bizarre.  If I were preaching through Mark, I would skip it.  But this story in John 7:53-8:11 is right in line with the character and style and personality and genius of Jesus. 

How so?  We’ll begin to find out in the next post.

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

Should a church bar its members from taking communion? – John 7:53-8:11, Preview

Every May my denomination, the Evangelical Congregational Church, has a conference for all pastors and for one representative from each church.  At the conference we attend worship gatherings, business meetings, and hear reports about what God is doing throughout the life and ministry of the denomination. From what I have heard from other denominations, our EC National Conference is quite common.

What is not common is that the EC Church also asks each local EC church to have their own conference, called, not surprisingly, Local Conference.  Each church is supposed to convene a meeting of the Local Conference at least once per year.  Members of the Local Conference include the members of the church’s leadership team, any EC pastors who are members of the church, and that church’s District Field Director (a part-time employee of the denomination, having oversight of a geographical region of about 10 churches).  The Local Conference is a confidential meeting, as the agenda includes approval of the pastor’s salary package, and a spiritual examination of each member the church family. 

Yes, you read that right.  An examination of the church family.  Does it sound creepy? In fact, the Local Conference, according to EC Church guidelines, is to examine whether or not there are any situations in the church family for which a member of the church should be excluded from taking communion.  The heart behind this examination is to help people overcome sin and brokenness and become more like Jesus.  

If you’re reading this and wondering if Faith Church’s Local Conference meets and does this examination, the answer is No.  We have chosen not to follow the denomination’s guidelines about Local Conference.  In fact, in my 20+ years at Faith Church, not once have we held a meeting of Local Conference precisely like the denomination asks us to.

Years ago, during each December Leadership Team meeting, we’d take five minutes to convene a session of Local Conference to approve the salary package already approved by the congregation at the November annual congregational meeting.  In more recent years, we’ve skipped that Local Conference meeting entirely, as the congregation, at our annual congregational meeting, has already approved salaries by voting on the annual budget.  

While there have been times when our Leadership Team has entered into a confidential session to address matters of church discipline, we have never had a discussion about the entire congregation, person by person, to evaluate whether or not they should be barred from taking communion.  Instead, we allow individuals to make that choice, between themselves and God, at each celebration of communion.  At at nearly every celebration of communion there are some who abstain. 

So why do we choose not to follow the EC guideline about Local Conference’s examination of members?  We discussed this many years ago at a Leadership Team meeting.  While we definitely have a heart to address sin in our congregation and help people restore broken relationships, the majority of Leadership Team members at the time felt that they could not judge others in their church family.

Those Leadership Team members reasoned that they themselves were not perfect, and therefore, who were they to judge others?  Didn’t Jesus himself say, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”?  Yes he did. That is a direct quote from Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2.  In the end, our leaders, based on Jesus’ teaching, chose not to have Local Conference evaluations of our members before communion.

You might be wondering, then, why the EC Church asks Local Conferences to hold these evaluations.  Is the EC Church wrong?  Is the EC Church unbiblical?  Should we try to get the denomination to change its way and become biblical?  Should we be concerned?

While we should always be concerned about whether our denomination is following biblical teaching, in this case, they are.  Wait…didn’t I just say above that our leaders, based on Jesus’ teaching, chose not to have Local Conference?  Yes, I did.  In other words, our leaders were saying that the EC Church was not following biblical guidelines in that specific situation.  But now I am also saying that the EC Church is following biblical teaching in that specific situation.  Can it be both ways?

Maybe…Maybe not.  As we will see in our continuing study of the life of Jesus, as told by his friend John, we’re going to observe Jesus’ fascinating interaction with a person who had been judged and was on death row.  What will he say to this person?  Will he also judge?  What Jesus chooses to do is genius, and we would do well to learn from him.  It should affect how we interact with all the people in our lives.

Read the passage ahead of time, John 7:53-8:11, and then we’ll discuss it further on the blog next week.

Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash

How to shatter your Jesus box (and why you need to) – John 7:1-52, Part 5

What happened when the religious leaders sent the temple police to arrest Jesus?  Jesus was out in the open there in the temple courts.  The police should have no problem arresting him.  But in the previous post, there is no mention of the police. You’d think they would have shown up and put Jesus in chains.  But they didn’t. Where are they?  We find out what happened in John chapter 7, verses 45-52,

“Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why didn’t you bring him in?’ ‘No one ever spoke the way this man does,’ the guards replied. ‘You mean he has deceived you also?’ the Pharisees retorted. ‘Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.’ Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, ‘Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?’ They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee’.”

The temple police return from their mission empty-handed!  Their reasoning is curious, “No ever spoke like Jesus does.”  You cannot put Jesus in a box.  He shatters the box.  It should be a simple thing, a bunch of police arresting a noncombatant.  But they don’t or won’t or can’t.  No one could.  All we read multiple times in John chapter 7 is that when people wanted to seize him, they couldn’t.  They couldn’t even put Jesus in a literal box, let alone the figurative one.  He exceeds all expectations.  He will only be put in a box when he allows himself to, when the time is right. 

For now, the leaders are really angry at their temple guards.  It is nice to see Nicodemus speak up on Jesus’ behalf, kind of, at least arguing for a fair trial, but the other leaders are completely blinded by their anger.  They are so certain of their Messiah box, and so desperate to hold on to their power and position, they refuse any other viewpoint or opinion.  They cannot accept even the tiniest possibility that they are wrong.  They demonstrate the heights of hubris, arrogance, pride, and in so doing they show they are not only wrong about Jesus, but they do not have a desire to live the way of God.  A prophet sometimes does come out of Galilee.

Do you have a box for Jesus?  I suspect we all do.  I’ve had Jesus boxes myself over the years.  Long ago it was the “Say a pray to Jesus, accept his as your personal Lord and Savior, and you’ll go to heaven” box.  But in time I learned he couldn’t fit in that box.  He shattered that box, teaching me that his heart is that all people would experience not just eternal life one day, but abundant flourishing life now, actively working to bring his Kingdom of justice on earth now.

Then I had the “reading your Bible is the only way to interact with God box”.  He shattered that box by teaching me that he wants us to listen to his Spirit, and hear what he is saying through the community of disciples.

At other times I had the “study the end times prophecy box, to learn the signs of the times.”  He shattered that box too, teaching me to dig deep into developing the Fruit of the Spirit and seeking to help other people become his disciples who also develop the Fruit of the Spirit in their lives now.

Who knows what other boxes I have now that he’ll shatter.  I hope and pray that in 5 years, 10 years, and every 5 years or so, I’ll have a new list of ways that my understanding of Jesus has grown.

Shatter the box. Come to Jesus, asking him to take away any misinformed, misconceived notions of who he is.  Ask the Spirit to help you see Jesus for who he really is.  Then look for Jesus where he said to look or him, in the sick, the hungry, the prisoner, the stranger, the lonely.  Get out of your comfort zone, get away from the ease of the norm where Jesus is comfortable and affirms you, and start following him into a place that might feel scary, risky. There Jesus says, “I am with you, love like me. You’re going to get to know me in a whole new way.  And you’ll find it is better by far.” 

What God wants from revival – John 7:1-52, Part 4

Have you heard about the Asbury Revival of 2023? The university has chapel services, and students are required to attend a number of chapel services each semester.  At one particular service recently, something happened.  The manifest presence of the Holy Spirit was like a stream of living water in the lives of the students.  The service kept going, and kept going.  Read more here. What is the purpose of revival? Is it just a prolonged worship service? Or is there more? In today’s post, we’re going to learn about God’s heart for revival, as we continue our study of John chapter 7.

In John 7, Jesus is attending one of the Jews’ religious feasts in the city of Jerusalem. There he has a testy conversation with both people in the crowd and with the religious leaders. In the previous post we learned that some in the crowd were furious at Jesus, even attempting to seize him, while others placed their faith in him. The religious leaders, though, remain steadfast in their opposition to him.  Look at verses 32-36,

“The Pharisees heard the crowd whispering such things about him. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees sent temple guards to arrest him. Jesus said, ‘I am with you for only a short time, and then I am going to the one who sent me. You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.’ The Jews said to one another, ‘Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks? What did he mean when he said, ‘You will look for me, but you will not find me, and ‘Where I am, you cannot come’?”

The discussion between Jesus and the Jewish leaders and the people in the crowd grows ever more conflicted.  It seems the chief priests and Pharisees have had it with this situation, and they send police to arrest Jesus. 

Meanwhile, Jesus and the people continue their back and forth conversation.  Jesus is semi-cryptic, and the people don’t seem to understand him.  The conversation is a kind of a mess. 

Then the scene changes in verse 37, where we read, “On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice…”  Let’s pause there. Jesus is in the middle of what would have been a large crowd who had traveled to the city for this important festival.  When Jesus calls out in a loud voice, did the noise of the crowd quiet down?  Could most people hear him?  What will he say?

He says, continuing reading verses 37-44,

“‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. On hearing his words, some of the people said, ‘Surely this man is the Prophet. Others said, ‘He is the Messiah.’ Still others asked, ‘How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?’ Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.”

More confusion, more disagreement.  Who is Jesus?  He’s the Messiah!  No, he’s not!  Yes, he is!  No, he’s not.  On and on it goes.  

But look at what Jesus says in verse 37.  I wonder if anyone in the crowd understood this important teaching.  Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me will have the living water of the Spirit flowing from within him.”  We need to give careful attention to what Jesus says.  In the middle of a conflicted situation there in Jerusalem, when people have tried to seize him, and when the temple police are looking to arrest him, Jesus gives us a powerful principle.  Jesus desires all people to have an inward experience of his Spirit, and that leads to an outward explosion of his Spirit. 

John tells us Jesus is referring to an encounter with his Spirit that came later, and which we can read about in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descended upon and filled Jesus’ first followers. Then the Spirit continued to do so throughout the stories in the book of Acts and in the letters.  Throughout history there have been other outpourings of the Spirit, just like the one is happening right now on the campus of Asbury University. 

Here’s what I believe is important about revival and the work of the Spirit.  It is never meant to be contained within a person. It will start there. Lots of wonderful interior work might need to be done in the life of a person.  But then revival breaks out.  God’s heart for revival is to see changed people change their societies. 

A survey of the book of Acts will show what happened when the Spirit came. Revival broke out and transformed society. The sick were healed.  People stopped hoarding resources and gave sacrificially.  No one saw their property as their own, but gave it up to help those in need.  They crossed cultural and ethnic boundaries.  They crossed gender boundaries, so that in Christ there was neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, but all were one in Christ. 

Revival begins as a work of God’s Spirit in individual lives, and the living water of the Spirit gushes up like a fountain and spreads the Fruit of the Spirit all around.  Spirit-filled, fruit-flowing Christians continue the revival by standing against and tearing down the structures of injustice in society.  This is why Jesus said in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) that when we reach out to the sick, the homeless, the prisoner, the hungry, we are reaching out to him. He loves all.  He gave his life for all.  All are made in his image.  A Spirit-filled life will have a heart growing more and more like Jesus’ heart, which equally reaches all.

You cannot put Jesus in a box, and you cannot put the Spirit in a box.  The religious leaders especially tried to put Jesus in box.  Meaning they had a very specific opinion about him.  In their minds, he was not the Messiah because he didn’t act how they thought the Messiah should act. 

So they sent the temple police to arrest him.  Remember that back in verse 32, which we read above?  Jesus was right out in the open there in the temple courts.  The police should have no problem arresting him.  But where are they?  You’d think by now they would have shown up and put Jesus in chains.

They show up, but in a most unexpected place. We’ll find out about that in the next post.

Photo by Ismael Paramo on Unsplash

Jesus’ astounding response to people who are trying to kill him (…and it’s not forgiveness) – John 7:1-52, Part 3

Remember the famous episode from Jesus’ life when he is being nailed to the cross, which had to hurt terribly, after he had already been beaten to a pulp, and Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing?” It’s a wonderful account of grace, mercy, and love. And self-control, quite frankly. Many other people would be angry, cursing, or spewing a whole host of other negative emotions. Jesus is forgiving.

But there was another time when people were out to kill him, and instead of speaking forgiveness, he speaks something else, something surprising, something gutsy.

In the previous posts (here and here) on John chapter 7, we learned that Jesus was having a very testy interaction with his siblings, with people in the crowd in Jerusalem, and with the religious leaders. In John chapter 7, verse 16, Jesus responds to the scholars who are amazed at his teaching, because he was not formally trained in the Scriptures.  Here’s what Jesus says,

“Jesus answered, ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him’.”

In this response, Jesus is bold.  Think about the location of this.  He knows the Jewish leaders are out to kill him, so where does he choose to reveal himself?  In the temple courts! (See John 7:14.)  That’s their headquarters. Jesus’ move is gutsy.  He goes right into the lion’s cage, giving a teaching that leaves no wiggle room. He is saying that he has come from God.  This is a claim to be divine, and it made the Jewish religious mad, as we will see.

But that’s only the beginning of Jesus’ boldness. In verse 19, he takes it up a notch, or maybe up ten notches!

“Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”

That is some wild boldness on Jesus’ part when he says not one of those leaders keeps the Mosaic Law.  The prided themselves on being perfect or near-perfect keepers of the Law. On top of that, Jesus also publicly calls them out for their plot to kill him.  Jesus’ serious confrontation of the religious leaders, during a religious Feast, in front of a huge crowd, is a thing to behold. It’s a wonder they didn’t lose their minds, rush over and start attacking him.

We can learn something here from the boldness of Jesus.  Notice who received his boldness.  He is confronting those who thought they knew God, but who couldn’t see God when God in the flesh was standing right in front of them.  Jesus, in other words, was bold to the religious people.  He confronts those who arrogantly thought they had God figured out. 

Who might that be in our day? If Jesus was alive now, who would he confront? Who has a reputation for being the ones who have the authoritative truth about God? We do.  We evangelicals have a reputation for being arrogant in our view of God.  It seems to me that if Jesus was here today, he just might have cause to confront evangelicals. Have you ever thought about that? How might Jesus confront us?

As so often happens when people are confronted, they clap back. The crowd, as we read in verse 20 makes a bold claim of their own, “’You are demon-possessed,’ the crowd answered. ‘Who is trying to kill you?’”

Jesus responds to them in verse 21 by talking about what got this all started in the first place.  A few weeks ago we studied John chapter 5, verses 16-18, where John tells us that the Jewish leaders were persecuting Jesus, following him, plotting to kill him?  Why?  What sparked their rage was the fact that Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. 

That’s the “one miracle” that Jesus refers to in John 7, verse 21, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed.”  Jesus then goes on to some biblical and theological analysis in verses 22-24,

“‘Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly’.”

Simply put, Jesus is telling them to stop being so legalistic about the Sabbath.  Good deeds, like healing someone, are absolutely in line with God’s heart for the Sabbath.  In other words, Jesus is calling the religious leaders out.  He is saying, “You are misinterpreting your Bibles, you are wrong, and you should actually be supporting me when I healed a lame man on the Sabbath. You should not be out to kill me.” 

He has made a powerful argument, as you would expect Jesus to do.  Has he won them over?  Will they say, “OK, you’re right, Jesus.  We were wrong.  Sorry.  We’ll stop trying to kill you now.”  Look at verses 25-27,

“At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, ‘Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Messiah? But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from’.”

Some people in the crowd are wondering if Jesus is the Messiah.  He seems like it, but he doesn’t fit the mold as precisely as they would have liked.  They believed that when the Messiah came, it would be a miraculous appearing, out of the blue so to speak, so that no one would be able to know where he came from.  A total miracle manifestation from God, of God.  Jesus could not be the Messiah, therefore, because they knew where he was from.  Nazareth.  They knew his family.  They could talk with his family, visit his mother, and his handyman shop. He did not appear miraculously, or so they thought.

Of course Jesus’ did have a miraculous origin story, but most of the people in the crowd didn’t know his birth story.  They thought they had Jesus sized up, and they concluded, “Nope. Not the Messiah.” 

Jesus responds to the crowd in verses 28-29, making a claim that could be misconstrued as vague. No doubt there are times when Jesus is mysterious. Here’s what he says,

“Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, ‘Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own authority, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.’”

From our vantage point, we know that Jesus is making yet another divine claim, assuring them that he is the Messiah. It seems the crowd gets it too, because they take drastic action, as we read in verse 30,

“At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.”

When the people try to seize him, it is not to protect him.  Not to help him.  This is a seizure bent on murder. Why? Because they correctly surmise that he is making claims to be the Messiah. That group, at least, is not convinced by Jesus, and they believe he is committing a sin punishable by death.

But something miraculous happens.  No one could touch him because his time had not yet come.  Must have been very frustrating and confusing to the people trying to seize him.  Like being in a vivid dream when you are at the beach, and the tide is coming in, so you attempt to move your towel and belongings farther away from shore, but your arms and legs are so heavy, and they’re not working right. Slowly the tide gets closer, and you can’t move. Ever had a dream like that? I wonder if that’s how the people who wanted to seize Jesus felt.

Maybe because people couldn’t seize Jesus, maybe for other reasons, we learn in verse 31 that there are some in the crowd who have an entirely different perspective on Jesus,

“Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, ‘When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?’”

Jesus is left unharmed, and, amazingly, we read that many put their faith in him.  They make the level-headed argument of “Really, people?  How many miracles do you need?  This guy Jesus has done a ton of miracles.  Do the math.  He’s the Messiah.” Many people are convinced!

The religious leaders, though, are not convinced.  In the next post we’ll find out how they respond.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

Two ways to get to know the real Jesus – John 7:1-52, Part 2

In the previous post, Jesus’ brothers heckle him and then leave for Jerusalem to attend the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. After his brothers leave, Jesus comes up with a plan.  Look at verse 10.

“However, after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. Now at the festival the Jewish leaders were watching for Jesus and asking, ‘Where is he?’ Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, ‘He is a good man.’ Others replied, ‘No, he deceives the people.’ But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the leaders.”

I wish I could see what Jesus did to disguise himself?  Did he just wear a hood?  Did he cover a scarf around his face?  It had to be something like that. Why the secrecy? 

First, we already know that he wants to avoid controversy, because his time has not yet come.  Second, when his brothers say, “Show yourself to the world,” he does the opposite and hides.  As we have seen in the past, Jesus does not behave like people want him to.  There is good news in that, but there is also bad news.  There is good news in Jesus’ small rebellion against his brothers, because in so doing he is choosing to follow the mission of the Kingdom of God, not caving-in to a selfish mission to grow a big crowd by enticing them with miracles.  For Jesus the mission of the Kingdom is not about performance, so it is very good news that Jesus does not behave like people want him to. 

But this might also be bad news because it means that Jesus might not behave like you and I want him to.  In other words, we can believe that we have Jesus figured out.  We can assume that we understand the Jesus way, the way he wants us to do things.  But do we actually have him figured out?  We shouldn’t assume that we have him figured out.  More often than not, when we think we have Jesus figured out, we have made him into our likeness and image, rather than we ourselves striving to be made in his.

We might have to do some hard work of scraping away the corrosion that we have allowed to build-up on our image of Jesus so that we can little by little see him for who he truly is.  And what we find might be shocking, and maybe even difficult for us to accept.  But it will be good, because he is good.  How do we do that work of scraping away the corrosion and see more of Jesus? 

Jesus himself gives us a clue in Matthew 25, when he told the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, one of my favorites, because in it he shows us how to grow our knowledge of who he is.  By serving others, by interacting with people on the margins of society, there we find him, there we see him in a new way.  Jesus specifically mentions that we will find him when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, encourage the sick, welcome the stranger, and visit the prisoner.

This is why we avoid being enamored with the rich and the powerful and the celebrity and the influential. Of course, they need Jesus too. But we do what Jesus himself did, and we find him in the least of these.  This is why we have a heart for organizations striving to reach those on the margins in our community.  As we serve those on the margins, just as Jesus describes in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, we do so asking God to show us his heart, not assuming we already know his heart, not assuming we are the savior of the people we serve, but looking for Jesus in them, because he is the savior.   

Back to the story, we read that the people at the Feast of Tabernacles were not sure about Jesus’ identify.  Look again at verses 12 and 13 and notice that the people were wrestling with who Jesus really was.  Was he good?  Was he a deceiver?  No one wanted to go out on a limb, because the Jewish leaders had an iron grip on society.  The people were afraid of them.  Even if the people thought that Jesus really was a good man, they were scared to say so publicly because they knew the religious leaders were trying to kill Jesus, and the people were afraid to cross the religious leaders.

So there’s Jesus in Jerusalem, in secret, probably overhearing the talk about him, knowing there is a plot to kill him.  What does he do?  Look at verses 14-24,

“Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?” “You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?” Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed. Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”

I love that the Jews are amazed at his teaching, because, as they state in verse 15, he didn’t have training in ministry or Scripture, beyond what would have been customary in his childhood.  So here is Jesus once again schooling the scholars. 

I am not saying that education is unnecessary.  Remember that you and I are not Jesus.  Even if you or I could school the scholars, then I still think we would be wise to consider education to help us study the Bible, theology, culture and ministry.  I think it is safe to say that while we strive to be as much like Jesus as possible, let’s not get arrogant about it and think that we don’t need education. 

That’s why I’d like you to consider taking courses in the Institute for Church Leadership (ICL). Run by my denomination, the EC Church, the ICL is a series of twelve courses anyone can take. We offer an ICL certificate if you complete each course. For our pastors not in an ordination track, that ICL certificate is their educational credential. If a person doesn’t want to pay for the credit and do course assignments, they can pay a much cheaper rate and participate in courses as an auditor.  How about getting out of your comfort zone and taking a class?  The next one coming up in May is Old Testament Survey.  More details are at the ICL webpage (though if that link doesn’t work, it is because the page is soon being moved…just comment below and I’ll be in touch.)

If you aren’t interested in those classes, that’s okay.  But still think about how you can push yourself in another way, to dig deeper, have more understanding, learn more about the one who loves you so deeply.  Do you like podcasts? I can give you suggestions.  There are Bible reading plans, on apps, on audio, online. 

In this post, we have seen two ways to get to know the real Jesus. First, we serve those on the margins of society, because in them Jesus says we will find him. Second, we study his word to know him better. What step will you take to go deeper?