Discipleship begins with the spiritual practice of questioning – John 1:35-42, Part 2

After hearing John the Baptist declare two days in a row that Jesus is the Lamb of God, in John 1, verse 37 we read that John’s disciples stop following John, and they start following Jesus.  Jesus hasn’t uttered a word.  And because of that, the scene strikes me as humorous. 

The two disciples just follow Jesus.  No asking permission.  No invitation.  No conversation.  How would you feel if you’re walking in the city or in the mall, some crowded space, and people just start following you?  Creeped out, right?  How often are we driving, and behind us a person makes the same turn as us, and we notice it.  Then then we make another turn, and they make the same turn.  How many of the same turns does it take for you to start wondering, “Are they following me?  Do I need to be concerned?”  And then finally you make a turn they don’t make, and you feel relieved.  When people just randomly follow us, we feel awkward and uncomfortable, and we don’t like it.

Perhaps that’s exactly what Jesus felt. Look at how he responds.  In verse 38 we read that he sees them following, turns around and says, “What do you want?”  I really wish we could see his face, his body language and the tone of his voice.  Was he calm?  Was he a little freaked out why these two men had started following him?  Did he start to have that awkward or nervous feeling like we can have?  He was human after all.  Or was he totally calm and maybe with a twinkle in his eye, asking them a question to get them thinking. 

Jesus was a questioner.  People have counted them, in fact.  Jesus asks 307 questions in the Gospels, and his practice can be very instructive for us.  Too often, we are declarers, sharing our opinions and making bold proclamations.  But what we see from Jesus is a consistent practice of question-asking.

The first words out of his mouth in the Gospel of John are a question.  That is not the case with Matthew and Mark, but it is also true in Luke’s account, in the story when his parents, Mary and Joseph, thought Jesus was lost in Jerusalem.  In a ball of nerves and fear, they rushed around searching for him, until finally they found in the temple having biblical and theological discussions with the religious leaders.  His mother, Mary, is hurt and shocked, probably also angry, and she asks him, “Why would you treat us like this?  Your father and I have anxiously been searching for you.”  A mother’s question and statement that we parents can resonate with.  Jesus, at 12 years old, looks at them and asks a question…well, actually two questions: “Why were you searching for me?…Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 

That is one of the most pre-teen questions ever.  “Mom, why are you freaking out? I’m fine!” 

Well, Jesus’ practice of questioning seems to have matured out of his teen years into an amazingly creative spiritual practice.  Think about that, the spiritual practice of questioning.  When we question, we show that we don’t have it all figured out, that we don’t view ourselves as dispensers of knowledge that everyone should bow and listen to.  Instead we humbly put ourselves in the posture of a learner, a listener who wants to know more about the people around them.  Asking questions builds relationships.  It is a practice that highlights the other.  It also shows us the genius of Jesus, because for most people interaction is a far better way to learn, than just listening to a lecture.  Questions create interaction.

In my opinion, there’s not much worse than the know-it-all, the talker who barely lets you get a word in edge-wise.  Interestingly enough, if there was any human person who might lay claim to being a bona fide know-it-all, it is Jesus.  But he did not behave that way. 

In Philippians 2, Paul writes that Jesus emptied himself of his divine right, privilege and power (at least to some degree) when he took on human flesh.  How much of the divine did Jesus give up to become human?  Scholars debate that.  We don’t know for sure.  But there are certainly times in the Gospel accounts where Jesus admits his limitations.  For example, when he is talking with his disciples about when he will return, they ask him point blank, “When will you return?”  Isn’t that the big question we all want to know, and that all Christians for 2000 years have wanted to know?

Jesus answers, “Only the Father knows that, not even the Son.  It is not for you to know, so be ready for my return at all times.”  Jesus didn’t know.  So we can make the case that his practice of asking questions was right in line with the limitations he imposed on himself when he became human.  In other words, Jesus sometimes asked questions because he didn’t know the answer, and his question was his attempt to learn the answer.  He took a serious, loving, caring interest in people, and the way to show it was to ask questions. 

Are you a question-asker?  If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ve heard me talk about my Old Testament professor in seminary, Dave Dorsey. Dorsey once said that when we are in a conversation, as much as possible, we should listen and ask questions 60% of the time, and talk 40%.  You might wonder, “Wait…talk 40%?  Didn’t you just say that Jesus was a questioner? Shouldn’t we listen or ask questions a whole lot more than 60%?” 

Dorsey made the wonderful point that a real relationship includes both give and take.  Both parties talk, and both parties listen.  If we, in our attempt to be humble and teachable, are just listening and asking questions all the time, or even most of the time, then we are enabling the other person to be a talker and a know-it-all.  So we should absolutely invest ourselves into the conversation as well. But in order to follow Jesus’ example of the spiritual practice of questioning, we would do well to emphasize questioning and listening, so go for that at a rate of 60%, Dorsey suggested.  Please don’t pull out your phone and start using the stopwatch and time your conversations.  But instead pay attention to yourself.  Keep a running tally in your mind: Am I talking too much?  Have I made any attempt to learn about the other person?

Discipleship begins and continues with the spiritual practice of questioning.

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

What is discipleship? – John 1:35-42, Part 1

Discipleship.  What is it, really?  Over the years we’ve talked a lot about discipleship, and there has been some confusion.  Some have equated evangelism with discipleship.  Evangelism is when we proclaim the story of Jesus in both word and deed.  Though related, discipleship is different.  When we are attempting to define discipleship, we are attempting to answer the question, “What did Jesus actually do to help people become his followers, so that they could take over his ministry, and make more disciples?” 

That is the calling of every Christian: we are to be disciple-makers.  As Jesus would eventually teach his disciples in Matthew 28:16-20, their calling was to “make disciples of all nations,” and that calling was passed on from disciple to disciple, year after year, so that it remains our calling 2000 years later. So what is a disciple-maker?

To be disciple-makers, we first need to be disciples.  What is a disciple?  Those are other questions that are related to my first question, what is discipleship?

For many years the evangelical church in our nation has emphasized educational opportunities as the answer for discipleship.  Go to a class.  Study a workbook.  Learn a program.  I think if you look across the evangelical landscape, you’ll find this method hasn’t worked out too well, in the sense that the evangelical church is in large part a declining mess wrapped up in celebrity worship and a desperate grab for political power, which are very unlike Jesus.

So how did Jesus make disciples?  Did Jesus have his disciples over to his house once a month and go over workbook questions?  Is that how he discipled them?  I’m not saying educational opportunities are bad.  I’ve given quite and lot of time and energy in my own life to lead people in educational opportunities. I believe that the educational approach to discipleship can be good, but that it also has its limitations. I’m concerned that we have placed our hopes in educational methods to create disciples, and I don’t think that’s what Jesus did.  So what did he do?

In the passage we’re studying this week, I think you’ll see we have a wonderful answer to those questions. Turn in your Bible to John chapter 1, verses 35-42.

In verse 35, we are right where we left off in verse 34, with John the Baptist.  It is the day after John has declared that a man, whom John called, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” was there where John was baptizing people in the Jordan River.  John gave a testimony about this man, saying that the Spirit of God came down upon the man.  In verse 29 the Gospel writer, the Apostle John, tells us that this man, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, this person upon whom the Holy Spirit rested, is Jesus.  Earlier in verse 17 we also learned that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, the savior of the world.  John goes on to say in verse 34 that not only is Jesus the Messiah, not only is he filled with the Spirit, but he is also Son of God.  What that means is John the Baptist has declared one of the earliest affirmations of not only the deity of Jesus, but also that God is three in one.  Father, Son, and Spirit.

Keep that in mind, because as we turn to verse 35, we learn something interesting.  A day has passed, and John the Baptist was at Bethany by the Jordan River, with two of his disciples.  Did you know that John the Baptist had disciples?  I tend to think of John as a lone ranger prophet in the desert, but no, he also had disciples.  As we learned last week, John’s ministry was to be the forerunner for the Messiah, and yet there were people who began following John. How will John handle this? Does he want to be a person with disciples? Will there be a competition between him and Jesus to see whose ministry will have the most success? 

No. In verse 36, we see John committed to his role again.  John sees Jesus, and like he did the day before, he calls out, “Look, the Lamb of God.”  John remains faithful to his prophetic mission, to prepare the way to the Messiah, pointing people to the Messiah. John doesn’t want the glory. He wants to give glory to Jesus.

This will have significant ramifications for John.  How so?  We’ll find out as we keep studying this passage in the next post.

Photo by Small Group Network on Unsplash

Who do you follow? – John 1:35-42, Preview

Who do you follow?

If you have social media accounts, you might follow people or organizations on those accounts.  When you follow people or groups on social media, you receive their updates in your news feed.  Your following is informational. 

But perhaps your following of close family and friends, and of some organizations, is more than just learning information about them.  When it comes to your family and friends, you also participate in their lives.  When it comes to an organization you believe it, you might donate financial gifts or volunteer in its programs. 

So there are different levels of following.  One level might require very little investment on our part, while other levels might require significant investment.  Many organizations, in fact, have names for their levels of followership.  You might be a platinum member or a silver member, for example.  There are entry-level commitments and there are senior-level commitments.  One level might require checking a box that says you just want to receive a free monthly newsletter.  Another level might require a serious financial buy-in, opening the door for you to experience exclusive benefits and opportunities.

What I have just described is how many businesses or clubs work.  But what about God?  Are there levels with God?  Is he okay if we all we do is make an entry-level commitment to him?  Is there such a thing as an entry-level commitment?  What does it mean to follow him?

We’re continuing our study through the Gospel of John, next continuing chapter 1, and what we’ll discover are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth.  See for yourself in John 1:35-42.  Jesus’ first words are all about what it means to follow him, and you just might find what he says to be shocking.

I invite you to join us on the blog next week to find out.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

John the Baptist’s mystery friend, and why we need prophets in our lives – John 1:19-34, Part 5

In John 1:19-34, John the Baptist makes a surprising statement that there was someone alive right there, nearby, perhaps even in the crowd that day as John was baptizing people by the Jordan River, someone of whom John is not worthy even to untie his sandals.  Untie sandals…what’s that matter?  In John’s culture, that was a very lowly job only a servant was supposed to do.  John is saying that even though he, John, has a prophetic ministry that thousands of people were flocking to, John is inferior to this other person. Who is John talking about? You can imagine the people in the crowd looking around wondering who John is referring to. Had the king shown up? The Roman governor? The high priest? No. John allows his alarming comment to pass without explanation, and he continues baptizing people.

The next day, John sees him, this other person, and John cries out, “Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The lamb of God?  What is that?  For the people in the crowd there by the Jordan River the Lamb of God that takes away sins is an image they were very familiar with.  In the Mosaic Law the sacrificial system laid out clear instructions for how an animal could be sacrificed and atone for the sins of the people.  But John puts a twist on it, saying that he, John, just saw the Lamb of God which will take away the sins of the world!  Again, John is being a bit mysterious?  The people, as they were the previous day, are wondering who John is talking about.

Thankfully, John tells them who the Lamb of God is, but he tells them in the darndest way.

John actually mentioned this in what we read last week, but last week we didn’t talk about it.  Look at what John says in John 1, verse 15.  Then notice how John repeats it in verse 30.  The repeated phrase is a bit of a riddle, but it is important in establishing the identity of the Lamb of God. Here’s the riddle: “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” Huh? What does John me?

John is preparing the way for someone who comes after him.  But there’s more John says.  This man surpasses John, is greater than John.  Why? Because actually, the man was before John.  How is the possible? A man who comes after John, surpasses John, because he is before John.  Did the people get riddle?  Did the people understand the connection between that person and the Lamb of God?  Probably not.  But you and I know, the Lamb of God is Jesus, who would go on to give his life as a sacrifice for sin.

Interestingly John says he did not know the Lamb of God.  You might ask, “Wait, didn’t John know Jesus?  Weren’t they relatives? Cousins, maybe?”  Yes, there was a family connection, before they were born, which we read about in Luke.  But that’s all we know.  30 years of in-between time goes by without any information about their relationship.  Here along the Jordan River as John is baptizing, he is saying, “I did not know in advance who the Lamb of God was going be.  I just fulfilled the prophetic duty God had given me.”  That prophetic duty was to speak the truth to the people, that there was sin in their lives, that they needed to turn to God, because the promised Messiah was coming.  So, then, how did John know that his relative was the promised one?  John tells us.

In verses 32-34 John tells us that he saw the Spirit come down from heaven and remain on this person, and that was the sign that God said John should look for.  God had previously spoken to John, telling John what to look for, and John was listening.  John should look, God said, for the one on whom the Spirit remains, and that person is the Son of God.  And what’s more, that person will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of John is filled with testimony about who Jesus is, and here in John 1:19-34, we have just heard John the Baptist serve as the first witness.  John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the son of God, because on Jesus the Spirit of God dwelt. John was a prophet who prepared the way for Jesus.  John declared the truth about people’s lives so that they might be ready for Jesus. 

That is why we need prophets.  Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:11-12, that God called some to be Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers to build up the church.  Prophets are the people who speak the truth, in love, about the situation of God’s people.  Prophets call us towards hope, to Jesus, towards change for goodness and justice.  That means the prophetic task is often very difficult.  People generally don’t want to hear the truth about their lives, unless it is totally good.  But we humans are not often totally good, are we? 

We need people with the prophetic gift to speak the truth about ourselves to us.  A prophet is a gift from God, given to a group of people for a time.  A prophet brings us another chance for change, growth and connecting to God. That’s why we need prophets in the church.  Prophets are truth-tellers, pointing out the hypocrisy and sinfulness in our lives, not so that the prophets might get glory and honor and disciples, but so that Jesus might get glory and honor and disciples. 

Invite prophets into your life.  Invite people to speak truth to you, pushing you to greater faith in and faithfulness to Jesus.  Invite them to push you in love and hope towards living more and more of the heart of God in your everyday life.

Photo by Luis Morera on Unsplash

John the Baptist’s testy interaction with the religious establishment – John 1:19-34, Part 4

Because John the Baptist said the darndest things, you can imagine it did not sit well with the religious leaders, especially when he called them snakes.  And that brings us back to the passage we are studying this week: John 1:19-34. We learn in John 1:19 that the religious elite back at their HQ in Jerusalem heard about this Elijah-like prophet baptizing people in the Jordan River, in the wilderness, so they dispatch some of their underlings to go out and see what John was all about.

Look at verse 20.  The underlings ask John, “Are you the Christ?,” which is another way of saying, are you the Messiah?  Are you the savior of Israel?  John says, “I am not.”

So in verse 21, they ask him, “Are you Elijah?”  It sure seemed like it, as we learned in the previous post.  But that would be weird, right?  Elijah come back to life 1000 years later?  I think the agents asked this with a sneer, just salivating in the hope that he would say “Yes” because he was dressing and acting like Elijah.  Then when he said, “Yes, I am Elijah,” they were tear him down verbally because that is ridiculous.  People dead 1000 years don’t come back to life.  But John answered, “No.”

So then in verse 21, they ask, “Are you The Prophet?”  Notice that they did not ask, “Are you A prophet,” but they asked John, “Are you THE Prophet”.  What are they talking about?  Is there some special prophet that was supposed to show up?  Yes, there was.  In Deuteronomy 18, which I wrote about here, Moses told the people that a prophet would come, a prophet like him to lead the people.  So there was, in the thinking of some, the idea that a great prophet like Moses would rise up and lead the people.  Was this just another way of talking about the Messiah?  Or was this a person that had already appeared in the Old Testament, say a Samuel or Elijah?  We don’t know.  But it doesn’t matter because John clears it up.  Nope, he says, he is not the prophet.

So in verse 22, it seems the agents from the religious establishment are getting frustrated, “Just tell us who you are.”  They have to report back to their superiors at HQ in Jerusalem, and so far John has given them nothing. 

John replies in verse 23 by quoting the ancient prophet Isaiah.  Actually he shortens Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3 to, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’.”  Again, John connects himself to the Jewish peoples’ prophetic desert tradition.  Specifically, he is saying, “I am not the Messiah, but instead I am one who is calling people to prepare for the Messiah who is coming.”  John’s ministry was one of telling people to get ready for the Messiah by confessing their sins, turning away from a life of sin, and pursuing God’s heart of love and justice.  Then the people would be baptized as a sign to all that they had washed away their old life of sin, and they were now pursuing their new life of following God. 

John, in other words, was right in line with the prophets of old who spoke bold truth to people about how their lives were out of line with heart of God. 

Notice in verse 24 that the agents of the religious establishment ask John why he baptizes, considering the fact that he has already told them he is not the messiah, Elijah or the prophet.  John’s response again points to his mission, his purpose.  He is the forerunner, preparing the way for someone else.

Who is that someone else? We’ll find out in the next post.

Was John the Baptist a wild man? – John 1:19-34, Part 3

Did John really go wild? In the previous post, I mentioned that much artwork depicting John the Baptist has him looking like a caveman.  Why? 

Because in Matthew 3:4 we read this about John, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” 

Clothes made out of camel’s hair?  What would that even be like?  Google it, and you might be surprised that there’s a whole camel hair clothing industry, and perhaps John wore a garment that wasn’t so wild as it first seems.  Actually camel’s hair clothing can be quite soft.  Camel’s hair, being so accessible in the ancient near east, was often used for clothing.

But there seems to be another reason John had this clothing, one that was not at all wild like a caveman.  In 2 Kings 1:8, we read this: “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.”  That’s the same description as John the Baptist’s clothing, except 2 Kings 1:8 was talking about a man who lived nearly 1000 years before John the Baptist.  That man was the famous prophet Elijah, and he wasn’t a caveman either.  Instead, the symbolism was very clear.  John the Baptist was purposefully dressing in the same style as Elijah. 

If you’re wondering “Wouldn’t that style have gone out of fashion in 1000 years?” the answer is almost certainly No.  You and I are used to fashion trends changing wildly year to year and season to season.  Especially decade to decade and century to century.  Not so in biblical times.  In fact, there are some nomadic peoples that still wear ancient clothing styles in our day.  Certainly there were changes and innovations over time, but a basic camel’s hair cloak was common for centuries. Some scholars suspect that many people would have worn them.

So what about eating locusts?  That seems wild.  Eating bugs?  When my wife took groups to Cambodia they purchased fried and seasoned bugs of many varieties, and team members would try them!  There is scholarly debate about what John’s diet of bugs and honey could mean, but the majority opinion is that it was rather wild.  Honey is delicious, so maybe he soaked the bugs in honey?  Either way, John was cultivating a prophetic aura.  He wanted people to make the connection between himself and the great prophet of history, Elijah. 

Even his choice of living in and ministering in the desert or wilderness had prophetic overtones, as the prophet Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness.  It seems the people centuries later in John’s day made the connection.  Matthew tells us in Matthew 3:5-6 that, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

Let’s talk about the prophetic role a moment.  We tend to think of prophets as people who give messages from God about the future.  But that’s more rare in the biblical view than what you might think.  Instead, most prophecy is in the category of “If-Then” prophecy, and it still has a relationship to the future.  If you don’t stop sinning, then your future will not be good.  If you turn from your sinful way, then your future will be good.

Instead of telling the future, prophets tended to tell the truth about what people were doing now.  Remember our study through Ezekiel?  All his skits and dreams and really weird behavior?  All of that was primarily a very creative way that God was trying to get his people’s attention about their current behavior.  Almost always, the message was “You are sinning!  Stop it, return to me, or you will face the consequences.” 

God’s prophets were very clear indications of God’s desperate love for his people.  God, through his prophets, attempts to intervene, pleading with the people to return to him.  John was in that line of prophets, calling the people back to God.  But John’s prophetic ministry had a unique twist.  He was the forerunner. 

Turn to Malachi 4:5 and 6, the very last words of the Old Testament.   “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”

That ancient prophecy was yet another reason why John is cultivating his image to be like the return of Elijah. But this Elijah 2.0 had the responsibility of preparing the people for the Lord.

How did John accomplish that ministry. It depends. The crowds of peasants seemed to adore him, flocking to him to be baptized.  They loved John’s preaching because he was not afraid to tell the truth about the nation. 

But there were some other people who didn’t seem to have a good impression. Why? John was bold.  Prophets like Elijah and John are often bold in speaking God’s truth.  John called out hypocrisy, injustice, and sin.  John said the darndest things.  For example, in Matthew 3, listen to what John says,

“He saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Did you hear that?  John called the religious leaders, snakes! But there’s more. Another time John confronted King Herod.  We read in Matthew 14:3-5,

“Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.” 

Though the people loved John, not long after the episode above, Herod had John killed, and that means John’s prophetic ministry lasted likely only a few months until Jesus came on the scene. During those months, John’s primary ministry was calling the people to repent of their sins and be baptized.  Because he said the darndest things, John’s message did not sit well with the religious or political leaders.

In fact, as we return to John 1:19-34, we’ll learn more about the religious leaders’ concerns about John in the next post.

Photo by Moritz Bruder on Unsplash

The backstory of John the Baptist – John 1:19-34, Part 2

Who was John the Baptist? In this post we begin to learn the backstory of John the Baptist. While our current blog series is studying the Gospel of John, and while this week we are learning about John 1:19-34, to get the backstory of John the Baptist, we need to turn elsewhere. The full account starts in Luke chapter 1, verse 5.  Let me summarize it.

In first century Palestine, living near Jerusalem, a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were very godly Jews, but they were unable to have children.  In their old age, God blessed them by telling them they were miraculously going to have a son.  God told them to name their son, “John.”  God said John was going to grow up to be a great prophet like the prophet Elijah, calling people to return to the Lord.  Specifically, God says in verse 17, that their son’s prophetic ministry and purpose was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 

John is going to be a prophet.  What is a prophet?  A prophet is one who hears from God and the speaks the word of God, most often by calling out sin and directing people to repent of their sin and place their hope in God.

Skip ahead to Luke 1, verse 57, and there we read about John’s birth, and we learn more about John being a prophet.  Notice, particularly, verses 76-80.  In directing you to read verse 76, I am jumping right into the middle of what is called “Zechariah’s Song.”  John’s dad, filled with the Holy Spirit, writes this prophetic song, which says some amazing things about John.  In particular notice what Zechariah sings about John in verses 76-79,

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

How many of you fathers prophesied over your sons like that?  My guess is that it is not too many.  But remember that Zechariah is filled with the Spirit, so God is at work in his life.  For 2000 years of church history, we Christian are accustomed to the idea of Christians being the temple of the Spirit, that somehow or another the Spirit lives with us.  But in the Jewish mindset of Zechariah’s day, that simply was not an expectation for people.  Maybe a King David would be filled with the Spirit, maybe a Prophet like Ezekiel, as you might remember that in our blog series studying through Ezekiel.  In the world of the Old Testament, though, only the rare, rare person would encounter the Spirit like that.  Not even a priest like Zechariah would expect this. 

But the Spirit showed up in Zechariah’s life, God did an amazing work, speaking a mission over the life of Zechariah’s newborn baby.  What mission?  John was to be the forerunner, the one who goes ahead and prepares the way for God who would come.  John’s prophetic ministry, in other words, was to pave the way for another person’s ministry, by speaking truth to the people and the powers, directing them to repent and place their hope in God. 

In verse 80, we read simply that John grew, became strong in spirit, and lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.  What?  He grew, became strong in spirit and lived in the desert?  There is so much missing in that verse. I have so many questions: 

  1. Considering the fact that his parents were elderly when he was born, how long did they live after he was born? Likely not 30 years.
  2. Given that Jesus was about 30 when he started his ministry, and given that Jesus was born a few months after John, that means John was also about 30 when he started his ministry.  If we make an educated guess that his parents died before John was 30, and if they died when he was still a boy, who raised him?
  3. Did he study to enter the priesthood like his father?
  4. When did he begin living in the desert?  Was he all on his own?  How long was in the desert?  What was it like living in the desert? 
  5. When did he know that he was to have this forerunner ministry?

We simply don’t know what happened in those intervening years.  All we know is that John was born under some amazing circumstances, he had quite the calling on his life, and in 30 years time he was shaped by and grew strong in Spirit. 

Also, he seems to have gone a bit wild.  Or at least it seems that way at first glance.  Frankly, much artwork depicting John the Baptist has him looking like a Fred Flintstone caveman.  Why? Check back to the next post, and we’ll learn more about John’s life story. 

The Prophet who said the darndest things – John 1:19-34, Part 1

The TV Show Kids Say the Darndest Things has been on the air for decades.  The title of the show uses the word “darndest,” and that’s a catchy title, but what is the title really getting at? Well, take a look:

The word “darndest” is getting at the fact that kids have that wonderful quality of telling it like they see it.  They speak the truth as they see it.  Certainly kids can lie too.  We parents and grandparents know about that.  But when they are not trying to avoid getting punished for doing something bad, kids will usually tell the truth, as they see it.  There is a wonderful innocence about kids, in how they just put it out there. 

Earlier this week, my son in college texted our family group chat saying that in one of his classes that day he had learned that 1 + 1 = 1.  If you ask a kid what 1 + 1 equals, they will eagerly tell you “2”.  But something happens as we age, as we gain some experience in the world, as we learn about the complexity of relationships, and the reality of pain and loss.  What once appeared so simple, so clear, can become more complex or confusing. 

Case in point; 1 + 1 can equal 1, in the world of Boolean algebra, which is what my son is learning in one of his college classes.  I’m not going to even begin to attempt to explain Boolean algebra.  (Interested readers can learn how 1 + 1 = 1 here.) My point is that we can age out of that child-like truthfulness and clarity, in our good and helpful attempt to have a more nuanced view of our complex world. But we can go so far that we can lost in the weeds. 

Have you ever known a person who is an over-analyzer?  Maybe that is you.  The person who evaluates seemingly endlessly, trying to cover all their bases, and all the what-ifs, and they can have a very hard time landing the plane, making a decision, or speaking clearly.  My wife, rightly, tells me “Joel, you’re being vague.  You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and so you are being so vague that they don’t know what you are talking about.  You need to be straight with people.  Certainly with gracious kindness.  But clear.  Simple.  Direct.”  Kind of like the kids who say the darndest things. 

This week we’re going to meet a rare adult who spoke boldly, clearly, and directly.  A prophet named John, and we’re going to learn that he said the darndest things.  We met him last week, briefly, but this week in our continuing study of the Gospel of John we’re going to focus on this prophet John.  Let me try to be clear right now.  I just mentioned the name John twice.  The Gospel of John and the prophet John.  Those are two different men, both who have the name John.  The Gospel of John was written by one of Jesus’ disciples, who we call the Apostle John.  But every time the Gospel of John mentions a man named John, it is talking about John the Prophet, or as you and I more familiarly call him, John the Baptist. 

Please open your Bibles to John 1:19 and read verses 19-28 all about John the Baptist.

In verse 19, we read that John was giving a testimony.  In the Gospel of John, we are going to hear numerous times about people giving testimony, and today we have the first person.  A testimony is given by a witness, by someone who saw something and now they are telling us what they saw.  John saw something amazing, and he is going to talk about it.

Before we go any further in verse 19, let’s travel down a little sidetrack to learn more about John the Baptist.  Like I mentioned, we met John last week.  If you glance back at verse 6, you read, “There came a man sent from God; his name was John.”

But that doesn’t tell us all that much about John.  Where did he come from?  If he was sent from God, it sure sounds like he was basically the same as Jesus.  Was John the Messiah?  As we heard in the reading, there were plenty of people, including the religious leaders in Jewish society who wanted to know who he was. 

Check back to the next past as we learn the backstory of John the Baptist.

Prophets who don’t know how to be prophets – John 1:19-34, Preview

Are there still prophets in the world today? 

No doubt there are people who claim to be prophets.  Do you remember Harold Camping of the Family Radio Network?  He predicted Jesus was returning in 1994.  When Jesus did not return that year, Camping went on to predict Jesus would return in May 2011.  In fact, Camping launched a $100 million ad campaign using the slogan “Judgment Day May 21: The Bible guarantees it.”  Thousands of families joined him, some to the point of selling their homes and donating their fortunes to the cause.

May 21, 2011, came and went, but Jesus didn’t return.  Do you know how Camping handled his clear mistake?  He said that Jesus did come back, but that it had been only a “spiritual coming.” He then made another prediction, that Jesus was now going to return on October 21st of that year.  But this time Camping said Jesus’ return, “won’t be spiritual…The world is going to be destroyed altogether, but it will be very quick.”

Guess what happened on October 21st, 2011?  Nothing. 

Well, actually, something did happen.  People were very angry, and some sued Camping and Family Radio for fraud.  Donations to Camping’s ministry dropped way off, and in March 2012 Religion News Service reported, “Camping, called his erroneous prediction that the world would end last May 21 an ‘incorrect and sinful statement’ and said his ministry is out of the prediction business.”  Camping passed away later that year, personally and professionally never recovering from his disgrace.

The problem with Camping’s approach to prophecy, and that of many contemporary prophets, is that they tend to focus on predicting the future.  Before, during and after the 2020 Presidential Election, for example, numerous so-called prophets made false predictions about the election’s outcome.  What they misunderstand is the actual role of the prophet.  Only rarely in Scripture does God give a person supernatural insight into the future.  Instead, prophets have a different and important role.  We’re going to meet one of those prophets in our continuing study of the Gospel of John.  That prophet’s name is also John, John the Baptist.  Jesus once called him the greatest prophet, and yet, John was not in the business of predicting the future.  Instead, John is one in a long line of godly prophets, prophets that are still around today, believe it or not.  In fact, you just might have prophets in your own church family.  And we need them.

What am I talking about?  I invite you to join me on the blog next week to find out. 

The problem and solution of God’s invisibility – John 1:1-18, Part 5

How many of you wish that God were visible?  How many of you wish that you could just have a little miracle of Jesus showing up at your doorstep to give you some reassurance that he is right there?  How many of you look back at some of the miracles recorded in the Bible and think to yourself, “What I wouldn’t give to be there and see that?”  Or even better, you read about the disciples who got to walk and talk with Jesus, see the miracles and hear him teach, and you think to yourself, “That would be awesome.  That would help me so much.”

In our private times, perhaps in the shelter of our own hearts and minds, we wonder sometimes about the existence of God.  His invisibility can cause us great concern can’t it?  If we’re all honest, we’ve would admit that we have these thoughts. 

And yet, as John will report to us in John 20:29, Jesus said to Thomas who doubted his resurrection, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”  So there is a blessing to not seeing, yet we want so badly to see and touch Jesus.  John in his letter of 1st John, takes this idea of the longing for seeing God and finds an amazing solution. 

We’ve been learning in our study this week of John 1:1-18 that Jesus is God in the flesh. The concept of Jesus as God in the flesh, we learned in the previous post, is called The Incarnation. Surprisingly, Jesus taught his disciples to incarnate him to the rest of the world.  We are to be like Jesus in the skin, to the rest of the world. Because Jesus is God to us, we must become Jesus to the people in our sphere of influence: neighbors, co-workers, classmates, friends, and family, just as we studied recently in our Relationships series.

In his letter called 1st John there is a section where John explains how this works so powerfully.  Turn to 1st John 4:12.  There John says that no one has seen God.  He is invisible, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.  Now scan over to verse 16 where he explains this even further: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” 

In this passage, two verbs are repeated numerous times.  Loves and Lives.  What John is trying to communicate here is the amazing idea that though we can’t physically walk and talk with Jesus, Jesus’ spirit, God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit lives in us.  Remember how in John 1:14 John writes that Jesus made his dwelling among us, tabernacled with us?  Dwell on that thought for a moment.  The Holy Spirit is with you.  He isn’t pushy or forceful.  You choose to remember, to interact with Jesus, with the Spirit, with God.  You choose to allow him to fill your life and grow his fruit in your life.

We now examine how John describes this in 1st John 4:13, “We know that we live in him and he in us because he has given us of his Spirit.”  God lives in us.  And when we live in love, we live in God.  Whenever we live in love, we live in God.  The word John uses for living is about abiding, residing.  It is a fixed state of remaining together.  And when we love one another, God resides in us.  When we love one another we show that God is actually in us.  When we love one another we show that God is real.  When we love one another we are incarnating God.  We are making God appear in the flesh all over again, by showing love to one another. 

This teaching is very similar to the Fruit of the Spirit that we studied a couple months ago.  When we walk in step with the Spirit, the Spirit grows his fruit in us.  We overflow with the love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, faithfulness and self-control of the Spirit; we incarnate God to the people around us.  We are not God.  But God is at work in us.  Not in the same way as Jesus was God in the skin, of course.  But God is at work in us, and through us.

Is it possible that people long for an appearance of God or a miracle because so many Christians have not practiced this principle of loving one another?  What are we evangelical Christians are known for?  We are anti-abortion, we are anti-homosexuality, we are anti-same sex marriage, etc.  But are we known for our love?  In the early church, one historian noted that “Oh how they loved one another.”  Are we known for sacrificial life-giving care for those we interact with?

In Jesus, God shows his great love for humanity by becoming human.  What a vulnerable, humble, sacrificial, beautiful act.  That reminds us of our mandate to give that same love to all humanity.  What we call the incarnation, God in the skin, must continue through us to the people around us! 

Photo by Tolu Olarewaju on Unsplash