A Closer Look at John 3.16 (part 2)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish…

This passage is found near the conclusion of a larger conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that is recorded in John 3. Nicodemus comes at night and begins by complimenting Jesus – we know you are teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him (John 3.2).  Jesus ignores the praise because he understands the real intention of Nicodemus’ comment.   Nicodemus came to him speaking generally about the miracles, but hidden beneath was a personal interest in the Messianic kingdom and his own place in it.  Here was a man who was thinking deeply about himself, wondering how he, himself, might enter into God’s kingdom.  This is why Jesus replies, “ I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again … I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” As a Pharisee, Nicodemus probably understood that Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) needed to be “born again,” but it staggered his mind to think that something similar had to happen to himself, a Jew. The Jewish ceremony for a Gentile entering Judaism  proclaimed the individual “like a child born new.”  Jesus is saying in effect, Jews like yourself must realize that your pedigree and lineage are irrelevant in the sight of God. You must treat yourselves the same way you treat Gentiles who want to become Jews. You insist that they renounce their past, be circumcised and be ceremonially washed in water. But you are farther from the Kingdom of God than you think a Gentile is from Judaism. You, yourself, must be ‘born again’.”  Nicodemus wonders, Wasn’t he a child of Abraham by virtue of his Jewish mother? How could he become any more Jewish than he was through his mother? He was bewildered by Jesus’ instruction but he was beginning to understand now.

Nicodemus was a man who had a lot going for himself. He was a man of the Pharisees, a highly venerated and noble strain of Judaism who had refused to compromise their religion. It seems, though, that he was dissatisfied by what he was he was hearing about Jesus and so he resolved to look into things for himself. Perhaps his example is a useful lesson for us. When we are dissatisfied with what the world tells us about Jesus and we want to listen to him for ourselves, that is a very helpful and hopeful state of mind to be in!

A Closer Look at John 3.16 (part 1)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

What must we believe? …whoever believes in him. It is not “whoever believes in whatever.” We are called to believe in the One and Only, Jesus Christ.  The One begotten by God, not some idea  “begotten” by us or made up in our minds.  The term “begotten” or “one and only” distinguishes him from anything else, any other idea, or any other creature in all of creation. He was not created by God. He was “begotten” and therefore the same in substance and being, eternally of and from the Father – “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1.3).” As a Christian, I do not simply believe that Jesus is one possibility among many, but the One and Only. God has completely and only shown us himself in Jesus Christ. To know Jesus is to actually know God.

What world did God love? God so loved the world.  He has loved this world, our world, completely,  just as it is. The term used is “kosmos.” This term is not used  in the Bible to describe the world that is to come, but this world just as it is. This is the world, as we know it and experience it, all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly – spinning around helpless and hopeless.  It is the term that describes the world estranged from its Creator in all the darkness and dreariness of sin. The use of this term to describe the world hints at the unconditional nature of God’s love. Neither the world nor we need to be changed or made presentable to solicit his love. Not only we, but the world can sing- just as I am …

Why the past tense? God so loved the world. Why does the Bible describe the love of God this way? Why not the present tense – “God loves the world”? Because not only has God completely shown us himself, but he has completely shown us his love. In 1John 4.7-11 we read, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. In Romans 8.37 Paul says of all that life and death can throw at us …in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. We should dwell on this for a moment. The point of the past tense seems to be that God has fully proven his love, and nothing remains for him to do in this regard.  There is absolutely nothing more for him to show or do with regards to the reality of his love, and so there should be no doubt about it!

The Gospel According to the Life of Joseph (3)

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me …I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here. Genesis 45.4-5

Joseph’s story culminates in a way that demonstrates the importance of repentance on the part of his brothers and his revelation of himself to them and the great love that motivates him to finally do this. In 43.33-34, he tests his brothers, to find out how they feel about Benjamin. Is his younger brother treated by them the same way he was? Everything he does- the test his brothers must undergo regarding Benjamin (42.15), the seating arrangements (43.33), the huge portion of food (43.34), the personal cup hidden and discovered in Benjamin’s sack (44.12) – it is all done to uncover what the attitude of these brothers is towards the young boy. Joseph seems to be asking in all of this, Are my brothers the same or are they changed? Are they jealous of Benjamin? Will they sentence him to slavery as they did me? So they undergo these tests devised by Joseph to find out what they are like and to finally bring them before him.

When the cup is discovered, Judah speaks for all of them, What can we say to my lord? … What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servant’s guilt. (44.16) The “guilt” includes what they had done to their brother Joseph. Judah understands what they did to Joseph is being brought out in these events as indicated earlier in 42.21 –  They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that is why this distress has come upon us. Judah now casts himself upon the mercy of one he does not even really know yet- …please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in the place of the boy (44.33). Joseph’s identity is not revealed to his brothers, he is not known by them until he is certain about the state of their hearts toward Benjamin. Finally, he invites them, Come close to me!

What a marvelous invitation. Our own experience of God’s revelation of himself to us not only begins but deepens with the realization that we are guilty beyond any remedy we have in ourselves. What is God showing me about myself that is unpleasant and ugly and displeasing to him? How can I deal with it without becoming depressed and despairing? Like Joseph’s brothers I need to cast myself on the mercy of the One I am only beginning to know. Repentance is a turning, a turning away from sin and a turning towards God and his grace. Perhaps, a deepening experience of Christ awaits me.   Acts 2.21 promises that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We are to call upon on Christ to save us from the penalty of sin.  I need to keep on doing this! Faith and repentance are both gifts from God. But faith describes a gift to rest upon God, whereas repentance describes being turned more fully toward God. Whenever we uncover the truth about ourselves we can discover more and more how much we can trust in Christ! 1 John 1.8-9 tells us that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Grace, John Newton says in his great hymn, taught my heart to fear, and grace, my fears, relieved. Grace teaches us that we are guilty but that our “Joseph” desires to forgive us!  And such a revelation should chase away the self-loathing I feel in the face of my sin, and bring a new experience of peace and joy. All is well! A greater-than-Joseph has invited me to come closer, and put away the distress and anger in my heart that has smothered the flames of his unfailing love.

The Gospel According to the Life of Joseph (2)

The Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor…   Genesis 39.21

The term, “favor,” from which we also get our New Testament word, “grace,” describes the stronger coming to the help of the weaker or aiding the weaker. It is the result of the special intervention of God who supplies grace to the weak.  It was  “while Joseph was there in prison” that he received God’s favor. Just as Paul tells the Ephesians you were dead in your transgressions and sins ..but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ,  … God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace/favor, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ. For it is by grace you have been saved through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works so that no one can boast. Eph.2.6-9

Joseph’s life is summarized by his father in Gen.49.22 – With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. His own dysfunctional family betrayed him and sold him into slavery, and then he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and wrongly imprisoned. The devil, the flesh, and the world let its arrows go on Joseph. But such trials and temptations, woes and worries, life in all of its worldliness and wackiness, did not stop him. In the end, he was the rescuer of his people just as his dreams foretold.

Joseph, in this regard, foreshadows Christ. Jesus was the innocent One betrayed, broken by us and for us on the cross of suffering and yet he used his new resurrection position of exalted Lord to save us all from the penalty of our sins just as Joseph would save his family from starvation and extinction. The threefold pattern of Joseph’s life mirrors Christ’s own story of obedience, humiliation, and exaltation, and it is a pattern for us, too. In Joseph’s life, perhaps more than anywhere else in the Bible,  we see what life influenced by the grace of God can be like.

Obedience Where God’s favor rests/ where his grace is poured out, there will be obedience. In the preceding narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, like the narratives of our own lives, we see people repeatedly fall short of God’s expectations and promises, though, of course they continued to have faith in God, but here in the story of Joseph, at last, we meet someone who is filled to the brim with a sense of God’s love and grace, and shows me, shows you, what we are capable of – there is no room in his heart for Potiphar’s wife – How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? His story encourages us in our own failures that resistance to sin and obedience to God is not beyond our grasp, and our young people should especially take heart that in the highly sexualized culture of today, with the favor of God they can stand for the truth as Joseph did, as Paul says in Titus 2 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing 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. Joseph shows us the possibilities for such a life guided by grace.

Humiliation When we are favored by God there will also be humiliation. Joseph’s life shows us that doing the right thing will often cause you trouble. First Peter 4 says do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 

This is important to remember when you are going through trials and troubles that are really not your fault. Sometimes (most of the time?) I bring my troubles on myself, but sometimes there are circumstances or people, over which I have no control. Your troubles may be the fault of your boss or your husband or your wife or your children, or some stupid law or regulation, and you have to suffer. But if we have decided to suffer in a Christ-like way, it may mean we have to bear it as did Joseph, as did Jesus.  Not all suffering as a Christian will be like this, but if God’s favor is upon us, we know there will be suffering and humiliation. It is an essential part of the pattern of a Christ, the pattern of Joseph, the pattern of all who commit themselves to their God.

Exaltation We know that the humiliation of Joseph does not last indefinitely, nor did Jesus’ nor will ours. Because with God’s favor is upon us there will be “exaltation” – a “lifting up” or “raising up.” Joseph accepted his humiliation and bore it well. He is the pattern.   Peter says, humble yourselves, therefore under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety upon him because he cares for you. The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To him be power for ever and ever.

Obedience, humiliation, and, finally, exaltation.  That is the pattern of Joseph’s life and the pattern of Jesus’ life and our life with him. The world  may be thick with arrows, but Christ’s blood is thicker still. It is not about our own strength but about Him. We can sing with the Psalmist, The Lord will perfect that which concerns me (Ps.138.8). God’s favor was on Joseph, and even more so on the greater-than-Joseph, Jesus, our Savior, who bore the arrows for us that so that we could be raised up to walk in new life with him.

The Gospel According to the Life of Joseph (1)

Joseph is a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall. Genesis 49.22. Though his father, Israel (a.k.a Jacob)  uses the term “wall” figuratively, if you know the story of Joseph, you will know that he spent some long hours surrounded by walls, walls that must have made his heart sink. There were the walls of a deep well where his brothers threw him and left him to die, the walls of slavehouses where he was held until the day he sold to Potiphar, and the walls of the deep dungeons of the Egyptian prison. But he grew up and over them all! His father’s poetic blessing expresses his admiration of Joseph’s courage and also a prophetic declaration.

Joseph’s ability to overcome so much hardship in his life prefigures the overcoming power and courage that is ours when we trust Christ, just as Joseph trusted in God. The Apostle Paul’s prayer from Colossians 1.9-11  reminds us of the purpose and plan in our life. He asks God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God being strengthened with all power according to according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience. We are to be filled with the knowledge of his will but there is more. We are not simply to be filled, but there is a purpose- that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work. 

What are the walls that surround me today? I’m looking up at them and thinking: God, I’ll never make it. How about you? Is there is something you cannot get over? A setback that you have suffered? Circumstances that have become monolithic, a massive wall that you cannot climb? Is there someone whose heart has hardened toward you, as Joseph’s brothers were hardened against him?  Whatever the obstacles, these are the “walls” – hardships we will find the courage and grace to get over, to grow over, as we grow up in Christ.

Eyewitnesses of His Majesty

Is Christianity real or just a helpful myth? Is it just another way to help people cope with life and become better people? 2 Peter 1.16-18  answers this question:

…we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

The Apostle Peter wanted his readers, and he wants us to know, that whatever the psychological benefits or explanations that one may give for the existence of Christianity, these things really did happen in history, in time and in space. He himself witnessed these things with his own eyes, ears, and heart.

In his book, Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud, described what he believed to be the psychological foundation for believing in a God. It begins in early childhood. We experience feelings of helplessness. This long drawn out helplessness causes us to want the protection of our parents. These feelings carry over into our adulthood where we find ourselves confronted by the great forces of life. Freud writes, “He knows to be sure that he is in possession of greater strength, but his insight into the perils of life has also grown greater, and he rightly concludes that fundamentally he still remains just as helpless and unprotected as he was in his childhood, that faced by the world he is still a child.” Thus “he cannot do without the protection which he enjoyed as a child. …He exalts the image [of the father] into a deity and makes it into something contemporary and real.”  In Freud’s thinking God is an idea we create to answer to our need for parental protection. He is simply an exalted father and this explains why young people lose their religious beliefs as soon as their father’s authority breaks down.

There is much about which Sigmon Freud was right in his description of the unconscious process of transference- a tendency to displace feelings from authority figures  in our childhood onto those in the present, thus distorting and causing conflict with present authority. These ideas has been proven helpful in clinical work.  But what Freud never acknowledged was the possibility that he himself might be suffering from how much he had distorted the Ultimate Authority. He did not consider that his own view of God was not based on the God of history and Christianity, but his own neurotic distortion.

Regarding the false teachers of Peter’s time, some were frauds, others might have been the Freuds of their time. They rejected the truth and replaced it with their own ideas. But Peter and his fellow apostles saw and heard the truth so that whatever neurosis we might have to suffer on this earth, we might not suffer the ultimate distortion of God.  Christ’s power to equip us to live for him, the coming kingdom and the glorious future that awaits us, are all truths rooted in his historic appearance and the Father’s approval of him.  As Peter says in Acts 4.20 …we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.


The Communion of the Saints: Our Consequences

I believe in the communion of the saints …What are the implications of this belief?  It means that I am ready to accept the practical consequences of being joined to all who worship God in truth.

 An example from the Old Testament illuminates the fixed nature of our relationship with others who believe. The  Psalmist says in Psalm 119.63,  I am a companion of all who fear you. He is acknowledging, in effect, that he is joined to all others who worship his God. The word – “companion” –  bears a closer look. The Scriptures use this word to describe a closeness, an intimacy that is fixed and certain. When the curtains in the tabernacle in Ex.26.3 are described as being coupled to one another, it could be translated literally that they are “companioned to one another.” When the High Priest’s breastplate and ephod in Ex.28.7 is described, this same term describes how the shoulder straps are joined at its two edges. Literally, they are “companioned at its two edges.” The idea is that this fastening, this joining, of us to others of our faith, is very real and cannot be denied.

Paul writes in 1Thess.4:9  that concerning brotherly love you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one anotherThis statement implies that our relationship with others of our faith is something we are given to understand and accept by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But Paul’s statement also suggests that sometimes those consequences are difficult to accept, for example, when there is strife or disagreement.

Paul says something similar to this in 1 Corinthians 1.10: Now I plead with you, by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, … that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. He doesn’t appeal to their appreciation of him. Not even an Apostle could prevent divisions in the church, but he appeals to them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we do not handle conflict and disagreement the best way, we want to pull away from others, from communion to disunion,  to disconnect and to disassociate ourselves. But our new nature, born of God’s Spirit, should guide us:  Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him also loves him who is begotten of Him (1John5.1). Our desire for Christ, our love for him, is the foundation of our communion and empowers us not only to rejoice in our faith, but also recognize that we have been joined to others on the breastplate of our Great High Priest.

The Communion of the Saints: Our Character

I believe in the communion of the saints, the Apostles’ Creed states. The condition of our communion, for admission into the church, is belief in Jesus as the Divine Son of God. We must believe the claims Jesus made about himself, that he is the way, the truth, and the life. But we must never be arrogant about it. To the contrary, the chief characteristic of our communion is humility. Whether we are thinking of ourselves as part of a particular church, or the Church worldwide, our communion should be characterized by humility. God saves the humble (Ps.18.27). He guides  the humble in what is right and teaches them his way (Ps.25.9). He crowns the humble with salvation (Ps.149.4). This is not a false humility but as the Church Father Clement put it, The lowered level of egocentricity and the humbled self-awareness that accompany sound Christian teaching arises out of a realistic consciousness of one’s actual ignorance, the limitations of one’s knowledge, one’s tendency to be deceived and one’s egotistic interpretation of the facts.  Our humility is not pretend, but should arise out of a genuine conviction that, as human beings, we can act ignorantly, that we are easily deceived, and inclined to be very self-centered. All of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore under God’s mighty hand…1Peter5.5-6. An attitude of humility should be put on like clothes every morning, because only then are we truly useful to our Master and able to fully experience the grace he has for us.

The Communion of the Saints: Our Faith

I believe in the communion of the saints… The Apostles’ Creed states the basic beliefs of the Christian faith or the conditions for our communion. Chief among these beliefs is the divinity of Jesus and our acknowledgment of his exclusive claims.  Jesus said,  I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14.6. And in the early church Christianity was frequently called, as it is in the Book of Acts, “the Way” (Acts 9.2, 19.9,23) Jesus is not one way among many to God, but the way. He is saying, in effect, I am the way (to the Father) in that I am the truth and the life. This goes against popular thinking that all major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing. In this line of thinking, it is arrogant to say your religion is superior and try to convert everyone else to it because surely all the religions are equally good and valid for meeting the needs of their particular followers.

Some even think that religion is the major obstacle to world peace today, and that religion (and for purposes of this discussion we’ll allow that Christianity is a religion) should be outlawed or kept privately because it just separates people and makes them enemies because as they morally improve themselves they think they are superior to others. And Christianity can and does have this effect, if and when, it is reduced or perverted to the idea that we are to  lead a good life so that we can go to heaven. But Christianity is not about this at all. Far from it! Jesus does not show us how to live so that we can merit salvation. He comes to forgive and save us through his life and death in our place. And our message can never be about hate or superiority when it is about him. Our message is about a man who died for his enemies, saying Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing! When this is at the heart of our faith we cannot act in violence and oppression against others. Instead our calling is to lead a life of love that reflects what Jesus has done for us. But this is the condition and foundation of such a faith: that one not merely believe in Jesus’ humanity or goodness, but in the divine claim Jesus makes about himself, as the way to reconciliation with God that is his alone.

Resurrection Meaning

 First Corinthians 15.20-22 and the Meaning of Christ’s Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus ended all the claims of God’s justice against those who trust in him as the Son of God.   As Tim Keller puts it, the resurrection was God’s way of stamping PAID IN FULL right across history so that nobody could miss it.

Consider the following summary of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15.20-22.  Going in reverse order through these three verses, look first at verse 22 –  As is Adam all die. The sin that entered the world through our first parents brought with it an undeniable reminder of its presence: death. When Adam sinned a corrosive and insidious element entered into the human race. We may through some convoluted means, deny the existence of our sin, but we cannot deny the reality of death. And, death, the scriptures teach is proof of sin. Like the stinky smell they put into natural gas so that you are alerted to its presence, death is the stink God put into sin to alert us to its presence.

And now, verse 21 For since death came  through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. Because sin and death came by humanity, it must be dealt with by humanity. Since death came by a man, it must be dealt with by a man. This was the mission of Jesus. He was born of a woman,  so truly God and man but conceived by the Holy Spirit, so not a natural descendant of Adam. He was the only member of the human race to be truly free of sin and thus able to satisfy and carry the infinite weight of the demands of God’s justice.

Finally, verse 20: Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. The proof that Jesus accomplished the payment for our sin and satisfied the demands of God’s justice is demonstrated in his resurrection. It is the proof of his success. It confirms that the brutality and anguish of Calvary were significant beyond mere dimensions of human suffering. Death is now destroyed. And as surely as the first fruit is the beginning of an agricultural harvest, so Christ’s resurrection is the first ripe piece of fruit that indicates many others are coming.

For Paul, the resurrection of the dead had, in a real way, already commenced with the raising of Jesus. And after he personally encountered the resurrected Messiah, it was the resurrection that became the foundation of his belief.  Without the resurrection there was no hope, but with the resurrection sin was paid for, death defeated, and a new world, a whole other world, was waiting for him, and all of us.