Monthly Archives: October 2012

John 13: Known by Love

I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another!  Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another.  This is how everybody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other. (13:34-35)

Christians are known by their sacrificial, inconvenient love.  Nothing is more of a calling card than love.  Not going to church. Not how one votes.  Not social policy one supports or opposes.  Not one’s moral code.  Not whether one takes or refuses that drink offered at a dinner party.  Not one’s language.  Not bumper stickers or symbols on the back of a car.  Not biblical knowledge.  Not leadership roles in a church.  Not community service.  Not parenting styles or the behavior of one’s children.  Not the percentage of money given away to others.  Christians are known by the degree they allow themselves to serve others at their own expense, their willingness to treat people with kindness and gentleness when they deserve much less, the degree to which we make life not about us but about others.

“They will know we are Christians by our love.”  We have sung this since we were children, but we need these regular reminders, don’t we?

What do you think?  

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John 12: Life through Death

Today, we return to one of the most foundational teachings of Jesus.  As countercultural as this message is, we need a regular booster of this message:

I’m telling you the solemn truth: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains all by itself.  If it dies, though, it will produce lots of fruit.  If you love your life, you’ll lose it.  It you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age.  If anyone serves me, they must follow me.  Where I am, my servant will be too.  If anyone serves me, the father will honor them. (12:24-26)

Before a fire

Two summers ago, my family took an incredible trip to the western United States.  We hit six national parks, the Rockies, and terrain unlike anything we had ever seen before.  Beautiful!  While in Yellowstone National Park, we learned much about the fires of 1988 that ravaged 36% percentage of that 2-million-plus-acre wilderness park.  I was especially intrigued by the fact that the pine seeds in the cones of the lodgepole pines that are especially numerous in Yellowstone can only be released from the cones when subjected to intense heat, like the kind found in a forest fire.  This is the very warp and woof of nature: as one tree is destroyed it is releasing the seeds of many others in its stead.  Jesus — the creator of those trees — knew, taught and exemplified this truth as well.

After a fire

Far too often we want the honor in verse 26 without the service and loss mentioned in the rest of this verse above.  We want fruit, but don’t want the wheat to die.  We want life in the coming age, but we also want to keep it right here and now too, instead of laying it down.

New life after a fiery death (Yellowstone National Park)

But here is Jesus reminding us that nothing of spiritual worth, nothing that brings life, nothing that lasts in the coming age will come without sacrifice and self-denial.  In our relationships.  In our careers.  In our families and churches.  In our souls.  In our communities.  Everywhere.  This truth is tied into the very flow of nature.

When did you last see “life” come from “death”?    

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John 11: Thomas the “Twin”

“Apostle St. Thomas” by El Greco

Other than being listed in a few lists of apostles, all that we know about the apostle Thomas comes from the Gospel of John.  Thomas is a far more complex character than some of us may have realized.  Thomas has forever been known as the “doubter,” but today we see something very different about him.

We know him as Thomas, but he was also known as Didymus, likely a Greek name.  Interestingly, Didymus means “twin.”  Maybe Thomas the apostle was a literal twin.  That would explain the name.  But as we read through John we will see, in three places, that Thomas truly is a twin within himself.

Today we see the apostles’ fear to return to anywhere in Judea (11:8).  The Judaeans want to kill Jesus.  Why would he give them another chance?  When Jesus explains that Jesus is going to use the death of Lazarus to grow their faith, Thomas is the first apostle to respond:

“Let’s go too,” he said. “We may as well die with him.” (11:16b)

This is one side of the “twin.”  The side who boldly launches off into peril.  The one who is willing to risk life and limb.  This may not be a Thomas we have always thought of.

On Thursday we will see Jesus proclaim that he is headed to his father’s house to prepare a place for them, but that he would be back to get them, though they know the way anyway.  Thomas is quick to correct Jesus:

Actually, Master, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way? (14:5)

Notice though who it is that is most interested in knowing the way so as to follow Jesus.  Thomas, once again.  This man is gung-ho to follow.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio

Last, and most famously, it is days after Jesus’ resurrection.  He has appeared to the apostles but Thomas was not there.  When Thomas is told what he has missed, he is incredulous.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” replied Thomas, “and put my finger into the nail-marks, and put my hand into his side — I’m not going to believe!” (20:25b)

This is the other side of Thomas the Twin.  He needs proof before he budges an inch.  I’ll believe it when I see it.  Is this doubt?  Maybe so.  Both an incredible faith regardless of cost and cautious doubt concerned with being duped are bound up in Didymus.  He is both.

If we are honest with each other and ourselves, we are both too.  There are days we launch out with immense faith sure all will be fine or that it won’t matter if it is not.  Other days we hold back and need proof to take another step.  We are Didymus too.

I love the last quote from the Bible attributed to Thomas.  This is how he ends.  Maybe he is ready rumble.  Maybe he needs to investigate Jesus like a doctor.  Regardless, Thomas ends with this statement.  May we as well.

“My Lord,” replied Thomas, “and my God!” (20:28)

What did you see anew today? 

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John 10: Three Themes

The frontispiece to the Gospel of John from the Saint Johns Bible, a beautiful modern hand-calligraphied Bible produced in medieval style

There are three themes (among others) I am seeing a lot in John.  They show up in this chapter too.

First, I am struck by how many times the word “life” is used in John.  In particular, John really drives the point home in a strong way that Jesus offers his followers life, both here and now and in the hereafter.

I came so that they could have life — yes, and have it to overflowing. (10:10)

Second, repeatedly we are reminded in this overtly evangelistic book that one can judge the spiritual veracity of a person by their deeds.  You can tell something about the tree from its fruit.  Reader (original and still today), do you want to know if Jesus is for real?  Look at what he did.

If I’m not doing the works of my father, don’t believe me.  But if I am doing them, well — even if you don’t believe me, believe the works! (10:37-38a)

Third, scholars have opined that one of the possible purposes for the Fourth Gospel is to counter an over-glorification of John the Baptist.  I have never thought of it before nor noticed how many times John shows up in this gospel.  Yes, the point is being driven home in a strong way: Jesus is far superior to John.

“John never did any signs,” they said, “but everything that John said about this man was true.” (10:41)

Are you noticing these too? 

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John 9: Who Has Sinned?

“Healing the Blind Man” by Edy Legrand

Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who had been blind since birth.  He appears to be a well known man in his community (9:8).  A conversation ensues concerning sin and who is at fault for this man’s condition.  However, throughout the chapter who the sinner is becomes a hotly contested question.

Conventional wisdom at the time said people like this were being punished for sin.  Maybe it was the sin of the person afflicted; maybe it was due to the sin of the parents.  The disciples are thinking like this (9:2).  Who is the sinner?  Either the blind man himself or his parents.

Then we hear the Pharisees tell us who they thought had sinned.  Simply put, they thought everyone had sinned, well, except for them.  Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, so surely he was the sinner (9:16, 24).  When the formerly blind man refuses to agree with them that Jesus was the sinner, they declare him to be a sinner too (9:34).

Ask the formerly blind man and he would tell you that it isn’t likely that Jesus is a sinner (9:25):

God doesn’t listen to sinners. (9:31a)

Could it be that this man who had been blind since birth could actually see the truth more clearly than the religious leaders of his time?

Then Jesus got the last word.  Earlier he made it clear that neither the sin of the blind man nor his parents was the cause of this man’s blindness.  Jesus said he came to bring sight to the blind, while those with sight would be blind.  The Pharisees correctly interpret this as a slight against them.  Jesus, then, says this:

If you were blind you wouldn’t be found guilty of sin.  But now, because you say, “We can see,” your sin remains. (9:41)

Who has sinned?  The Pharisees.  They know better, yet deny him nonetheless.

What did you see in this chapter? 

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John 8: Dehumanizing Religion

One of the ugliest sides of religion is when it uses people.  Religion does this.  It pits people against each other in some cosmic game of “who is closer to God.”  We toot our own horns and then shoot pot-shots into other people.

In today’s reading, the religious people in the story drag a woman likely straight from the bedroom where she had been caught in adultery.  John even says, “they stood her out in the middle” of the crowd, before Jesus and asked him what should be done with her (8:3).  Are they really concerned with her sin?  Only mildly at best.  Are they really seeking justice?  Then where is the man she was with?  No, John makes it clear what they were doing:

They said this to test him, so that they could frame a charge against him. (8:6)

This woman is nothing more than a disgraced pawn caught in a desperate powerplay of the Pharisees.  She is just a platform on which to make their point that Law is to be followed.  She represents no more than an opportunity.  She is the faceless, story-less example of a moral issue.  This woman who had allowed herself to be used by a man for his passion is now being used by a whole cadre of men for their agenda of power.  The Pharisees are using this woman, in the name of religion.  Her sin was not excusable — and Jesus didn’t ignore it either (8:11b) — but she was still a human being.

When have we allowed our religious agendas to use people?  When has a person’s life become little more than a point in an argument or a story in a sermon?  When do we only see the immoral actions of people and fail to see the person doing the action?  Are there people who if they ceased to exist it would be fine with us?  Are there whole groups of people we easily write off with racial, religious, socio-economic, or political labels, caring less about their personal narratives?

Is there a way to follow our Master by seeing a person in need, not approving of their sin but also not condemning and dehumanizing them?

What caught your eye in this chapter?  

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John 7: Law or Life?

“Look here,” replied Jesus.  “I did one single thing, and you all were amazed.  Moses commanded you to practice circumcision . . . and you circumcise a man on the sabbath.  Well, then, if a man receives circumcision on the sabbath, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, how can you be angry with me if I make an entire man healthy on the sabbath?” (7:21-23)

Let’s remember something: the Pharisees were the religious ones in Jesus’ world.  And, yet, they are the ones who had the hardest time accepting Jesus.  For them, everything came down to the Law.  There are ways to go about the work of God.  There are forms and patterns.  There are boundaries and limits.  All of these laws ensure that life happens in the most controlled manner, and order brings blessing.

Yet, one can become so controlled by Law that the point of the Law is missed.  Order becomes more important than blessing.  The point of Law is to bring Life, but this can easily be forgotten when we make Law the point itself.

This is where the Pharisees had allowed themselves to get to.  Their glorification of the Law was now the point.  All that matters in a legal conundrum like whether sabbath or circumcision trumps the other is which law is more important.

Jesus tells them they have missed the point entirely.  The point is Life.  It is always Life.  Law exists to bring Life, preserve Life, promote Life, and reward Life.  So when our applications of Law stand in the way of Life, we have missed the point.

What do you think?

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John 6: Eat the Word

Jesus went up onto the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.  It was nearly time for the Passover, a Jewish festival. (6:3-4)

I noticed for the first time ever that this story all about eating is set at Passover time.  A year or two after this at the exact same time of year, Jesus will use food once again to make a point about what really makes true life possible.

In today’s story we can see that it is almost Passover and a crowd is in the countryside with nothing to eat.  Then Jesus provides the feast.  This would be like getting up Thanksgiving morning with nothing in the cupboards and no turkey in the fridge, then to have Jesus show up unexpectedly with boxes and bags of already-prepared side dishes and a beautifully roasted turkey.  Oh yeah, we are going to follow this guy around!

But as we see, Jesus was not about to let himself be hijacked by anyone’s agenda.

When the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they said, “This really is the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.”  So when Jesus realized they were intending to come and seize him to make him king, he withdrew again, by himself, up the mountain. (6:14-15)

Jesus’ point in this Passover story is the same it will be a year or two later when his followers are still looking for an earthly king who will overthrow the Romans: you don’t really need what you think you need.

The crowd follows, but they are just looking for more food (6:26).  So Jesus decides to take a walk into absurdity to make his point.  They don’t need to feast on another fish sandwich.  They need to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  This is the point at which people think this man has lost his mind and leave (6:66).  Of course, Jesus was not talking about cannibalism, and when understood in the entirety of this chapter it may also be a bit of a stretch to read communion imagery into the passage.  Jesus tells us at the end of the chapter what he means by this grotesque idea:

It’s the spirit that gives life; the flesh is no help.  The words that I have spoken to you–they are spirit, the are life. (6:63)

They don’t need food.  They don’t even need Christ’s flesh.  What they need is not physical.  They need the spiritual.  They need Jesus’ words.  They need to feast on the message of his preaching.  They need to be changed from the inside out by the life-changing words of this man they are so willing to follow into the wilderness.  This is where they will find satisfaction.

And Peter realizes it:

Who can we go to?  You’re the one who’s got the words of life of the coming age. (6:68b)

What did you see in a new way in today’s passage?

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John 5: Hopelessness Not Laziness

Personally, I don’t really like election seasons.  They seem to bring out the worst in people.  That is not just an American thing.  I have seen the same in Canada.

I guess that all of us have issues that are especially important to us and that we are sensitive to in pre-election rhetoric and proposed policies.  One of mine is poverty and what to do to help those who are in situations of fundamental need and stubborn, generational poverty.  As I see it this was a topic discussed often in the Bible and a benchmark of Christian charity.  Of course, I also know that not all Christians see the solutions to the problem of poverty the same way.

Unfortunately, I find that discussions of economics and political policy regarding relief to the poor during an election season can bring out ugly caricatures of impoverished people, assumptions of character flaws, and a general lack of Christian charity and compassion.  So, it is in this unconscious context that I read today’s chapter, in particular this interaction between Jesus and a man who has been disabled and destitute for almost four decades.

There was a man who had been there, in the same sick state, for thirty-eight years.  Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been there a long time already.

“Do you want to get well?” he asked him.

“Well, sir,” the sick man replied, “I don’t have anyone to put me into the pool when the water gets stirred up.  While I’m on my way there, someone else gets down before me.”

“Get up,” said Jesus, “pick up your mattress and walk!”

At once the man was healed.  He picked up his mattress and walked. (5:5-9a)

“Do you want to get well?”  I am not sure we can know for sure what Jesus meant by this question; I suspect he was provoking a faith response.  What sick person wouldn’t want to get well?  But he had been there at Bethesda for 38 years.  There had been many opportunities to get into the pool, right?  This question sounds like what we sometimes hear people say today to destitute people today: “Do you even want a job?”  “Do you want to get off welfare?”

The explanation from the paralytic as to why he has not yet been healed is the kind that, for some, sounds like an excuse.  But are we really to believe that if he had had the real opportunity to be healed he would not have taken it?  It is rather hard to get up when you are paralyzed.  The blind man beats the crippled man to the pool every time.  There are explanations we hear for persistent joblessness and reliance on others and they some times sound like excuses.  And maybe sometimes they are; as long as there is sin in the heart of people there will be people who take advantage of others.  But it becomes easy to think that some people are just lazy.  Hopelessness, though, sounds a whole lot like laziness.  After years of trying and failing, people give up hope.  After years of losing the competition for getting ahead, people begin to believe they can’t.  Giving up comes from hopelessness, not usually laziness.

A lazy man would not have tried to “get up” when told to do so by Jesus.  How many times had mean-spirited teenagers taunted him to do the same, only to run off laughing at his inability?  This man’s healing started with his hope being restored.  That may have been Jesus’ greatest gift to him.  With renewed hope, the paralytic got up.

Writing people off as lazy is easy.  God’s people are called to be those who restore hope.

What do you think?

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John 4: Moving into The Deep End

“If only you’d known God’s gift,” replied Jesus, “and who it is that’s saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you’d have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“But sir,” replied the woman, “you haven’t got a bucket!  And the well’s deep!  So how were you thinking of getting living water?” (4:10-11)

Jesus meets a Samaritan woman of questionable character in this chapter and by the end of the chapter he has moved her from the surface of life to a place of much deeper understanding.  She is only thinking of literal water.  Not to fault her.  I would imagine we would have been thinking that too.  But Jesus seizing the opportunity to show her that her greatest need was for something much more fulfilling than the water of this well.  Or the love of a man.  She needs an eternal source of life and enduring love.  What she needs Jesus has.

I am seeing that this is a common technique for John’s Jesus.  He did the same with Nicodemus in chapter 3.  They start talking about birth and all Nicodemus can think of is physical birth.  So when Jesus talks about being “born again” or “born anew” this sounds ridiculous to the Pharisee.  How is that even possible?  But Jesus moves Nicodemus deeper into spiritual truth: babies are born but then they live and die; people who are reborn spiritually will never die.

Jesus will do the same with the crowd in chapter 6.  Early in that chapter Jesus feeds the enormous crowd with only a few fish and a handful of rolls.  Of course this crowd begins to follow Jesus closely.  There is free food wherever Jesus is.  Who wouldn’t follow?  Knowing that the crowd is using him for the food, Jesus pushes them deeper into spiritual truth.  It is not literal bread they need; they need to feast on the “bread” of his own life.  They need to “feast” on him.  They don’t just need that which sustains physical life; they need that which keeps the spirit alive.

John’s Jesus is intensely interested in taking us out into deeper waters.  There is that thing we think we need from Jesus, that thing we think we can give Jesus, that thing we think we understand already.  Jesus is interested in taking us further.

When was a time you realized you needed something much deeper than the surface object you were seeking?

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John 3: Rejection Not Ignorance

When a person wants to give the world the message that God is for people not against them, they often go to John 3:16-17 to make the point.  That is why this passage is so popular.

This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.  After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him. (3:16-17)

Nevertheless, twice this passage is also very clear that what one chooses to do with Jesus is a life or death decision.

Anyone who believes in him is not condemned.  But anyone who doesn’t believe is condemned already, because they didn’t believe in the name of God’s only, special son. (3:18)

Anyone who believes in the son shares in the life of God’s new age.  Anyone who doesn’t believe in the son won’t see life, but God’s wrath rests on him. (3:36)

I was struck, though, by the emphasis that was placed on the fact that condemnation comes to those who actively reject Jesus.

And this is the condemnation: that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because what they were doing was evil.  For everyone who does evil hates the light; people like that don’t come to the light, in case their deeds get shown up and reproved. (3:19-20)

Jesus is presented to these people in a clear fashion, they are presented with a choice to follow him or not, and they choose not to, often because an undesirable lifestyle will be necessary.  However, rejection is simply not the same as ignorance.  We are not talking about people who do not know who Jesus truly is.  That is a different matter entirely.

What caught your eye today?

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John 2: Seeing Is Believing

I see a main point developing in John’s gospel.

This event, in Cana of Galilee, was the first of Jesus’s signs.  He displayed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. (2:11)

While he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, several people came to trust in his name, because they had seen the signs he did. (2:23)

Add this verse from chapter 1:

Wait a minute,” said Jesus.  “Are you [Nathanael] telling me that you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree?  You’ll see a lot more than that!” (1:50)

For John, at least at this point and in some way, seeing is believing.  When faith is involved, we all know that is not always the case, but John seems to be asserting this truth.  As previously noted, there are not as many miracles or “signs” in John as are recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.  But John sure gets a lot of mileage out of the signs he does include.  Remember the Gospel of John has a strong evangelistic purpose; he is trying to produce faith in people, seemingly from the reading of this gospel.  He will play up the signs as evidence that Jesus is not just another wise teacher or good man.  I am sure we will see much more on this idea as we read along this month.

What did you notice in this chapter? 

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John 1: Who Is This Jesus?

Who is this Jesus?

That is hardly a question we ask these days.  Most people have heard of Jesus and know something about his supposed identity. However, during John’s time this most certainly would have been the question people were asking.  Given the purpose statement of the book (see the Introduction post below) we know this question was especially the one John wanted to answer in his book.

So it is no wonder that John starts his gospel with a wonderful, lyrical, slightly cryptic explanation of the nature of this Jesus whose story we will hear.  In the first fourteen verses of this first chapter we learn that Jesus is all of the following:

  • Eternal (1:1a)
  • Close in proximity to God (1:1b)
  • One in nature and identity with God (1:1c)
  • The source of all created things (1:3)
  • The source of life (1:4a)
  • The source of light in the midst of darkness (1:4b)
  • The one who brings illumination (1:9)
  • An enfleshed human being (1:10a, 14)
  • Rejected by much of the world (1:10b)
  • Authoritative (1:12)
  • The son of God (1:14a)
  • Full of grace (1:14b)
  • Full of truth (1:14b)

Jesus is the fully human, fully divine son of God who is the source of all things good.  Though all authority is his, people can still find a way to reject this Jesus.  Nonetheless, true life and light can be found in him.

What caught your eye in this chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Gospel of John

Though the book does not say so, there is widespread acceptance that this gospel was written by the apostle John, who often refers to himself in the book as “the apostle whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20, 24).  Though one of Jesus’ inner circle of apostles, John is never mentioned in the book, which makes sense if John wrote the book but doesn’t if he didn’t.

Traditionally, because of its developed theology, the Gospel of John was considered the latest of gospels, likely written around 85 or later.  A good case can also be made that John was written before the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem in 70 because the book refers to places in that city in the present tense.  A developed theology does not have to indicate a late date.

Scholars have argued that John had various goals in writing his gospel.  Maybe he was trying to write a gospel to a Greek audience, hence the emphasis on Jesus as the “word” (logos).  It is certainly possible that John was trying to combat false teaching through his account of Jesus’ life.  But John himself tells us the simple evangelistic purpose of his book:

These are written that you may believe (or continue to believe) that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:31)

Therefore, one of the fitting characteristics of John are the seven “I am” statements of Jesus, thought by many to be John’s twist on God’s self-revelation as “I AM.”  John would not have us miss the point that Jesus was more than just a man.  This is one of the reasons why John is often the first book non-believers are encouraged to read.

John is unlike the other gospels in many ways, supporting the belief that the other three were trying to borrow from each other and tell similar stories while John was attempting to do something very different, maybe for a very different crowd.  There are no parables in John.  Miracles (or “signs” as they are called in John) are not as common.  John tells stories not included in the other gospels.   Instead of fast action like Mark, this gospel is full of long teaching sections.  For these reasons and others, John is a favorite of many people.

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Do You Need to Hop Back Onboard?

Have the ins and outs of everyday life overwhelmed your desire to read through the New Testament this year?  Don’t worry if it has.  Now is a great time to jump back onboard for the last quarter of the year.  Monday we will start into the Gospel of John, our last look at the life of Jesus this year.  We have spent some great time in the Letters lately, but I am looking forward to getting back to the “red letters.”  Then we will finish the Letters and spend December in one of the most hope-inspiring books in the Bible — Revelation.  Let’s meet back here on Monday!

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1 Peter 5: Comfort for the Suffering

Peter ends this letter to a group of suffering Christians with great consolation.  Line after line offers hope and promise of comfort and reward.  An altered frame of mind maybe helps us with our expectations and desires but today’s comfort brings solace to the heart.

1.  Peter begins by reminding his recipients that their reward for standing up under pressure is an eternally durable one.

And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that won’t wither away. (5:4)

The toned, flexible, capable bodies of our youth age and wither.  Crowd approval fades.  Financial stability and market shares lessen with time.  But there is a glorious reward coming to those who stay true to the faith even in the face of persecution that cannot be taken away and will not lessen in value.

2.  Suffering is also easier to face when we are convinced that God is one on our side.

Throw all your care upon him, because he cares about you. (5:7)

It can be easy to give into the belief that God is not on our side, that He has had a hand in our suffering or at least has failed to stop it.  Peter reminds his readers that God cares intimately about them and their problems.  They can fall to their knees and pour out their prayers to him.  No matter the emotion — fear, resentment, anger, hurt — God wants to hear their heart’s cry.

3.  No one wishes misfortune on others, but suffering is easier to face when you know you are not alone.

Resist him [the Devil], staying resolute in your faith, and knowing that other family members in the rest of the world are facing identical sufferings. (5:9)

Persecution is the worst when you think you are the only one being subject to it.  You begin to think there is something particularly wrong with you.  Or the injustice of the situation seems all the worse.  Peter reminds them that what they are going through is not unique.  There are many others suffering the same fate.  Strangely, there is comfort in numbers.

4.  Paul’s last word of all about suffering in this letter is that better days are coming.

Then, after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who called you in the Messiah Jesus to the glory of his new age, will himself put you in good order, and will establish and strengthen you and set you on firm foundations. (5:10)

When you are in the midst of hard times it is so easy to become myopic and think this is all that life is.  Every day will be filled with pain.  Each new person will treat you as harshly as the others.  Every phone call will be bad news.  Each new turn is a bad turn.  Peter reminds them (and us) that God gets the last word, and for those who in Christ, that last word is one of blessing, strength and restoration.

What is the one point about suffering you most needed to hear this week? 

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1 Peter 4: Sharing the Sufferings of Jesus

There is so much to say about suffering in this chapter, but I am afraid with school activities and deadlines I do not have the time to do it justice.  Help me out!  Share with us today what you learned from this chapter.  Here are the verses I was drawn to today and a few initial and random thoughts about suffering faithfully.

So, then, just as the Messiah suffered in the flesh, you too must equip yourselves with the same mental armor. (4:1a)

Jesus had to suffer, so do we really think we will not?  But suffering is more successfully faced when he prepare our minds to face it.  It we run headlong into hard times clothed only with raw emotion, we should not be surprised when we come out cut, bruised and wounded.

Someone who suffers in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of their mortal life no longer according to human desires but according to God’s will. (4:1b-2)

Suffering trains the heart and equips us to overcome the weaknesses that allow sin to reside in our lives so easily.  Suffering may be as pleasant as working out is for many of us, but it may also be as beneficial in the long run.

They will have to account for it [the curses of sinful people] before the one who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (4:5)

In the middle of all of this talk about suffering, Peter reminds us God gets the last word.  Justice will come in the end.

Keep absolutely firm in your love for one another, because “love covers a multitude of sins.”  Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Just as each of you has received a gift, so you should use it for ministry to one another. (4:8-10)

We can’t face suffering alone.  We need the fellowship of others.

Beloved, don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal which is coming upon you to test you, as though this were some strange thing that was happening to you. (4:12)

Suffering tests and reveals how genuine our faith really is.  That can be a scary outcome.  It can also be a blessing.

You are sharing the sufferings of the Messiah. (4:13)

It is one thing to benefit from the sufferings of Jesus.  What an esteemed calling to also share in those sufferings, to actually be able to say we know a piece of what Jesus went through!

Caravaggio, “The Crucifixion of Peter” — Peter knew something about “sharing the sufferings of Jesus,” tradition says Peter was crucified in imitation of Jesus, but upside down because he protested that he was not worthy to be crucified the same way Jesus was

What stood out to you today?  

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1 Peter 3: False Expectations Produce Disillusionment

It is interesting that no New Testament writer nor Jesus ever talked about living life in a predominantly Christian culture.  Maybe that was because the Romans were so powerful, so dominating that they could not imagine life beyond the Roman Empire (can those of us who live in America imagine a post-American world?).  Or maybe this was a realization on their part that true Christianity will never be the dominant culture of a whole community.  Christianity has always been and is intended to be a “contrast community” to whatever is the prevailing way of life.  But what about medieval Europe when the Catholic Church was essentially the government?  What about John Calvin’s Geneva during the Renaissance period?  What about 1950s America?  Weren’t these Christian cultures?  I would still argue that you had enough humanity mixed in with the divinity that what existed was not completely what God intended.  The medieval Catholic Church spawned the Crusades.  The Calvinists marginalized non-Calvinists.  The 1950s in America were a low point for race relations, even between Christians.

Were we really expecting that the way of Christ would be the norm?  Christ himself was not accepted by the majority of people he encountered.   Nonetheless, yes, I think part of the problem with suffering that comes from persecution is that we have been expecting Christianity to be the norm.  We had convinced ourselves that our culture (I am especially thinking about western countries) was predominantly Christian in the past and this is the way it still should be.  Of course, we were forgetting that American Christianity was heavily influenced by the hate of the 50s, the revolt against authority and the glorification of individual in the 60s, the lifestyle experimentation and redefinition of the 70s, the greed of the 80s, the rootless angst of the 90s, the exploitation and celebrity idolatry of the 2000s, and now the fear of outsiders in the 2010s.  We pine away for the better days of yesteryear, but the reality of those days do not actually measure up to our memories.

Peter gives different instructions for what to expect from society, instructions that presuppose a different way of seeing reality, instructions that would be good to remember today in a world that is increasingly more hostile to institutional Christianity and the way God has called His people to live in this world.

Sanctify the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to make a reply to anyone who asks you to explain the hope that is in you.  Do it, though, with gentleness and respect.  Hold on to a good conscience, so that when people revile your good behavior in the Messiah they may be ashamed. (3:15-16)

Maybe part of our perceived suffering comes from false expectations.  We are expecting to be the “moral majority.”  We want to be the ruling class.  We want our way of life to be the norm.  That only makes any rejection of our ways feel like the beginning of the slippery slope to moral degradation.  It makes demeaning caricatures of Christians on television feel like disenfranchisement.  It makes us feel marginalized and persecuted.  But maybe God has always imagined that his people will be a set apart people, a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” “strangers and resident aliens” (2:9, 11) different from the cultural norm and therefore easy targets for derision, or questioning at least.

With that change in perspective our job in life is very easy: be ready to explain our alternative way of thinking and living.  And by all means enter into that dialogue with kindness, gentleness, and respect.  Leave the fiery rhetoric to talk show hosts.  Refuse to stoop to the demeaning attitudes and labeling that our opponents use.  Avoid any tactic that resorts to power and coercion and legislation to enforce our thinking and behavior.  Above all, we should be the people who do all of this with such goodness that people will be ashamed at how ugly their approaches look in comparison.

What do you think?  

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1 Peter 2: Overcome Evil with Good

For the recipients of 1 Peter a big part of their suffering had to do with injustice.  We can read between the lines of this chapter to see that pagans in their communities were “speak[ing] against [them] as evildoers” (2:12), likely “insult[ing]” them (2:23) and producing something “painful” in their lives (2:19).  They had every right to fight back, trade insult for insult, and stoop to the level of their slanderers.  They were likely even tempted to do so.

Our suffering today comes from many places, including the misdeeds and maliciousness of others.  People talk bad about us behind our backs at school and work.  People even assassinate the character of others at church.  Whether in word or by looks or even simply by exclusion, pain is produced in our lives that we do not deserve.  How is a Christian supposed to respond faithfully to that sort of suffering?

Peter starts by reminding us that long before we were “rejected” and “insulted,” Jesus suffered the same treatment.  Jesus became the proverbial cornerstone in this house of rejection for which we are the “living stones” (2:4-5).

The Messiah, too, suffered on your behalf, leaving behind a pattern for you, so that you should follow the way he walked.  He committed no sin, nor was there any deceit in his mouth.  When he was insulted, he didn’t insult in return, when he suffered, he didn’t threaten, but he gave himself up to the one who judges justly. (2:21-23)

In the face of injustice, Jesus relied on his Father to bring justice, he didn’t try to produce it himself.

Of utmost importance, though, is that we face the injustice that comes our way with the spirit of Jesus.  Many people have noticed that few New Testament letters seem to echo Jesus as closely as 1 Peter.  That is especially clear in today’s chapter.  We must not give our offenders any reason to think they were right about us.  We are to keep such good conduct, even in the face of injustice, that people are impressed with our virtue and maybe even begin to believe our God is real (2:12).  It is our virtue that will “silence foolish and ignorant people” (2:15), not our well-crafted defenses nor by trading insult for insult.  If all we do is take our licks when we do something wrong, there is nothing special about that.  The higher calling is to “bear patiently” with unjust mistreatment (2:20).  That is testimony to a special spirit.

In fact, Peter bottom lines it for us this way:

This, after all, is what came with the terms of your call. (2:21a)

Deep down at the core of what it means to be a Christian was the reality that following Jesus will inevitably bring rejection, injustice, and suffering.  Maybe we were looking for the “get out of hell free” card, but it comes with the cost of discipleship.

What did you learn today about suffering?

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1 Peter 1: This World is Not Our Home

How is a Christian supposed to respond to suffering and persecution?  This is the main theme of 1 Peter, therefore all of my posts this week will focus on the answer Peter gave to the churches in Asia Minor.  There are many other great ideas in this letter, but because this same question is a perennial one with Christians still today, even in a country like America, I will limit my thoughts to this theme.

Is this world as it is your home?  

How we answer this one question may explain why we experience certain situations as suffering.  If this world and the way we think life is supposed to be lived here and now is what we embrace as “home” anything that endangers that state of life will no doubt be greeted as an enemy to be opposed.  An economic downturn is a travesty because we cannot have all we have become accustomed to.  If life here and now is supposed to be getting progressively easier and more comfortable, old age and career setbacks are anathema. Diseases and death are the ultimate foes because they end this life and tear us from this world.  Think about the prayer requests you have heard lately and ask yourself if they don’t reveal where our real home is.

But Peter describes our experiences here and now very differently.  He calls his recipients “God’s chosen ones who lives as foreigners” (1:1).  In tomorrow’s reading he will call them “strangers and resident aliens” (2:11).  For Peter the answer to the initial question is a resounding “no.” This world is not our home and, therefore, we should not expect to be comfortable here.  We are on our way back home with our father and in the mean time we should be sure not to be “squashed into” the pattern of this world (1:14). The “rescue of our lives” is coming (1:9), “a rescue that is all ready and waiting” (1:5).  That is a very different mindset and it makes a whole world of difference.

This mindset can be used to rationalize a total detachment from this world and an apathy to anything and anyone not waiting for the great heavenly train to “back, back, train and get your load.”  As we will see that is not what Peter would advocate either, but this mindset can help us to face hard times with faithfulness and even celebration (1:6).  If this world is not our home, the twists and turns of fate (or crowd approval) need not leave us feeling uncertain about our future and the quality of life to come.  Retirement plans may dwindle.  Knees and hearts may give out.  Our very freedom can be taken away.  However, because of our second birth as the children of God, we have an “incorruptible inheritance, which nothing can stain or diminish” and nothing can endanger that fact (1:3-5).

There is a better Kingdom coming, and until that reality becomes true to us the setbacks that our present, self-centered fiefdoms suffer will seem excessively oppressive.

What do you think?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Peter’s Letters

The author of 1 Peter is almost certainly the Simon Peter of the Gospels; only a few have doubted this.  On the other hand, if there is a letter included in the New Testament that was not written by the person who it claims to be written by (“pseudopigraphic,” is the technical term), 2 Peter is our best candidate.  It is rather different in style, language, and theme from the first Petrine epistle.  The mention of persecution in 1 Peter makes a date in the 60s AD more likely, and by that time in Peter’s life he is traditionally placed in Rome, where he will die by the Emperor’s order in the late 60s.  The cryptic mention to being in “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is most likely  referring to Rome, as we will see in Revelation.

The apostle Simon Peter is absolutely a classic Bible character.  He ranks up there with Abraham, Moses, and David.  Jesus is in a class of his own, of course.  Peter is well-known, including much of his psychology.  He is a full character.  Impetuous Peter!  If we go to the Gospels to learn about Peter, we must end that character study with a good look at his letters too.  This is where his changed heart comes out the most.

The last recorded instructions Jesus gave to Peter alone were to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19).  That he does in grand style in 1 Peter.  Churches in modern-day Turkey that Peter had either started or ministered to in a special way (1:1) are now experiencing harsh treatment in their society.  The recipients are clearly Gentile Christians (with maybe some Jewish Christians thrown in), as they used to live an idolatrous pagan lifestyle (4:3).  Now, because of their devotion to Jesus, they refuse to live in the same coarse way that used to.  As a result, their pagan neighbors heap abuse on them.  This persecution is certainly social versus political; systematic persecution of Christians in Asia Minor by the Roman government won’t start for another twenty years after the death of Peter.  Peter’s recipients were mocked and even harmed physically, but the greatest suffering would have been social ostracism and the economic marginalization that would come from being shunned by their pagan society.  What is the faithful response to suffering a follower of Christ is supposed to give?  This is the main theme of 1 Peter.

Second Peter is either written by Peter at a very different time and place than First Peter (and a convincing case can be made for this) or as more and more conservative scholars are willing to accept, it was written by a disciple of Peter “in the spirit of Peter” or as a way to honor their master.  Efforts would have been made to convey what Peter would have said; good pseudopigrapha did not try to deceive readers and pass unorthodox views off as apostolic.  Regardless, 2 Peter addresses a group of false teachers akin to the early Gnostics we have seen previously this year.  Of special importance in this letter is Peter’s exhortation to his recipients to vigilantly hang on and prepare for the certain coming of Jesus.   

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3 John: A Teacher’s Greatest Joy

Nothing gives me greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (v.4)

Third John is addressed from the “Elder” again to a man named “Gaius” in an unnamed church.  Gaius represents a contingent in this church, unlike the power-monger Diotrephes, who look to John as their teacher and spiritual father.  As he approaches the end of this life, John wants more than anything to know that his “children” are being faithful to all he has taught them and all he has worked for.

As a high school teacher of Bible, I have been known from time to time to call my students my “kids.”  They kind of are.  I spend more time with them than my own!  And by the end of any year, I really end up caring a great deal about my students.  They are funny and I love the laughs.  They are thoughtful and kind, and one positive affirmation of what we do in class can keep me going for months.  I love to see them struggle with an abstract philosophical or theological idea until they understand it and can apply it to their own lives.  But my greatest joy is when we meet up a few years after graduation and it is clear they are “walking in the truth.”  That makes the long hours, endless grading, hard conferences, and discipling disappointments all worth it in the end.

What did you notice anew in Third John?

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2 John: No New Commandment

Without a doubt, John is the apostle of love.  Love is all over his letters and gospel.  Just look back a few days to the post for 1 John 4.  Today, in a new letter from the “Elder” John to an unnamed church personified as the “Chosen Lady and her children” (v.1), John reminds us that at its core Christianity is all about love, but the commandment to “love one another” is no new commandment at all.  This has been a foundational message from God, since the beginning.

And now, dear Lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we had from the very beginning, that we should love one another.  This is love: that we should behave in accordance with his commandments. (vv.5-6a)

God’s love is not the sentimental love of emotion.  It is the love of sacrificial action.

What caught your eye in 2 John?

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1 John 5: Faith is the Victory

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith.  Who is the one who conquers the world?  Surely the one who believes that Jesus is God’s son!  (5:4b-5)

If faith is believing in what you cannot see, then a person without faith is limited only to what they can sense in some way.  A no-faith life is really a life of the here and now.  How can there be hope for something else, something better, some amazing renewal?  Imagine if this is all there is to life?  There are many great blessings to this life right now, but there are just as many set-back and heartbreaks.

Faith is what moves us beyond the worldly limitations, disappointments and darkness.  Faith is what allows us to believe that there once was a better world and there will once again be something better.  Faith allows us to rise above the boundaries of our own present realities.

And, of course, it is all possible because of Jesus.

What stood out to you in this last chapter of 1 John? 

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1 John 4: What is Love?

Love.  Everyone seeks it in some way or another.  Everyone has an idea of what it is, but we also realize it is more complicated than the platitudes we usually use.  We reduce love down to the emotions of romance or we so elevate and spiritualize the concept of love that only the superheroes of faith like Mother Teresa or Corrie ten Boom are capable of true love.

What is love?  There are several chapters in the New Testament where the focus is intently on love.  First Corinthians 13 is the most famous of these, but 1 John 4 needs to be on the short list.  The words “love,” “loves,” “loved,” or “beloved” are used 30 times in today’s twenty-one verse chapter.  What can we learn about real love from John?

  1. Love comes from God, not ourselves (4:7)
  2. Christians must especially love each other (4:7)
  3. Learning to love is one of the ways we are born anew spiritually as God’s children (4:7)
  4. Learning to love helps us come to know God (4:7)
  5. A lack of love is a fundamental block to spiritual birth and growth (4:8)
  6. God’s nature is tied to love (4:8, 16)
  7. Jesus was the supreme example of God’s love (4:9, 10)
  8. God loves us before we ever reciprocated that love, and our love is also a response to His (4:10, 19)
  9. We show the best love to others when we imitate the sacrificial love of God (4:11)
  10. Loves means laying down your own will for others (4:11)
  11. God is made visible through the love of his people (4:12)
  12. A person has to believe or have faith that God loves him or her (4:16)
  13. One can “live” or “abide” in love as if it is a state of being (4:16)
  14. Fear is antithetical to love, and true love will eliminate fear from a relationship (4:18)
  15. There are measures of love, and love can be “incomplete” (4:17, 18)
  16. A Christian can’t be hateful to others and still claim to love God (4:20, 21)
  17. Loving visible humans should be easier than loving an invisible God (4:20)

Which of these meant the most to you?  What else did you learn about love today?

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