Posts Tagged With: John

Revelation 17: Babylon the Great, Mother of Whores!

When an event like the tragedy in Newtown, CT takes places, it is common that in the news the same event is replayed from lots of different perspectives.  That is the best way to view this section of Revelation as well.  Rather than understanding chapters 16-19 chronologically, we are seeing the same fall of Rome from several viewpoints.

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Today, John sees Rome (code-named Babylon) pictured as a gaudy, drunken prostitute riding on a red, seven-headed, ten-horned beast.  She is drunk on the “blood of God’s holy people” (17:6).  Rome is pictured here as a power-drunk manipulator of the nations, offering base pleasure, riding on the beast of brute power.  So pictured, we can all think of many such prostitutes throughout the ages.  Interestingly, when we talk about two powers — political, cultural, or economic — joining forces in order to increase their market share, we say they are “in bed” with each other.

The description of the beast is quite detailed.  In what is clearly an inferior parody of the Lamb, the Beast is described this way:

. . . when they see the monster that was and is not and is to come. (17:8)

The seven heads symbolize both seven hills (just like Rome was built on) and seven emperors of Rome, much as they did on the seven-headed beast in Romans 13.  The most salient point regarding the heads/emperors of the beast is that there will soon come an eighth head/emperor who “is also one of the seven” (17:11).  This strange statement is best understood as a reference to the soon-to-ascend destructive Domitian, who will be like Nero returning from the dead.  The ten horns are foreign puppet-kings that join the prostitute in her persecution of the Lamb.

In a strange twist of events, as the chapter ends the ten horns and the beast turn against the prostitute, destroying her with fire and eating her flesh.  These ten kings will eventually revolt and overtake Rome.  The prostitute discovers what many have found throughout the ages: “every revolutionary power contains within itself the seed of destruction” (Mounce, Revelation, 320 quoting Lilje).  In opening the door of alliance, Rome also opened the door to defeat.  Power attracts, but them it corrupts and turns people against each other.  Power is Rome’s downfall.

John adds one more point that would have been most important to the first recipients of this book:

God has put it into their hearts to do his will. (17:17)

With all this talk of Satan, it would be easy to think dualistically as if God and Satan are fighting each other with near equal power, heading towards an uncertain end.  John remind us all that God is sovereign and all that is done comes by His hand.  God is ultimately responsible for Rome’s fall.

What did you notice today?

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Revelation 14: Living with End-Time Vision

The conflict in John’s visions lets up for a moment, and now things are about to get loud!

John has a new vision, this time of the Lamb and the 144,00 marked on their foreheads for rescue and reward.  Standing on Mount Zion in the ideal city of God safely away from the pressing of the grapes of God’s wrath outside of the city (14:20).  So the praise erupts.  A thunderous, cascade of harps and a new song just for the moment.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this scene?  How does one ensure he will be there (14:4-5)?

  • Avoid sexual immorality
  • Follow the example of Jesus aggressively
  • Be ready to suffer and sacrifice
  • Speak with utter truth and purity

These qualities would have been especially poignant for the original recipients of this book.  Life in the Roman Empire where they were being progressively pushed towards life-and-death decisions made them daily have to determine whether they were willing to remain unspotted like the 144,000 of this vision (maybe recent Christian martyrs like Antipas who had been faithful unto death, 2:14?).  A little lie about their beliefs could save them some harassment.  Avoiding oppression through participation in the religious cults of the Empire and the trade guilds (unions) of their towns would also place them into sexually immoral situations, for sure.  Were they ready to follow Jesus’ example of holiness even to the point of sacrifice?

Many of us are not in the same immediate threat of physical harm and economic marginalization because of our faith.  But the pull to engage in a culture that is far too sexual and dishonest is still very real.  One can stand out too much in business and culture.  One can be too religious, right?  The call to faithfulness is one we need to hear too.

Begin with the end in mind

Begin with the end in mind

Maybe it helps to think like the second angel mentioned in this chapter:

Babylon the Great has fallen!  She has fallen! (14:8)

Remembering that apocalyptic literature is stated in code, Babylon is certainly a reference to Rome.  As Babylon was the immoral and barbarous nemesis of the people of God in the last part of the Old Testament, likewise Rome is to the nascent Church.  The trouble is that Rome had not fallen.  In fact, when John is writing this Rome is a great height of power.  She still has the ability to make her mark on these Christians (14:9) and to kill.

Maybe the point is that to live faithfully in the midst of hard times requires end-time vision.  We must remain focused on how things end, not how they are right now.  We must bear in mind where each of the forks in the road leads in the end, not what they look like right now.  The Rome of our lives have fallen.  They are fading away.  The Lamb will win in the end.  A new city is coming where the harvest is gathered in for abundant living (14:14-16).  That was certainly one of the reasons for this whole book: the give end-time vision to a persecuted people so as to strengthen their resistance.  Often, we need that encouragement too.

What stood out to you?

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Revelation 10: Sweet but Sour

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“The Angel of the Revelation” by William Blake

Back in the sequence of the seven seals we came to an interlude between the sixth seal and the seventh that spoke encouragingly of the sealed 144,000 and the numberless masses.  Today we come to another interlude at the same point in this new sequence of seven trumpets.  This break in the action of judgment is also intended to be a message to the Christians directly, but this time about their responsibility as witnesses.

A giant angel holds a small, opened scroll in his hand.  John is told to take this scroll and eat it, and he does.  Then John is told the prophecies of punishment on the evil of the world will continue.  A logical conclusion is that this scroll contains the visions of Revelation 10 and 11, revelations that must be given to the Christians directly before we can return to the seventh trumpet at the end of chapter 11.

The detail that caught my attention is that the scroll tastes sweet but then it turns the stomach sour.

“Take it,” he [the voice from heaven] said to me, “and eat it.  It will be bitter in your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.”  So I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand, and I ate it.  It tasted like sweet honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach felt bitter. (10:9-10)

That God will see the faithful through these horrible days of judgment is sweet indeed.  They can rest assured of the protection their seal affords.  Yet, the message of chapter 11 will remind them that they must first suffer.  They are not saved from death, they are victorious through death.  The immediate, emotional realization of this fact will turn their stomach.

We are again reminded that while Revelation is definitely a book of hope and good news, it does not promise a pain-free, comfortable ride through the choppy waters of persecution.  One has to take up his cross before receiving a crown.  

When have you experienced the bittersweet nature of divine revelation before?

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Revelation 4: Who Is Really Seated on the Throne?

Like all the great prophets of the Bible, one of the first visions John receives is one of God.  Jesus, who can open all doors (3:7), opens the door of heaven and ushers John into the throne-room of the Lord Almighty.  This is the point where I think words are insufficient to express the reality, but John keeps on writing.  I can only imagine that the reality will be even better than this amazing chapter!

There are always those inevitable days when other forces loom on the horizon as god-like.  For the Christians of Asia Minor that force was Roma — the personified power of Rome, a military, cultural, and economic superpower.  At times like this we may know in our head that God is unparalleled even by this force before us, but our hearts and souls sometimes need reminders.  This is when we most need a full-senses reminder of who is really the god of this world.  Maybe that comes in study or worship or service.  For John it came in this vision.  How could he face all that is to come in this book without first seeing this majestic vision of God?

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I am drawn to the four grotesque creatures that surround the brilliant throne of God.  Each in a different way signifies great power.  An ox was the John Deere tractor of the ancient world.  How can agriculture be successful without a good team of oxen?  The skies are dominated by the eagle.  With its sharp talons, keen eyesight, and fast speed prey can only hope to run for cover.  The lion was and to some degree still is the universal symbol for strength.  The ancient Assyrians marched out to battle with lions on their shields.  Today we call the lion the king of the jungle.  But what can out-power all three of these?  A human, well armed and skilled for the hunt.  Standing at the top of the food chain is a well-muscled, intelligent human.  And yet all of these great symbols of power praise the “Lord God Almighty” (4:8).  With their many eyes these creatures see all things.  They know who is most worthy of honor.  Still they praise God.  Nothing escapes their attention; they are always alert, never sleeping.  Still they praise God.  Who else is worthy of such praise?

O Lord our God, you deserve to receive glory and honor and power, because you created all things; because of your will they existed and were created. (4:11)

What caused your heart to sail in today’s reading?

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Revelations 3: The Jesus of the Churches

2171172330103330085S500x500Q85Promises.  We all get a lot of them.  Promises are only as good as the one making the promise.  Making promises isn’t the same as wishful thinking.  To give a good promise you must have the ability to deliver on that promise.  In each of the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3, Jesus makes a promise to bring something — good or bad — to someone because of what they have done or not done.  In every case, Jesus makes it clear he possesses what is necessary to fulfill his promise.

Each of the seven letters starts with a description of the ascended, victorious Christ.  Then at some point in each letter Jesus promises something to either those who have persisted in wickedness or faithfulness.  John has done a masterful job of connecting promises with aspects of Jesus’ description in each letter so that the point is driven home that Jesus possesses the ability to deliver on what he has said. (Click here for a PDF of this chart.)

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We don’t just serve a God of wishful thinking.  Jesus doesn’t just hope he can help us.  We aren’t just crossing our fingers and wishing on a star.  Our God makes promises, and He possesses all that is necessary to fulfill those promises.

What did you notice in this chapter?

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Revelation 2: Balancing “In” And “Not Of” The World

Live in the world, but do not become like the world.  That is the calling of a Christian, and a formulation we have probably all heard all of our lives.  (Did you know that phrase is not actually in the Bible?  The concept certainly is.)  We are called to be involved in the lives of non-Christians, not a detached group that vilifies, hates, and avoids those not like us.  We are called to shape the culture in which we live for the sake of Christ.  At the same time we are called to remain unspotted from the filth of this world.  We are not to become so like our non-Christian neighbors that we are shaped by their culture.

That is a challenging balance to maintain!

In Revelation 2-3, John addresses the seven churches of Asia, each in turn, in what are most like little “letters” to each.  A common theme running throughout these interesting sections is the way in which each church has interacted with the pagan, sinful culture in which they live.  Life in the first-century Roman Empire required one to worship the pagan gods and the Emperor.  Most of the publicly available meat came from sacrifices offered to pagan gods.  Business required a person to be a part of a trade guild (like a union) that had a patron god.  Public life was immensely immoral, especially sexually immoral.  Like any large economy, it was important to turn a buck, one way or another.  How do you live as a follower of Christ in such an environment?

Remember, the recipients of Revelation were persecuted Christians, targeted because they were identifiably different from their neighbors.  An easy way to avoid that persecution, though, is to lessen the degree to which you stand out as different.  A little cultural accommodation never killed anyone, right?  Maybe it might even keep you alive to share the gospel another day.  Jesus, who is in their midst (1:12), has seen their lives and has a message for each, usually focused on the way that church has chosen to live in their non-Christian society.

For ease of discussion I am including a chart that places each of the seven churches (and two other groups) on a continuum according to how they chose to interact with their culture (click on the graphic to enlarge and print from this PDF).  As you read through the “letters” to the seven churches, see if you can tell why I have placed them where I have.

There was a group in the churches of Asia Minor who were extreme accommodationists.  The Nicolaitans seemed to believe (like the Gnostics) that a Christian showed his superior spiritual strength by engaging in all the sinful practices of pagan life but without that affecting his soul.  The followers of “Balaam” (2:14) and “Jezebel” (2:20) — surely, two code names — were likely Nicolaitans.  It appears that this sort of thinking had been influential to various degrees in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum.  The Laodiceans had developed the same sort of arrogance those in their city had who have become rich and self-sufficient (3:17).  Given that the Christians in Sardis were not suffering any persecution at all, it would appear they had chosen not to stand out from society in any great way.  Jesus scolds these churches for their compromise of doctrine, purity, and zeal.

At the other extreme would have been Christians who were on guard against this sort of cultural accommodation to such a degree that they isolated themselves from society, becoming judgmental and unwelcoming to outsiders.  While immensely pure, they also lacked the love for others that God so desired His people to have.  The Pharisees (literally the “set-apart ones”) would have the best known example of this mentality, though they were not Christians.  Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus was most known for this lack of love, and thus Jesus highlighted this compromise of attitude (2:4).

Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia escape any criticism at all from Jesus.  These centrist churches seemed to recognize their role as shapers of culture and were doing so admirably, even if that did mean that both of them would have to sacrifice their own comfort to do so.

Of course, this same continuum can be used to describe churches at any time in history and any place on the globe.  God’s kingdom in always an alternative community, different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to be the “kingdom of priests” (1:6) who stand in the gap as mediators with one hand on God and one hand in the world.

What do you think?

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Revelation 1: The King is in Your Midst

Jesus figures significantly in this first chapter of Revelation.  There should be no wonder; this is the “revelation of Jesus Christ” as verse one tells us.

John greets the seven churches of Asia Minor with a grand praise of Jesus, their common Savior:

Jesus the Messiah, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. (1:5)

Now, stop for a moment.  Think how provocative that flourish of praise is.  John is ascribing a power to Jesus that is equal or even surpasses the Caesar.  Is this god of the Christians more powerful than the Caesar who rules all other regional kings of the Mediterranean?  What a dangerous way to start a book to people persecuted for their seditious beliefs!

Lest there be a misunderstanding, this is a different kind of king.  Yes, he has conquered kingdoms.  He holds in his hands trophies of powers that have been vanquished.

He touched me with his right hand. “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “I am the first and the last and the living one.  I was dead and look!  I am alive forever and ever.  I have the keys of death and Hades. (1:17-18)

Jesus is not a king like Caesar.  He certainly desires the hearts of those who address him as king, but he is not seeking more soil and greater riches.  He has conquered a power greater than Caesar himself.  His greatest victories are spiritual.

John not only says great things about Jesus in this chapter, he even has a vision of Jesus as well:

So I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me.  As I turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the middle of the lampstands “one like a son of man,” wearing a full-length robe and with a golden belt across his chest. (1:12-13)

As we start this book, it is important for us to note where Jesus is in this vision.  He stands in the midst of seven lampstands, which verse 20 tells us signify the seven churches to whom this book is written.  Thus, as we start this book we see Jesus standing in the midst of his suffering people.

Jesus is a mighty king but also a compassionate comforter.

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Revelation

Recently, a friend and mentor said he and his co-teacher had taught every book in the New Testament in their Sunday School class . . . except Revelation.  It is just too hard a book to teach responsibly.  True!  I am afraid this sentiment is true for many Christians too.  They avoid Revelation out of fear, confusion, or intimidation.  Some so neglect the book they don’t even realize the book is called Revelation (singular), not Revelations (plural).

But many of us also know people who hang out in Revelation to the exclusion of much of the rest of the New Testament.  Every news headline is a fulfillment of some obscure detail in Revelation.  This two-thousand year old book was certainly talking about the European Union or Barack Obama or Pope Benedict.  Making sure people know and agree with these interpretations of prophecy is equally as important as how one treats his neighbor or whether care is given to the destitute.

Whether one avoids the book or camps out in its pages, Revelation is an absolutely incredible piece of literature and fitting end to the Bible.  Personally, once I took a seminary class on the book my confusion over the book was far less.  Now, Revelation is easily in my top five favorite books of the Bible.  More and more I see how the teachings of this book have become integral to my own theology.  There is no way these short posts will help us all overcome our under- or overemphasis on Revelation, but may the last month of this blog help us all gain a new appreciation for this majestic book.

Revelation was written by a man named John.  But which John?  The apostle and writer of the Gospel and Epistles?  Probably not.  There is too many stylistic and theological differences to suggest these were all written by the same author.  Many scholars are content to simple say this is a different John, maybe “John the Revelator,” writing from exile on the island of Patmos just off the coast of Asia Minor near Ephesus.

When was Revelation written is also somewhat contested and a question that many scholars believe can be answered very precisely because of cryptic references in the book.  What most agree on is that the book was written during a period when Christians were being persecuted and therefore had to speak in code.  This would fit the time period of Nero in the 60s AD when Peter and Paul are traditionally thought to have been killed, but an even better case can be made that this fits the 80s when the Roman Emperor Domitian brought about an even bloodier oppression of Christianity.  I tend toward a later date.

What kind of book is this?  Prophecy?  Yes, there is certainly prophecy in the book.  A letter?  We know from the first three chapters that this book was addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor (where the persecution of Christians in the 80s AD was worst).  Revelation is sermonic and poetic in places, and maybe the best term for the book is apocalyptic, in that it is giving a message veiled in exaggerated, fantastical imagery because of perceived opposition to free speech.  Bottomline: Revelation is good literature.

When is Revelation talking about?  This is somewhat simplified, but there are three main options:

  1. Then — John was addressing people in the first-century undergoing first-century problems, mainly political and cultural persecution.  The main evil in the book is Rome.  The grotesque beasts are emperors and political/economic institutions.  Maybe the last three chapters are talking about the end of time, but the rest of the book has to stay anchored in an ancient Roman context.
  2. Future — John was foreseeing cataclysmic events that would take place at the end of time as Jesus returns and the New Creation comes.  Of course, the beginning of the end could be right now, which is what many people have thought all throughout time since the first-century.  So look for the “signs of the times” all around you.
  3. Always — John was speaking in symbols and by nature symbolism is much more timeless and malleable to situation.  We press the images too far when we come up with singular, specific, time-bound fulfillments.  John is speaking of evil in its many faces and forms, all throughout time.  Thus, John is talking about Rome but also our world today and the Middle Ages and the age to come.

Personally, I prefer the last option, with a heavy emphasis on “then.”

This month we may not break the code on whether Sandy and Katrina, economic cliffs, and re-elections are harbingers on the end-times.  But if we keep our eyes wide open to the big picture I believe we will be encouraged by John’s main point: Do not be discouraged by the darkness you see all around you, God wins in the end!  Better days are coming!  Praise the Lamb who has made the victory sure!

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John 21: Never the Same Again

When you really meet Jesus for the first time, your life will never be the same again.  

I trained for the ministry in undergrad.  I earned my degree in Bible and at twenty-two I launched out into the world with too many fears and too little faith.  I then proceeded for several years to run away from the call to ministry. I worked in restaurant management and then in the insurance industry.  Mainly I worked at getting a paycheck and distracting myself from the fear and inadequacy I felt about he prospect of working for a church.  Then, I could fight it no more.  At the insistence of my good wife, we moved off to Memphis for graduate school and I have been in educational ministry ever since.

I enjoyed the insurance job a great deal (the restaurant job, not so much) and could have stayed in that job for many years and many promotions, but I had a nagging sense that all I was doing was making a rich company richer.  My life was missing purpose.  I was made for something different.  I am not being dramatic when I say that there is rarely a day in my ministry career now when I would say there is no purpose to what I do; I see the point of my work by the hour practically (though not the results, often).  Still, there are days when I am tired from the pace and never-ending nature of teaching (not the kids, they are great!) that I joke with my wife that I ought to quit and go back to insurance.  Of course I never would, by choice.  Never.  I don’t think I could ever do that job again with any degree of satisfaction.

Peter had left fishing behind three years before.  Had it been a lucrative job?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it had been a job and it put supper on the table, or breakfast as this story would have it.  Then he matched off after this rabbi and his life had never been the same since.  But he blew it.  He didn’t just deny Jesus once, but three times.  How could he keep following Jesus?  How could Jesus accept him?  So he went back to fishing:

Simon Peter spoke up.  “I’m going fishing,” he said. (21:3a)

Maybe we read this and think Peter was going off to wet a line like some retired man passing some time.  But fishing was not a pass-time with Peter, it was a job.  Peter was saying, I am going back to what I did before.  I am a failure as a disciple, so back to the boat and nets.  What happens next is so interesting:

So they went off and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing. (21:3b)

Peter can’t do what he did before.  It doesn’t work.  There is no going back.  He has met Jesus and his life will never be the same.  His ability to catch fish is frustrated, because he has a new purpose in life: to be a fisher of men.

Only when Jesus comes along and guides Peter’s hands again does he find success.  A night without a single fish turns into the catch of the year, only because Jesus blessed their work.  Do you really think that there was a miraculous number of fish just on the other side of the boat and they never tried that?  The point, though, is not about fish.  Peter will only find success when he is working for Jesus again.

Then three times Jesus reinstates Peter to his new ministry:

“Well, then,” he said, “feed my lambs.” (21:15)

“Well, then,” he said, “look after my sheep.” (21:16)

“Well, then,” said Jesus, feed my sheep.” (21:17)

Peter can’t go back to catching fish; he has a job to do feeding the sheep of Christ’s church.  And the rest is history. Peter’s life was never the same.

John has taken us from the beginning of Jesus’ life — actually before his birth, to the point when he created the world — to the death and resurrection of our Savior and now to Jesus as he prepares to leave the world in the hands of people like Peter.  What will they do now? History tells us that all of them went on to live radically altered lives of service and sacrifice.  Eleven of the twelve apostles will die a martyr’s death and our author John will die in exile.  John leaves the reader with the same question Peter had to answer: what do I do now?  Now that you see who Jesus really is, what will you do now?  There is no turning back.  You will never be the same again.

What did you learn from this month’s reading of John?

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John 20: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Back in college, I studied the Gospel of John with Jim Woodroof, an fantastic speaker and an even better man.  In that course, we read a book he had written about the Fourth Gospel called Between the Rock and A Hard Place.  The basic premise of the book, as I recall, was that Jesus is consistently portrayed in John as one who places people “between a rock and a hard place” so as produce a decision of faith in their life.  Jesus desired to bring people to rock solid faith in him but first they had to have reason to believe.

As was discussed in the introduction to John, one of John’s greatest goals with his book was to help people come to believe in Jesus.  This is the “gospel of belief,” as our other textbook called John.  We see a statement of this goal at the end of our chapter today, in what for many is the purpose statement of this gospel:

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which aren’t written in this book.  But these are written so that you may believe that the Messiah, the son of God is none other than Jesus; and that, with this faith, you may have life in his name. (20:30-31)

Belief, though, is easily squashed by doubt and alternate explanation.  As long as one can explain the deeds of Jesus in some other way, faith can be deferred.

My professor’s point was that over and over again we see Jesus doing things that could only be explained by him being divine.  He can tell the Samaritan woman details about her love-life.  He can heal a man born blind.  Jesus walks up and paralysis is gone.  Thousands of people eat a full meal from five loaves and two fish.  This was the “hard place.”  There people stood between the hard place of trying to explain away the inexplicable or the rock solid faith that can come through a belief in Jesus.  Either Jesus is divine as he says or there is some naturalistic explanation for what has just happened, but what that could be?  Could it be that Jesus is God is the easiest explanation?

I see this dynamic happening three times in John 20.

  1. It all comes to a head for the “other disciple” — who most people think is John — when he runs into the empty tomb and sees the grave cloths all neatly folded up.  This can’t be explained away, and it made everything else make sense for him (20:8-9)
  2. Mary sees a man she thinks is the gardener, a stranger to her. But when he can call her by name, she realizes Jesus was more than just a man. (20:16)
  3. Thomas can’t believe that Jesus could be back from the dead.  That is until he puts his fingers in Jesus’ wounds and can’t deny the facts. (20:25-28)

The best ending to this post would be these words of Jesus from today’s reading:

Is it because you’ve seen me that you believe?  God’s blessing on people who don’t see, and yet believe. (20:29)

What did you see today?

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John 19: The King Takes His Throne

I like how as we have read through the four accounts of Jesus’ death from the various gospels each of the authors has emphasized something different.  Today I have seen John emphasize kingship.

The word “king” is used eight times in this chapter.  Jesus receives a crown and a thorn.  A crowd shouts for him.  He is even enthroned in a significant way.

But this is a king of a very different sort.  He wears a crown of thorns.  He wears the purple robe only long enough to be mocked.  He is slapped not saluted.  People shout for him, but for his death not his glory.  Let there be no mistake, Jesus is a king.  Pilate says it several times, even when the people object.  As he dies, Jesus hangs beneath a sign declaring it too:

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (19:19)

With this in mind, John paints the picture of this chapter as a paradoxical enthronement.  This is Jesus the King, and the King has taken his throne.

Jesus is the king of sacrifice.  His is a kingdom of selfless service where love is the power that changes the world.  In this kingdom, victory comes through death.  His subjects will follow his example.  On this day the King is crowned and seated on his throne.

Do you see this too?

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John 18: Jesus’ Special Place

My favorite place in Memphis, TN, where I live, is a large park in the middle of the metroplex called Shelby Farms.  Once a penal farm where the detainees would produce their own food (hence the name), now this 4000-acre park is home to fields, trails, lakes, a river to canoe, a state-of-the-art playground, equestrian area, dog park, disc golf course, community gardens, agricultural land, and natural woodlands.  There is more than enough room for one to get lost from the cares and concerns of life and be distracted by the beauty and order of nature.  This is why I love Shelby Farms most.  A hike in the woods is the best therapy I know.  What a great way to get away from the stress of a week of work or to blow off the steam that comes from parenting adolescents.  This is my special place, because it is a getaway.

Sunset in Shelby Farms by my 13-year-old son

John tells us today that Jesus also had a special place:

With these words, Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden.  He and his disciples went in.  Judas, his betrayer, knew the place, because Jesus often used it as a meeting place with his disciples. (18:1-2)

Maybe it was just a meeting place.  Or maybe it was Jesus’ meeting place because this was a that place Jesus liked to be.  We know Jesus would often withdraw from the masses for times of prayer and meditation.  We know Jesus would often go to mountainsides and wilderness places at these times.  I think it is possible that this was that sort of place for Jesus.  What a logical place to go on this night.

“The Betrayal of Jesus” by Duccio Di Buoninsegna

Here is the kicker.  Jesus’ special place is the very place where he will be betrayed, where he will pray with desperation to not drink the cup of God’s wrath, where he will sweat drops of blood.  This is the place where Jesus’ will last experience freedom.  Even more startling is that Jesus knew all of this about his garden, long before it ever happened:

Jesus knew everything that was going to happen to him. (18:4a)

Jesus’ special place was the very place he would be betrayed.  Jesus has made regular pilgrimages to the very spot where everything will begin to be unraveled for him.  This is anything but a getaway.  Jesus wasn’t escaping the reality of life; he was immersing himself in it.  He was reminding himself of how this is supposed to end.  How amazing!

What did you see in today’s passage?

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John 17: Focused on Others Even at the End

It was the last night before Jesus’ death.  By noon the next day he will be dying on a cross, the sins of the world weighing him down.  He has been eating with his closest friends and students.  Jesus uses this moment to pray one more prayer in front of his community, a prayer that no doubt taught them volumes.  John 17 is that prayer.

What would your last public prayer be about?

When remembered in this context, I am always struck by how focused Jesus’ last prayer is on his disciples.  When many of us might pray for ourselves — and for good reason; Jesus was about to be beaten, humiliated and murdered; wouldn’t it be normal to prayer for yourself? — Jesus is focused on his friends.  This man filled with love is exuding that love even down to the end.

I’m praying for them. . . . I’m not in the world any longer, but they’re still in the world; I’m coming to you.  Holy Father, keep them in your name. (17:9a, 11)

What caught your eye?

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John 16: Sorrow into Joy

You will be overcome with sorrow, but your sorrow will turn into joy.  When a woman is giving birth she is in anguish, because her moment has come.  But when the child is born, she no longer remembers the suffering, because of the joy that a human being has been born into the world.  In the same way, you have sorrow now.  But I shall see you again, and your hearts will celebrate, and nobody will take your joy away from you. (16:20-22)

Oh man, I hope so!

All of us have sorrows that weigh us down in a heavy way.  All of us need release from something that seems to be our master.  Like Jesus’ analogy here, all of us have times when we think our “babies” will never be birthed.  I am thinking of a particular trial in my life that seems particularly unending and hopeless.  You should think of what your sorrow is too.

I cherish the reminder that joy will eclipse sorrow, that suffering will be forgotten and celebration will be the final word.  Many days I feel foolish believing that can be, in the situation I am thinking of.  But I hang on to hope, and cherish passages like this one.

How about you?

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John 15: Fitting In

“If the world hates you,” Jesus went on, “know that it hated me before it hated you.  If you were from the world, the world would be fond of its own.  But the world hates you for a reason: that you’re not from the world.  No: I chose you out of the world.  Remember the word that I said to you: servants are not greater than their masters.  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too.” (15:19-20)

Should we try to fit in?

If we totally fit into our world, is there a problem?  If we think and act like our non-Christian neighbors, should we be concerned?  If we are as liked by anybody we meet as anyone else, is that less than ideal?  Jesus seems to think so.

Now let me ask a few more specific and potentially uncomfortable questions and invite you to respond and ask your own questions of this sort in your comments.  Should we dress like the world?  Should our budgets, pocketbooks, and retirement plans look different?  Should our definitions of success be different?  Should we be bothered by mainstream entertainment?  Should we find it hard to embrace any particular political candidate and party completely?

But how much difference is too much and just makes us unnecessarily odd, not “persecuted”?

What do you think?

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John 14: If You Have Seen Me, You Have Seen God

If you had known me, you would have known my father.  From now on you do know him!  You have seen him. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the father! (14:7, 9)

What a provocative claim!  When you look at Jesus, you are looking at God.  Jesus only makes it clearer the further we read through this chapter:

Don’t you believe that I am in the father, and the father is in me? (14:10a)

It’s the father, who lives within me . . . . (14:10b)

I am in the father and the father is in me. (14:11)

If we have only known Christianity all of our life, maybe we don’t really appreciate how outstanding this claim was.  What other significant religious leader in history has claimed such a thing?  Would Muhammad have claimed such a thing?  Not at all!  That would have been blasphemous and worthy of death.  Would the Buddha have claimed to have been a god?  Though people have turned him into such, the Buddha was clear before his death that he was not a god, did not wish to be worshiped as deity, and did not even want to theorize about divinity anyway as he was simply interested in solving the problem of human suffering.  Would Abraham or Moses or Rabbi Hillel?  This too would have been highly offensive.  The Jews of Jesus’ time were ready to stone Jesus for claiming such.  Maybe one of the 330 million Hindu gods would have claimed to be a god taken human form in order to reveal the nature of the great universal power of Brahman to the unenlightened world.  But what Hindu in recorded history has ever had a run in with these gods of legend?  Besides, the fleshly body is but an illusion that the gods help us escape, why would they want to become flesh?  Marx thought religion and its gods were just an “opiate” for the hungry, disillusioned masses.  Freud would have said a god was just a projection of your superego.  Any good secular humanist would either laugh at the idea that a god even exists, or if one does that god is not at all involved in this closed system we call our universe.  And into that world, those of us who are Christians claim Jesus is God in the flesh.  Truly provocative!  And what a privilege to serve such a god!

And if the claim that God came to this world to reveal himself as a human named Jesus is not scandalous enough, the shock continues.

But you know him, because he [the helper; the Holy Spirit] lives with you, and will be in you. (14:17)

Not only did God condescend to live in the flesh as a human named Jesus, God lives in those of us who are Christians by way of the Holy Spirit.  What other religion in the world claims that the god would come to live in us?  Judaism and Islam are religions of the book; God has done all that is necessary when he gave us a book.  God does not need to come down to our level and it would be unfitting of God to do so.  The eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism would agree that there is divinity in the follower, but there is a spark of the divine in all living things.  This is no special honor.  And this piece of the divine Brahman power has no real consciousness and does not guide us into better living.  A secular humanist is no more convinced that God, if he exists, would indwell us than he did Jesus.  How audacious to believe that our God actually lives within us!  Again, a great privilege!

What do you think?

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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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