Tag: John

The Most Provocative Word (John 1:1-18)

by on Apr.15, 2015, under Sermon

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ (14)

The lights dim and the buzz dissipates into stillness. Amidst hushed anticipation, the gathered gloom gives birth to a lone figure, striding purposefully towards her post. Having secured attention, evidenced by swelling applause from behind her and watchful readiness in front, she takes her place and, after the slightest of pauses, signals commencement.

The music that follows is not the feature; this is understood, for the curtains are not yet open. Yet it is of one piece with the show, and none can doubt it, for it is a tapestry of themes that are to come. This is known as the overture, and it is deliberately designed to set the scene for the play that is about to commence. The audience is introduced to the musical motifs that are so closely entwined with the plot as to be indistinguishable: the hero’s theme; the sinister tones of the villain’s refrain; the lovers’ duet; the haunting strains of loss. Before an actor so much as appears on stage, we are already familiar with the musical anchor points ahead of us. They are never explained; it is only if you know what is to come that it ‘makes sense’.

John opens his gospel in the same sort of fashion. In these first 18 verses, we are exposed to many of the mega themes that will come up over and over again throughout the rest of his message, such as light, darkness, life, rebirth, witness and revelation. Yet there is one thread woven all the way through this overture, like an instrument that plays the same riff in the midst of all the other themes, contributing to each and binding them all together. What’s more, this specific instrument doesn’t actually play again throughout the rest of the show! It is important, then, that we appreciate its contribution now whilst it plays. You can read through John’s Gospel to appreciate the other important themes, but this morning we want to focus on ‘the Word’.

‘The Word…’

John begins:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (1)

More than any other creature on earth, human beings love to communicate with one another; words are the way we do it. Some of us communicate with many words, some with few. We write them down, type them out, whisper them and shout them. We constantly invent technologies to allow us to communicate over greater distances more efficiently and effectively: the loud speaker; the radio; the telephone; video; the internet… and the list goes on! Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are just the latest in a long line of products that tap into our desire to, in words and pictures, communicate ourselves to one another. Can you imagine what those sites would be like if we took the words away?

We also use words to explain our actions. Who hasn’t heard a child launch in to a long and complicated explanation of exactly how they ended up where they did? In the absence of such explanation their actions may seem inexplicable; once explained they often do show a degree of logic, albeit not always sound! Their words give us a fuller picture of what was going on from their perspective.

We also use words to teach and to learn; I’m using them right now! We express important ideas and concepts that we need to convey using our words. When we go to school, a large part of our education is in learning the right phrases and terms to accurately express ourselves. We take complicated concepts like algebra, art and assonance and condense them down to a single representative word or phrase. We then use these words as a shorthand that allows us to build up even more complicated and interesting ideas, and the process repeats.

We choose our words carefully, because unless we do so they may be misunderstood, or may convey a message other than – or even contrary to – the one we intended.

We can sum these three ideas up – expressing ourselves, explaining our actions, and instructing others – using the word ‘revelation’. Some things cannot be discovered or found; they must be revealed.

God uses words for all of these purposes as well. First and foremost, God reveals himself to us through his Word. He speaks to Adam&Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and so on. To each one he shares a little bit more of his essence, who he is. We can infer some things about God based on his creation, but without his words we are unable to understand what makes him tick, who he is.

Who God is defines what God does. If we do not know his character, we cannot possibly understand what drives his actions. Take the story of the Flood in Genesis 6. A massive flood comes and wipes out the population of the Earth, excepting only 8 people; this is a tragedy by anyone’s standards. It is only when we hear God’s words about this event that we realise that God is a holy and just God, who cannot abide evil. Yet he is also a merciful God, who gives grace to those whom he chooses.

Of course, God also uses words for our instruction. Perhaps the most famous example of this is found in Exodus 20; it is the rare person who has not at least heard of the 10 Commandments. These are a series of explicit instructions that outline how God’s people are to act; at the same time, they further reveal God’s character and show what is important to him. They are what distinguished the people of Israel from all other nations, for God had revealed himself particularly to them.

In addition to the aspects of revelation we have already mentioned, God’s words have one more important characteristic: they accomplish his will. Think back to Genesis 1&2. God speaks the word – ‘light’ – and there is light. He speaks again and the waters separate from the sky, then recede to reveal dry land… and so on. It is God’s word that is the vehicle for his will. We can not do this. Occasionally I test this. I lie in bed after I wake up and say ‘up’. You might be surprised that often this has no measurable result at all; when it does, it usually only serves to make my wife grumpy enough to kick me out of bed!

God’s words are valuable to us beyond measure. We are fortunate to have God’s words written down for us. As I sit at my desk and write this, I can count 11 different translations of God’s word within arm’s reach. From these, from what God has said, I can learn something about who God is.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, no prophet had arisen to speak God’s word for some 400 years. Many Jews felt that they were living out the words of Amos’ prophecy:

I’ll send a famine through the whole country. It won’t be food or water that’s lacking, but my Word. – Amos 8:11

They longed for a return of God’s word, but what they got was not what they expected. For John speaks not of God’s words, but of his Word. This Word is a person in his own right, for though he “was with God” and indeed “was God”, he can nevertheless be spoken of as distinct from God. John speaks of a revelation greater than that given through Moses. And just in case we have no idea what he is talking about, John makes it clear:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (17).

‘… became flesh…’

Jesus combines all of these aspects of revelation in his person, works and words. He is the new and better – indeed the final and complete – revelation of God. He expresses God’s character in his own character, for he is God. When Jesus shows compassion, it is because his Father is compassionate; when Jesus is angry, we know that the Father is angry. Similarly, Jesus explains to us why God does what he does. He teaches us the response that God desires. And ultimately he accomplishes God’s purposes in the way that no other can. John summarises this at the end of today’s passage:

No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (18)

The fact that God the Son can be called ‘the Word’ tells us that it is God’s very nature to reveal himself. We are not capable of comprehending God in his entirety, for we are finite and he is infinite. But if a persons’ word is the means by which he reveals what he is thinking, Jesus is God’s thought spoken in such a way that men and women can understand it.

God is not to be thought of as aloof or indifferent. He reveals himself. But he reveals himself as he chooses. He is sovereign in revelation as in all else.

There is an important question to be answered here: if God has expressed himself fully and finally in Jesus, why do we need the rest of the Bible? Perhaps the New Testament is OK, for at least it is talking about Jesus, but why should I read the Old Testament? The answer is at the same time both simple and profound. The Bible as a whole gives us the vocabulary to understand Jesus. Let me see if I can explain.

In a couple of years, Jonny Miller will be of an age to properly appreciate his first Bledisloe Cup match. Let’s say that he sits down by himself in front of the television to watch it. Unless his indoctrination has already commenced, chances are good he won’t be able to make much of the game. If you asked him about it afterwards, he might be able to tell you that some of the people wore yellow and some black, that the yellow people were cheering at the end and the black ones looked sad… but that would probably be extent of it. If he sat down with his Dad, however, who explained what a try is, a lineout, a scrum, a drop-goal and so on, he would be starting to develop the vocabulary with which to understand and explain the game. As his knowledge and experience increased he would be able to grasp the more complicated aspects of the game, and the words associated with them – rules governing who is offside, what merits a penalty, tactics etc. Eventually he would reach a point where he could describe in detail all the events taking place on the field, and appreciate a Wallaby victory in all its glory! (Come to think of it, if this particular fantasy did actually come about, he might learn some vocabulary of a different sort!)

Is it any wonder that God, preparing the greatest event in history, wanted us to have the words and concepts with which to appreciate it? So we find that both the Old and New Testaments are riddled with ideas which we can use to understand Jesus. They are important ideas in their own right, and certainly had meaning and value to their original audience; but in addition to that role they also provide a context for catching some small portion of Jesus’ purpose, words and works. The themes and motifs presented in the Old Testament overture arrive full force in Jesus himself and are recognisable because we have already heard them in miniature. So we can say that Jesus is the new and better Adam, who faced his temptation in the garden yet remained without sin; he is the new and better Abel, killed because the sacrifice he brought was more acceptable than his brother, whose blood cries out, not for vengeance, but for forgiveness; the new and better Joseph, sent ahead by God to make preparation for the salvation of his people; the new and better Moses, through whom come ‘grace and truth’ not just ‘law’. I could keep going like this all day – but I won’t, because to do that would be to miss out on the rest of what John has to say to us. But before I leave this subject let me say that if you have no idea what I am talking about, let encourage you to make some time to spend reading through the Old Testament; don’t settle for an infant’s perspective on the most important event the world has seen or will ever see.

‘… and made his dwelling among us.’

But whilst Jesus’ ministry bore many similarities to Old Testament people and events, he also brought a unique twist.

What was new in John’s day was the fact that this Word “became flesh and dwelt [that is, remained] among us” (John 1:14). Rather than coming and going as he had in the days of Abraham and Moses and the prophets, the divine Messenger had now taken on human flesh and remained among men.

Jesus is the full, final and permanent revelatory Word of God. All that we need and are able to understand of God, we find present in Jesus Christ. He is God’s Word to you… and to me, and to us.

He is also what I have chosen to call a ‘provocative’ word, a word that demands a response.

Perhaps you are thinking that you are interested in knowing and hearing more from God, but now is just not a good time. Maybe tomorrow, or next week when it is more convenient? But there are some words that require a response:

  • ’Hello.’
  • ‘How are you?’
  • ‘My name is Tim.’
  • ‘Can I say something crazy?’

What kind of relationship would develop if you didn’t respond to any of these? ‘Um, can we talk about it next week?’ Chances of things developing seem pretty slim.

John points out very clearly that there are only two responses to this Word. On the one hand, it is possible to ignore him and even reject him; we know that many do. ‘He was in the world, but though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him’ (10-11). What a tragedy! Imagine that, instead of Jono explaining the game it is now the inventor of Rugby; what a shame it would be if Jonny decided to ignore him or reject him, because he could have no better opportunity of understanding it than that! Or, to shift the illustration, let’s say you were trying to act in one of Shakespeare’s plays and by some freak occurrence of time and space the author appeared to you and wanted to explain your part to you. Would you ignore him? Take this situation and multiply its magnitude many millions of times, and you might be starting to get close to the enormity of what John records: the Author of Life wrote himself into history in order to communicate with his creation.

It is far better, it seems to me, to take advantage of this unprecedented contact with the Author, to build a positive relationship with him. According to John, ‘to all who received him, to those who believed on his name, he gave the right to be children of God’ (12). This is important: in fact, it is what John has been leading up to. The reason Jesus, God’s Word, became flesh, was in order that we might become children of God. It is for this that ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us’ (14).

How does this relationship come about? According to John, it is ‘to those who received’ the Word that God gives the right to be children of God. How then do you receive Jesus? The first thing is to be sure that we are receiving the right person… and not some other pretending to be him. What’s more, our relationship must be founded on who he has revealed himself to be. Imagine I introduced myself to you as Tim, but you persisted in calling me Ralph, because that’s how you prefer to think of me; or that I told you I couldn’t stand eggs and the next week you serve me up omelette for dinner. Our relationship would not be going good places! This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked as we choose to receive the Jesus of our imagination rather than the Jesus revealed to us in Scripture. If you do that, you end up worshiping an imaginary God; if, instead, you commit yourself to seeking out the God of the Bible, he will not hide himself from you. After all, ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (14) for this very reason. ‘No one has seen the Father, but God, the One and Only, has made him known’ (18).

Read your Bible, and ask that God would reveal his Son to you through it; then ask that he would reveal himself to you through Jesus his Son.

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Worship in spirit and in truth (Study)

by on May.10, 2010, under Bible Study

In Heb 12:22-23a we are told: ‘But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.’ This is a tremendous picture of worship, but we are liable to interpret it as belonging more or less to the future because it is ‘heavenly’. This week we will study another meeting on another mountain to see how ‘heavenly’ worship extends into today.

Read John 4:4-18.

  • Why was it unusual for Jesus to be talking to this woman? What kind of ‘barriers’ spring up that prevent you from sharing the gospel?
  • What is the ‘living water’ Jesus speaks of?
  • What does the woman find most attractive about the living water? Why? Are these the same things that attract you to Jesus?
  • Why does Jesus ask about the woman’s husband, when he obviously already knows the answer?

At this point the Samaritan woman changes the topic (or does she?).

Read John 4:19-26.

The topic she chooses is one that had been well-argued by Jews and Samaritans for as long as there had been Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans were enemies of the Jews. They claimed to worship Yahweh, but chose to do so in their own way, rather than in the way God had commanded; they set up their own temple in opposition to the temple at Jerusalem. This was a source of great bitterness between Samaritans and Jews: the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple, whilst the Samaritans in return had attempted to desecrate the Jerusalem temple. So there are two conflicting temples, each claimed as the location of God’s presence. Each of these temples was built on a mountain: the Jewish temple on the imaginatively named Temple Mount, and the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim (where this story takes place). Mountains in Scripture consistently represent places where people meet with God, and where God reveals himself (compare Heb 12:18, 22). The conflict between the Jews and Samaritans came down to this: where is God found, and to whom has he revealed himself?

It is not a surprise, then, that this woman should choose this issue as the litmus-test for establishing the identity of this ‘prophet’. She wants to know where she should go to find and worship the true God.

  • What are some of the places that people expect to find God today?
  • What is Jesus’ response? What does it mean to ‘worship in spirit and truth’?
  • Is it truly necessary for both spirit AND truth in worship? What would a church look like that worshiped only in spirit? Only in truth?

There are three main occurrences of the word ‘must’ in John, and together they outline the gospel. First, Jesus instructs Nicodemus: ‘You must be born again’ (3:7). This is the first step, the source from which a life of faith and worship springs. If you are not a Christian, this is where you must start, for flesh can only give birth to flesh and not to spirit; if you want to worship God in spirit, as he requires, you must first be born again. Jesus knew that this could not happen unless he was obedient to his Father, submitting himself to his Father’s will even though it meant death. This is the meaning of the second ‘must': ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert the Son of Man must be lifted up’ (3:14). Walking through the desert, the people sinned against God, and his wrath was turned against them; only those who looked to the bronze snake that the LORD told Moses to make and lift up on a pole were saved. The message is clear: we must be born again, but cannot because we are sinful and God’s wrath is against us… yet God has provided a way by ‘lifting up’ Jesus, so that anyone who looks to him can be saved. There is only one proper response to this, the third ‘must': ‘God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship him in spirit and in truth’ (4:24).

Don’t miss the importance of this. Worship is not an additional extra to the Christian life; it is not something the Christian chooses to do, or not, according to their preferences, plans or passions. It’s not just that God accepts worship in spirit and truth, God seeks it! (4:23) Worshipping God is the responsibility of all believers. ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers’ – all of us! – ‘must worship him in spirit and in truth’ (4:24).

  • What is the woman’s response to what Jesus has told her? What is your response?
  • What have you learned about worship from this text? How does this compare with your own experience of worship? What needs to change?

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Jesus: What is the Difference?

by on Oct.04, 2009, under History, Sermon, Theology

An art critic once decided to judge, once and for all, which of the great master painters was the most true to life. He arranged for representative works from each of these masters to be gathered in one gallery. He wandered around for a while, gazing upon paintings of great beauty, rich with colour and form, but try as he might he could not decide. Then he struck upon the answer: Going to the gallery’s lighting controls, he dimmed the lights until the paintings could barely be made out and, standing at a distance, declared them all to be the same!

This story is, of course, absurd. You cannot evaluate the truthfulness of a painting (or anything else) by obscuring or ignoring the things that make it distinctive… yet that is exactly what some people try to do when they examine the competing claims of the world’s religions! ‘All religions are the same,’ they claim, ‘they all teach the same things.’ A common illustration used to explain this is that different religions are simply different paths up the same mountain; they all lead to the same God in the end. The name given to this viewpoint by people who like to name such things is pluralism.

What motivates such people? Some do it out of laziness – there are so many religions, so many views and perspectives, that it is easier to lump them all together and condemn them all at once.1 Others prefer a kind of generalised spirituality that borrows from each of the major religions, allowing them to pick and choose the elements that most appeal to them and binding them to none. More commonly in recent years, however, it is driven by a fear of religious intolerance. This last is a genuine concern, yet it is best dealt with not by closing our eyes to the differences between, say, Hinduism and Judaism, but by encouraging adherents of each to listen to one another respectfully even when we disagree.

Occasionally, pluralists will claim that, ‘If you put Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and other religious leaders in the same room they would get on just fine.’ This is the claim that I intend to explore today. To do so, we will consider the lives and teachings of three very different men, each of whom in his own way changed the world. Incidentally, if you wish to explore further on this topic, I can highly recommend John Dickson’s book A spectator’s guide to world religions, from which much of the material for this sermon has been gleaned.2

Some time in the 5th century BC, a man name Siddhartha Gautama was born into a Hindu family of the ‘warrior-king’ caste of Indian society. Around 29 years of age, so it is told, he left his palace to survey his kingdom, and was overcome with grief by what he saw: a frail old man; a desperately ill man; and a corpse. The next day, however, Gautama saw a very different man who was to change his life forever: a Hindu ‘ascetic’ – a guru who had chosen to pursue the ‘Path of Knowledge’. Siddhartha was so impressed by the serene appearance of this guru that he decided then and there to give up his life of luxury and seek the secret of serenity in a world of suffering. And so he left his privileged life, his beautiful wife, and his newborn baby, to search for an answer to the problem of suffering. He found it, one May night, sitting under a tree meditating. This was the moment of ‘enlightenment’ for Prince Siddhartha, and henceforth he was known to his disciples as the Buddha, which means ‘the enlightened one’.

What was the Buddha’s insight? It may be summarised in what has come to be known as ‘The Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhism: (1) suffering exists; (2) suffering springs from desire; (3) suffering goes when you eliminate desire; and (4) to eliminate desire you must follow the ‘Eightfold Path’, a sequence of steps that aim to help eliminate any concept of the self. The force of the logic is powerful: it is our desire for self-satisfaction, self-existence and self-advancement that creates the experience of pain. Therefore if you remove the self, desire goes; and when desire goes, so too does suffering.

Some thousand years after the Buddha lived another man, named Muhammad. Born in modern-day Saudi Arabia, his early life was filled with tragedy: before he was born his father died, whilst his mother also died when he was 6; after a brief stint living with his grandfather (who died when he was 8 ) he was cared for by his uncle, Abu Talib, a prominent clan leader in the city of Mecca. Muhammad was a contemplative man who frequently left the busyness of Mecca in favour of a cave where he could consider the mysteries of life.

One day, when he was about 40, he heard a heavenly voice repeating the word, ‘recite’. Muhammad didn’t know what to ‘recite’ until finally the voice – identified as that of the angel Gabriel – explained that he had been chosen as a ‘Messenger of God’ to restore to the world the truth about the Creator. From that moment on, Muhammad was referred to by his followers as the ‘Prophet’.

At first, Muhammad found little welcome in his home town of Mecca. His calls for equity and charity were not popular in this centre of commerce and trade. In the end, Muhammad was forced to leave Mecca for Medina, a city some 400km north. In Medina, Muhammad was able to establish a community founded on two things: belief in Allah as the one true God (rather than a Zeus-like overlord of the gods); and belief in Muhammad as his messenger. More than just being the religious leader of this community, however, he was also made the civil ruler of the city – and so the first Islamic state came into existence.3

Relations with Mecca continued to be strained until, in the year 624AD, Muhammad fought a major battle at the town of Badr. In spite of being massively outnumbered, by about 3 to 1, Muhammad prevailed. Over the following years, Muhammad’s forces steadily grew, until in 628AD the Meccans were forced to sign a truce, allowing the Prophet’s followers to visit his birthplace. This did not last long, however, for in the following year Muhammad accused the Meccans of breaking the truce, and lay siege to the city with 10, 000 men. The Meccans, helpless, surrendered and converted to Islam.4

The central concept of the Muslim life is submission to God’s law as revealed in the Koran and the example of the Prophet. Indeed, the word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’, whilst the word ‘Muslim’ means ‘one who submits’ (to Allah). Surrendering yourself to God’s law leads to eternal Paradise, whilst disobedience leads to destruction on the Day of Judgement. The heart of the law is found in what are often called the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’. These are (1) a declaration of faith, that ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet'; (2) daily prayers; (3) payment of a tax for the poor; (4) the fast of Ramadan; and (5) a pilgrimage to Mecca. By submitting to these 5 demands, men and women hope to secure their place in Paradise.

Nestled in the middle of the years separating these two men is Jesus of Nazareth. The birth of this man literally divides history, with the preceding years numbered as BC – ‘before Christ’ – and the following numbered as AD – anno domini, or ‘the year of the Lord’. Born to working-class parents, and growing up in the backwater Palestinian town of Nazareth, Jesus had little to distinguish him from other men, except some unusual events surrounding his birth. Yet in his early thirties he began a public ministry that was attended by extraordinary miracles and, in the eyes of some at least, even more extraordinary teachings. About 3 years into this ministry, he was arrested by Jewish authorities, illegally tried, and turned over to the Roman authorities to be put to death. He was certified as dead by a Roman executioner, buried in a tomb, and yet 3 days later he was seen alive by numerous people – even as many as 500 at one time!

Chief among Jesus’ teachings concerned the nature of his relationship with God, whom he claimed as his Father in an utterly unprecedented way. As he spoke the words that we have heard read, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6), he both affirmed his own ability to bring others into relationship with God, and denied that anybody else was able. In fact, the relationship between Father and Son is so profound, that knowing the Son is equivalent to knowing the Father (14:7, 9), for Jesus and the Father are one (10:30)!

It is at this point that it becomes utterly impossible to sustain the belief that ‘all religions are the same’. The Buddha rejects the notion of any God at all, yet Jesus claims not only that there is a God, but that to know Jesus is to know God. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realise that no God is not the same as one God – let alone the many gods of the Hindu religion! Muhammad claimed to have a revelation from God, whereas Jesus claimed to be a revelation from God. And for Jesus to claim, as he did, that he and God are one would be cause for death in Muhammad’s eyes.

Another irreconcilable difference between Jesus and the others is their different solutions to the problems of human existence. The Buddha taught that the problem was suffering, which originates in desire; the solution, then is to eliminate desire and so eliminate suffering. The Prophet taught that the problem is that men and women are disobedient towards Allah, and that the solution is to submit to the Law. Both men implied that you have the ability, by what you do, to solve the problem of your existence. This is attractive in our age of self-help, where independence is almost the cardinal virtue.

Jesus’ view of the problem is similar to both the Prophet and the Buddha: disobedience towards God – which he calls sin – leads to suffering, death and, ultimately, judgement. It is Jesus’ solution that is so very different for, he says, men and women are not capable of overcoming this problem. Instead, it is only by the actions of Jesus himself – God taking on human flesh, suffering death as a penalty for sin and being raised from the dead – that sin, suffering and death can be defeated. Where the Buddha and the Prophet point you to what you must do, Jesus points to what he has already done.

It is this personal intervention that is at the heart of the often-used image of the shepherd in Jesus’ teaching. A man was travelling with a guide through Palestine, and came across a shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd showed him the fold into which the sheep were led at night; it consisted of four walls with a way in. The man said, ‘But there is no door,’ to which the shepherd replied, ‘I am the door.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘When the light has gone, and all the sheep are inside, I lie in that open space, and no sheep ever goes out but across my body, and no wolf comes in unless he crosses my body; I am the door.’5 This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘I am the gate for the sheep… whoever enters through me will be saved’ (Jn 10:7, 9) and ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:11). It is Jesus who acts to rescue us from the terrible fate that sin has brought us to. Without the shepherd we are but prey; with him, we are utterly safe. Men like Siddhartha Gautama and Muhammad may give an appearance of protection and security through what they teach, but when the wolf comes they are no help, for they are merely hired hands and have no investment in you.

Consider the case of Kobayashi Issa, a Japanese poet and devout Buddhist, whose life was marked with tragedy. He believed what the Buddha taught, that the things of this life are fleeting, in his words a ‘world of dew’. Yet after the death of his second child, he wrote the following haunting words:

This world of dew
Is only a world of dew
And yet… and yet…

When tragedy struck this man, the teachings of the Buddha were little consolation.

A lot more could be said in comparing these three men, if time permitted… but unfortunately it doesn’t! As mentioned earlier, if you’re interested in exploring these issues further, I highly recommend John Dickson’s book A spectator’s guide to world religions, which also considers the teachings of Hinduism and Judaism.

What then are we to conclude? Claiming that all religions are the same is nonsense, for as we have seen even the three religions we have examined are neither compatible nor interchangeable. Indeed, claiming two things are the same when they are not leads to tragedy, as witnessed by a Sydney couple convicted this week of the manslaughter of their nine-month-old daughter. Tragically, the couple wrongly believed that their homeopathic remedies for the girl’s eczema were as effective as western medicine… and their little girl paid the price as a result.

So a choice must be made. The Buddha offers a path from a life of suffering to a life stripped of desire. The Prophet prescribes a life of submission to the Law in order to achieve Paradise. Jesus Christ calls you to a life lived under the protection of the Good Shepherd… and has himself done everything necessary for that to happen. The choice is yours.

    – Tim Campbell (4/10/2009)

Bibliography

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions : An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney South: Blue Bottle Books, 2004.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Rev. ed, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995.


Endnotes

  1. e.g. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), 35-6. Dawkins writes, ‘Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many… I decry supernaturalism in all its forms. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.’
  2. John Dickson, A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions : An Introduction to the Big Five (Sydney South: Blue Bottle Books, 2004).
  3. This event was so important, that it marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. The current year, for a Muslim, is not 2009AD, but 1430 AH, where AH stands for the Latin anno Hegirae, ‘in the year of the emigration’ to Medina.
  4. Lest it be thought that Islam is a religion founded on military force, it is important to recognise that Muhammad was no more warrior-like than any other clan leader of his time; in many ways he was considerably more just and compassionate. He customarily offered three options when communities came into contact with Islamic expansion: (1) Conversion; (2) Protection, meaning that the community could keep its way of life, but was obliged to pay a tax to the wider community; or (3) Battle. Only when a community refused the first two options was the third exercised.
  5. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995), 451 n. 32.
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You must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:19-26)

by on Jun.16, 2009, under Sermon

As you know, the sermons preached throughout this term have been ‘by request’, and tonight is no exception. In looking through the list of topics nominated by members of this congregation, the one that stuck out to me was, ‘Worshipping God in life’. I spent some time reflecting on what the topic was supposed to be about, and concluded that I was expected to talk about how Christians need to worship God not only on Sundays but every minute of every day. I might have preached such a message from any number of Scriptures, including the passage Rod preached on last week (Romans 12), and it would have been good to do so. However, the more I meditated upon it, the more I realised that the fundamental problem for Christians is not that they don’t worship enough, but rather that they worship the wrong things, or in the wrong way.

A young woman buys another pair of shoes she doesn’t need. An audience sits enthralled by Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. A middle-aged man buys the Lamborghini he has always dreamed of. A man spends his evenings buried in internet pornography. A new mum and dad greet their baby boy. A tour group gaze upon Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’. As many and varied as all of these things are, each one is an act of worship.

Worship is an act of response to someone or something’s worth.1 Thus, any time we are provoked to wonder by an extraordinary sunset, or sacrifice to save up for a guitar, or just can’t wait for the new John Mayer album to be launched, we are worshipping. Everyone worships every day, whether they recognise it or not.

The Bible has two categories for worship: acceptable and unacceptable, which is called idolatry. Acceptable worship is worship directed to the God of the Bible. Idolatry is placing anything else – good or bad – ahead of God, and this is unacceptable worship. Everyone falls into one of these two categories.

Tonight we’re specifically interested in acceptable worship. We will focus primarily on John 4, where Jesus teaches that Christians must worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. But what does that mean? And how do I do it? Let’s turn to John 4 and find out!

At first glance, a discussion between a wandering Jewish rabbi and an unnamed Samaritan woman at a well in a rural town is probably not the first place you would look for a profound discussion. The conversation seems to start out conventionally enough: Jesus asks for a drink of water.2 Pretty soon, however, the discussion turns in an unusual directions. Jesus, the one asking for a drink of water, tells the woman that she should be asking him for a drink!3 She asks for the living water that Jesus speaks of and is told to fetch her husband.4 She replies with a half-truth – “I have no husband”5 – and is absolutely blown away when Jesus shows that he knows the whole truth, for she has had five husbands and is now shacked up with a guy who is not her husband.

This is where we pick up our story:

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.6 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (4:19-20)

The Samaritans were enemies of the Jews. They claimed to worship Yahweh, but chose to do so in their own way, rather than in the way God had commanded; they set up their own temple in opposition to the temple at Jerusalem.7 This was a source of great bitterness between Samaritans and Jews: the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple,8 whilst the Samaritans in return had attempted to desecrate the Jerusalem temple.9 So there are two conflicting temples, each claimed as the location of God’s presence. Each of these temples was built on a mountain: the Jewish temple on the imaginatively named Temple Mount, 10 and the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim (where this story takes place). Mountains in Scripture consistently represent places where people meet with God, and where God reveals himself.11) The conflict between the Jews and Samaritans came down to this: where is God found, and to whom has he revealed himself?

It is not a surprise, then, that this woman should choose this issue as the litmus-test for establishing the identity of this ‘prophet’. She wants to know where she should go to find and worship the true God.

This is a quest that many today undertake. A 1998 survey found that 74% believe in a God, although only 35% believe in a personal God.12 People seek god in many places, some physical but most not. For example, the same survey showed that in the previous twelve months 18% of Australians ‘often or occasionally sought direction from a horoscope’, whilst 9% practised Eastern meditation and 7% used psychic healing or crystals. How can we know the right ‘place’ to find God?

Once again, Jesus surprises us with his answer.

Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. (4:21-23)

The woman wants to know which is the right place to worship: Jerusalem or Gerizim. Jesus says, in effect, “Your location doesn’t matter.” It is true that he asserts the Jewish position as being the correct one when he says, ‘You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we [Jews] worship what we do know’ (4:22). Doing so, however, is not so much about claiming that the Jews got it right but rather that God has the right to dictate the way he is approached.13

The only way to worship acceptably is in obedient response God’s revelation. The Samaritans had chosen to ignore a large portion of this revelation by throwing away all except the first 5 books of the Jewish Scriptures, those written by Moses.14 The Jews, whatever their other faults, had not.15 Yet Jesus declares that something new is happening: ‘A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (4:21, 23). Jesus shifts the focus from the where of worship to the how of worship. True worshipers of God will worship in spirit and truth.

The word ‘spirit’ in these verses is strongly contrasted with the idea of place. Jesus was asked where worship was to happen and his answer is ‘in spirit’. In other words, worship is no longer to be tied to a place – at least, not a physical place.16 ‘God is spirit,’ we are told, meaning, at the least, that he is not approachable in the physical sense. How then are we to approach him? The Apostle John doesn’t spell out the answer to this question here, but he doesn’t need to for he has already done so.

In chapter 3 Jesus tells a man named Nicodemus that he must be born again. ‘I tell you the truth,’ he says, ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit’ (3:5-6). So for us to worship in spirit, we must first be born again, born of God’s Spirit; only then will our spirit be enabled to worship.

How may we receive God’s Spirit in order that we be reborn? It is only by the gift of God; more specifically it is only by the action of Jesus. This is the meaning of the early part of the conversation with the Samaritan woman, the discussion about living water. Jesus often uses symbols and metaphors of himself – he describes himself as ‘the bread of life’,17 ‘the gate’,18 ‘the Good Shepherd’,19 ‘the way and the truth and the life’,20 ‘the vine’,21 etc. Yet here, in chapter 4, Jesus is not the living water, but the giver of the living water (4:10). Instead, this living water is the Holy Spirit,22 who John refers to as the Spirit of Truth.23 It is the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit that enables us to worship in spirit. Only Christians can truly worship God, for it is only through Jesus that the Spirit comes.24 Once the Spirit is at work in us our worship is no longer tied to places or times. It is, instead, ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (4:14). And when the Spirit of Truth enters you, ‘he will guide you into all truth’ (16:13).

That being the case, what does it mean to worship in truth?25 First, we must approach God truthfully. This means being honest with God; don’t try and hide from God your anger, sadness, fear or hope. If you are happy, be happy; if you are suffering then bring it to God rather than pretending you’re not.

Second, truthful worship must be according to God’s revelation of truth. Jesus prays for his disciples, ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth’ (17:17). The Samaritans had rejected much of even the partial truth that they had been given, in throwing away the prophets and the Psalms and so on, leading Jesus to conclude that they worshipped what they didn’t know. We, however, are fortunate to have God’s word written down for us to learn from and to be sanctified by. Practically, this means reading, meditating on, praying and, finally, living the Scriptures.26 These stages are described by a 12th Century monk called Guigo the Second:

Reading… puts the solid food in our mouths, meditation chews it and breaks it down, prayer obtains the flavour of it and contemplation is the very sweetness which makes us glad and refreshes us.27

The Samaritans and Jews had only a fraction of the truth that we have, for we have been given God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus. ‘No one has ever seen God,’ John writes, ‘but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known’ (1:18).

Spirit and truth are both necessary all the time. They are like the map and compass of the Christian life: having one without the other is not sufficient. The map, God’s Word of Truth, gives us direction and purpose, and outlines the world around us. Yet without a compass, we have no way of orienting ourselves and applying the map to the surrounding landscape. Such worship ends up in dry religion, with God’s Word being an object for study but never application. The compass, God’s Spirit, allows us to be certain of the way we are facing and the direction we’re travelling, but without the map we are still lost. This kind of worship is full of passion and fire but lacks the deep roots of Truth, the strong foundation of bedrock, that will allow it to stand in the sun and the storm. ‘Our churches can’t be Spirit-led unless they’re Word-fed.’28

Put both spirit and truth together, however, and you’re in business!29

Worship in truth without spirit or in spirit without truth is not true worship, but rather idolatry. If either of these describe you, you must repent, and ask God to supply what you lack. It is only together that compass and map, spirit and truth, work together to provide navigation through this life and into the next.

And the only ‘place’ to find both spirit and truth is in Jesus. To worship in truth we must be in the one who says ‘I am the Truth’ (14:6). To worship in spirit we must be born of the Spirit, who can only come from Jesus. In previous chapters, Jesus is presented as the true tabernacle30 and the true temple;31 here he is presented here as the true holy mountain where God can be encountered.32 The tabernacle, temple and mountain that we must go to if we are to offer acceptable worship is Jesus Christ. Spirit and truth are no longer found in a place but in a person.

This explains the apparent paradox of Jesus’ words: ‘a time is coming, and has now come…’ (4:23). How can something be coming and here at the same time? Jesus uses the same language in chapter 16, where he speaks of a pregnant woman whose ‘time has come’ giving birth. The child in the womb can be considered to be both ‘coming’ and ‘here’. Clearly, however, this implies a momentous event, a ‘birth’, that will signal a transition from one stage to another. What is this event?

In John’s Gospel, the word translated here as ‘time’33 regularly refers to the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation.34 At the time he spoke these words, Jesus was the only true worshiper. He was the one upon whom God’s Spirit came down and remained,35 whereas the Spirit had not yet been given to anyone else,36 for that could only happen by means of his death.37 Without wanting to push the image too far, there is a sense in which the true worship of God is conceived in Christ, and given birth by his work on the Cross. The result is that we can also be true worshippers. More than this, we must be true worshippers, for that is what the Father seeks (4:23). ‘God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship him in spirit and in truth’ (4:24).

There are three main occurrences of the word ‘must’ in John, and together they outline the gospel.38 First, Jesus instructs Nicodemus: ‘You must be born again’ (3:7). This is the first step, the source from which a life of faith and worship springs. If you are not a Christian, this is where you must start, for flesh can only give birth to flesh and not to spirit; if you want to worship God in spirit, as he requires, you must first be born again. Jesus knew that this could not happen unless he was obedient to his Father, submitting himself to his Father’s will even though it meant death. This is the meaning of the second ‘must': ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert the Son of Man must be lifted up’ (3:14). Walking through the desert, the people sinned against God, and his wrath was turned against them; only those who looked to the bronze snake that the LORD told Moses to make and lift up on a pole were saved.39 The message is clear: we must be born again, but cannot because we are sinful and God’s wrath is against us… yet God has provided a way by ‘lifting up’ Jesus, so that anyone who looks to him can be saved. There is only one proper response to this, the third ‘must': ‘God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship him in spirit and in truth’ (4:24).

Don’t miss the importance of this. Worship is not an additional extra to the Christian life; it is not something the Christian chooses to do, or not, according to their preferences, plans or passions. It’s not just that God accepts worship in spirit and truth, God seeks it! (4:23) Worshipping God is the responsibility of all believers. ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers’ – all of us! – ‘must worship him in spirit and in truth’ (4:24).

Bibliography

“A Question of Beliefs.” National Church Life Survey, http://www.ncls.org.au/default.aspx?sitemapid=2336.
Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of John : An Expositional Commentary. Pbk. ed. 5 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2005.
Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1983.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991.
Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus : Complete and Unabridged. Translated by William Whiston. New updated ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.
Kauflin, Bob. Worship Matters : Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Rev. ed, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995.
Peterson, David. Engaging with God : A Biblical Theology of Worship. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book : A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006.
Piper, John. Desiring God : Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Updated [i.e. 3rd] ed. ed. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2004.
Thettayil, Benny. In Spirit and Truth : An Exegetical Study of John 4:19-26 and a Theological Investigation of the Replacement Theme in the Fourth Gospel, Contributions to Biblical Exegesis & Theology. Leuven ; Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2007.


Endnotes

  1. In fact, the English word ‘worship’ is derived from an older word ‘worth-ship’ – words and actions that demonstrate worth.
  2. Actually, this was highly unusual for the culture of the day; for a Rabbi to be alone with a woman was scandalous, and for a Jew (especially a Jewish Rabbi) to talk to a Samaritan was unheard of (cf. 4:9).
  3. 4:10
  4. 4:15-16
  5. 4:17
  6. The Samaritans interpreted Dt. 34:10 to mean there were to be no other prophets until the coming of the great prophet promised in Dt. 18:15, 18. On this basis, they rejected all the Jewish Scriptures except for those written by Moses. Thus, if the Samaritan woman is serious about thinking Jesus a prophet, she is already on the verge of concluding what she is later told: Jesus is the Messiah. [F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1983), 108.] The Samaritan name for the Messiah was Taheb, which means restorer, although the evidence for this is from a 4th Century Samaritan text (Memar Markah 4:12) cf. Benny Thettayil, In Spirit and Truth : An Exegetical Study of John 4:19-26 and a Theological Investigation of the Replacement Theme in the Fourth Gospel, Contributions to Biblical Exegesis & Theology (Leuven ; Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2007), 185ff.
  7. The justification for this rests on their rejection of the other Scriptures, for the Pentateuch only speaks of the place where God would place his name (e.g. Deut. 12:5, 11, 21; 14:23; 16:2 etc.), and not specifically Jerusalem. However, Josephus’ account in Ant. 11.306-312 suggests that the temple was set up by a high-priest who was censured for marrying a foreigner. Perhaps the theological position was taken to justify an action already performed?
  8. Josephus, Ant. 13.275-81.
  9. According to Josephus, the Samaritans ‘threw about dead men’s bodies in the cloisters’ (Ant. 18.30).
  10. Whilst Mount Zion is traditionally associated with Jerusalem and the temple, particularly in eschatological literature, it was not the location of the Temple. It is, instead, a mountain just outside of Jerusalem.
  11. The most obvious example is the meeting at Mount Sinai, where God gave the law to Moses (Ex 19:3ff.
  12. “A Question of Beliefs,” National Church Life Survey, http://www.ncls.org.au/default.aspx?sitemapid=2336.
  13. cf. Boice, who writes, ‘Salvation is always of God’s grace, not of human merit; and since grace was offered to the sinner on the grounds of the death of an atoning sacrifice and since in Christ’s time that sacrifice could only be offered at Jerusalem by a legitimate priest, a descendant of Aaron, it is obvious that there could be no salvation for anyone except through the Jewish priesthood which in turn was available only to a circumcised member of one of the tribes of Israel. Jesus was impressing this upon the woman, thereby reasserting the right of God to establish the means of approach to him and encouraging her to turn from any trust in human religions.’ James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John : An Expositional Commentary, Pbk. ed., 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2005), 290.
  14. See note above.
  15. Thus ‘salvation is from the Jews’ for they were the people chosen by God to bear his name and receive his self-revelation.
  16. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995), 240. fn. ‘Cf. G. S. Hendry, “[John 4:24] has commonly been taken to mean that God, being Spirit, is present everywhere and can be worshiped anywhere; the important thing is not where men worship, but how they worship.” This he vigorously denies. The saying “means the precise opposite; it means that God is present in his own realm, to which man as such has no access. To worship God in spirit is not a possibility that is always and everywhere open to man… But this is just the gospel of Christ, that this possibility has now been opened to men… The meaning is that the location has been redefined, and God is now to be worshiped in the place where he is present, i.e., in Him who is the truth incarnate”.’
  17. 6:35
  18. 10:9
  19. 10:11
  20. 14:6
  21. 15:5
  22. 17:38-39
  23. 14:17; 15:26; 16:13
  24. 7:39; cf. 16:7
  25. Adapted from James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John : An Expositional Commentary, Pbk. ed., 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2005), 298.
  26. Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book : A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006), 91.
  27. Ibid. fn.
  28. Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters : Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008), 89.
  29. ‘The fuel of worship is a true vision of the greatness of God; the fire that makes the fuel burn white hot is the quickening of the Holy Spirit; the furnace made alive and warm by the flame of truth is our renewed spirit; and the resulting heat of our affections is powerful worship, pushing its way out in confessions, longings, acclamations, tears, songs, shouts, bowed heads, lifted hands, and obedient lives.’ John Piper, Desiring God : Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Updated [i.e. 3rd] ed. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2004), 82.
  30. 1:14
  31. 2:19
  32. David Peterson, Engaging with God : A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 97.
  33. Gk. hōra = ‘hour’.
  34. 2:4; 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:2, 4, 21, 25, 32; 17:1. cf. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 223.
  35. 1:32-33
  36. 7:39. cf. 14:16-17; 15:26-27; 16:13ff.
  37. 16:13
  38. Actually, there are 10 occurrences of the word dei in John (3:7, 14, 30; 4:4, 20, 24; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9). The three under consideration here, however, are the so-called ‘divine imperatives’.
  39. Num. 21:4-9
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The Word made flesh (John 1:1-18)

by on Oct.01, 2008, under Sermon

The following message was preached at the St. John’s 7pm service on the 31/8/08.

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ (14)

The lights dim and the buzz dissipates into stillness. Amidst hushed anticipation, the gathered gloom gives birth to a lone figure, striding purposefully towards her post. Having secured attention, evidenced by swelling applause from behind her and watchful readiness in front, she takes her place and, after the slightest of pauses, signals commencement.

The music that follows is not the feature; this is understood, for the curtains are not yet open. Yet it is of one piece with the show, and none can doubt it, for it is a tapestry of themes that are to come. This is known as the overture, and it is deliberately designed to set the scene for the play that is about to commence. The audience is introduced to the musical motifs that are so closely entwined with the plot as to be indistinguishable: the hero’s theme; the sinister tones of the villain’s refrain; the lovers’ duet; the haunting strains of an aria of loss. Before an actor so much as appears on stage, we are already familiar with the musical anchor points ahead of us. They are never explained; it is only if you know what is to come that it ‘makes sense’.

John opens his gospel in the same sort of fashion. In these first 18 verses, we are exposed to many of the mega themes that will come up over and over again throughout the rest of his message, such as light, darkness, life, rebirth, witness and revelation. Yet there is one thread woven all the way through this overture, like an instrument that plays the same riff in the midst of all the other themes, contributing to each and binding them all together. What’s more, this specific instrument doesn’t actually play again throughout the rest of the show! It is important, then, that we appreciate its contribution now whilst it plays. We will have the rest of this series on John to appreciate the other important themes, but tonight we want to focus on ‘the Word’.

‘The Word…’

John begins:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ (1)

More than any other creature on earth, human beings love to communicate with one another; words are the way we do it. Some of us communicate with many words, some with few. We write them down, type them out, whisper them and shout them. We constantly invent technologies to allow us to communicate over greater distances more efficiently and effectively: the loud speaker; the radio; the telephone; video; the internet… and the list goes on! Myspace and Facebook are just the latest in a long line of products that tap into our desire to, in words and pictures, communicate ourselves to one another. Can you imagine what those sites would be like if we took the words away?

What about explaining our actions? Who hasn’t heard a child launch in to a long and complicated explanation of exactly how they ended up where they did. Have a look at the following comic:

Calvin1

Calvin’s mum is, naturally, mystified – as are we. How did Calvin end up in this state?

Calvin2

It is only when we understand, in Calvin’s own words, the events leading up to his predicament that it begins to make a (twisted) kind of sense. His words give us a fuller picture of what was going on from his perspective.

We also use words to teach and to learn; I’m using them right now! We express important ideas and concepts that we need to convey using our words. When we go to school, a large part of our education is in learning the right phrases and terms to accurately express ourselves. We take complicated concepts like algebra, art and assonance and condense them down to a single representative word or phrase. We then use these words as a shorthand that allows us to build up even more complicated and interesting ideas, and the process repeats.

We choose our words carefully, because unless we do so they may be misunderstood, or may convey a message other than – or even contrary to – the one we intended.

We can sum these three ideas up – expressing ourselves, explaining our actions, and instructing others – using the word ‘revelation’. Some things cannot be discovered or found; they must be revealed.

God uses words for all of these purposes as well. First and foremost, God reveals himself to us through his Word. He speaks to Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and so on. To each one he shares a little bit more of his essence, who he is. We can infer some things about God based on his creation, but without his words we are unable to understand what makes him tick, who he is.

Who God is defines what God does. If we do not know his character, we cannot possibly understand what drives his actions. Take the story of the Flood in Genesis 6. A massive flood comes and wipes out the population of the Earth, excepting only 8 people; this is a tragedy by anyone’s standards. It is only when we hear God’s words about this event that we realise that God is a holy and just God, who cannot abide evil. Yet he is also a merciful God, who gives grace to those whom he chooses.

Of course, God also uses words for our instruction. Perhaps the most famous example of this is found in Exodus 20; it is the rare person who has not at least heard of the 10 Commandments. These are a series of explicit instructions that outline how God’s people are to act; at the same time, they further reveal God’s character and show what is important to him. They are what distinguished the people of Israel from all other nations, for God had revealed himself particularly to them.

In addition to the aspects of revelation we have already mentioned, God’s words have one more important characteristic: they accomplish his will. Think back to Genesis 1 & 2. God speaks the word – ‘light’ – and there is light. He speaks again and the waters separate from the sky, then recede to reveal dry land… and so on. It is God’s word that is the vehicle for his will. We can not do this. Occasionally I test this. I lie in bed after I wake up and say ‘up’. You might be surprised that often this has no measurable result at all; when it does, it usually only serves to make my wife grumpy enough to kick me out of bed!

These are God’s words; and they are valuable to us beyond measure. We are fortunate to have God’s words written down for us. As I sit at my desk and write this, I can count 11 different translations of God’s word within arm’s reach. From these, from what God has said, I can something about who God is. Yet John speaks not of God’s words, but of his Word. This Word is a person in his own right, for though he “was with God” and indeed “was God”, he can nevertheless be spoken of as distinct from God. John speaks of a revelation greater than that given through Moses. And just in case we have no idea what he is talking about, John makes it clear:

‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (17).

‘… became flesh…’

Jesus combines all of these aspects of revelation in his person, works and words. He is the new and better – indeed the final and complete – revelation of God. He expresses God’s character in his own character, for he is God. When Jesus shows compassion, it is because his Father is compassionate; when Jesus is angry, we know that the Father is angry. Similarly, Jesus explains to us why God does what he does. He teaches us the response that God desires. And ultimately he accomplishes God’s purposes in the way that no other can. John summarises this at the end of tonight’s passage:

‘No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.’ (18)

There is an important question to be answered here: if God has expressed himself fully and finally in Jesus, why do we need the rest of the Bible? Perhaps the New Testament is OK, for at least it is talking about Jesus, but why should I read the Old Testament? The answer is at the same time both simple and profound. The Bible as a whole gives us the vocabulary to understand Jesus. Let me see if I can explain.

Let’s say that Rod’s four year old grandson Josiah sits down by himself in front of the television to watch a Bledisloe Cup match. Unless his indoctrination has already commenced, chances are good he won’t be able to make much of the game. If you asked him about it afterwards, he might be able to tell you that some of the people wore yellow and some black, that the yellow people were cheering at the end and the black ones looked sad… but that would probably be extent of it. If he sat down with Grumps, however, who explained what a try is, a lineout, a scrum, a drop-goal and so on, he would be starting to develop the vocabulary with which to understand and explain the game. As his knowledge and experience increased he would be able to grasp the more complicated aspects of the game, and the words associated with them – rules governing who is offside, what merits a penalty, tactics etc. Eventually he would reach a point where he could describe in detail all the events taking place on the field, and appreciate a Wallaby victory in all its glory!1

Is it any wonder that God, preparing the greatest event in history, wanted us to have the words and concepts with which to appreciate it? So we find that both the Old and New Testaments are riddled with ideas which we can use to understand Jesus. They are important ideas in their own right, and certainly had meaning to their original audience; but in addition to that role they also provide a context for catching some small portion of Jesus’ purpose, words and works. So we can say that Jesus is the new and better Adam, who faced his temptation in the garden yet remained without sin; he is the new and better Abel, killed because the sacrifice he brought was more acceptable than his brother, whose blood cries out, not for vengeance, but for forgiveness; the new and better Joseph, sent ahead by God to make preparation for the salvation of his people; the new and better Moses, through whom come ‘grace and truth’ not just ‘law’. I could keep going like this all night – but I won’t, because to do that would be to miss out on the rest of what John has to say to us. But before I leave this subject let me say that if you have no idea what I am talking about, let encourage you to make some time to spend reading through the Old Testament; don’t settle for a four-year-old’s perspective on the most important event the world has seen or will ever see.

‘… and made his dwelling among us.’

Let us return, then, to the subject at hand: Jesus is the full and final revelatory Word of God. John points out very clearly that there are only two responses to this Word. On the one hand, it is possible to ignore him and even reject him; we know that many do. ‘He was in the world, but though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him’ (10-11). What a tragedy! Imagine that, instead of Rod explaining the game it is now the inventor of Rugby; what a shame it would be if Josiah decided to ignore him or reject him, because he could have no better opportunity of understanding it than that! Or, to shift the illustration, let’s say  you were trying to act in one of Shakespeare’s plays and by some freak occurrence of time and space the author appeared to you and wanted to explain your part to you. Would you ignore him? Take this situation and multiply its magnitude many millions of times, and you might be starting to get close to the enormity of what John records: the Author of Life wrote himself into history in order to communicate with his creation.

It is far better, it seems to me, to take advantage of contact with the author, to develop relationship with him. According to John, ‘to all who received him, to those who believed on his name, he gave the right to be children of God’ (12). This is important: in fact, it is what John has been leading up to. The reason Jesus, God’s Word, became flesh, was in order that we might become children of God. It is for this that ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us’ (14).

How does this relationship come about? According to John, it is ‘to those who received’ the Word that God gives the right to be children of God. How then do you receive Jesus? The first thing is to be sure that we are receiving the right person… and not some other pretending to be him. What’s more, our relationship must be founded on who he has revealed himself to be. Imagine I introduced myself to you as Tim, but you persisted in calling me Ralph, because that’s how you prefer to think of me; or that I told you I couldn’t stand eggs and the next week you serve me up omelette for dinner. Our relationship would not be going good places! This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked as we choose to receive the Jesus of our imagination rather than the Jesus revealed to us in Scripture. If you do that, you end up worshiping an imaginary God; if, instead, you commit yourself to seeking out the God of the Bible, he will not hide himself from you. After all, ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (14) for this very reason. ‘No one has seen the Father, but God, the One and Only, has made him known’ (18).

Read your Bible, and ask that God would reveal his Son to you through it; then ask that he would reveal himself to you through Jesus his Son.


Endnotes

  1. If, on the other hand, the All Blacks won, he may well learn some vocabulary from his grandfather of an entirely different nature!
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