DEVOTION: Our Relationship with Jesus (John 1:1-18)
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SERMON: Blocking the Light (John 1:6-18)
When we think about light, what do we think about? Do we think of the first day of creation, when God made light (Genesis 1:3-5)? Or do we think of the fourth day of creation when God made the sun and the moon (Genesis 1:14-19). Do we think in terms of a day, which can be either bright or dull? Or do we think in terms of light which can be natural or artificial?
Light can mean many things to many people. And depending upon our moods and circumstances, it can mean many things to us too. After all, we can step into it, and we can hide from it. With artificial light, we can switch it on and switch it off; we can turn it down and we can even extinguish it. We can do lots of things with light.
But one of the things that the Apostle John did was to call Jesus by it. But what did John mean by doing so, and what should it mean for us?
B. JESUS IS THE LIGHT
1. Jesus is the Light (9a)
Well in many ways the Apostle John describes Jesus as the Light, because of the essential nature of light. After all, light is the agent that stimulates the receptors in the brain and make things visible. But John goes further than that, because John describes Jesus as “the true light who gives light to all mankind” (9a).
In other words, for John, Jesus was different to everyone else who had gone before. Yes, there had been other lights. There had people who had revealed elements of the truth; there had been people who had shown glimpses of reality; and there had been people who had revealed some light, only to lead people astray. But only Jesus was (and is) the true light. But more than that, only Jesus was able to illuminate all mankind.
Yes, the Word gave (and gives) light to those who believe, but there is an element in which he has also revealed God’s existence and purposes to the rest of mankind as well. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul describes: “From the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they may be, have been clearly discerned, being perceived through the things he has made, so that the ungodly and unrighteous are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
Light then, can mean many things. But for the Apostle John it is a word to describe Jesus, because it works in so many ways. As a consequence the Apostle John could then go on to describe what Jesus did, in terms of, how he came to earth and the nature of the light that he brought—revealing sin and pointing people to a relationship with God.
2. Distractions from the Light (6-8)
Now one of the things I have always found most curious, is that in John’s Gospel we have this prologue which is all of eighteen verses long, which, on the surface at least, seems to want to describe the nature and purpose of God’s son, Jesus. And to me that is as it should be. But when we read it, not even half the way through it, in verses 6 to 8, we have a description not of Jesus, but of John the Baptist.
So from the heights of the first five verses of what could have been a magnificent prologue describing Jesus in his fullness, we are faced with three verses that switch our attention away from Jesus, and on to John the Baptist. We have a distraction, and a distraction of the Apostle John’s making. But why?
Well the answer is, we will probably never know. But the inference is that the Apostle John felt that he needed to deal with a problem. And the problem was that despite Jesus coming to earth, and despite him shining his light in the world, not everyone accepted that Jesus was the Messiah.
Indeed, in the Gospel of Luke we have a story of some followers of John the Baptist, who questioned whether it was John who was the Messiah (Luke 3:15). Luke also records in Acts that a Jew named Apollos knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:24-26). And later, Paul came across a group of twelve men who only knew John’s teaching (Acts 19:1-7). It’s not surprising, then, to learn that at the time John was writing his Gospel there were still people attached to what they believed was the teaching of the Baptist, and indeed that a movement associated with the Baptist was in the region where this gospel was written.
Of course, yes, the Apostle John could have included his comment about John the Baptist, because he was an old-style prophet who pointed the way to the Messiah. But if that was the case, why didn’t he include some of the other prophets, who also pointed the way? And why did he go to such lengths to describe what John wasn’t—that John wasn’t the light, but only a witness to the light?
The interruption in the flow of describing God’s “Word,” Jesus, then, in what could have been a magnificent prologue, was quite deliberate. And it indicates the purpose of the prologue. Indeed, the prologue was about describing who Jesus was, and then contrasting that with how he was received. And in particular it was about describing the different ways that the Light can be detracted from, covered up and rejected.
3. Rejection of the Light (9b-14)
Which is why, having dealt with “the problem of the followers of John the Baptist,” the Apostle John then continued with the more widespread problem—the more general rejection of the Light of the world.
Jesus may indeed have been the word of God who took on human nature, but that didn’t mean he was received well. Indeed John’s comment is that the response of people in general, was that they wanted nothing to do with him. Even his own people—his fellow Jews—the people who were waiting for the Messiah, and knew the signs to look for, rejected him.
But despite that, and maybe even because of it, the Apostle John was concerned that the good news should not be extinguished from our sight. As a consequence he reiterated that God did indeed become flesh; that Jesus did live among us; and if we open our eyes to him, we can indeed see his glory.
4. A Timely Reminder (15-18)
And so the Apostle John concludes with a reminder of who Jesus was (and is). He comments that Jesus is far superior to John the Baptist; that the new covenant is far superior to the Law of Moses; and only through faith in Jesus can we see God.
In the first five verses of the prologue, then, the Apostle John set the scene. He established Jesus as the Word of God (1) standing with the Father. He described him as the Life (4) referring back to creation, but including the spiritual life even of today. And he described him as the Light (4) revealing all, and showing the way to God. And yet in these verses, 6 to 18, we seem to hit a bump—the bump of reality. Because mixed in what Jesus did, we have described for us people who have gone off track, people who think that they know better, and people who want nothing to do with God’s “Word,” Jesus.
So depending upon whenever we think the Gospel was written—whether in 50 AD, 70 AD or 85 AD, we have a snapshot of the reception that Jesus received in his ministry, and a snapshot of what the church was up against well after the death of Jesus.
Now in a sense, the prologue to John’s Gospel is just like the Nicene Creed that we might still say today. It’s a statement of faith, created because of an underlying problem. It’s just that John makes it far more obvious what that problem was. But then John wanted it to be very clear—people had gone off track, and others had responded to Jesus in a very inappropriate and negative way.
And to me that should ring alarm bells for all of us. Because whilst John’s prologue reminds us that God went to great lengths to come to the rescue of his people, the reality is that people still don’t get it. Furthermore, the inference is that whilst people outside the church might want to block God out or even extinguish the light, people within the church—people who should know better—are at risk of becoming distracted and losing the plot too.
1. Jesus is the Light
And yet, didn’t Jesus come so that we could know God? Didn’t Jesus come to show us the way to God and to save us from the consequences of our sin? Didn’t Jesus come so that we might become children of God? And didn’t Jesus come so that we could receive one blessing after another from our creator?
Well that’s what the Apostle John tells us. And yet what this prologue suggests is that it is so easy to get it wrong.
2. Distractions from the Light
What the Apostle John’s teaching about the followers of John the Baptist indicates, then, is that here will invariably be people who will be distracted away from the Christian faith. There will be people who choose to take a different path, and there will be people who will do so by misunderstanding the teaching of the person that they purport to be following. (Because I’m sure that it wasn’t John the Baptist’s intention to start a new religion all of his own.)
However, even within the church people may get off track. Indeed, they may become so distracted from Jesus’s teaching that they completely lose focus on the Light of the world.
And that certainly happened in New Testament times. And we can thank the Apostle Paul for pointing out one such distraction. Indeed the debate in Corinth was on who was better—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12)—is a good example of where members of the Church can become so focussed on the personalities within it, that they lose sight of the main goal.
Similarly in Thessalonica the church became so distracted by the second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11), that the people became lazy—they stopped pulling their weight. So Paul had to encourage them to get back on track, to become focussed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and to encourage each other in the faith.
It’s very easy for people to become distracted, to lose focus on the person of Jesus. And if you don’t think that either of these things happens today, then I would suggest that you take a look at many of our struggling churches today. Because many of our churches today suffer from we might call “personality disorder”—people in authority (assumed or given) who are pulling one way or another. There are also many people in our churches who are not using their God-given gifts to build up the church community.
The result? Well there is the visible sign of people dictating what the church can and can’t do. There is in-fighting, division, and personality clashes. There are churches that are going nowhere, except down. But the most serious issue of all, is that Jesus’s light is being blocked and distorted, and in some cases is being made totally unrecognisable.
3. Rejection of the Light
And if that weren’t enough, what the Apostle John’s teaching about the reaction of people in general indicates, is that people are constantly looking for ways to cover up the light, turn it down, and even extinguish it. Of course, it’s a common problem outside the church, particularly where people want to mould God in their own image, if they want anything to do with him at all. But it’s also a problem within the church too.
After all, when confronted about church and the need for salvation, the response of people is often to think only in terms of buildings. When confronted with the idea of the need to be faithful in giving to God, the response is often in terms of fundraising. When confronted with the need to care for the poor, the solution is often seen in terms of administering government handouts. And when confronting the people with the need to loosen up the church to embrace the unchurched, the response invariably is for people to dig their heels in.
Both inside and outside the church there is a tendency to extinguish the Light—to reject the Light of the world. Now in a sense that is quite understandable from those who want to reinvent God or extinguish him completely. But in the church it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately my experience within the church has been that churches invariably respond to spiritual issues with worldly responses. And so the church becomes just as guilty, as the general public, of quenching the Light; of reducing, and even extinguishing the Christian faith in its poor responses to serious spiritual issues.
4. A Timely Reminder
As a consequence we need the reminder of the Apostle John’s conclusion. We need to recall why we are here. And we need to let go of all the distractions, and the things that block, extinguish and shade the Light.
We need to expose the light, not extinguish it. And so we need to dismiss any personality cults, we need to stop looking for worldly solutions to spiritual problems, and we need to pull our weight, and be the people of faith that God intended.
Of course that won’t be easy, because there will be a lot of things we will have to unlearn. But what we need to do is let Jesus be the Light; we need to let God lead us into the future; and we need to be willing to go wherever he should take us. But we need to do that, no matter how uncomfortable that might make us.
But what does that mean in practical terms? Well I was heartened the other day when talking to a lady from a different parish—a three-centred parish—but a parish which faces many of the issues I’ve just described. And her solution? Well it is to sell all three centres and start again.
Now may sound like a drastic solution. But she recognised there were far too many vested interests in the church buildings, furniture, styles of worship etc. that prevented the church from growing. Indeed current practices were simply blocking the Light, with the effect that if nothing was done, in the not too distant future, that all three churches would need to be closed. But more importantly, in order to remove all obstacles stopping the Light shining, she was prepared to let go, even of the things that she held dear.
Yes, of course, her solution is drastic. But sometimes drastic measures are required, particularly when we are faced with the two primary issues raised in John’s prologue. Because, firstly, people do go off at tangents (and often because of strong personalities), and they do distract from the Light. And, secondly, people do try to adjust the Light to make God and the church more palatable. And if our role is to do everything we can to ensure that God’s Light shines as brightly in the world as possible, it may mean that we need to let go of the things that we love, in order for God’s Light to shine.
The Apostle John’s prologue, then, whilst it doesn’t deliver the heights that it could have done, nevertheless balances the idea of who Jesus was (and is) with the sobering reminder of how easy it is to get off track. The Apostle John used Light to describe the Messiah, but mixed in with that he showed how easily people are distracted from it, and how easily they corrupt it, dim it, cover it up, and even try to extinguish it.
John’s challenge, then, is that we should not be the ones to either re-direct or obscure the Light; that we should not be the obstacle responsible for diming it. Indeed, we are the ones who should be taking every step to make sure that the Light shines as brightly as it can. But are we up to the challenge?
Posted: 30th September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: What's in a Name? (John 1:45-51)
Abram was renamed Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Joseph was renamed Zaphenath-Paneah, Hoshea became Joshua, Gideon became known as Jerub-Baal, and God called Solomon Jedidiah. In addition in New Testament times it was quite normal to have more than one name. Indeed Jews in New Testament times would have had a Greek name as well as their Hebrew or Aramaic name; and they would have had Latinised versions of their names too.
So Jesus (which is a Greek) would have been known as Yeshua (in Hebrew); and Paul (a Greek name) was also known as Saul (a Hebrew name). And Peter … well for Peter, it gets even more complicated. Because Peter (a Greek name) was also known as Simeon (Hebrew) or Simon (Greek) and Cephas (also Greek).
It shouldn’t surprise us then that Bartholomew (a Greek name) has also generally been considered to be the Nathanael (a Hebrew name) of John’s Gospel. And the primary reason for that is the connection with Philip, who introduced him to Jesus.
Now you might be wondering what’s all this about names? So what if people had several names. What’s that got to do with us? Well, like it or not even today we have several names. Indeed we are given at least two at our birth. And some of us have acquired quite a few other names since then too.
Monks and nuns, even today, take on a new name when making their vows. And the idea is to distinguish their new life from their old. And as Christians, the early tradition was that when you became a believer, you adopted a new name—a Christian name—a name that was different to name you were given at birth. Again the idea was to distinguish our new life from our old. But the practice is where we get the term “christening” from.
Of course, as you probably realise, something has gone terribly wrong with the idea of “Christian” names and “Christening”—and it probably went wrong in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless the idea of distinguishing our new life, our life of faith, from our old life still stands. After all, we are supposed to move away from the old, and to identify with a very different lifestyle—a lifestyle with God at the centre. We are supposed to live lives distinct and different to the kind of lives that we lived before we believed. And many, not all, of the changes of name in the Bible reflect that fact.
So what’s in a name? Well names can mean nothing, or they can mean everything. And we can thank Bartholomew (‘son of Talmai’), who was also known as Nathanael (‘gift of God’), a native of Cana of Galilee, an Apostle, and close friend of Philip for reminding us of that (Matthew 10:1–4; Mark 3:13–19; Luke 6:12–16; Acts 1:4, 12, 13).
Posted: 23rd August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
1. Misuse of the Bible
Have you ever been told that something written in the Bible has a particular purpose or meaning, only to find out later that that’s not what it’s about at all? Has anyone ever tried to convince you of something—tried desperately to prove their point—and used a passage of scripture to make their case, only for you to discover that they have twisted the whole purpose and meaning of the passage?
Does that sound familiar? I’m sure it does. Because it seems today that some people love the things that they do and engage themselves in the world so much, that they will desperately argue anything, even from the Bible, to prove that they are right.
And one of the things that has been misused, in recent times, is the biblical view of weddings and marriage. And not just from one side of the same-sex marriage debate either—but from both sides.
And that’s sad, because when we read a story like the Wedding at Cana—one of the stories that has been used and abused—it’s clear that it’s not a story of a wedding ceremony. Indeed, it’s not really a story about a wedding at all.
B. THE WEDDING AT CANA
And the first clue that this it is not really a story of a wedding, is that we are told in John 2:1 that that the wedding began on “the third day.” And to understand that reference, we need to go back in John’s Gospel a few days.
Because, in chapter 1 we are told that John the Baptist was quizzed about whether he was the Messiah or not (John 1:19-28). Then, the very next day, we are told that Jesus came to John, and John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” (John 1:29-34).
The day after that, however—day one in Jesus’s ministry—Jesus was baptised by John, and some of John’s disciples came over to Jesus (John 1:35-42). And the day after that—day two—Jesus called Philip and Nathanael to be his disciples (John 1:43-51).
Day three, then, is a reference to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. At this stage, he hadn’t had a chance to establish himself with his disciples, let alone speak to the public. Is it any wonder, then, that he would expressed reluctance, when approached by his mother to perform a miracle (v4).
Having said that, we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus at a wedding.
A wedding feast was a great social occasion. And it was considered a serious offence not to go. So, Jesus, at this very early stage in his ministry, would not have wanted to cause offence. He would not have wanted to put people offside. And he certainly would not have wanted to be the cause of any social embarrassment.
Which is ironic, really. Because what his mother, Mary, effectively asked him to do, was to save someone else from social embarrassment. Because it was a definite no-no to run out of wine.
Now running out of wine might seem a bit of an odd thing to happen—a bit of bad planning. However, wedding celebrations sometimes continued for a whole week, and supplying sufficient wine would certainly have been a drain on the resources of those concerned. So here we have Jesus responding with compassion.
There were some stone jars, which were used for ceremonial washing. And rather large stone jars too. But then they needed to be. Jews became ceremonially defiled by ordinary life, through the normal course of the day. So, with a large crowd, they would have needed large jars, and particularly so if the celebrations were to continue for a week. The jars were also not full, indicating that at this point they were probably some way through the celebration.
So Jesus told the servants to fill them with water. Which they did, and the water turned into wine—indeed, the best wine of the wedding celebration.
And with that, John concludes the story with a comment—the miracle was not so much a miracle, but a “sign,”—a “sign” pointing to Jesus. In other words, for John, it’s not what happened that was important. It’s not where it happened, or what Jesus did. It was to whom the miracle was pointing—that was what was important for John.
The Wedding at Cana, which began on day three of Jesus’s ministry, then, is not a story of a wedding. The wedding was merely the backdrop to something much greater. It was Jesus that John wanted to point his readers to. The wedding just happened to be the location in which the story took place.
C. THE STRUCTURE OF JOHN’S GOSPEL
And we can confirm that by examining the structure of John’s Gospel. Because, John’s Gospel—one of the four Gospels—is very different to the other three.
All four gospels were written from different perspectives, as you’d expect. And they each had access to different eye witnesses. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke also borrowed material from a common source—which is why there is so much similarity between the three.
John’s Gospel, however, is very different. Because, yes, John “the disciple whom Jesus loved” included his own personal eye witness account. But he also wrote his Gospel in a very different and structured way. John was not interested in detailing everything that Jesus did from birth to death to resurrection. The sequence of events was not important. Nor was listing everything that Jesus did. What John wanted to do was to simply point people to Jesus.
As a consequence, he structured his whole gospel around seven “signs”—of which the Wedding at Cana is the first. (He also used seven sayings, all beginning “I am”—I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the good shepherd, etc.) In regard to the signs, however, what was important to John, was not the signs themselves, but who those signs were pointing to—Jesus.
And if you look at the seven signs—in the order that John presents them—you will notice that there is a something of a progression—from changing water into wine, to healing two individuals—the first who was sick, and the next who was disabled. Jesus then feds five thousand (plus) people. He defies nature by walking on water. He heals a man born blind (something which was believed only the Messiah could do). And then he raises Lazarus from the dead. As the Gospel progresses John’s signs get bigger and bigger and bigger.
Now sadly, this is the sort of perspective that you miss out on, if you only read the Bible in short bursts—which is the modern tendency, even in church. But John structured his whole gospel to make his point. And his point is that everything that Jesus did and said pointed to him being the Messiah.
It’s not the miracles that were important, or even the circumstances in which they were performed—it’s the person who did them. And that is what the Wedding at Cana, and the whole of John’s Gospel is all about.
D. WEDDINGS AND THE CHURCH
So, if John’s whole focus was on pointing people to Jesus, where does that leave us today? And more specifically where does that leave us in the whole wedding and marriage debate? After all, with the recent changes to the Marriage Act, the Anglican Church in Tasmania is now embarking on the debate: “Should the church continue to be involved in marriage ceremonies? And if so, what is the extent to which they should be involved?”
It’s a very controversial topic, particularly as wedding ceremonies are part of the church’s current practice that some people so love. And some would argue that it’s one of the reasons for the need for the church’s continuing existence today.
1. The Wedding at Cana
So much so, that the story of the Wedding at Cana, has been used to argue the case for the continuing role of the church in the conduct of weddings.
Indeed, I have heard the passage used as an example of the importance of wedding ceremonies. I’ve heard it used as an example of the importance of such ceremonies having religious content. And I’ve heard it used to suggest the need for the church’s continuing involvement.
And yet, the story of the Wedding at Cana says none of those things. The story provides no information about any marriage ceremony—only the reception. And there is no indication that there was any overt religious content to the celebration—only that Jesus was present.
The story of the Wedding at Cana, is about pointing people to Jesus, not about defending current church practice.
2. Old Testament Practice
So if the Wedding at Cana, doesn’t really help, what about the references to weddings and marriage in the Bible?
Well if we add in all the other references to weddings and marriages in the Bible, all we can see is what a big hole the church has dug for itself.
After all, in Genesis 2:24 we have a comment on the universal gift of God of marriage. However, there is no comment of any the need for a ceremony of any description.
In Genesis 24:67 we have a description of Isaac bringing Rebekah into his deceased mother’s tent, where he “married” her, without any indication that anyone else was present.
And in Genesis 29:22-23 we are told of a pre-wedding feast. However, reading between the lines it would appear that Laban wanted to get Jacob so drunk, that he couldn’t tell which of two sisters he was taking to bed. As a result, Jacob woke up the next morning only to discover that he had married the wrong sister—Leah not Rachel.
3. New Testament Practice
When we come to the wedding at Cana, then, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised to discover that there had been a development in terms of wedding celebrations—from nothing (in the case of Isaac) into something far more formal—and in the case of Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) into something quite elaborate. But there is no biblical evidence to support any history of any kind of ceremony at all.
It’s like the community had grown to like having a big party to celebrate the occasion. After which, the couple would then go off and marry each other, with no other person being present. No paperwork. No ceremony.
So where did all the pledges, rings, dowries, joining of hands and kissing come from—the things that people love? Well even Ignatius later in the first century only seemed to know about them in the context of becoming engaged. Because he too is remarkably silent in terms of any marriage ceremony.
In the great wedding debate, then—whatever solution the church comes up with—pointing people to Jesus should be our priority. That’s the point of the story of the Wedding at Cana. Whatever our views on weddings and marriage, whether we think the church should be involved in ceremonies or not, our priority should always be, to point people to Jesus.
But how do we do that, in terms of the current wedding debate?
Well some would suggest that we should be involved. Because conducting weddings of people outside of the church provides a perfect opportunity to share the Gospel. And there is great merit in that argument.
However, others would argue that the church has no place in administering a Marriage Act on behalf of the Commonwealth Government. Particularly when it conflicts with the principles behind God’s gift of marriage, and the practice encourages the belief that conducting weddings is a fundamental reason for the church’s existence.
Furthermore, some could also legitimately add, that the Marriage Act conflicts with Christian belief on the grounds of prohibited relationships. It allows relationships that the Bible excludes. And it excludes relationships that the Bible allows. And that was true, even before the same-sex marriage debate.
The current practice of the church, then, sends out some very mixed messages. But then that’s what happens when the church becomes part of a culture that insists on requiring couples to do things that are not required by God, and were not even part of biblical practice.
The church and state, weddings and marriages … As you can see, the whole thing is a mess. It’s a minefield. On the one side there are twenty-first-century expectations—with the pressure to keep doing the things that people love. On the other side, there is the biblical issue of doing things God’s way and, in particular, the need to point people to Jesus.
The recent same-sex marriage debate has opened a can of worms. And one side of the debate is just as guilty of abusing the Bible as the other.
But where does that leave the church, and its involvement in weddings. today?
Because if God gave marriage as a gift to all mankind, and it was unencumbered from the need of any ceremony, where does that leave us? If, in the Bible, the idea of some sort of community celebration grew, but there was still no ceremony—how should we respond? And if, there is a conflict, beyond the same-sex marriage debate, with the list of prohibited relationships—how then do we view our involvement in wedding ceremonies today?
Well, where it leaves us, and where our whole focus should always be, is to do only those things that point people to Jesus. Whatever the situation, that should be the focal point of everything we do.
How, then, do we hold on to the things that we love? The things that we like to do?
Well we can’t. It doesn’t work that way.
Because, if we start from the things that we love, we so easily get off track. Our customs—the things we love—can be a real trap. Instead, we have to start from the perspective of being people pointing others to Jesus. And we have to run with that, and see where God takes us.
The story of the Wedding at Cana is not about a wedding—although many people have used and abused it for that purpose. It’s about a “sign” pointing people to Jesus.
But are all our sign posts clear? Do our beliefs and practices point to Jesus at every turn? Or are we lost in the confusion of church and state, and the things we love, in our practices?
Because, that is what we need to review.
Posted: 16th January 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Levels of Belief (John 4:46-54)
Of course the answer to the dilemma of belief is obvious. People mean different things by the term. That is why there is a great discrepancy between those who say they believe and those who go to church. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop people saying that they believe, no matter on what level they belong.
And an example of that couldn’t be better illustrated than in the story of the man in John’s gospel. Because in it we see a man who seems to have faith—and would probably have said that he was a believer—but as we examine the story, it’s really not like that at all.
Now the story begins with a man whose son was dying on his bed, at home in Capernaum (46). The man was a nobleman of Herod’s court—probably a Jew. And he’d evidently heard that Jesus had used miraculous powers to change water into wine. As a consequence, he was hoping that Jesus would do another miracle—that he would cure his son. So, when the officer heard of Jesus’s arrival in Cana, he immediately went to meet him (47). His need was great, and he pressed Jesus to go with him.
Jesus, on the other hand, was more concerned that people were missing the point of his ministry (48). That they were looking for the miraculous not for faith. So he made a few comments—not just to the man, but to the people around him as well. To which, the nobleman did not defend himself or argue (49), he simply expressed his continuing anxiety for his son.
As a result, Jesus’s reply to the man would probably have come as a shock (50). The man had expressed the need for Jesus to go with him to heal his son. He evidently thought that Jesus needed to be present to perform the cure. But all Jesus did was to tell the man to go home, and that his son had been cured. And perhaps, surprisingly, in what seems like an act of faith, the man did not stand and argue. He didn’t stay and insist that Jesus go with him. He simply took Jesus at his word, turned around and went home.
And then, as the man journeyed home, he met his servants coming to meet him (51-53). He was then told that his son was cured. And when he asked his servants the time his son had got better, it matched exactly the time that Jesus had said that his son would live. And, as a result, we are told that he and his whole household believed.
Now from a superficial level, the official seems to have demonstrated an unwavering faith— solid as a rock—throughout the whole process. He’d heard about the miracle of the water into wine, and so he had come to Jesus hoping that he would perform a miracle for his son. Indeed, when told to go home he didn’t argue, he did exactly as he was told. And, when his son was cured, he and his household, we’re told, believed in Jesus.
But as I say, that’s what it seems at first glance. But is that really what the passage says? And the reason I ask this, is because in the gospel of John the term “believing” is expressed in three different ways. And this puts a whole new perspective on the story.
Because, firstly, John uses the term, in regard to accepting the facts of the situation—believing the events that happen. Secondly, John uses the term in regard to the acceptance of what people say is true. And thirdly, John uses the term in regard to people believing in Jesus—an activity which takes people out of themselves and makes them one with Christ. An activity that requires personal trust and a reliance on Jesus for salvation, and for everyday life.
Consequently, with that in mind, we need to reassess the story, and be open to a completely different view.
Because, in this story we actually have all three stages of belief. Firstly, the man believed in the facts of the things that had occurred. He’d heard that Jesus had changed the water into wine. And he believed it to be true, so he acted on what he’d heard. Secondly, he believed Jesus, when he told him that his son would live. He accepted Jesus’s words, as though they were true. That is why he was able to return home without question. And, thirdly, when his son was healed, as a result of the miracle that had taken place, only then, did he and his whole household believe in Jesus, and become followers for the first time.
Now you can see the difference in the stories. This isn’t a story of a man who is rock solid in his beliefs all the way through. This is a story of a man who was on a steep learning curve, and whose progressed through the three different levels of belief. Because only at the end did he express a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And, with that in mind, let’s go back to our own dilemma, and the problem of people professing the faith in the world today. Because John’s three levels of faith in this story are the same as the three levels that are evident in people today.
Indeed, firstly, there are people who have heard about the historical Jesus, and the facts of his existence. And, maybe in some way, that is reflected in the way that they live their lives. But secondly, there are those who believe what the church has said to be true. But that doesn’t mean they have made the ultimate connection. And then, thirdly, there are those who have put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And to these people, and only to these people, they have been rewarded with the gift of eternal life.
Now living in a world where so many people claim to have belief, may seem very odd at times. Particularly, when it is disconnected from active membership of God’s church. However it should be something of which we should all be aware. After all, how can we help those who claim to have faith, if we don’t understand which level they’re on? And to whom should we share the true faith, if we don’t know their need?
Posted: 30th November 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Another Counsellor (John 14:16)
These days we seem to have become a nation of Do-It-Yourself-ers. Or that’s what the TV tries to tell us. If something breaks, we try to fix it:
If there’s a problem with the car, we become mechanics. If we have a minor electrical fault or the sink is blocked, we become electricians or plumbers. If our clothes need darning or repair, we become dressmakers. If there’s a legal problem, well, more and more these days people are doing their own conveyancing, writing their own wills without the assistance of a solicitor, and representing themselves in court. And with health …? Well think of the number of alternatives there are these days without having to consult a doctor.
Of course, some people like to steer clear of all that sort of thing and are happy to call in the experts. But many, particularly when faced with a call out charge of $50 or more, before anything is actually done, prefer to have a go themselves. And for those inexperienced and facing a completely new task for the first time, there is always a manual to follow or a range of advice that is available.
Of course, in many instances Do-It-Yourself is fine, and a lot of satisfaction can be obtained in completing something you have done yourself. (And if all else fails you can always call in a professional.) But what if the issue involved is not of a material nature, but spiritual? How much, then, should we be dependent upon our own abilities? How much should we depend on the advice of others? And how much should we rely on simply reading the manual?
B. BACKGROUND TO THE GOSPEL
Now this would have been an issue that the disciples had to face. Because, if Jesus was going to go away, and where he was going they couldn’t follow, what would they do?
This was a group who had given up everything—their homes, their livelihood, their families, and even their lifestyles—several years before. They’d dedicated themselves to follow Jesus. They’d witnessed many miracles. They’d seen his compassion, and the way he cared for others. He’d taught them about God. And he’d sent them out to minister to others. With all that they’d gone through, then, to be told that he was about to leave would have been devastating.
As a consequence, their first reaction would have been unbelief. But that was probably followed by the questions: “What was to happen next? What would they do?” “Did this mean their source of spiritual advice was gone, and that they were now on their own?” “Did they need to become Do-It-Yourself Christians?”
They weren’t confident. They really didn’t understand what was going on. So, who could they turn to for help in spiritual matters? After all, the religious leaders of the day were worse than useless. So, who could they call on for professional help?
C. “ANOTHER COUNSELLOR”
It’s not difficult to imagine the disciples floundering. And perhaps that’s why Jesus’s response to the situation was to immediately assure them that just because he was going, didn’t mean he was going to leave them alone. Indeed, he began to describe “another counsellor” who was to be sent to them, to help them in spiritual matters. Someone who would be very much like himself.
But there would be differences, and some conditions.
1. The “Counsellor” Announced
Firstly, the counsellor would only be sent to them on condition that Jesus went away (16:7). The departure of Jesus may have seemed to the disciples a disastrous bit of news, however Jesus told them it was to be for their benefit.
The coming death of Jesus was critical. It was part of God’s plan to bring about salvation for mankind. Only if Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of the world, could men receive the Spirit in all its fullness. The work of the Spirit in the believer was a consequence of the saving work of Jesus, and not something separate from it. Jesus had to die, in order for the Spirit to be given.
Secondly, the counsellor would be sent in the name of Jesus (14:26). The Spirit was regarded as being connected in the most intimate way with both the Father and the Son. He was to be sent by the Father, but in the name of the Son. And his mission derived from both. Indeed, the Spirit’s role would be to continue the work of Christ, here on earth.
And thirdly, the counsellor would not only be with them continually, but, in some way, dwell within them (14:16f). Unlike Jesus’s bodily presence, which had to be withdrawn from them, this new state of affairs would be permanent. The Spirit, once given, would not be withdrawn.
For a group of people who had become so dependent upon Jesus, the promise of more expert help—a replacement—must have been reassuring. But then, they were not used to being Do-It-Yourself Christians. It was totally foreign to them.
2. The Role of the “Counsellor”
So they would also have taken heart in the role that Jesus told them that the counsellor was supposed to play:
Firstly, the counsellor was to bear witness to Jesus (15:26). Just as Jesus proclaimed the necessity of the Messiah to die in order that sins could be forgiven, so the Spirit’s role was to testify to the truth of what Jesus proclaimed. In essence this was the continuation of Jesus’s work in the world.
Secondly, the counsellor was to work in unbelievers. Namely, to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement (16:8). To convince people that they do not meet God’s high standards and that they fail to keep God’s commandments. In this role he was to act like a prosecutor at a trial, trying to convince people that they are out of touch with God and their created purpose, and that they need to acknowledge the truth about sin, righteousness and judgement.
Thirdly, the counsellor’s role was to be more than just a prosecutor. He would also have the role of being an advocate. Someone who would act as counsel and defend believers in the heavenly court. But he was not to be just a legal representative. He was to be a friend at court, performing functions that would not be required in any earthly court. He was to be a legal helper, and a friend who would do whatever was necessary to forward their best interests.
And, fourthly, the counsellor’s role would be to be a teacher, and to remind them of all that Jesus had said (14:26). Jesus acknowledged that the disciples had not grasped the significance of a good deal of what he had taught them, and it was likely that they would let slip some of the things they didn’t understand. The counsellor’s role, therefore, was to fill in the gaps. It was not to teach them something different to what Jesus had taught. On the contrary his role was to recall Jesus’s teaching.
So, just as the disciples’ world was falling apart, after Jesus had told them he was leaving them and when it began to look as though they were spiritually on their own, Jesus talked in some depth about “another Counsellor”. Someone who would be sent to replace him. But effectively someone in whom they could depend upon for their spiritual needs.
Now that’s quite a promise that Jesus made to his disciples. And even though in the next twenty-four hours the disciples betrayed him, denied him and ran away, after the resurrection, at Pentecost, the disciples were witnesses to the fact that Jesus did keep his promise, and, indeed, they received this “another counsellor” for themselves. And as history goes, what a difference it made to the disciples and to the early church.
The disciples weren’t left to their own devises. They didn’t have to depend on themselves for spiritual guidance and growth. They didn’t have to rely on other spiritual people, or even rely on a manual. They were given the Holy Spirit to lead and guide them, and to depend upon.
But that was the disciples, and that was the early church. But what about us today? In our Do-It-Yourself world, where there is a tendency to go off and do our own thing, this should be an important issue for us to consider too.
1. Dependence on the Holy Spirit
Because, first of all, it’s not just the disciples who were in need of spiritual support, we need it too. We need someone to stand up as a witness of the things that Jesus said and did. And that’s probably more important now than it was to the disciples back then. After all, we weren’t there. They were.
We still need someone to convict us of sin, righteousness and judgement. The disciples were unable to save themselves, and neither are we. We still need someone who will be our advocate, speaking on our behalf to God. We need a friend to argue our case. And we need someone we can rely on to teach us what Jesus said, and to help us understand the implications for ourselves.
So, yes, we still need that spiritual support.
2. Not an Optional Extra
Secondly, with the natural reaction to go our own way and to live independent lives, we need to accept that we cannot come close to God using our own strength and abilities. If the bible teaches us anything, it teaches that we cannot do this in our strength.
Yes, we can use our initiative, we can call on the advice of others and we can read the manual, but calling on the Holy Spirit to help us is not an optional extra. It is something we need to do and do continually.
And, if there are obstacles that block our way, we need to ask for help to put those obstacles aside.
3. The Cost of Discipleship
And, thirdly, the cost.
Well in one sense, any Do-It-Yourself-er should be happy. The counsellor is free. The Holy Spirit costs nothing. It’s what God gives us when we become a Christian.
But, having said that, we also need to recognise that the counsellor can be very costly. Particularly, as he begins to convince us of our weaknesses and failings, and as we are called on to change our habits, our way of life, our priorities, and our whole way of looking at things. The very nature of the Spirit’s role in our lives means that we will change, as bit-by-bit we become more Christ-like.
So, yes, we might be a nation of Do-It-Yourself-ers, fixing cars, being electricians and plumbers, being dressmakers, doing all our own legal work, and even playing with our health. But if there is one thing the bible teaches, is that we cannot Do-It-Yourself in terms of our spiritual lives. We cannot save ourselves. And we delude ourselves if we say that we can.
We need a counsellor. We need someone to tell us about Jesus. We need someone to convict us of our mistakes. We need someone who will plead our case. And we need someone to teach us all the things that are necessary for a healthy relationship with God. And God has provided that person, to be with us and to dwell in us.
So today, how much do we make use of our counsellor? How much do we listen to his advice? How seriously do we take his prodding? And how much do we resist? The Holy Spirit may make us uncomfortable from time to time, but he’s not an optional extra. And we’re only fooling ourselves if we say he is.
Posted 22nd February 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Pointing the Way (John)
First sign: Turning water into wine (2:1-11)
Second sign: Healing the official’s son (4:46-54)
Third sign: The healing of a lame man (5:1-18)
Fourth sign: Feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15)
Fifth sign: Jesus walks on water (6:16-21)
Sixth sign: The healing of a man born blind (9:1-41)
Seventh sign: The raising of Lazarus (11:1-57)
For the apostle John, the miracles were great, but more important was that they pointed to the miracle worker—to Jesus himself. As a consequence John’s emphasis is not on the miracles themselves, but on the one who performed them. And as I thought about that, I wondered whether we do the same.
After all, there are times when we all might pray for a miracle of one kind or another. But when our prayers are answered, do we get so engrossed in the miracle that we miss the sign pointing to the Messiah? Because that is the trap that the people of Jesus’s day fell into. As a consequence they wanted miracle, after miracle, after miracle.
It’s very important then to recognise that miracles are signposts pointing to Jesus. And we need to be alert to all the opportunities given to us to have an encounter with the Messiah.
Posted: 11th October 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis