Some Stuff I’ve Preached on Recently: John 6:1-21 and Exodus

[The hectic pace of life has prevented me from posting much as of late. Today I thought I would simply provide some theological content from a recent sermon I preached at Renfrew Baptist . . .]

Toward the end of John 5, Jesus names “Moses” twice (John 5:45-46), and then John 6 ensues, a chapter brimming with allusions to Moses and the story of the exodus. What follows is some biblical-theological reflection on only the first two stories in John 6 (vv. 1-15 and vv. 16-21).

John 6 opens with the report that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee, after which he “went up on the mountain” (6:3). With the phrase “went up on the mountain,” could there already be an echo in John 6 of Exodus 19:3; 24:18; and 34:4; where Moses “went up” Mount Sinai? John 6:4 continues with mention of “Passover,” an obvious allusion back to Exodus 12. It would seem, at the start of John 6, that John wanted his readers to think “Exodus.”

Following Israel’s dramatic exit from the clutches of Egypt (Exodus 14), the people found themselves in the wilderness of Sin, grumbling because of their hunger (Exodus 16). Yahweh promised a shower of bread from heaven, with attendant “testing” (Exodus 16:4).

Following Jesus’s trek up the “mountain,” and following John’s mention of “Passover,” John 6 turns to description of Jesus feeding the crowd by multiplying bread and fish (John 6:5-13). As Yahweh had once fed the hungry hordes in the wilderness of Sin, now Jesus fed 5,000 men with five barley loaves and two fish. And similar to Yahweh “testing” the people in Exodus 16:4, Jesus “tests” Philip just prior to the distribution of the new manna (John 6:6).

Those who ate by the hand of Jesus consumed “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11); they “ate their fill” (John 6:12). In Exodus 16:18, each person in the wilderness of Sin had “gathered as much as he could eat.”

The people perceived a connection between Jesus and Moses, and so they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is come into the world!” (John 6:14). “The Prophet,” of course, was an expected figure who would fulfill the word that Moses had spoken in Deuteronomy 18:15: When the Prophet came, he would be like Moses had been. Certainly, Jesus was acting like Moses in many respects, but Jesus was going much further. For instance, Moses never claimed to be the manna from heaven like Jesus did (John 6:35, 48).

The second story in John 6 puts everything on a yet higher plane. There is a double mention of the “sea” in John 6:16-17, and if one is convinced that in John 6:1-15 John has been nodding to the story of the exodus, then one cannot help but wonder if now, some sort of new “Red Sea” moment might occur. The disciples get into nautical trouble, and they witness what would be a terrifying sight: a human being walking on water (John 6:19). As readers, we know that human beings cannot walk on water, and on that score, the disciples would have agreed with us wholeheartedly. Yet they witnessed the man Jesus walking on the water. Who can walk on water? Only God can “trample the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). Only God has a “way” through the sea and a “path” through the waters (Psalm 77:19).

“This is indeed the Prophet,” the people had said in John 6:14. It would seem that their identification of Jesus as the “Prophet like Moses” was a vast underestimation. Did Moses ever walk on water? Someone far greater than Moses was now in their world, and in John 6:20, Jesus makes that fact crystal clear. “It is I; do not be afraid,” says Jesus, who is strolling toward his disciples on top of liquid H2O. “It is I; do not be afraid.” The Greek that translates “It is I” in John 6:20 is the precise Greek that translates as the initial “I AM” in Exodus 3:14 (LXX). In Isaiah 43:10, 25, there are three uses of the same Greek phrase, and in that same chapter there are two appearances of “Fear not”: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you,” says Yahweh (Isa 43:1); “Fear not, for I am with you,” says Yahweh (Isa 43:5).  When Jesus utters, “I AM, do not be afraid” in John 6:20 (as he stands upon water!), he is expressing his identity as the Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43 Yahweh-to-the-rescue. Jesus is not simply “the Prophet.” Jesus is God come in the flesh.

Yahweh had gone solo in bringing the people to safety through the Red Sea (Exod 14). The end of the second story in John 6 reads, “Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” Is there a connection between Jesus’s presence in the boat, and the “immediacy” of their safe arrival on land? One thinks of Psalm 107:28-30: “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired safe haven.”

Who is Jesus? He is more than a mere prophet like Moses. He is more than merely a new Moses. He is God come in the flesh.

Grace and Peace,

Brent

 

Who’s Insane?

Robert Pirsig’s book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991) includes the infamous statement, “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.” Evidently Pirsig was asserting a connection (and equation) of the terms “insanity” and “religion.” Of course, many of the so-called new atheists love to quote Pirsig.

As a Christian I find it fascinating that the Bible suggests a situation exactly opposite to the assertion of Pirsig. According to the biblical authors, “insanity” can result when one refuses to acknowledge, obey, and honor God. The truly sane person is one who trusts, honors and obeys God.

When God laid out his law for Israel, he devoted significant scriptural real estate to a pronouncement of blessings for obeying and curses for disobeying. In the “curse” section of Deuteronomy 28 God said, “If you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (v. 15). God then patiently catalogued a variety of curses that would befall Israel if she lived in disobedience to the covenant. Included in that catalogue is verse 28: “The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” If the people broke covenant with God, they may find themselves in sudden mental disarray.

Daniel 4 provides a great portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar’s hubris. In earlier days of his life Nebuchadnezzar had been given several opportunities to turn toward Israel’s God and turn away from his wickedness (see Daniel 2 and 3), yet he remained aloof to God. Daniel 4 reports a troubling dream that God gave graciously to Nebuchadnezzar, and as Daniel interpreted the dream for Nebuchadnezzar it became crystal clear that the dream was meant to drive Nebuchadnezzar to repentance (see Dan 4:27). Yet Nebuchadnezzar remained narcissistic and self-focused, refusing fealty to God. A year later he spoke words that reflected the depths of his pride (see Daniel 4:30), and even as he spoke the words God arrived to implement judgment. Nebuchadnezzar quite literally went insane. “He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws” (Daniel 4:33). Daniel 4:34 is key: “At the end of days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever.” The reader will note that the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity is connected directly with “lifting his eyes to heaven.” His insanity had been connected with his hubris and Godlessness, his sanity is connected with his looking to God. After his sanity was restored, the next thing Nebuchadnezzar did (as a sane person) was to hold a little praise and worship service: “I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever.

In Romans 1:28, the reason God “gives” people up to a “debased mind to do what ought not to be done” is explicit: the people “did not see fit to acknowledge God.” One wonders if current symptoms of cultural insanity are the result of this terrifying “giving” of God.

To return to where we began, at the risk of many people writing me off as irretrievably insane, for the purposes of this blog entry I’d like to change just one word in Pirsig’s statement so that it reads: “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Godlessness.”

Grace and Peace,

Brent

“Sir, We Wish to See Jesus”

John 12:23 had always intrigued me, so I decided to preach on it this past (Palm) Sunday. The question I had always wondered about was why, precisely, did the coming of the Greeks to “see Jesus” cause Jesus to declare suddenly that his “hour had come”? After so many notices in John’s Gospel that the hour of Jesus “had not yet come” (2:4; 7:30; 8:20), what was it about the coming of the Greeks that for Jesus, signaled the arrival of his “hour”?

An article written by John Davies (“Desire of the Nations: John 12:20-22,” Reformed Theological Review 69, no. 3, Dec. 2010, pp. 151-163) pointed to a possible connection between John 12:20-23  and Isaiah 66:18-19. In the Isaiah verses, God says that “the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them.” In the context, of course the “time” of which God spoke was future to the prophet Isaiah.

In John 11, twice Jesus linked the glory of God with the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection. John 11:4 reports Jesus saying that Lazarus’s illness was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Then in John 11:40, Jesus tells Martha that she is about to “see the glory of God” as her brother Lazarus is raised. (The reader will note that the words “see the glory of God” in John 11:40 are striking in their similarity to “see my glory” in Isaiah 66:18).

The Greeks of John 12:20-21 came seeking Jesus at least partly because they had heard reports of the “glory” of Lazarus’s resurrection. The Greeks “wish to see Jesus” (see Zech 8:20-23!) because they had heard about his glorious miracle in raising a dead man to life. The nations, then, were coming to see the glory of God, in fulfillment of Isaiah 66:18.

My argument is that in John 12:20-24, Jesus was working with the Isaiah 66 ‘script.’ The Greeks (nations) were now coming to see God’s glory, which Jesus perceived as a fulfillment of Isaiah 66:18, and Jesus knew that the next verse in the Isaiah passage talked about God setting a “sign” among the nations. Following Motyer, I believe that the “sign” spoken of in Isaiah 66:19 is the cross. When the nations came seeking God’s glory (Isaiah 66:18), the time of the “sign” (the cross) had arrived. Jesus knew this, hence his pronouncement in John 12:23 that the “hour” of his glorification (i.e. his death, resurrection and exaltation) had come.

Today is Monday of Holy Week 2016. As a Gentile piece of the “much fruit” borne by the cross of Christ (John 12:24), I am ever thankful that Jesus suffered his “hour” in my place.

Grace and Peace,

Brent

 

To Preach the Gospel is to Besiege

How shall the purpose of Christian preaching be understood? Some may contend that the purpose of preaching is simply to encourage hearers toward some course of action. Others might argue that the goal of preaching is to evoke possibilities for listeners’ lives. How do you understand the purpose of preaching?

Near the beginning of the tenth chapter of Second Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes some provocative remarks concerning the purpose of his preaching. Paul employs a variety of military terms and images as he outlines the nature and effect of his gospel proclamation:

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor 10:4-5 ESV)

Weapons, warfare, power, destruction, strongholds, captivity: Each of these words is borrowed from the world of military conflict. Paul understood the preaching of the gospel as warfare, and the careful reader will notice the close connection he makes between ‘destroying strongholds’ and ‘destroying arguments and opinions that are raised against the knowledge of God.’ Spirit enabled gospel proclamation is destructive. It destroys what Dennis Johnson has described as “cleverly defended, deep-seated error that arrogantly opposes God’s truth in Christ.” [Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2007), 90].

Paul might have toned down his language. He might have chosen instead to say, “We question arguments and every lofty opinion,” or even, “We repudiate arguments and every lofty opinion.” But Paul’s language is a great deal stronger: “We destroy.” Arrogant human defenses against the gospel need to be destroyed and laid waste, according to Paul; the people holding them are too important not to have them destroyed. And after all, how can a person be taken captive to obey the true King unless you first destroy the stronghold that has served as his or her protection?

To preach the gospel is to besiege. To preach the gospel is to wield divine weaponry against Genesis 3 defenses. Are you a preacher of the Word?  Pray for a successful campaign this Sunday; pray down the armor of God and go forth in the power of the Spirit.  Heed the advice of Charles Wesley, written in his hymn, Soldiers of Christ, Arise:

Brandish in faith till then [i.e. until the Marriage Supper of the Lamb]
The Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men
In pieces with the Word;
’Tis written; This applied
Baffles their strength and art;
Spirit and soul with this divide,
And joints and marrow part.

Grace and Peace,

Brent

Jesus and His Shocking Personal Pronouns

As part of a past seminar for my Doctor of Ministry degree, I was asked to read Oskar Skarsaune’s book In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002]. In a section of his book, Skarsaune includes some very stimulating discussion on the relationship between Jesus and Wisdom/Torah, and he highlights the rather startling way in which Jesus employed personal pronouns. What follows here are just two of my gleanings from that brief section of Skarsaune’s excellent book, as well as some expansions of my own.

  1. Jesus’s use of the first person subjective pronoun “I” was often wildly and disturbingly radical for his hearers.

Skarsaune quotes a Swedish Jewish rabbi named Marcus Ehrenpreis (1869-1951), who wrote some instructive and rather breathtaking reflection on Jesus’s use of the pronoun “I”:

A difference [between Jesus and the Jewish rabbis] appears immediately that from the very beginning constituted an unbridgeable wall of separation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus spoke in his own name. Judaism, on the other hand, knew only one I, the divine Anochi [Hebrew for “I”] who gave us the eternal commandments at Sinai. No other superhuman I has existed in Judaism other than God’s. Jesus’ sermons begin, “I say to you.” The prophets of Israel introduced their preaching, “Thus says the Lord.” Here is a difference that goes to the inner core of religion. . . . Jesus’ voice had an alien sound that Jewish ears had never heard before. For Judaism, only the revealed teaching of God was important, not the teacher’s personal I. Moses and the prophets were human beings encumbered with shortcomings. Hillel and his successors sat on the seat of Moses. Every leading scholar is a link in an unbroken chain of tradition that stretched from Moses to our own time. Jesus seemingly breaks this chain and begins a new one. A man arose in Israel who cried, ‘I say to you.’ This was the new and strange element that arose between Jesus and the Pharisees.

[Translated by Oskar Skarsaune and cited on p. 330 of In The Shadow of the Temple. The original is from Marcus Ehrenpreis, Talmud, Fariseism, Urkristendom (Stockholm: Hugo Gebers Förlag, 1933), 108-10].

So where Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah and the other prophets saw themselves (entirely correctly) as representatives of God, saying “thus says the Lord,” Jesus saw himself as having the right to dispense with third person references (“he says”) in favor of the 1st person (“I say”). To help us understand something of the shocking effect that Jesus’s first person references had on his hearers, Skarsaune points us to Mark 1:22:

[Jesus] taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Still on the subject of Jesus’s use of “I,” compare a section of M Avot 3:2 (a Second Temple-era Jewish text) with what Jesus says in Matthew 18:20.  Here is the section from M Avot 3:2, highlighted for our purposes:

Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon says: Two who are sitting together and there are no words of Torah [spoken] between them, this is a session of scorners, as it is said (in Psalm 1:1): ‘[Happy is the man who has] not . . . sat in the session of the scorners.’ But two who are sitting and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Divine presence rests with them.

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said,

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

If Jesus was aware of the oral tradition recorded in M Avot 3:2 (which he probably was) then his statement in Matthew 18:20 becomes all the more radical, for Jesus was claiming for himself the “divine presence” that the rabbis had only dared speak of in third person terminology.

  1. Jesus’s use of the first person objective pronoun “me” was sometimes equally as shocking to his hearers.

Skarsaune points out that “the prophets could ask people to turn to God, to come to God for help and rest” [Skarsaune, In The Shadow of the Temple,  331]. But Jesus invited people to himself: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).

Further, instead of sticking with rabbinic precedent and encouraging people to take on the yoke of Torah, the rabbi Jesus invited people to take on his own personal yoke: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29).

And further, says Skarsaune, whereas the prophets could only speak of being “persecuted for God’s sake, or for his Name’s sake, or for the Torah’s sake; Jesus spoke about being persecuted and even losing one’s life for his sake.” [See Matthew 5:11-12, 10:18; Mark 13:9; where Jesus speaks of being persecuted for “my sake” and on “my account.”]

All of this points strongly to what the believer already knows: Jesus is God in the flesh, speaking with divine authority in the first person. No wonder he shocked and startled and rankled so many people, as he still does today.

Blessings,

Brent

The Kingdom is Not Like a Pearl

Years ago I was quite surprised to discover that Matthew 13:45-46 does not say that the kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of great price.  I had heard countless people claim that Jesus compared the kingdom to the pearl, but then when I actually went back and read the parable slowly and carefully, I found that it was saying something quite different.  The verses in question read as follows:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Notice carefully that Jesus does not compare the kingdom to the pearl of great value. Rather, he compares the kingdom to the merchant.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant . . .”

If the kingdom is like the merchant in the parable (and not the pearl), it’s certainly worth pondering the nature of the merchant.

Jesus attributes five actions to the merchant. The merchant searches, finds, goes, sells, and buys. How, then, is the kingdom of heaven like this searching, finding, going, selling, buying merchant?

Perhaps it’s something like this: Sometimes the rule of God over a person begins at the place of searching. A person is awakened to a sense of lack, however vague: “My five-bedroom house and my ATVs and my Lexus, and even my wife and family aren’t quite bringing me the sense of fulfillment and peace that I thought they would.  Something is missing.” So maybe the person visits Chapters/Indigo and fishes through the self-help and ‘spirituality’ shelves, and maybe he or she also confides in a trusted friend. The search is on.

And then God in his sovereignty ensures that somewhere, some way, that searching person comes under the sound of the gospel. The finding occurs. The person discovers the pearl! He or she recognizes his or her need for peace with God by the sacrifice of Christ, is born again, and enters an entire new level of life.

Priorities and paradigms are altered. The gospel and the Christ of the gospel invade a life and turn everything upside down. Christ now seems worth volumes more than any other thing. The saved person is now willing to go make whatever radical sacrifice is necessary, if he or she might just “keep the pearl” (i.e. remain in Christ and live to honor Him). Biological family ties take second place.  Material keeping and consuming takes a backseat, and so on and so forth. A new Authority has changed everything.

The rule of God sometimes comes in a way that resembles the merchant.

What do you think? Is this a misreading of the parable?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Grace and Peace,

Brent

The Necessity of Grief

Dictionary.com defines the English word ‘necessary’ as: being essential, indispensable, or requisite. It is necessary for me to continue breathing oxygen if I am to stay alive. It is necessary that cars stop at red lights in order to prevent accidents. It is necessary to pay $2.00 for a drink priced at $2.00. And so forth.

An entirely striking example of ‘necessity’ is found at 1 Peter 1:6. In the English Standard Version of the Bible, the verse reads:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.”

Did you catch that?

If necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.

If as an essential, you have been grieved by various trials.

If as a requisite, you have been grieved by various trials.

Rocks and concrete are both incapable of finding anything necessary. You have to be alive (not to mention intelligent) to determine that something is necessary. So a living agent is implied in 1 Peter 1:6—a living agent who determines the necessity of “grief by various trials.” That living agent is God, and we are the ones upon whom God necessitates grief over a variety of trials.

Why would God determine it necessary to have us grieve over various trials? Isn’t grief (or ‘heaviness’ as the King James Version renders it) something to be avoided at all costs? How could grief ever be necessary or indispensable or requisite in our lives? And further, what do we do with the earlier part of 1 Peter 1:6, which talks about ‘rejoicing’?  How can ‘rejoicing’ and ‘grieving’ be juxtaposed in so short a span? Aren’t these mutually exclusive categories?

Earlier today I read a wise and pastoral sermon on 1 Peter 1:6 written almost two hundred years ago by Charles Spurgeon. In the sermon, Spurgeon gives four main reasons for the necessity of grief during times of trial.  Summarized, they are as follows:

  • Grief during times of trial is necessary because in all things we must be like our Head.

Here Spurgeon points to Mark 14:33-34 (cf. Matthew 26:37-38), where in his final hour, Jesus was “sorrowful and troubled,” saying, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” Spurgeon remarks:

[Jesus] had to bear the burden, not with his shoulders omnipotent, but with shoulders that were bending to the earth beneath a load. And you and I must not always expect a giant faith that can remove mountains: sometimes even to us the grasshopper must be a burden, that we may in all things be like unto our head.

  • Grief during times of trial is necessary because it keeps us humble before God.

During times of buoyancy and light-hearted happiness, it is all too easy to forget God. Spurgeon writes:

Lest we should be satisfied from ourselves, and forget that all our own springs must be in him, the Lord sometimes seems to sap the springs of life, to drain the heart of all its spirits, and to leave us without soul or strength for mirth, so that the noise of tabret and viol would be unto us as but the funeral dirge, without joy or gladness. Then it is that we discover what we are made of, and out of the depths we cry unto God, humbled by our adversities.”

  • Grief during times of trial is necessary because only through such difficulty do we learn uniquely valuable lessons.

Have you ever noticed how the tops of the Canadian Rockies are mostly barren rock, while the valleys below are where the bulk of the trees stand? We love our mountaintop experiences, but is the valleys of life where the most abundant growth can (and often does) occur.

  • Grief during times of trial is necessary because it makes us uniquely competent in the counsel of others.

Spurgeon puts this so beautifully:

There are none so tender as those who have been skinned themselves. Those who have been in the chamber of affliction know how to comfort those who are there. Do not believe that any man will become a physician unless he walks the hospitals; and I am sure that no one will become a divine, or become a comforter, unless he lies in the hospital as well as walks through it, and has to suffer himself. God can not make ministers—and I speak with reverence of his holy Name—he can not make a Barnabas except in the fire. It is there, and there alone, that he can make his sons of consolation; he may make his sons of thunder anywhere; but his sons of consolation he must make in the fire, and there alone. Who shall speak to those whose hearts are broken, who shall bind up their wounds, but those whose hearts have been broken also, and whose wounds have long run with the sore of grief?

Last, what about that seemingly odd juxtaposition of “rejoicing” and “grieving” in 1 Peter 1:6? Is it possible to rejoice even as one grieves?  Always colorful in his imagery and profound in expression, Spurgeon writes,

Mariners tell us that there are some parts of the sea where there is a strong current upon the surface going one way, but that down in the depths there is a strong current running the other way. Two seas do not meet and interfere with one another; but one stream of water on the surface is running in one directions, and another below is an opposite direction. Now, the Christian is like that. On the surface there is a stream of heaviness rolling with dark waves; but down in the depths there is a strong under-current of great rejoicing that is always flowing there.

Grieving and rejoicing can co-exist.

So where are you at today? Are you living under the divine necessity of grief? If so, take heart. Your grief is not reason-less, and the reasons for it have been dictated by a good and wise God.

Grace and Peace,

Brent