I am the Vine, you are the branches

Series: Face-to-face with John, by Rosie Moore.

I think it’s apt that we are finishing off our series in John’s gospel with Jesus’s seventh and final “I am” statement: “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5). Christ was addressing his disciples shortly before His final high priestly prayer, just a few days before He laid down his life for his friends. Let’s read it carefully together:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other.

A transplanted vine.

God used a vine as a symbol of his people in the Hebrew Scriptures. The metaphor is used to describe how God took his people out of Egypt and transplanted them in the fertile land of Canaan:

You transplanted a vine from Egypt;
    you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it,
    and it took root and filled the land. (Ps 80:8-9).

That’s why there was a large golden vine on the front of the temple symbolizing that Israel was God’s vine. But, despite God’s tender love and care, we know that this vine was not always faithful and true. Look how Isaiah describes his unfaithful people as a fruitless vine:

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit. (Isa 5:1-2)

The faithful, fruitful vine.

In contrast to fruitless, faithless Israel, Jesus calls himself the true vine. In John 15:5, Jesus is making it clear to his Jewish disciples that if they are to bear fruit for God’s kingdom, they must now be rooted in Him, not in Israel or their old traditions. Similarly, as a new covenant community, Christians must identify first and foremost with Christ Himself, not with Israel, our own culture or even the church. Christ alone is the true vine for believers.

Complete dependence.

Reading this passage, it struck me again how vital our relationship with Christ is. The verbs “remain” and “abide”, are repeated over and over again, for this is Christ’s formula for living in this world as a believer and as a community of believers.

Just as a baby in the womb is totally dependent on its mother, so too, there is a relationship of complete trust and unity between a believer and Christ. The branch is utterly unable to survive on its own.  It depends entirely on the vine for its life, growth and fruitfulness.

Just as the lamb depends on the shepherd, and the hungry person craves bread, so too a believer must remain connected to Christ, as intimately as a branch is connected to a plant. Our Christian lives depend on our abiding in Christ, and He in us. As Jesus was preparing his followers for his departure, this was vital encouragement for them as they confronted the world with the gospel, laying down their lives in the process.

The vinedresser.

The Old Testament picture of Israel as the vine depicted God the Father as the vinedresser. The vinedresser plants, cultivates and protects the vine. God does this for his children in the new covenant too. He doesn’t just save us and then leave us. He continues to be our loving gardener.

We see from this chapter that if we are true followers of Christ, we have a relationship with the vine (the Son); with the vine dresser (the Father), and with the Counsellor (the Holy Spirit) (John 15:1-24-59-1026). God’s people are nourished, disciplined and helped by the triune God of the universe, who abides in us personally, as we abide in Him. Do we appreciate this immense privilege that belongs to each and every Christian?

Two kinds of pruning.

But notice the two kinds of pruning in Jesus’s metaphor:

First, there’s the pruning that involves separating the fruitless branches from the vine and burning them. These branches are cut off at the trunk by the vinedresser (God), because they are worthless and will cause infection for the rest of the vine if they remain.

These fruitless branches represent people who were never true believers, as they were never properly attached to the vine. They are people who appear to be part of the church, but because they don’t trust Jesus personally, they do not bear fruit for the kingdom. Often they try to block the efforts of believers and divide God’s people. We are warned that God Himself will cut them off from Christ’s life-giving vine. Judas was a fruitless branch. So were most of the Pharisees.

Secondly, there is the pruning that cuts back fruitful branches to promote further growth and productivity. “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes.” God disciplines his true followers to strengthen our faith and character. While sometimes painful, this pruning is an act of great love by a Father towards his children (John 14:9).

Some Bibles translate this pruning as “cleansing”. The vinedresser cleans up the fruit-bearing branches so that they will bear more fruit. Jesus tells the 11 disciples that they are already clean. They’d heard and received much of his teaching already. They were already Christ’s followers, cleansed from sin and being sanctified day-by- day.

“God removes the dead wood from his church and disciplines the life of a believer so that it is directed into fruitful activity.” (Tenney)

The cleansing of the word.

So, how does the word of God cleanse us? Paul (Ephesians 5:26) helps us understand this when he writes: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her  to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.

The word of God sanctifies us by showing us what sin is. God’s word convicts and inspires holiness in us. It promotes growth like a gardener’s pruning shears. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the word enables us to have victory over sin. Jesus is still washing his people through His word, the Bible.

Abide in Me, and I in you.

When Jesus spoke about his death, his first disciples were mostly concerned about themselves. If Jesus went away, what would become of them?

These words “Abide in me”, were spoken in the context of a scary future. As their Master who said, “I am the truth”, Christ didn’t lie to his followers or give them false assurance of an easy life. He didn’t give them tips on how to edit their words so as not to offend their culture or jeopardize the preaching of the gospel.

To the contrary, Jesus told them that because they were His, they didn’t belong to the world. It was inevitable that they would be hated by the world because of His name. Some would listen to their message, but many would respond with great hatred towards God and his anointed Son. He warned them that they would be hated, rejected, marginalized, thrown out of the most cherished places in their culture (like the synagogue), and even killed.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you…‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.”

 In just a few hours, Jesus would be arrested and led away from his frightened disciples. Soon they too would be persecuted, just as their Master was.

We will never understand how important Christ’s promises are, unless we hear his warnings to his followers too. You can read them for yourself in John 15:18-16:1-4. If we view Jesus’s claim about the vine and the branches as a kind of platitude, we will miss the tremendous comfort of his promises.

Mutual abiding.

What are these promises? Just think for a moment of the three assurances Jesus gives to his disciples, and all future believers:

  1. “I am the vine; you are the branches…
  2. Remain in me, and I will remain in you…
  3. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.”

Christ offers believers firm assurance in a hard and hostile world. He focuses on the mutual relationship between Himself and his followers: Christians don’t only abide in their Master. He abides in us too.

It makes me think of the mutual love relationship that Solomon describes between God and His Bride: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Songs of Solomon 6:3)

It’s not just about us abiding in Jesus, but also about Him indwelling us by his Holy Spirit. There’s nothing static or one-sided about this relationship. In no way is the responsibility for abiding only upon us as believers. Isn’t it a huge relief that it’s not all up to us to keep abiding?

What a beautiful picture of the continued mutual relationship that we have with Jesus, even though He isn’t physically with us. But, there’s also an element of personal responsibility and effort on our part. Abiding is something we must choose to do. Abiding is an act of the will on our part. We can abide or go astray (John 16:1).

We must actively abide with Christ if we want to be fruitful in our faith. And fruitfulness is not an optional extra. Fruitfulness is the proof that we are His disciples.

Bearing much fruit.

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8)

Jesus has appointed each one of us to bear fruit—fruit that will last (John 15:16). Not just an odd grape here and there, but “much fruit”! God’s work in us and our connection to Him will be demonstrated by fruit, perhaps by much fruit.

But it’s easy to talk about bearing fruit in a vague way, isn’t it? What exactly did Christ mean when he spoke about bearing fruit? Obviously he was preparing his disciples for a life of evangelism and preaching the gospel to the world. But is fruit limited to gospel preaching and soul winning?

Fruit pursuit.

There is so much talk in our culture about fulfilling your purpose and ‘doing the work’. But being driven, shamed or guilt-tripped into building a legacy of good works is not from Christ. It leads only to condemnation and burnout.

In my women’s Bible studies, I often hear sincere, godly Christians ask, “How do I know the good works God wants me to do? What if I get to the end of my life, and discover that I’ve missed my God-given purpose?” We all dread living a fruitless and barren life, don’t we? Perhaps that’s why Rick Warren’s “Purpose driven life” was such a hit.

But this kind of ‘fruit pursuit’ can be a cause of great stress and disappointment. It can be especially daunting to think of producing “much fruit”, when you’re surrounded by so much death, suffering, poverty and need, as we’ve seen in 2021.

But Jesus said very simply, yet profoundly, “He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit.”

This is such a liberating assurance to believers who long to fulfill Christ’s commission to bear fruit that will last. Jesus says that good fruit is inevitable… on condition that we abide in Him and He in us. The Holy Spirit will produce the fruit in us.

And so, we don’t have to stress out wondering where to find the good works that God has planned for us! The quality and quantity of our fruit, as well as the exact type of fruit, will differ from person to person. But there will always be good fruit produced, and reproduced, in a disciple who is abiding in Christ. We do not have to pursue good fruit like it’s a holy grail.

In chapter 15, Jesus gives us a kaleidoscope of what Christian fruit looks like. They’re not spectacular fruits, but very practical and accessible, wherever we are, whatever our personality type. We could call them ‘low lying fruit’! Let’s do a simple inventory of good fruit from Christ’s own words in John 15:

Are you BELIEVING and trusting Jesus as God’s Son, the true vine, who has cleansed you from all your sin and unrighteousness (John 15:13)? Then your faith is good fruit that gives glory to your Father in heaven.

Are you praying? Then your answered PRAYERS are good fruit (John 15:716b).

Do you have JOY that transcends your circumstances and is contagious to others? Then your JOY is good fruit (John 15:11).

Are you laying down your own wants and convenience to love other Christians in ordinary ways, like hospitality, helping, encouraging, giving, listening, visiting, caring, feeding? Then your LOVE is good fruit (John 15:12-13.)

Are you deeply ASSURED that Christ loves you? Do you remind others of His love for them too? Then you are producing good fruit (John 15:9-10).

Are you reading the Bible and obeying what Christ shows you? Then your OBEDIENCE is good fruit (John 15:1410).

Are you representing the gospel accurately with your words and deeds, with whoever you happen to meet? Then your TESTIMONY is good fruit (John 15:27).

According to Jesus, good fruit is made up of the ordinary, natural stuff of life. It can never be coerced, contrived or manufactured.

The fruit that will last.

Being fruitful glorifies our heavenly Father! (John 15:8) When a vine is heavy with juicy grapes, God is glorified, because He sent the rain and He provided the sap and He nurtured each tiny plant, pruning it to be even more productive. What a great advert for the Lord of the harvest when disciples of Christ are bearing fruit—the character and deeds of Christ. It glorifies the Lord because He made it all happen!

Lasting fruit is the fruit of Christian character which Paul spells out for us in Galatians 5: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Against such things, there is no law.”

The fruit of good relationships will last into eternity, long after our bodies have died and our so-called legacies are just a distant memory.

The Apostle Peter also lists the fruit of faith: Goodness, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love. Peter says that if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, “they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of the Lord Jesus” (2 Peter 1:5-8). These traits are what make our ordinary days fruitful and productive in God’s sight.

Yes, it’s true that we’ve been called to be effective and productive. We are saved so that we can look more like Christ, grow in Christian character, make disciples, and serve others in love. We have been chosen and appointed by Christ to bear good fruit (John 15:16).

But there is nothing stressful or guilt-inducing about bearing the fruit of the vine. Kingdom fruit is not another heavy load to bear. Our productivity isn’t patterned on what our culture defines as ‘doing the work’—those endless acts to atone for our guilt and be seen as righteous in man’s eyes. We are already clean! Just as Christ’s first disciples were already clean when they heard and received the gospel of grace (John 15:3).

Without the sap of Christ’s love in our veins, we cannot possibly translate our good intentions into actions. If we do not bear fruit in our lives, it is because we have forgotten what Christ has done for us and are not depending on the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we are wearing ourselves out with our efforts, it’s time to listen to the Counsellor’s voice and pray for guidance and wisdom from the Spirit of truth (John 15:2616:13.) Jesus will show us the good works He has prepared for us to do (Phil 2:10). There are simple things that we can do right now, where we are, by His powerful Spirit.

The only way to live a truly good and fruitful life is to stay close to Jesus, like a branch attached firmly to the vine. “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Without me you can do nothing.

As we go into the holiday season, may we remember Christ’s final words to his disciples. “Without me, you can do nothing!” Nothing, nothing at all, without His Spirit.

Abiding in Christ is much more than hanging from a tree like a sloth! It’s much more than believing in certain facts about Jesus. It is drawing joy and love from the deep well of a consistent relationship with our Master and our friend (John 15:14). “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Can you believe that Christ actually calls us “friends?” Friendship is the nature of our abiding relationship with Him.

Prayer, Scripture and gathering with God’s people are some of the wonderful channels of grace that the Lord Jesus has provided to us, so that we may keep abiding in Him, and He in us. May we never neglect these precious gifts.

If our lives are attached to Christ, we will be able to walk through every adversity without sliding into despair. We will be able to manage prosperity, pleasure, good deeds and Christmas celebrations with a cheerful spirit, without making them our idols. We will be empowered to live a good and fruitful life wherever God has placed us. But apart from Him, our best efforts will be fruitless.

“All our sap and safety is from Christ. The bud of a good desire, the blossom of a good resolution, and the fruit of a good action, all come from him” (Trapp).

Are you fully convinced that Christ is the Way?

Series: Face-to-face with Jesus, By Rosie Moore.

No claim of Christ is as controversial as his “I AM” statement in John 14:6“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It’s no surprise that many people are offended or embarrassed by Jesus’s dogmatic words, especially the second half.

A few years ago, my son attended confirmation classes led by the chaplain of his Anglican school. Towards the end, one boy asked a direct and sincere question to the chaplain: “Sir, how do I make sure that I will go to heaven to be with God when I die?”

My son was waiting with baited breath for the chaplain to explain the beauty of the gospel to the 24 captive boys who heard this excellent question. He was waiting to hear the truth about our sin and Christ’s sacrifice to provide the way to God. He was waiting to hear the chaplain describe the resurrection of Christ, which guarantees us a sure hope of everlasting life. But instead, this is how the chaplain replied:

“Whatever you choose to believe, and whatever path you think is best for you, do it with all your heart, and you’ll go to heaven one day.” At the end of the confirmation service, he pronounced all 24 boys, “good Christian gentlemen.”

Truth vs false assurance.

But if this ‘I AM” statement of Christ is true, then with all due respect, the chaplain’s answer provided false and dangerous assurance for these precious young lives. John 14:6 is as exclusive and culturally provocative as you get, and there’s no way to dodge its implications. The reason why Christ’s claim is so offensive is that it defies the many ‘gods’ of our age, which seem so loving, attractive and tolerant, but are false nevertheless.

Firstly, Christ’s claim confronts the god of evolution, erected on the false assumption that there is no sovereign Creator or personal, knowable God. Secondly, His claim also defies the untouchable gods of inclusion, equity (equal outcomes), tolerance and religious pluralism.

Confronting the ‘gods’.

No wonder Christ’s claim is confrontational! If Jesus is the only way for us to approach God as Father, it follows that those who reject the Son as their mediator will be excluded from God’s presence and the home that He is preparing for those who love him (John 14:2-4).  This outcome is far from equitable.

And if Jesus is the only source of truth, then it’s only reasonable to conclude that when we try to construct our own truths; our own sexual identities; our own cultural categories; our own methods of redemption, and our own personal preferences, we are in error and confusion. This confusion and disorder has far reaching consequences for our lives on earth and in eternity.

So, if Christ’s truth claim is true, it’s only logical that every other way is just an empty mirage and a dead end street. It means that all alternative paths to discover God and understand ourselves are like the crumbs that Hansel and Gretel threw on the ground to show them the way home. Sadly, the birds ate the crumbs and the siblings were left lost and alone in the forest. There they fell captive to an evil witch who lived in a seductive house made of gingerbread, cake and pastries.

Exclusivism is part and parcel of historic Christianity and there’s no logical way that we can blend it with our culture’s pluralistic worldview or make it more palatable. They are irreconcilable. And so, in answer to Thomas’s confused question: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we find the way?” Jesus gives a straight and profound answer that goes to the essence of who He is and what He came to earth to do:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him”. Phillip said, “Lord, show us the Father…Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Phillip, even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:6-10).

Jesus sets us an example of grace and truth in his interactions with his disciples. See how directly and patiently he engages with Thomas and Phillip’s sincere questions. But at the same time, His claims were as confrontational to his first century hearers as they are to us today, in our re-imagined world.

Let’s survey the landscape of our 21st century world:

A re-imagined world without God, the Bible or churches.

A recent study, the American Worldview Inventory 2021, surveyed the philosophy of American adults, assessing the worldviews of four generations: millennials (born 1984-2002), Gen X (1965-1983), baby boomers (1946-1964 and builders (1927-1945).

The researchers reported that the beliefs and behaviours of young Americans, even those who call themselves Christian, are causing a radical spiritual revolution. This revolution has created a generation “seeking a re-imagined world without God, the Bible or churches.” Basic ways of life are continually being redefined, without any objective source of truth as the standard.

Similarly, an earlier 2020 study by Barna, (“Gen Z: Volume 2”), found that two thirds of teens and young adults agree that “many religions can lead to eternal life” compared to 58% of teens and young adults surveyed in 2018. The researchers described Gen Z as the first truly ‘post Christian generation,’ and the drift is rapid.

Moreover, 31% of teens and young adults “strongly agree” that what is “morally right and wrong changes over time, based on society,” compared to just 25% in 2018. Another 43% agree “somewhat”. Only a tiny percentage—10%– disagree with this basic assumption that truth and morality is relative.

The researchers concluded from their surveys that 43% of millennials ‘don’t know, don’t care, don’t believe’ that God exists.

There are many manifestations of how this worldview affects behaviour and the laws governing our countries. For instance, one in six Gen Z adults in the US identifies as LGBT, and that number is likely to continue to increase (News gallup). Last week in Sweden, a new bill was introduced allowing legal gender change from age 12, without any examination or contact from healthcare authorities.

Spiritual revolution.

Although I’m not aware of any worldview studies in Africa, raising children in South Africa over the last 26 years has convinced me that the same spiritual revolution has swept over us. It is global rather than localized. Since the earliest days of our parenting in the late nineties and early 2000’s, there has been a massive shift in thinking and ideas. Even established words have been given new meanings and children are compelled to celebrate choices that are contrary to God’s truth.

If every value is considered fluid, no amount of tradition or religion will halt this drift, although a strong family and church can provide a much needed anchor. It’s important for us to understand that the majority of young adults believe that morality, justice and truth shift as society shifts. They are mere constructs of our personalities and cultures.

This relativistic belief is entrenched by the constant barrage of media. Facts have been discarded in favour of narrative. Gen Z is particularly susceptible, as 42% admit they are addicted to social media and can’t stop even if they tried.

Without God as our source of truth, it’s no surprise that so many people are constructing their own identities in search of freedom. Truth has become no more than personal desires, preferences and experiences. Justice is no longer based on true facts and objective evidence as the Bible defines it (Deut 19:15Lev 19:15Heb 10:28). Instead of worshipping God as the ultimate authority, we are ordered to bow to the ‘consensus’ of science or the ‘public good’, which changes from day to day.

As a result, Christ’s truth claims sound increasingly bizarre and offensive to our culture’s ears. Surely he can’t be the only way, the only truth?? It might not be long before foundational Christian beliefs, such as John 14:6, are considered more than controversial. They may be construed as hate speech.

How to respond to our post-truth culture.

And so, how should we, as Christians, engage with those who have a completely different worldview than our own? That may include our children, grandchildren, colleagues and friends who have been led to believe that all paths are equally valid, and reality is something that we invent for ourselves.

Shall we abandon Christ’s exclusive truth claims to keep in step with our culture and keep the peace? This seems to have been the tack of my son’s chaplain.

Or shall we cherry-pick the non-confrontational stories about Jesus and focus on his love and mercy in an attempt to sidestep his unpopular truth claims? Shall we just portray him as meek and lowly?

Or should we hunker down in Christian-only communities to avoid confrontation altogether? After all, no one wants to risk being labelled a narrow minded, phobic bigot these days!

I struggle with these questions too, but I know for sure that there’s plenty at stake in how we engage with our post-truth culture, or we will lose our saltiness. The apostle Paul warns the Colossian Christians, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8). Christians have never had the option of blending in with society!

A desire to blend in and keep the peace will render us silent, lukewarm and useless to God’s kingdom, like the Church in Laodicea (Rev 3:16). How can we expect people to find God unless we share the wonderful, countercultural truth of the gospel? (Rom 10:14).  We certainly can’t be complacent with our children, hoping that they’ll find truth on their own or learn it in their schools. The social current is simply too strong.

But complacency and compromise aren’t our only pitfalls. If we are full of indignation and anger with our confused culture, we will start to believe the worst of people, leading to sinful bitterness and withdrawal. Without love, we will have no positive effect on our culture at all.

I have come to realize my own need to ask the Lord daily for a combination of meekness and courage: “To speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy to all people” (Titus 3:1-2). But, at the same time, to speak bravely and truthfully, like Peter in his Pentecost sermon, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

A Christian who is complacent, indifferent or afraid to risk offense is as useless to Christ’s kingdom as a cynical, self righteous or hopeless Christian. Let’s avoid both pits!

Fully convinced.

Before we engage with any unbeliever, may we be fully convinced in our own minds that Christ alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. In the Old Testament, only Yahweh could say, “I the Lord, speak the truth, and I declare what is right” (Isa 45:19). Yet, here is Jesus is claiming that He is the truth. He is therefore claiming to be God himself.

In our lostness, Jesus never expects us to follow blindly an unreasonable religion or ideology. He invites us to interrogate the data for ourselves and to view his miracles as objective evidence that his claims are true (John 14:11). But He does not merely offer us cold facts and evidence. He offers us Himself.

The Jesus of the Bible offers us personal truth in the form of a relationship with the God who made us. He reaches out to us individually. He satisfies our real needs and connects us with the God who loves us and made us for a purpose. As Abdu Murray writes,

“He is the truth our minds seek and the person our hearts embrace” (Saving Truth, p33).

Are you fully convinced that Christ has made God known to us, and He alone can give clarity in our cultural confusion? His Word, the Bible, is without mistakes and the final authority for determining what is true (what we must believe) and what is right (how we must live).

Do we test all our feelings, practices, experiences, preferences and choices against the claims and ethical standards of God’s Word? God’s Word is true for all time, for all situations, for all people. May we be set apart as Christ’s people, even as we try to be salt and light in the world. As Jesus prayed: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). The Bible is the supreme standard of truth. If we aren’t fully convinced of this, we will be far from convincing.

Do we see clearly that every other ‘way’ leads to captivity and death; that every other ‘truth’ is a lie; that every other promise of happiness is a seductive mirage? Christ alone gives life its meaning. He alone offers freedom from sin, so that we can live, not as we want to, but as we ought. He frees us to enjoy life at peace with the God who made us. If we are not convinced of this, we too will be adrift in the sea of confusion.

May we be fully convinced that there is hope for us and our children in this post-truth world, because Jesus has promised that He will continue to make God known to every generation until He returns to take us home (John 17:2614:3). But we must be on our knees every day, asking the Holy Spirit to turn hearts of stone into flesh. Then we must believe Him without compromise, and let our speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt so that you will know how to answer each person (Col 4:6).

Do not let your hearts be troubled

Series: Face to face with John (John’s gospel), by Rosie Moore.

In John 14, as Jesus draws near to his death, he says some of the most consoling words to his disciples that have ever been recorded. “Do not let your hearts be troubled…I have gone to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me…Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:1-427).

Presence, place, presence, promises, peace.

Jesus leaves his disciples with some comforting promises if they trust him in the dark days ahead. He reminds them of their eternal home, where they are already part of the perfect circle of love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (John 14:1-10). He reminds them of the immense privilege of being able to ask God anything in prayer (John 14:11-14). And he assures them of the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor, who will “teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:15-24).

But consolation is not Christ’s only focus. In the same chapter, He makes some of the most confrontational, controversial claims ever heard. His words were as offensive to the pluralistic first century culture as they are to our postmodern ears. In John 14:6, Christ claims to be the only way to God and the only way to heaven.

“I am the Truth, the Way and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Clearly, from the context, Christ’s words of consolation are only for those who have put their trust in Him as the only Way, the Truth and the Life.

We will focus on Christ’s words of confrontation next week, but for today, let’s look at what Christ’s words of consolation meant for the disciples, and what they mean for believers today.

Words of consolation.

The setting is the upper room on the night that Jesus was arrested. The disciples must have felt lost and confused, fearful and sad, disoriented and perplexed all at the same time.  I don’t think we can begin to understand the emotional turmoil that must have gripped their hearts at the prospect of being left on their own, without the Lord Jesus. Their future was bleak and they were overcome with doom.

Christ had been speaking of his imminent betrayal and death, and had just announced that their bravest member, Peter, would deny him three times before the next morning. It was to this troubled group of friends, huddled together in the upper room, that Jesus spoke these tender words of consolation. Only the good Shepherd would have have cared more about comforting his sheep than his own troubled heart:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:1-4).

Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in me.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled” is a negative command to resist the natural hopelessness we sometimes feel. The positive command is to trust in the Lord instead. For followers of Christ in every generation, these words are full of reassurance, not merely positive thinking. They remind us to resist our troubled, anxious condition by trusting in God, to cast all our cares on the Lord who cares for us. To call the disciples to trust in these circumstances was no platitude. Let’s bear in mind the reasons why those first disciples had good reason to be very troubled:

The disciples had found love, truth and purpose in following Jesus as their Lord and Master. They’d lived with Him and learned from Him ever since they first left the security of their careers and homes. They’d watched his stunning miracles and rejoiced at the conversions of many who had put their faith in Him. Three of them had been with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Recently they’d witnessed a dead, decomposing corpse emerge from a tomb after Christ called, “Lazarus, come out!”

The disciples had heard Christ’s extraordinary claims of deity and seen the accompanying signs: I am the Bread of Life; I am the light of the world, I am the Gate; I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Resurrection and the Life. But although they had all the proof they needed to trust Jesus, their hearts were still troubled at their circumstances.

Naturally, they were scared of what it would mean to follow a betrayed leader, a political and religious outcast, someone considered as a dissident by the Jewish and Roman establishment. They weren’t superhuman. They knew the power of the people who were plotting to kill Jesus. And they knew the might of the Roman empire. There were many crucified bodies to remind them that Rome didn’t tolerate dissidents and troublemakers, no matter how false the accusations.

Rome was determined to make an example of anyone who would not bow to its gods and its Emperor as Lord. The great offense of Christians was not that they followed Christ per se, but that they believed that Jesus was the only way, and the truth and the life. They could not follow other gods or bow to Rome, as only Christ was their Lord, not Caesar.

None of their fears were unfounded. After Christ’s death and resurrection, Christians would soon be called the “Christ-ones” or “the Way”, and many would be shamed, dispossessed and persecuted for pledging their allegiance to Jesus only, rather than bowing to the idols of the age. Beginning in Jerusalem at the hands of the Jews, the pattern of persecution would spread to the rest of the world, wherever Christians gathered and lived out their faith consistently. They would not worship other gods, and this refusal to compromise endangered their lives and livelihoods.

And so it was reasonable that the disciples felt troubled. They thought they’d be left to fend for themselves in a dark and hostile world.

But they were wrong. They were not left alone. In the power of the Holy Spirit, those original disciples carried the gospel outside of Palestine and into the whole world. Jesus kept his promise not to leave them as orphans. He gave them His Spirit.

“I will not leave you as orphans.”

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:16-18).

Jesus promised that He would not leave his followers as orphans, but his presence would remain with them by his Spirit. He would come to them in a spectacular way on the day of Pentecost.

These words from God’s written Word are as comforting for believers today as they were for Christ’s first followers. Without the Holy Spirit, there’s no way that John could have recorded his detailed Gospel, letters and the book of Revelation. The Spirit of truth, the Counsellor, spoke in and through him, reminding him of everything that Jesus had done and taught in his lifetime (John 14:16-1726). And there’s no way that Christians today can survive in a troubled world without the Holy Spirit either.

And so, when we read the Bible, we can be sure that the words recorded in it came from Christ’s own lips. We can rely on Scripture as the truth, no matter how different our culture or circumstances may be. And if we are followers of Christ, we can also take comfort from Christ’s promises in this chapter–  the three big P’s, which have big implications for our lives: Our place, prayer and peace.

Our place.

The way to our eternal home is as secure as our trust in Jesus (John 14:2-41-7). Jesus gave us His word that He is preparing a place for us. We will arrive in heaven, not by trying to live a good life, but by claiming only Jesus and his atoning sacrifice. Because He went to the cross and rose from the dead, we can be confident of our heavenly home. It is a roomy place with many mansions, a permanent secure home for all God’s children of every nation, tribe and language.

God’s place is our only safe space, because Christ has already paid for our accommodation in full. He is the way home.

Jesus himself fulfills all the promises of God dwelling with His people, in God’s place, for all eternity. We hear strains of this beautiful homecoming song throughout Scripture (Ex 29:45Lev 26:11Jer 32:38Ezek 37:27Heb 8:10). Our place climaxes in John’s vision in Revelation 21:3:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”.

Don’t you long for that permanent, secure home? Jesus says he’s coming back for us, but then He asks us, “Will you trust me in the meantime? Remember that I am the Lord of life and death!” Our fearful hearts will be stilled if we think more about heaven as we face our daily troubles on earth.

But God’s place is not just future oriented. He has also promised His presence in our lives. Even while living in this world, we are blessed by a God who lives and reigns among His people by His Spirit. When we trust in Christ, He joins his divine life to ours, now and for all eternity. Isn’t it wonderful to think that ordinary Christians are the holy home of God? We are the place where Christ lives by His Spirit. John says, “He lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17).

Jesus explicitly tells his disciples what this entails, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

Paul fleshes out the same idea to the Corinthians Christians:

“What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” (2 Cor 6:16).

How does this apply individually? Well, when God makes his home in our bodies, it follows that we will seek to obey him in all areas, free from the worship of idols (John 14:15). It matters what we do with our bodies and our choices. If we are Christ’s, we are people of the Way, the Truth and the Life. Because we worship Christ as Lord of every area of life, we cannot bow to the lies and idols of our age, no matter how great the pressure to conform or comply.

How does this apply corporately? Well, the Church is not an organization, a business or a building, nor flowing robes, stained glass windows, incense or rituals. No, Christ makes his home amongst his people, who worship the Father in spirit and truth, “for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23). He lives and works in “God’s household, rising to become a holy temple in the Lord…built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22).  Christ will not make his home in a church that won’t acknowledge His Lordship and is embarrassed by the Jesus who declared, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” 

Our prayers.

Not only are we promised Christ’s presence before we reach our eternal home, but Jesus also invites believers to ask for anything in His name, “and I will do it” (John 14:14). This is the extraordinary privilege of prayer that we so often take for granted or treat lightly.

How do we ask in Jesus’s name, and what should we ask for? I think to pray in Jesus’s name is to pray according to God’s character and will, with sincere and humble faith. It is how Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer and his own agonizing prayer in Gethsemane. We pray to Him as a child talks to their father, with childlike faith, reverence and expectancy.

Of course we will not do more spectacular miracles than Christ, who raised Lazarus from the dead, but through our prayers, God gives eternal life to spiritually dead people and multiplies his kingdom throughout the world, through all the centuries. The era of the Holy Spirit ushered in miracles far greater and more wonderful than those recorded in Jesus’s three-year ministry.

Our peace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Finally, there is a stark contrast between Christ’s peace and the world’s temporary pacifiers.

Jesus reassures us that His peace is the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. It is not a superficial emotion or a fleeting mood. Nor a few months of respite and relief from Covid or our financial woes. It is deep and lasting peace that only Christ can give. Not worldly peace, which is usually defined as the absence of conflict.

Christ’s peace comes to those who open their hearts to Him as Lord and who put their confidence in Him, not in their own goodness, but in His. It is a peace that comes to all who rest in His gracious sacrifice on the cross and the great truth that Christ alone is King of kings and Lord of lords. If you trust in His promises, if you trust that He is Lord of life and death, you will know that you have a new life and an unshakeable future prepared for you. You will have no need to fear and will be given a peace that transcends your current circumstances.

With Christ’s peace, we have no need to fear the present nor the future, nor the prince of this world (John 14:30). We have no need to fear the time when we are called upon to share the gospel with an individual or even a hostile crowd. We have no need to fear the consequences of following Christ, instead of taking the knee to a false god. We have no need to fear even the greatest enemy of all– death.

We see this kind of resolute peace in the face of Stephen, as he faced his enraged persecutors yelling at the top of their voices and grinding their teeth at him: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56).

Christ’s peace is nothing like the false pacifiers offered by the world. He does not give as the world gives. For those who trust, He gives the confident assurance of His presence in any and every circumstance. He gives us His Spirit and the wonderful gift of prayer. And He gives us the conviction that He is our home and our final resting place– in this world and the next.

Thank you for joining me today as we looked at Christ’s words of consolation. Please join us next week as we finish our devotion on John 14:6, “ I am the way, the truth and the life–” words of Confrontation.

I am the resurrection and the life

Series: Face to face with Jesus (John’s gospel), by Rosie Moore.

Since I started writing ‘The God Walk’ in 2018, I’ve tried to publish a devotional every Friday, except during holiday periods. Some people assume that it’s easy, like a factory churning out words from an established set of moulds, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a slow writer and a slow thinker. Most weeks I wrestle and scribble and pray in my journal for many days before I timidly start clicking away on the keyboard. I think that’s because I made an agreement with myself long ago that I’d never try to teach or write about the Bible until it had changed me first. I am in awe of God’s Word. And never has it been harder for me to write on a text than today. The text is John 11, the true, historical account of Christ raising Lazarus to life after four days in the tomb. It’s in this awesome story that we see Christ’s fifth “I am” statement in John’s gospel. This is what Jesus told Martha just before he ordered Lazarus to come out of the tomb:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

This is surely the greatest ‘I am’ statement that Jesus made, followed by an intensely personal question directed at the grieving sister. It is a question that I myself have needed to answer over and over again.

Do you believe this?

“Yes, Lord,” Martha replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:25-26). Martha makes a profound confession of faith even though she hasn’t yet grasped what Jesus is about to do. Remember that she hasn’t yet seen her brother’s resurrection, or indeed, the resurrection of Christ. She thinks that Jesus is talking about the final resurrection at the end of time, not a miracle in her back yard.

I’m glad that Martha had the chance to publicly affirm her faith after being too preoccupied to sit down and talk to Jesus on a previous occasion (Luke 10:38-42.) It gives me hope for myself! This time, it is busy Martha who runs out to meet Jesus and says, “Lord, If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:20-22).

Even though she didn’t fully understand, Martha was a woman who trusted Jesus as her Saviour and Lord. She believed Christ,  with her limited knowledge of Him at that point. And this is the response God wants from each one of us, even today. He doesn’t first give us all the answers and solve all mysteries, but He calls us into relationship with His Son. He wants us to put our trust in Jesus Christ, the same Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead.

A corpse walks.

There is no more audacious claim than this one: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in me, even though he die, he shall live forever”.

Then, to match the claim, Jesus performs a magnificent sign before an audience of mourners. This was no mere resuscitation, for Lazarus’s corpse had been in the tomb for four days. Always the practical realist, Martha warns that the body is smelling bad by that stage. Lazarus was already in an advanced stage of decomposition (John 11:39), and Jesus made sure of that by delaying his trip to Bethany.

I can just imagine the crowd of mourners hearing Jesus pray to his Father in heaven, then calling out in a loud voice,

“LAZARUS, COME OUT!” It was an order, not a request.

The familiarity of this story must never desensitize us to its wonder. It seems almost unbelievable. Yet in John’s mind, this is no fable, no metaphor, no hearsay evidence. He writes it as historic fact. The apostle John heard Jesus with his own ears and saw Lazarus walking out of the tomb with his own eyes, as did many mourners. John’s eye witness account couldn’t be more certain: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face” (John 11:44). No one living at the time ever contradicted the resurrection or exposed it as fake news.

Although none of us was a witness at the graveside that day in 33AD, John wants us to know that Lazarus was well and truly dead when Christ called him out of the tomb. He tells us this seven times just in case we’re in any doubt (John 11:142132373944). John was there, along with the rest of the disciples (John 11:16).

I took some time thinking through the implications of this miracle: A living person has ten major systems that must all function simultaneously in order to survive a single day– skeletal, muscular, nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, urinary and reproductive. A human heart needs to pump 100 000 litres of blood around the body every day. But Lazarus’s heart had stopped beating four days before and every one of his systems had shut down. Rigor mortis had set in and his flesh was decaying.

In an instant, Christ ordered every organ in his friend’s corpse to fire up and function normally again. Without hesitation or medication, every molecule of the finely tuned engine known as the human body, obeyed his voice.

John records Jesus saying, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:43-44).

That you may believe.

“That you may believe” is a phrase that’s impossible to miss in John’s gospel. It’s the whole point of the miraculous sign (John 11:1425-264240). ‘Believing’ is the reason why John wrote his gospel in the first place (John 20:31). He wants us to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and by believing, to have life in his name. Lazarus’s resurrection was an indisputable object lesson that no one in Bethany or Jerusalem could ignore.

Of course, this miracle seems unbelievable, because we know that no human can create a single molecule out of nothing. The best our scientists can do is mimic systems that God has already created. Don’t our ‘miraculous’ vaccines, prosthetics, implants and insulin pumps just mimic the wonderful bodies that God has given us, from the beginning? As useful as they are, man-made imitations don’t come close to the real thing. The supernatural raising of Lazarus proved, beyond reasonable doubt, the divinity of Jesus. There is no other explanation for the miracle.

And the Jews who witnessed the resurrection knew this. They hadn’t been indoctrinated with the theory of evolution like us. They knew that only Yahweh could give and take life, or reconstruct a rotten corpse with a word. They believed the Creation account described in Genesis 1 and 2.  And that’s why this miracle caused such a stir.

It’s why, a chapter later, the Chief Priests even conspired to murder Lazarus, because “on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in Him” (John 12:10-11). They weren’t interested in truth or facts. They were only concerned that Jesus was identifying himself as the Creator God and masses of people were believing and following Him!

I am the resurrection and the life.

It’s easy to underestimate the magnitude of this sign, but it undergirds Christ’s claim to be the Resurrection and the Life. It also proves his earlier claim:“For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it…25 Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:19-27).

 The raising of Lazarus took place in Bethany. It was a graphic preview of Christ’s own resurrection, which was soon to take place at another tomb in Jerusalem. The sign points us to the spiritual life that Christ gives freely to all believers– the new birth (John 3:3;14-15). But it also guarantees a future bodily resurrection for all who believe (Acts 4:224:1526:8Matt 27:52-53).  The sign of Lazarus emerging from the tomb is a powerful picture of the new creation. John believed this with all his heart and he wants us to too.

Yet, unlike Mary, Martha, John and many mourners who saw and believed (John 11:45), not all who witnessed the miracle put their faith in Christ as Lord. Some were charmed but unchanged. And others refused to open their hearts to Jesus, but instead reported Him to the Pharisees (John 11:46). It seems almost unbelievable that after witnessing such a wonderful miracle of life, after experiencing the goodness and compassion of Christ at the graveside, some hearts would remain stone cold in unbelief.

Yet, John tells us that the Pharisees even conspired against Jesus for fear that so many people were putting their faith in Him. Because Christ threatened the ‘peace’ and their power, they plotted to scapegoat and kill a perfectly innocent man. They knowingly suppressed the truth for the sake of political expediency. (John 11:47-53). Nothing much has changed since then.

The humanity of Christ.

But the main reason this devotion was so hard to write was because the love and humanity of Christ in this story totally overwhelms me. John records the raw emotion of Christ weeping at the tomb of his beloved friend, weeping with the heartbroken people around him. It is a deep cry of the heart that only the bereaved understand.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. 

Jesus wept.

The two words, “Jesus wept,” are pregnant with a deep agony of spirit. Jesus overflows with a mixture of indignation and gut wrenching sorrow. He is “deeply moved and troubled” at the sight of his friend’s tomb and the grief of the mourners. We are told repeatedly in the story that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters very much.

Last Thursday, I taught this story to some students at Christ Church Preparatory School. I don’t think I presented the lesson well, but a boy in the back row drew the class’s attention to the humanity and compassion of Jesus in John 11:32-34, asking a question that stuck like gum in my mind:

“Why did Jesus weep if he knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead in just a few minutes?”

And so, that evening, whilst having dinner with some dear Christian friends, I threw the question out, asking our dinner guests for the answer they would have given the boy. Our friend, Alex, took a keen interest in the question. He’s always the first to volunteer to teach a Bible lesson and it’s just like him to care for the fidgety kid in the back row! Although I can’t accurately recall every word, his answer was along these lines:

“When Jesus wept, He showed us that He’s not just a God far away, with the power to bring a dead person back to life. He’s also gentle and compassionate towards the brokenhearted. He knows the pain of those left standing at the graveside. He knows that before He returns to earth to restore all things, there will be plenty of death and misery in the world. Jesus was a good friend to Lazarus and he loved Mary and Martha. He hated seeing their grief. He hated death and its power to rip loved ones apart. Even though Jesus knew that He would bring his friend back to life, he also knew that Lazarus would die again, and generations of grieving people would stand over the bodies of their loved ones, mourning all that they’ve loved and lost. Jesus ministers to those who grieve and is very near to the brokenhearted.”

I remember wishing that I’d given Alex’s excellent answer to the boy at the back of the classroom, because he seemed to see God’s grace more than anyone I know. But I hadn’t realized how prophetic his words would be.

Only two days later, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Alex’s own wife and daughters were grieving his horrific death. Alex Otto was ripped from his family and friends when he was hit by a taxi while riding on his bicycle, training for the Cape Epic cycle tour. He was chatting and joking with his friend as they were hit from behind. This week, hundreds of shocked and grieving friends, family and fellow cyclists have been wracked by the gut wrenching horror of death in a way we can’t explain. Alex was only 50 years old and he was dearly loved.

So what is the point of this story? There are so many beloved people that we’ve had to mourn in the last few years. We cannot minimize any of these deaths, old or young, from whatever cause. Each one is precious in God’s sight. I’ve said goodbye to more loved ones in 2020-21 than in my entire lifetime. But is there any consolation to be found in the story of Lazarus, or in Christ’s claim to be the resurrection and the life? Don’t you find yourself asking a version of the same question expressed in John 11:36-37,

“But Lord, the one you loved believed in you with all his heart. If you loved him so much, couldn’t you have kept him from dying?”

Death is always a mystery to us, and it’s also scary. We know it’s not as it should be. As Tim Keller says, “Its terrifying. One person called death “the worm at the core of human pretensions to happiness”. It’s that one thing that’s just always eating away. No matter how successful you are, no matter how happy you are, no matter how healthy you are, no matter how well your life is going, you still know this: Death is coming. We will all die sooner or later.”  Death is the big issue that we can never solve. The Bible tells us that it is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26-2754-57).

Grieving with hope.

But, as those who have put our faith in Christ, we do not grieve without hope or comfort. Jesus made us a categorical promise at the graveside of Lazarus that we must hold onto:

“The one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). We cannot miss Christ’s promise or the pointed question at the end. Who is this Jesus that John wants us to believe in?

Even though he never believed, Caiaphas the High Priest unwittingly got it right in John 11:49-52: This is the Jesus who loved us so much that he died for our sins and entered the tomb of sin and death on our behalf. The Jesus who defied the natural order of death by rising from the dead, victorious and transformed in a new and glorious body (Acts 13:29-3034). Like Lazarus, this Jesus appeared to many eye witnesses (1 Cor 15:3-9Acts 2:32). He backed up his promise with his own death, resurrection and ascension.

But unlike Lazarus, Christ did not stagger out of the tomb, covered in strips of burial linen. No, Christ left the grave clothes neatly folded in an empty tomb, never to return. His victory over death was complete, as His atoning work on the cross was done.

And so, when a believer, like Alex, shrugs off their earthly body like a worn-out coat, they slip seamlessly into the eternal presence of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, to be raised with an immortal body on the day that Christ returns– A new body, free from the consequences of sin and brokenness. This future hope of redemption fills today’s grief with meaning and consolation (Rom 8:22-25).

And as we wait and long for that great resurrection day, we live with full confidence that Christ loves his people with a deep, unfailing love. He too is troubled and deeply moved by our sorrows. He hates evil and death, and loves our loved ones as much as we do, even more. He stands at the grave alongside us and ministers to the brokenhearted. He weeps with those who weep. That is what Jesus is doing right now with my friend Janet, and all her family, as they walk through their darkest valley.

Written in loving memory of Alex.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” 

Let the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life (Rev 21:522:17).

How can Christ be the Shepherd and the gate?

Series: Face-to-face with Jesus (John’s gospel), by rosie moore.

John 10 contains two of Christ’s seven I AM statements in John’s gospel, namely, “I am the gate” and “I am the good Shepherd”. These two claims cannot be separated if we understand the figure of speech that Jesus used to convince the Jews that He was the Messiah, the one and only ‘door’ to God’s salvation. Jesus offers us and his original hearers the only access to safety, security, nourishment and protection. Best of all, he issues an open invitation for each and every one of us to enter his Church, and a promise to those who do. Verse 9 and 11 are key verses:

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

But there’s plenty more that Jesus says to put flesh on the bones of these two profound claims, echoed five hundred years before, when God’s people were in captivity in Babylon:

“And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23).

Let’s ask the Lord to show us more of Himself in this amazing teaching that John has recorded for us.

The false shepherd.

It’s interesting that Jesus describes Himself by way of contrast to the false shepherds or ‘hirelings’ of God’s people. The context helps us understand why. This chapter is a continuation of the last, where Jesus had been speaking about the Pharisees, the false shepherds who refused to acknowledge or celebrate His amazing healing of the man born blind.

Jesus did a miracle right before their eyes. But instead of worshipping Christ, the Pharisees willfully suppressed the truth of the man’s obvious healing, shaming and slandering him when he simply offered his honest testimony: “You are this fellow’s disciple!” they mocked, but “we are the disciples of Moses!” (John 9:28)

Ignoring the beautifully clear and logical testimony of the man and his parents (John 9:202530-33), the Pharisees threw the new convert out of the synagogue and hurled insults at him, “You were steeped in sin at birth,” they accused the man, “How dare you lecture us!” (John 9:34). Not only did they deny the evidence that Christ was the Messiah, but they also banished the man from the symbolic dwelling place of God with his people—the synagogue. The Pharisees’ chosen path of spiritual blindness makes more sense in light of Christ’s description of false shepherds in chapter 10.

So what are the marks and motives of the ‘hirelings’ who set themselves up as shepherds of God’s people? Jesus draws us a character sketch,

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber… All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them… 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full….12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (selected verses from John 10:1-13)

They climb in some other way.

The bottom line about every false shepherd in the Old Testament, the early church and even today, is that they don’t enter through the real ‘door’, which is by the blood of Christ and his atoning death on the cross. Instead, they climb into Christ’s Church some other way, and thus, have no love or concern for God’s people. They are not saved themselves, so cannot lead others to salvation.

Perhaps the ‘other way’ into the Church is their great learning or impressive CV; eloquence or giftedness; charisma or a characteristic that the world values highly at that particular time. Some are just bullies who climb over the wall using strongarm tactics. A false shepherd knows how to look right and sound right.

But the end game of the hireling is always to steal, kill and destroy God’s Church. He or she tries to rob lost people of the true way to the Father; to kill the joy and fruitfulness of the Church; to destroy the holiness, peace and gospel zeal of God’s people; to rob God’s people of the potency of God’s word.

In one of his sermons in 1884, Robert Murray M’Cheyne quotes verse 5, “But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice,” warning Christians to make no friendship with false shepherds. He reminds us to beware of worldly and covetous ministers, for they will come to destroy. He warns believers to flee from those who the world favours, the ones who flatter and impress, the ones who speak of sin and God’s holiness but do not know it in their own hearts. They are the church leaders who come to rob God of his throne and rob God of our souls. M’Cheyne’s words are worth heeding today.

These are the false shepherds who climb in some other way. But what are the marks of the Good Shepherd, whom Jesus claims to be?

The true shepherd.

Jesus tells us explicitly, “I am the good shepherd,” and then proceeds to give us his credentials:

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice….I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Every time I read this passage, I’m stirred all over again by its beauty! I want to weep when I think of Christ as the access gate and our Shepherd, who died for Jews and Gentiles alike, his lambs that were condemned to die.

He didn’t flee the wolves.

Christ didn’t flee when he saw the wolves— the wolf pack of soldiers and officials who came to arrest Him in the Garden (John 18:12); Caiaphas the high priestly wolf (John 18:14); Pilate the Roman governor (John 18:31); the crowds and chief priests baying for His blood (John 18:15); the soldiers who shredded his clothes (John 19:24). And of course, Jesus faced head-on the rage of the great wolf himself, Satan, known also as the devouring lion (1 Peter 5:8), the dragon who tries to devour the child that “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (Revelation 12:1-6).

Christ, the real Shepherd entered in by the door, even though He was the door. He entered by his own blood. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, Christ “went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11-12).

Reading Christ’s own words in John 10, I’m reminded of how much it cost Him to make us his sheep and bring us into His spiritual tabernacle. Unlike the Pharisees, who banished the formerly blind man from the Temple, Jesus lets us in! He didn’t have to enter into the sheep pen to be our good Shepherd, and I know that I was a particularly motley, lost little stray. But He chose to take our sins upon himself, so that we could access his sheepfold. Christ’s Church is the only place of safety, security and protection. What a privilege to be called one of Christ’s own sheep, known personally by name, and given a new name!

Marks of the good shepherd.

Jesus calls each one of his followers by name, just as He called Zaccheus from a tree; Simon Peter from a fishing boat and the grieving Mary by the empty tomb. Christ knows each of us by name (John 10:3). When we were lost and wayward strays, He called us individually to himself and gave us a new name. He still calls us to follow him and listen to his voice in the Bible.

As the shepherds in Palestine lead their sheep from the front, Jesus goes before us in every way: To the well to drink; to the green pastures of rest and renewal; through the dark valley of the shadow of death. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned” (Isa 43:2).

The true shepherd never abandons his sheep. Our good shepherd will always be with us and will go before us, even if human shepherds fail us.

But the marks of the perfect Shepherd should characterize every human shepherd whom Christ sends to look after his sheep. Pastors, elders, teachers, disciplers, parents—we’re not just hirelings who are paid to do a job. We’ve been appointed as shepherds over Christ’s lambs, tenderly placed in our care.

We answer to the Chief Shepherd for the way we lead, feed and protect His lambs. As good shepherds, we lead with diligence and vigilance; with kindness, constancy and courage, even fearlessness when the wolves are around (1 Peter 5:4). We never abandon the sheep.

Just as Jesus goes before us, so every human shepherd should show people the way to the true gate– the cross of Jesus Christ. We can never grow weary of inviting inside any man, woman or child we find outside of his sheep pen, but let’s never encourage anyone to climb in by some other way.

Promise of the Good Shepherd.

Christ’s promise is that “anyone who enters through me will be saved… He shall go in and out and find pasture…I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

It’s a promise of immediate entry into Christ’s church, along with all the privileges —safety, security, nourishment and peace, forever. There are no passports required to enter this sheepfold, and no sin or human characteristic can bar us from its gate. But it’s useless if we just admire the door or make plans to enter it at some later stage. We must leave everything at the gate and enter in.

The gate is still open, but it won’t stay open forever. One day it will slam shut, “for the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them to fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17). The promise of the good Shepherd and the privilege of the sheepfold is for those who enter through the gate now.

Source:

Robert Murray M’Cheyne, A Basket of Fragments.

I am the Light of the World

 

Series: Face to face with Jesus (John’s gospel), by Rosie Moore

There are seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel. Last week we looked at the first—“I am the bread of life” from John 6. Today we look at the second “I am” statement. Jesus said,

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

In this statement, Jesus doesn’t merely point to the light. He points to himself and says that He is the light of life to all those who follow him.

What extraordinary claims Jesus made! Imagine one of our world leaders making statements like this today. Most promise safety, peace and prosperity but I’ve never heard a political or religious leader dare to call him or herself the light of the world! Don’t you wish for a godly ruler who epitomizes truth and holiness? A leader who is good, pure, honest and reliable? A King who leads his followers to flourish, rather than a tyrant who controls his subjects for self interest?

John is particularly fond of this language of light and darkness. First let’s look at the immediate context of Jesus’ claim in John 8:12:

When Jesus made this stunning claim, he was speaking in the part of the temple where the offerings were placed (John 8:20), where candles burned to symbolize the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel through the desert (Ex 13:2122). It is in this context that Jesus claimed to be the light of the world. Jesus was plainly identifying himself as God’s promised Messiah King. And even more than that, He was claiming to be God himself.

God is light.

The Old Testament is brimming with pictures of God and his Word as light. Here are just some of them:

The pillar of fire represented God’s presence, protection, guidance and faithfulness to his covenant people.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? (Ps 27:1).

“For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life” (Ps 56:13)

“Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105).

“The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment” (Ps 104:2).

“The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart, The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (Ps 19:8).

And then, there are the prophesies of Isaiah, likening God’s promised Messiah to light. The gospel writers are in no doubt that these prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus:

“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2Matt 4:16).

“I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:6-7Luke 2:32)

This week, let’s pray before we even begin to think through Jesus’s statement, “I am the light of the world:”

Lord, as we sit at your feet to listen to you, give us light to understand your amazing claim. Shine your light in our hearts, so that we can see you for who you are and worship you as the only One who can bring us out of darkness into your wonderful light. Show us your truth and holiness. Teach us how to live as children of the light and to shine as lights in our world. Amen.

Defining light.

It’s tempting to come to Christ’s statement with a whole bunch of esoteric ideas of our own: “I think light is this, or that…”

But John says,

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

Light represents what is pure, true and holy about God, while darkness represents what is sinful and evil. Jesus says that we must follow Him if we want to walk in the light. We don’t get to define the light for ourselves. Throughout the Bible, light is associated with two main ideas: God’s Truth and God’s Holiness.

Contrary to postmodern thinking, Truth (with a capital T) is not something we decide for ourselves, nor can we discover it through science, medicine, sociology, politics or any human philosophy. God the Creator is the only source of divine truth, and so, only He can reveal Truth to us. We need his divine revelation to know truth.

Perfect truth.

Although we all desire to be wise, just like our ancient ancestors in the Garden (Gen 3:6), the reality is that we have all turned our backs on God, refusing even to acknowledge Him as Creator or give thanks to Him as Lord. As a result, our human hearts are darkened and foolish (Rom 1:21-23). Paul says that in professing ourselves to be wise, we actually become fools.

Jesus’s claim to be the light of the world stands in stark contrast to our own heart of darkness. Our thought processes, assumptions and logic are dark and hostile to God. By nature, we think in ungodly and crooked ways, so that even the most highly respected intellectuals can be fools. We all need God to shine the light of his gospel into the darkness of our futile thinking.

Only through God’s lens of Truth, revealed to us in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ, can we make sense of this world. This includes our understanding of human identity and sin; race and ethnicity; justice and law; gender and sexuality; marriage and family; the gospel and the Church; work and the environment; health and our bodies; and every ethical issue we face. Only Christ and His Word can provide the worldview that we need to see clearly, so that we don’t stumble about in the dark, mimicking our culture, and making things up as we go along.

As CS Lewis famously said,

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

We need the revelation of God’s truth to see clearly. But we also need the light of God’s perfect holiness.

Perfect holiness.

No other human being has ever claimed to be perfectly pure and good, yet Jesus stood in front of all these people and pointed to Himself as the perfect revelation of the Father’s holiness. After claiming to be the light of the world, He then asked the audacious question that no sane person would ever dare to ask, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:45).

If we are even half honest, we will see that we cannot even look at God and live, because He lives in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:161 John 1:5). But Jesus, the perfect God-man, gives us access to God’s light. He experienced the horrific darkness of sin in our place when He died on the cross and brought God’s truth and holiness down to earth, purifying believers from all our sin. In response, His followers ought to walk in His light and live by His truth (1 John 1:6-7).

That’s why Paul can urge the Philippian church (and 21st century Christians), to “shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil 2:15). We are empowered to display His light and lead others to Him by our lives and conversations. We are like lighthouses guiding people away from the rocks of darkness and destruction. Like fairy lights adorning a dark world (Matt 5:14-16).

The Light of the world.

In his prologue, John introduces Christ as “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9)

Jesus’s light is not restricted to a certain group. It is for everyone in the world. But in the next few verses, John reminds us that not everyone will receive Christ. Even his own people who heard him announce, “I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world” would reject Him as the Christ (John 1:10-11).

Whoever follows me…

Jesus’s inclusive invitations are never unconditional or everlasting. Jesus clearly says that we must take a step into the light and follow Him if we want to grasp the light of life. But sinners who don’t turn to Christ and put their trust in him, will not find light anywhere else.

A few chapters later, Christ made an urgent appeal to his hearers in the first century, as He does to us today:

“The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going.” (John 12:35).

Jesus calls you and me to respond in obedience to the light of the gospel that we’ve been shown. None of us knows if we will still have tomorrow to turn to Him as the light of life.

Sometimes it’s not pleasant or comfortable when our life is being exposed by the light of Christ. By nature, we are drawn to darkness like a moth to a flame, even if it means that we don’t know where we are going. It’s easier to stay in the darkness of our own sinfulness and confusion. The truth is that we love the darkness more than the light: The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19).

But isn’t it infinitely better to be exposed now, rather than walk in a state of darkness, not just in this world but for all eternity? There is a consequence to every choice, and there’s a frightening consequence if we persist in rejecting the Light of the world. Light and life always go together. But so do darkness and death.

When we follow Christ, we step into the light of repentance, forgiveness and freedom. Listen to how John describes this wonderful light of repentance:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness….if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father in our defense, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but for the sins of the whole world…” (1 John 1:8-92:1-2)

Living in the light.

The apostle John has reminded us today that it is only in Christ that humanity will find the true Light of the world. Satan and his henchmen will continue to masquerade as angels of light, cunningly crafting noble lies and shining false lights for the world to follow, just as they’ve done since Genesis 3. But as Christians, we are called to follow Christ alone, who has revealed Himself through the pages of Scripture.

Walking in the light means being people of truth and holiness. It means refusing to live by lies, but instead placing all things under the scrutiny of God’s Word, our source of truth. Living in the light means rejecting false narratives, false assumptions and false emotions, exposing fake ‘lights’ and replacing them with the truth. It means living in the purity and holiness of Christ, in love and fellowship with other believers (1 John 2:10). And when we sin, it means that we don’t conceal our sin, but confess it to the Lord. The light is not just a decoration, but needs to be switched on by Christ’s followers.

As people of light, we must not rely on books, articles, preachers, social media platforms and so-called experts to find truth on issues we face. It’s good to read widely, but we must turn to Christ and His inerrant, sufficient Word to shed truth on every issue, to convict our conscience and equip us for every good work (2 Tim 3:17).

No matter how dark and confused our world is right now, when we turn to Christ and His Word day-by-day, God’s light invades our thinking and opens our eyes of understanding. We will never be lost or wander in futile circles if we know who we are, how much we’ve been forgiven, and where we are going. Jesus Christ is the world’s only light, in this life and the next.

John’s final words about light in the new world were written down in the book of Revelation. What a wonderful picture of the Lamb as its lamp, with darkness and deceit banished forever!

Bread from heaven

Bread from heaven

Series: Face-to-face with Jesus. (John’s gospel)

By Rosie Moore.

For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (John 6:33-34).

When I was a little girl, I remember the hour long journey to and from Church every Sunday. We lived on a farm far from the nearest Bible-teaching church, so we had to be ready to leave by 08h00 sharp. “No peace for the wicked!” was my mom’s favourite wake-up call, as she hurled the blankets off her four children and ordered us to get ourselves in gear.

But if I’m dead honest, the highlight of Sundays wasn’t the church service, but the very special bakery we visited afterwards. All the way through the sermon, I dreamed of squishy jam doughnuts, Chelsea buns and the aroma of baking bread!  It was a Dutch bakery called “De Bakhys” and there was a big sign outside that read:

“Man shall not live by bread alone…but it helps!”  I loved reading that sign because I knew the treat that lay ahead.

‘De Bakhys’ sure helped take the edge off that long journey to and from church every Sunday. You’ve never tasted dough that good. And if I could transport that bakery to my own kitchen today, I would be munching their heavenly bread every day of my life!

Bread from heaven.

But in John 6, Jesus claims to be the real heavenly bread. He says, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval….

 “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst…This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world…this is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live foreover” (John 6:26-2732-33355158).

I am the bread of life.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”.

After feeding over 5000 people with just five small loaves and two fish, Jesus discusses the meaning of the miracle. He combines the Old Testament name for Yahweh, I AM, with a graphic metaphor of ‘bread’, to express his saving relationship with the world. This is one of the seven “I AM” statements Christ made in John’s gospel. Jesus knew exactly what He was saying, and he was neither ashamed nor reticent about declaring his divinity.

As for the Jewish crowds that ate that lavish picnic and heard Christ’s subsequent claims, they would surely have remembered strains of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy 700 years earlier:

“Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; Listen that you may live” (Isa 52:2-3).

But in John 6:53-54, Jesus drops the biggest bombshell of all:

“Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

These are stunning claims for a man to make about Himself! I have pondered this text for many days now and hope that you will do the same. My prayer is that we may know our own spiritual hunger and find satisfaction in the risen Christ as our life-giving bread.

Bread of life.

Bread is more than just helpful. It’s the necessary staple food that most of us eat every day. It’s not a luxury, but an essential need of life. Think of some idioms about bread:

Someone’s ‘bread and butter’ is their essential income and livelihood. ‘Breaking bread’ implies deep spiritual fellowship, as well as the physical meal we eat together. The ‘greatest thing since sliced bread’ refers to something more sublime and wonderful than we can imagine.

Bread is also an essential part of the Jewish Passover meal. Jews had to eat unleavened bread during the Passover Feast, and for seven days thereafter, to remember their rescue from slavery in Egypt. And of course, as we saw last week in “Surely this is the Prophet”, bread hearkens back to God’s provision of manna for the Israelites in the desert, through his prophet Moses:

“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3).

In fact, Jesus stands his ground against Satan by quoting this exact text from Deuteronomy when he is led into the wilderness to be tested. Jesus was hungry after fasting for 40 days when the tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:2-4).

But in John 6, Jesus doesn’t merely say that He supplies the bread of life. He says that He is  that bread. He identifies himself as the bread of heaven that never spoils or perishes, and gives life to the world. He tells the crowd to come to Him and believe in Him— to feed on him spiritually. This was no ordinary prophet! He was either a megalomaniac or truly God.

Feeding.

Through feeding the 5000, Jesus exposes a much greater spiritual hunger that is in every human being. We desperately need the spiritual bread that God has provided in the person of his Son.

Feeding is a graphic verb that Jesus gives to describe true faith in Him! Metaphorically, when we put our trust in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53-56). Jesus used this same metaphor at the Last Supper, when he “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

Believing.

The crowds specifically ask Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answers them pointedly, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent”. Jesus’s clear answer reminds us that the gospel is all about believing Christ, from beginning to end:

Pleasing God doesn’t come from the works we do, but from whom we believe. The religions of the world are man’s attempts to answer this big question, ‘What must we do to satisfy God?’ But Christ’s reply is so simple and profound: We must believe on Him whom God has sent! Nothing else is required to satisfy God.

And so, the very first step to feeding on the bread of life is to accept that Jesus is who he claims to be and put our trust in Him alone. It is not religion or noble works that can save or sustain us. It is believing that Christ is the One sent by God to give us life and trusting in His finished work on the cross. That is how we feed on Him by faith.

Bread that cannot spoil.

Only Christ can fulfill our eternal longing to be in a right relationship with our Creator. And only He can satisfy the deep hunger of our soul to be righteous. Jesus is better than manna, which went mouldy after a day and ultimately could not save the Israelites from dying. He is better than the unleavened bread of the Passover. He is the eternal bread of life, because his sacrifice confers a righteousness that lasts forever. It’s why Christ says, “Blessed is the man who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, for he shall be filled” (Matt 5:6). The filling is sufficient and complete.

But Jesus is also the bread that cannot spoil, because He has risen from the dead and promises to raise believers up on the last day.  Imagine John’s incredulity a few months later, when he saw the risen Jesus standing on the beach, after providing a huge catch of fish that broke the disciples’ nets. It was just like the massive picnic all over again! But this time, Christ said, “Come and have breakfast…Then Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish” (John 21:13). It was like déjà vu. No wonder John knew it was the Lord!

The Lord Jesus is the only bread that cannot spoil. If we follow Him only for temporal benefits, we are no different from the crowd that ate their fill of bread, tried to force Jesus to be their king and pressured Him to prove himself by spectacular signs ((John 6:142630-31).

And yet it’s so easy to fill our lives with temporal things — bread that spoils. Unless we feed on Christ, we will remain forever empty, shriveled and parched. He is our daily bread.

Our daily bread.

When asked, “Sir, from now on give us this bread” (John 6:34), Jesus says “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

This is not just a promise for the future, but for life here-and-now too. The Christian life is a present continuous process of feeding and filling by Christ. There is no one else, and nothing else that can fill and feed our souls. And yet, we are so often preoccupied with other ‘bread’ that can’t bring lasting satisfaction.

Feeding on Christ is not just a once-off meal of faith. It is an everyday coming and believing. We know this because Jesus likened himself to manna that the Israelites gathered daily in the barren wilderness (John 6:32-33). It is exactly the same for believers today, as we travel through this barren land. Faith is coming to Christ every day–Not weekly, monthly or yearly. It is only He who can save and sustain us. This is something that the Lord teaches us over and over again, as he is teaching me.

Last week, amongst the excitement and jubilation of our daughter’s wedding this Saturday, our son phoned to say that he had tested positive for Covid! Not only was I deeply disappointed that he may not be able to celebrate with us, but I was also afraid for his health and capacity to isolate and look after himself in a flat shared with other students. I know of many who are experiencing much worse than this, but in the moment, it was hard for me to find God’s provision and peace.

But as I read and re-read this story, Christ consoled and nourished me as if He were right beside me. He made me see that a believer is always sustained by the true bread from heaven, who gives life to the world and will raise our bodies to eternal life with God when He comes again (John 6:54). He is the bread that enables a Christian to live a life of faith that pleases God, and He has borne our sin and sorrows on the cross.  He will amply provide for us, not just physically but spiritually too. And He has given us his peace, love and presence, and many other blessings besides. The Lord Jesus has opened my eyes to see his manna all over the ground around us.

If Christ fed 5000 people with just five small loaves, will He not also provide our daily bread?

Prayer

Lord Jesus, thank you for giving your body for us on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice to give us life. Thank you for abundant, eternal, resurrection life that you have purchased on the cross for all those who believe in you. May we feed on you daily by faith. And thank you, Lord Jesus, that you are the bread that really satisfies and always meets us at our point of need. Thank you for the gift of your people with whom we can break bread and share deep love and fellowship in your name. Give us today our daily bread. Amen.

Surely this is the Prophet!

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” 15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:14-15)

After feeding the five thousand, it’s no wonder the crowds on the grassy mountainside frothed about Jesus, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” They saw Jesus as the great Prophet foreshadowed by Moses, whom God used to liberate Israel from slavery and bring them to their own land—a land of abundance, overflowing with milk and honey. And in those early days of Israel’s history, God had promised to send another prophet like Moses:

“God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him” (Deut 18:15).

For all who witnessed the miracle, Jesus seemed to be the long awaited Prophet!

No bring-and-share event.

Jesus’s spectacular miracle was beyond a shadow of doubt. He performed an impossible catering job for the great multitude! This was no bring-and-share event. Jesus fed 5000 men (probably 15 000 with women and children) with just five small barley loaves and two small fish.

The fish were probably salted, like little sardines or pickled fish. John makes sure we know they were small, as if to contrast the great multitude sitting on the grassy mountainside and the teeny tiny morsels of food. As Phillip remarked, “Eight month’s wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (John 6:7)

Not only did Christ reproduce enough food for the crowd to eat “as much as they wanted”, but there were also twelve basketfuls of leftovers! (John 6:11-13) There was abundance and excess in the miracle that Jesus performed with his own hands. And any silly explanations about people taking out their own sandwiches are an insult to John’s integrity and intelligence. Surely one person among the thousands would have debunked this story if there was a natural explanation? It’s either a fraud or it’s true, nothing in between.

The generous picnic must have resembled Moses with the whole congregation of Israel gathered around him, eating manna from heaven. “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 16:12)

And that’s exactly what happened. Every morning except the Sabbath, manna lay like flaky frost all over the ground, “the bread that the Lord has given you to eat…Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat…Each of them gathered as much as he could eat” (Ex 16:15-18). If the coming Prophet was like Moses, it made sense that he would feed the people miraculously as Moses had.

A Prophet like Moses.

Just like Moses, who taught the people of Israel from Mount Sinai,  Jesus stood teaching his disciples on a mountainside. And it all happened just before Passover. Of course, Passover is associated with the great liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, when God saved His people from death, because they painted the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their houses.

The crowds who saw Jesus distributing the endless supply of bread and fish, must have remembered the miracles of Moses, whose epitaph says:  “….no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. 12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deut 34:10-12).

It’s no wonder the crowd claimed Jesus as their miracle Prophet! They wanted to recruit Him as their king and liberator, to lead their crusade and free them from Roman oppression. After all, wasn’t it true that the tax collectors stole from them? Didn’t the Roman soldiers treat them cruelly? And didn’t the Emperor and his political puppets abuse them? Surely Jesus was patriotic enough to join their good cause?

But they had no idea that their sin was a greater enemy than Rome.

And so, realizing that the crowds wanted to turn Him into some sort of political figure to satisfy their pressing economic, physical and national needs, Jesus withdrew and refused to oblige (John 6:15). He knew that this crowd was only willing to support Him so long as he gave them what they wanted.

Even when Satan came to Him with similar temptations, Jesus would not use his powers to create for Himself an earthly kingdom, but lived to serve and worship His Father in heaven (Luke 4:6).

But does that mean that Jesus does nothing for His people on earth?

I don’t think so, on account of the little story wedged like jam between the miracle and Jesus’s explanation. Jesus comes down from the mountain to walk on water, to meet his terrified disciples in a storm-tossed boat.

“It is I. Do not be afraid”.

“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four milesg they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going (John 6:16-21)

Haven’t you found that mountain top experiences of God’s wonderful provision are often followed by times when you’re tossed like a cork in the ocean? This was so for the disciples. The well-fed, admiring crowd was gone. Jesus was gone. The abundant food was gone. And the disciples were in the middle of the Lake between 3am and 6am, struggling in the dark on their own. The sea had swallowed up their excitement and their Saviour was nowhere to be seen.

Yet this was no accident, as Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus ‘compelled’ his disciples to go back across the lake (Mark 6:45). But after rowing feverishly for 8 hours, with little headway against the wind and waves, the picnic was clearly over! Was Jesus perhaps using this boat trip to show his disciples (and us) something about our desperate spiritual state without Him? That our best efforts will always be useless in bringing us safely to shore?

Understandably, when they finally saw Jesus walking towards them on the water, their first reaction was fear. Mark tells us that they thought he was a ghost (Mark 6:49), but Jesus reassured his disciples,

“It is I; Do not be afraid.”

Christopher Ashe points out a familiar pattern of faith: Fear. Reassurance. Willingness. Each of us must begin our relationship with Jesus by having proper fear, because we are sinful, and Christ has the right to punish sin and evil. But the good news of the gospel reassures our heart, as we listen to Christ’s words, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” True peace and safety only come when we are willing to receive Christ as our Saviour and Lord.

Verse 21 is a picture of deep joy and security when Jesus is in the boat with us. No storm can swallow us when we are in Christ, and He is in us. And we will surely reach our heavenly shore with Jesus in the boat.

You say that I am king.

And so, the crowds were right when they identified Jesus as the long awaited Prophet. Their problem was that they wanted Him on their own terms and wouldn’t listen to His voice or receive Him as Lord (John 6:42). They preferred a political king.

Hours before Jesus died, He told Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice”(John 18:37).

Jesus was sure of His purpose as King, but never wrongly used his powers to set up His own kingdom. He knew that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Jesus is a prophet and liberator of another kind. He came into the world to save sinners like ourselves. Sinners who listen to His voice, and come to Him willingly in repentance and faith.

Are we people of the truth who listen to His voice and come willingly to Christ on his own terms? Or do our preferences matter more?

These two miraculous signs set the stage for Christ’s astounding conversation, which we’ll unpack next in “The Bread from Heaven.”

Prayer

Lord, your word says “Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And delight yourself in abundance” (Isa 55:2). Thank you that you have revealed who you are in the Bible, and that you offer shalom and abundant life, rather than just cheap thrills. Thank you for those comforting words, “It is I; Do not be afraid” as we know that your loving presence never leaves us, no matter how buffeted we may feel.  Help us to listen carefully to your Word and trust you fully. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

The blindness of self promotion

Series: Face to face with Jesus (John’s gospel).

By Rosie Moore.

“Jesus claimed to be worthy of the honour due God. For one simple reason. He was. Surely only a fool would make such a claim…and yet, Jesus walked on water…calmed the wind and waves…healed the lepers…and sent demons scurrying. Could anyone but God do so?” (Josh McDowell).

And yet, John tells us that most of the Pharisees refused to come to Jesus to have life in his name (John 5:40). Tragically, despite all the evidence presented to them, they didn’t have saving faith, because they refused to honour the Son of God. Instead, they accused him of blasphemy. In John chapter 5, Jesus describes two obstacles to their salvation:

  • They did not cherish God or His Word within their hearts. In fact, they didn’t love God at all (John 5:42).
  • They did not seek God’s glory, only their own. They loved man’s praise, instead of the approval of God (John 5:4244). Like typical politicians, they were bent on prominence.

In his confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus highlighted the great contrast between Himself and them:

“I do not receive glory from people…(John 5:41)

How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).

Politicians in priestly robes.

In spite of their outward displays of virtue and vast Scriptural knowledge, Jesus saw the Pharisees’ hearts. He saw how they schemed together to kill him (John 5:18). He saw straight through their public prayers, conspicuous giving and showy acts of humility. And He accused them of doing their ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, ‘to be seen’. Concerned only for optics, the Pharisees announced their generosity “to be honoured by men” (Matt 6:1-2).  And so, Jesus called these original “virtue signalers” hypocrites (Matt 6:5) and “blind guides” (Matt 15:14).

Although Christ demonstrated his absolute authority with meekness and compassion, the Pharisees resented his pure goodness and humility. They refused to bow down to Him as Lord of all, because they were all about their own glory. Let’s look at a small section of what Jesus said to these Pharisees after healing the man by the pool of Siloam and declaring Himself as God’s Son:

“You do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:38-47).

Blinded to the evidence.

Self promotion blinded the Pharisees to the vast body of evidence that demonstrated that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.

First, there were His miraculous works:

Hadn’t they just witnessed the supernatural healing of the paralyzed man, or at very least, heard him testify that his life had been truly and completely transformed by Jesus? (John 4:11).  His functioning body was there for all to prod and poke at. Yet, all the Pharisees could see was a carpenter from Nazareth, who threatened their power (John 5:18). They completely discounted the man’s true life testimony.

Second, they ignored Christ’s own testimony, backed up by clear evidence: The Pharisees weren’t wrong when they said that Jesus “was even calling God his own father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). He had just deliberately broken their man-made rules to demonstrate that He was Lord of the Sabbath, as God is: “Jesus said to them “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17). The Pharisees knew that only Yahweh works around the clock to sustain the world and deliver his people (Ps 121:3-4).

In John chapter 5, Jesus speaks uninterrupted from verse 19 to 47. Without ego or pride, He makes some of the most astounding statements about Himself and God the Father. If this were a mere man, the Pharisees had every right to accuse him of blasphemy, as it would be idolatry to pay a man the honour that is due only to God. But they would need to ignore the facts right before their eyes. So, it was a wilful blindness and suppression of the truth, because Jesus performed acts that only God could do.

There’s no shadow of doubt that Jesus identified Himself as being one with the Father, with authority to give eternal life (John 5:24); to judge sin (John 5:27); to do whatever the Father does (John 5:19); to be in an intimate, loving relationship with the Father (John 5:20); even to resurrect the dead (John 5:25-26). He claimed to be the source of all life (John 5:26) and to have the power to give spiritual life to people that the Father has chosen (John 5:21). Most offensive of all, Jesus claimed that He was worthy of the same honour as God the Father, and that those who fail to honour Him, cannot claim to honour God. Alford fleshes this out:

“All must honour Him with equal honour to that which they pay to the Father– and whoever does not, however he may imagine that he honours or approaches God, does not honour Him at all, because He can only be known or honoured by us as “the Father who sent His Son”.

These remain the most offensive claims of the Christian faith today. Increasingly, it is seen as bigoted, un-inclusive, intolerant, and an act of oppression and aggression to claim that Jesus is the only way to know and honour God. Equally offensive is the claim that Christ has divine authority to judge humanity. Yet, unapologetically, this what Jesus claimed about Himself:

“For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him… 30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:22-23).

There are many sceptics who deny that Jesus’ claimed to be God, saying that his followers only started worshipping him centuries later. But if the gospels are primary sources, then this cannot be true. The people who rubbed shoulders with Jesus in his own lifetime were certain that He claimed deity. They were willing to die for this belief. “No one ever spoke like this man!” was the verdict of the guards of the chief priests and Pharisees (John 7:46). Who would you rather believe? A primary source and many eye witnesses? Or a secondary source written in an academic institution, thousands of years after the fact?

There are also others who claim that God the Father emphasizes judgment, whereas God the Son focuses on love. Jesus does not give us this option. He claimed to be inseparable from Yahweh. If these claims are true, there can be no rivalry between Jesus and the Father, who says, “I, the Lord, do not change” (Mal 3:6). In fact, if we scroll through John’s gospel, we see that people who came face-to-face with Jesus, encountered a judge who saw into their hearts, and a merciful Saviour who extended a love they did not deserve.

Third, the Pharisees chose to selectively remember their Old Testament Scriptures. They refused to see that these Scriptures pointed to Jesus as the promised Messiah, the One who would fulfill the Torah perfectly (John 5:3946). They searched the Scriptures zealously and cherished their own man-made rules, but were blind to the shadows of Jesus in the testimony of Moses (John 5:45-46).

And so, they missed the Saviour when he came to earth, and even made his dwelling in their own home town, “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Fourth, they ignored the witness of John the Baptist, who said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world…I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God” (John 1:2934),

And so, because of their craving for self promotion, the Pharisees were blind to the great body of evidence given to them. They were blind to the display of life-giving power right before their eyes. And they flatly refused to acknowledge that Jesus was God incarnate, because they were bent on pleasing themselves. Instead of hearing and believing the word of Jesus, they bullied the man who testified to his healing. And as a result, they never crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). It’s tragic to think that these were the men who should have seen Jesus with clear eyes and welcomed the Saviour with open hearts.

But hang on a moment! That’s not actually true of all Pharisees and prominent Jewish rulers of Jesus’s day. Many believed and were saved.

What was the problem with the Pharisees?

In recent years, I’ve heard people attempt to direct Jesus’s accusations against the Pharisees towards a group of people collectively known as ‘oppressors’ on the ladder of disadvantage and intersectionality: Wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, educated, white men are usually prime targets, accused of being modern day Pharisees. However, the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees was their hearts, not their group membership. There was nothing inherently wrong with being a Pharisee.

In fact, we are told of a prominent Pharisee called Nicodemus, who visited Jesus at night (John 3:1). This Pharisee became a true disciple. In fact, he helped Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’s body off the cross and place it in the tomb (John 19:38-42). We also know that the apostle Paul was once Saul, “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee”, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6Phil 3:5). Actually, Paul’s knowledge of the Scriptures uniquely positioned him to become a prolific author of the New Testament and an eminent theologian of the early church. God appointed a Pharisee for that task.

Reading through the book of Acts, I was struck by how many synagogue leaders and prominent Jews became followers of Christ, like Crispus in Corinth, whose whole family believed and were baptized (Acts 18:8). After Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Jerusalem, five thousand Jews were saved, among whom there must have been some Pharisees (Acts 2:41Acts 3:4). In Pisidion Antioch, many devout Jews followed Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:43), and the name of Barnabas was actually “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus” (Acts 4:36). Levites were from the Priestly tribe. Apollos, one of the most influential evangelists in the early Church, was also “a learned Jew, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures (Acts 18:24). He vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28).

And so, it’s quite clear that the problem with the Pharisees was not their knowledge of Scripture, nor their social/ religious group, nor a form of collective guilt. Through the myriad encounters with Jesus in the gospels, we see that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

But in John 5:40, Jesus sees into the proud hearts of the Pharisees and says, “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” What a sad indictment and a warning that we should still apply to our own hearts today. Just as Jesus saw into the Pharisees’ hearts, He says to us too, “I know you.” (John 5:42). No one except the Lord has the ability to judge the motives of another’s heart.

“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7)

“Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus knew that the Pharisees loved prominence more than God or his Word. That is why they would not believe and receive him as Lord (John 5:44).

But the love of prominence is a universal temptation that each of us faces, whether great or lowly. Every human heart is bent towards self-promotion, even if we are not the scheming, political types. We can do it in many more subtle ways. It’s a matter of misguided glory, because Jesus is the only man who could honestly say, “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me…I do not accept praise from men” (John 5:30b41). Only Jesus deserves the glory due to God, as only He could please His Father perfectly.

But by nature, each of us craves the approval, credit and sympathy of people much more than we love to please God. What’s more, in a culture obsessed with optics, it’s especially tempting to create an ‘image’ for the world to see and applaud. And social media is a perfect platform for this form of ‘virtue signaling’, which was the great sin of the Pharisees.

In our generation, we face a constant temptation to look good. We are apt to share photos and videos to prove to the world that we are truly virtuous, caring people. We still seek the best seat at the table and our hearts still long for prominence and significance (Luke 14:7). But this need for self promotion is a serious obstacle to sincere faith in Christ.

As Christians and as a Church, we must spur each other on to good deeds (Heb 10:24). But may we simply give, without our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing (Matt 6:3-4). When we pray, may we simply pray from our heart to our Father, who is unseen (Matt 6:6). And may we catch ourselves whenever we try to impress people with our ‘holiness’ or false humility (Matt 6:17). True humility is simply coming to Christ the Son, and allowing Him to reveal to us who God is, and who we are.

What blessed assurance it is to know that if we have put our trust in Christ, we will never be condemned, for we have crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). That is a crossing that can never be reversed, for Christ has finished the work that the Father sent Him to do (John 5:36John 19:30). It is a one-way, fully paid ticket. It is done.

Listen to this beautiful old hymn, ‘Blessed Assurance’, sung by Carrie Underwood.

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.

A Biblical perspective on the South African riots this week.

By Rosie Moore.

Last weekend 33 trucks were destroyed in the Mooi River area, one of them a carrier with a full load of cars. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost as factories and businesses; machinery and equipment; farmlands and gas works; oil refineries and distribution centres; wholesalers and Spaza shops; shopping malls and ATM’s; even Hospital suppliers, a Blood Bank and an NGO that feeds the poor, were looted and reduced to ashes. This list can never capture the human suffering in its wake. We have now seen enough looters stuffing expensive electronic goods and fridges into waiting vehicles to know that our country has reached a turning point. The army who were called on to help enforce the lockdowns, are now being called to quell the riots and targeted attacks on major infrastructure. There is a shortage of fuel, basic necessities and medicines, and the violence has had a devastating impact on the medical community already stretched to the limits with Covid-19.

Where to from here?

I’m sure that each of us is asking the same question, “Where to from here?” By now, we are still counting the losses throughout South Africa, most especially in KZN.

The scale and cost of a few days of looting is unknown, but we do know that economic recovery can take many years. Property developers, businesses and investors are not going to return with confidence. Even if the violence and looting of the past few days runs its course, supply chains have been severed, which will lead to human suffering and an economic crisis for which there is no easy re-set button.

To add fuel to the fire, the uprising of the past week comes on top of an economic crisis caused by long Covid-19 lockdowns; corruption on a massive scale; closures of thousands of businesses; high unemployment and the Eskom crisis. Even if shopping malls and factories can claim insurance payouts, will it really make business sense for them to rebuild?

And now evidence is emerging that individuals set about instigating the so-called protests, riots and looting to achieve their political ends. Some were targeted attacks, while others were opportunistic criminality. But whatever the circumstances and causes, in our post 1994 history, never before have we seen such large scale lawlessness across the country. If we are truthful people, we must call it what it is: unrestrained evil.

And once again, it’s the poor who will suffer most when they can no longer buy their basic groceries from their local shop. Their chance of employment and a hopeful future is even more of a pipe dream, as many jobs will be lost forever. We have seen this devastation play out in our nearest neighbour, Zimbabwe. Ask any Zimbabwean immigrant to describe the effects of their nation’s economic free fall since the land grabs and looting of 2002-2005. These were orchestrated by Zanu-PF in a desperate bid to cling to power. Zimbabweans now need to cross borders to get basic foods and find jobs, where their homeland was once the bread basket of Africa.

But as Christians, our national crisis should not lead us into despair. The Bible reminds us of some timeless truths to help us process what is happening in our country and to respond realistically. Here are just two of these truths:

1. No one is righteous, not even one.

While it’s true that looters seem to act with impunity and instigators of violence shamelessly use people for their own selfish ends, Paul reminds us at the beginning of Romans that without the righteousness of Christ, who died on our behalf, there is no one righteous, not even one…

11     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14 
    “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 
    ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18 
    “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin (Rom 3:10-20).

What is true of everyone without Christ— Jew and Gentile; religious and unreligious; black, white and brown; employed and jobless; business owners and looters; instigators and peacemakers; criminals and authorities; male and female–is that we are all condemned by our sin. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). That is not to say that everyone is equally sinful, but all are equally condemned, because by nature, there is no fear of God before our eyes.

The Bible doesn’t try to justify our sin. The righteous God of the universe is not indifferent or nuanced about the lawlessness we witnessed this week (Ps 11:3-7). “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord is on his heavenly throne. He observes the sons of men…The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates…For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face.” We must not try to excuse or lessen the evil that was committed against our people this week.

Sin affects our minds, motives, will, speech, relationships and attitude towards God (Rom 3:11-18). In these verses, Paul is describing the outworking of sin in the human heart. The videos and eye witness accounts of riots we’ve seen this week have pulled back the curtain to show us the true horror of sin in 3-D, technicolour. As I watched, the thought came to mind:

This is unrestrained evil. This is the ‘secret power of lawlessness’ that Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. This is what our real enemy, Satan, is like. He lies, kills, steals and destroys. He uses people as pawns for his own destructive ends. He never builds, only breaks.

And so, from its opening pages, the Bible reminds us that evil resides in every human heart which is captive to Satan. War and violence, theft and murder, lies and plots, are just a sample of the many faces of sin. Given free reign, we will find something to fight about, leading to political factions, bloody coups, revolutions, murders and wars. We see it vividly in the cameo of Cain murdering his brother, Abel (Gen 4:1-16).

Only Jesus can free us from Satan’s captivity, because on the cross “he disarmed the rulers and authorities, putting them to open shame, by triumphing over them”  (John 10:10Col 2:15). Only the Holy Spirit can open our eyes to see that we are moral beings, accountable to a Holy God. Unless we know that we have no defense to make, no goodness to offer God, nothing but empty hands and a ‘silent mouth’ to receive Christ’s righteousness (Rom 3:19), we will remain as lost and guilty as the people who have caused the destruction this week, whose throats are open graves; whose lips hold vipers’ poison; whose feet are swift to shed blood; who do not know the way of peace; and who have no fear of God before their eyes.

Lest we become forgetful or self righteous in our anger, the Bible sets us straight: We are only set free from the life of sin that Paul describes, because of the righteousness of God–a free gift we receive when we believe in Jesus Christ as our substitute (Rom 3:21-26). The perfect God-man, the only Son of God, was punished in our place, for our sin. And only Christ’s Spirit enables us to live a life that is righteous and pleasing to God.

It’s why the gospel of Jesus Christ is our only hope in South Africa.

So, in our anger and turmoil, let’s not forget God’s amazing grace and love for sinners—looters, arsonists, plotters, corrupt politicians and not least of all, ourselves (John 3:16-18). This is the perspective God provides on our anger:

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph 4:26-27).

 “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
    do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
    but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land” (Ps 37:8-9).

2. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.

But there’s a second truth that the Lord has brought repeatedly to my mind in the past year. It is from Ephesians 6:10-20.* Everywhere I look, I seem to see this text. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…

Christians are a people at war. Our ultimate enemy is not a human being, but the ancient serpent with his crafty schemes (Eph 6:11). Satan uses people and energizes rulers of this dark world, as well as demonic forces, to accomplish his evil purposes (Eph 6:12). His plans are to deceive the nations and destroy God’s people (Rev 20:3710Rev 12:17), even to deface God’s image in any human being.

Right now in our uprising, we see the devil demonstrating his two major strategies: He deceives and devours. That’s why he is called the snake who deceives, and the dragon who devours (Gen 3:132 Cor 11:3Rev 12:4). Andrew Naselli describes the devil’s modus operandi: “Snakes tempt and lie; dragons attack and murder. Snakes backstab; dragons assault.”

And so, it is Satan who is ultimately behind the unrest and intrigue that is shaking our country. It has been this way ever since Genesis 3:15, but Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8).

Here are three practical ways we can apply this truth to our lives as Christians:

  1. As Christ’s people, his Bride, we must be careful not to have our thoughts led astray from “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). Our minds can easily be led astray by paying too much attention to anger and fear, the external chaos, the inadequacies of the police, instead of keeping our eyes on Christ. Our Government’s God-given duty is to maintain law and order and restrain evil (Rom 13:4). Our corresponding duty as citizens is to respect and submit to these authorities in carrying out their role (Rom 13:1-2). So, let’s be Christ-like citizens and use every opportunity to do good in our communities during these days of distress. Let’s wear gospel shoes of peace (Eph 6:15), showing the world the contrasting beauty of the gospel and the fellowship it fosters. This week, we saw this pure devotion to Christ outside a hospital, where staff and visitors joined together to sing How great Thou art. We mirror the unity and peace of the gospel every time we get together to pray, rebuild or protect vulnerable people.
  1. As Christ’s people, Paul tells us to resist Satan, careful not to be outwitted by him or ignorant of his true designs (2 Cor 2:10-11). The Christian faith is not naïve or passive, but neither does it stoke conflict. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” says James (James 4:7). Peter too, reminds us to “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9). Jesus himself told his disciples to be innocent as doves, but wise as serpents (Matt 10:16). It’s been wonderful to see our nation come together to resist evil this week. Communities made up of many races have stood shoulder to shoulder defending their towns and suburbs where police have been unable to protect them. Brave individuals have spoken hard truth to counter the lies of those who stir up strife. Officers of our courts have upheld the rule of law despite intimidation from very powerful people. Farmers have supplied medicines and groceries to communities. Ordinary South Africans have shared what they have with their neighbours and the police, and volunteered to clear up mess. Pastors and civic leaders have called on people to unite and rebuild their towns. As the saying goes, evil is allowed to flourish when good people do nothing. As Christians, “Let us not grow weary in doing good” (Gal 6:9). Let us pay respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed (Rom 13:7). That is how we resist Satan in these times.
  1. And finally, as believers, let’s never forget that the battle belongs to the Lord, because it is Christ, not ourselves, who will finally slay the great dragon, “that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world…He is full of wrath because he knows that his time is short!” (Rev 12:391012). This week it may seem as if evil has the upper hand, but victory has already been secured on the cross. God has placed each one of us in this country and in our community for such a time as this. One of these days, Christ will return to enforce justice, destroy Satan, and get his Bride (Rev 19:6-8). We are that bride! And lest we think that He is only ‘Gentle Jesus- meek and mild,’ Christ is also the great dragon slayer and the commander of angel armies! (Ps 27:1-3;  Rev 19:11-21). That’s why his people can take heart and stand firm in the Lord and in his mighty power (Eph 6:101314Ps 27:14).

Stand firm and take heart.

“The Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thess 3:3).

This is what Paul wrote to Christians facing dark days in the first century. In our own dark days, let’s put on the armour that Christ himself has secured for us on the cross and not neglect the Sword of the Spirit, which is God’s Word. And over all this, let’s “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests…be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (Eph 6:10-20).

Lord, we plead the mercy and blood of Jesus over this beloved country that we all call home. We pray that the people and leaders of South Africa would not tolerate evil, but would come together as a nation and bow before you in this strife. What was meant for evil, please use for the good of the gospel and your eternal Kingdom. Lord, use this crisis to make us conscious of our sin and bring many hearts to repentance and faith in you. Unite us as one nation and help us to resist the lies that Satan uses to divide us. Bring spiritual revival to South Africa and deliver us from evil. We look to you who has already won the victory! In Jesus’ name Amen.

Take heart! That’s the message of this song, by Matthew West.

Sources:

  • The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer– Short studies in Biblical theology, By Andrew David Naselli.
  • *The series I wrote on spiritual warfare in July and August 2020 may help you think through the implications of each of Paul’s pieces of equipment:
  1. Going to War.
  2. The Belt of Truth
  3. The Breastplate of righteousness
  4. Gospel shoes
  5. Putting on our thinking caps.
  6. The Sword of the Spirit
  7. The Weakest saint upon his knees