Monthly Archives: May 2011

Light!

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.  The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
John 1:6-9 (NIV)

John the apostle, the author of this gospel, is widely believed to have been a disciple of John the baptizer before he was a disciple of Jesus; one of those who followed Jesus and spent the day with Him right after His baptism.  (Cf. John 1:35-39.)  One of the most amazing things to me is how John lived his life, especially the role that God had laid out for him to play.

John was destined to take the back seat to Jesus from before he was even born.  Zechariah, his father, was told by the angel Gabriel:  “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17 NIV)  And after he was born, his father echoed those words in his own prophecy about his son:  “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79 NIV)  John wasn’t the main attraction in this show.  His job was to introduce the main attraction, and then move silently into the wings while the audience’s attention shifted to the star.

Now, a lot of people in that position might feel a little let down, knowing that not only were they NOT the star of the show, but that there was no way to even work up to being the star of the show; no hopes of practicing or polishing or improving so that you could move up from opening act to headliner; no possibility of ever being more than a second stringer.  It might make you feel frustrated; like finding something else to do with your life that didn’t have a built-in glass ceiling.

But John seems to have been perfectly content to fulfill the role that God had called him to.  He never tried to steal the show, or upstage the star.  Even his own disciples didn’t understand it!  When people started drifting away from him to follow Jesus, John’s calm reply was, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.  You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’  The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.  He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:27-30 NIV)  And that was that.

John, in the introduction to his gospel makes it very clear that John the baptizer was NOT the light of the world, but only a witness to that light.  His job was simply to prepare and point.  To prepare the people so that when the light does appear, there would be a group of people all ready to follow Him.  And to point to the light when He does appear so that the people will know that HE is the one that they need to follow.  And John did both of those jobs flawlessly.  He preached to the people messages that pierced their hearts and moved them to solidly repent of their sins.  And, when Jesus came, he pointed Him out as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the whole world.

God still needs the same kind of selfless, obedient people today.  People who are willing to take the backseat to Jesus, and NOT try to become the stars of the show.  People who are willing to boldly speak God’s word to the people to bring them to repentance, and do it without putting themselves on a pedestal.  People who are willing to prepare the way for Jesus to come into the hearts of the people, pointing away from themselves and directing the people to Jesus so that they can follow Him with all their hearts, and then going out and finding more people to bring along the same journey.

In the new, Spirit-led economy that Jesus initiated on the day of Pentecost, this John-the-baptizer job has been given very specifically to the followers of Jesus known as Christians.  To help us to develop the right mindset, Jesus showed by both word and action that we need to serve one another instead of trying for the top spot.  To help us to develop the right passion, Jesus told us clearly about the glories of heaven and the horrors of hell, and helped us to see how people walking in the darkness were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36-38 NIV)  And to help us see the right vision, Jesus told us that our job was to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV)  The job is still there, it still needs doing, and it is up to us to keep pointing the way to the light.

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Light and Life

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
John 1:4-5 (NIV)

John tells us in no uncertain terms that Jesus was and is the Creator God who made the universe from nothing.  He and the Father (and the Holy Spirit, for that matter) are one.  They appear in separate persons, but they are so united in their every thought, word, deed, and substance that they are ONE.  When God created the heavens and the earth, He did it through Jesus, the Word (John 1:3, Hebrews 1:2).  When God breathed His own Spirit into man, He did so through Jesus, and the man became a “living soul” (Genesis 2:7).  All of this shows that God the Father and Jesus are not just alive, but they have life within them that they can impart to other creatures, including mankind.

Jesus didn’t give up His life-giving character when He became a man – it was still there, lighting up the darkness wherever He went.  Remember that throughout the Bible evil and sin are equated with death and darkness.  When Jesus came, He actively opposed and conquered all forms of darkness and evil, sin and even death, often by a single word from His lips.  I am fond of saying that there never was a fair fight between Jesus and satan’s minions.  Every time Jesus showed up, any demons present were instantly reduced to little quivering piles of jelly, begging for their very existence.  When He said, “Go,” they had to go.  No fight; no battle; no wrestling match.  They just left.

Of course His greatest conquest over sin and death and evil and satan was at His resurrection.  For a couple of days it almost looked as if sin had won – that satan had gained the victory over Jesus; that darkness had succeeded in extinguishing forever the Light of the world.  But that wasn’t the case.  On the third day the light burst through the darkness shining the brilliant life of God all over the world!

John 1 contains two of the saddest verses in the whole Bible, and verse 5 is one of them:  “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”  The meaning of this is that even though the light of God was shining in all of that darkness, the people who lived in the darkness, those who most needed the light, were so blind that they couldn’t even comprehend that there was a light that was shining!  As Jesus noted by quoting Isaiah, “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” (Matthew 13:15 NIV)  The problem wasn’t so much that they were unable to see, as it was that they were unwilling to see.  They had closed their eyes, and plugged their ears so hard that they couldn’t even comprehend that the God that they claimed to serve had come right into their presence.

But another tragic aspect of verse 5 is that John puts it in the present tense:  “The light SHINES in the darkness…”  The light of Jesus is still shining to this very day – the same evil banishing, life-giving, death-conquering light is being shone into the darkness of our broken world right now.  And, just like at all times in the past, there are a lot of people who are unable to comprehend it, because they are unwilling to believe what God has told us plainly through His word, and through the Holy Spirit speaking to their hearts and consciences.  With all of the light that is available, far too many people prefer to stumble around in the dark, choosing their own way, and claiming that they are just fine (cf. Revelation 3:17), when the whole time they are dying for lack of light and lack of life.

The good news is that Jesus, working through the prayers of His people, is able to open eyes that have been blinded by sin; He can open ears that have been plugged so long that they seem permanently deaf; He can shine light into hearts that can appear to us permanently dark and rock hard.  He has done it multiplied billions of times throughout history, and He can do it today!

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Who Do You Say that He Is?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
John 1:1-3 (NIV)

People from the early days of the Church all the way to today have had a lot of controversy as to who or what Jesus is.  From the Ebionites, who tried to humanize the deity right out of Him, to those today who accept Jesus, but only as a good man, a great teacher, or a martyr.

But if you are going to only accept Jesus as a human being, then there are huge chunks of the Bible that you have to disagree with, disregard, or try to reinterpret.  John 1 is one of those.  John would never allow anyone to demote Jesus to less than he knew Him to be.  In His first letter (1 John 1:1-4), John clearly indicates that he himself was an eyewitness of Jesus and of His divinity – not a philosopher or a theologian, but a witness.  This is the same testimony that Peter gave in 2 Peter 1:16-18.

John begins by referring to Jesus as “The Word.”  (By the way, if you need proof that the Word is Jesus, look at verse 14.)  According to the HCSB Study Bible, “the primary use of ‘logos’ (“word”) is to denote divine revelation in some form or other.”  What John is telling us is that Jesus, the Word, is the pure revelation of the Father to the world.  If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.  If you want to know what God requires, listen to Jesus.

This concept is reinforced by the 3 characteristics pointed out by John in verses 1 and 2:

  • He was in the beginning – Jesus wasn’t created by God as part of the “created order.”  Before the heavens or the earth existed, Jesus was already there.
  • He was God – Jesus is not some lesser divine being or an angel as some teach.  He is God.  As Jesus Himself put it, “I and the Father are one.”  (John 10:30)
  • He was with God in the beginning – Even though Jesus and the Father are one, they are also distinct.  This is part of the mystery of the Trinity.  (By the way, the classic meaning of “mystery” is simply something that doesn’t fit easily into our finite brains.)  Jesus is one with, but distinct from, the Father.

And John goes one step further:  Jesus is the Creator of the universe (verse 3).  This is restated very clearly with the writer of Hebrews wrote, “the Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe.  (Hebrews 1:2, emphasis added.)  This all-powerful God of the universe is the Savior that we serve.

I guess it’s easy for people to see Jesus as less than He is because He came to earth as a mere human being.  He was born as a helpless infant in a backwater village, grew up as a normal person, and died like any other human being would do.  But a lot of His life wasn’t really what you would call “normal.”    His birth was attended by all of heaven’s hosts (Luke 2:8-14), His ministry was characterized by more amazing miracles than could be recorded (John 20:30-31), and after He died on the cross, He raised Himself from the dead.  He came as a real human being, but He always remained the eternal God.

CS Lewis captured the essence of the battle for Jesus’ identity in Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him:  I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else He would be the devil of hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was and is the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God, but let us not come to Him with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.

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Never Ashamed

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
Philippians 1:20 (NIV)

I always have to remind myself when I read Philippians that it was written by a man in jail!  Except for some small mentions of his circumstances (for example, 1:14), you would never guess it from the tone of the letter.  The whole epistle is upbeat and enthusiastic with frequent rejoicing throughout.

In 1:20, Paul seems to be concerned that he might become discouraged by his long ordeal.  (Acts 28 seems to indicate that he was in the Roman jail for quite a long time.)  But, overall, he expects that he will have sufficient courage to keep his faith strong and thriving, no matter what his outcome turns out to be – even if he is condemned and executed!

What a difference from most of us American Christians!  We have grown up in a society where freedom of religion is pretty much taken for granted.  We have not been persecuted for our faith, beaten or barred from the marketplace, or had to forfeit our property, as many believers in other parts of the world have.  And so we have developed a unique sort of theology – the kind that can only be developed in a privileged place like America.  In this uniquely slant faith, we expect that, if we are faithful to God, that our lives will be blessed – characterized by freedom from want and freedom from trouble.  If something bad does happen to us, whether disease or injury, or loss of job, or any other bad thing, it can really take its toll on our faith, causing us to doubt God’s goodness, or His omnipotence, or both.  We scour the pages of the Bible, and read, and talk, and listen, trying to make sense of the so-called “problem of evil.”

But I don’t see the New Testament saints agonizing over the evils that befell them (and ALL of Jesus’ apostles and very many of the later disciples DID experience powerful persecutions).  Instead, the whole tenor of Jesus’ teachings, and many of the epistles in the Bible as well, clearly indicate that if you really follow Jesus and live a Christ-centered life, trouble and persecution will be a part of it.  (For example, Matthew 10:17ff, 24:9; Luke 21:12; John 15:20, 16:2; 2 Timothy 3:12; Revelation 2:10; and many, many others.)

Christians all over the world, right this minute, are experiencing persecution, and are encouraged by these Scriptures to know that it is all exactly what Jesus predicted would happen.  And He also promised to be present with His people no matter what they might be going through.  That becomes the “blessing-side” of the persecution – they get to experience the presence of Jesus in powerful ways that only those suffering for the sake of the gospel can know!

These days the enemies of the gospel in America have nearly intimidated the Church into silence by accusations of narrow-mindedness or judgmentalism, or political incorrectness.  (You don’t want to offend anyone, you know!)  But our call is to ignore those who would silence us and pray that God would empower us to speak his Word, to never be ashamed, but to testify even MORE boldly.  (See Acts 4:19-20, 29-30.)  If we end up suffering persecution, we can count ourselves blessed to be suffering for the cause of Christ along with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.  But if we allow ourselves to be silenced by those around us, then our society will continue its slide toward the abyss.  Now, more than ever, American Christians need to put aside our theology of “easy Christianity” and commit ourselves anew to the cause of Christ, counting the cost and boldly moving forward.

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