Fear will make you do strange things. It will make you do terrible things.
Fear can make you hurt others. Ultimately, it will hurt you more than anyone else.
Zach Williams has recorded a song titled “Fear Is A Liar”. To date, the official has over 22 million hits. It captures well the destructive nature of fear.
It’s also true that fear functions as a God-given self preservation mechanism. The great quandary which confronts us requires us to discern between real and imagined fears.
As Jesus prepared for his return to heaven at the end of his earthly ministry, he told his disciples, “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) This promise forms a wonderful bookend to the events of Jesus’ birth.
Jesus was born into an environment filled with fear. His parents had made a long journey to Bethlehem out of obedience, and fear, of the occupying Roman legions. Although Judea experienced relative stability under the rule of Rome and the 33 year reign of Herod, it wasn’t exactly peace as we know it. Many people sought a return to true Jewish independence and purity of worship. While Herod maintained order with an iron hand.
Fear consumed Herod the Great. He was paranoid about protecting his throne. He killed family members. He executed his wife and his brother. He had his sons killed. He believed in eliminating all potential competitors to his power.
Consumed by fear Herod lashed out creating an environment of retribution and fear.
It wasn’t only family. Rebellions and revolts were not unusual during the reign of Herod. His commitment to extinguish these revolts kept him in the good graces of Rome. Like other provincial rulers of the time opposition was met with violence and usually death. By modern standards, Herod was a monster.
Life was cheap when it came to maintaining the peace and the power.
Then Jesus, the Messiah, the King of the Jews, arrived. Herod recognized the threat. He murdered all boys under the age of 2 in the village of Bethlehem.
Jesus was born in this world or fear. Jesus lived in this world of fear. Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt to protect their son’s life.
When we apply the titles of Isaiah 9:6 to Jesus, ‘Prince of Peace’ isn’t just filling in space to provide cadence. Herod had every right to fear Jesus. Jesus was born to become king. Jesus was born not only to replace Herod, but to replace Herod’s environment of fear with and environment of peace. Significantly, in contrast to Herod, Jesus wasn’t ever proposing to maintain peace through violence. He maintains peace through peace.
Thirty-three years later, Herod the Great is long dead. Jesus himself is about to die. But while Herod’s final days were filled with increased paranoia, Jesus could approach death and promise his followers, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
Fear isn’t dead.
Fear is real, and sometimes it’s healthy.
But fear is often a liar. And when fear festers it fosters hurt and turmoil.
I’m not suggesting that all Jesus followers just need to “think happy thoughts” to solve all our problems. I am suggesting that we need to take seriously Jesus’ mission to bring peace to the world, including to our world.
The apostle Paul explains it this way in Romans 8:14,
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
May the love and peace of Christ overcome your fears this Christmas and in the year ahead. May you find refuge in the arms of your Father and strength in His Spirit. May you find joy in your adoption as a child of God.
I sat across the table with one of my closest friends and mentors, lamenting to him, “Since when did discipleship become only about Bible study?” Later that day, I read this: “You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. It seems we can’t think our way to holiness.”* You’re good, God…
“Would you disciple this person?” I remember asking a mature Christian of a new Christian. “Sure, but I don’t have a lesson plan or a bunch of studies ready,” was the reply. It was a reasonable response, after all, as part of my schooling I was tasked to write a 12-month discipling study; it’s little wonder that many people don’t have that lying around…
“Let’s form a teaching schedule from real-life principles that our teens face, with every lesson geared towards reinforcing that one principle a quarter,” came the cry at the educational curriculum meeting. “But, how do we make sure we teach all of Scripture?” came the earnest, if expected, critique…
“What’d you think of the lesson?” I asked of someone visiting a class taught by one of my favorite in-house Bible teachers. “Fine,” she replied, “but he didn’t use very many verses…”
For 4 months the fly fishing rod produced no fish but much suffering, yet here in my hand it was again. I had only just learned the (still too thick) line and (way too big) bug to tie on, and so I cast with hope. With barely any knowledge of how or why it would, a hooked trout shook my rod for the first time, and a passion for the sport, nurtured in suffering, was born that continues today.
In a tradition that emphasizes Bible study as the goal of assembly, a contrast strikes me. Is there value in knowledge and study? Absolutely. But to what end? Often, this leads to assumptions that the more we know, the more God-like we are. Personal experience has taught me that’s vehemently false as a rule. This also assumes humans are mainly thinking beings, and that learning can and will change habits. This is how services and Bible classes are geared, and we lament when those raised to know everything from Scripture fall away. Except we don’t apply this logic to other disciplines such as exercise, or on-the-job training, or nutrition, or even fly-fishing.
Jesus didn’t ask Peter what he knew about Himself in John 21:15, Jesus asked if Peter loved him. Jesus didn’t say in John 14:15 that if you know more about Me you’ll keep My commands, but if you love Me. This isn’t a false dichotomy – what we love is what drives us, motivates us, and orients our life, far more than knowledge alone. We know this because we can know the benefits of exercise all we want, and never do it. We can know that cake is bad for us, and still eat it. And we can know about Jesus without ever truly loving Him.
What if discipleship was less about learning about Jesus, and more about loving Jesus more? What if church services were less about information and more about transformation? What if our goal was less about making sure the whole Bible is covered and more about covering our whole selves with the love of God seen in Jesus? What if our goal was less a habit of church attendance and more about attending the habits of the church that lead us to be more, or less, like Jesus? What if we spent less time learning about being a Christian, and more time living like Jesus?
Bible study is essential, no doubt. Should the whole Bible be taught and preached? Absolutely. But knowledge alone isn’t the thing which will keep Christians faithful. Simply knowing about your spouse isn’t what keeps you married. Love: what you love, whom you love, and why you love, is what God is after – that you desire Him above all else, and orient your life to keep Him oriented as your goal. We’re not to know as Christ knew, are to love as Christ loved.
Four months of habitual fishless fly-fishing that finally produced one fish lead to a passion, one that then produced a love to learn more, fish more, and do what was needed to transform into a better fly-fisher. If a tiny little trout could produce that much life-change in the hobbies of a man, where could truly discipling, not just teaching, someone to where they catch the smallest glimmer of true Christ-likeness in themselves lead? Perhaps, just perhaps, it could lead to truly becoming what we love. In one case, an able fly-fisher. I’ll take Christ over a trout every day.
Thomas Pruett is a disciple of Jesus, a husband to Amy, a father of four Ms, who prefers to be outside when possible and with coffee when indoors. He currently serves the Northern Hills Church of Christ in western South Dakota and will transition to serve the Circle Church of Christ in Corvallis, Oregon starting in February 2019. He rambles usually every week at www.northernhillscofc.org/blog.
Incarnation and Imitation
The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example, “Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”
Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.
What’s Faith Got to Do with It?
This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.
“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.
In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).
The Victory of Faith
There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5, “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text (1 John 5) and John 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!
Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.
Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.
It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.
(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself.)
Steven Hovater: Four kids. One wife. Seventeen hobbies. A coach’s whistle. Lots of thoughts about God and food. The spiritual gift of volume. Blogs at stevenhovater.com, and preaches in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
The next blog on our Summer Blog Tour is written by Jennifer Rundlett. Jennifer does a fantastic job of using her knowledge and experience in the world of fine arts to draw us into the story of Jesus in a way that I never could. If you appreciate this article as much as I do, please check out her blog: http://jrundlett.wordpress.com.
How do you most frequently see Jesus in your mind’s eye? When you pray, do you think of a well-worn prayer card that someone gave you as a child? Perhaps you might think of a beautifully carved crucifix that adorns the altarpiece of your church sanctuary?
Still others of us might think of the images evoked by a favorite hymn or quote a particular passage of inspiration that holds personal meaning. We all have personal and private ways of calling Jesus to mind and so to generalize might seem intrusive.
However, unpacking these thoughts and impressions can open our hearts to a new flowering of growth in our imitation of Christ. To live as Christian who fully love one another we must be willing to keep developing our picture of Jesus.
Since God has spoken “to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-3), picturing Jesus then is how we are meant to hear and understand the message of God’s voice in our lives. He is our life force and our connection to our powerful creator and by his presence in our lives we are fitted with his likeness so that we may become divine.
Knowing this we will pause then and cleanse our hearts by lingering over the painting of Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) and using it as a launch pad for our greater reflections.
Madox Brown was a British artist famous for his association with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood who by their use of vibrant colors and finely detailed realism these artists were “committed to the idea of art’s potential to change society”[i] says art historian Alison Smith “by picking themes that told stories that challenged prevailing attitudes.”
Madox Brown has composed this painting in such away that it tells the story in a new and refreshing way. If we learn to look closely it can work as a starting point to stimulate the mind into greater thought. Just as we can use a word study as the center of our bible devotion, paintings such as this can provide rich spiritual food as they lead us deeper into the scene allowing it to work as the fulcrum turning our thoughts.
A lifetime of knowing this story and yet I had not taken the time to linger with their different perspectives. As I fully considered each disciple’s reaction to Jesus’ simple yet profound action, it carried me away from the painting and allowed me to tap into various personal memories that then lead me into a deeper connection with the painting and in turn the story and ultimately — Jesus.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We pause and rest now… fully breathing in the details of your last supper with your disciples. Help us to realize more deeply the profound meaning of this exchange between you and our brother Peter. Because we are separated by time and space, we struggle with our understanding of this tradition. Be with each of us, guiding our hearts so that we may hear this story, through the use of this painting. Help us to personally experience the power of your forgiveness so that it will purify our hearts.
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them.”
(John 13: 12-17, NIV).
Begin by noticing how Madox Brown paints Jesus from a unique camera angle. From this lower perspective we must mentally kneel to properly consider each disciples reaction as it is played out in a very intimate compressed space.
Viewing this then becomes mysteriously “iconic” as it simultaneously sears our mind with a vision of humility while filling our heart with admiration for a new kind of King—one who is tenderly serving us. With this act, Jesus becomes our “host” and we begin to understand the partaking of this meal as sharing in a new kind of hospitality from God. As we look on with the disciples, we can place ourselves among them… preparing ourselves for the meal…. and for God’s mind-shattering display of love with Christ’s death on the cross.
Rest your eyes now on how Madox Brown has portrayed Peter in this painting. Surprisingly, Peter is cast as an older man here and this causes me to think about how he must have remembered this as a sacred moment over the years. The act of Jesus washing his feet must have been a memory that kept returning like a reoccurring theme coloring the backdrop of his life. I can sympathize with his look of discomfort as it suggests he might be just humoring Jesus in letting him wash his feet. In this way, he gently reminds me of the arch of Peter’s journey and the thought of how often he was broken to begin again, touches me.
Observing the honest way Madox Brown portrays Peter’s relationship with Jesus helps me to know this brokenness is part of the process that unfolds over a lifetime. I can see pieces of myself in Peter’s reaction to Jesus here and I can hear my voice say, “ No, you will never wash my feet!” Viewing this painting helps me to realize that as much as I love and adore Jesus, I can still resist his control in my life. And I can feel a type of brotherly love for Peter as I look once again to the painting.
While I am still thinking about all this, I allow myself to consider the feelings of the entire group as they lean in and look on, some are awe struck and others are horrified and I think about Jesus question: Do you understand what I have done?
This time, as I look again to the painting, I see the disciple on the left who is leaning in and untying his sandal. He is eagerly anticipating the moment when Jesus will wash his feet. While the others are still unsure this one is coming forward without hesitation.
As I fully appreciate this disciple, I begin to think about being personally cleansed by Jesus. The idea of allowing myself to be renewed by his touch of grace so that his forgiveness will transform my life begins to powerfully move my heart towards Jesus.
I can see with new eyes that we must first allow him to cleanse our hearts from our misconceptions before we can humbly serve others. We can desire to serve others because we have confessed our sins and allowed Jesus to heal our wounds. Knowing and experiencing his grace causes us to feel a greater compassion and brotherhood with those around us.
I begin to feel myself in motion, no longer resisting Jesus’ call and as I am turning, I begin to hear deep down in my soul the call of the song Down to the River to Pray. The repetitive nature of the words become meditative and so they begin to fill my mind now with a vision of a slowly increasing crowd gathering at the river to be cleansed and renewed in their baptism.
Armed with the vision of this beautiful hymn, I return to the painting yet again. Now I can see and hear Jesus say to me “Do you understand what I have done for you?” And I stand in silence…then with tears in my eyes I shake my head and say, “No, Jesus, I really don’t understand the fullness of your love.”
Feeling my brokenness, I look at all the faces in the room and consider how the road to the cross will personally challenge each of these men. One of them will betray Jesus…another will deny him and all but one will abandon him and my heart melts at the sight of Jesus, kneeling there and reverently washing Peter’s feet.
When I allowed myself to gaze deeply into the story through this painting, I realized that I have a Lord and King who has washed me, though I don’t fully understand it. He is willing to kneel at my feet and this thought opens and humbles me. …and I am refreshed to begin again.
[i] Were the Pre-Raphaelites Britain’s First Modern Artists? Alison Smith, August 23 2012, Tate Gallery Channel Blog, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/were-pre-raphaelites-britains-first-modern-artists
Jennifer Rundlett, M.M. from Peabody Conservatory/ Johns Hopkins University and Post Graduate diploma from The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester England, is the author of My Dancing Day: Reflections of the Incarnation in Art and Music. Her ministry of connecting with God thru the Arts is a new kind of reflective experience that leads you through a gallery of masterful art and music into the beauty and joy of a life in Jesus.
Jennifer currently lives in Frederick, Maryland and has been an active musician in the Mid Atlantic region for over 15 years. She has been the pre-concert lecturer for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Choral Arts Society of Frederick and has also been a speaker at the Pepperdine University Bible Lectures, Tulsa Bible Workshop, Lipscomb University’s “Summer Celebration” and Rochester College’s “Streaming.”
If you’re interested, you can listen to my Palm Sunday sermon HERE.
Although I like to make a big deal of Easter, I haven’t always preached a special sermon on Palm Sunday. To be honest, I don’t really understand the events of Palm Sunday. Beyond that I have a hard time finding a contemporary application of Palm Sunday. Sure, it’s an interesting event, but do I really need to preach on it every year just because it appears on the calendar?
Here are my questions, with a little commentary.
1. Why did Jesus want a parade?
Couldn’t have Jesus just walked through the gates in the midst of the other pilgrims without drawing attention to himself? He could still have gone to the temple the next day and taught and throne over tables. None of his subsequent actions seem contingent upon this grand entrance.
Remember that Jesus initiated this parade by instructing his disciples to go and get a donkey. He must have had a purpose in making a public entrance, but I don’t understand what it was.
I preached on Sunday that his choice of riding a donkey was a humble choice. Wouldn’t he demonstrate greater humility by cancelling the parade and just walking through the gates?
If I’m grasping at straws, perhaps his grand entrance was a PR stunt to let the people of Jerusalem know he was there and invite them to hear him speak at the temple the next day. According to Luke 19:39 Jesus at least caught the attention of some Pharisees. Perhaps they did the rest of the marketing for him!
2. Was Jesus Intentionally Fulfilling Prophecy?
Many of the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled were beyond his control. For example, he had no say in where the Messiah would be born, or which tribe he was from.
“Your king has won a victory,
and he is coming to you.
He is humble
and rides on a donkey;
he comes on the colt
of a donkey.”
The Jews apparently recognised this as a Messianic passage. So in choosing to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus intentionally fulfills this prophecy. After all, if he’s the Messiah, then at some point he needs to ride a donkey.
Although Matthew and John both quote Zechariah 9 as an explanation of Jesus’ actions, here’s my question. If Jesus chose to ride a donkey to demonstrate that he was the Messiah it doesn’t seem like a very good strategy.
- He could more easily have communicated this message by simply saying, “Hey everyone, look at me. I’m the Messiah!”
- While all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus riding the donkey, only 2 of them connect it to the Zechariah prophecy.
- Apparently, even at the time, no one really understood the significance of Jesus riding the donkey. After quoting Zechariah, John immediately reflects, “At first, Jesus’ disciples did not understand. But after he had been given his glory, they remembered all this.” (John 12:16 (CEV)
If Jesus was just checking off a list of prophecies that he could control, do you think it’s legitimate? It seems a bit manipulative and insincere to me.
3. Was Jesus Surprised?
I am fascinated by the question of what Jesus was thinking as he rode that donkey through the cheering crowds. Matthews account of Jesus’ grand entrance is found in chapter 21. In chapter 20 Jesus predicts, We are now on our way to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses. They will sentence him to death…
He knew his fate.
Was Jesus able to join in the joy and celebration along with the crowd? Was Jesus an island of misery in surrounded by a sea of exuberance? Did Jesus resent the crowd’s shallowness? Was Jesus hoping that the people would accept him and crown him king?
Again, if he knew the praise lacked sincerity, why throw the parade?
I just don’t get it.
I also don’t get why this series of events is important enough to get its own day on the calendar.
4. What are We Celebrating?
When the church celebrates Palm Sunday, what exactly are we celebrating? Are we excited that people misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingdom? Do we want to highlight the rejection of Jesus as Messiah? If so, why the joyfulness and palm branches? Are we thrilled by the transition in Jesus’ ministry as he finally enters Jerusalem? (Although John’s Gospel tells us he’s been there twice previously.)
In Luke 20:40 Jesus tells the Pharisees that “If [the people] keep quiet, these stones will start shouting.” Clearly he believes that their well-intentioned, but misguided praise is deserved, appropriate and unstoppable. This seems to contrast other passages of Scripture where God cares about right motives when it comes to worship. So are we celebrating a loosening of worship forms and functions?
Perhaps we celebrate Palm Sunday because now that we understand the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, we can give him the praise that he deserved in this event but we can give it to him with greater understanding. Hopefully, we also give him our worship from a heart of sincerity and faithfulness. In this way we kind of rectify and redeem the worship of the original Palm Sunday.
5. From a Pre-millenial perspective…
From a premillenial perspective this event seems to make a little more sense. By this interpretation it’s important that the Jews get an opportunity to reject an earthly kingdom. The thinking goes like this:
- God’s initial desire was for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah and crown him king.
- Jesus legitimately wanted to establish an earthly kingdom with Jerusalem as his throne.
- All the Messianic prophecies were intended to be fulfilled in this earthly kingdom.
- On palm Sunday the Jews reached the brink of crowning Jesus king, but ultimately backed away.
- Their rejection of Jesus led to Plan B, a spiritual kingdom made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice.
- Although Jesus knew they were going to kill him, it was important that he give them the opportunity to crown him.
- Thus the Palm Sunday Parade was not a charade, but a hope-filled opportunity for Israel to embrace her Messiah.
While I don’t agree with this understanding of Scripture. And while I have a problem with the cross being “Plan B”. At least this approach provides an understanding of Palm Sunday in which Jesus acts with genuine motives.
So help me out. What encouragement do you draw from Palm Sunday?
This is my final post in this short series summarising each of the Gospels. In particular, I’ve looked at the different perspectives each writer brings to their portrayal of Jesus’ life and ministry.
All of the gospel writers allude to Jesus’ divinity. After all, Matthew and Luke both describe Jesus being conceived by a virgin! But John’s gospel makes the most explicit claim from the very first verse.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John opens his Gospel with the phrase “In the beginning” that he’s copied from the opening of Genesis. From the moment before Creation. The moment when there was only God. John takes us to that moment and there we find the Word [Jesus]. In that moment when there was only God the Word was there with God, but even more than that, the Word was God.
What an opening. That gets your attention. John claims that Jesus is God. Now the rest of the book will hopefully substantiate that statement.
Now it’s true that in the Gospels Jesus never makes the statement “I am God”. But the cumulative evidence certainly points to that conclusion. Seven times John records Jesus making a statement that begins with the phrase “I am“. Jesus commenting on his own identity.
- And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
- Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).
- “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9).
- “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
- Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).
- Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
- “I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener” (John 15:1).
Who is Jesus? He is the Bread to feed upon, the Light to follow, the Door to enter, the Shepherd to guide, the Resurrection upon which to wait, the Way of salvation to trust, and the Vine in which to abide. They are definitely grandiose claims, perhaps even divine.
In chapter 10 we find the Pharisees ready to kill Jesus for blasphemy. In v30 Jesus closes a conversation saying, “I and the Father are one”. So the Jews picked up stones to stone him… then in v33 they explain, “we are not stoning you for any good work, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Without Jesus saying “I am God” his audience understood that he was claiming equality with God.
When Thomas sees the resurrected Jesus he worships saying, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus validates this title in v29 by commending Thomas for his faith.
The book begins in 1:1 claiming that Jesus was God, then it concludes with the skeptical apostle making the same statement. These two statements stand as two bookends in John’s gospel. In between Jesus frequently utters “I am…” statements of identity to the point that he was almost stoned for claiming to be God.
But John didn’t write his gospel as a philosophical treatise. The question we must ask ourselves is “Who died on that cross? Who died for our sins? Was it God? Was it a lesser god? Was it a prophet, or a good man?” It makes a difference. Did God love you enough that He died for your sins, or only enough that he commissioned someone else to die in your place?
Who was it on that cross?
How important is it to you that God died for your sins? Or does it not matter to you, as long as someone did?
BONUS MATERIAL: In my research for this sermon and blog I came across a series of 1minute videos that introduce the 7 “I am” statements. I enjoyed them and you might too. You can find them HERE.
Disasters always seem to prompt people to ask God questions. Christians ask God questions. People who once went to church ask God questions again. And some people straight out question God.
Two days ago two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed, including an 8 year old boy. Additionally, at least 10 people had limbs amputated and dozens more experienced serious injuries.
In the heat of a moment like this I don’t believe there are any words powerful enough to bring comfort. We’re accustomed to the role of disease and illness in our lives, even if we abhor it. We accept that accidents happen. We acknowledge that nations fight wars that cause the loss of life. But a deliberate act of random violence against unsuspecting individuals is something we’re unprepared for. It makes no sense.
Two days after the bombing the media and public seeks answers to the questions, “Who did this?” and “Why did they do this terrible thing?” As yet, there are no answers.
I believe many people also turn to God and ask Him an ancient question found in Judges 6:13,
“If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?”
Perhaps we put a little twist on it and ask, “If God is good, why has all this happened to us?” but it’s basically the same question Gideon posed.
I don’t know the mind of God and how he determines when to spare us suffering and when to allow it.
I do know that suffering, pain and death were outside God’s intent for humanity. I also know that one day they will be eradicated. God’s heart abhors sin and its consequences even more than ours. He abhors it so much he personally died to make its eradication possible.
I do know that we live in the midst of a spiritual battleground, so I can’t blame God for everything. There are moments when Satan exerts his power in the world. Sometimes it happens in Somalia, or Angola, and sometimes it happens in our backyard. Sometimes the evil of sin hits people that are faceless and nameless to us. Sometimes their faces and names are all over the media and inescapable. Sometimes the face and name is someone we know and love deeply.
In one sense I like that people question God and moments like this. Asking God questions acknowledges his existence. These questions acknowledge that God might have answers no one else does. And often these questions recognise the power and authority God has because we know that he has the ability to have prevented tragedy. So these questions affirm God’s identity.
On the other hand, the questions people ask often double as accusations. I think Satan likes this. Satan likes when people accuse God of things Satan has prompted. Instead I think there’s great value in hating Satan, hating sin, and hating the consequences of sin. We should never take sin lightly and great tragedies remind us of the true evil of sin and how far removed it is from God’s love and holiness.
I don’t have all the answers. Perhaps you don’t think that I have any answers.
Here’s 3 points from my sermon Sunday that I hope encourage you.
- Keep taking your questions to God. As long as you’re in dialogue with God, your in the best possible place.
- Expect answers. Jesus addressed Thomas’ doubts by inviting him to put his hand into the hole in his side. That’s pretty invasive, but Jesus let him because he knew it would help Thomas resolve his doubts. I don’t know the time frame for these answers. Sometimes it might take years. But I do believe that God wants to answer our questions.
- Our faith will always require faith. Jesus makes this point in John 2:29 when he looks forward to those of us who will never see the human Jesus and he says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus acknowledge that his future followers would follow by faith. We will always have to live with some questions. At times the best answer we receive from God is “trust Me.” I can never 100% prove that eternity will be better than our lives in the here and now, but I believe it. Sometimes when my world is falling apart I just have to trust that God can somehow hold it together, because I can’t, and it seems like Satan’s winning.
Here are a couple of other resources on this topic:
- A recent guest post on this blog here.
- A blog by a former describing his journey through the darkness of personal tragedy: http://www.lesfergusonjr.com/
- A friend’s blog here.
- Some thoughts on how Christians respond to violence here.
- A reflection on suffering and tragedy through the eyes of the book The Shack: here.
I don’t have any particular discussion questions this time, but if you have questions or perspectives you’d like to share, please leave a comment.
I’ve been leading our Wednesday night Bible class through a discussion of Bonhoeffer’s book, Cost of Discipleship. One of the main contributions of this work is the presentation of the idea of “cheap grace”. Basically, by “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer contends that sometimes the church simplifies conversion and the Christian life to the point that it contradicts Jesus teaching.
So is it possible to make salvation too easy to access?
I think the answer is “Yes”. I think we face a temptation to sugar coat Jesus’ invitation to follow him. We face a temptation to say things like, “If you give your life to Jesus, he’ll solve all your problems.” Or maybe something like, “You know, if you’d committed your life to Christ and were following him, you wouldn’t find yourself in this situation.” Okay, that second one isn’t really inviting, but we sometimes sell the idea that life can be trouble free once Jesus takes our sins away.
That’s not really how Jesus presented the call to discipleship.
My text yesterday was John 21. Verse 19 really grabbed my attention as I prepared this lesson. “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”” There are several big concepts in this one verse:
- Jesus predicts that the Apostle Peter will be martyred.
- Peter’s death would glorify God.
- The call to discipleship, “Follow me!”
There’s no sugar coating going on here. Can you imagine this as the invitation in our cream coloured, dust free, padded pews, fresh flowery auditoriums? “Come to the front during this closing song if you’re willing follow Jesus and I promise that you’ll be killed sometime for making this choice.” That’s the invitation Jesus gave Peter. And Peter accepted it!
My sermon also spent considerable time in Luke 14:25-33. First Jesus deliberately provokes the crowds by telling them they need to “hate their family or you cannot be my disciple” in fact, they need to “hate life itself”. They need to be prepared to carry their cross, to follow him to death, or they cannot be Jesus’ disciple. Can you imagine being there and being told that? (I definitely regard the “hate” as hyperbole, and I think the next passage clarifies it.)
Jesus goes on to say that people considering accepting his call to “Follow me”, should make sure they count the cost. That cost might be their family. It might be their life. It might be financial security, or health. Everyone’s experience differs, but there is a cost to following Jesus. That’s the truth. That’s the absence of sugar. There is a cost to following Jesus.
Accepting Jesus’ call to “Follow me” does not mean we get the keys to the candy store. Jesus calls us to join his mission in freeing the world from the effects of sin. He calls us to follow him through a narrow gate, along a path where the enemy continually plants IED’s. He calls us to follow him to eternal life. He calls us to love Him. He calls us to die to self. He calls us to exclusive attachment, even above family and yes, even above life itself.
Jesus’ call to discipleship is intimidating.
But I love the flow of this passage of teaching and the message of its rhythm.
- Luke 14:15-22 – God invites humanity to a party. When people reject his invitation, he’s so keen for guests that he twice expands his search to ensure everyone has the opportunity to attend.
- Luke 14:25-27 – Following Jesus requires sacrifice and commitment. It costs something.
- Luke 14:28-35 – Count the cost of following Jesus before you begin the journey. Make sure you can complete the journey and not let anything hold you back.
- Luke 15 – ALL THAT OTHER STUFF SOUNDS SCARY, BUT LOOK HOW MUCH GOD LOVES YOU!!!!!
Going back to John 21. There’s one more crucial note of context I need to mention. When Jesus says, “You’re going to die. Follow me!” He’s speaking as the resurrected Messiah. Jesus presence demonstrates that he has defeated death and conquered sin in such a powerful way that no explanation is necessary. He doesn’t just invite Peter to die. He invites him to truly live.
The call to follow Jesus at once intimidates and challenges. It’s costly. It’s also an invitation to life.
Here’s your chance to participate in the conversation. I’m interested in hearing from you, so please leave a comment.
- Is it possible to make salvation too easy to access?
- Is it possible to make the call to follow Jesus too radical?
- How can you tell if you’re too comfortable in your walk with Jesus?
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35
- You can listen to this sermon here.
If we were writing an outline of “love commands” the New Command to “Love one another” would display as a subpoint to “The Second Command” to “Love your neighbour as yourself“. Since Jesus had already instructed his disciples to love those around them, even their enemies, why did he need to specifically tell them to “love each other“? I can think of several reasons, you may think of more… or you may disagree with mine? 🙂
First, toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel (chaps 18 & 20) we find the apostles competing for honors in Jesus’ kingdom, asking who will be the greatest. Back in John’s Gospel (13:21-30) we see that Judas has just left the Last Supper to betray Jesus. In v38 of this chapter Jesus predicts that Peter himself will deny Jesus. Then in chapter 14 Jesus predicts his departure. Jesus is leaving. He’s leaving a competitive group of guys who’ve just been betrayed by Judas, and who themselves have deserted Jesus at his death. These are the guys who’ll continue the mission of the Kingdom of God. In order to get through the tough times ahead, they’re going to need to “love each other”, just as we still need to.
Second, Jesus tells us that it’s by our mutual love that outsiders will recognise our commitment to God. He doesn’t say this when he tells us to “love our enemies“, although that’s sure to raise eyebrows. Surprisingly, people don’t see God as much when we serve our communities as they do in the way that we love each other. Perhaps we don’t recognise this point as much because we don’t love each other as strongly. Consider the example of the first church who sold their possessions to meet the needs of the poor among them. (Acts 4:32-35) What would prompt you to sell something to give to a needy brother or sister? How severe would their need have to be?
Third, Our love for each other reflects God’s love toward us. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The way we treat each other reflects the way Christ has treated us. That’s a pretty huge responsibility. With the world looking at us, the church, we have the job of modeling God’s love for His people: for all people. The more we mature in Christ, the more we understand the way he loves us, the better job we should do of loving those around us. Our love for others derives from God. Our love from God expresses itself to others.
- If you had to choose a 3rd “love command” do you have another preference? Why?
- Why do you think Jesus had to be more specific than just “love your neighbour”?
- It’s easy to say “love your spiritual family as Christ loved you”, but how do you express God’s love for you in relationships with others?
“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:39-40
- You can listen to this sermon here.
In my last post I pointed out the connection between loving and serving God. The prophets regularly warn about the dangers of worshiping God while abusing their fellow citizens. I believe that’s what Jesus had in mind here in Matthew 22. First, love God. Second, love and serve the people God creates.
Jesus himself provided a positive example of this command in John 9. While they’re traveling, Jesus’ disciples spot a man who had been blind since birth and ask Jesus “who sinned, this man or his parents?” The common understanding of the day was that physical health conditions were connected to spiritual actions. Jesus takes the opportunity to correct this understanding.
After teaching them about the lack of connection between spiritual and physical health, Jesus could have just kept on walking. The blind man apparently makes no effort to approach Jesus. But Jesus refuses just to treat him as a prop in an object lesson for his disciples. Before continuing on his journey, Jesus pauses and heals the man’s blindness. That would be significant if that was his only contact with the man, but the story continues.
Now that he can see, the man becomes a bit of a celebrity. He’s taken before the Pharisees who investigate what happened to him. Because the man continues to give credit to Jesus and praise him, the Pharisees ultimately throw him out of the synagogue. Somehow word of these events gets back to Jesus. He immediately goes looking for the man. Before you know it, he’s confessing the Lordship of Jesus and worshiping Him. Jesus’ love for His neighbor results in the neighbor becoming a disciple.
Jesus provides a model of loving our neighbor for us. First, he treats a disadvantaged man as a person, not an object. He compassionately meets the man’s greatest physical need. When others reject and isolate him for telling the truth, Jesus seeks him out. Jesus meets his emotional and social needs. He demonstrates his love for the man a second time. Finally, Jesus reveals His identity as the Messiah, meeting the man’s spiritual needs.
Small actions can have profound unforeseen results.
- Have you witnessed occasions when addressing someone’s physical and/or emotional needs has led to their spiritual needs also being fulfilled?
- Do you struggle to view needy people as people rather than needs? Have you ever triumphed over this temptation? What happened?
- Have you been on the receiving end of someone taking unexpected interest in you personally? What did they do that made an impression?