LOVING OBEDIENCE…OBEDIENT LOVE. JOHN 15:9-12

Loving Obedience

In the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is loving relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

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Single Sermons. Loving Obedience. John 15:9-12

 9“As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love. 10If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love. 11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:9-12, HCSB)

This is a stunning passage of scripture. We could spend weeks finding new and wonderful things in these few verses alone. I don’t have weeks, so let’s see if we can break off a digestible portion of this wonderful part of God’s word.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. It’s easy to drift over this quickly, but just stop for a minute and listen. How does the Father love Jesus? In the first place, he is the heavenly Father. His love has no limit. His love has no flaws. The Father has loved Jesus eternally. Here on earth, our love is hampered by our limited capacities. It is corrupted by our sinful flesh. Sometimes, loving others is a lot of work. At times, we lose patience with those we love; we get irritated with them; we become frustrated, or just plain weary. None of those things are a factor in the way the Father loves Jesus. Therefore, none of those things are a factor in the way Jesus loves us.

In fact, Jesus offers us the same experience of love that He has as a member of the Holy Trinity.

God is a Trinity – that is, He is one God, and yet he exist in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is something here that is beyond the grasp of human imagination (incidentally, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the best arguments that Christianity is not made up by people – human beings would have come up with something more understandable). Between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is a constant flow of love and joy. Jesus tells us “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” He is, amazingly, offering us the kind of daily experience of love and joy and grace that He himself has. His own experience of the Father’s love is deep and abiding. It is not something that goes away, and it is something that sustained Him and influenced Him every weary day of His time on earth. I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19, ESV2011)

We need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, strengthening us, in order to even begin to understand the love that Jesus Christ has for us. It is beyond our ability to know completely, it is abundantly far more than all that we could ask or think. The unfathomable, unlimited love of Jesus for us is the bedrock for everything else in our lives. Particularly, it is the foundation upon which the rest of this text is built. We’re going to talk about what it means to keep the commandments of Jesus. But we cannot begin to understand what this means without the foundation of his all-surpassing love for us.

Abide in my love. “Abide” is not a word that we use very often anymore. Some good synonyms might include: remain, dwell, rest-upon, stay, be, exist-in. We are to dwell in the love of Jesus. We are to rest upon it, to exist continually in it.

Everything in our entire lives ought to be built on one foundational fact: that God loves us. If we get that fact wrong, there will be a host of other things in our lives which we will get wrong, and many things will not make sense. This is not to say that when we truly grasp by faith that God loves us, everything makes sense, and nothing ever goes wrong. But if we build our lives on any other basis than the love God has for us, sooner or later the uselessness and hopelessness of it all will come crashing in.

For many of us, there have been times, perhaps brief periods, when we have truly understood how much God loves us, and those times stand out as high points in our walks of faith. But much of the time, though we know it with our minds, we find it hard to believe that God truly delights in us. On Monday morning at 8:30 when the boss is upset and you’re still smarting from the fight with your spouse, it seems difficult to feel God’s love, and almost impossible that His love should make a difference in your situation.

In John 15, Jesus is inviting us into an abiding experience of His love. He appears to be offering a life wherein most of the time, we will be conscious of God’s love for us, and that love will make a real difference in our daily experiences. Jesus did not simply come down from heaven, hand us a one way ticket redeemable upon our death, and say, “See ya when you get there.” No in His invitation to abide, He is offering a life that is different in quality, right here and now. And the central fact affecting the quality of our lives is meant to be His affection for us.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. Now we hit the difficulty. Many times when we read this phrase after the other two we think, “Aha! I knew it was too good to be true. Now the other shoe has dropped. Sure, God loves us: but only if we obey his commands, only if we can be good enough to earn his love.”

As we look at these verses, it is important for us to understand the concept of “paradigm.” A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. Paradigms tells us how to interpret our experiences. We all have paradigms, and use them every day. Think about it. The color green does not actually mean “go” and red does not mean “stop.” But in the driving paradigm, we interpret those colors to indicate those things.

When it comes to obeying God, and keeping his commands, it is common to find two different and extreme views,. The first view says, “Jesus died to forgive us [this is true]. His death took away the power of the law to condemn us [also true]. Therefore, once I’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer and ‘gotten saved’ I can go off and live my life however I please [this is not true].”

The second view goes like this: “Even the New Testament – after Jesus’ death and resurrection – tells us we need to obey God [true]. It says we should be holy and righteous people [true, but we need to understand this in the proper way]. Therefore not only should we try to live sinless lives, we actually can do so [not true]. Therefore, if we sin, we may not be true Christians [really not true].”

The underlying problem with both of these approaches is the paradigm. They both view our faith as set of rules. One way thinks we have to follow them; the other way thinks we are free from them. But the paradigm in both cases is about following rules. Both ways of understanding the scripture are legalistic, because they view obedience to Jesus as something to do with the law.

However, in the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

In the book of John, Jesus relentlessly pushes the idea that real life only found in a daily faith relationship with Him. In fact, that is the central message of the entire New Testament. What Jesus says here in John 15:10 about keeping his commands can be properly understood only in the context of relationship with him. And in fact, that is true of any verse about obedience in the entire Bible. The paradigm is not rules and laws, but rather, relationship.

Marriage (the way God intends it to be) is supposed to be the strongest and most enduring voluntary relationship we have with another person. That is why the Bible often uses marriage as an illustration of our relationship with the Lord (Ephesians 5:25; Isaiah 54:5, 62:4-5; Jeremiah 3:15, 31:32; Hosea 1:2, 2:19-20; Revelation 19:7-9). That’s also why I often use it as a sermon illustration. It is applicable once again here.

What brings a husband and wife together? Does the man sign up to follow rules laid down by the woman, then, if he follows those rules correctly, they get married? Of course not. They are brought together by love. But what about after the marriage? Do they say, “I know love brought us together, but we are married now, and from here on our marriage will based on fulfilling the rules we have for each other.” Ridiculous.

So, if marriage is not based on rules, does that mean that I am free to go have an affair if I want? Also ridiculous. Why? Because there are certain things that destroy love, and destroy relationships, and having an affair is one of those things.

I think one of the biggest problems we have in marriage is that we fail to see how our actions affect the love between us. We don’t realize (or we pretend not to) how our actions have the potential to either help or harm the relationship. So when a wife wants her husband to quit going out to bars with his buddies, it isn’t that she’s trying to base their relationship on rules. What she’s really trying to say is “when you do that, it injures the love we have between us. It hurts me and it hurts our relationship.” When the husband says, “I’m looking for more from you in our physical relationship,” he isn’t trying to say that he only loves her because of what happens in the bedroom. He’s saying, “This helps to build my love for you, and therefore it helps our relationship.” These aren’t rules. They are relationship builders (or relationship busters). Because I am married, my behavior conforms to certain standards. These are not rules I follow – I live this way because I love my wife.

It will put tremendous pressure on a marriage if one or both spouses start looking at behavior toward each other as rules, instead of actions that affect the quality of love.

Jesus is telling us today, it’s the same with him. He uses the language of “commands” and “obedience” because there is supposed to be submission on our part to the Lord. But what it is all about is relationship. Listen clearly: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love….You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He’s saying, “this is all about our relationship. If you love me, your behavior will reflect that. If you know that I love you, your behavior will show that also.” John writes about this more in his letters:

For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1 John 5:3-4)

And this is love: that we walk according to his commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2 John 6).

In other words, “keeping his commands” is all about that faith-relationship of love we have with Jesus. You should be able to tell I love Kari, not only because of the ring around my finger, but also because of how I behave with regard to her. You should be able to tell I love Jesus, not just because of a cross around my neck, but because of the way I behave with regard to Jesus.

Let me suggest one more thing. I don’t always feel like listening when Kari wants to talk. I don’t always feel like being kind or encouraging. I don’t always feel like helping her with things or doing her favors. But sometimes I do those things even if don’t feel like it, because the more I do, the closer we become; and the closer we become the more I actually want to do those things. Also, of course, the closer we are, the more I enjoy and treasure our relationship.

What I’m saying is, I choose to behave in such a way that I become closer to my wife. In the same way, obedience is a pathway to intimacy with God. The more we live as he asks us to, the easier it is to continue to make choices that increase our closeness to him. The more we obey, the more we learn to love Him, and our satisfaction and fulfillment – and our joy – grows.

When we remember that Jesus said this about keeping his commands in the context of abiding in Him it is impossible to doubt that he is talking about how we are behave in relationship with him. Basically, he is saying, “this is how to grow in my love and stay living in me. This is how you and I get closer.”

So what are the commands that Jesus wants us to keep? What are these things that help us grow closer to Jesus? In John chapter 6, some came to Jesus, wondering about this.

“What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “this is the work of God: that you believe in the One he has sent” (John 6:29)

Another time, some experts on Jewish law came along and asked, “What’s the most important commandment to obey?” Jesus summed it all up when he said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

In other words, to obey is to act in love. This exactly what we have been learning. Love for God and neighbor is obedience, and obedience to these commands (which really sum up all of the commandments) demonstrates love for God and neighbor. If I love my neighbor, I will not steal from Him. If I love God, I will listen to Him and His will for my life. If I love God I won’t sin, because that hurts him. If I love my neighbor, I won’t sin, because that hurts her.

Now, in reality, I don’t always love perfectly in action. From the way I talked about marriage, you might think I’m the perfect husband. Not even close. Sometimes, not only do I not feel loving, but I don’t act in a loving way either. That’s true in my relationship with the Lord, and with others also.

But we need to realize this: through dying on the cross, rising again and sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus has made it possible for anyone to keep his commands. There are people who believe we can attain perfect behavior in this life. They are mistaken, and they take a very poor approach to understanding the Bible. But the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is such that when we fail, forgiveness is available to us, and we can continue as if we never failed to obey Him. While we don’t reach perfect behavior, through Jesus, our Spirits are counted as perfect by God. Because we are in relationship, not under law, we repent, receive the love and grace and forgiveness God has made available to us, and so continue on in obedience. Through Jesus’ work, it possible for us to be in, and to stay in, right relationship with Him.

When I hurt Kari, or vice versa, it doesn’t mean divorce. Instead, we come to each other honestly, talk it over, ask for, give and receive forgiveness, and then move on. Remember, marriage is supposed to be a reflection of God’s relationship with us, and that is exactly how it works with the Lord.

Spend a few minutes now, reflecting on what the Lord is saying to you.

WHAT IF JESUS DIDN’T SAY IT?

words in red

We tend to place a high value on Jesus’ words – the “words in red,” and we should. But we should place the same value on the entire New Testament. After all, the source is exactly the same.

 

 

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Understanding the Bible #9.

As we’ve gone through this series, I’ve heard a few questions people have asked that I think are worth delving into. Recently, someone showed me a post on Facebook. The caption said: “What Jesus said about Homosexuality” Underneath it was…nothing. That’s accurate, in a technical sense, but not the complete story. For one thing, Jesus’ apostles did say some things about the subject, elsewhere in the New Testament. In any case, the point, presumably, is that Christians should not be saying anything about it, since Jesus didn’t. A similar issue was raised by an Albanian man that I spoke with in Corfu, Greece last fall. He argued that Jesus never claimed to be God – instead, that claim was made by the apostles, not Jesus himself.

Both of these arguments depend upon the same kind of faulty reasoning, and the same silly and inconsistent approach to the bible. The first part of it goes like this: “It’s supposed to be all about Jesus, right? So I’ll listen only to the words of Jesus. What the apostles wrote doesn’t matter.”

Let’s look at this by using another issue, one that is not controversial today. Here it is, another thing that is technically true: Jesus never said anything about slavery. Think about that for a moment. What does that mean? Did Jesus endorse slavery? Does that mean we Christians should not call slave-trading wrong and sinful?

Now, class it’s time to see if you’ve been paying attention. Does anyone remember where the New Testament came from? How is that we know what Jesus said in the first place? The apostles heard it, taught it, and wrote it down. To put it another way, it is the apostles who gave us the words of Jesus. If you don’t want to pay attention to what the apostles wrote, than you cannot pay attention to what Jesus said either, since we got that from the apostles.

Let’s look at it another way. Earlier in this series, we found a lot of evidence to suggest that the apostles wrote reliably and accurately about real historical events and situations, and also about Jesus and his teaching. There is no legitimate reason to accept the gospels, which were written by his apostles, but not the other writings of the other apostles. If you believe that the apostles correctly recorded that Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” you have exactly the same reasons for believing that the apostles are passing on the teaching of Jesus when they tell us that slave-trading is evil (1 Timothy 1:10) – even though we cannot find Jesus directly saying so in the gospels.

To put it simply: the entire New Testament is the teaching of, and about Jesus. It all comes from the same source – the Holy Spirit, who inspired the apostles to remember and write. We know what Jesus said, because the apostles wrote it down. Although the letters of the New Testament are in a different form than the gospels, they are still the teachings of Jesus, passed on by the apostles. In other words, what Paul writes in Romans should be just as important to us as what Jesus says in the book of Mark.

There’s another thing. John makes it clear that his own gospel does contain every single word that Jesus ever said. The way he puts it, not even the other three gospels would suffice to write down everything Jesus did and said:

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25, HCSB)

Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would remind them of what he said, and make it clear to them, and also tell them other things that they need to know:

“I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. Everything the Father has is Mine. This is why I told you that He takes from what is Mine and will declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, HCSB)

We believe, as Jesus said, that the Holy Spirit reminded the apostles what Jesus said, and also revealed other important truth to them, and guided them as they wrote it down. That applies, not just to the gospels, but to the entire New Testament. In this passage, Jesus himself says that after he leaves this world, the Spirit would guide them into truth that they had not yet received from him. So, if you don’t believe the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write what Jesus thinks about slave-trading, why do you believe he inspired Luke to write that Jesus has concern for the poor?

The first answer to the person who claims that Jesus said nothing about a given topic is to see whether that topic shows up anywhere else in the New Testament. If it does, than you can be sure, it is the teaching of Jesus. Technically, it’s true that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not record any direct quotes of Jesus that use the word “slave-trader.” But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit to share the teaching of and about Jesus, does say something about it.

Some people will argue that Paul did not know Jesus personally, and so his letters are not the real teaching of Jesus. We went over all that in part #3 of this series. Paul claimed that Jesus appeared to him specially, quite some time after his resurrection, and opened his mind to know and understand the Good News (Gal 12:1-16; 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-7). The other apostles, the ones who had actually known Jesus, affirmed that Paul was preaching and teaching the true message of Jesus (Gal 2:6-10; 2 Peter 3:15-16; Acts 9:22-30; 15:1-35). In fact, all throughout the book of Acts we have ample evidence that Paul was accepted early on as an apostle of Jesus, and his teaching was in accord with the rest of the apostles.

Let me say it again: the entire New Testament, including the letters of Paul, is the teaching of Jesus, passed on by the Holy Spirit, through the apostles. We have all sorts evidence to affirm this, and none to contradict it.

Saying “I only believe or follow the words in red [Jesus’ words],” is in fact, silly and illogical. The “words in red” came from the same place as the rest of the New Testament – the apostles. If you don’t believe the apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit and the memory of Jesus’ teachings to write what they wrote in their letters, there is no reason to believe that they got the words of Jesus in the gospels correct either. Of course, I’ve already shared, earlier in the series, the many reasons I think the apostles got it all right.

This series has been here to answer questions you might have about the bible, or how to understand it. Because of that, I want to explore one more side of the “Jesus didn’t say anything about this…” question. Last week, in a small group meeting, I pointed out that Jesus never said anything about slavery. One of our excellent teenagers said, “Yeah, but doesn’t the golden rule kind of cover that?” In words, though he didn’t specifically talk about slavery, Jesus did say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, according to the teaching of Jesus, if you don’t think you’d like being a slave yourself, you shouldn’t make slaves of anyone else.

This is a great point. Jesus did not overtly condemn prostitution, child-pornography, or incest, either. But you don’t have to be a trained theologian to recognize that Jesus often said things that apply to a whole host of different situations. In Matthew 19:1-6. Jesus made a broad, sweeping statement about human sexual relationships. He said that God created sex for marriage between a man and a woman. Any kind of sex outside of the marriage relationship is called, in Greek, “porneia.” The most popular English bibles translate this “sexual immorality,” or “immorality.” Jesus didn’t name all the possibilities included in “sexual immorality,” but he made it clear that he meant anything sexual outside of one-woman/one man marriage. In Matthew 15:19, among other places, he makes it clear that all sexual immorality creates a problem with God’s moral law. Now, Jesus fulfilled the moral law on our behalf, and if we trust him, we are forgiven. If we really do trust him, he is now living inside us, and he doesn’t want our lives to be used in that way anymore – it goes against his Holy nature, and he has placed that Holy nature inside of us. Therefore, as Jesus-followers, we are supposed to stop it if we’ve done it, and stay away from it from now on. If we need help to do so, we can receive that help from the Holy Spirit and from other believers. The rest of the New Testament affirms all this.

The point is not to condemn anyone who has sinned in this way. The point is, Jesus did in fact teach about all human sexuality, even if he didn’t specifically name certain sins. If we claim to follow him, we should at least be heading in the direction he points, even if we follow imperfectly.

This turns out be the case concerning most of the other things that Jesus did not specifically talk about. And, as we have said, even when Jesus didn’t say something specifically in one of the gospels, we have the rest of the New Testament which also reliably passes on the teaching of and about Jesus.

~

A completely different question was raised in one our discussions in our house-church. Some people wanted to know more about what we call “apocalyptic prophecy.” I mentioned this kind of scripture briefly in part six of the series. We’ll go over it again here with a little more depth because some folks had further questions about it, and truthfully, apocalyptic prophecy represents one of the most misunderstood and misused parts of the bible.

Apocalyptic prophecy is fairly rare in the bible. Most of it is found in parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and revelation (and a few other chapters, scattered throughout some of the other prophetic books). This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. The apocalyptic parts of the bible often appear to be talking about the “end times” (the period of history right before the end of the world), and they are frequently used by cults to come up with all sorts of weird doctrines.

We have to read it in context. Particularly important is to understand the historical and cultural context in which the prophet lived. We need to understand that the language of apocalyptic is definitely not literal, or teaching or even narrative. It is poetic and even mystical. We need to hold firmly to the clear and easily understandable portions of the bible, and use those to aid our understanding of apocalyptic prophecy. With apocalyptic, I am even willing say that we should be open to the possibility that we won’t completely clearly understand what is meant. We should never use apocalyptic in a way that contradicts what is already clear in different parts of the bible.

One of the worst abuses of apocalyptic prophecy is to use it as kind of a road-map, or detailed timeline of the end-times. It is most definitely not intended to be anything like that. Concerning the end of the world, and his return, Jesus said,

“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Matt 24:36, HCSB)

That is clear. Therefore, we should not interpret apocalyptic prophecy as a definitive roadmap to the end times. If it clearly gave us a timeline to the return of Jesus and the end of the old world, then Jesus would have been wrong in saying that no one can know for sure when it will be. Apocalyptic prophecy may tell us the types of things that will happening, but it certainly can’t be specific enough so that people will then be able to say “Aha! According to Revelation, the world will definitely end within the next three to five years!”

The main apocalyptic parts of the bible were prophesied to God’s people when they were severely oppressed by powerful foreign empires. Ezekiel and Daniel spoke to those who lived as captives under the Babylonians, Persians and Medes. Zechariah, not long after, prophesied to people who were trying to re-establish a colony of Jews in Israel, surrounded by powerful and lawless nations around them. John wrote Revelation at a time when the Roman Emperor, Domitian, pursued the active persecution of Christians. Domitian was aided in this by some Jewish communities who saw Christianity as blasphemy, and wanted it destroyed.

Because virtually all apocalyptic prophecy was written in similar historical circumstances, there are certain features that we can learn about all of it. Because it was written to people under foreign oppression, it contains images and pictures that would have been understandable to those who heard them, but almost incomprehensible to outsiders. In other words, apocalyptic was a kind of code language to people in persecution. The code is not about some secret key to the end-times – what the code hides are words of judgment upon the oppressors, and encouragement and hope for the oppressed.

The problem is that we today, are mostly outsiders. It’s hard for us to understand the significance of the weird visions and dreams of apocalyptic literature. The first step in understanding is to realize that we do not understand, and we need to investigate a lot more before we can see these prophecies the same way the original hearers understood them.

But here is one thing that can help: The main message of the apocalyptic prophecies is consistently one of hope; God has not forgotten his people, and he will take steps to deliver them and to bring justice against those who have persecuted them. He is still active in history, he still has plans, and he intends to carry them out.

We get caught up in what, specifically, those plans are. But the point is more that God has them, than that we are supposed to know them in great detail. Take, for example, the book of Revelation. It was written to Christians who were suffering under the oppression Roman government, which was aided by angry Jewish communities. When we look at the book from a big-picture perspective, we see that again and again, it repeats these messages:

  • · The Lord knows that you are suffering, and he hasn’t forgotten you.
  • · Those who oppress you will be judged for what they have done
  • · God has a plan to redeem and save you
  • · God hasn’t stopped acting in history. He has plans to bring human history to the place where he wants it to be
  • · Death, and the end of history are things for believers to look forward to – God’s plans for you are wonderful, and go far beyond this life on our present earth.

These are the main things we are supposed to get from Revelation. Often we fail to get these wonderful messages of grace, because we are too caught up in things like trying to figure out which individual the anti-Christ is. But all we really need to know is that the anti-Christ is bad, and God has plans for defeating him and protecting you from him. While he does that, you will not be forgotten, and the Lord will be with you in your trials.

Let me try and give you an example of understanding apocalyptic prophecy. Revelation 13:1-10 describes a “beast.” I’m almost certain that the first readers of Revelation would have understood that the “beast” was a code word for the Roman Empire and its emperor, Domitian. Domitian demanded that everyone in the Roman world worship the Emperor as a divine being. He severely persecuted everyone who refused to do so (Jews were exempted from this, but not Christians). The first Christians to read Revelation would easily have identified what John’s vision described.

But in this day and age, the same message could apply to Christians who suffer under Islamic persecution. In such places, Muslims demand that everyone must confess: “Allah is God, and Mohammed is his Prophet.” Like the beast of Revelation 13, Islam has authority in many places to blaspheme (according to Christians) and to persecute those who do not agree with them or worship as Muslims.

In this way, we can see that apocalyptic prophecy can remain relevant and encouraging to Christians throughout history. My advice is to consider apocalyptic prophecy in this way, and abandon any silly attempts to use it as a timeline of the end times.

Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground this time. Hopefully, it all helps as we learn to understand the bible.

RESURRECTION: A MATTER OF DEATH AND LIFE

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RESURRECTION SUNDAY, 2011

John 11:1-53

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central truth on which all Christian theology depends. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then he was a madman or megalomaniac. But if he was truly raised, then what he said was true; and he said he was God the Son, come into the world for our salvation.

I have talked before about the theological implications of the resurrection. I probably will again in the future. I have shared with you substantial evidence that supports the claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I’ll do that again in the future also. But this year, I want to talk about the resurrection in a personal way. To do that, I want to consider a different resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus, recorded in John chapter 11:1-53. Don’t get me wrong, this is also about the resurrection of Jesus. However, I think by considering what happened in this incident, we can learn some things about Jesus’ resurrection, and the eternal life he offers us.

Jesus was at least two days of traveling from his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so the sisters sent word to Jesus. What John says next is pretty strange:

5 Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. 6 So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.

John connects two things that don’t seem like they should be connected. He says Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was. What kind of sense does that make? I can see John writing, “Jesus loved Lazarus, but when he heard he was sick, he stayed where he was anyway.” Or it would make sense to say, “Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard he was sick, he hurried to his side.” But John very deliberately connects the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus to the fact that he didn’t go to him, and allowed him to die.

Now, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus does go back – after Lazarus has died and been in the ground for four days. He speaks to Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is actually a statement, but implied here is a question: “Why did you let him die? Why didn’t you come when we called?”

Jesus, typically, doesn’t answer her unspoken question. Instead, while their brother is still rotting in the tomb, he asks them to put their faith in him.

You see, Jesus had bigger plans for Lazarus than merely healing him from a deadly disease. He had plans for resurrection.

You can’t fault Martha and Mary and the disciples for failing to see it. It is so much bigger than anything they have thought of hoping for. They are thinking of this life. They are thinking of what seems possible, given their level of interaction with Jesus. But they are not thinking like Jesus.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:23-27, ESV)

I identify with Martha and the others. I usually hope for what seems somewhat realistic. Considering how they had themselves seen Jesus heal people, it was reasonable for them to hope for healing. But resurrection was outside their experience. It was outside their paradigm. So often, we are like that. We want healing and continuation of this life. Jesus wants to give us resurrection. We want what seems possible, even if unlikely. Jesus wants to give us what we haven’t even thought of yet. We want to restore things as they were. Jesus wants to let things “as they were” die, so that he can resurrect something better in its place.

I have a 16-year old Mercedes-Benz (an upgrade from our previous car, which was 21 years old). Because the car is sixteen years old, the air conditioning doesn’t work, and some of the vents aren’t functional. I can’t control the side mirrors. The horn doesn’t work either. A few of the dashboard lights don’t work as they are supposed to. The only way to lock and unlock the car is through the trunk. Don’t get me wrong, I love the car and the way it drives. It just has its little foibles.

The other day, our car wouldn’t start. Kari and I were pretty disappointed. We had a lot of driving to do the next day, and we both had to go different places. I called a man in our church who is a talented as a mechanic. He came and got it to start. We’re thrilled to have it back. Now, the air still doesn’t work. I still can’t control the side mirrors or use the horn or see the time and temperature. I still have to use the trunk to lock it up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful to our friend and very grateful to have the car working again. But it is still the same car.

But now, suppose for a moment that my friend the mechanic was very rich and generous. Imagine that when he heard the trouble I was having, he decided to buy me a brand new Mercedes-Benz. When I asked him to come fix my old car, he might have said, “No, Tom, I’m not going to do that,” all the while planning to give me a new car, a car in which everything works. I might be disappointed in my friend, not knowing his plan for me. I would be focused on getting my old car back. He would be focused on giving me something much better. I think sometimes this is how we are with Jesus. Our vision is small. Our vision is for a nice life in this imperfect world. His vision for us is for something much more glorious, more real, something far better than has occurred to us.

There is something else about this story that strikes me. In order for resurrection to occur, death must occur first. In other words, Jesus cannot resurrect something unless it dies first. To go back to the point I made earlier: Jesus loved Lazarus, therefore he let him die.

This isn’t necessarily a pleasant thought. Usually, we want to skip the dying part, and go right to the resurrection; but death is a part of the equation. Jesus said:

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24, ESV)

This is an obvious truth when it comes to seeds. When you plant a seed, you destroy it, as a seed. But the destruction of a seed results in something new and wonderful, something that is actually much greater than seed was. In the same way, resurrection requires death. This truth is all over the bible:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt 16:24-26, ESV)

When Jesus says “take up his cross” he means quite simply, “be willing to die.”

2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col 3:2-3, ESV)

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20, ESV)

Ultimately, this means our physical death. It means that death is not something to fear. It leads to resurrection. But even now, before physical death, there are things that Jesus would like us to let go. There are ambitions, hopes, values, material things, perhaps even relationships, that we need to allow to die. [By the way, when I say “relationships” I don’t mean marriages. As always, we need to consider the whole scripture, and the Lord has made it clear that he considers marriages to be permanent in this life. Please do not interpret this message in any way that contradicts some part of the bible]. We might feel like letting go of our rights, or our dreams or material things is a terrible thing. And it might indeed be very difficult and traumatic. But there is a resurrection waiting, and sometimes the only thing holding up the glorious new life is the death that must come first.

So anyway, if you haven’t heard the story before, Jesus went ahead and raised Lazarus from death. But there is something about this resurrection I that always struck me as odd. Where is Lazarus today? Dead, of course. Jesus ascended to heaven. But Lazarus grew old and died again. In other words, the resurrection of Lazarus was a temporary thing. The real thing didn’t happen until Jesus died on the cross, and became the first one to be raised to eternal life.

I think this is a message for us also. We want Jesus to raise things that will just have to die again anyway. We gets so focused on this life, and the things in it. But the resurrection Jesus offers isn’t just the restoration of our old bodies with our flaws and problems.

Resurrection is not just a restoration of what we have right now. That was Lazarus’ resurrection, but it is not the resurrection that Jesus promises, and ultimately that Jesus himself had. Paul returns to the seed analogy:

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain… (1 Cor 15:35-37)

42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. ( 1 Cor 15:42-44)

So, in light of these things, let me ask you a few questions:

Are you wanting to fix something workable, but which the Lord wants to die? Perhaps what you are dealing with has already died, or begun to. Do the actions of Jesus puzzle you? Are you wondering why he won’t just fix it? Is your vision too small? Do you want God to do too little for you?

Are you looking for temporary resurrection – something that lasts only this world?

Are you looking for real resurrection, but you want to skip the “death part?”

Ultimately, I want us to deal directly with what Jesus says to Martha:

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Do you believe that the resurrection is found only in Jesus? Do you believe that true life is only in him?

If you marry someone who has a vast fortune, that fortune belongs to you, through your spouse. You can use it and enjoy it. But you have it only through your relationship with your spouse. To the extent that you have your spouse, you have that fortune. If your relationship is genuine, then you live as one-flesh, and what you have, you have together.

The resurrection is in Jesus. It comes only through relationship with Him. If you have Jesus, you have the resurrection. It is as simple, and as difficult as that. You can’t get it through religious activity. You can’t get it through being good, or deep meditation. If you want Jesus, he will have you, if only you humble yourself enough to confess your needs, and to ask.

 

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