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“Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:2-6 NRS)
When I was younger I was in a denomination that constantly talked about people who had “fallen from grace.” This term was used for those believed to have lost their salvation. It was usually thrown at those who did not behave as the church required—those who had fallen into sin. I always find it interesting how terms and phrases are used and why they are used this way, so I wanted to find out what “falling from grace” meant. In studying the scriptures I was surprised to find that the term only appears in one passage—Galatians 5:4. As much as my earlier churches had used it, one would think the phrase was sprinkled throughout scripture as a central theme. It is amazing how someone can take one idea, in one passage and make it the center of their theology.
The phrase, “fallen from grace” is in scripture, so it is a scriptural concept. However, when you take it in context, it is nothing close to what it is often used to mean. It does not refer to someone who gets saved and then falls into a pattern of sin leading to their loss of salvation. If you look at the context you see that falling from grace means trusting in one’s own legalistic actions for justification. It is trying “to be good enough through one’s own actions in keeping the law.”
Paul uses circumcision to stand for all law-keeping justification. He does this because circumcision has long been a stumbling block to Jewish converts and had even become a matter of discussion among diaspora Jews—some had stopped circumcising their children because of the social handicap it caused. Using this, Paul gives a very graphic, if not disturbing, image. Paul says that those who seek to be justified by being circumcised (law-keeping) have “cut [themselves] off from Christ.” Think about that for a moment. In circumcision, the foreskin is cut off. Paul is saying that those who seek justification through cutting off their foreskin have cut themselves off from Christ. In a manner of speaking Paul is saying, “If you seek to be justified before God by cutting your foreskin, that same cut actually cuts you away from Christ.” The only justification before God is found in Christ, through grace. In effect, you spiritually make yourself the foreskin removed and discarded from the body of Christ. Seeking justification through any other means, actions, sacrifices, behaviors is to be cut off from Christ, to fall from grace.
The problem is that most of those misusing the term are also using it to inflict upon people what had been inflicted upon the Galatians. Paul says that anyone who proclaims a different gospel (a gospel of law-keeping) is to be considered accursed. He goes on to say that following their example and teaching is to become legalists, bound to keep the whole law (something Paul tells us elsewhere is impossible, and something incapable of saving anyone) and to be cut off from Christ. The churches I knew as a child who used this term actually twisted it 180 degrees to mean the exact opposite. They used it as a bludgeon to force law-keeping and to inspire legalism. “Do this or you might fall from grace.” “Make sure you remove this from your life or you might fall from grace.”
When sharing the gospel, make sure it is the actual gospel. Make sure you share the gospel that gives freedom. If you are sharing a gospel that binds rules and observances to a person as a requirement of being justified then you are a modern equivalent to the people Paul wishes “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12 NIV)
In the gospel, there are no deeds that one must do to be justified. There are no deeds one must do, no observances one must submit to in order to be saved. In the gospel, salvation is through the divine act of Christ. Does this then make us free to sin? Does this eradicate the standard of sin? Absolutely not! However, we do not keep observances to be justified. We do not keep rules in order to be justified or saved. We observe what Christ commanded us to observe and obey what he commanded because of what he has already done for us. This is not “easy-believism.” This is actually far harder, because it discounts the benefits of any action on my part. We all want to believe that we were saved because we were good enough. We want to be able to write the book—“How I did it on my own.” We all want to know that we made it to heaven because God was impressed. It is this conviction that is easy for sinful humans. To admit that there is nothing I can do to be saved, nothing good within me, nothing I can do to be good enough, is hard.
When sharing the gospel, make sure it is the gospel and not law. Make sure you are bringing people to Christ and not actually cutting them off from Christ. It is a shame when one replaces bad news for good news when one replaces “evangelism” with “legalism.”
Please comment below if you have anything germane to add.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1 NIV
What has Christ freed us from? What is this yoke of slavery that Paul speaks of?
Taken in context of Galatians, Paul is referring to the demands of legalism. The issues Paul is specifically concerned with are circumcision (as part of salvation), and special religious observances (as part of salvation). While discussion of the law and how much is still in force are major dividing points in the church, this is not what I want to address at this time (though I promise to do so again, soon). Simply put, the legalism that we have been freed from is any extra-biblical requirement placed upon us, meant to make us more acceptable to God. Circumcision was being demanded for gentiles as necessary for acceptance by God. This was very contrary to the gospel. The gospel taught that salvation and acceptance by God had nothing to do with the conditions, actions, or nature of the person saved. Salvation and acceptance by God was tied to the nature of God and his sacrificial acts to secure salvation.
Paul commands us to not let ourselves be burdened with a yoke of slavery. For modern readers this doesn’t have nearly the impact experienced by our ancestors. To us, slavery is something alien. It is a word that we throw around in a way they would have laughed at. We speak of being a slave to our jobs, or other modern conditions. In ancient times when two groups went to war, the conquerors could do whatever they chose with the conquered. If the Romans chose to enslave the population they would build a “yoke.” This was made of three spears: one on each side and a third tied above as a cross bar. Those being enslaved would walk through this structure. You entered one side free and came out the other transformed into a slave. This was “submission to the yoke of slavery.”
The thing to keep in mind is that everyone enslaved in this way, chose slavery. Yes there were other ways to be enslaved that didn’t involve choice—such as children sold into slavery or found abandoned on the town dump—but when Paul speaks of letting ourselves be burdened with the yoke of slavery it is this ceremony of conquest that he has in mind. By walking through, they were choosing slavery over death. The conquered could choose to fight on and die, or could choose slavery.
When Paul tells us not to submit to a yoke of slavery, he is saying: “Do not choose to walk through into slavery.” We are to resist the legalists. We are to choose a spiritual fight rather than surrendering to those who would enslave us to their legalistic false gospel. Submitting to legalism in the name of peace is not a virtue. When the ancients chose to walk through into slavery, it was seen as proof of their lack of virtue. Such people were believed to be slaves by nature. A person of virtue, one truly fit for freedom, could never choose slavery. Any person not a slave by nature would have to be killed to end the struggle.
We Christians, freed by Christ, must resolve never to be enslaved again. We were set free by Christ, and it is time we demonstrate our place as Christ’s Freedmen. We do this by resisting the demands of the legalists. We do this by refusing to allow any, other than Christ, to place rules and burdens upon us. If we allow any other to burden us then we have chosen to walk through the yoke of spears into slavery. We demonstrate that we are not fit for freedom, but are by nature slaves.
If you have anything germane to add, leave a comment below.
We too often see those we read about in scripture as two dimensional. By this I mean that we see what they experience and the context in which it is experienced, but we forget much of the human element. Have you ever thought about what must have been going on in Saul’s head during the three days of fasting and prayer after his encounter with Jesus? Have you ever wondered why he was struck blind? What did this convey to the Jewish man (Saul) who experienced it?
We can easily see that the experience was life changing for Saul. We know he was a different man after meeting Jesus than he was before meeting him. Yet, Saul spent three days waiting, fasting, praying. He didn’t know if he would see again. He didn’t know if the one who appeared to him would forgive him. He had no idea what his future held, no idea if he even had a future.
In our day, with the opportunities available to the blind we still feel a sense of fear at the idea of losing our sight. I have bad eyes and have since I was nine years old. In High School an optometrist told me that at the rate my eyes were deteriorating I would be blind by time I was 28. Praise God this didn’t happen! Yet, at 46 I was diagnosed with early cataracts (which can be corrected when they get bad enough) and was warned that I am very close to having glaucoma (which can’t be corrected), so the possibility of losing my sight is very real to me. It’s very frightening, but I know that in today’s world there are many opportunities and tools for the sightless. The situation was very different in Saul’s day. Saul had much to lose, and the loss of his sight would have ruined him.
In those days the opportunities for the blind were very few and the public opinion of the blind was not positive. There were no jobs for the blind. The sightless were cast upon the generosity of others—either from family or through begging. For a Jew there were some very specific problems. The blind were seen as cursed by God (see John 9:2 for an example). Saul would understand that every one of his people who saw him would assume that he was guilty of some vile sin for which God had struck him. For a man whose whole life had been wrapped up in living according to the law of God (Gal 2:14), this would be shattering. His fellowship with the people and access to God would have been undermined as well. The blind could not enter the temple, but were required to stay outside with the most defiled. Saul appears to have been a member of the Sanhedrin, since he tells us in Acts 26:10, “and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.” Many scholars agree that this vote shows Saul as being a member of the Sanhedrin. As a blind man, this power and authority would have been ripped from his hands. By experiencing Jesus, Saul had been cast down from a place of power and wealth into the role of a blind beggar cursed by God and barred from access to the place of God’s presence. This had to be going through his mind during those three days.
As a member of his society, Saul would have understood this. As a scholar of the Old Testament, Saul would also have been familiar with the imagery of blindness applied to a sinful people consciously refusing to see the truth. Saul would have understood that the Lord was showing him his own willful blindness to the truth. He would have understood this as a demonstration of his active rebellion against God—the same God he believed he had been serving. Not only did Saul’s reality get changed by this experience of the risen Christ, but his whole self-image was demolished. Saul the Pius was reduced to Saul the Cursed.
Imagine three days of inflicted blindness; three days of extreme depression; three days not knowing what would happen; three days to think the worst, when suddenly one of the people you had intended to arrest claims arrives to strip away the curse and lift you back out of the pit. Jesus had taken away everything from Saul, and through the hands of a disciple, Jesus gave it all back. It was not returned to Saul the persecutor, but to Saul the servant of Jesus.
Sometimes, when life is darkest, when we feel the most defiled and broken down, we have actually arrived at the point where Jesus is ready to remake us in his image. Don’t hang on to your expectations of the past, to your lost dreams of the future. Realize that everything he put you through, everything he let you got through made you into the disciple he chose to serve him.
I am a father of daughters, with one turning 18 years old. I find myself wondering about the lack of Christian men today. When I say this I am not speaking of a gender gap in the church. I am not speaking of the church with mostly women, because the men can’t be pulled away from other activities on Sunday. That, I have come to expect and will spend little time mourning the unfaithfulness of so many. I am not asking about Christians who are of the male gender. I mean, where are the Christians who are actual real men?
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want my daughter to marry some knuckle dragging Neanderthal. But neither do I want her to marry a pseudo-wife. Yes, it is acceptable for men to cry. It is fine for men to hug and share their feelings. However, there is a big difference between a man you would be surprised to see crying, but does occasionally, and one you almost expect to fall into tears at the drop of a hat. There is a difference between a man who is in control of himself with an air of refinement and one who will not confront when appropriate but runs from his responsibility to stand for right, not out of fear, but because doing so is just not nice. Every time I hear a man saying “be nice, don’t quarrel, don’t be so confrontational,” I just want to stop and demand to see his ‘man card.’
I know many will say what follows isn’t nice. Many will feel this is very inappropriate for a pastor to say, but have you ever wanted to tell a fellow Christian man, “Put down the tissues, grab your pair and squeeze!” Please forgive me, but I was an Airborne Infantryman, a prison guard and a deputy sheriff. I’ve seen men in action. I have jumped out of planes with men, froze with them in the artic and sweated beside them in the desert. I have sat on guard posts with them and slogged through rice paddies with them. I’ve seen a man stand his ground knowing it may be the last plot of ground he draws breath upon. I’ve seen two men, who could not get along, walk into the woods and after ‘working out their differences’ with their fists, walk out friends or at least having a new respect each other. While I would not want to settle board conflicts this way—though I have known some board members I wanted to invite to the wood line—is there not a happy medium between testosterone driven fist fights and tear soaked pity parties? The early church asked if a Gentile could be saved while remaining Gentile. Now the modern church wonders if a man can be saved and remain a man.
Latin has two words for man: homo and vir. Why would they need two words for man? English and many languages do fine with one. Homo is used for any male human—civilized or not. Vir is used for a man who models virtus (virtue). Is it not possible to be a Christian and still live male virtues of honor, duty and strength? Is it not possible to be a Christian and contend for the truth, even if such contention isn’t nice and peaceful? That last question actually made me laugh. How does one contend peacefully?
Don’t get me wrong. I know there are many problems caused by men not being allowed to share their feelings and being forced to simply ‘pull themselves up by their boot straps.’ I know violence is a real problem and any man who is violent with his wife does not deserve to be called a man. I know inappropriate anger can fester and gnaw, destroying homes and families in the process. I know all those things and I am not saying such should be encouraged. However, I think we have gone too far the opposite direction.
Is it possible to have a Christian man who loves the Lord and wants to serve him without expecting that man to be a feminized shadow of manhood? A metro-sexual minister of Christ, if you will. People are always quoting scriptures about not fighting and not quarreling. They take a few passages out of context and pretend that Jesus and the apostles never said a harsh word to anyone. Funny thing is, I used to believe this too and came to know better. Jesus called the Pharisees insulting names. When Jesus realized his words were offending some, he didn’t back down but ramped up the very things that were giving them offense (John 6:52-59). Paul rebuked Peter to his face in Galatians 2. Paul says that those who teach another faith are accursed, in Galatians 1. He also rebukes the High Priest and curses him (Acts 23:2). He apologizes afterwards but not for his words but for directing them at the High Priest.
More and more each year I find myself wondering, “Where are the Christian men?” I see fewer and fewer. Perhaps so many men show little interest in our gospel because being a man is discouraged by so many in the church.
In my devotions I’ve been reading the Gospel of John. Occasionally this reading leads me into in-depth study of particulars within a passage. Sometimes the passage just speaks to me and questions pour out about it. Most recently, this has happened with the story of the disciples going fishing (John 21), between appearances of the resurrected Jesus. I’ve been studying, examining and taking apart the “Do you love me” dialog between Peter and Jesus. Yet while doing this, something struck me about the character about Peter. What does his failure, his restoration (which most scholars see this exchange as) and his behavior between the two tell us about Peter and what should it tell us about ourselves?
Peter had been a close companion of Jesus. Along with James and John, he was present in many places where the other disciples were not taken. We learn much about Peter’s character by watching him during this walk with Jesus. Peter was quick to speak, slow to listen—often “shooting off his mouth before his brain has been loaded.” He is praised by Jesus when he testifies that Jesus is the Son of God, then immediately has to be rebuked for trying to “correct” the Son of God (Matt 16:23). He is there on the scene when Jesus has a visitation from heaven, but his outburst of how he can contribute to the moment brings a rebuke from God—“This is my son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35 NIV).
During the events around the crucifixion Peter makes boasts of loyalty that his character just can’t fulfill (Luke 22:33). Jesus is to be crucified and his sheep must scatter. Jesus had to prevent any of the sheep from being lost during the trial and crucifixion (John 18:9). Peter postures as if he is more powerful than the predictions of God. Jesus tells Peter “Not only will you not stand with me unto death, but you will disown me three times before this night is out” (Luke 22:34, my paraphrase). Of course, Peter failed. If God says you are going to fail then you are going to fail.
Yet, there is something about Peter. I don’t mean Peter before the denial—before the failure. I mean the Peter we see after his failure. Scripture doesn’t limit our view of Peter to before failure and after restoration. We see him with the other disciples between the two. Before Peter-the-restored, we get to watch Peter-the-failure both before and after the resurrection. Peter was still among the other disciples. He didn’t kill himself like Judas. He didn’t run away into the wilderness away from the others. He stayed with his friends and family who had followed the same Messiah as he. He cowered in fear with them. This couldn’t have been from a sense of security in numbers because there is no indication that they ever felt secure. He didn’t abandon those who were in the same condition as himself. He knew he failed, and he knew they had failed too. They all ran. They all abandoned the master. His shame may have come from something deeper, but he didn’t wallow in it. Peter stayed with the others.
So, did his shame cause him to hold back and take a back seat to others who might lead? No. He still stepped forward. He still led. His failure didn’t break his character. It may have tempered it, but it didn’t break it. Peter was still influential among the disciples and quick to take action. When there was a report from one of the women that the tomb was empty Peter along with another disciple ran to the tomb (Luke 24:12). After the resurrection during a time when they weren’t seeing Jesus, Peter came up with the idea to go fishing (John 21:3). When Jesus appeared on the lake shore, Peter did not hesitate to jump in the water and swim to him (John 21:7). Peter knew he had failed. Peter knew he was not Super Disciple. Peter had learned his own shortcomings, but it didn’t break him.
We fail. We falter in our belief and in our obedience. We get trapped by sins and fall to temptation. We are not perfect. Yet these failures should drive us towards Jesus. Our failures and weaknesses are not hindrances to our ministry; they, like credentials, show our preparation for service. Let your failures and weaknesses push you to act boldly for the Lord.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading the Gospel of John in my morning devotionals. This book speaks very powerfully to many areas of personal interest. I have a deep interest in philosophy and three books—Romans, John and Hebrews—more than any others in the New Testament are filled with philosophical riches. I suppose this is why these three are my favorites. I recently reread the story of doubting Thomas. Thomas is like so many of us—me in particular. I am a skeptic at heart. I love to read skeptical arguments and debates. This is because I firmly believe that one of the best allies of faith, especially the Christian faith, is logical, rational doubt.
God planted within us a nature to question and doubt. It is part of the defense system that God gave us for self-preservation. Scripture even commands us to doubt and question those who claim to speak in the name of the Lord.
Deuteronomy 18:21-22 NIV, “You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has been presumptuous.”
I John 4:1 NIV, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Doubting is not a sin; seeking the truth is not to be feared. Thomas was not rebuked by Jesus for doubting. Many have taken one part of Jesus’ statement as a command to others not to doubt as Thomas did, but this is not what was meant.
John 20:26-27 NIV, “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe’” (Emphasis mine).
Many people try to interpret this last command as a command against ever doubting again. It is as if Jesus were saying “Now Thomas, don’t ever doubt again.” However, this is not what he is saying and not what is happening. He actually says, “do not become faithless but faithful” (The New Greek English Interlinear New Testament). He is not commanding Thomas to come from a position of unbelieving doubt into a blind-faith type of belief. It is hard to see the “become” in English because the translations do not point out that he is using the word for being born or generated. Jesus is saying, “From this point forward you can become a believer or an unbeliever.” This is important.
None of the other apostles simply commanded Thomas to stop doubting and believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, Jesus responded to his admitted unbelief and gave him evidence of the resurrection. Now, in response to that evidence Thomas was being encouraged to become a believer (based on the evidence) rather than becoming an unbeliever (in spite of the evidence). Doubt is not the enemy of belief and faith, but one of our greatest allies. However, doubt in the face of evidence is silliness, not wisdom.
Jesus commanded Timothy to take the evidence he had been given and to make a wise choice to believe the evidence. We do not offend Jesus when we doubt. We do not offend God by asking the questions, “Did that really happen?” or “Why should I believe this?” We are doing exactly what lovers of the truth should do; what lovers of the God of truth should do. Doubters among the faithful are not a scourge but a blessing. Because Thomas doubted we have the record of this interaction. We know that some of the apostles were not willing to believe unless they saw evidence. Actually, none of the apostles believed until they saw evidence. They each and every one had to see Jesus in order to believe. Thomas just happened to be one who was not present when the others saw Jesus. His declaration that he would not believe unless he touched the wounds, was his questioning of how they responded to the evidence they saw. He was questioning their handling of the evidence and pointing out the procedure that would need to be followed for him to believe.
When you doubt, you give God the opportunity to answer your doubts. If you are going to simply believe anything fed to you, there is no need for God to give you evidence or speak to you and there is also no reason why anyone else should believe what you say about your faith—or anything else. If you have not shown the wisdom to question even the most basic of your beliefs and claims, then I have no need to hear them. If you have doubted, questioned and wrestled with faith and belief then I want to hear what evidence the Lord used to convince you, what line of reasoning, experiences or thoughts led you to believe the way you have. Then we have something to talk about.
While reading the story of the paralytic healed by Jesus at the Bethesda Pool, I was struck by Jesus’ second encounter with the man. In John 5:14, after the man was healed and obeyed Jesus, he was scolded by others for carrying his mat in violation of the Sabbath. In the exchange he pointed out that he had been commanded, by an unknown person who had healed him, to carry the mat. Later, Jesus meets him again and warns him: “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (NIV). This short passage speaks volumes, but it doesn’t say what many claim to hear in it.
First, Jesus gives him a direct command, “Stop sinning.” He does not tell him “Try not to sin.” I don’t want to make Jesus sound like a first century Yoda saying, “Do or do not. There is no try.” However, it is important to note that Jesus does tie sin to the man’s will. While it is true that we are sinful by nature and naturally drawn to rebel and resist God by every fiber of our being, there is still a very real action of the will, an exercise of choice, in the sins we commit or the sins we resist. When we sin, it is not possible for us to say—as some wrongly believe Calvinism would claim—that we are unable to resist this sin because it is determined. Our natures tempt us and fit us for rebellion, yet when we sin it is not an instinctive, unmindful event—for such there would be no condemnation. When we sin, we have chosen to sin, we have exercised our will in opposition to God. In the same way, we can exercise our will not to sin in a particular instance. To say we can exercise our will to never sin is something very different—and quite impossible. Yet, in any given instance, facing any particular temptation we can choose to resist—choose not to commit that particular sin. Believers, like all persons, have this possibility; but we Christians are blessed with something more. We are blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit, giving us the power and desire to resist. We are no longer forced to white-knuckle our way through temptation, but are changed within so that what once tempted us no longer does. This does not happen overnight, but grows through the process of sanctification. While this is underway, we will still find ourselves tempted by the same old sins and the same old flesh. During these times the Holy Spirit is present with us—enabling us to resist what once would have seemed irresistible. The thing to remember about this is that it cuts both ways. The Holy Spirit’s empowering us to resist temptation makes us even more culpable when we give in to temptation. When a Christian sins, we have not simply given in to our fallen natures and failed to resist, we have chosen to act in a way contrary to the change worked within us and to not only give in to sin, but to resist the Spirit.
The second statement made by Jesus in John 5:14, after “Stop sinning,” is a warning. Many have interpreted this to mean the man’s prior condition was because of sin. However, Jesus says no such thing. Attempts to tie all sickness and injury to personal sin, is an attempt to answer the age old “Problem of Evil” with an even bigger problem. The Problem of Evil asks, “If an all-powerful, all-knowing, good God exists and created the world, then why do evil things happen?” To say that these things happen because the person or persons experiencing them sinned is to over-simplify reality and to overlook the fact that much of the “evil” we experience is simply the result of natural processes at work. Besides, Jesus did not say, “Stop sinning or your paralysis might return.” He said sin could lead to something worse. The results of sin can be far worse than what he had suffered. Jesus is saying, “Stop sinning, because sin can have results far worse that being paralyzed for thirty-eight years.”
In chapter 6 of the gospel of John, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd with five loves of barley bread and two fish. What fascinates me about this story is the very natural response of the people. According to verse 14, the people said, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (NIV). Verse 15 continues this thought by telling us Jesus knew they intended to make him king by force.
This interchange is important in many ways. First of all, it impacts our view of the people to whom Jesus came. To say that Israel somehow failed by rejecting her Messiah, is to forget that Israel was never meant to accept her Messiah. Jesus intentionally made sure they did not and would not accept him. When they got ready to crown him he would withdraw. When they got comfortable with him, he would offend them. When they expressed their offense at him, rather than apologizing, his words were more barbed and intended for greater offense. Jesus apparently had never read How to Win Friends and Influence People. When they were ready to make him king, because they are sure he is the Messiah, he withdraws from them. However, this is not what most intrigues me about this passage.
They believe he is the prophet because he miraculously fed them. If he is made king he can continue to provide them with food. Hungry people do anything to be filled. Hungry people will follow anyone who promises them bread. They will even start a revolution to satisfy their hunger. They see in Jesus, not a Messiah who will save them from sin, but a king who will save them from hunger. Such a king can make it possible for everyone to be fed. No one would starve, or even have to earn their bread. Such a king not only meets the needs of the hungry, but fulfills the desires of the lazy. A common rule of economics is that of the “Free Rider.” Mankind always does the least necessary. Any person who can benefit without any effort will do so. This is a major problem facing welfare programs throughout history—they too often overlook this economic fact. If a person will eat the same with effort as they will without effort it is natural to simply take what is given and avoid the effort. Most of these programs subsidize laziness and punish hard work, by taking from the one who works hard and giving to the one who will not. Here we see Jesus facing his own “free rider” problem. These people do not want to be saved or even to serve him. They want him to serve them and to do so in a very specific way—through the giving of bread. Later, in the same chapter of John, we see this again. When Jesus makes claims about himself (claims they had previously entertained themselves), they ask him for a sign in a not very subtle way, “What miraculous sing then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?” They continue with a not too subtle recommendation: “Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:30f NIV). We can paraphrase this with: “What can you do to prove you are who you claim to be? Oh, here’s an idea! Give us bread and we’ll believe in you.” Not only does Jesus refuse to be baited, but he actually goes out of his way to offend them. He says that rather than giving them bread, he is the bread they need. When this does exactly what it is supposed to do, he doubles down and continues by saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world” (John 6:51 NIV). Shortly after this, most of those who had wanted to make him king when being fed rejected him when he refused to play along.
Jesus is not some heavenly slot machine—pull the handle and a prize comes out. Jesus is the lord of heaven and earth, the king of the universe. He does not need our belief and neither does he need us to concur with his choice of action or direction. He will choose and we will live with his choice. He will act and we will experience his action. He will decide and we can only follow.
When I watch a movie, I am looking for the philosophy and worldview being demonstrated. One movie that I loved was The Grey with Liam Neeson. Since I have spent years discussing and studying the philosophical Problem of Evil, I love when Neeson’s character is lying on the bank of a stream, wolves coming quickly as he looks into the sky, and calls on God to take action. What I love most, is that God does nothing. Many have gotten to their own version of this, promising to believe, to change, to be better, etc., if only God will step in and act. Yet, when God does not act they take it as an indictment of faith. However, it is just at this point, when He chooses not to act, that God most demonstrates His divinity and sovereignty. If God is at your beck and call, ready to provide the miracles you need to rescue you from your own life and your own choices or circumstances then He is reduced, and you have become God. This cry of “God if you will do (fill in the blank) then I will do (fill in the blank) for you,” is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate God. A god that can be manipulated is not worthy of worship.
Jesus chose not to be manipulated by the crowd offering am earthly crown. He chose to follow the divine plan, leading to a divine crown—a plan that required rejection and crucifixion.
Today while reading in Acts 2 (preparing for this week’s sermon) I was struck by the words of Peter in Acts 2:24, “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” NIV. I was particularly struck by that last phrase, “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
Sometimes you read a passage over and over, time after time, and it doesn’t really grab you. Another time you read it and it so grabs hold that you can’t think of anything else. This was my experience with this passage this morning. I find myself mulling over that phrase, “it was impossible.”” Impossible,” of course, means “not possible.” Something impossible is not just improbable (probably will not happen), but in no way is it possible (cannot happen). One reason this so resounds with me is that, in the rules of logic, when something is not possible it is the same as saying, “If A is not possible then it is necessary that not A.” Necessary and possible are two very important words in philosophy, especially in metaphysics and ontology (the study of existence). If something exists necessarily then it would exist no matter what other circumstances occur or do not occur. In the same way, if an event occurs necessarily then it happens no matter what other things do or do not occur. Such an event needs no causes; needs no catalysts. By saying it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Jesus, Peter is saying that it was necessary that Jesus rise (it was necessary that death not keep its hold on him). In this case, this is not only a soteriological point, like the very true statement, “it was necessary for Jesus to rise for us to be saved.” Instead, this is saying there was no way, no possible set of circumstances, no possible world in which Jesus would not have risen from the dead, because there was no possibility of death keeping hold of him. Jesus’ resurrection was not a response to circumstances surrounding his death or even his life. Jesus resurrection was because of who he was and who he still is. Jesus’ resurrection was not just one of several possible scenarios—stay in the grave, come out of the grave physically, come back only spiritually. His resurrection was the only possibility.
John 3: 23-30 records an incident in the life of John the Baptizer. His disciples get into an argument with some Jews (v25) about baptism and then report to John that Jesus, whom John had previously baptized, “is baptizing, and everyone is going to him”(NIV). Most likely the argument was over whether one needed to be baptized by John or by Jesus and this triggered the complaint. John does not respond the way they expected though. He tells them, “If this is true, heaven has determined it to be so and fighting it is futile” (my paraphrase). He goes on to point out, “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of him’” (NIV).
I find John’s disciples interesting and see in them something very common to humanity and especially common in today’s church. John was sent, not to save mankind, nor to redeem the world; but, to “make straight the way,” to prepare people for the one who was coming—Jesus. He was the forerunner, not the Messiah. We see that he gathered disciples. Such followers are students who travel with a teacher in order to learn and emulate the teacher. There are some details we see about the disciples themselves (John’s disciples). First, at least some of them were there when he pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:36). Second, others would have been there when Jesus was baptized and John testified to seeing the dove alight upon him, marking him out as the Messiah. Third, that the disciples know Jesus is demonstrated when they were sent by John from prison to ask Jesus (Matthew 11:3 NIV), “Are you the one, or should we expect another?” They received Jesus’ confirming message indicating he was indeed the Messiah. Fourth, disciples of John apparently scattered to other areas after the death of their master. Fifth, after many years, disciples of John are observed in the scripture record—we see Paul meet several in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7) around the year 55 AD.
These details bring a question to mind, “After Jesus was baptized and pointed out by John, why didn’t all his disciples leave and go to Jesus?” Remember that some did just this. The likely answer is, of course, loyalty. This is not hard to see and is something quite commendable. Also, one can imagine that John still needed disciples since he was still preaching and baptizing. Of course his message had changed from, “The Messiah is coming,” to, “the Messiah has come.” They could have traveled with him to help with this last phase of John’s ministry. Then when John was in prison they stayed near out of love for their imprisoned Rabbi. They would have cared for him in prison and relayed messages for him—as we see them doing. These things are not problematic and neither are they confusing. They are, once again, commendable. However, my question is raised after the death of John. Once he was dead wouldn’t the highest loyalty to John’s message be going to join the band of Jesus’ followers? Why didn’t they go to Jesus? Why do John’s disciples simply disappear until some pop up in Ephesus, years later?
There are a couple possibilities. One, they could have simply not believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Remember, even John had doubts since Jesus was not doing the things they expected a Messiah to do. However, this would be a problem. It would mean their Rabbi failed in his mission—or at least its fulfillment was yet to be realized. Perhaps they believed John started preparing the way of the Messiah and they were to continue doing so, and eventually a better Messiah than Jesus would come—the militant Messiah that all Pharisaic Jews expected. Two, perhaps they were just so satisfied with the message of John and their history with him that they had no desire to go further and actually follow Jesus. They were happier living in the glory of the past, than in trying to build a glorious future. You can almost hear them, “Remember when we had so many disciples? Remember when everyone was coming to us? Remember when Rabbi John said…”
It is this last possibility that bothers me and that I see too common in today’s church. Many churches have stopped following Jesus and are simply glorying in the memories of a time when they did follow Jesus. They speak of old successful times and lament their passing. They long for olden days—for memories often distorted by the years. Many churches have stopped following the Messiah. Rather than following him where he has gone today, they bemoan the changes, curse the passage of time and insist on acting out a time that has long passed.
What do I mean by this? We hold onto programs, institutions and organizations that may no longer be effective. We imagine that these things, instituted by men seeking to follow Christ, are themselves mandatory and essential. “Heaven may fall if we replace what did work then with what does work today.” We forget that the situations that made those things successful in their day are gone and there are new situations needing new ways of reaching out. There are new tools available, new programs, new methods. Why should we drop the old and adopt the new? We should do it because it is exactly what Jesus did. He said things and used methods fit to the time in which he came. He did not insist on speaking in Hebrew, he would have spoken the common Aramaic. The New Testament wasn’t written in Hebrew or even Classical Greek, but in the common Koine Greek of the masses. He has called us to do no less. We are not called in 2013 to reach America of the 1950’s or the 1980’s. We are called to reach our people, in our time, within our culture and with our technology.
Refusing to deliver the message in a way that takes into account the times in which we live, is not “standing for the essentials of the faith.” The essentials are timeless and universal—sin is sin and no modern reinterpretation can change it or offer another solution than that offered by Jesus. However, the essentials can be packaged and delivered in many ways. When we refuse to use what works today, we confuse the message with the platform. We serve what was supposed to serve us. When we hold onto something that no longer works, that no longer has anything to do with spreading the message, then we honor something other than Jesus. We have traded the living Lord for a dead Rabbi.