How Should We Pray During Threatening Times?

In these days of moral and societal turmoil, many Christians are asking ultimate questions: When will the Kingdom of God come on earth? On one occasion, the Pharisees pressed this question on Jesus.

Jesus answered from Israel’s history. The Coming will be abrupt and unexpected, as the great flood was in the days of Noah, or Sodom’s sudden destruction due to her moral decay.

And so, Jesus said, in essence, get ready, and when the time comes, make no efforts to save personal valuables from your house. (Luke 17: 20-37)

Then, turning toward his disciples, Jesus used the following parable to show them what he expected them to do while awaiting his return. Luke says (18:1): “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should pray and not give up.” (I take liberties in retelling the story.)

One person in Jesus’s parable is a godless, unfeeling judge. He was likely living in a fine home, giving access to his services only to those who could produce a fistful of coins.

The other person in Jesus’ story is a destitute widow. We may assume she is in crisis, such as at the hands of an unscrupulous wealthy person who is about to seize her cottage, putting her out on the street.

She has no husband to confront the ruthless fellow, and no sons to protect her. She is penniless. Her last and only resort is to win the judge’s favor by means of relentless pleading for a fair judgment.

And so she walks all the way across town. Upon ringing the bell at the judge’s gate a servant comes out and inspects her through a knothole in the gate.

One look and the servant announces, “The judge is not in.”  He turns and walks back into the house.

Since this judge is the widow’s only hope, the next day she knocks again. “The judge is sick today,” the servant at the gate announces.

Even so, the following day the widow appears yet again. “The judge will be busy all day with a merchant,” the servant says impatiently.

This drama is repeated for several more days. Her crisis is approaching. The unjust seizure of her humble dwelling is soon to happen. But she will not give up; she is determined.

Finally, the judge relents. It’s not that he repents of his indifference or feels any empathy. His heart remains cold. But, in exasperation, with both hands in the air, he says to his assistant: “She’s pestering me to death; here, prepare the written judgment I dictate.” The widow’s persistence had won her appeal when nothing else could.

The point of the parable is not that God is like that judge — cold and uncaring and only responsive to those who bruise their knuckles from knocking at his entrance. In fact, Jesus speaks often of a loving Father who hears those who call on him in humility.

But the parable does suggest that in very urgent times the prayers of his disciples should be like the appeals of the persistent widow.

In this time of family, national, and worldwide turmoil and even with some needing to flee from homes under attack, should we not be hearing with clarity Jesus’ cautionary call to persistence in prayer? When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith upon the earth?

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What to Do When Falsely Judged

While still a young shepherd from Bethlehem, David came to the attention of Saul, King of Israel, when he offered, in the name of God, to fight Goliath, the Philistine warrior-giant. He proved both his faith in God and his unusual skill with his sling when the first stone he released brought the giant crashing to the ground, killing him (1 Samuel 17:48-53).

Israel’s soldiers were ecstatic. The Philistine army panicked and fled. Even the dwellings of the Philistine soldiers were plundered.

David came later into King Saul’s service at the palace. There, he saw that Saul was given to dark moods and murderous impulses. Twice the king tried to pin David to the wall with his spear.

As a loyal servant of the king, David could not understand. Why would the king want him dead? In it all he became a fast friend with the king’s son, Jonathan. David told Jonathan: “… there is only a step between me and death” (20:3). Jonathan attempted to protect David from his father’s rages.

David fled the palace to live as a fugitive throughout the land. A natural leader, he gathered a defensive band of followers, up to 600 in number. They hid in wilderness areas from Saul’s armed forces.

It is easy to imagine that such constant flight prompted an intense debate between David and some of his followers. That debate may well be reflected in the three parts of Psalm 11. In the first section, David declares his intention to be courageous in the face of undeserved hatred. In the second section he summarizes what some of his more timid followers were apparently advising. And in the third, he gives reasons for being steady under false charges and perils.

David declares: “In the Lord I take refuge” (Psalm 11:1a). Coming before all other declarations this is David’s bottom-line understanding of how he must gain strength to survive his predicament.

The reader can speculate that the timid and hopeless in his band may have said something like: “For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (11:2-3). That’s how they saw the situation.

He chides such fearful followers with a metaphor: “How then can you say to me: Flee like a bird to your mountain?” (11:1b) Living in the outdoors as he and his men were doing, David had seen little birds fleeing a bird of prey. Such a little bird might eventually flee to the mountains where there is the protection of solitude.

We may rise to the challenge of lesser threats, but when life’s foundations seem about to crumble we become vulnerable to the temptation to fly to a safe hiding place in the mountains.

With every reason to descend into helplessness, David declares: “In the Lord I take refuge.” And in answer to a feeling of victimization he elaborates: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne” (4a). The worship center of the Holy City is intact; heaven is not under attack.

Psalm 11 also tells us that the Lord observes everyone on earth (4b); his eyes examine not only the righteous, whom he allows in this life to be tested; the Lord also sees (and despises) those who love violence. That God sees, and knows, and will judge righteously, encourages us, too.

David’s final reason to be courageous tops them all: “For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face” (7). The hidden jealousy of a close associate can create a storm in one’s life, but a steady faith in God will bring a believer safely through the storm.

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Have You Said Amen With Fervor Recently?

I like the word Amen and wonder if we use it in Christian worship as often and with as much intensity as we should.

After all, it is used in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments 100 or more times.

Amen is a strong word of affirmation. It is like a verbal stamp of approval or a solemn declaration of truthfulness. It means “So be it” or “May it become true.”

In 1 Chronicles 16:7-37 we see how the term was used in worship. David is now king. He is putting the country in order. He has constructed a tent to give cover to the Ark of the Covenant. Structured worship is being revived. Offerings are restored, and musicians are on hand.

A great gathering of the nation had been called and the celebration is underway. An extended prayer in poetic form is the climax of the occasion. David assigns Asaph and his company to lead in the praise.

The specially composed psalm is filled with declarations that elevate emotions. It begins, Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done (16:8).

Such a prayer would certainly introduce a review of restored blessings. More exaltation of God follows: Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice (10). Yet again: He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth (14).

Again and again the words of the priest declaim, Our God reigns! Emotions of praise have become strong.

The congregation, not the priests, conclude the prayer. Chronicles tells us in verse 37 that all the people said Amen and Praise the Lord. I can imagine the sound of thousands of inspired voices rending the air with that response: Amen and Praise the Lord!

They had focused their praise on the Lord who ruled over all the earth. They had also affirmed the truth about the Lord and his world. And then … they said, Amen! — May it be so!

The New Testament reports no similar liturgical event to this one convened by King David. But in the New Testament there is also abundant use of the word Amen.

For example, the word is repeated in the Gospel of John twenty-five times. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus introduced his teachings with a declaration of their truthfulness: Verily. Verily I say… (In the King James Version this is the translation of Amen, Amen.) Jesus over and over again affirmed his own teachings as the truth that is eternal.

Paul also included the word in some benedictions: For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:36).

In my opinion, we need more Amens from the body of Christ’s followers during worship in this fallen world. In both Testaments it is uttered as a strong and solemn response to words of divine truth. The substitution of applause is second-best, in my view. What better way to respond to truth, than to say Amen! when it is uttered?

In heaven the word will ring out often. I imagine a throng of countless resurrected believers. They reach far beyond sight. Perhaps Moses or Isaiah or someone we worship with on Sunday will speak words of truth and the throngs in response will fill the heavens with the one word: Amen! It IS so!

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How the Apostle John Guided the Church in Truth

By the time the New Testament church had grown partly from a likely influx of second-generation believers, the integrity of the gospel had begun to fade in some quarters, and heretical elements were seeping into the ranks

The early Apostles were deeply concerned. They had governing authority over the church as given by Jesus.

When the beloved Apostle John wrote his first of three letters he exercised that authority. He was keenly aware of deviations from the truth of the gospel and he adroitly addressed them and called for repentance.

His first epistle reflects these facts. He opens his letter with a beautiful tribute to the wonder of the incarnated Lord.

I regard this manner of his address as a key element in his style of governance. The first paragraph is often called a prologue but I refer to it here as an anchor point. It was a call to first look beyond the present troubling issues that clouded the church’s faith and begin with a time of reflection to worship the incarnate Lord.

Thus, John’s anchor point: The Lord is from the beginning. He is forever. He enters fully into humanity. It was a miraculous manner of entering. Though he is eternal, the Apostles actually saw him. They even touched him. Both his deity and his humanity were celebrated.

As you will see, the Apostle proclaimed the Incarnation at the outset of his address. This proclamation was for one purpose, he says: to identify the sin in their midst leading to repentance and in so doing to renew the joys that come with genuine faith — this was his first leadership step (1 John 1:1-4).

As a second aspect of his leadership John addresses his readers with warm terms of endearment: My dear children (2:1), dear friends (2:7), dear brothers (3:13), and so forth. He was not coming to them as the sheriff. He addressed them with deep affection. Fifteen times in his first letter he identifies believers affirmatively in this fashion.

One might think that such gentleness of address to a group of faltering believers would show the Apostle as soft, shallow, easy to resist.

Not so. In fact, the third aspect of his leadership was his clarity with the truth and his directness in stating issues of life and death. In fact, in this third aspect, John continues his communication with a candor that is solemn:

Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. (John 2:4-6)

He reveals his commitment to eternal truth as of issue above all else. In spite of his good will toward those who heard or read him, he was not there to bargain on truth itself.

What could he state more clearly than the following:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth (1 John 1:5-6).

This must be called loving candor.

This gem of a letter is filled with such measured but penetrating words. But there is one more element in the Apostle’s directness that must be factored into his address in large measure. This measure was likely effective in facing the perilous disorder in the church.

The Apostle repeatedly reminds them of their status in faith: they are “born again.” That is, they are regenerated; they have received the gift of the Spirit; they have inner experience enabled by new life. All of this is implicit in the term born again. By this reality they are bound to the Lord and to one another. This puts them under obligation. Seven times he refers to their new birth (2:29; 3:10; 3:19; 4:8: 5:1; 5:14; 5:18). That emphasis cannot be without purpose.

He writes, for example: … for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith (1 John 5:4). Because of their “regeneration,” their flirting with the manners and inducements of the fallen world had to be repented of and had to cease. He identifies those inducements one after another in his letter and reminds them they are born again. 

The church in every age is tempted to drift from purity of heart and life. Heresy so readily reveals its deviant ways. This epistle is given to Christ’s church in all generations to identify and to correct its wanderings.

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Spending January in the Psalms

My resolution for the first part of this New Year has been to read for reflection five psalms from the Book of Psalms each morning. At that pace it will take me one month to ponder prayerfully all 150 of them, even though they may not all speak to my need on the day I read them.

If my pledge strikes you as old-fashioned, please recall that the Bible is still the most read book in the world and the psalms are the most often read portions of the Bible. This has been so for generations.

Having started a few days after January 1, recently Psalm 34 was included in my assignment. As background, this psalm was apparently written after King David had a narrow escape from death. The heading to the psalm refers to an incident when he was running hard from King Saul who wanted to kill him (1 Samuel 21:10-15).

To escape, he sought refuge by offering himself in the service of a Philistine competitor of King Saul, Achish king of Gath, only to learn that his life was in danger there, too. So, he feigned insanity. By this ruse and divine providence David escaped.

This psalm itself teaches the reader how to pray during times of special struggle. It teaches us how to praise God in the times of his blessings, and to be at all times attentive to his mercies.

That’s what caught my attention in the very first sentence of the psalm. Its opening resolution is to extol the Lord — that is praise him highly — at all times.

We might call that a 24/7 pledge — to give God praise during both day and night, good times and bad.

Is that kind of devotion possible in our kind of world? Our world is fast-paced, and many distractions and issues come at us from all directions. To add to those challenges our present era is not a particularly religious one. If we don’t worship the God who rules the universe we may say it is because God doesn’t matter (secularism) or that he doesn’t exist (atheism). Even some who say these things have their superstitions, rabbit feet or hidden idols to fall back on and lend a little dash of spirituality.

Psalm 34 is a wonderful alternative, written for believers.

Here’s the psalmist’s testimony toward the end of his prayer: The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken (verses 19, 20).

Or here is his further word of witness: I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears (verse 4). Or this: The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit (verse 18).

I will admit, after reading Psalm 34 several times, that its Hebraic style is different from modern poetry. But reading it can be like panning for gold. Both activities take time and some sifting and careful inspection, but when gold appears in the words of the Psalms, the search proves well worth the while.

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When Life’s Foundations Seem to Be Crumbling: A Meditation on Psalm 11

Psalm 11 is one of the many chapters of the Psalter that David, King of Israel, is believed to have written.

He was a man after God’s own heart and, in one lifetime, rose from lowly shepherd boy to king over the nation.

Samuel the prophet anointed him to replace Saul son of Kish. Saul, who as Israel’s first king preceded David, seemed unable to follow a prophet’s orders and stay within the righteous boundaries of his kingship. Because of his disobedience his reign was shorter than necessary.

David first appeared on Israel’s national scene when he delivered supplies to his brothers who were serving in Saul’s army. While there, he saw Goliath, the Philistine giant, who was terrorizing Saul’s soldiers, challenging any one of them to fight him.

No one would accept the challenge. The war was at a stalemate. So David came forward, declaring that, in the name of the LORD, he would fight Goliath. It was a strange match — a young stripling fresh from the care of a few sheep going against a seasoned warrior who at a little more than nine feet tall towered above him.

Disregarding Goliath’s taunts, David ran toward him, swung his sling above his head several times and released a stone from its pocket. The stone struck the giant in the forehead. Stunned, he collapsed on the ground. David took the giant’s sword from its scabbard and made the victory complete.

The Philistines ran away terrified, with Saul’s soldiers in pursuit. It was a great victory for Israel.

This achievement and David’s general giftedness brought him fame and later a position as the royal musician in the palace. Later still it brought him a leadership position in Saul’s army.

His popularity made King Saul jealous and afraid, filled with hatred. His moods became dark and his impulse to kill David grew out of control. Twice he flung his spear at him to pin him to the wall. David nimbly jumped aside. All this took place although David in all circumstances was faithful to Saul, and had no designs on the throne.

Finally, David’s only option was to flee the court. For about 20 years he was a hunted man. In time he gathered about him a fighting force of men who were also fugitives in the wilderness.

They slept on the open ground when necessary and sometimes in caves when available. They foraged for food. Their goal was survival, knowing the king and his soldiers were often hot on their trail.

David, was also a poet and at some stages of those twenty years he must have jotted down prayers and snatches of poetic reflection about faith in God or life’s perplexities.

It appears that some of his poetry found its way into the hymn book of the temple, and that Psalm 11 may have been one of them.

It is a poem that reflects two opposite ways of responding when facing imminent danger. David declares his own fixed resolution in its first line: In the LORD I take refuge.

But this robust faith is not shared by some of his advisers. Who can blame them for being exhausted by the constant threat of death? Still, he quotes back to them what may have been their frightened advice:

How then can you say to me: “Flee like a bird to your mountain, for look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings, to shoot from the shadows against the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

It appears that his advisers’ counsel is to take his cue from a little bird that, when threatened by a bird of prey, flies like an arrow across the skies to the safety of the nearby hills. They argue that the very foundations of life are crumbling and flight is their only alternative.

Then comes David’s response. In essence he says: The LORD is on his heavenly throne. For him, everything flows from that conviction. God reigns. He elaborates this certainty in several ways, but he concludes with the following assurance to the beleaguered and fearful:

For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.

David affirms for himself and his companions that however the days seem to be going in the moment, by God’s power they will end well.

For the righteous, in testing times the foundations of life may shake but they will not crumble — and we can rest in the larger perspective that God forever rules and our future prospect is to see his face when perfect justice will prevail.

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I Believe the Resurrection!

Fra Angelico’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (c.1438–50), public domain.

To reflect on the resurrection of Jesus I like to read the account in the Gospel of John as he reports the first visits disciples made to the tomb where Jesus‘ body had been laid. This is reported in chapter 20.

First, I ponder what Mary Magdalene was doing there alone on that Sunday before sun-up in the deserted burial district outside Jerusalem. Why wasn’t she in solitude as other disciples were, almost in hiding, after the brutal death and hasty burial of the Lord?

She was probably drawn to his tomb by her great love for him, since he had given her life back to her by delivering her from demon possession. She was there seeking nearness, and to weep and grieve over her loss.

She did not expect to find the entrance to the tomb a gaping hole in the face of the rock. Its closure by the soldiers the day before should have been permanent. Historians tell us it would have taken great strength to roll back the stone in the groove at the mouth of the tomb.

A glimpse into the open tomb was all she needed in order for her to conclude that there could be only one explanation.

She ran to Peter and the other disciple (John, the one recording the account) to report. Panting from exertion, she said: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!”

According to John, the two men ran to the site to verify her report. John outran Peter, and it is likely that Mary returned, though at a slower pace.

John arrived at the tomb first, but once there was less venturesome. Without entering he stooped down to peer into the gloomy interior. Impetuous Peter caught up to him and was the one who first entered.

There was no body. Mary’s assumption seemed correct. Unexpectedly, John saw the linen strips in which the body had been hurriedly wrapped for burial. They were lying on the stone shelf where the body had been placed in repose.

And, more remarkably, it was as though the body had sublimated out of the wraps, which collapsed in place, with the wrap from his head perfectly spaced and separated from the strips that had enclosed the body.

The writer tells us that John saw and believed. But what did he believe? Only that the body had been moved? Possibly so at first, since the Scriptures had not yet been opened to them clarifying the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. So the two men started back to their lodgings in the city.

After they had left Mary arrived back at the tomb. She stood weeping. Bending down to look inside this time, she saw two angels dressed in white sitting where Jesus had lain and they ask her why she is weeping.

Through her tears she answers that someone had robbed the tomb of the body of the Lord and she didn’t know where it had been placed. It was as though to say: I have unspent grief and am angry at such an indignity.

At that moment she turned around and saw a man standing there, but with vision blurred by her tears and grief, she does not know it is Jesus. He asks her the same question the two dressed in white had asked: Why are you weeping?

She assumes it is the gardener and, perhaps again indignantly, asks the location of Jesus’ body so she can see that it is properly cared for.

Jesus speaks her name, … Mary … In an instant she recognizes him and utters in a burst of joy: Rabboni! Teacher! She is obviously the first of his followers to witness the Lord as resurrected.

I review this particular account to refresh my faith and give life to Jesus’ promise elsewhere made: Because I live, you too shall live (John 14:19).

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The Second Coming: What Do You Expect?

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo (Public Domain).

The late Billy Graham made a statement long ago, the essence of which has stayed with me through the years. He said: “Every morning when I rise I say, ‘This may be the day!’”

His statement arrested attention, but is the doctrine to which he referred — the Second Coming of Christ — central to the gospel or merely a sidebar to it?

It is mentioned in the New Testament 218 times — eight times more than his first coming. Jesus referred to his own promised return twenty-one times. The letter to the Hebrews shows the importance of the Second Coming very clearly: So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28).

Consider three effects this promise of a Second Coming should have on our lives as believers.

First, our Lord’s promised Second Coming prompts us to keep our lives morally and spiritually undefiled. The Apostle Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13).

In our fallen world, “ungodliness and worldly passions” make their constant appeal. They may entice through salacious magazines and books, seductive television and movies, gambling, pornography, illicit drugs, unhealthy companionships and even cheap and defiling talk.

Prompted by the hope of the Second Coming and with trust in the power of the Holy Spirit we are to purge ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Second, our belief in the Second Coming prompts us to carry out our Christian assignments with diligence — always with the promise of Christ’s return. Consider a story Jesus told that reflects this point (Matthew 24:45-51). It represents a summons to faithful duty.

In a wealthy man’s estate there were many servants. The owner planned to be away for an unspecified length of time, so he assigned his most trusted servant to make sure all the workers were adequately fed and cared for during his absence.

The worker had two options: If his master returned to find him carrying out his assigned duties faithfully he would promote him, trusting him with a much larger responsibility. But if the servant should wickedly shun his duties, beating the other servants and drinking with neighborhood drunkards, the master’s return would bring severe punishment.

As it turned out, in Jesus’ story the master returned unexpectedly. The servant had failed his test. The punishment was severe. So will it be at the Second Coming of Christ: the faithful and the unfaithful will be identified and rewarded or judged.

Third, in the light of the promised Second Coming we are to live creatively as believers, making the most of the resources entrusted to us for kingdom purposes. The Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25:14-30, represents the joy of service and the challenge of taking risks in the life of faith.

A wealthy man who had to go on a long journey did not know exactly when he would return. So he called his three servants together and distributed his wealth among them — to one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags of gold and to yet another one bag of gold. He dispersed the quantities according to each servant’s abilities.

The first two servants received the bags of gold with excitement. They immediately headed for the business district to invest their contents. They wanted to gain as much profit as possible for their master’s sake before his return. When the master returned, the five bags of gold had been increased to ten, the two had become four. To each of these servants the master said, Well done, good and faithful servant.

But the servant who received only one bag of gold had a different story. The trust the master had shown him had been a burden. He had dug a hole, buried the gold and forgotten about his assignment. When his master appeared the one-bag man returned exactly what had been entrusted to him. It had gained nothing.

He tried to blame his master for his failure. The master addressed him with two words: You wicked and lazy servant. He was thrown into outer darkness. As believers, our faith energies are to be joyfully productive.

The Scriptures’ exhortation to moral and spiritual purity plus Jesus’ two stories foreshadow a promised return of Christ. We are called to live with this awareness.

There is no scriptural suggestion here that by such means we could work our way into heaven. That is a grace issue. But there is the suggestion that whether we actually care about the things Christ cares about — that we live upright, holy lives, and live true to Kingdom purposes — will be revealed when the Second Coming breaks upon the world and leads us all towards great reward or divine judgment.

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Judas Iscariot — Why Did He Fall?

There were many ill-advised characters in the life and ministry of Jesus — corrupt priests, pride-blinded Pharisees, scornful siblings, weak Roman officials, conscienceless soldiers.

But although one person in the passion story had every advantage by his proximity to Jesus, he proved the darkest and most sinister of them all. It was Jesus’ own disciple, Judas Iscariot.

How did Judas become one of Jesus’ apostles? Luke tells us that Jesus spent a whole night in prayer before choosing from among his many followers the twelve whom he would call Apostles (Luke 6:12-16). He then invested three years in their training, and Judas was there the entire time.

Judas had heard Jesus teach the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. He witnessed the healings. He was present when the Master called Lazarus from the tomb. He had heard and seen it all.

Why then was his end so grim?

There are a few passages in the Gospels that shed light on the question. During a time when Jesus’ popularity with the crowds began to fade, John tells us, Jesus addressed a crowd of complainants and made a grave statement: Yet there are some of you who do not believe (John 6:64a).

John becomes even more explicit. He writes: For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him (6:64b). The whole of John’s Gospel is about believing in Jesus.

Only a short time before this crisis moment, some in the crowd had participated in the miraculous feeding of five thousand. They wanted more. They reminded Jesus of the manna in the wilderness; he countered by speaking about the bread of life.

Then he used a metaphor to declare what he meant when he called them to believe in him: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (6:53). Believing involved soul communion, identifying with Jesus in a very personal way, trusting oneself to his Messiahship and his cause.

Judas must have heard Jesus’ words. Judas still traveled with Jesus but obviously did not believe in him for who he really was.

We recall that John was writing his Gospel account many years after the events. Time on occasion sharpens perspective and deepens insight. He recalled the special dinner in Jesus’ honor and the outburst of Judas when Mary poured the expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet.

John knew what was at issue. Judas was a thief. He was the treasurer for the Apostles and he helped himself to the bag at will. His failure to believe with heart and soul had left him open to the devil’s corrupting power.

For those who hear his call there is a cost to believing in this wholehearted way, but there is a greater cost to refusing to believe.

At the end, Judas led a crowd of officials to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he identified Jesus with a traitorous kiss, and addressed him as “Rabbi” — not Master.

How unsettling to realize even today that one can know Jesus through Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s ministrations and yet not fully believe. In reading about Judas, one feels the tragedy again and asks with each of the disciples: Lord, is it I?

Easter is a great season to examine the depth of our faith in our Living Lord and the degree of our commitment to his cause.

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Image info: The Conscience – Judas, Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch Ge (Public Domain)

Belief That Will Get Us into Heaven

Point to a saucer of milk you have put down for your kitten and the kitten may simply play with your pointing finger. The kitty doesn’t understand your sign. But point a six-year-old child in the direction of his lost ball and he will run immediately to retrieve it. He takes the pointing finger as a sign.

That’s how John uses the word, sign, when he refers to Jesus’ miracles. They point to something beyond themselves. When, for example, Jesus feeds the 5000 men miraculously from a lad’s five barley loaves and two sardine-sized fish he is pointing to something more.

The crowd experienced the wonder of the miracle but didn’t understand what it pointed to. Their scheme in response to the free meal was to capture and make Jesus their king. They must have thought: free meals for life!

They were so serious about their scheme that his life was in danger. Jesus slipped away to a nearby mountain, and when night came he walked on water and the next morning was with the disciples in Capernaum.

When the crowds discovered that both Jesus and his disciples had disappeared from the northeastern shore of Galilee they took boats to Capernaum on the western shore. They hoped to see more miraculous deeds and perhaps experience another miracle meal.

When they found him, Jesus challenged their motives: I tell you truly, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill (John 6:26). Then he led the discussion in the direction of a food that  will endure to eternal life.

When the men asked, What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:28,29). The rest of the chapter deals with the sign and the conflict his words awakened. They were in no mood to believe.

In this chapter John used the word “to believe” nine times. At the outset, Jesus said to them: The work of God is this: “to believe” in the one he has sent (John 6:29). The word, believe, used in this way was to be taken seriously.

The men suggested that Jesus repeat the miracle of manna given miraculously to their forefathers in the wilderness. Jesus’ corrected them and in doing so moved them one step closer to understanding the sign he intended the feeding of 5000 to be: For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives light to the world (John 6:33)

He was referring to himself, an immeasurably better gift than manna. Their obtuseness in the presence of our Lord was remarkable. They argued back. They asked questions filled with doubt.

He even put his finger directly on their unbelief when he said: But as I have told you, you have seen me and still do not believe (John 6:36).

The picture is enlarged. God the Father was deeply engaged in this gift of eternal life for his creatures. Jesus said: all those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37). But he added, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day (John 6:40). The two promises belong together.

Jesus’ strongest and most arresting statement during this exchange was this: Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you, whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day (John 6:54).

This was Jesus metaphoric way of saying that believing in him involved more than a surface confession — the tipping of a hat or the signing of a pledge. He was the bread of life. Believing in Jesus involved their receiving him, the taking of him into their very beings by faith to live there.

When the gospel is simply given and a small child is asked: Would you like to invite Jesus into your heart, they usually have an instinct for answering. Believing in Jesus at any age involves bidding him to enter and live within us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

On this occasion his teaching proved to be too exacting for the timid and shrunken souls of some of them. They grumbled at his imagery. Even a goodly number of his disciples said his teaching was too hard to accept. The crowds thinned out.

Then Jesus put this question to his twelve disciples: You do not want to leave me too, do you? Peter responded: Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). It was a golden moment for Peter. He momentarily understood what was behind Jesus’ miracles and words. He understood the sign — Jesus, the bread of life for time and eternity.

O for a faith that will not shrink
though pressed by many a foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
of poverty or woe.

Lord give me such a faith as this,
and then whate’er may come
I’ll taste e’en here the hallowed bliss
of an eternal home.

William Bathurst, 1831.

 

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Image info: TumbleDryLow@Angela (via flickr.com)