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)

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Preparing Our Hearts and Minds for Easter

Leading up to Easter, April 21, I intend to spend part of each day in the Gospel of John and I invite you to join me. Yesterday I read all but the last two chapters. Today I’ll finish my read-through and begin my reflections, one passage at a time.

Why spend time each day on this? Easter is a high point of the church year and I want to renew my faith in anticipation of that great Gospel celebration. The Apostle Paul gives me an additional reason when he says, Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

Sometimes, due to the “grind” of life, we continue to believe but the vitality of our faith fades. A common reason may be that we have become slack in turning regularly to the source of our faith — the Scripture, and especially the sections that recount the Gospel story.

Faith is not like a permanent substance injected into our veins. It is more a God-enabled affirmation we give regularly — daily is best — to the truth as it is in Jesus.

And, looking intentionally through the Gospel of John toward the Easter celebration of our Lord’s passion at Calvary, and his subsequent resurrection, may be an especially meaningful exercise to refresh our faith.

John’s chosen device in presenting the Gospel is a remarkable prologue, the first 18 verses of chapter 1.

A prologue is a literary device at the beginning to help the reader make sense of the main body of the text that follows. It’s been suggested that a prologue is like a short story set down to give us helpful details before the full story follows.

John’s prologue is preparatory theology, set down in simple language to be pondered. It says: In the beginning was the Word. That is, whenever the beginning of the universe came to be, the Word already was. But why does he present Jesus at first as the Word?

Tradition holds that John spent his senior years in Ephesus, a city near the Aegean Sea with a strong Greek influence. For several centuries some Greek thinkers had posited that an unseen principle or source was in being from which all that existed had come. This they often referred to as the Word.

A Jewish presence was also strong in Ephesus and thoughts about God also prominently featured the concept of Word. God created the heavens and the earth by his Word let there be (Genesis 1). And the worshipers in Israel often sang in temple worship such lines as, By the word of the Lord the heavens were made (Psalm 33:6). For them, the Word was God at work.

John appears to pull all this together and in doing so takes our understanding a giant step forward by telling his readers that the Word was not merely an influence or force, but a person he had seen, heard, even touched with his own hand (1 John 1:1).

So John begins the Gospel account with the astounding announcement that in the beginning was the Word — Jesus! That is, even before the creation of the universe, the Word — Jesus — already “was.”  Moreover, this Word was with God, and more astounding still, this Word was God.

Professor Google assures me that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. I cannot verify the number but I respect scientific efforts to make an estimate. However, I am assured from another source that whenever that massive beginning was, Christ our Lord was already there, the alpha and omega of creation.

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How to Cultivate a Christian Mind III

If you were under house arrest in ancient Rome as the Apostle Paul was late in his life, what would you be thinking about? How to escape? How to win an earlier hearing from the Emperor? How to get on the good side of your guards?

None of these were Paul’s first concerns. Instead, from his confinement, he was thinking about a church he had planted and loved deeply at Philippi, in Macedonia, seven hundred miles away. The letter he wrote to that church became the Epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament.

Always on the alert to advance the Gospel, his final point in this letter is an exhortation to young believers to nurture their thought lives to become ever more consistent with their faith in Christ.

In Philippians 4:8 his counsel about their private thoughts is captured in six important words. Here they are:

Truth. This word fits and affirms that which corresponds to reality. Two plus two equals four. (Jesus) is the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6).

Nobility. Let your thoughts be elevated, worthy, honest.

Right. Stand fearlessly for what you know to be right. Be righteous in all your dealings.

Pure. Avoid moral defilement. Be inwardly pure. God is present at every moment of your life; nothing is hidden from Him.

Beautiful. The reference is to winsomeness. There is no need to be unpleasant in order to model serious faith. The Christian mind, says William Barclay, is set on the lovely things like kindness, sympathy, forbearance.

Admirable. Be alert to what is fine in the world and be free to admire whatever is deserving. See the handiwork of God and admire the wonders of his world.

As I read this passage it appears to me that the Apostle doesn’t want to leave out any important words from his list so he adds — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…. He appears to say, If there is anything I’ve forgotten, add those words also to the list for meditation and practice.

In the above list of words, the Apostle sets a foundation for morally wholesome thoughts and healthy relationships. The words seem to share a sense of firmness.

They are strong words, binding together ideas rooted deep in reality. To adopt and practice them seriously is to develop staunch character.

Paul’s teaching is apt for our age. Our culture’s saturation with relativism makes many people think truth is flexible, according to whim, and a moveable target: my truth, your truth…

Nobility of thought and behavior has fallen too often to coarseness of expression; righteousness, or right judgment and action, is now replaced with winning by the exertion of naked power; and purity and its subset chastity are too often reduced to vulgarity.

Not so for the Apostle Paul. His conviction is that moral excellence is to flow naturally from the embrace of the gospel. He dares to invite the young believers of Philippi to follow his example in whatever they have learned, received, heard or seen in him. He exhorts them to practice the above list of virtues, at the prompting of God’s Spirit assuring them that as a result the God of peace will be with them.

Paul’s urging to “think on these things” is appropriate because the human mind is like an electronic device that is always processing its environment. It continues even when its owner is not paying attention.

That is why Paul’s advice is so important. As believers, we are to monitor and assume responsibility for what our minds take in and doing so is a Christian discipline.

Christian minds need to be re-educated away from worldly values and enticements, and often some dark and hurtful thought patterns of anger, envy, resentment, greed, lust and such.

God wants us to be selective in our thought lives, searching within our day-to-day environment for thought content that is lovely and admirable.

The payoff is a buoyant and truly Christian mind as the Apostle Paul demonstrates. He was giving his counsel from confinement in Rome. He reports he was in chains. His future was uncertain. Yet the spirit of his letter is firm and upbeat. This shines throughout the whole piece and in that letter he uses the words joy and rejoicing sixteen times.

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Image info: Saint Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627 (Public Domain)

Why Must Christians Pray in Jesus’ Name?

13712688913_80b64ee497_mAttend a Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, or Interdenominational church service in your community and you may notice some differences in forms of worship or theological emphases. But, in every case, you will observe a common likeness in the conclusion of prayers offered — the prayers will end with words like these: We pray all this in the name of Jesus, our Lord.

The practice of praying in Jesus’ name can be traced through history to the final and intimate words of Jesus, spoken to his distraught followers hours before his trial and crucifixion, as recorded in John 14-16.

John tells us that seven times Jesus instructed his followers to energize their continuing work through prayer. In five of those references he told them (and us) to offer prayers in his name (John 14:13a; 14:14; 15:7; 15:21: 16:23). In the other two, Jesus does not mention using his name, but it can be assumed (14:6; 15:7).

In 14:6 Jesus says to his followers, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” This is comprehensive. It refers primarily to the eternal destiny of believers, but it seems to me to also support the additional truth that in all our prayers we come to the Father through Jesus.

Frequent approaches to God through prayer in Jesus’ name during our lives on earth can be seen as preludes to how we will experience our eternal destiny in heaven.

Only one of these references is a promise without limitations: “You may ask me for anything in my name” (John 14:13b). The absence of limits to what we can ask here has been troubling to some. It’s as though prayer gives us access to a candy shop.

In the instruction that precedes, however, Jesus tells his followers to ask in his name so that the Father will be glorified in the Son. Our prayers in his name are in this promise first and foremost to bring glory to God.

In another of the promises of abundant resources through prayers offered in his name there is the expectation of constancy or faithfulness: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Intimacy with Jesus through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit appears to be a prerequisite to effective Christian prayer.

Such promises of fruitfulness, however, do not assure smooth sailing in the life of a disciple. Jesus tells his followers that the world will hate and treat them roughly because of his name: and “If they persecuted me they will persecute you also” (15:21).

As an aside, it is interesting to note that in our fading Judeo-Christian culture, when ministers or laypersons are asked to offer a prayer at the start of a community function, the protest heard most commonly is not against the act of prayer itself but against its being offered in Jesus’ name.

Returning to John’s account, Jesus gives a final assurance of results from the effect of praying in His name. “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be full” (John 16:23b-24).

There is a connection here between the constancy and depth of our prayers and the joy we experience in the Lord’s service. This explains why Christians who suffer severely for their faith and pray deeply in their suffering may appear to have a joy more abundant than those living untroubled, comfortable lives.

It is clear from these verses that even on the eve of his crucifixion Jesus expected the work of his Kingdom to go on in the world and he gave out the prime resource for expansion of that Kingdom: prayers uttered in faith and in His name.

However much we have yet to learn about prayer, may our prayers offered regularly in Jesus’ name bring depth to Christian living and joy to the Father’s heart.

 
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Is Our Greatest Need God’s Presence?

As recorded in the book of Exodus, God gave Moses the demanding task of leading two million or more Hebrew slaves from captivity in Egypt to God’s Promised Land.

His first task was to get the wicked Pharaoh to let them go. Moses exercised the power of God that softened Pharaoh’s will. He watched that same power save his people by the drowning of Pharaoh’s pursuing army in the Red Sea. God later provided water for his people in the arid desert.

After they escaped from Egypt, Moses then led the throng down the Sinai Peninsula to the base of Mount Sinai where they struck camp for a period of time. They were free. God had delivered them every step of the way.

During this time, Moses and his young assistant Joshua ascended for some time to the mountain heights, in order to receive the tablets of the law inscribed on stone by God’s hand. Moses’ brother Aaron was in charge of the camp below.

During this absence the people in the camp became restless. They rejected the authority of Moses and demanded that Aaron make gods for them that they could see.

From the gold jewelry the people turned over to him Aaron fashioned a golden calf. Soon a full-fledged pagan celebration was underway. That explained the wild shouting that Moses and Joshua heard as they descended the mountain.

The Lord was angry. His people had embraced idolatrous ways. He threatened to withdraw his Presence from the people of Israel for the long trek to the Promised Land.

In distress, Moses entered a period of deep engagement with God. In his intercessions, what would he ask for? A fresh release of the power that had overwhelmed Pharaoh? Or that provided water in the desert?

No, his intercessions were to ask God not to remove his Presence from his disobedient children. In the intimacy of the moment, Moses said: If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here (Exodus 33:15). God’s presence was precious to Moses.

The Lord relented and replied: I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name (Exodus 33:17). For Moses, God’s presence was also more precious than a release of his destructive power.

It was not God’s omnipresence that was at issue here (that God is everywhere at all times); it was his manifest presence (that the living God demonstrates his presence at specific times and in particular places).

For Isaiah God manifested his presence in the temple (Isaiah 6); for Saul of Tarsus it was on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). On the Day of Pentecost it was in the upper room (Acts 2:2).

Wherever it occurred it could awaken joy: In your presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). His presence supports even when fear attacks: Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23:4).

Recently our daughter-in-law, Jan, spent time in the hospital. She reported to us afterwards that she awoke in the middle of one night with a manifestation of the Presence: the words of a Fanny Crosby gospel song brought to her mind. It was the last line of the first stanza that assured her that she was in God’s care and his presence was with her. The words? For I know what’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.

Photo credit: kishjar? (via flickr.com)

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How Is the God of Christianity “Three-In-One”?

The doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is three Persons in one Being – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This doctrine faces us with a measure of mystery.

The word Trinity (tri-unity) itself does not occur in the Bible but the teaching of the Trinity is founded upon a rich array of Holy Scripture and is, in fact, held as a benchmark of orthodoxy across the sweep of Christendom. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism along with all other major Protestant denominations hold Trinity to be revealed truth.

My purpose is to construct a simple overview of this doctrine, and to affirm that the mystery and reality of the Trinity can be experienced even when not fully understood.

We begin with the introductory sentence of the Shema of the Old Testament: Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).

God’s chosen people were to pray this prayer twice a day. It is in phase with the first Commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me (Exodus 20:3). The Lord God of Israel was One and unrivaled in the religions of pagan neighbors.

But if God is One, how then can Jesus also be God? And how can the Holy Spirit be God? For four centuries, the developing ancient church grappled with these questions.

At the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) the conflict was strong. It was the heresy of Arius (Jesus was great but not quite God) against the orthodoxy of Athanasius (Jesus was in every respect God). For the most part, orthodoxy won the day.

But not until the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.) were the Godhood of Jesus and the Godhood of the Holy Spirit established in the doctrine of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity is well supported in the Scriptures. The introduction to the Gospel according to John, for example, gives strong grounding to the full deity of Jesus. He entitles him “the Word.”

When creation was formed, he writes, Jesus already “was.” He was not only with God; he was God. He was the agent of all creation, and he was the light who would give light to all humankind.

In the words of the Nicene Creed, he was “very God of very God”! But can the same be said of the Holy Spirit?

After Jesus ascended into Heaven and the Spirit was poured out with the sound of a mighty wind and the falling of what appeared to be tongues of fire, the newborn church moved forward in the supernatural energy given by the Spirit.

Although the phenomena of Pentecost (wind, fire, speaking in other languages) were powerful to the senses, the young church quickly learned that the Holy Spirit given in power that day was much more than a mere sensation or influence or feeling.

For example, Ananias and his wife Sapphira decided they would try a little deception on church leaders (Acts 5). The Apostle Peter saw through their deception. You have lied to the Holy Spirit, he said. The consequences were dire first for Ananias and then for Sapphira.

Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit? It was clear that the Holy Spirit who was given to guide the church was personal. One cannot lie to a feeling, nor to an idea. Lying and deception are what goes on between persons.

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles and on into the epistles, the Holy Spirit is regarded as a person (the third person of the Godhead) to indwell believers, illuminate and bring to life the Scriptures, and give divine guidance to the church. He teaches, guides, corrects, consoles.

So, how can we say God is one and at the same time three? One way to do so is as follows: God is one in being or essence or Godhead and at the same time three in persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

At Jesus’ baptism the Son was present, the Father spoke from heaven, and the Spirit descended in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16,17). Not three Gods but One, yet three persons.

The issue is to affirm the unity of God — The LORD our God is one” – without confusing the Persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. They are distinct persons but united as one in the Godhead.

For a summary statement, note the first article of religion for the Free Methodist Church, of which I am a part: There is but one living and true God, the maker and preserver of all things. And in the unity of this Godhead there are three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three are one in eternity, deity and purpose; everlasting, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness.

 
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Is Jesus God?

Whether the answer to these three words is yes or no is hugely important. If we say yes, our answer is orthodox (widely held by the church universal to be true). If we say no, then the flow of church history judges us as heretical (that is, opposed to Christian teaching).

Recently Ligonier Ministries, a Reformed Christian organization, partnered with LifeWay Research to conduct a survey of what Americans believe, theologically.

The survey asked 3000 people a series of questions that included this one about whether Jesus is God. Of the 3000 people, 581, or 32%, were identified as evangelicals by a standard definition.

Here’s how the question referenced above was presented in the survey: “Either Jesus is God or Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. Which is it?”

Seventyeight percent of the evangelicals chose the latter of the two answers.

Christianity Today then asked 10 evangelical scholars to comment on the responses of these 581. All four were surprised, because 78% of evangelicals had supported what has been widely held for two thousand years of church history as an heretical view.

The struggle between the options can be traced as far back as the third and fourth centuries A.D., having been settled with the answer “Jesus is God” from that time to the present, 1700 years later.

In 325 A.D. the Emperor Constantine called church leaders to gather at Nicaea in what is today the country of Turkey. He was concerned that division on this question between different groups of Christians would be harmful to the Empire. It was an enormous gathering. Some say there were as many as 600 bishops in attendance.

For many years after the Council of Nicaea, with the divinity of Jesus upheld, the heresy that he was a created being continued to surface here and there. It is called Arianism after Arius, a scholar from Alexandria, Egypt. His was a strong voice in the debate. He argued that Jesus was like God but not really God; Jesus was exceedingly great but nevertheless a created being. His major opponent in the struggle was Athanasius, also from Alexandria. He argued that Jesus was in every respect God.

Arius lost at Nicaea but the heresy of Arianism went on broadly debated and the question was not fully resolved until a further church council was called to meet in Constantinople in 381 A.D.

At that council the issue was again resolved and the answer recognized as proceeding from Holy Scripture and the witness of the Apostles and other early church leaders. The affirmation that Jesus is God is also codified in statements of faith such as the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. All statements attempt to say what orthodox believers must hold to be true about Jesus, Son of God, our Lord and only Savior.

It is surprising that the question was not more quickly dealt with back then by referring to such passages as the introductory paragraph to John’s Gospel account. John says of Jesus, the Word:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

In John’s introduction he tells us that Jesus is the Eternal Word of God, that he existed before creation, that he is one with God and at the same time in his person distinct from God as a member of the Trinity. John also tells us that Jesus is the very agent of creation, and that he is the light that shines in the darkness of our fallen world for all humankind to see.

Yes! Jesus is God! And Jesus is Lord!

Photo credit: (Alberto G. via flickr.com)

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