What is Faith?

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:1-21

We have the advantage over Nicodemus, I’m afraid. We know the story of Acts, which reveals what being born again means. The Holy Spirit descends upon us and fill us, making us new people.

I love Jesus’s description of the Spirit. You can’t see the wind, you don’t know where it comes from, but you know it’s there. That’s what faith is, believing in something you can’t see or fully understand. Of course these days science has taught us a lot more about the wind, so a better comparison might be subatomic particles or something. (Seriously, have you ever looked into quantum physics? It blows my mind.) So a part of faith is trusting in God’s word, even the parts we maybe don’t understand. Hell is a great example. Many Christians struggle to understand a loving God who would condemn non-believers for eternity. (I know I struggle with that!) But we don’t have to understand to believe and trust. Have faith!

But if you want a little help with that particular quandary, John 3:16-21 should help. Jesus was sent because God loved us, and He didn’t want us to be condemned anymore! The consequence for sin is death, and God just HATES that. So He sent Jesus here to save us. But we have to accept that grace. If we choose to love darkness and sin more than we love God, we have to face the consequences.

Keep in mind, guys, that sin does not mean you’re a horrible human being.. ALL people, even good people, are sinners. Sin is, essentially, putting something else before God. That could be money, science, yourself, your partner, work, drugs, fame, food, you name it. And we all do that sometimes. The question is, overall in our lives do we put God first? Do we love God more?

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A Place of Worship, Not of Spending

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

John 2: 13-25

In Matthew I compared (loosely) the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals in the Temple to having a coffee shop in your church. That argument is even more relevant in John as Jesus simply accuses them of turning it into a “marketplace” rather than a “den of robbers.” Jesus’s message is clear: church should be a place of worship, a place where you go to be closer to God. Anything else has no purpose in a church.

If you feel strongly that a coffee shop is the right thing for your church (think of all the houses you could build with the profits!), I much prefer when churches own and operate coffee shops nearby but just off campus, often adjacent to a bookstore that stocks books the church is reading. It is less distracting on Sundays, more inviting to non-church-goers (and therefore more profitable AND more outreaching), and more fitting with Jesus’s message here. I’m sure Jesus wouldn’t have had a problem with and may even have encouraged people selling sacrificial animals near (but not in) the Temple. It would  have been a great service to those Jews who couldn’t afford to keep their own animals.

The last part of this passage stumped me. What does it mean that Jesus “entrusted” Himself to no one? He knew everyone’s heart so He didn’t… what? Confide in them? Teach them? Stay with them?

I’m inclined to lean towards refusing to teach or preach to them. These are the people who asked for Barnabus, a murderer, to be released before Jesus. Maybe He knew they were a lost cause and wanted to spend His time on people He could actually help.

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The Human Miracle

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

John 2:1-12

I have heard a lot of metaphors over the years that can be drawn from this story. I think people feel that there must be more to this story, because as miracles go it isn’t exactly life-changing. Nobody had any particular need of wine. But  I think that’s exactly what makes this story interesting. I mean, it’s Jesus’s FIRST miracle, and that right there is something. But to me this story makes Jesus seem profoundly human. He  did such a big thing for no other reason than to make the party last for longer.

But I think the metaphors are still relevant. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is full of stories that have a message at surface level, yet also reflect (or are even allegorical to!) the Gospel message. Jonah is a great example. So even though this story works in the overall narrative as Jesus’s first miracle, the moment when the disciples believed, it also has a deeper meaning. And I think the author intentionally does this with many stories in John.

To me the most relevant and exciting metaphor is in verse 10. “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” You would expect to do your best living in this world and for everything after to be  kind of … bleh. Think the Greek afterlife. But God saved the best for last. After we are done on earth we will spend eternity in God’s Kingdom. And it’s going to be awesome. Like the best wine you’ve ever tasted, but better.

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Creating New Disciples

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

John 1:35-51

There is one huge difference between this passage in John compared to the other three gospels. The only disciple Jesus says “come with me” to is Phillip. The others are all recruited by word of mouth. Andrew and whoever was with him followed Jesus because John the Baptist called Him the Lamb of God. Peter came at Andrew’s suggesting. And Nathaniel came after Phillip told him to.

I have always doubted my ability to bring people to Jesus. But if there’s a moral to this passage, it’s that telling people about Jesus works. Notice, however, that nobody is converted simply by talking to their friends. They  all became disciples after meeting Jesus. THAT is the step I have been missing my whole life. I  tell people about Jesus, but I don’t invite them to church to see for themselves. Once we get someone into God’s presence, He is perfectly capable of taking care of them Himself.

This strategy even works for people who are disinterested! Nathaniel was doubtful, saying nothing good comes out of Nazareth. But Jesus showed him He was the real deal by knowing things he couldn’t have known, and Nathaniel believed.

Or consider my friend Brittney. In high school (and after) Brittney was the kind of person who would make fun of you for calling yourself a Christian, who was actively mean to anyone who brought up Jesus, and genuinely hated the idea of God. After high school she got very into drugs and alcohol, leading to an abusive relationship that resulted in several pregnancies, one of which went full-term. Brittney relied on family and friends to take care of her daughter while she continued in her addictions. She was broke, hungry, and had no permanent home. A good friend of her family who had known Brittney since she was a baby was often inviting her to church. One day the friend said if Brittney would come she would take her and her daughter to lunch. Brittney was so hungry that she couldn’t say no. So she went, fully prepared to hate everyone she met and everything she saw. But when she got there her heart and her eyes were open, and her life was completely changed. She gave up the drugs and the alcohol, said no to an abusive relationship, and a short few months later gave her life to God. She is now married with a second daughter, and while still learning how to be loving and kind to others, she is a completely different person than she was three years ago, and she definitely loves God.

I owe it to the people I love to at least try and get them to church. Who knows, one day my brother could end up like Brittney, in love with God.

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How To: Recognize Jesus

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

John 1:19-34

“Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

In Jewish culture people sacrificed animals to God to atone for their sins. They would literally speak their transgressions on to the animal (for example, a lamb), passing their sins on to it. Then the sacrificial animal would die the death the sinner deserved. And right off the bat, John the Baptist declares that this will be Jesus’s role.

Two important things I notice. First, John’s Gospel is already more focused on grace than the others have been. Jesus died so that we don’t have to. Second, the Pharisees have a second source declaring Jesus the Messiah. Not only  do they doubt Jesus Himself, but they also doubt John, who they respected as a prophet. They respected him so much, in fact, that they thought he might be the Messiah, or at least Elijah reborn. But they didn’t believe him about Jesus.

But then, can you blame them? Even John admits that he didn’t recognize Jesus right away. He had to see a sign from God before he knew who Jesus was. So how can you blame the pharisees? They received no such sign.

How, then, can lowly little me recognize Jesus? John answers that question too. I have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. God is always with me, always there to open my eyes. Perhaps Jesus was never revealed to all of Israel the way John hoped, but He has been revealed to us. All we have to do is look within and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us.

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A Powerful Thesis

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 1:1-18

This is often called an “introduction”, but I think of it more as a “thesis”. It’s part summary, part explanation, and part argument about what we’ll read over the next twenty-four chapters.

The first five verses are the most quoted part, and probably the boldest statement. It purposefully reflects Genesis, but adds (or perhaps contradicts) that God was not alone, the Word (Jesus) was there too. This forms the backbone of our understanding of the Trinity. God and Jesus are somehow separate, but one. And the Light (and I could be mistaken here) I understand to be the Holy Spirit. Again, one with God, but also different. Also, it’s very important to note that everything (including you!) came in to the world through Jesus. We are also a part of God!

Verses six through nine deal with John. He is clearly an important man, the only person other than Jesus to be mentioned in this intro, yet his importance is downplayed by the author, both here and in verse fifteen. Based on this I expect some people at the time thought John was the Messiah. The author wants to acknowledge John’s teaching, but make it clear he is not the important one.

Then verses ten to eighteen summarize the Gospel message. Jesus became a man so that we could know God. Yet we didn’t recognize Him. But by knowing Jesus we can become children of God and receive grace, thought what exactly that means isn’t specified yet. I expect the author expects us to understand. And finally, the author again emphasizes that it is only through Jesus that we can have a relationship with God, because Jesus became and human.

Wow, the power of this intro is especially evident immediately after reading the three synoptic gospels. They only address the concept of grace and forgiveness through Christ implicitly, expecting you to read the prophets to figure it out. But in John it’s right here, first thing, really pushing emotional buttons. It’s easy to see why people love John, even if maybe they don’t intellectually  understand every word and phrase. I know I’m certainly missing some subtleties (and probably not-so-subtleties too…) here.

I’m re-reading, and this is a very analytical, thoughtful response. Not the passionate, emotion-driven response I’m used to seeing from this passage. Fear not readers, I wasn’t completely unaffected! I just don’t really know how to write about how this makes me feel. It’s not the kind of emotion that explodes, just kind of warms gently. But rest assured, I did feel something. 

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Introduction to John

I am the least familiar with John’s Gospel. I think this is at least in part because Methodists don’t tend to emphasize it as much as the evangelical denominations do, instead preferring the more pragmatic synoptic gospels. But it’s definitely also at least in part because I avoid it. John is a lot less straight forward than the other three, and I am not the kind of person who likes to read in to things. One of the reasons I dislike poetry so much is because you can rarely take it at face value. I want to take everything at face value. So I’ve avoided John.

But it’s time.

So.

The Gospel According to John was named such because it was originally thought to be written by John, the “beloved disciple”, in addition to 1 2 and 3 John and the book of Revelation. However, it is more likely that the book was written based on John’s accounts, as it was probably written around 90 CE when John would have been much too old, and because the style is too educated for what history tells of John.

Regardless of author, this book was probably much more influential in the early days of Christianity than the other three. It is different from them in several ways. First, the synoptic gospels attempt to chronicle Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as completely as possible. John, however, acknowledges that it is leaving a lot out. Secondly, the synoptic gospels deal with things in a very factual manner, with occasional allusions to preexisting scripture being the main persuasive effort. The author of John writes mainly in persuasive tones, often interjecting his own thoughts or theology to Jesus’s story. It also uses a lot of symbolic language as an effort to engage the readers feelings. Third, in the synoptic Gospels Jesus attempts to keep His identity hidden until the end, but in John He is very open about His divinity throughout the book. Finally, John seeks to set Christians apart from the Jewish culture, urging followers of Christ to adopt new practices and ways of life, while the synoptic gospels, especially Matthew, portray Christianity as growing out of Judaism.

Scholars split to Gospel of John in to four clear parts.
1. The Prologue. In the beginning was the word, and the word was God, etc. This sets the tone and motifs for the rest of the Gospel.
2. The Book of Signs. John deals with different miracles than the other gospels, called signs, that have a deeper symbolic meaning, which the author expands upon.
3. The Book of Glory. As far as I can tell this includes a lot of Jesus’s teaching, as well as the narrative that leads Him into Jerusalem and to His death. There is a lot of focus on Jesus as divine in this part. Hence Glory.
4. Epilogue. This is his resurrection and everything that happens after that. John has a lot more to say than the other Gospels do about what happened after Jesus came back.

Hopefully I’ll understand this better than I have in the past. I’ve had three other Gospels and three whole years (I can’t believe it’s taken me THREE YEARS to read the synoptic Gospels. Shame.) to warm up for this. Maybe send a few prayers my way, and please feel free to comment when I get things wrong.

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