I made new friends — Kevin and Angela Luh. I’ve never had the chance to get to know them. What gracious people (they serve at the Welcome Table) and I learned how they came to the U.S. and how they met at Murray State in Kentucky. I’m glad they’re members of my spiritual family.
John’s Jewish Jesus
We’ve talked about how the Gospel of John took down the dismal philosophy of Stoicism, which held a tight grip on the minds of people in the Greco-Roman world. But John wasn’t just talking to Greek speakers in Ephesus who were familiar with the works of Zeno and Seneca. He was speaking to his fellow Jews who knew the Hebrew Scriptures by heart. And he makes the case for Christ (remember the ongoing trial setting of John) by asserting that Jesus fulfills God’s promises and completes the great up-and-down story of Israel.
Get a look at how John tumbles over himself (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) to explain that Jesus is the promised Messiah. He links Jesus with stories that come right from Israel’s history and Scriptures. Here are some examples:
- Jesus is the paschal lamb (1:29; 36; 19:36)
- Jesus is the king of Israel and Jacob’s ladder, the place where heaven and earth meet (1:51)
- Jesus is the Psalmist’s righteous sufferer (13:18; 15:25; 19:24)
- Jesus is (maybe) the Lord coming to purify his temple (Mal. 3:1-3)
- Jesus is the impaled one, God’s means of deliverance in the desert (3:14; Num. 21:8-9)
- Jesus is perhaps also the well in the wilderness for Jacob’s descendants, necessary for their survival (4:14; Num 21:16-17).
- Jesus is greater than the Sabbath because he is God’s agent in creation and, in the future, in judgment (5:18-29).
- Jesus is the true bread for his people (6:32, 35)
- Jesus is the promised source of water for Ezekiel’s new temple (7:37-39,
- Jesus is Zechariah’s pierced one (19:37; Zech. 12:10)
- Jesus is greater than the patriarch Jacob (4:12)
- Jesus is greater than Moses the bread-giver (5:46; chp. 6)
- Jesus is greater than Abraham (8:53)
- Jesus is greater than Israel’s mighty prophets (8:53)
- Jesus is the glory witnessed by Moses and Isaiah (1:14; 12:39-41)
- Jesus is the agent of past and present creation (5:17)
- Jesus is the promised resurrection hope for the future (11:25)
- Jesus is even the biblical “I am” (8:58).
By the way, everything I just shared above comes from a solid commentary on the Gospel of John by the guy in the picture below, Dr. Craig Keener. Here he is with his wife Dr. Medine Moussounga Keener. She has a Ph.D from the University of Paris. Smart couple.
Our big topic for Sunday relates to freedom from competition, comparison and envy. We’ll see how John the Baptist steers clear of (and even steps above) envy when it comes his way.
Speaking of envy, what is it in us that makes us want to shine – shine brighter than others? What is it in us that makes us feel sick when we pale in comparison with the abilities and achievements of others?
I just read about Stanley Donen, who directed many successful films. Here he is clutching an award:
On his credits list are “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Funny Face” and “On the Town.” In an interview from a while back, he said with tears: “As an artist, I aspire to be as remarkable as Leonardo da Vinci. To be fantastic, astonishing, one of a kind. I will never get there.”
That’s amazingly candid – and sad. The guy has accomplished so much but he wants to be the greatest of all, on par with Leonardo. Catch those adjectives – fantastic, astonishing, one of a kind. I think that we can see that craving in the people around us, and maybe a little in ourselves if we’re honest.
Same story with Harold Ramis, the writer-director of many successful movies – a guy revered in the comedy world.
He wrote honestly about how disappointed he was that he lacked the charisma of his friend and partner Bill Murray. Ramis said, “Much as I wanted to be a protagonist, it doesn’t happen, somehow. I’m missing some…charisma, or something.”
Again, why do we long to be the protagonist, the star, the brightest light in the firmament? Why aren’t we content to be image-bearers (a great honor from God). We want to be THE image that others bear and admire. But the truth is, there is just one who deserves that above-all recognition, and He is the one who is “above all” (John 3:20). John the Baptist understood who shines the brightest. And when John’s disciples came to him with the concern that John and his group were losing popularity because of Jesus, John delivered a speech for the ages. We can learn from him and find joy in what the world finds intolerable: obscurity and reduction.
Saint Augustine had a fine little maxim that we can make our own motto when we find ourselves craving recognition and admiration that Jesus alone deserves:
I listen; he is the one who speaks.
I am enlightened; he is the light.
I am the ear; he is the Word.
Thoughts on True Belief
By the way, I asked you last week during the message to share your thoughts about true belief.
After all, it’s a main theme in John. I think that belief has a number of dimensions, so we shouldn’t automatically assume we understand it in full, or what it meant to ancient ears.
To get this conversation going, I want to share what Kelley and Stew wrote.
Listen to Kelley Drake:
You asked the congregation to answer the question, “What is the nature of true belief?”
Thanks for asking—it got me thinking about how I would simply and concisely answer this question. There are so many nuances to the words “nature,” “true,” and “belief” that a person could go in a variety of directions in forming a response.
However, with emphasis on the word “nature” and defining “nature of belief” as the fundamental and inherent qualities of belief—I would say that true belief is confident faith in God (which necessarily includes Jesus, the gospel, God’s Word, etc.) that is evidenced by:
– Being with Jesus
– Be-becoming like Jesus
– Doing what Jesus did
Somewhat in this order in that, I believe it is by being with Jesus that we progressively ‘be-become’ like Jesus—and from these we are lead, equipped, and empowered to do what He did.
I am concerned that too often, the “nature of true belief” gets derailed because, the ‘be becoming’ and the doing are prioritized ahead of (or worse yet, apart from) being with Jesus.
Again—thanks for asking. May God bless you as you continue to serve Him.
Now, for another thoughtful perspective from Stew Peebles:
You asked for input on “belief”, so here goes.
When I was growing up, John MacArthur’s “Lordship Salvation” was being discussed a lot. I’ve always been intrigued by the distinction and balance between mere belief (“intellectual assent” some people call it) on one hand and works salvation on the other hand. James talks about this in chapter 2, implying that even back then people were wrestling with this notion.
I’m always on the lookout in the Bible for examples of people who “believed”, but didn’t seem to have what we would consider to be saving faith. For example:
- Jeroboam, in 1 Kings 13 – surely he must have “believed” in God (at least that He existed) after God split his altar in half and first froze and then, in response to a prayer, unfroze his arm. However, this belief did not deter him from gross disobedience to God’s message to him. It would seem absurd to suggest that Jeroboam’s belief (to the extent that we know about it) saved him.
- Rahab’s neighbors, in Joshua 2 – Look at vv. 10-11:
10 We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. (NIV)
These people obviously believed in God. Were they saved (aside from Rahab and her household)? Doubtful.
To me it seems that the key verse on the subject is Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (NIV) So, it seems there are two parts to real, God-pleasing faith: 1) believe He exists (lots of people surmount this bar), and 2) believe that He rewards those who diligently seek Him. I feel that #2 implies that the person not only believes that God rewards them, but also that God’s reward for belief is the best reward to be had anywhere. A mere belief that God will reward those who follow Him but not with anything I really want, or not with anything as good as I can get with doing something else doesn’t mesh with God’s message throughout the Bible.
So, true faith (that which pleases God) will naturally produce works, because those will come about as I seek Him, which I will do if I have that kind of faith. Jeroboam and Rahab’s neighbors didn’t have Hebrews 11 faith, because they met #1 but not #2. They either had a better idea (Jeroboam) or else maybe figured there was no way to seek Him, so best to fight Him (the people of Jericho, and probably the other Canaanites as well, who probably knew and believed the same things about God as the people of Jericho).
Now, a couple of passages in John that mention “believe” come to mind. (Obviously there are many others.)
- John 11:39-41: “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. (NIV)
- What did Jesus call out when they hesitated to obey Him about the stone? Their lack of belief. Obviously this exhortation restored their true faith, such that they carried out the work He commanded, not to win His favor by obedience (or else they would have done it already), but because they believed it would bring good things (because He said so). So, after the exhortation, their belief lines up with both halves of Hebrews 11:6.
- John 12:42-43: Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved praise from men more than praise from God. (NIV)
Unlike Martha, these leaders’ “belief” only met the first criterion of Hebrews 11:6, or maybe a bit more. However, it didn’t meet #2 (or at least my interpretation thereof), because they may have believed that Jesus had a good message with some possible reward for following it, but they believed that some other way had a better reward, so they chose that one instead.
Let’s keep this conversation going.
In conclusion, here’s a verse that will come up in Sunday’s passage, but we won’t be able to spend much time on it because our focus will be elsewhere. But I invite you to wrestle with it.
John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
How do you make sense of the “believe/do not obey” antithesis?
See you on Sunday!