Monthly Archives: December 2016

Jesus and the Poor (John 12.8)

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Judas objected to Mary ‘wasting’ such valuable perfume in her lavish display of overwhelming love and gratitude to Jesus. If he had really been concerned for the poor, his objection might have had some validity. But actually he was helping himself from the disciples’ communal money bag. And he failed to take into account the spiritual reality of such an apparently unwise outworking of Mary’s burning love for Jesus.
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So Jesus defends Mary’s anointing of himself. It was absolutely appropriate in preparation for his coming burial (John 12.7) and ‘the poor you always have with you, but me you do not always have’ (John 12.8).
Now was the time to concentrate on the immediate reality that Jesus is moving into the fearful sufferings of his betrayal, trial, death and burial. Concern for the poor can wait. The sad needs of the homeless, asylum seekers, the destitute, orphans, widows and the poor generally will remain always before us. This clarion call always sounds out to the church to do everything possible to alleviate the sufferings which are so desperate in our world. That is true, but Mary’s lavish love has priority even above the call of the poor.
‘But me you do not always have’ (John 12.8). The present tenses used in this verse relate firstly to Mary’s own time. How true that Jesus was not always with Mary or his other followers. As an incarnate human he could not be with them all the time. Some times he needed to be alone with his Father. And most of his ministry took place in Galilee; he was not often in Bethany where Mary lived. Mary was absolutely right to take this opportunity of showing her love for Jesus while he was present with her.
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But it is very probable that Jesus was also thinking of his impending death and resurrection. This thought may well have been in the NIV translators’ minds when they changed the Greek present tenses into future tenses in this verse. In John 14.1-4 and John 16 Jesus warns his disciples that he would soon be going away and returning to his Father. He would leave them for a while. It was true that Jesus would not always be with them. So Mary was wonderfully right to take the opportunity of his presence with them to pour out her love for him while he was there.
But Jesus’ going away led to him sending them “another Counsellor to be with you for ever” (John 14.16 and 16.7). No longer do we have to face being on our own without Jesus with us. Now by his Spirit he never leaves us or forsakes us (Hebrews 13.5). The Christmas message of Immanuel/God with us is now constantly true. The risen Jesus’ assurance that “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28.20) comforts and strengthens us. By his Spirit Jesus walks with us through every circumstance of life and into all eternity. With this assurance we can joyfully wish each other:
Happy New Year!
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Immanuel – God with us

 

We want to have a short pause from our blogs on John in order to wish you all a richly blessed and joy-filled Christmas – HAPPY CHRISTMAS!
As usual at Christmas time the glorious reality of Jesus’ name Immanuel¬†comes to us again and again in our Bible Readings, sermons, Christmas cards and letters. What a glorious truth that Almighty God has actually come down to us and made himself known to us in Jesus!
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But two rather obvious questions about the name Immanuel don’t seem ever to be mentioned. Who was Immanu-El? and likewise Who was/is ‘God’?
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Who was Immanuel?
In Isaiah 7 the name Immanuel (meaning in Hebrew ‘El/God with us’) is revealed in the context of King Ahaz refusing God’s command to him that he should ask for a sign. In reaction to Ahaz’ disobedience some seven hundred years before the coming of Jesus God declares that a virgin will give birth to a baby who shall be called Immanuel. The immediate presence of the all-holy God is a threat to those who in unbelief disobey the Lord. His presence is uncomfortable and brings condemnation and judgement to those who refuse to follow the Lord.
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But in Matthew 1 Jesus’ name Immanuel is clearly a wonderful promise. In Jesus God himself in all his glory, perfection and loving grace comes down to earth to live with those who believe in him and seek to follow him. And by his Spirit he still goes with us through all the ups and downs of life. He saves his people from their sins (Matthew 1.21) and never leaves us or forsakes us (Hebrews 13.5). He is always with us, Immanuel. One can only react with a loud Hallelujah, praise the Lord!
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But still we have to ask Who was El? In Old Testament times all the heathen nations around Israel believed in a distant high God called ‘El’. El does not appear in the first chapters of the Bible or in the story of creation. He only comes into the Bible in Genesis 14 when the non-Hebrew Melchizedek introduces El Most High (Genesis 14.19) as “the creator of heaven and earth”. But the heathen nations felt that El was very high, distant and far removed from them on earth. Their worship and prayer was directed therefore to the lower-level idol deities, the Baals, the Ashtoreth, Moloch etc. They were more accessible. In the Bible however, the high creator El is accepted, but his character and ways of working are adapted to fit the revelation of the Creator who was known in Hebrew as Elohim. So El was adopted as equivalent to Elohim, but also adapted in the understanding of his nature.
(For a more extended account of the biblical adoption and adaptation of such non-biblical creators see my book “What about other Faiths?”)
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Our other question is Who was/is ‘God’? When Christianity first came to Europe the still heathen tribes also believed in a distant high creator deity called ‘God’ – the French tribes called him ‘Dieu’, the Russian and Bulgarian tribes called him ‘Bog’, the Germans ‘Gott’, the Scandinavians ‘Gud’ etc. Likewise through history and into Islam the Arabs believed in the creator ‘Allah’. But, like the pagan tribes round Israel in the Old Testament, the British felt that ‘God’ was so distant and unknowable that their worship and prayer centred on lower deities like Thor, Wodun, Frei etc. Just as the Baals were utterly to be rejected in the Old Testament, so Thor and the other idol deities were not permitted in the Christian church in Britain. But the pagan ‘God’ was adopted and also adapted in the understanding of his nature.
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How wonderful now that the distant and unreachable El is actually with us. He is knowable, accessible, reachable, describable. He is with us!
In modern Britain too a majority of our population claim to believe in the existence of God. But most would also feel that he is far removed from daily life and largely therefore irrelevant. He may be a genial ‘gentleman up-top’, but he is clearly not with them in their daily life. The glorious message of Christmas is that this all-mighty El/God is no longer unreachably high. He has come to us. We can know him and relate to him. Immanu-El. God is with us.

Happy Christmas!
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Mary anoints Jesus (John 12.1-11)

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The lead-in to the death and resurrection of Jesus is hotting up. Mary’s anointing of Jesus leads to Judas, one of Jesus’ intimate circle of disciples, objecting to the apparent waste of the precious perfume. So John prepares his readers for Judas’ final betrayal of Jesus. What a heart-breaking grief this must have been to Jesus who loved his disciples so deeply! And still today Jesus must be weeping when Christians lose their love and faith in him.
These verses end with the contrast of faith and murderous opposition. Wonderfully we read that “many of the Jews were going over to him and putting their faith in him”, but at the same time the chief priests made plots to kill Jesus and also Lazareth (12.9-11).

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In 12.3 the original Greek states that Mary ‘anointed Jesus’ feet’. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this verb ‘anoint’ is used several times for ritual anointing in the Temple sacrifices, although it is not the common word used for such anointing. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious perfume is a clear sign of his impending sacrificial death and burial. And Jesus realised the significance, so he states that the perfume was saved “for the day of my burial” (12.7). What emotions must have torn Jesus’ heart in two! On the one hand he faces the grim reality of Judas’ betrayal and his own impending suffering and death. On the other hand he must have been so happy to see the sacrificial love of Mary in pouring out her hugely expensive nard perfume and wiping even his feet (the despised, dirty part of the body) with her hair. Do we also see such contrasts in our church today? Faith and love walk together with rejection of Jesus.
The other gospels give us some additional insights. In Luke’s Gospel the story of the anointing of Jesus’ feet (Luke 7.36ff.) is used to demonstrate the depth of love when a sinner is forgiven. The greater one’s sin, the more one will love Jesus with eternal gratitude when cleansed from one’s sin. The forgiven sinner can indeed “go in peace” (Luke 7.50) – how glorious this is!
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In Matthew’s Gospel all Jesus’ disciples (not just Judas) join together to question the apparent waste of the enormously expensive ointment. But as his disciples we are called to share in his death and burial. So Mary’s extravagant love was welcomed by our Lord.
Matthew and Mark join John in emphasizing that Jesus’ anointing foreshadows his coming death and burial. It is noteworthy that the very Jewish Matthew also strongly emphasizes the Gentiles. Whereas John does not mention it at all, in Matthew and Mark the climax of the story comes with Jesus’ words that “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26.13). So Mark also foresees Jesus’ burial and concludes his account of the event with the same words that the story of the woman’s great love would be told throughout the coming history and wherever the gospel is preached (Mark 14.9).
The central reality of the gospel of Jesus is that people of every nation should come to love him with all that we have and are. Jesus evidently was aware that his death and resurrection would lead to the good news being preached to all people everywhere, Jew and Gentile. So our love for Jesus should involve sacrificial giving in love and a concern for mission to all peoples everywhere.
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John 12: Preparation for the Climax

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In our blogs on John we now move on to Chapter 12, the final preparation for the great climax of the Gospel, Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Of course the previous chapters have already introduced the fact that Jesus evokes a response of living faith in some, but growing rejection and opposition in many. When I asked an old Russian grandmother how people reacted to her open witness in the bad days of persecution under Stalin, Beria, Brezhnev etc, she was surprised. “You have read your Bible, you know how people react to evangelistic witness”, she said, “Some believe and some don’t!”. So let us witness boldly, expecting some to believe even if some reject our message fiercely.

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Already in John 8 Jesus’ teaching meant that “many put their faith in him” (8.30), but the leaders of Israel accused him of being demon-possessed (8.48) and “they picked up stones to stone him” (8.59).
So also in John 9 Jesus healed a blind man, thus revealing himself as “the light of the world” (9.5). As a result the people were divided, some believing and others firmly opposed (9.16). The final verses of the chapter have the blind man declaring “Lord, I believe” , while the Pharisees think that they see but in fact they are blind. The challenge to see and believe in Jesus rings out loud and clear right through even to us in our day.

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In John 10 too Jesus’ teaching elicits the dual response of faith and fierce opposition. So “many people came to him” and “many believed in Jesus” (10.41/42). But the leaders of Israel “tried to seize him” (10.39). Jesus had revealed himself as “the good shepherd” (10.11). We saw in a previous blog that the adjective used can better be translated as ‘ beautiful’. Jesus is the beautiful shepherd. This adjective relates also to a concept of honesty, faithfulness and trustworthiness. Beauty is not just external, but relates to the inner reality of a person. The truly ‘good’ shepherd fulfils his calling whatever the danger or cost. He is not like the hireling who abandons his sheep and runs away from his calling when faced with danger or opposition. He may ask his Father to spare him the cross, but ultimately he faces the danger and declares “not my will, but yours be done”. In his ‘beauty’ the shepherd relates intimately with his sheep. He knows them individually and they know him in that deep relationship of love and trust. And his flock includes not only good Jewish sheep, but also an all-inclusive crowd of “other sheep” (10.16) from every nation, people, tribe and tongue. What a wonderful multi-national unity we find in Jesus’ “one flock” (10.14-16)!
In John 11 Jesus reveals himself through the raising of Lazarus. He is “the resurrection and the life” (11.25). Lazarus with his sisters Martha and Mary strongly believe. Also “many of the Jews … put their faith in him” (11.45). But the Sanhedrin “plotted to take his life” and wanted to “arrest him”.

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So the stage is set for Chapter 12 with its three great events which open the door for the final cross and resurrection of Jesus. In Chapter 12 we read about Mary anointing Jesus with precious perfume (12.1-11), Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem (12.12-19) and conclusively the coming of the Greeks to Jesus (12.20ff.). In our next blogs on John’s Gospel we shall look more closely at these three sections.

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