Monthly Archives: April 2018

He must increase – John 3.22-36

 

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John the Baptist


 John the Baptist had come to the height of his ministry. People were flocking to him and being baptised (3.23). How easily he could have begun to feel proud with his obvious success and popularity! But our passage prepares the way for John’s decline and Jesus’ exaltation by adding the little detail that this was all happening before John “was put in prison” (3.24). His days of evident success were coming to an end. The whole purpose of his preaching and baptising lay in preparing the way for Jesus to be uplifted. This reference to his coming imprisonment is immediately followed therefore by the observation that Jesus was also baptising people and “all are coming to him” (3.26).

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How did John come to terms with the reality that Jesus “must increase and I must be lessened” (3.30)? John’s disciples unwittingly give us the fundamental answer by pointing out to John that Jesus is “the one you testified about” (3.26). John was deeply aware that the whole purpose of his life and ministry was to fulfil the role of a voice in the wilderness declaring the glory of the Lord.
To illustrate this John uses the picture of a bridegroom’s friend at a wedding. Of course the key characters are the bride and groom, not the so-called ‘best man’. In a 1st century Jewish wedding everyone gathered at the bride’s home and then they waited for the groom to come and claim his beautiful bride. What rejoicing filled the heart of the groom’s friend when he  heard the voice of the approaching groom! So also John the Baptist was not fundamentally concerned for his own position, but was just waiting for Jesus the Messiah to come. He therefore declares to his followers that his heart is “full of joy”, his joy “is now complete” (3.29). Jesus has come! Let us also heartily rejoice – Jesus has come also to us!
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Jesus
John’s Gospel has the fundamental purpose of testifying to Jesus, who he really is, where he comes from and what he has come to do for us. Hence the emphasis in John’s Gospel on witness. Jesus witnesses to what he has seen and heard, but sadly no-one accepts his witness (3.32). Then John witnesses to Jesus – and we too are called to follow in that great witness succession.
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Jesus has come “from above” (Greek anothen/from above – as in 3.3, 7 ‘born again’. He has come “from heaven” and is ‘before all’ (3.31). Again we may note the succession: The Father loves the Son, gives him the Spirit and places “everything” in his hands (3.34/35). Then we know that the Son loves us, gives us his Spirit and in the resurrection life passes on “everything” to us. What wonderful good news!
Although the best man’s rejoicing lies fundamentally in the presence of the bridegroom being with him, our passage here underlines “the voice” of the groom. Jesus’ testimony comes also by word. He “speaks the words of God” and God’s word is inseparably linked to God’s Spirit (3.34). Throughout the Bible word and Spirit belong together. Let us not emphasize the one to the neglect of the other! Our churches and we individually need to be strong both in knowledge of the biblical Word of the Lord and in the dynamic and vitality of his Spirit.
Once again we may observe this Gospel’s strong emphasis on truth. “God is true” (3.33) and therefore we can fully trust “the words of God” which come together with God’s Spirit. It is in the context of God’s Word and Spirit that we are reminded that “whoever is believing in the Son has eternal life” and tragically “whoever is not obeying the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (3.36). This parallel between eternal life and God’s wrath would seem to indicate that both life and wrath start now and proceed into eternity.
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John 3.36 also brings ‘faith’ and ‘obey’ together. The Greek word ‘peitho’ with its negative ‘apeitho’ (translated “reject” in NIV) actually convey the sense of ‘yielding to persuasion’ rather than stark obedience. ‘peitho‘ has a much stronger form ‘peitharcheo’ (adding the ‘arch’ found in ‘monarchy’ or ‘oligarchy’) which can only be used in our relationship with Almighty God (as in Acts 5.29 and 32); it is never used of our approach to leaders or other people. So Christian leaders do not have such authority that requires and demands obedience. But, on the other hand, we should listen carefully and positively to our leaders in the expectation that their wishes are probably wise and right. So it is that the wrath of God abides on those who don’t peitho God’s own Son.
But let us not end this blog on that unhappy note. We rejoice in the glorious promise that those who are believing in him do have eternal life. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
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God so loved the World (John 3.16-21)

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Love

God – unfeeling and does nothing; passive and remote, irrelevant to everyday life on earth. So many people think of God in this way. How wrong they are! In reality, God has loved us and continues always to love us. How amazing to know that Almighty God with his absolute holiness and perfection actually loves people like us! What a sense of security, comfort and well-being his love can bring us! My wonderful wife knows me through and through; she knows my foibles and weaknesses, but continues to love me. Our children and grandchildren also have known us throughout their lives and know us rather well, but persist in loving us so much. The assurance, joy, security and contentment this brings is heart-warming. Of course God knows and understands us with all our sin and inadequacies far better even than our closest family. In his Gospel too John particularly emphasizes this life-changing, affirming love. Both here and in his letters he frequently refers to love, more than any other book in the Bible. God loves us, so we are called to love him, love our fellow-believers and indeed to love all people. God’s love pervades the whole of life. It should characterise all our relationships as God’s people. God’s love is fantastic – it changes everything and can bring light to a dark world.
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The World
Just like in chapter one (1.9/10), John repeats the word “world” four times (3.16/17), thus underlining the amazing extent of God’s love. His love stretches out beyond the borders of Israel to reach all peoples everywhere. Of course he continues to love his own chosen people Israel, but John underlines the universal nature of God’s love. He even loves the Romans who had conquered Israel with unbelievable ferocity and cruelty, destroying the temple and city of Jerusalem. And it was the Romans (not just the Jews!) who had crucified the Messiah Jesus. God’s all-embracing love not only extends to the furthest corners of the world, but also even reaches out to our enemies, to the hated or despised. Following the Lord, we too are called to loving mission into all the world.
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He Gave
When I was a small boy I used my precious pocket-money one week to buy a small trinket for my mother. She was deeply touched and kept that little dish for years. I have often advised Asian students at All Nations Christian College whose parents are strongly opposed to their faith in Jesus – ‘send your parents a gift from time to time!’ A gift demonstrates love. Love delights to give. God himself “so loved that he gave”. And what a gift! He sacrificed his only-begotten son. God loved us all so deeply that nothing, nobody could be too costly.
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Why?
God’s purpose in sending his only son to the world stands clearly before us. God longs for us all to have eternal life and not to be destroyed (3.16). That new God-given life begins now and continues on into eternity. So we ‘have’ (present tense) eternal life already, but we look for its perfection in the glory of the future.
Just as John repeated the word “world” for emphasis, so also he now repeats the word “believe” four times (3.16-18). God’s love is universal, but his gift of eternal life comes only to those who believe in Jesus. When speaking of ‘believing in Jesus’, John’s often-repeated use of the preposition eis/into indicates that such faith in Jesus means constant movement into ever-closer relationship with him. John’s eis/into relates closely to his use of pros/towards (translated as ‘with’ in 1.1 and as ‘into’ in 3.20). He calls us to trust Jesus more and more in an ever-closer relationship as we commit our lives to him and to his service.
Although Jesus in his absolute purity and sinless holiness stands in  sharp contrast with the unbelieving world whose “deeds were evil” (3.19) and who “loved darkness instead of light”, he did not come with the purpose of condemning the world (3.17). He came in love in order to give and to save. And the fruit of our faith shines with good works which stem from our being ‘in God’ (3.21). ‘Doing the truth’ and ‘coming towards the light’ (3.20/21) depend on God working by his Spirit in us – everything positive in our lives comes from God, not just from our own determination.
Living as we do in the so-called ‘post-truth society’, John’s often-repeated use of ‘truth’ speaks relevantly into our contemporary world. We desperately need truth and therefore trustworthiness in our everyday living, relationships and speech. No wonder John in later chapters will commonly call the Holy Spirit ‘the Spirit of Truth’!
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P.S. In speaking of the necessity of faith in Jesus as the condition for God’s gift of eternal life and salvation, we cannot but struggle with the question of pluralism and the Christian attitude to those of other faiths. In this context you may find two of my books relevant: “What about other Faiths?” (Hodder) and “One Way – Christian mission in a pluralist world” (Interserve/Kitab Publishers)

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New Life from Above (John 3.1-15)

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Meet Nicodemus
Nicodemus is immediately introduced as a Pharisee and one of Israel’s leaders, but at this early stage he is not yet sufficiently convinced about Jesus to risk his position. He therefore only approached Jesus “at night”. In 2.23/24 we saw that Jesus was less than enthusiastic about people who believed just because they saw his miracles, but this is exactly Nicodemus’ position. With Nicodemus however his hesitant approach towards faith in Jesus would lead on to more open and definite faith (c.f. 7.50 and 19.39). As so often in John’s Gospel faith and new life in Jesus come little by little as people move towards Jesus and come closer and closer to him. We may remember John’s two favourite prepositions – eis/into and pros/towards: prepositions of movement.
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New Life
Without any shilly-shallying around, Jesus answered Nicodemus with a strong “Truly truly” declaration that people can only see the kingdom of God if they are reborn. The Greek word here (anothen) normally means ‘from above’ (c.f. 3.31; 19.11; 19.23) – was it a misunderstanding by Nicodemus that started the traditional idea of being ‘born again‘? Was Jesus rather thinking of the Spirit pouring out his blessings from above as in Psalm 133 and Isaiah 32.15? Psalm 133 declares that “The Spirit is poured upon us from above” and consequently God’s rich blessings are “like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard . . . ” (Isaiah 32.15). In the early pictures of baptism in the Roman catacombs water is poured over the head of the new believer to signify the all-embracing  anointing of the Holy Spirit in new birth from above. So Jesus stresses that we must be born not only naturally and physically (using the picture of water), but it is also the work of the Spirit.
By means of the many repetitions of the word ‘can/cannot’ we are made aware of our human inadequacy. Without God being with them no-one can perform the miraculous signs which Jesus did (3.2); unless we are born from above we ‘cannot see the kingdom of God (3.3). Our inability stands in marked contrast with the two-fold “must” – “the Son of Man must be lifted up” (3.14) and we “must be born from above” (3.7). In the plan and purpose of God it was essential that Jesus should be lifted up in crucifixion and resurrection unto new life like Moses’ brass serpent (Numbers 21.4-9). Although bitten by a poisonous snake, anyone who looked up to that brass serpent would live. Likewise we must look up to Jesus in the cross and resurrection. Then the promise of eternal life comes to us. By looking to Jesus we too “must be born from above”, starting out on that great pilgrimage of eternal life in Jesus and by the Holy Spirit.
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What is that ‘New Life’?
 a) Life of Faith. In his recording of Jesus’ teaching, John constantly emphasizes our faith as the key that unlocks the way to eternal life. By this John means the abundant resurrection life which starts here on earth and continues eternally in the glorious presence of the Father. It is this faith in Jesus which leads to a life of total commitment in following Jesus as our Lord, our Master and our unique way to the Father.
b) The Kingdom of God.  Being born from above by the Spirit is the necessary condition for us to “see the kingdom of God” (3.3). Believing in Jesus means that we begin to live with him as king and we see what it means for his will to rule. Some Christians rightly understand the kingdom rule of God to mean that social, political and economic justice will prevail. Others equally rightly stress the miracle-working and healing power of Jesus as the outworking of his kingdom. In more recent years ecology and environmentalism have come centre-stage as marks of the kingdom rule of God. All such emphases reflect one particular aspect of the kingdom. The kingdom includes all of them, and much more! In the glorious perfection of God’s kingdom all evil, sin and tragedy are overcome. The ideal becomes reality. God’s absolute holiness, grace and love reign supreme.
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‘Believe in Jesus’ – ‘born from above by the Spirit’ – ‘see the kingdom of God’. And now John adds another point. Parallel to seeing the kingdom comes the promise that those who believe in Jesus will “have eternal life” (3.15). ‘Eternal life’ and ‘the kingdom’ are virtually synonymous. Having eternal life goes together with seeing and experiencing the kingdom. We are reminded of our total inability on our own to believe in Jesus, to find eternal life and to experience God’s kingdom. Such gifts are only possible by the working of the Holy Spirit. “The wind/Spirit blows wherever he wants” (3.8). We can never understand or manipulate for ourselves how God’s Holy Spirit will function, but he it is who breathes the new life of Jesus’ resurrection into us.
So we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!”
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