Monthly Archives: June 2018

Jesus heals and works on the Sabbath (John 5.1-18)

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The Miracle

Walking to or from the temple one Sabbath day, Jesus passed the pool of Bethesda and saw there the pathetic figure of a man lying there. Traditionally the first person to get into the water when it was troubled would find healing. But this man had no-one to lower him into the water. He had been suffering from his illness for thirty eight years and now spent his days just lying on his mat among all the other seriously disabled people.
“Do you want to get well?”, Jesus asked him. After so many years of serious illness healing would mean a total change of life with all the challenges of looking after his own affairs. He intimated that he was looking for healing, but without much hope or expectation. Jesus then commanded him to get up, pick up his mat and walk. When Jesus speaks, things happen! “Immediately” the man was healed, picked up his mat and even walked around!
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The Sabbath

38 years of illness is an awful long time! But that man would surely not have minded waiting one more day before being healed. Jesus could so easily have avoided controversy and done the miracle the next day, on the Sunday rather than on the Sabbath. But Jesus clearly wanted to make a point.
With Genesis 2.2 and 3 in mind, people debated whether God just rests on the Sabbath and thus keeps his own law. But it was generally agreed that God must work also on the Sabbath because the world depends on his constant upholding. For his people too it would be impossible if God rested on the Sabbath and therefore was not available to keep, help and protect us. In rabbinic law it is also clear that one can work even on the Sabbath to get an animal out of a pit it has fallen into. If it is legal to work for the safety of an animal, how much more is it allowable to give a human being new life through a miracle of healing! So Jesus’ healing miracle does not really contravene the law whatever the Jewish leaders may have felt. His opponents however objected to him commanding the  man to pick up his mat and carry it – that is definitely against the Law!
Significantly the Greek word used in 5.18 means that Jesus ‘loosened’ the Sabbath law, not that he ‘broke’ it. In this passage Jesus is not ‘breaking’ the law and thus denying the whole idea of Sabbath for his followers. He softened the rigid rules concerning Sabbath. The principle of God’s gift of one-day-a-week rest is graciously continued, but rigid rules no longer bind us.

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God works (5.17)

Jesus declares that his Father and he also are constantly working – 5.17 uses continuous present tenses. For most Christians it has become irrelevant whether God works six days a week or seven. But we may feel that God doesn’t work in our day and in our context. Some may therefore look back with spiritual nostalgia to the good old days when God used to work in Britain!
Actually however Jesus and his Father never stop working – even in Britain! Not only are black churches growing apace, but also Iranian, Afghan, Chinese, Korean and others. And we may observe growing lively city churches and cathedrals which are inter-ethnic, but largely ethnic English. Even in our village in Stanstead Abbotts we are encouraged by one or two who are moving into the church and into faith in Jesus.
Our faith in the Lord who never stops working is further nourished by God’s church in Africa, Asia and South America. We rejoice in the phenomenal growth of the church in China. The church in Lanzhou which we have particularly associated with has a Sunday congregation of some 4,000 adults. It also has 68 smaller daughter churches with little congregations of 150-450 adults and then also over a hundred emerging ‘preaching stations’ with under 150 adults on a Sunday. The Father and Jesus are indeed at work!

Equal with God?
 By stating that the Father and he are both at work, Jesus is clearly linking himself to God on an equal basis. To Israel’s leaders this constituted blasphemy. But Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father lies at the very heart of John’s Gospel – “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30), Jesus later declares. Jesus was with the Father before the Father sent him to earth to live, die and be resurrected among us. And in his ascension he returned to the glory of his Father, thus opening the door for us as his disciples to ascend with him to the Father’s glory.
Jesus constantly refers to God as his Father. Israel’s leaders very customarily and rightly saw themselves as the ‘children of God’, but they didn’t normally think of God being Father to each one personally. Such intimacy in relationship with God the Father seemed too presumptuous and almost blasphemous. So Israel’s leaders “tried all the harder to kill him” (5.18). They denied Jesus’ right to claim equality with God as his Father and thus also have the right to loosen the Sabbath. From now on, fanatical opposition to Jesus began to dog his life and ministry; the shadow of his impending cross hung over him like Damocles’ sword.
As Jesus’ followers we too may suffer strong opposition to our faith in Jesus Christ as the unique Lord, one with God as his Father. Biblical faith in Jesus as Lord not only denies that Caesar is Lord, as in New Testament times. It may also be considered what is called ‘religious extremism’ and thus incur the wrath of the “muscular liberalism” which OFSTED [Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills] threatens. Such intolerance should not deter us from believing and declaring that Jesus is indeed like the Father, the one true Lord and Saviour.

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Abundant new life in Galilee (John 4.43-54)

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New Life
Jesus’ healing of the royal official’s son rounds off the section of John’s Gospel chapters 2-4. In Chapter 2 Jesus demonstrates the reality of exciting newness of life in turning mere water into a super-abundance of the tastiest best wine (2.1-11). Following this he cleanses the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple to open the door for this new life to reach out not only to Israel, but also to the Gentiles (2.12-24). Jesus particularly relates this cleansing and new life for the Gentiles to his coming Resurrection (4.19-22) – Jesus is raised unto new life and believers in him also experience his resurrection life on earth. In Chapter 3 Jesus teaches Nicodemus the need for birth from above, new life by the Spirit. This glorious new life becomes available to those who believe in Jesus through his atoning sacrificial death as the Lamb of God (1.29); “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (3.36). This promised gift of life may involve the true believer in suffering (3.24), but those who follow Jesus testify to the trustworthy truth of Jesus and the words of God he conveys to us (4.31-34).
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So Chapters 2 and 3 form the introduction to chapter 4 where Jesus brings new life and the clear revelation of himself as Messiah to the Samaritan woman. He thus broadens the borders of God’s kingdom to include not only Jews, but also now Samaritans and Gentiles unto the ends of the earth. These three chapters about new life through faith in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel who also brings his gift of life to all people, conclude with the healing of the royal official’s son in 4.43-54. We immediately note how John emphasizes Jesus’ gift of life (4.50, 51, 53) in the context of imminent death (4.47, 49).
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By Faith

 Another key word in this passage is the Greek ‘Oun’/’therefore’. John’s use of this word underlines the direct sequence of what is happening. “When therefore he went to Galilee” (4.45) and “he went therefore again to Cana of Galilee” (4.46) – “Jesus therefore said to him, ‘if you don’t see signs and wonders, you won’t believe'” (4.48) – “He enquired therefore the time when the healing began” and “They therefore said to him that the fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour” (4.52) – “The father therefore knew . . .” (4.53). What a sequence of one thing leading to another! And the climax is that the official and his household came to believe in Jesus.
We may observe how John starts the sequence with Jesus leaving Judea and Jerusalem for Galilee. He carefully underlines the importance of this change of location. His reference to this healing miracle as the “second sign” probably means the second sign in Galilee – Jesus had evidently done various  miracles in Jerusalem. While Jerusalem would become the centre of opposition, “the Galileans welcomed him” (4.45). Nevertheless Jesus remains somewhat sceptical about people’s apparent faith. He points out that their faith is merely based on seeing sensational “miraculous signs and wonders” (4.48). Such expressions of faith are shallow and unreliable. Will such professions of faith survive under the pressures of suffering or persecution?
The royal official’s faith in Jesus came before his son was healed, so it was not based just on seeing the miracle. He “believed in the word which Jesus spoke to him” (4.50) – and he acted on it.
“And he and all his household believed” (4.53). In many cultures still today decisions are often taken communally – households, families, groups working together, people living in one particular housing area etc. We experienced such group decisions for Christ in Indonesia. For example, we had the joy of witnessing a whole hospital ward coming together to faith and through us a boys’ high school of 500 teenagers became Christians. Western individualism is not the only biblical model! God also works in tribes, clans and peoples. He brings crowds of 3,000 and 5,000 to himself (Acts 2.41 and 4.4). God delights in whole households unitedly believing and following him.

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What is our ‘meat and drink’? (John 4.27-38)

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Jesus’ disciples returned from the town to find him “talking with a woman” (4.27). Outrageously unacceptable and compromising! So the disciples were curious to ask,  “What are you seeking? What are you talking about with her?” (we may note the repeated “What” – Greek ti – not, as in some translations  ‘What’ and ‘Why‘) These questions were on the tip of their tongues, but somehow no-one actually asked him. It would seem too that they had little idea of Jesus’ wide kingdom purposes in revealing himself as Messiah to a sinful Samaritan woman.

The Samaritan woman was not sure, but she was so excited with the possibility that Jesus might even be the Messiah that she left her bucket behind as she rushed back into the town to tell everyone about him. Telling people about Jesus had priority over the everyday necessity of drawing water! How encouraging for us that her new and uncertain faith (“Could this be the Christ?”) led to the start of a major movement of God’s Spirit among the Samaritans! Let’s pray that our wavering witness may also lead to a major movement of the Spirit in our town or village in spite of our lack of sure faith!

Jesus’ Priority

Was the Samaritan woman’s pressing call to tell people about Jesus the introduction in John’s mind to Jesus’ words, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work”? (4.33) As with the Samaritan woman leaving her bucket behind, so also for Jesus the Father’s will and work has priority over mere food. His ‘meat and drink’ lies in doing and completing the Father’s purposes. As Jesus’ followers we are challenged to ask ourselves whether we are like Jesus. What are our dreams and aims in life? Does the work of God have priority over everything else? That leads us to the further question: What is God’s purpose and call for us?
a) To do the Father’s will
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As distinct from ‘completing’ God’s work, the word ‘do’ implies initiating and working on some new ministry for the Father. In every walk of life new developments await someone of vision and courage. This is true too of mission both in Britain and overseas. Many of our churches need a breath of fresh air with new forms of evangelistic outreach and social or environmental care. Ethnic minority communities and asylum seekers often remain untouched by the good news of Jesus. Some churches consist very largely of people from a particular age-range or educational level, but fail to reach out effectively to others. Overseas also whole areas of a country may remain without anyone coming to start Christian work there. This is particularly true of some Muslim and strongly Buddhist countries. Large high-rise housing estates may have no Christian witness. We need Christians who can get such ministries started. How well I remember going to one Muslim village after another in South Thailand, knowing that I was the first Christian ever to have shared the good news of Jesus there. I remember particularly too driving through East Thailand on a local lorry, knowing that each place we passed through remained still unevangelised. What a challenge!
b) To complete the Father’s work
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The word ‘complete’ implies the climax and perfection of something which has already been worked on. So Jesus is the completion and climax of God’s Law/Torah (Romans 10.4 – the completion, not the ‘end’ of the Law) and finally on the cross he cries out, “It is finished”, using the same word which declares that his death on the cross is the glorious completion of his life and work. In us also as his followers he ‘completes’ the good work he has been doing in us (Philippians 1.6). Jesus by his Spirit not only initiates his work in us by bringing us to faith and new life, but then brings his work in us to completion. We all rejoice when someone gets converted and is born again, but Jesus’ concern always goes beyond that. His purpose is that we should grow into maturity. Babies are beautiful, but 20-year old babies are a tragedy!
Evangelism without on-going teaching goes against Jesus’ pattern in the will and work of the Father. Likewise Church planting without further Bible teaching, the sanctifying work of the Spirit and training for evangelism and service fails to follow the model of Jesus, whose meat and drink was both to do and to complete the will and work of the Father.
The Harvest

Having declared that his food is doing and completing God’s work, Jesus immediately turns to the disciples with the accusation: “Do you not say ‘four months more and then the harvest?'” The original Greek emphasizes the word “you”. So, unlike Jesus himself, his disciples deny the urgency of reaping the harvest by postponing things. “There’s still four months, so we can twiddle our thumbs and have a holiday”. Living in a country village now, I notice that when the harvest is ripe, the farmers don’t take a holiday. They work hard into the night to gather the harvest before it is spoiled by rain. “We can’t do evangelism yet”, some people say, “first we need to discuss it in our leaders’ meeting; then we will need a year of prayer and then a training course”. There are yet four months (or longer!) before the harvest! Of course prayer and training are much needed for mission, but let’s not lose our sense of urgency.
Jesus then urges his disciples to lift up their eyes and look at the fields, for they are actually “already ripe for harvest” (4.35). They should not merely glance at the fields, but examine them carefully. We also need to study the people around us and the needs of our society, so that we become deeply convinced of the ripe harvest all around us. And God’s purposes always include all people everywhere, so we need to learn about other parts of the world too with their different religions, cultures and needs. We can rejoice that God is allowing us to live in times when there are wonderfully ripe harvest fields. People in Britain are increasingly aware that there must be more to life than what they have got. Many ethnic minority communities are wide open to the good news of Jesus. And the church in many countries overseas is growing apace with urgent need of help in evangelism, Bible teaching and training for service. The fields are indeed ripe!
Sent to reap

“I sent you to reap”, Jesus declares (4.38). When had he sent his disciples? Was he referring to their initial call to follow him when he had told them that he would make them “fishers of men” (Matthew 4.19)? Or was it when he sent out the 12 and then the 70 (Luke 9 and 10)? Whenever it was, Jesus makes it clear that they (and we!) are called to reap the harvest. Clearly Jesus is thinking of evangelistic ministry, for he says that the harvest leads to eternal life (4.36).

The one who reaps has the advantage of ‘drawing their wages’ as well as having the joy and excitement of seeing the harvest gathered in. When we have the privilege of reaping the harvest, it is good to remember that we are entering into other people’s labours. They have done the hard work. They sow and we reap, but both rejoice together (4.36). Some of us may be called to evangelistic witness without seeing much fruit from our work. Others may have the joy of reaping. When I worked in South Thailand, we all evangelised widely. It was indeed hard and apparently unrewarding work with no-one at that time coming to believe in Jesus. Then I was granted my visa for Indonesia and moved to North Sumatra. It was a time of mass movement there and we reaped the harvest. Thousands of people became Christians and multitudes of lives were radically changed by the work of God’s Spirit and the preaching of God’s Word (see Elizabeth’s life story “God can be Trusted” and my “Life’s Tapestry”). What a privilege to reap the harvest which resulted from the labours of former missionaries and local Christians! I some times point out that I didn’t have a revival experience on the plane from Thailand to Indonesia! I was just as bad a missionary in Indonesia as I had been in South Thailand! The sower and reaper have equal worth and rejoice equally in the harvest which God produces. To him be the glory!

P.S. To train for God’s work with biblical cross-cultural teaching, let me recommend All Nations Christian College. Such training will be tremendously helpful both for service in the multi-cultural and inter-ethnic context of Britain as well as for any form of work overseas. We would all benefit from such further training, whether in a short course or longer.

PPS – from editor – a very happy birthday to Martin on June 12 – if you are enjoying this blog, do send him a birthday greeting! 
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