Monthly Archives: April 2019

Truth – a vital need in the 21st century

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Who believes politicians’ promises today? Political ‘double-talk’ comes in everywhere for cynical criticism. Even Churchill eighty years ago said, “I have told many lies for my country and will tell many more” (A. Roberts Churchill P.483). And in today’s society untruth permeates so much of our ordinary everyday life too. Businesses assure us that our order should arrive any moment now because they put in our order several days ago – can we be confident that they are speaking truth? Scam phone calls and emails break through our firewalls all too frequently. Fake news abounds and cyber theft has become the scourge of society, costing millions of pounds. Rogue builders and tree surgeons come to our doors with their offers, but can they be trusted? Trustworthy truth has become a rare commodity in our 21st century societies, even in our homes and everyday relationships.

God is Truth

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In John’s Gospel we see that truth holds a central place in the Christian faith and therefore also in our message for the world. This is underlined by the frequent use of the words ‘true’, ‘truly’ and ‘truth’. We are not surprised therefore that truth lies at the heart of God’s fundamental nature.

 

a) God the Father.

In his teaching Jesus emphasizes that God, the Father who sent Jesus into the world, is true (e.g. 3.33; 7.28;8.26 etc.). Because he is in his very essence the true God, therefore he can be trusted as always truthful. His promises in his Word are 100% reliable. He will never break his word. So Jesus assures his disciples that God’s testimony is consistently true.
Since truth characterizes the very nature of God, it follows naturally that “his word is truth” (17.17). As we allow the Bible as God’s revealed Word to mould our characters and thinking, God’s truth will increasingly determine what we do and are. So Paul comes out with the deeply challenging assertion that “we have the mind of Christ”, we think with the thoughts of Christ (1 Cor. 2.2). I confess that I am often tempted to pray “Lord, please give me the mind of Christ”, lacking Paul’s confident assurance. May we so study and imbibe the biblical Word of God that our thinking may mirror the very mind of Christ!
b) God the Son

Knowing that the Father is in his nature utterly true, we are by no means surprised to read how his Son Jesus the Messiah is also perfect truth. Thus in John 14.6 Jesus declares that he is not only the unique way to the Father and has the fullness of life in himself. He is also the truth. In our union with him by faith we are also called to live a life of trustworthy truth. As followers of Jesus our word is to be entirely true and honest. People around us should sense that they can trust what we say. We are branches attached to Jesus, the “true vine” (15.1).
c) God the Holy Spirit

I have some times asked people in a meeting to fill in the missing word in the sentence “we rejoice in the – of the Spirit”. Generally the answer comes back that we rejoice in the power of the Spirit. How gloriously true! The Spirit is revealed in the Book of Acts as the power of God in action. His miracle-working power strengthens our faith and can also convince outsiders of the reality of Jesus. But in John’s Gospel he is particularly revealed as “the Spirit of truth” (14.17; 15.26;16.13) and of course his very title as the Holy Spirit underlines also his holiness. So John’s Gospel declares that Jesus sends us the Spirit, who is the very essence and source of truth. He reminds the disciples of all that Jesus taught, and convinces the world of sin, righteousness and judgement (16.8-11). So we can trust the Holy Spirit of truth to lead God’s people increasingly into all truth (16.13).

The consequences of truth

a) Truth – Light – God’s glory

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If we live in accordance with God’s truth, we shall come into God’s light and escape the darkness of the world around us (3.21). It will then become clear to those around us that what we do stems from the working of God in and through us. So Jesus exhorts his disciples  to let their light (which comes from God’s light) so shine before people, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt.5.16).
John gives us an amazing picture of the dynamic relationships within the Trinity. He shows us that the great purpose of the Spirit is to point away from himself and lead us to Jesus; Jesus’ longing is to reveal and glorify the Father rather than himself, being himself the way and bringing his followers to the Father; The Father then glorifies the Son, who finally lays everything at the feet of the Father’s throne. Following the model of the Trinity, living in accordance with God’s truth, means that we no longer seek praise for ourselves, but rather honour one another. We also seek to bring others to love and honour God. With the aim that people should praise the Father rather than praising us, we become more like the three persons of the Trinity.

b) What is yet to come

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As Christians we have no need of fortune-tellers! The Spirit of Truth “will tell you what is yet to come” (16.13). However, there remains a limit to what he will tell us. So in Acts 1.7 Jesus’ disciples want to know whether he is now going to restore the kingdom to Israel. In reply he tells them that “it is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set”. Were the disciples badly disappointed at this gentle snub?! The Spirit does indeed tell us what we really need to know about the future, but he does not merely stoop to satisfy our curiosity. Mysteries remain even in biblical prophecy, let alone in contemporary prophecy through human channels today. In receiving words of knowledge through the continuing gift of prophecy, humility and discernment are needed. Like with biblical prophecy, we may expect prophecy today to include condemnation of sin and warnings of future judgment if we don’t repent (not just that revival will start with US!).

c) Truth brings freedom

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Discipline, duty and authority have become almost discredited concepts today. It is assumed that we all have the right to whatever pleases us – as long as it doesn’t hinder other people’s rights. In contrast, Jesus himself found perfect personal freedom while at the same time leading a life of entire obedience to the will of God. He did not seek his own pleasure and rights, but he gained fullness of life in doing the will of his Father. His obedience even included the horrendous suffering of the cross, the necessary and unavoidable route to the resurrection and ascension. But within the parameters of obedience to the Father he manifested perfect freedom.
Without the objective standard of God’s revealed truth our governments and society have no definite way of distinguishing good from evil. When John Major was Prime Minister in Britain he encouraged the nation with the call ‘back to basics’. More recently our government has pushed ‘British values’. But how do we determine what ‘basics’ or ‘British values’ consist of? Gender issues have particularly come to the fore in these debates. Only with God’s revealed truth can we find our way through the ethical mazes which confront our nation.
What a significant combination in 16.13 – the Spirit, truth and freedom! Through the working of the Spirit of truth we are liberated from the chains of selfishness, pride, greed and self-seeking ambition. With a true God-given freedom we can live at peace with all people even in situations of difficult relationships. As we honestly face the truth of what hurt us in past relationships and experiences, we can move towards healing and forgiveness. Even the binding consequences of childhood hurts can be broken by the Spirit’s gift of truth, pouring the balm of God’s love into our lives. Without the Spirit of truth such freedom is hard to come by.

d) The Spirit sanctifies
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In his great prayer recorded in John 17 Jesus asks the Father to ‘sanctify them (his followers) by the truth’ (17.17-19). Although we are called to remain in the world with all its evil, Jesus prays that we may be protected from the workings of ‘the evil one’ (17.15) and from all the sinful unbelieving culture which surrounds us. Jesus himself has given us the perfect model. He was fully identified with the culture and context of Jewish life in his day, but still wonderfully maintained his sinless perfection. Now in 17.19 he states that the goal of his own holy life was that his followers also might “be truly sanctified”. God’s great purpose for us as his disciples remains the same throughout history, namely that we should be like the Lord in his holiness (e.g.Lev. 11.44; 19.2; 1 Peter 1.15). We are called to be holy even as he is holy. As Christians we should stand out from the world around us as we shine with the truth and moral holiness of our lives and our relationships.

e) True worship
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The two-fold “true”/”truth” in John 4.23 reflects the vital importance of truth in our worship. The combination of a genuine relationship with and knowledge of the Lord, together with our worship being both in the Spirit and in truth, comes with striking relevance in our churches today. Sadly we have to confess that some people mirror Jesus’ accusation against the Samaritans that they ‘worship what they do not know’. Even today when traditional church-going has slipped out of fashion, still some follow a liturgy in which the Lord is unknown and even unknowable. Others may hold to forms which are very up-to-date culturally and musically, but the worship can become just a spiritual modern music concert with little or no emphasis on biblical truth. Still others may include brilliant biblical exposition with solid theological truth in their praying and singing, but this can easily become very cerebral and lack the vitality and dynamic of the Spirit. So Jesus firmly underlines that we are to worship the Father (not just Jesus! He is the way to the Father) “in spirit and in truth” (4.23/24). Only then can we experience true worship, worship in truth.

Truth?
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Many today would echo Pilate’s tragic question, “What is truth?” (18.38). The whole concept and practice of truth has become sadly alien in our modern society. And we all suffer as a result because the lack of truth and therefore of trustworthiness leads inevitably to broken relationships and lack of trust in each other. So, Jesus’ and John’s emphasis on truth comes with striking relevance as ‘good news’ for today’s world.
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The World – John’s message for our inter-ethnic world

The World – John’s message for our inter-ethnic world

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At a consultation in a local hospital here in England  I enjoyed meeting doctors and nurses from a wide variety of different countries. They responded so warmly when they discovered that I had been in their countries. After a while a British nurse came to treat me. “You are the first British nurse I have met this morning”, I said to her. Quickly with a nice smile she responded, “Actually there are several of us in this hospital!”
A similar experience stimulates me whenever I venture up to London. What a medley of languages with people from all over the world! I so enjoy trying to distinguish which language is being spoken by the people around me. English spoken with an English accent almost sounds something exotic!
Even our little village of Stanstead Abbotts now has people from a wide variety of countries living here. So John’s emphasis on ‘the world’  (the word ‘world’ is used almost 70 times in John’s Gospel) relates significantly in our multi-ethnic globalized societies. Our faith needs to relate to this inter-cultural and inter-ethnic context. No longer should our understanding of the Bible, our theological formulations or our evangelistic and teaching message be entirely Gentile and western in its nature. So, much of our ministerial and leadership training, our commentaries and theological books, our vision of church history, our homiletics in preaching, teaching, worship and personal witness needs a radical change. I have therefore greatly appreciated my years at All Nations Christian College with its strongly cross-cultural approach.
With all this in our mind we now turn to John’s teaching on ‘the world’.
Universality
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Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. The very early Christian church was also firmly grounded in its Jewish heritage. But John was writing later in the first century, by which time strong opposition had caused the Christian church to be increasingly separated from its Jewish roots. More and more Gentiles were coming to faith in Jesus as Lord and the church began the trend of becoming a Gentile movement. Paul evangelised Gentiles in southern Europe, Mark travelled into Egypt, Thomas probably started the church in southern India and Nathanael up into Armenia. So John had to face the questions that must have arisen from this situation. Did Jesus really intend Gentiles to come into his church? Or was it all a big mistake? Was Christianity to be merely a Messianic movement within Judaism or was it to be international? And were the Jewish and Gentile believers to be joined together in unity and love despite issues of the law and kosher foods?
Already in John’s Prologue he stresses that the new life in the Word of God was in itself/himself the light of all humanity, not just for Israel as in the Old Testament (1.4). Indeed the light shines in the darkness beyond the borders of God’s covenant people (1.5) with the aim that “all people might believe”. So God’s light was coming not just into Israel for the Jewish people, but also for the world, for everyone. As a consequence, the door to becoming children of God was now open also for non-Jews who were not the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By faith therefore Jew and Gentile alike can see the glory of Jesus (1.14). As brothers and sisters in Christ who have equally seen his glory, we are joined together in love. From the fullness of his grace we have together received grace and truth, one blessing after another (1.16).
a) No tribalism
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What can we deduce from John’s emphasis on ‘the world’ rather than just Israel? John was evidently standing against any Jewish separatism. Although we of course remain physically belonging to the race into which we were born, a new unity of love in Jesus the Messiah now determines our identity and our relationships. An individualistic failure to teach John’s emphasis on ‘the world’ can easily lead to jingoistic ethnic pride. As Christians we are challenged and rebuked by the example of Ruanda’s massacres, for Ruanda held a central place in the East African revival. How could committed Christians get involved in the inter-tribal Hutu-Tutsi slaughters? Had there been a lack of teaching on Jew-Gentile relationships in the New Testament? Personal salvation and relationship to the Lord without John’s teaching on ‘the world’ can have devastating consequences. The danger of tribalism, ethnic pride and racialism dogs us in every society all over the world. We need the challenge of John’s teaching on the ‘world’.
b) Environmentalism
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John starts his Gospel with the words “In the beginning” which he then repeats for emphasis in 1.2, a reminder of the Genesis teaching of God’s creation of the world. He goes straight on to underline that “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”. So John shows God’s concern not only for all people, but also all things. All creation comes from him, belongs to him and therefore needs to be treasured and cared for by us.
In this we may note a clear parallel with the teaching of Paul. Paul not only demonstrates God’s concern for all people and all peoples, Jew and Gentile. He also declares God’s purpose “to bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph.1.10). Likewise in his great Christological passage in Col.1.15-20 Paul shows God’s concern for “all things”. In our world today we desperately need this emphasis on valuing God’s creation, the ‘world’.
c) What a world!
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John unhesitatingly points to the sadly fallen nature of ‘the world’. Jesus testifies that what the world does is evil (7.7). As a result he is deeply aware that the world hates him. So he assumes that it stands under the satanic power of “the prince of this world” (12.31, 14.30; 16.11). It is into this fallen world that the all-righteous Lord comes down, leaving the glory of the all-righteous Father in heaven. And  Jesus sends his disciples, and now us as his followers, into the world with all its temptations and evil (17.18). Although he sends them and us to serve “in the world”, we need firmly to avoid becoming “of the world” (17.14-16). Therefore Jesus prays urgently that they and we may be truly sanctified by that truth which is found in God’s Word (17.17). As Christians we are required constantly to check that we have not been moulded by the beliefs and common behaviour of the world around us. Let us stick firmly to the moral standards of God as revealed to us in the Bible, undismayed by the inevitable opposition the world will fling at us. As the world hated Jesus so also we cannot escape suffering the severe opposition of the world (e.g. 17.14).
In its emphasis on ‘the world’ John’s Gospel gives us a life-giving message to proclaim. So we go into the world as servants of the Lord. God has come into the world in the person of Jesus the Messiah. He loves the world so much that he has come to take away its sin and bring his abundant and eternal life. Although Jesus highlights God’s judgment of this world, he himself has not come to judge the world (12.47). On the contrary, he has come to save the world. What grace and love! We cannot but stand back in reverent wonder at such grace when one considers the fearful evil and sin of the world.
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