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Blemishes in the Church (Jude 11-16)

Blemishes in the Church (Jude 11-16)

coca cola kosher.jpgA biblical theology of food? And of eating together? A smile comes over our faces as we think of such an idea! But actually in the Bible food and eating play a major part in God’s revelation and Jude 12 assumes the central part our ‘love feasts’ play. As we read our Bibles, let’s note its emphasis on eating and food. In Jewish culture, as also in most Asian cultures, eating together carries very considerable significance. Although the Greek in verse 12 does not include the word ‘feasts’, the translation ‘love feasts’ (12) conveys the right sense – perhaps a better term than ‘Holy Communion’, ‘Eucharist’, ‘Lord’s Supper’ or ‘Breaking of Bread’? As we eat together, we should be rejoicing in close-knit love and fellowship as sisters and brothers, children of our Heavenly Father. And we should be tucking into a real feast, not just a meagre crumb of bread and a sip of wine (or, worse still, some insipid red cordial!). The Jewish Seder, the foundation of the Christian Love Feast, sets an example as the best meal possible and a significant time of family love.
With this background in mind, we note what Jude says in verse 12 as he warns his readers with vivid imagery. We are reminded that certain ungodly men were ‘slipping in’ among the Christians Jude is writing to (4). Now he complains that these men are blemishes, corrupting the fellowship of the ‘Love Feasts’. And what a contrast with Jesus who lovingly feeds us with his own self-sacrifice! These self-styled leaders “feed only themselves”. Boasting about themselves and seeking their own status in the church (16), they are like clouds which fail to deliver the longed-for rain and autumn fruit trees which produce no harvest (12). Like dead ‘wandering stars’ they give no light and are destined for eternal darkness (12). Verse 13 then likens these ungodly men to “wild waves of the sea”.
Israel always feared the sea, for invading armies came across the water. Indeed the Hebrew word (chamah) for a breaking wave denotes  agonizing pain. Chamah is also used for the writhing of a slaughtered chicken about to die and fluttering around in the dust. It is used with poignant significance in Jeremiah 31.20 of the pain in God’s heart as he sees the sin of his much loved Ephraim. In his total holiness God judges the people he loves so much, but in this verse with tragic pathos God confesses, “my heart yearns/chamah for him”. We cannot but smile at the old KJV translation “my bowels are troubled”! Heaven seems to be afflicted with ‘Delhi belly’! But our humour is deadly serious as we consider the fearful judgement of God.
Clouds without rain, trees without fruit, stars wandering in darkness, waves breaking with foaming chaos – what a catalogue of descriptions from nature to demonstrate how the ministry of these ungodly men is all self-centred show with no fruit resulting from it. No wonder Jude declares “Woe to them!” (11). You can’t play about with God in his holiness. For them only “blackest darkness has been reserved for ever” (13) – the exact opposite of the glorious eternal life (21) which God promises to all who trust and follow Jesus.
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Woe to them – followers of Cain, Balaam and Korah (11)
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Such a disappointment! With the promise of Genesis 3.15 in her mind and heart, Eve presumed that her new-born baby would be the one to ‘strike Satan’s head’ and reverse their sin. So in Genesis 4.1 she exclaims, “I have brought forth the man, the Lord”. Calvin in his commentary on Genesis says that the actual sense of the Hebrew is impossible, so adds “with the help of” which is not in the text and changes the whole meaning of Eve’s expectation. Cain certainly didn’t turn out to be the longed-for messianic saviour! In fact, following Cain (Genesis 4) means that Jude’s readers are fostering bitter division between brothers and sisters.
Balaam (Numbers 22-24).
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Although Balak, king of Moab, offered Balaam a handsome reward if he would put a curse on Israel, God’s own people (Numbers 22.17, 37; 24.11), Balaam consistently insisted that even a palace-full of gold and silver could not deter him from following only the Lord’s commands (22.18; 24.13). But nevertheless, against the specific will of God, Balaam ‘went with the princes of Moab’ (22.21). Cruelly too he beat his donkey and the Lord’s angel asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times?”  But Jude denounces these ungodly men, accusing them of ‘rushing for profit’ into the errors Balaam faced (Jude 11). Balaam had gained a bad reputation not only for disobedience to God and for animal cruelty, but also for giving bad advice and in defending the women who caused the people of Israel to turn away from the Lord at Peor (Numbers 31.16). Although Balaam commonly saw visions of the Lord and heard the words of God (Numbers 24.4), he was also known for his practice of sorcery (Numbers 24.1). Table fellowship with Balaam-like men in a Love Feast faces us with a problem!
Korah  (Numbers 16.1-35, 26.9-11)
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After all the excitement of their liberation from slavery in Egypt, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the Law at Sinai, patient trust in Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership faced severe testing. As one day followed another, year after year for 40 years in the wilderness, the divine menu of manna lost its appeal too. Korah and his friends Dathan and Abiram began to rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, although they had been clearly chosen and appointed by God himself. Moses discerned the reality that by their rebellion they were ‘treating the Lord with contempt’ (Numbers 16.30). He therefore foresaw that ‘the earth would open its mouth and swallow them’ (Numbers 16.30). What a precedent to those in Jude’s day who were “grumblers and fault-finders” (Jude 16), the typical sins of Israel in those wilderness years!

Judgment (Jude 14-16)  
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Following his use of the description ‘ungodly’ in verse 4, Jude now in verse 15 underlines it by repeating the word four times in rapid succession. Matching this, Jude also repeats the word ‘all’  four times. God’s judgment will not only fall on these ungodly men themselves, but also on all who are associated with them. Jude follows Enoch in prophesying of God’s impending judgment. With his opening command “See!” Jude urges his readers to keep their eyes open, so that they are well prepared for what is coming. The Lord is coming to judge and convict. Such judgment lies in the hands of “thousands upon thousands of his holy ones” – a host of angels? Or of God’s redeemed people in glory? In either case the Lord himself is coming “in” (not “with” as in the NIV translation) this multitude of his servants. By his Spirit God indwells his people and uses them in the ministry of judgment. This divine judgment starts now in church discipline, but continues into the final day of judgment.

Happily we are reminded by the story of Korah that God’s judgment is not the final word. Grace and mercy in God’s loving kindness continue beyond even Korah’s sad end. Numbers 26.11 wonderfully declares that “The line of Korah, however, did not die out”. Let us remind ourselves of our dependence on God’s totally unmerited grace! Hallelujah!
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Jude – an introduction

Jude – an introduction

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Having got something of the feel of this Epistle through our study of Jude 1-10, let us now look more generally at his letter.
What an Epistle! Having been immersed in John’s Gospel and letters for so long, Jude comes as quite a shock! Even the style of language differs markedly from John’s beautifully simple Greek. Jude’s use of Greek has been described with adjectives like ‘rugged’, ‘forceful’, ‘vivid’ and ‘pictorial’. And his range of vocabulary stretches more widely than John’s. But we must not overlook the fact that his subject matter demands strong language.

Ever since the first centuries and still today controversy has raged concerning the identity of the author and of those to whom the letter is addressed. Likewise the early church remained uncertain whether this little letter should be included in the canon of Scripture. Although it was included in the Muratorian Canon (about AD 170), doubt remained even as late as Jerome (AD 347-420). Jude’s description of the Christian message as “the faith once delivered to the saints” (3) seems to indicate a later date, for this expression was probably not used in the first century. On the other hand a close parallel exists between Jude and 2 Peter chapter 2. It seems likely that 2 Peter used Jude’s letter. If that is so, clearly Jude must have been written before 2 Peter and therefore in the first century.

It is noteworthy that both Peter and Jude encountered something of the same problem. Does this indicate that false teachers with their unholy life-styles were commonly infiltrating into the churches and spreading their ungodly influence? How true is this of our churches today? And is it a problem too in our particular congregation? If so, what can we learn from Jude in dealing with this situation?

Like John’s first letter, Jude’s Epistle is headed with the title “The general/catholic letter of Jude”. This means that Jude is not writing to any one particular church or person, so this letter is for all churches more generally. But it would seem that Jude had some particular church in mind when he describes how certain men had “slipped in among you” (4). And verse 3 also appears to indicate some particular church. Jude’s use of “Beloved” sounds very personal, as does also his longing to write about “the salvation we share”. Perhaps we need to bear in mind that the title ‘general’/catholic  is itself a later addition (as also the division of the text into chapters and verses). The title is not part of the God-breathed (2 Timothy 3.16) revelation of God’s Word.

The Author: “A slave of Jesus Christ and a brother of James” (1)

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In his letter Jude assumes that his readers know the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (7), Cain and Abel, Balaam and Korah (11). He also refers without explanation to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and their consequent unbelief in the wilderness (5).  On the assumption that his readers would even know some of the inter-testamental stories in the Apocrypha, he unhesitatingly uses The Assumption of Moses (9) and The Book of Enoch (14). So we see that he was evidently writing for churches that were strongly Jewish. This conservatively Jewish feel leads us to deduce  that this letter’s recipients were located in Jerusalem and the land of Israel. No wonder he starts his letter by introducing himself as James’ brother. As leader of the church in Jerusalem James had a special influence and respect. So Jude was writing to churches which will have looked up to James quite particularly. Being James’ brother also therefore gives Jude considerable authority. How wise Jude was to start his letter in this way! Does this verse give us too biblical warrant for name-dropping and pulling strings?!

It is generally accepted that James was Jesus’ brother (Galatians 1.19), so Jude must also have been Jesus’ younger brother. This makes his references to Jesus all the more remarkable. Thus he starts his letter by stating that he is “a slave of Jesus Christ”. Fancy calling ourselves our older brother’s slave! He even declares that Jesus Christ is uniquely “our only Sovereign and Lord” (4). And he not only calls his brother by name; in fact he always adds his title as Christ/Messiah (1, 4, 17, 21, 25). And he concludes the letter with the affirmation that his brother is “our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore” (25). In addition he declares that God our Saviour sends his glory, majesty, power and authority through Jesus Christ (25). Even taking the resurrection into account, what faith Jude had to be able to see all this in his own brother – and believe it with all his heart!

Jude’s Purpose
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Jude would have loved to walk in John’s shoes. John dedicates his whole Gospel to sharing the good news of abundant life now and eternal life for ever, love, truth and joyful relationships of unity to all who believe in Jesus as the one who has been sent by the Father into the world. In Jude 3 we read that Jude “was very keen to write to you about the salvation we share”. He would have been glad to share this positive message, but sadly he was faced with churches in desperate danger and so felt compelled rather to deal with that situation. He addresses these churches as “Beloved” (3), not just “Dear friends” as in the NIV  translation. He observes that they “have been called” (1); they are specially chosen by God to be his beloved children. So Jude tells them that they are “loved by God the Father”. I find it amazing and so heart-warming that my wife Elizabeth, our children and grandchildren love me so wonderfully – and it is even more amazingly comforting and life-giving that Almighty God the Father loves me and wants me as his child. What ‘good news’ the Gospel is! In spite of the terrible danger they face, they are also “kept by Jesus Christ”. We all need that assurance that Jesus Christ will keep us and not allow us to fall from grace when we face the temptation to wander from our faith and commitment to the Lord.

So what is the problem? Those churches had allowed certain “ungodly” men (note the emphasis through the repetition of this description four times in verse 15) to infiltrate into the church. Does the expression “shepherds who feed only themselves” (12) show that they had even become leaders (shepherds of the flock) in the church with an open door to teach and preach? In his deep distress Jude piles up words of strong invective against these people. They are indeed ungodly, changing God’s grace into “a licence for immorality” and they “deny Jesus Christ” (4). They even use “harsh words” against the Lord (15) and like Israel in the wilderness they ‘grumble and find fault’ (16). Like so many in our society today, they follow whatever they desire for their own pleasure (16). With unchecked pride they also “boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage” (16). As a preacher and conference speaker, I commonly receive requests for a self-introductory bio and listen to flattering introductions in meetings – how easily pride can enter in!

Jude also calls these men ‘fleshly’ (Greek psuchikoi) and accuses them of ‘dividing’ people (19). The Gnostic heresy seems to have been forming in those days. It taught that the ‘spiritual’ was radically different from the material or ‘fleshly’. Thus they considered the creator God of the Old Testament to be merely ‘fleshly’ because he had created the material world. The New Testament ‘spiritual’ God, they believed, would not create anything material, so he placed various emanations or aeons between himself and the creation of the material world. So they taught that Jesus was one of those evil emanations, unspiritually fleshly. No wonder Jude sounds so angry in his denunciation of these men! No wonder he follows the pattern of most of the Old Testament prophets and warns of fearful judgment unless they repent! And he also warns his readers that “these are the men who divide you” (19). They teach that some of the Christians are more ‘spiritual’ while others are more ‘fleshly’, a hierarchy of spirituality in the church of God. Jude declares that they themselves don’t have the true Spirit. Let us also be careful not to build such hierarchies in our churches today!

Conclusion

Unsurprisingly Jude’s letter remains little known in our European churches except the final two verses which are often used as a final benediction at the end of a meeting. The overall tone of the letter stands out as alien to the more polite and conciliatory approach particularly of British Christians. Such a direct confrontational approach is hardly acceptable in Britain even where sin and heretical teaching threaten to corrupt God’s church! Is this a right adaptation to the contemporary British cultural background, or does it stem from a lack of passionate concern for the Lord’s glory and therefore for truth and holiness in his church? Let us ask God for an honest answer to this question!
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Limited Tolerance? (Jude 1-10)

Limited Tolerance? (Jude 1-10)
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In our modern world tolerance stands out as an unquestionable virtue. Any intolerance will be greeted with firm intolerance! Society today demonstrates tolerance for tolerance, but intolerance towards anything it deems intolerant. This relates to inter-faith issues as well as to ethical and gender debates. Christian affirmations of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and Saviour, the Christian faith as absolute truth and biblical teaching as the ultimate plumb-line in issues of morality and gender may arouse strong opposition. Such definite faith can sound terribly intolerant today. But the letter of Jude sees things differently from our contemporary world-view.

Introduction (1 and 2)
As was usual in the first century, Jude starts by introducing himself as the author of the letter. Like Paul in his letters, he asserts that he is a slave of Jesus Christ. In the Roman empire of that time slavery was an all too common phenomenon, but the apostles rejoiced in the privilege of total submission to Jesus in every side of life. Their whole aim and desire was to serve and follow the Lord. Let slavery to Jesus be our boast and ambition too!
Jude also declares his credentials as the brother of James (Jesus’ brother?), the leader of the church in Jerusalem itself. At that time, as we may see from Acts 15.13 and from Paul’s disclaimer in Galatians 1, James and the Jerusalem church exercised considerable influence. As “a slave of Jesus Christ and a brother of James”, Jude’s words carry authority. And the heading over the letter of Jude states that this is a “general” (Greek catholic = universal) letter, so its teaching relates to all the Christian church, not just to one particular congregation. It comes to us also as God’s Word.
Jude then addresses his letter to those who are “called, loved in God the Father and kept in (there is no preposition in the Greek, so it could be ‘by’ or ‘for’) Jesus Christ”. These words remind us of God’s amazing grace – we have been chosen and called by the Father to be his children; God’s heart-warming love enfolds us; he promises to keep us in his love, so we have the comfort of absolute assurance. Being called, loved and kept we now receive Jude’s message as God’s word to us – even if it does sound intolerant to other people!

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No open fellowship (3 and 4)
Evidently in the churches Jude is relating to there was a problem. Certain ‘godless’ (Greek asebeis signifies non-worshipping, not devout) men had slipped into their fellowship and presumably were influencing others with their wantonly lascivious immorality and their false teaching.
They were teaching that God’s grace allows us freedom to sin freely, knowing that God’s forgiveness covers all sin. In fact this implies that the more you sin, the greater is God’s grace and forgiveness. Such false teaching with its blatant immorality can be paralleled in the similar Muslim ‘Drunken Sufis’ movement and within the Jewish ‘Sabbatianism’, following Sabbatai Tsevi (1626-1676). The sinful human heart loves a good religious excuse for immorality.
Jude goes on to give a specific definition of false teaching. They were denying Jesus Christ as “our one Sovereign (the Greek word from which we get the English ‘despot’) and Lord”. In the New Testament God alone, with his Son Jesus Christ, has authority over us. As Christians we need to resist the tendency of political or church leaders who may claim authority and demand our obedience. But Jesus does have full authority over us and rightly demands our total obedience.
So we may observe how denial of Jesus’ authority goes hand in hand with “a licence/freedom for immorality”. Both in society generally, and in individual lives personally, true faith in Jesus will lead to greater moral goodness; and likewise godlessness inevitably opens the door to greater evil and immorality both individually and in society more generally. For example, the decline in the British church has led to enormous moral problems in society which our government and police can never overcome.
Jude is warning the churches not to allow godless, immoral people to slip into their fellowship and introduce their approach into the church. There is a limit to our tolerant welcome of such people.

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Judgment (5-10)
Like all good Jews, Jude immediately relates the situation to God’s deliverance of his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. So he reminds his readers of the Passover which remains as the foundation of Israel’s faith and redemption. But Jude does not dwell on that gloriously positive note. Rather, he immediately moves on to the consequent judgment on those who later failed to trust and believe in the Lord. God “destroyed those who did not believe” (5).
So Jude goes on to remind us all that sin and immorality will incur the fearful judgment of God. Even the angels, who failed to maintain their position of authority and  abandoned their own heavenly home, are kept by God in darkness and everlasting chains (6). If angels await God’s judgment on that “great day”, we may be sure that we, mere humans, will also face God’s judgment if we allow the wrong people to infiltrate our fellowship and lead us astray.
To underline his warning of the coming judgment, Jude goes on to cite various Old Testament examples. He starts in verse 7 with the striking story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) whose sin paralleled the problem Jude is addressing. The “godless men” (Jude 4) practise “immorality” (4) and “pollute their own bodies” (8) with sexual perversion, so God’s fearful destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah comes as a pertinent word to Jude’s readers lest they too allow themselves to be led into such sin.
It is not easy to stand against people within our fellowship whose lives and teaching are leading people astray both in their faith and in their moral standards. None of us enjoy such confrontations. How easy it is to avoid them with nice-sounding words of love, grace and tolerance! And very few churches today actually practise biblical church discipline. Even to read or write in a blog about judgment, confrontation and church discipline raises all sorts of questions. But God’s warnings in Jude need to be taken seriously.
Our passage concludes with the strange reference to the archangel Michael disputing with Satan about possession of Moses’ body after his death (9). Origen says that this story is based on an apocryphal book called “the Assumption of Moses”, in which Satan was said to have claimed the right to snatch away the body of Moses because Moses had murdered an Egyptian and because Moses’ body was physical and therefore evil (a typical Gnostic heresy). But the Jewish Targum on Deuteronomy 34.6 states that Michael was the appointed guardian of Moses’ grave. Jude points out that in this story even the archangel avoided the unpleasantness of actually accusing Satan of sin and error, but somewhat weakly says “The Lord rebuke you!” And if an archangel does not “dare to bring a slanderous accusation” (9) against Satan, is it surprising that Jude’s readers also fail to confront the men who have “secretly slipped in among you” (4)? But such failure may lead to other Christians denying Jesus Christ as “our only Sovereign and Lord” (4) and allowing gross immorality within the congregation.
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For our discussion
How can we balance Jude’s message of confrontation with our message of grace, love and forgiveness?
Are there people (even church leaders?) in our congregation whose teaching and life-style are leading other Christians astray?

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Truth and Love (3 John)

Truth and Love (3 John)

As we come to the end of John’s three letters, we face yet again his tremendous repeated emphasis on truth and love. ‘Truth’ comes seven times in this short letter, while ‘love’/’beloved’ comes six times.

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Truth
“The whole purpose of life is to make money”, I heard recently. But how about the poor, the pensioner or the unemployed, none of whom are succeeding in making money? What is the real purpose of life? How can we know? And how can we discern what is right or wrong? Is making money or seeking our own pleasure the ultimate yard-stick by which we measure everything? If I live for money, how can I relate to you if you are only seeking your own welfare and pleasure?
The Bible sees things through totally different eyes. Truth is more important than money. Again and again in John’s writings we have noted his emphasis on Jesus as the truth. And therefore as his followers we too are called to walk in the truth – not money-grubbing. So in this lovely personal letter of 3 John he declares that he loves Gaius “in the truth” (1) and rejoices that Gaius is faithful to the truth and is walking in the truth (verses 3 and 4). In verse 12, also, the truth joins with everyone to speak well (literally ‘witness’) of Demetrius. John asserts that his own witness is also true.
In Jesus we have the genuine truth which forms a solid basis for everything in life. As we live, think and speak in accordance with that truth, our whole life increasingly reflects the nature and character of God himself. Like the apostle Paul we shall “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor.2.16), discerning right from wrong like him, becoming truly trustworthy like him, living lives of purity and holiness like him, serving God and other people like him etc.
How then can we come to know the truth? As we have observed, the truth is found in Jesus. The more closely we know and relate to Jesus, the more we shall learn and experience the truth. The truth of Jesus is revealed to us particularly in the biblical Scriptures which are God’s Word. In 2 Timothy 3.16 we learn that the Scriptures were ‘breathed out’ by God himself, so they reveal the truth in perfect form. It is therefore vitally important for us all to be steeped in study of the Bible. Through the work of God’s Spirit as we soak in the revelation of God in our Bible study, our lives and our whole thinking will be moulded into the image of Jesus. Through the truth of God’s Word we shall know his purposes for us; our lives will reflect his character; we shall become people of truth and therefore trustworthy; we shall be able to discern what is right and what is wrong. In our society today financial gain and personal freedom and pleasure have become the plumb-line by which people judge what is good or bad, but this can only lead to socially and personally destructive consequences. Our society desperately needs the entirely reliable and morally upright truth of Jesus and the Bible.
John doesn’t speak just of ‘truth’, but of ‘the truth’ – there is only one truth. In all our moral controversies and our multi-faith context it is important that we maintain a deep assurance of Jesus and God’s Word in the Bible as the unique truth. Of course we are still to love our neighbour and strongly support religious tolerance in society, but we also long for everyone to find the truth, the life, the salvation through faith in Jesus.

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Love
In this letter John consistently addresses Gaius as “beloved” (NIV ‘dear friend’ loses John’s emphasis on love) and it is to his love that others witness (6-8). This love leads to practical outworking in hospitality and supporting other Christians as they move on,  in ways that are worthy of God.  Presumably these Christians were travelling evangelists and so unknown to John previously. Were they now leaving because they had been called by God to serve him elsewhere? So is this an early example of God’s call to support Christians who are called to serve in other countries?
Love goes together not only with hospitality (8), but also with loving cooperation in serving the truth together (8). Such team ministry stands in direct contrast with the evil example of Diotrephes who “loves to be first”. In Greek this very human desire for prominence (‘loves to be first’) is actually just one word ‘first-loving’ – such pride was and is so common that it merits a special word! Sadly this is often the case even in the Christian church. Because of this sin, Diotrephes would not accept John – was he threatened by him and so feared for his position? He evidently was trying to pull John’s reputation down by false gossip. He was also refusing to welcome other Christians to the church – perhaps because the advent of other faithful Christians might threaten his prominence? In fact, he was even throwing good Christians out of the church (NIV softens the violence of the Greek ‘throws out’ with its translation ‘ puts out’). Happily in this letter John doesn’t only give us the bad example of Diotrephes, but then goes on to commend Demetrius who “is well spoken of by everyone” (12). And John concludes with the word that his witness concerning Demetrius is true, as everyone knows.

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The Name (7)
God is so glorious, all-holy and splendid in majesty that Jews have felt that they should never allow his name to pass their sinful lips. So it has been customary to use the expression “the Name” for God. Still today Jews will normally refer to God as HaShem, the Name. John also follows this pattern of deeply honouring the absolute glory of God: “It was for the sake of the Name that they went out” (7). We today may prefer to speak of ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’, but let us do so with reverent worship in our hearts. It is easy as Christians to speak so casually of the Lord! And sadly non-Christians commonly blaspheme with the expression “God knows” or the ejaculation “God Almighty!”. Some times it may be good to respond with “Yes, I guess He does indeed know . . . ” or “Yes, God’s power is indeed fantastic”.

‘εθνικοι

The Pagans (Greek ethnikoi)
In verse 7 is John meaning ‘pagans’ (as in NIV) or non-Jewish Gentiles? The Greek word stems from a word which generally refers to the Gentiles, as in the incarnate Jesus’ closing command to his disciples (Matthew 28.19). Of course it was true that in those days the Gentiles were almost all ‘pagans’ who did not yet believe in the God of Israel. So John in verse 7 almost certainly meant non-Jews, but he will have assumed that as Gentiles they will still be unbelieving.
Even in much later centuries it became customary to use the word ‘Gentile’ as meaning ‘pagan’. Thus in Aquinas’ “Contra Gentiles” (Against the Gentiles) he assumes that the word ‘Gentile’ means non-Christian, while the term ‘Israel’ referred to the church – and the church then was almost entirely non-Jewish. So the term ‘Israel’ came to mean non-Jews, while the term ‘Gentile’ meant non-Christian Jews ! So Jews became Gentiles and Gentiles became Israel! The same muddled error afflicted the Reformers too. Thus Luther used the term ‘the heathen’ (German: die Heiden) when translating ‘Gentiles’ and Calvin used ‘les paiens’/the pagans. After that the early pietistic missionaries to North America called the North American Indians ‘the Gentiles’, while the white Christians were ‘Israel’. Some times as a Jew myself I am asked whether Elizabeth is also Jewish. I used to answer, “No, she is Gentile”, but now I have learned to answer differently. People used to be shocked at my words and wonder how I could be so rude about my wife! They too still had the misunderstanding that ‘Gentile’ was a negative word for people without faith.
The Bible underlines God’s concern not only for his own Jewish people, but also for the Gentiles. Evidently the Christians referred to in verse 7 must have been living and working for the Lord in a Gentile milieu, but they got no help from their Gentile neighbours. As Christians today we too are called to mission with people of all ethnic backgrounds, Jews and Gentiles.
In our next blog we shall move on to Jude’s letter.
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The chosen lady and her children (2 John)

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Who is this letter addressed to? “The chosen lady (Greek Kuria)”. ‘Kuria’ was a common personal name, but also the equivalent of our ‘lady’. We may also note that ‘Kuria’ is the feminine form of ‘Kurios’/Lord, the title of Jesus himself. Many highly reputable commentators (e.g. Schnakenburg, Brown, Westcott, Stott and the Asia Bible Commentary by Hoo published by Langham Global Library in 2016) suggest that John was writing to Christians in general, not to an individual person or church. But unlike John’s first letter (and James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude), the early church did not give this letter the title “General (Greek Catholice = universal)” which implies that this letter does  have a particular person or church in mind. It is not intended for a wider, more general readership. So for myself I feel therefore that ‘kyria’ does probably signify a particular lady.

Commendations

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John unhesitatingly addresses this letter to “the elect lady”, thus affirming his confidence that the lady concerned (or the churches) has indeed been chosen by God to have the life Jesus has won for us. And in verse 1 he goes on to declare that he loves her children – are they literally the children of this lady or the members of the churches? In either case John affirms his love for them. But then in verse 4 he “rejoiced greatly” that from amongst her children he has found those who are “walking in truth”. Does this imply that others of her children (or some of the church members) were not following the Lord? Perhaps. But we need also to take seriously John’s assurance that he “rejoiced greatly”. We all long for the baton of faith to be passed on from generation to generation.
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As in 1 John 1.4, so also in 2 John 12 some ancient manuscripts have “our joy” and others have “your joy”. It would seem that they enjoyed such close, loving fellowship in unity that ‘our’ and ‘your’ coincide. ‘You’ are so immersed in that loving fellowship that ‘our’ joy also includes ‘you’. Such full joy is based on the fundamental commandment that “we love one another”, a constant refrain in John’s writings. Although it would seem that ‘the lady’ already knows God’s commandment of love, he feels the necessity to underline it and encourage her to walk in that love. Likewise he has confidence that the truth dwells in us, both in John himself and in the lady, and is with us eternally. Yet his repeated emphasis on the word “truth” (5 times in the first four verses) seems to hint that the lady and her children may need to be reminded of the call to walk in the truth. We may note also the repeated emphasis on “walking” (3 times in these few verses) in the truth seems to underline the necessity of the need for consistent practical outworking of truth and love in their everyday lives as believers.

Dangers to faith

danger.jpgAlongside John’s emphasis on truth comes a repeated warning about “the teaching” in verses 9 and 10. Many “deceivers” are spreading out into the world, refusing to acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh. John names them as “the deceiver” and “the anti-Christ”. Evidently the lady was in danger of hobnobbing with them and thus losing her ‘full reward’, the glory of eternal life with the Father and his Son. With the multiplicity of false and inadequate teaching in our world today  John’s words challenge us to think carefully about the company we keep.  Our contemporary cultures tend to emphasise our feelings and exciting experiences, but careful biblical teaching sometimes takes second place. John makes it abundantly clear that anyone can lose their relationship with God, including those who have in the past worked (verse 8) for the Lord. Anyone who “does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God”, but wonderfully “whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (9).
Seeing the danger of relating too closely with such deceivers, John then instructs strongly that “if anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching” (10), they should not be accepted into the house or given a welcome – the word used for ‘greet’ (Greek: chairo) also signifies ‘rejoicing’. As deceiving unbelievers they do not fit in the abundant joy of Christian fellowship. If we find our companionship largely with such people, we shall also share (the same word as ‘fellowship’) with them in their evil works (10). How important true Christian fellowship and love is!

John concludes this letter with the very personal note that he hopes to visit them and so talk face to face. Personal inter-relationship is so much more satisfactory than in writing – even better than through the latest forms of social media! In this way “our/your joy may be filled/completed” (12).

And John’s final words are that “the children (plural) of your elect/chosen sister greet(singular) you” (13). The singular form of the verb (greet) with its plural subject (children) reveals that they are closely joined together in a close-knit composite body. Do we observe here the beauty of a loving Christian family with siblings who richly enjoy each other? Or is John meaning the joy of a loving Christian church in fellowship together? Both are surely God’s perfect will and purpose for his children. Lord, work amongst us by your Spirit and let it be so! Amen!
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Knowing with Boldness (1 John 5.13-21)

Knowing with Boldness (1 John 5.13-21)

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Social media, Facebook, Text messages, Skype, email . . . Communication today is so easy and immediate. Back in the 1960s, as Christian workers in North Sumatra and in South Thailand we lived in good-sized towns, but even the Post Office didn’t have a telephone! And letters took an age – ‘snail-mail’ would indeed have been a fitting description! For John too, in the 1st century, writing and sending a letter was a major undertaking. So, why did he write this first Epistle?
Were Christians in danger of uncertainty concerning the Lord’s gift of eternal life? Good Muslims feel reasonably hopeful that Allah will bring them finally into Paradise, but absolute assurance might deny God’s all-powerful sovereignty; Allah has the power to send whoever he wants to Hell or to Paradise. Most Europeans too will feel that their lives have not been too bad, so God (if he exists!) will probably bring them to heaven, but they may feel it is too presumptuous to know with complete confidence that they have eternal life.
John writes with the gloriously clear aim that his readers might “know that you have eternal life” (5.13). What glorious good news that as believers in Jesus as God’s Son we can have that total confidence! Dying may remain painful and distressing, but death has lost its sting. The gateway to glory awaits us!

Boldness in Prayer (5.14/15)

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‘Knowing’ goes hand in hand with ‘boldness’. As believers in Jesus we have that assurance of eternal life, so boldness (Greek parrhesia) in prayer naturally follows. Because we are moving in our lives ever closer “towards (John’s favourite preposition of movement: Greek pros/towards) God” (5.14), we can have assurance also that God hears us and will respond positively to our prayers. And what a bold promise John gives us in 5.14/15! “Whatever we ask” God hears and “we know that we have what we asked of him”. Of course John is not thinking of self-centred or materialistic prayers – “Lord, please give me a Rolls Royce” or “Lord, I want a job with £100,000 a year”.
God’s promise relates to prayer “according to his will” (5.14). As followers of Jesus our aims in life should no longer follow the desires of the world. We should “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6.33). So this exhortation to bold assurance in prayer challenges us not only in the content of our prayers, but further also in the whole direction and purpose of our lives. If our primary aim in life is to follow the Lord and serve him, that will also determine what we pray for.

Loving our sister/brother (5.16-17)

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Christian love and fellowship should be so joyful (cf. 1.3/4) that our primary concern embraces our fellow believers. So, when John talks of “whatever we ask”, of course he assumes that our prayers would immediately turn to our sisters and brothers in Christ. And what a heart-ache afflicts us if we see a Christian sister or brother beginning to backslide! When faced with the tragedy of someone moving back into the world, we should turn to prayer with the confidence that “God will give them life” (5.16). So John contrasts true life with the sad reality of sin. But John goes on to observe that two distinct levels of sin can afflict people. Some sin so definitely rejects any living faith in Jesus the Messiah that prayer for such people achieves nothing. Concerning them John says ‘he is not saying that we should pray’. But for those whose sin “does not lead to (Greek pros again!death” God will assuredly respond to our prayer.

What do we know? (5.18-21)

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 “We know that we are from (Greek ek) God” (5.19) and “we know that anyone born from (Greek ek) God does not sin” (18). John here uses a continuous present tense, so the NIV translates this “does not continue to sin”. John does not mean that we never yield to temptation or that we live 100% pure and holy lives like God himself. But as children of God our lives are not characterised and marked as sinful. Sin no longer rules our hearts because wonderfully  Jesus ‘keeps us safe’ (5.18). He was also “born of God”, so he understands us perfectly and knows our need of his protection from sin.
We know that we are from God; we know that anyone born from God does not sin; we also know the stark contrast that we are from (Greek ek) God while “the whole world lies in the evil one” (5.19). In our contemporary societies we grieve to observe the tragic consequences of life without the grace of God. We see the breakdown of relationships and the consequent loneliness; knives on our streets and violence both in the home and more widely ruins lives; sexual sin and so-called ‘freedom’ promise bliss and fulfilment, but actually produce a shallow emptiness. God’s standards of purity and holiness may appear legalistic and even discriminatory, but actually produce the fullness of life abundant. The Messiah Jesus is the true God who gives his people truth and life already now for life in this world, but also finally in ‘eternal life’.
Finally John asserts that “we know also that the Son of God has come” (5.20) which leads to the glorious climax that “we know him who is true” – John here uses a different Greek word indicating personal relationship.  What an amazing privilege for us as believers in Jesus that we can enjoy an intimate relationship with him who is “the true God and eternal life” (5.20)! Good news (Gospel) indeed!
John has reached old age and now passes the baton on to the next generation of believers in Jesus. “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (5.21). John’s final word of exhortation touches us also. Don’t let anything else replace Jesus at the centre of our lives. If anything, good or bad, comes before our love and service for him, it/he/she becomes an idol. Let us not allow idolatry to spoil our lives! Jesus is Number One.

 

P.S. Elizabeth and I have just returned from a stimulating conference in Cambridge for Jubilee Centre. We were discussing relationships, a subject which of course lies at the heart of John’s thinking both in his Gospel and his first Epistle. I was asked to teach on Relationships in the Gospels, while other speakers taught on relationships in the Epistles, the Historical books, the Law, the Prophets and the Wisdom books. This was then applied to the educational world in Europe, big business in E. Africa, the banking world in Australia and NGOs in S.E. Asia. During the conference I was constantly reminded of John’s emphasis on Jesus’ relationships within the Trinity and his emphasis on love and fellowship amongst us as Christians.
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God in us and we in Him (1 John 4.13-21)

God in us and we in Him (1 John 4.13-21)
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In Roman Catholic and High Anglican churches people bow to the table (incorrectly called ‘altar’) in the front of the church, as if somehow the Lord was particularly present there. How wrong! Actually, the New Testament more generally, and our passage now in 1 John 4, clearly teach us that God lives in all who believe in Jesus and are committed to him. So, if anything, we should be bowing to each other because the living God dwells in us!
Three times in this passage in 1 John we read that God dwells in us and we in him (4.13, 15, 16).
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God in us
What an awesome reality! It is almost unbelievable that the almighty God with all his glory, holiness and love should make his home in us. When we lived and served as missionaries in the small town of Kabanjahe in North Sumatra, Indonesia, one or two people commented on their surprise that someone from England would actually chose to come and live in their relatively simple little town. But how much more amazing that God himself should take up residence in people like us! What grace! What love! What a spirit of committed service and care! He has come down to us as the saviour of the world – not only for our sake, but through us for “the world” (4.14).
If God truly lives in us, his character should be being formed in us. His love and grace abide in us, so we should be becoming increasingly like him in love and grace. Likewise his absolute holiness and purity reside in us, making us holy and pure in our innermost being. With God’s heavenly power within us we cannot remain the same. No wonder John in his writings underlines the glorious truth that through our faith in Jesus we have new life, abundant life.
With the individualism of western cultures, the fact of ‘God in us‘ tends to be interpreted as God living in each one of us individually and personally. The ‘us’ thus refers to each individual Christian within the fellowship of God’s people. And how wonderfully true it is that God has actually chosen to make his home in each one of us as believers in his Son, Jesus Christ! This individualistic application may be supported by the singular “anyone” in 4.15 and “in him” in 4.16. But this passage more often uses the plural “we/us”. Other more group-conscious cultures around the world may therefore rightly underline the fact that God resides in the loving fellowship of his church and people. In communal worship too we need to emphasize the glorious reality of God living in us as a church or fellowship together, not just in each of us individually. The fact that God lives in us as a body of believers must inject his abundant life into our life and relationships as his church.

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We in Him
Where do we feel at home? In the world or in God? Because God first loved us and came into us to make his home in us, we should respond by living in him. Our whole lives in every detail, in all we are and do, should reflect the fact that he is now the context in which we live. Total commitment to him becomes entirely natural to us.
When Elizabeth and I first went to live and work in Indonesia, her elderly ex-missionary father wrote to remind her that we were “in Christ”, secure and safe within the Lord himself. Being in God we cannot be reached by Satan or his demonic powers. In his letter Elizabeth’s father developed the meaning of living in God. God is our ceiling, our floor and our four walls. We are entirely surrounded by God himself. He is like a wall of fire around us, so we have nothing to fear. No wonder John goes on to point out that “there is no fear in love” (4.18). We live within God who is love and who loves us. Love and fear cannot coexist. God’s perfect love “drives out fear”.
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How can we be sure?
These great words about God living in us and we in him can sound like spiritual hyperbole which remains way beyond any possibility of us experiencing it in our ordinary everyday lives as Christians. How then can we know the reality of it all? John explains that “we know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (4.13). And “we have known and trusted/believed the love which God has in/among us” (4.16).
Already in 3.24 John has affirmed that we know God lives in us “by/from the Spirit he gave us”. Now again in 4.13 we have that assurance “by/from the Spirit he gave us”. Although it remains impossible to see the Holy Spirit with our mortal eyes, we recognize the consequences of his working on our behalf. We notice how he produces the fruit of the Spirit in us (Galatians 5.22/23), how he gives us a real love for our sisters and brothers who share our faith in Jesus, how he also gives us his gifts so that we can serve his church more effectively. We therefore observe the Spirit at work in us and for us, so we can have the assurance that it is God who lives in us and that it is in him that we now find our home.

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The Consequences
Because we already experience the love of God who lives in us, we have confidence/boldness (Greek parrhesia) “on the day of judgment” (4.17). By the working of the Spirit in us, we already have become “like him in this world”. Although we still live physically “in this world”, we find our true home living in him. Already we are halfway there! So death is merely the gateway into the completion of God’s work when we become fully “like him”, and we fully live in him and he in us. So why should we fear death and the day of judgment? In Jesus through faith we have eternal life. Rejoice! God loves us!
Linked immediately with our experience of the Spirit (4.13) John proceeds to state that “we have known and we testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the saviour of the world” (4.14). All the rich blessings of God as our Saviour stem from our knowledge and faith in Jesus. He has been sent by the Father into the world to bring his life-giving salvation to all who believe in him. The Spirit gives us such a sure faith in Jesus that we “testify/witness”. Our world desperately needs the life and love of Jesus. So the call comes to us by his Spirit to share the good news of Jesus. We are his witnesses in the world today.
This chapter comes to its conclusion with strong teaching on the absolute necessity of us loving our sisters and brothers in Christ. Love and fellowship among us as Christians occupies a central place in John’s heart. So he comes back to it again and again in this letter. He never seems to put it to one side. Right at the start of the letter he declares that his aim in proclaiming the message of Jesus is that “you may have fellowship with us” (1.3). Then in the ensuing chapters he returns several times to the theme – loving fellowship among believers lies at the very heart of the Christian life. It also forms the basis for our witness to the world. God is love. God loves his people who are one with his much-loved Son. Let our love shine out into our world where loneliness and broken relationships so often prevail! Love and mission  belong together.



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Testing the Spirits (1 John 4.1-12)

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Confessing Jesus (4.1-6)
We know that God lives in us (3.24). How can we gain such assurance? Where does such confidence come from? John asserts that this certainty comes “from (Greek ek = out from – the opposite of John’s favourite preposition eis = into) the Spirit he gave us” (3.24). Now 3.24 leads naturally to chapter 4 (the chapter and verse divisions are not part of the original biblical text and can some times hide the text’s sequence of thought). So John proceeds to warn that not all spirits stem from God and we need therefore to test them (4.1). Does a particular spirit or prophecy come from (ek/from) God? John warns his readers that many false prophets have come into (Greek eis) the world, so we need to be very careful to discern the true origin of a spirit.
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How then can we recognise God’s Spirit? John provides two clear tests: the confession of Jesus and our love together. Proper testing of the spirits starts with their confession of Jesus Christ. Does Jesus have his rightful place at the centre? The true Spirit of God always confesses that Jesus has come in flesh from the glory; he has come from above into this world. The truth about Jesus must always stand openly as our primary confession. Some years ago I realised that my primary emphasis in my preaching, teaching and writing was international mission rather than the glory of Jesus Christ. And the Lord was also useful in encouraging people to get involved in mission! Of course mission lies close to the heart of God and should motivate everything in our Christian life. But even mission can become an idol which replaces Jesus and his glory. So John reminds us that confession of Jesus Christ’s coming in the flesh shows that the spirit or prophecy does indeed come from God.
With this repeated emphasis of the preposition ‘from’ John reveals the necessity of discerning where the spirit comes from. Does it originate from God or just from some worldly human source? Have we mistaken the spirit as originating from God when actually it comes from our own intuitions, desires and thoughts? Or is the spirit from God but mixed with very human character or thoughts? As John so clearly advocates, we need constantly to “test the spirits”. To describe those spirits which do not come from God, John uses strong words – “false prophets” and even “the spirit of the antichrist” (4.3). Perhaps John had in his mind the declaration of the Lord in Jeremiah 23.30-40 that God stands against “the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘the Lord declares'”. God will punish such false prophets, casting them out of his presence (Jeremiah 23.39). Claiming something as the evident presence of God’s Spirit or giving a prophetic word is no light matter! And all of us are called to discern the spirits to check whether they indeed come ‘from God’ (ek tou theou) and should be received as “the Spirit of God”.

Love one another (4.7-12)

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In the context of discerning the spirits John returns to the principle theme of the letter. As God’s beloved children we should love one another. Surely John has it in his mind that such love is the necessary mark of the Spirit of God, so we may discern the genuineness of a spirit by whether it leads to greater love. Such love between believers comes “from/ek) God” and shows that we have been born of God and that we know God with the intimacy of personal relationship (4.7).
Sunday School teachers often ask small children to learn off by heart that “God is love” (4.8). It is short, deeply significant and easy to understand. But in its simplicity we can easily overlook its profound meaning. Love lies at the very heart of God’s fundamental nature. Because he islove, he cannot stop loving. We may reverently declare that he must love; he cannot avoid loving. And he has shown the reality of his love by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, in order that “we might live through him” (4.9). In these words John reaffirms his basic  Gospel message of new life, abundant life and eternal life. So love is another vital test for whether a spirit comes from God.
God sent his Son “as an atonement for our sins” (4.10). Whereas God’s gift of resurrection life comes again and again in his writings, the more Pauline message of atonement for our sins and redemption hardly features in John’s Gospel or in this letter. But this verse shows that John and Paul share the same faith in Jesus’ life-giving salvation through his death and resurrection. It reminds us, however, that their particular Gospel emphasis differs slightly. It is rare for John to write about sin and atonement.
John reiterates that God’s love for us should motivate us as Jesus’ followers to love one another. He has loved us long before we came to love him and our fellow believers. What an amazing privilege and comfort it is to know that we are loved! If we really follow him and love each other, it is evident that God (who is love) lives in us. By his Spirit his nature of love is being worked into our innermost being. Although nobody can see God (4.12) in his absolute glory, purity and holiness, people can see that God lives is us. His love is completed in us (4.12)  and the wonderful outworking of that divine love is manifest in our lives.
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In this passage John twice addresses his readers as “Beloved”, not just “dear friends” (4.7 and 11). Evidently John practises what he preaches – he loves his fellow-Christian readers. In the life and teaching of our churches let us give due importance to anything which fosters a growing love in our fellowship together. And surely our love together will be deeply attractive in our broken societies where loneliness can so easily prevail. What good news we bring: new life and love!
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Truth and Boldness (1 John 3.16-24)

Truth and Boldness (1 John 3.16-24)

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Thus far in looking at this passage in 1 John we have purposely not dealt with two significant words – truth and boldness. John uses both these words frequently and they are important in our understanding of his thinking and his message. John’s teaching relates particularly closely to today’s world and should form the basis for the Gospel/Good News in our 21st century. So it is specially important that we look carefully at the key words he uses to convey the heart of his beliefs concerning our relationship with God.

Truth (3.18/19)

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Pontius Pilate’s desperate question at the trial of Jesus rings in our ears. “What is truth?” (John 18.38). In its definition of ‘truth’ the Oxford Dictionary not only refers to accuracy, but also uses such terms as honest, sincere and loyal. We may wish to add the concept of being absolutely real. So the word ‘truth’ covers a wide variety of meanings. It does signify factual accuracy, but it also touches on positive relationships. And because it denotes total reality it denies the emptiness of meaningless life, often expressed in superficial make-believe. For John, truth and reality stem from God himself, for truth reflects the very nature of God as the one who is true. As the perfect image and likeness of the Father, Jesus has no hesitation in affirming that he himself is the truth. John frequently also calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth”, for Jesus promises that the Spirit will lead us into all truth (John 16.33).  Likewise John assures us that God’s word is truth (John 17.17) and as Jesus’ followers we are called to “do truth” (John 3.21, 1 John 1.6), to worship in truth (John 4.23), to be sanctified by the truth (John 17.17), to witness to the truth (John 5.33) and indeed to love the Lord and our fellow Christians in truth (1 John 3.18). It is also by the Spirit of truth that we can gain true freedom, for he “will set you free” (John 8.32).
In John’s Gospel Jesus repeatedly asserts that he tells people the truth, that he says the truth (e.g. John 8.44/45 and 16.7). Through Jesus, by his Spirit and Word we can come into the fullness of truth, experiencing those honest, sincere and loyal relationships of which the Oxford Dictionary speaks. As Christians we are to be known as people who are totally trustworthy, whose words speak truth, whose lives consistently demonstrate meaningful reality.
John’s emphasis on truth strikes home as particularly relevant and needed by the church and our world today. Political double-talk and the common acceptance of deceptive untruth makes us doubt what people say or promise. How vital truth and therefore trustworthiness is for the well-being of society! Marriage and every other relationship depend on such truth. And we all long for that reality which makes our lives truly meaningful. What ‘good news’ we have in the ‘Gospel’ of Jesus!

Boldness (Greek parrhesia)

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In our blog on John 7 (to be found in the ‘Archives’ for September 2018) we noted John’s use of the Greek word ‘Parrhesia’/boldness. This word comes frequently both in John’s Gospel and in his first letter. It signifies such confidence in what one believes that boldness of speech and action ensues.
In his Gospel John refers to Jesus speaking ‘openly/boldly’ (7.26) and in 10.24 the Jewish people around him complain that Jesus is keeping them in suspense and demand that he tell them ‘plainly/boldly’ whether he is indeed the long-promised Messiah. Jesus himself assures his disciples that at some future stage he will “tell you plainly/boldly about my Father” (16.25). There are times when Jesus cannot walk ‘openly/boldly’ because of the fierce opposition of the leaders in Judea, knowing that the hour had not yet come for his death and resurrection (e.g. 11.54). On the other hand Jesus did some times speak boldly, as for example when he told his disciples ‘plainly/boldly’ that Lazarus was dead (11.14). Supremely at his trial he defends himself against the questioning of the high priest, declaring that “I have spoken openly/boldly to the world” (18.20). Jesus’ brothers had previously urged him not to do things in secret, but rather to live in openness/boldness (7.4).
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In John’s first letter too the word ‘parrhesia’ comes four times. In 1 John 5.13 the aim of this letter is declared “that you may know that you have eternal life”. In having eternal life we have ‘confidence/boldness’ in coming to God (1 John 5.14). Although the full perfection of eternal life lies in the future, we already have received its first fruits. The present tense of “you have eternal life” is matched by a further present tense “the confidence we have in coming to God”. We have such confident assurance of his gift to us of new life and eternal life that we can now come boldly to almighty God in all his glory and holiness. This is John’s emphasis each time he uses the word ‘Parrhesia’ in this letter. We have confidence/boldness before God as we follow Jesus in obedience to his command to “believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ” and “love one another” (1 John 3.21). These two fundamental elements in God’s command to us undergird the whole teaching of this letter and form the essential mark of the fact that we have eternal life as his children. So we are encouraged to continue and abide in him, “so that when he appears we may be confident/bold and unashamed at his coming” (2.28). In the context of God’s gracious love to us “we will have confidence/boldness on the day of judgment” (4.17). Indeed, we should have such definite assurance in Jesus Christ that as a result we have truly confident boldness in coming to him both now in this world and finally at the judgment when he comes again.
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The opposite of confidence/boldness is fear. So John continues by asserting that ‘perfect love drives out fear (4.18). Of course God’s love for us preceded our love for him and for our fellow believers (4.19). His love for us inspired the love we have for him and for each other. So our love for God must go hand in hand with love for each other (4.21). God not only loves, but he is in his very nature love. We may say therefore that God’s nature compels him to love. We can therefore have absolute confidence/boldness in his love for us through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. Consequently we need have no fear of the final judgment because his perfect love does drive out fear (4.18). Love and confidence/boldness are happily married, but love and fear never sleep in the same bed.
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True love – 1 John 3.16-24

True love – 1 John 3.16-24

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John is writing this letter in order that his believing readers might know that they have eternal life (5.13). In 3.14 he makes it clear that such assurance of God’s gift of life comes to those who love their fellow Christians (3.14). Now in 3.16-24 he elaborates further on that love which lies at the heart of all true discipleship. The model of such true love stands before us in Jesus; John affirms that we know/recognise love in the historical fact that Jesus “laid down his life for us” (3.16). This may refer supremely to his death for our salvation, but it surely means all his sacrificial giving of himself for us in leaving the Father’s glory and descending to earth where he lived sacrificially in love amongst us. Now, John declares, we too ought to lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers in Christ. In 3.16 we note the emphatic “and we” in the second half of the verse. John’s use of “Beloved” in 3.21 shows that he himself follows the model of Jesus in love.

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Relating back to his reference to Cain (3.12), John states in strikingly emphatic and challenging words that whoever fails to love their fellow believers is a murderer (3.15). Through love comes life; lack of love robs people of life and steals life away from them. At first we may be shocked by the apparently exaggerated accusation of murder against those who fail to manifest love in the fellowship of the church of Christ. But the vital importance of such love cannot be ignored. Without it eternal life eludes us (3.15).
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Christian love is not just a romantic feeling; nor can we reduce it to an artificial smile or a hearty slap on the back. Jesus’ love demands practical service. If we have this world’s goods, we dare not fail to show our sympathy with a sister or brother in need. True love works itself out in very practical service and help for those who suffer. The 1st century church strongly emphasized loving care for the poor within the church. Deacons were appointed to make sure that widows, orphans and the needy were cared for. So John asserts that we are not to love just in word and in theory, but “in deed/action and in truth” (3.18). We may note too that charity begins at home within the borders of the Christian church.

The consequences of love

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If we love one another, we know with confident assurance that we have eternal life and that we “are of the truth” (3.19). Our faith and trust in Jesus is shown to be genuine. John then goes on to add that we are to “set our hearts at rest in his presence”. This NIV translation is attempting to translate a difficult Greek word (peitho); the old Authorised Version says we shall “assure our hearts”. The word implies a deep assurance based on being persuaded. So we come before the Lord with a confidence that is based on the fact of our love which shows us that our faith is true. Our love gives us the evidence that we can come before the holy God with genuine confidence. This confidence does not stem from pride and self-assurance, for all of us have to confess that some times “our heart condemns us” (3.20). Happily we can rest assured that God is greater than our doubting hearts. He knows us through and through, so we can come with assured faith into his presence. No wonder Paul declares with victorious joy that “death has been swallowed up in victory” and quotes Hosea 13.14 in asking “Death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15.54/55).
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Interestingly, the Greek word peitho is some times translated incorrectly as ‘obey’ (e.g. Hebrews 13.17) whereas it really signifies ‘yielding to persuasion’. Likewise two other Greek words, hupakouo (Eph. 6.5) and hupotasso (Eph. 5.22), are also translated incorrectly as ‘obey’ or ‘submit’ (e.g. Eph. 5.22).  When the suffix arch of authority (as in the English monarchy or oligarchy) is added, then peitharcheo does indeed mean ‘obey’ (e.g. Acts 5.29, 32), but it is only used of our response to God. Peitharcheois never used in relation to other human beings. Towards other human beings (children towards parents, slaves towards masters, all of us towards teaching concerning the Gospel) we are to yield to persuasion. Rebellious attitudes which will not listen humbly will spoil Christian relationships of love. Likewise unthinking obedience goes against the will of God. Some Christian leaders and bishops may demand obedience, but this is clearly unbiblical. Rather, we are called to weigh people’s words of instruction and yield humbly and lovingly to them if they seem true.
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Our confidence before God, which stems from our love for our sisters and brothers in Christ, produces such a confident relationship with our heavenly Father that “we receive from him anything we ask” (3.22). Keeping (not the unthinking word ‘obey’ as in NIV) his commands and doing what pleases God are the basis for effective intercessory prayer (3.22). What a privilege we have as Christians! We can have assurance that God answers prayers that are in line with his will. When we read that keeping his commands is an essential condition for effective prayer, inevitably we ask ourselves what his commands consist of. The answer is simple: believe in God’s son Jesus Christ and love one another (3.23). If we obey these two commands, John assures us that we shall abide in the Lord and he will abide in us (3.24). What an amazing relationship of love we are given! We are totally at one with almighty God through Jesus Christ.
Can this all be possible? It all sounds too idyllic! John affirms that confirmation comes from the Spirit whom God has given us. We so experience the working of the Holy Spirit in and through us that we gain confidence that the Lord does indeed dwell in us and we in him. God’s Spirit lives in us and brings growing Christ-like holiness into our lives. He enables us to love our fellow believers. He works through us to share his good news of new, abundant and eternal life with others.
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So, God’s command to us through the writings of John comes once again to us. Believe in Jesus, trust and follow him! Let love reign in the church of God!
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