March 30 2013

The Last Supper & The Meaning of The Cross

One thing that can’t be denied when reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life is that Jesus’ death was no accident. Jesus was not just going about his business, teaching people to love and performing miracles; and one day, out of the blue, he was kidnapped and crucified. All the accounts explicitly tell of Jesus’ resolute and deliberate plan to go to Jerusalem where the Jewish authorities were waiting to kill him. Consider Mark 10:32-34…

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Jesus’ death, was for Jesus the climax of his short 3 year ministry. It was where it was all heading. It was the point.

This is why the image of the cross is the symbol that represents Christianity. The death of Jesus is at the heart of what Christians are on about. It is at the core of our message. As Paul writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

WHAT WAS THE POINT

The natural question that arises from this is… why? What’s the point? Couldn’t Jesus have done a lot more good if he stuck around for longer? I mean, he could have travelled the world preaching and healing and gaining followers. That’s true. So, we can rightly conclude that teaching and healing was not the primary goal of his mission and his ministry. Clearly, at least he believed, he could do more good by dying than he could if he lived. But what good did he do by dying? What did his death achieve?

Now, this question has been asked by many and is the source of some debate – especially more recently. But this debate does not arise from the New Testament being unclear on the topic. There are countless places in the New Testament (and Old Testament) that explain it. For now, I’m just going to include one reference. It comes from the writings of possibly Jesus’ closest friend and disciple, who was acknowledged as one of the key leaders in the early church. This is of course, the apostle Peter. As he explains, something supernatural was happening when Jesus died…

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; By his wounds you have been healed… For Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 2:24 & 3:18)

Now as you may know, Paul the apostle has also written many epistles explaining the meaning of the death of Christ, and I’d love to include many of his great passages, but I decided not to. You see, for an odd reason, some people think that Paul single-handedly invented the idea that Jesus died as a sacrifice to atone for our sins. They claim that the idea of the atonement is not really found other than in Paul’s writings and that the gospels don’t mention this concept at all!

When I was first challenged on this idea by someone many years ago, it was by a Biblical scholar who was many years my senior and I really didn’t know how to respond. On the spot, I couldn’t think of too many places outside of Paul’s writings where Jesus’ death was described as a sacrifice or as something that bore our sins. I am now very sad that I can’t have that conversation all over again! The more I read and understand Scripture, the more I am utterly convinced that there is no way in which you can faithfully read the gospels about Jesus without accepting that this teaching is undeniably there. Passages like the one above are too clear and too frequent.

buddist-monk-self-immolation (1)So why do people claim it is not there? Well, initially it might be due to lack of knowledge about how the New Testament epistle writers like Peter and John back up Paul’s writing on the purpose of Jesus’ death. It may also be that they don’t know the places in the four gospels where this is explained as well. Despite this, more and more I see people who claim to know the New Testament and claim to be faithful to the gospels and its message, who are disregarding the atonement all together. They argue that Jesus’ death did not spiritually achieve anything, but was an act of courageous martyrdom or simply a great example to us about how we should die for what you believe in – like the Buddhists monk, Thich Quang Duc, who in 1963 famously committed self-immolation as a form of protest against the persecution of Buddhists in Cambodia.

The main reason why I think they feel compelled to do this is because the concept of “Jesus dying for our sins” raises lots of philosophical questions for people. How does it work? What does that say about God the Father? Or Jesus’ divinity? Or the reality of God’s judgement and Hell? Or even just the reality of sin? It brings up lots of tricky concepts that, in the end, are not very palatable for many people. And so, instead of grappling with the truth of these ideas or rejecting Jesus altogether, they ignore some clear parts of the New Testament to fit a more palatable message. No longer are we sinners who deserve judgment from a Holy Creator. No longer is Jesus’ death the sacrifice that pays for our sins and provides us with a way of reconciliation with God. The good news is changed so that it is no longer about something that Jesus has done for us, but it becomes about something that we can do… inspired by him.

This version of the gospel may be much more palatable and raise less philosophical questions, but it simply is not faithful to the New Testament. I’m not saying that Jesus’ death is not supposed to be an example for us of self-sacrifice, but to reduce it to that and not see the countless places the New Testament speaks of it as something much, much greater, is to be like someone spending $24 to admire the cup holders in the chairs during an IMAX movie. Worth acknowledging, but not really the point of it all.

But a question remains… What did Jesus think about his own death? Have the other writer’s of the New Testament like Peter and Paul just gotten Jesus wrong? Did Jesus ever talk about his death being a sacrifice for sin? Well, the answer is yes – several times. In fact, he never talked about his death being an example of loving self-sacrifice. If you want that concept, go to the story where he washes his disciples feet (John 13:14-15). When it comes to the cross, Jesus talks about it as a deliberate, purposeful and cosmically significant sacrifice. In his mind he was heading to Jerusalem to achieve something tangible. He was going to pay for our sins with his own death.

Now, I could write several blogs going through all the places where this is found in the gospels, but for now, I will just look at one. It is in one powerfully significant line that Jesus said during the Last Supper…

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)

THE LAST SUPPER

doorpost-and-exodus-verse

If you don’t know the story, the Last Supper is the Passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was crucified. The gospels record that Jesus had timed his arrival into Jerusalem perfectly so that the Passover would fall at the same time he would be arrested and crucified.

The Passover is one of the most significant festivals on the Jewish calendar, where Jews remember God’s great act of saving them from his own judgement. That’s right. Not saving them from the evil oppression of the Egyptians. The Passover commemorates the time God told his people he would judge every single household, other than those who had the blood of a sacrificed lamb painted on their doorposts. Sound gruesome, I know, but that’s the story. If you had the blood on your door, then it was a sign that a lamb had been sacrificed in your place and God would “pass over” your house.

Every year since then, Jews would sacrifice a “passover lamb” and have a special symbolic meal as an act of remembrance. This is why Jesus chose the Passover as the time to die. He was, as John the Baptist declares, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) and as Paul writes, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:7) Jesus was what the Passover was looking forward to. Jesus is the lamb that would be sacrificed in the place of anyone who would put their trust in him. He is the true fulfilment of the Passover.

wine and breadIt is during this Passover meal that Jesus decides to initiate a new symbolic meal. This new meal would no longer remember the Passover, but since the Passover was being fulfilled and replaced by Jesus and his death, this is what would now be remembered. This new symbolic meal is now commonly known now as “Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper” and is today celebrated by pretty much all Christians across the world.

As all four gospels record, at the Last Supper Jesus uses two elements of the Passover meal – bread and wine – as a visual aid to explain what was going to happen to him and what it was going to mean. He took the bread and broke it, explaining that the same thing would happen to his own body. “This is my body given for you.” (Luke 22:19) And then he took the red wine (a perfect visual symbol for blood) and said those potent and profound words, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)

From this, we can see Jesus explains three things about his blood. Firstly, it’s going to be poured out – as in, he’s definitely going to die. Secondly, his death is going to somehow achieve the forgiveness of sins. And thirdly, his blood is the “blood of the covenant”.

THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT

The “blood of the covenant” is not just any old phrase. It is only used in one other place in the Bible. Jesus’ disciples would have known the story Jesus was referring to and how significant it was that he was using it in reference to his own blood.

After the events of the Passover and the escape from Egypt, the story of Exodus eventually leads up to another very significant moment in Jewish history. God has rescued his people from his own judgement and redeemed them from slavery. He now gives them the famous Ten Commandments and the law that instructs them how – as rescued people – they should now live and relate to God and each other. This is when what is called the “Mosaic Covenant” is established.

contract

A “covenant” is like an alliance or solemn relational contract that is made between two parties. Marriage, for example, is described in the Bible as a covenant (Malachi 2:14). More often though, a covenant is used when a commitment between God and his people is made and a new relationship is established. In the thousands of years of Biblical history, there were only very few covenants made. This is because they were so significant and they mark key moments in the ongoing relationship between God and mankind.

Each covenant usually contains a few elements. Like promises made between both parties, consequences for breaking the covenant, and a “sign” that would remind both parties of the promises made (think for example, “circumcision” with the Covenant with Abraham and the rainbow with the Covenant with Noah). Lastly, each covenant with God usually also involves a sacrifice. As we have already seen, a sacrifice was often a representation of the consequences of the judgement of God. The slaughtered animal reminded the person that their sin deserved death and that without a substitute to bear that death for them, they would face God’s judgement themselves. It wasn’t all gloom and doom though. A sacrifice also gave the people hope. Hope that even when they would inevitably break their promises, God would provide a way that they could be forgiven and remain in the covenant.

During the establishment of the “Mosaic Covenant” two types of sacrifices were made – burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. If you look up the Old Testament instruction manual on what these two sacrifices are all about (Leviticus 1 & 3), you see that those who perform the sacrifice would place their hand on the head of the animal – symbolically transferring the guilt of the person to the animal. The animal would then be killed in the place of the guilty party, and then, as God told them, “it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you.” (Leviticus 1:4)

Read here what Moses did with the blood taken from these atoning sacrifices, as recorded in Exodus 24:4-8, and look out for the phrase the “blood of the covenant” that Jesus was referring to…

Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

mudblood3

So, the “Mosaic Covenant” was established with the blood of atoning sacrifices being sprinkled over the people. Gross, I know. But what a potent symbol! The “blood of the covenant” marked this new relationship between God and his people, and was a stark and rather disgusting reminder that their promise to always obey everything the Lord has said would inevitably fail, and that atonement would be needed for forgiveness to be possible.

This was not an unfamiliar message for God’s people, as atoning sacrifice was a part of their every day life. Although God has shown the Jewish people particular favour, their ongoing relationship with God was not without cost. It was marked by daily sacrifices that reminded the people that there was a major ongoing problem between them and God. God wanted relationship but they could only come to him on the basis of blood and sacrifice.

If this idea seems odd and unnecessary to you, then you may not have ever realised how your sin separates you from God. You should hear what God is saying in the Old Testament sacrifices as a powerful wake-up call as to the seriousness of sin and the fact that we are in desperate need for an atoning sacrifice to provide the way for forgiveness.

In any case, this whole bloody episode with Moses and the phrase, “this is the blood of the covenant” is the concept that Jesus is referring to when he uses the same words in reference to his own blood the night before he died.

JESUS AND THE NEW COVENANT

Jesus is ultimately the fulfilment of all the Old Testament covenants and his death on the cross is the sacrifice that each covenant’s sacrifice is foreshadowing and pointing to.

jesus_crucifixion170411_03When Jesus talks of his own blood as being the “blood of the covenant” he is telling his disciples that a new covenant that fulfils the Mosaic Covenant is being established. As with the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, Jesus is saying that it would be like we were putting our hand on his head and our guilt before God was being transferred to him. As Peter described it, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” So, in his death, he would be bearing our sins. He would be our atoning sacrifice and his death would be the blood of this new covenant.

This is why Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” It can not be clearer that Jesus saw his death as being a sacrifice for our sins. His death would make the way, once for all, for our sin to be forgiven. No longer would animal sacrifices be needed. No longer would the Passover be required. Jesus was establishing a new covenant and his death was the means that makes it possible.

This is why Jesus believed that he could do more good if he died than if he lived. This is why Jesus’ death was the goal and climax of his mission. This is why the sign of the cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is the death of Jesus that pays for our sin and establishes a new relationship between God and mankind for those that would trust in it.

CONCLUSION

Now, you may not believe any of the things I have written about. I hope you do, but I understand there are a lot of concepts like covenants and sacrifices and sin that build upon each other. If you don’t understand one (or if you have a big problem with one) then all the others may not make sense either. For you, I have not written this blog to try to convince you of their truth. I only hope that you see that the old idea that “Jesus died for your sins” is actually faithful to all the writers of the New Testament. More important than that, it is faithful to Jesus’ own understanding of why he was so determined to die for you. You may think Jesus was mistaken, but at least you will be able to see that those who claim that the idea of the “atonement” is not there, are just not reading the text.

Also, I hope that if one day you chose to consider the claims of Christ, you will know what Jesus honestly taught about the meaning of his death in your place.

hands-bread-wine-stockFor those who are already disciples of Jesus – who have accepted Jesus death for what Jesus said it would be, and who know the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation with God – may you do what Jesus asked you to do at the Last Supper… May you remember him and his death for you. Not only when you take “communion” and hold those elements of broken bread and red wine in your hands, but every day, and especially at this time of Easter when these words and events are retold and we are reminded of their reality and significance.

FURTHER STUDY

product_permalinkI acknowledge that my blog here focusses on only one verse in the Bible that explains why Jesus died, so if  you want to understand more about what the death of Jesus was all about, I can recommend an ebook by John Piper called, “Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die”. It will give you heaps more to think about! Download a FREE copy: HERE

If on the other hand, you are intrigued by the connections between the Old Testament sacrifices and the work of Jesus, I highly recommend you take a look at the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. It is written specifically to explain how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament and Chapters 8-10 especially help to explain how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament sacrificial system. There may be lots of ideas that are weird or confusing, but it’s well worth the study.

I’ll leave you with some wonderful words from Hebrews 13:20-21…

Now may the God of peace,
who through the blood of the eternal covenant
brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,
equip you with everything good for doing his will,
and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ,
to whom be glory for ever and ever.
Amen.

HAPPY EASTER!

(4990)

Share Button
December 25 2012

The Message of the Magi

The Magi, (or as they are more commonly known, the Wise Men) are mentioned only once in the whole Bible. Their brief story is found in the first 12 verses of the 2nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel…

 

1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

nativity_set

Despite this story being quite short, the Wise Men have become a staple part of the Christmas nativity scene, inspiring one of my favourite Christmas carols, “We Three Kings”. Sadly however, this carol is a perfect example of how we so easily re-shape Christmas into something that suits our fairy tale version of the Bible, rather than reading and responding to what the gospel record actually says. Here are just a few ways we get the story of the Magi completely wrong:

MISTAKE #1: They weren’t kings.

The Magi are never referred to as kings. The concept of kings coming to see Jesus and pay homage is one that makes a wonderfully powerful statement about the authority of Christ over all human rulers. It just has no basis in the original story. I have even heard it said that God ensured that both the poor (represented by the shepherds) and the rich (represented by the “kings”) were present so that we knew that Jesus came for people of every demographic. But no, the Magi were not royalty. They weren’t even necessarily wise (To me, “Wise Men” gives them a sort of ancient guru-like feel). All the text tells us about the Magi is that they came from the East. That doesn’t even tell us much. Were they Magi from the far, far east? Were they gentiles? Were they Jews? Who knows? Read the text above again. Remember, that’s all we really have to go on.

Now, the term “Magi” is mentioned in several other cultures. Some Ancient Greek sources refer to a specific tribe of people  in Ancient Iran (then known as Media), but it also is used as a generic word for any sacred sect or mystical order. This is how we get the generic word “magician” (a “magi” person). Ancient Persian sources refer to the Magi being the religious sect that Zoroaster was born into, and some time before 6 BC, in the eastern parts of Ancient Iran, his teachings became the foundation of the religion, Zoroastrianism, also known as “Magianism”. This religion was alive and kicking at the time that the biblical story is set and this has led some to argue that the Magi were Zoroastrians (or at least converts from Zoroastrianism). If that is true, then they were just some religious guys who were seeking the Jewish Messiah. Now, I don’t want to downplay that. In fact we shouldn’t downplay that. It’s awesome! There’s no need to stretch the story to make them kings or even particularly wise (other than the wisdom they showed in seeking Jesus, but then we should equally call the shepherds “wise men”!)

 

MISTAKE #2: There weren’t only three. 

All the pictures, movies, nativity sets and carols about “We Three Kings”, suggest that the Magi were a small band of men riding camels, making a lonely trek across the sand dunes and joining the quiet and solemn scene, almost just slipping in at the back unnoticed. Over the year’s we’ve even invented names for them – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. But read the story again and you’ll find the only reference to the number three is the fact that they brought three different types of gifts (“Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”  Matthew 2:11). Also, the implication from the text is that it wasn’t just three gifts, but multiple amounts of gold and incense and myrrh as it was taken from their “treasures”.

The biggest clue that the Magi included more than three men, is found in the first 3 verses of the story. Verses 1 and 2 describe the Magi arriving at Jerusalem and asking where the Messiah was. If they were three religious men on camels, this arrival wouldn’t have made anyone take notice. Jerusalem was a huge city and it had a constant traffic of visitors from a variety of nations. But when the Magi arrive, what do we read in verse 3? “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” 

The arrival of the Magi caused a disturbance across all Jerusalem which even reached King Herod himself, enough to make him fearful of losing his own royal position. How many people must have been part of the Magi’s procession for their arrival to have such an epic impact? It sounds more like there could have been hundreds of Magi! There could have been a massive pilgrimage of seekers with horses and elephants and musicians and an entourage of servants carrying loads of treasures for “the one who has been born king of the Jews“! Who knows? There is absolutely no description of the number of Magi who had come from the east or what their group was like. The only thing that can guide us, is the disturbing effect they had on the great city of Jerusalem and the security of Herod the King. Does that sound like three guys? Not likely.

MISTAKE #3: They weren’t even at the Nativity scene. 

That’s right! Every children’s Christmas pageant and that beloved family Nativity set that sits on your mantlepiece has got it wrong! The Magi were not there alongside the shepherds and the cattle by the manger. They weren’t even present at the event of the first Christmas! They came along possibly years later, after Jesus and Mary have moved out of the temporary emergency maternity ward mentioned in Luke 2:7 and moved into a house somewhere in Bethlehem (possibly staying with relatives, as Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census due to his family line. See Luke 2:4).

You can read where the Magi actually visited the child in Matthew 2:11-12: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” It clearly states that they came to a house, not the barn, stable or cave mentioned in Luke 2:7.

But is that the only reason why I think they were not there at Christmas? Not at all. The biggest clue is not emphatic, but it does make sense. This is the next part of the story found in Matthew 2:13-16…

13 When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Okay, if you’re getting confused, this is how the story of the Magi has gone: Around the time Jesus is born the Magi see a star appear and they somehow get the idea that this signifies that the Jewish Messiah has been born. The story doesn’t elaborate on how they learned this, but they at some point decide to make the journey from where they live to Jerusalem. When they eventually get to Jerusalem, they meet with King Herod who asks them exactly when they first saw the star. They then leave, following the star to the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are now living. They respond to Jesus as a king – bowing down to him, worshipping him, and paying homage to him with their treasures.

Now, they were supposed to report back to King Herod, but God warns them to go back to their home in the east without telling the King anything. The King is furious because he wanted to know exactly where Jesus is living so he can find him and kill him. He only knows two things: 1. Where Jesus is approximately (somewhere in or around Bethlehem), and 2. How old Jesus is approximately at this stage.

He works out Jesus’ age by how long it’s been since the star originally appeared (marking when Jesus was born). We aren’t told exactly when this is, but we are told that Herod orders the death of all the children in and around Bethlehem ages two years old and under. This means that Jesus is not a new born any more. In fact, Jesus could be up to two years old according to King Herod’s logic. Maybe Jesus was only one year old and King Herod ruthlessly wanted to just make sure that he got Jesus by killing children older than he needed to, just in case.

Now, this horrible story, traditionally entitled, “The Massacre of the Innocents” really deserves its own contemplation (my brother wrote a thoughtful blog on it which you can read here), but for the purpose of this blog, it points out that the whole story of the Magi and the star is not set at Christmas at all. Jesus is not a newborn baby lying in a manger when the Magi follow visit, he’s a one or two year old child and they visit Jesus at the house he is living in.

But so what? What’s the problem with tweaking the stories of the Bible so that they fit better into carols and nativity sets? Who cares if the Magi actually aren’t a part of Christmas? Who cares if the “We 3 Kings” were actually “We 300 Zoroastrians”?

Well, I think that’s the problem. We don’t care to read what the Bible actually says. Like in the video above, spoken by the Mayor of Orlando, we are happy to “celebrate the biblical story of the three kings”, without really caring if such a “biblical” story even exists. Although it’s still positive and a quasi-endorsement of the Bible, it’s actually promoting a way of changing the Bible to suit ourselves, rather than grappling the Bible as it stands to let it change us.

The best analogy I can think of to explain why this is an issue, is the Quentin Tarantino movie, “Inglourious Basterds”. You may not have seen the movie, but it’s sort of a fantasy re-telling of the events of World War 2, where a group of US soldiers plan to assassinate Hitler – and they succeed! Now, if you know you history, Hitler wasn’t assassinated by American soldiers, he committed suicide. Of course, one of the things that makes the movie, “Inglourious Basterds” such a clever movie is that this fact is known and so Tarantino can make this film as a sort  of “wouldn’t it have been cool if” sort of movie.

But imagine if that movie became the staple history of World War 2? What if all other historical records were ignored and that’s just how the Mayor of Orlando referred to the death of Hitler? What if sermons and songs were written about this fictional history, teaching us about the might of American soldiers and how they were even able to kill Hitler! Not only would this be a lie about America, it would also be an insult to the German resistance, who actually came the closest to assassinating Hitler on the 20th July 1944 with “Operation Valkyrie”. This is actually something I think Quentin Tarantino would hate to have happen, as the power of the fantasy of his film relies on the backdrop of the truthful history being known.

Likewise, when a false version of the Bible is told and re-enforced, it promotes the Bible, not as history, but as mythology and fairy tale. But I believe, more than any other religion, Christianity proclaims the Bible (and especially the gospels) as a record of actual, historical events that are real and true and have effected the history of the world. As Peter, the close friend and follower of Jesus wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)

The message of the Magi is one of non-Jews (like most of the people reading this blog) seeking the promised Jewish Messiah. Their message is to bow down and worship Jesus like they did. It is a message worth listening to and following.

But the message of the Magi is also that if we are to really grapple with who Jesus really is and respond to him as he truly is – rather than how we would like him to be – we must not simply listen to the carols and the Christmas Day TV special. We must go back to the source material. Read the Bible for yourself! Don’t trust what I say about it in these blogs. Pick it up and read the actual words that are on the page. It’s hard to throw out the baggage and the expectations you may have about Jesus, but I encourage you to try to do so.

If in the end, you choose to follow Jesus, I want you to follow the real Jesus.

If in the end, you choose to reject Jesus, I want you to reject the real Jesus.

Because in the end, you’ll be standing before the real Jesus, and I’d hate for you to get a shock.

 

To leave you on a lighter note, I’ll finish this will my all-time favourite example of how we like to design our own Jesus. This scene is from the pretty lame movie, “Talladega Nights”, but it includes a very relevant line for this discussion, especially at this time of year. Will Ferrel’s character, Ricky Bobby says, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus or teenager Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Enjoy and have a wonderful Christmas!

 

(6619)

Share Button
December 17 2012

THE END OF THE WORLD – A Poem

End of the World


THE END OF THE WORLD
A poem by Simon Camilleri (17/12/12)

 

There are many thoughts how the world might end.
Some look at why. Some look at when.

Some look at where the signs you’ll find.
Some look at who is left behind.

Some point to nuclear explosions.
Some point to warming of the oceans.

Some say a virus like Bird Flu
Will one day come and then we’re through.

Some say that we should look to space,
A meteor might end our race.

Or aliens may soon attack,
So make sure your bunker is stacked.

Some say the sun will cause our end.
But chill… it’s a billion years til then.

For me, when thinking ‘bout the end
The one on whom I can depend,

Is he who made the stars in space,
And he who made the human race.

The one who can cure all disease
Can also walk on warming seas.

The one who started all creation
Is where I’ll get my information.

Jesus did say the end will come.
When he returns, then all is done.

There will be those who claim it’s near,
But on this point Jesus is clear…

Earthquakes and wars and global strife
Will just be part of normal life.

They are the birthpains, they are signs,
But they don’t tell us dates or times.

When Jesus’ plans are fully done
It’s only then that he will come.

But though no one knows when he’ll visit,
When that day comes you will not miss it.

It won’t be secret, won’t be small.
It will be clearly seen by all.

All people will before him stand
And he will judge the hearts of man.

And all that matters in the end
Is whether he is foe or friend.

The words of Jesus I find heavy,
But they are clear so we’ll be ready.

His authority I believe is true.
But that is me, what about you?

Each “end of the world” prophecy
Promotes some life philosophy.

Whether it comes from space or us,
Or at the return of Jesus,

Whether it’s caused by warming seas,
Each theory has its priorities.

The world will end. You should think about how.
It will effect how you live now.

Hourglass

(2328)

Share Button
October 27 2011

Is Resisting Arrest Non-Violent?

I just wanted to write a short blog about a question I have been thinking about since reading and watching the unfolding of the “Occupy Melbourne” protests. The question is about whether a peaceful protest should engage in resisting arrest. I am very aware that this question is not the most important one to be asking. There are many blogs addressing the issues of the greed and corruption of corporations and their relationship with the government. There is disgust at the excessive use of force that some of the Victorian police used to remove the protestors from the City Square. I saw one YouTube video where a police officer reached across a crowd to punch a guy in the face! That sort of action is inexcusable and the recent call for the Ombudsman to investigate claims of police brutality seems justifiable. Having said that, I want to comment on an area of hypocrisy that I feel was present among a portion of the protestors and reflects a common misconception that I think is relevant.

If you watch the YouTube video above, you will see that one of the defining qualities of the “Occupy Melbourne” protests was that they were meant to be “peaceful”. Giving it this label, not only protects the protest from descending into a violent riot, but it also gives the protest an air of virtue and nobility. A “peaceful” protest? Who could argue with that? All they are doing is standing there and expressing their opinion. Why should anyone have a problem with that? In fact, anyone who would try to physically and forcibly remove them from their chosen place of protest is clearly just part of the violent, evil system of power that they are protesting against!

Well, I think that’s hypocrisy. I think protests are an important and indispensable part of a healthy democracy, but I also think that if you are going to break the law when you protest then you have to be willing to take the consequences. There may be many occasions when breaking the law is an important and moral thing to do, and evil laws should be disobeyed and protested against. I think of the brave Rosa Parks who, in 1955, disobeyed the law that stated that a black person had to give up their seat to a white person on buses in Alabama, USA. This act of civil disobedience was the spark that ignited the civil rights movement and led to the rise of one of the greatest advocates of non-violent protest, Martin Luther King Jr.

On the website for the “Occupy Wall Street” protests (which the “Occupy Melbourne” protest is inspired by), there is a wonderful comment on their forum. One person writes that in order for the numbers of protestors to actually demonstrate power there is a need to agree on certain “organisational goals” which everyone should agree upon. This is what they wrote as their fourth goal:

4) Always remain non-violent and non-threatening – continue to apply the non-violent rules of engagement of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Do not threaten law enforcement officials; do not even look at them menacingly. Do not taunt law enforcement officials. Engage them in dialog but do not get defensive or angry. Do not resist arrest. If police attack a member of the group, render aid to the member but do not attack the police in retaliation.

 

I believe the decision to protest non-violently requires you to also accept that your actions, if illegal, may result in you being requested to stop doing those actions – whether it be blocking something, staying in one place too long, making too much noise, or simply walking in solidarity with the oppressed. When requested to stop, you have to make the decision – will I obey or not? If you believe the moral thing for you to do is disobey, then you must accept that you will most likely be arrested for disobeying the civil authorities. If then, you do not accept that you will be arrested and you physically resist the consequences of your civil disobedience with more illegal activity (by “resisting arrest” which is illegal), it is then that you can no longer call yourself “non-violent”.

 

 

Physically resisting someone who legally is allowed to try to prevent you from doing something illegal, is a violent act. It is a form of passive aggression. Now, I guess some would argue that they were protesting the police’s right to enforce the law, and that may be a valid argument, but I don’t see how that secondary protest can be peaceful. If you hold the view that “people who act illegally should not be arrested if the cause is just” then I don’t see how you can engage in civil disobedience that is non-violent. In the end, you will always come up against the police whose job it is to defend and enforce the law. It is even more amazing then, when there is an outcry against the police who used excessive force and the call for the Ombudsman to see if the police acted illegally. What hypocrisy! If you are going to argue that the police must enforce the law in a way that is legal, then you have to also agree that the protestors must protest in a way that is legal. Now, I don’t in any way want to tarnish groups with one big brush. There were many protestors who left the occupation of the City Square at the time requested and there were those who refused and were removed or arrested without violent resistance. These protestors I believe are to be commended as consistent and deserve to hold the title “peaceful protestor”.

I keep thinking about Jesus and his form of peaceful protest. He disobeyed the expectations and false teaching of the religious rulers of his day and spoke out against them as he preached the gospel and pointed people to himself as the source of life and salvation. This got him arrested and on the night of his arrest he is ambushed by a group of thugs carrying swords and clubs.

Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.” Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. (Luke 22:52-54)

Peter, a close disciple of Jesus, responded with aggressive resistance when Jesus was arrested. He used his sword to defend himself and protect Jesus, but he was met with Jesus’ firm rebuke, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Later, Peter reflected on Jesus’ arrest and wrote these words in his first epistle,

It is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:19-23)

Jesus and the first Christians were powerful advocates for non-violent protest. In Acts, we see many acts of civil disobedience. Check out Acts 5:40-42 for example:

They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.

 


It is right to protest against something wrong. It is right to disobey a morally wrong law. I would even say that it is right at times to disobey a law that is not morally wrong (like a request to stop protesting) if it is in solidarity to a cause that stands against something that is morally wrong (I hope that made sense!). But in that last case, I think that you have to wear the consequences. To be willing to be fined or go to jail over an issue is a powerful message. I think of the men who were drafted during the Vietnam War and took a stand as a “conscientious objector”, refusing to be involved in a war they believed was wrong. Many went to jail rather than go to war. I think those men had great courage and honour and deserve to hold the title of “peaceful protestor”.

I’ll finish with advise: you can do what evert you want, but be ready to meet the effects and meet lawyers in Albany NY.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(4423)

Share Button
October 13 2011

How God proves his existence

20111013-193538.jpg

The call to prove God’s existence is a common challenge put to Christians. And fair enough. If you told me there was a world-wide flood going to wipe me away and my only hope for survival was to leave everything I knew and get into this giant boat sitting in the middle of a field, I would probably ask for some proof that you were right, and not just crazy. Especially, if I couldn’t see any growing storm clouds or at least, if I had never experienced a flood. The request for proof is understandable. However, at times, it is still foolish. There may be a flood coming and the fact that you can’t see the clouds and you lack experience of floods, doesn’t change reality. You just may be blind, or inexperienced.

So the question remains. If requiring proof of God’s existence is understandable, then how does God meet that basic need?

IS PROOF RELEVANT?

Some Christians make the point that you can’t really prove anything and so the expectation of proof is unrealistic. If you required scientific 100% proof for every decision, you wouldn’t do anything. You wouldn’t sit on a chair because you couldn’t prove it won’t break, you wouldn’t eat food because you couldn’t prove it wasn’t laced with poisonous iocane powder, etc. Basically, day to day, we live by faith. But it’s not blind uninformed faith. It’s faith in our experience and faith in what people tell us and faith in our understanding of the world. We make decisions based on what we are convinced of. And so, for all intents and purposes, that is what most people mean when they say they want “proof” of God.

20111012-183652.jpg

There are some hard-core atheists that expect that Christians should provide scientific proof of God’s existence and acknowledge that even if all the weight of the evidence pointed towards God’s existence, they would still reject the idea of a God, simply because if there is any other possible explanation then that is preferable (I have heard Peter Singer express this view). This sort of blind commitment to atheism is to me a complete rejection of logic, science and common sense and in the end, a lot more “religious” than the most committed fundamentalist there is.

So should we throw out the word “proof” altogether? Well, I don’t think so. It’s such a part of our cultural language. If you want to return clothes you have to provide “proof of purchase”. If you want to buy alcohol you have to show “proof of age”. If you want to get a passport you need “proof of ID”. If you go to court you are innocent until “proven” guilty. Maybe we just have to think about the way we define “proof” and see if we can apply that to the existence of God.

PROOF #1 – JESUS’ RESURRECTION

I started thinking about writing this blog after I remembered how the bible uses the term “proof”. In Acts 1:3 it says, “After his suffering, [Jesus] showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” and then in Acts 17:31 “For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

Both of these passages refer to the resurrection of Jesus as the clearest and most convincing proof of God. The resurrection vindicates all that Jesus taught about himself and about God and is the best evidence for the reality of God and the truth of the gospel. Many philosophers and theologians, both secular and Christian, have realized that the historical truth of the resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity. If it didn’t happen, then Christianity completely falls apart, but the fact that it did happen proves Christianity is true.

Now this is clearly not the sort of proof that a scientist would consider valid. It is not reproducible and therefore can not be tested. It happened once, but if it truly did happen then once is enough. The resurrection is such an unbelievable event that Jesus knew that his disciples needed proof of its reality. He showed himself to them and allowed them to physically touch him and see him interact with physical things (like eating fish) to prove that he was physically and tangibly alive. This was proof to them and the message that Jesus was alive was the driving force behind the explosion of Christianity in the first century. All of the eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus went to their graves (mostly through murder and execution) professing that the resurrection was a true event.

This event happened. The proof that it happened was shown to the disciples by Jesus himself. They in turn wrote down their eyewitness account for us to read and be convinced by. Now this may not sound like a convincing proof to you but it’s like the question, “Can a man walk on the moon?”

20111013-135037.jpg
Think about that question. How would you answer it? Most likely you would say “yes”. But if someone asked you to prove it you would point to the fact that man has indeed walked on the moon. Six times in fact. The first time was in 1969 and the last time was in 1972. That’s the proof. It’s happened. The answer to “can man walk on the moon?” is yes.
But why do you believe that it happened? For many (including myself) all six moon landings happened before I was born, and even if they happened when I was born, I didn’t experience it myself. The idea that man could walk on the moon is absolutely crazy and unbelievable, and yet most of us (other than the rare conspiracy theorist) believe that it 100% happened purely on the basis of the reliability on the account. We read the eyewitness accounts of the astronauts, we see the photos, we watch the video, we listen to the famous words, “that’s one small step for man…” and we are convinced. No matter how unbelievable it may seem, we can confidently say that man can walk on the moon and it has been proven.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this example. I think in the same way that we can say man has walked on the moon, we can say that Jesus rose from the dead and therefore his teaching and message about the reality of God and everything else are reliable. We believe that Jesus’ resurrection has been proved by his appearances and interactions with his disciples who then went on to proclaim and record their eyewitness account of that fact. Their account is still available to us in the gospels and in the book of Acts, and it is just as reliable today as it was when they wrote it. Now some may try to argue against the reliability of the gospel accounts, but I recommend you research the topic yourself to see that they weight of evidence greatly points to their reliability (check out “The Christ Files” if you’re interested). Either way, the issue then becomes “are the accounts of the proof of the resurrection reliable”, not “is there any proof of the resurrection”. The proof is there. Like the moon landings, the resurrection happened. You can either disbelieve the accounts or you can accept them for what they are – reliable records of historical events.

Now, although the resurrection is the primary proof of God that there is, there are also two more proofs which we can personally experience that do not rely on a historical record.

PROOF #2 – EXPERIENCING GOD

The first is the experience of the Christian themselves. Now I admit that this proof is not convincing for those who aren’t Christians who are looking for proof of God before they choose Christ or not, but that doesn’t make it any less of a proof. It simply means that it’s a proof for an audience of one, which incidentally, the person asking for proof is an audience of one and often they aren’t asking that you prove God’s existence on a global universal scale. They’re just asking you to prove it to them, and so the subjective, outwardly untestable, personally experienced proof is just as satisfactory.

20111013-175127.jpg

It’s like the old saying, “the proof is in the pudding”. This is actually a misquote. The original full saying is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. This makes more sense. It’s saying the reality of the pudding – it’s temperature, taste, whether it’s laced with iocane powder, etc – can only be proven when it is eaten. You could put it through the lab and test it with every scientific instrument, but the best proof of the pudding is in the eating.

This is true for God as well. I can’t speak of other Christians experience, but my experience of God is so real and tangible that it is the greatest reason why I don’t doubt the existence of God. I see and sense God’s daily interaction with me, I experience his guidance, his comfort, his joy and his strength. I notice his leadings as he directs me in life and I know through and through when I am stubbornly working against his Spirit. God’s presence is so real to me, and has been from the very day I gave my life to following and trusting Jesus, I can not deny the reality of my experience. It can be a very hard experience to explain or describe to those who do not have a relationship with Jesus, but those who have responded to the gospel often know exactly what I mean with no need for explanation.

It’s very much like trying to explain colour to a blind person. There is no language that can communicate it and there are no proofs that can convince the blind person that colour exists (other than the proof of a reliable account as mentioned earlier). You can’t prove colour to the blind, but if a blind person receives the gift of sight and looks around then you won’t need to prove colour. Colour will prove itself to the individual.

Is the proof that this person experiences any less valid simply because it can not be tested by blind people? Of course not! In some ways, my experience of God is like that. I wish my non-Christian friends and family members could experience God in the way I do. If they did, it would make believing in God’s existence a given rather than a possible option, and all arguments about which position is more logical completely null and void. As the great evangelist Billy Graham said, “I can tell you that God is alive because I talked to him this morning”.

A clear place where the Bible uses this sort of argument is in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, where Paul says,
“If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

20111013-184322.jpg

The terrifying reality if you do not see or experience any “proof” of God, is that you may be blind and perishing in your blindness, and it will take God to shine his light in your heart, remove the “veil” that blinds you and give you “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” If you realize that you are in this position and you are seeking God, but you just can’t see him, then I encourage you to ask him to remove your blindness, like blind Bartemaeus in Mark 10:46-52, call out to Jesus and say, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Maybe Jesus will be merciful and reveal himself to you, giving you every bit of proof that you need.

Now, I realize a problem here. If you don’t see proof that God exists, then how can you call on God to take away your blindness. It seems a convenient argument that anyone could use. Someone could say, “Oh, you would believe in the Mighty Chicken God if you weren’t blind to his glory. Pray and ask the Chicken God to reveal himself.” Now, I’m not going to pray to a giant invisible chicken just on the possibility that he exists and the fear that I might be missing out on something if I don’t pray to him, so I don’t expect anyone else to pray to Jesus if they’re in the same position.

My encouragement is not to the person who can’t see anything, but to the one that God is already working with. God begins to remove the veil and open our eyes, and we start to see things of God and if you are in that position then I encourage you to work with God, rather than against him. Hebrews 3:7 (quoting Psalm 95) says that the Spirit of God is calling to people saying, “If today you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”. If you hear him, then respond. If you do, you will experience the proof of God that only those who know Jesus can experience. Like the kid covered in chocolate pudding, you will be able to know for yourself the words of Psalm 34:8,
“Taste and see that the Lord is good!”

But what if you don’t hear his voice? What if you can’t see the glory of God in the face of Christ? Is there no experiential “proof” for this person? Will God’s existence ever be proved to them?

Well, the reality is, not in this lifetime.

PROOF #3 – DEATH

Scientist are often looking for experiments that are reproducible in order to prove something. Well, when it comes to God, there is one experiment like that. It’s called death. Every person who has died has without fail, come face to face with God, proving in the most real way possible that he exists. It is an experiment that is reproducible and it will work every time. If you want me to prove that God exists, then all I have to do is say, “Sure, no problem. Just die.” You may not be very obliging, but that matters very little seeing as you’re mortal and will one day partake in the experiment whether you like it or not. As Paul writes in Romans 14:10-12,
“We will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: `As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
and in Hebrews 9:27 it says,
“Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”

20111013-194357.jpg

Everyone will stand before God, either as his friend or his enemy. Either forgiven or still under judgement. Everyone will see and know that God is real. The proof will be in the pudding for everyone. Of course, like my last point, this “proof” has a problem as well. The problem isn’t that some can experience it and others can’t – everyone will experience this one – the problem is obviously that on this side of death, we can’t access the results of the experiment. What we really need is someone to have died (really died, rather than just had a near-death experience) and then come back to life so that they can set the record straight about life and God and everything else. Of course, they would have to show us convincing proofs that they had actually risen from the dead, and then we would have to have some reliable record of what this person said so that all people for all time could know the proof that God exists as well…

Gee, that would be sweet…

CONCLUSION

In the end, this blog is not written to non-Christians who are looking for proof of God. It is written to Christians, who have for the most part, gotten into the habit of avoided using the word “proof” when it comes to God. Or, on the other hand, Christians focus on all the evidence in nature and science to show proofs of God. As much as I think that all those are wonderful evidences for God, I don’t think they are good enough. They are not proof.

In my life there are only three major proofs of God: The resurrection of Jesus, my own taste of God’s goodness and the experience of meeting your Maker when you die. One is in the past, one is in the present and the last one is in the future.

I hope you see and experience the first two, before you experience the third.

(2590)

Share Button
October 5 2011

1 John Chapter 5 – Tricky passage explanation

This is a resource I wrote up for my Bible Study. We have been studying 1 John for the last few weeks and on the summary week (tonight) I took on the task of getting my head around some of the tricky verses that come up in chapter 5. If you don’t know the first letter of John, I highly recommend you read it and the following blog entry might not make much sense until you do.

For the sake of reference, here is 1 John chapter 5:

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

6 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.9 We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

 

There are lots of tricky concepts in chapter 5 of 1 John (and indeed throughout the whole letter) but from this last chapter I want to offer some explanation for two of the most trickiest. 

  1. The testimony of the water, the blood & the Spirit. (5:6-12)
  2. The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

 

 The testimony of the water, the blood and the Spirit. (5:6-12)

 This passage gets us asking a few questions:

  • What is the “water” and the “blood”?
  • Why is it important that Jesus didn’t just come by water?
  • How do the water the blood and the Spirit testify about Jesus?
  • Why is it important that there are three that testify?

 The first and most important thing to say about this passage is that although all this talk about water and blood is interesting, it isn’t actually the point of the passage. It’s easy to get distracted by the part of the passage that is the most confusing (and therefore the most interesting), but the most important thing is to see where John is going in all this. This will not only help us avoid getting distracted by peripheral issues, but it will also give us the context to help us understand why he is using such odd language.

 John states his main point in verse 13:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Whatever his argument is, the purpose of it is to help Christians have confidence in the truth of the fact that they have eternal life. In John 20:31, he writes that his purpose for writing the gospel record is so that people can HAVE life. In this letter, his audience is those who have now responded to the gospel and his purpose is that those that have life can KNOW that they have it. The next verse (v14) goes on to talk about the confidence we should have in prayer as a result of this “knowledge”, and the final verses of the letter (v18-20) are all about what we “know”. It even concludes with the purpose of Jesus coming is so that we may know him who is true (which is possibly why there is a final warning against idols – or “false” gods).

So the point of all these tricky verses is to give us confidence in the truth of who Jesus is and the truth of the life that he gives. Okay. So how does he get to that point?

Well, he sets up a picture of the Testimony of God (v9-10). The false teachers that John is refuting were teaching the idea that Jesus did not come in the flesh (see 1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 1:7). They believed that the flesh and everything physical was evil and so the Son of God could never have taken on a human body. They taught that Jesus only appeared to have a human body, but was really just a spirit. John believes this is completely anti-Christian (that’s why it’s the teaching of the antichrist) and throughout the letter uses lots of different arguments to show that it is false. 

In chapter 5 he sets up a picture of a courtroom, where the Testimony of God is given about the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that life is found in the Son (v9-12). It’s not just John’s opinion, it’s God’s opinion and so we can have full confidence in it. In fact, John says in v10, if you don’t believe this testimony then you’re not calling John a liar, you’re calling God a liar.

So in this imaginary courtroom, John describes three witnesses who stand up and testify about this Testimony of God. The three are: the water, the blood and the Spirit.

Now, there are lots of theories about what the water and the blood mean. Some say it’s referring to the water and blood that spilled from Jesus side at the crucifixion (John 19:24), others say the water is his baptism and the blood is his death, still others try to argue that the water is the sacrament of baptism and the blood is the sacrament of communion (a big stretch if you ask me!).

For me, the best explanation is none of these. I think the best fit is the concept that the water is referring to Jesus’ physical birth and the blood is referring to his physical death.

Water is a common image used of birth and creation (think of the waters that the Spirit hovered over in Genesis 1:2) and in John’s gospel (3:5-6), John uses the concept of being “born of water” as a way of describing being physically born, or “born of the flesh”. In this passage, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he has to experience two births in order to see thekingdomofGod. He has to have a physical birth (born of water) and he has to have a spiritual birth (born of the Spirit).

I think this is what John is meaning when he uses the same language in 1 John 5:6. Here he says that Jesus “came by water”, meaning Jesus had a physical birth. This is exactly the concept that the false teachers were denying, and John pushes the point by talking about “blood” – another fleshy concept that the false teachers would have hated. This is probably referring to Jesus’ physical death, a death that was proven when the blood flowed from his side. Blood is used throughout the New Testament as a reference to Jesus’ death (including in 1 John 1:7), and so we can safely say this is what John is meaning here.

It makes sense too. He is arguing that the Testimony of God is that Jesus came in the flesh and two of the witnesses are the physical birth of Jesus (the water) and the physical death of Jesus (the blood). But it’s not just historical events the witness to Jesus, but God himself proclaims this testimony about Jesus through his Spirit. This is why John says in 1 John 5:6-7 that the Spirit testifies along with the water and the blood. This could be referring to Jesus’ baptism (John 1:32-34) or more likely where Jesus says that he will send the Spirit of truth who will testify about him (John 15:26-27). Either way, John’s courtroom scene is completed with three witnesses – the water, the blood and the Spirit, and these three are in agreement (1 John 5:7).

But why is it important that there are three witnesses? Well for that we need to understand one of the most important Old Testament laws in regard to courtroom justice. In Deuteronomy 19:15 the law states that a truth was not able to be established if there is only one witness. There had to be two or three.

One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

This law is re-enforced by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 when he teaches about how we should respond when a brother sins against us, and Paul uses this principle when talking about proving his ministry (2 Corinthians 13:1-3) and also when bringing a charge against an elder (1 Timothy 5:19).

The idea is that although one witness may be telling the truth, it can only be validated or established as true and reliable when “two or three” witness to it. This is possibly what Jesus is talking about when he says: “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)

In relation to John’s argument, it means that in the imaginary courtroom scene that he is describing “there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” Do you see what he’s arguing? It’s John’s way of saying that the testimony that Jesus is the Son of God is reliable and is an established truth that we can have full confidence in.

And this in the end is his goal remember? He writes all of it, painting this elaborate courtroom scene, so that we can have confidence that God’s testimony about Jesus is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

Like the “water and the blood”, there are a few suggestions as to what John is talking about when he talks of the sin that leads to death. Some say it’s the unforgiveable sin of “blasphemy against the Spirit” Jesus talks about in Matthew 12:31-32 (a tricky passage in itself) or the sin of “lying to the Holy Spirit” that instantly kills Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, or even the sin of taking communion without acknowledging Jesus which seems to have been judged by God with sickness and death in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30.

These are all big stretches to squeeze into the context of 1 John and so the best and simplest way of understanding what John is talking about is to look at the letter itself.

Just before talking about the “sin that leads to death” John writes in v12, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” This is the two distinct groups that he keeps going on about throughout the whole letter. There are two camps. In one camp is the Christ who gives life, and in the other camp there is the antichrist who gives death.

So what is the “sin that leads to death”? It is the sin that leads you away from Christ.

More specifically, it’s the sin that John keeps going on about – The sin of denying that the Son of God came in the flesh. This is the sin that leads people away from the truth of the gospel and so leads them to death.

Before talking about this sin, he encourages us to pray for a fellow believer who has sinned (v16). This fellow believer (or “brother”) believes the Testimony about God, has come to Jesus and has been given eternal life. This is a believer that John describes as being “born of God” (v18) and therefore will not continue sinning. John says that God will keep him safe and the evil one cannot harm him and earlier in the letter, John says that if a believer does sin then Jesus speaks on our defence and he atones for all of our sin by his death (1 John 2:1-2).

This is why, when we see a believer committing a sin, we are right to pray and ask God to give them life. God has promised to forgive them and give them life because all of their sin, past, present and future, has been dealt with by Jesus.

Then John makes a distinction. He refers to this sin that leads to death – this sin of rejecting Jesus consistently and deliberately – and he clarifies that he is not saying we should pray for that sin. Notice, he doesn’t exactly tell us we must not pray for that sin, but rather he clarifies, saying that the sins he is instructing us to pray for are specifically the sins of a believer. These are the sins we can have confidence God will forgive, and again remember, this is what this section of the letter is about – confidence in God.

That’s what John is referring to in the previous verses:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15)

John is saying, when we ask God to forgive the sins of a believer and give them life rather than death, we can have confidence that he will give us what we ask. This is true, not because we are special, but because we are asking “according to his will” (v14). It is God’s will that he gives life to those that believe in Jesus. It is God’s will that anyone born of God will not continue to sin.

This is the sin that we should pray to God about. There is lots of sin that leads to death around us. Everywhere we look we see people rejecting Jesus, and John is saying we can’t have confidence that God will give life to every sinner. Maybe we should pray that God forgives. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should pray that people repent and that God has mercy. This passage actually doesn’t answer that issue. The point of John’s concluding words in 1 John is to encourage us to pray for Christians having full confidence that God will give them life.

The most important thing is to test our hearts and see which camp we are actually in. Are we committing the sin that leads to death by rejecting Jesus, the Son of God who came in the flesh? Or are we in danger of following false teachers who preach a false gospel about a false God?

We need to always be diligent to keep ourselves from these paths that lead away from eternal life and lead straight to eternal death. This is probably why John finishes this letter in with such an encouragement and a warning:

 “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21)

(2137)

Share Button