In the early days of his public ministry Jesus and his mother Mary were invited to a wedding in the Galilean town of Cana. Such weddings often lasted a full week, so at one point Mary came to her son with the news that they had run out of wine. Jesus told his mother that he didn’t share her concern because his time (apparently his time to reveal that he was the Messiah) had not yet come. However, Jesus told the servants to fill some stone water jars and when they dipped some out it had turned to wine, in fact a wine that was superior to what they had been drinking. The gospel of John points out that this was the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs (2:1-11).
The question I want to ask is in what way can we be like Jesus when it comes to his miracles? Is it in our power to perform miracles? Granted, the early church was able to perform acts of healing but for the most part that gift is not frequently exercised in the contemporary church. Should it be is the question?
It will be well at this point to define miracle. The British Dictionary says a miracle an “an event that is contrary to the established laws of nature and attributed to a supernatural cause.” Other dictionaries say roughly the same in more erudite language. The one thing that is clear is that miracles call for a force outside the human realm and that implies that they are not something we do on our own power. They are acts of God. So when the early church was “filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles” (Acts 2:43) it was actually God at work through them. When we say that an apostle performed a miracle what we mean is that God used the apostle as the agent through whom he carried out his supernatural act. All the miracles performed by members of the primitive church were divine acts wrought through humans. They healed the sick and drove out demons, which not only served the physical needs of the afflicted but helped authenticate the message they delivered (Acts 8:6 reports that the people paid attention to Philip’s message “when they heard and saw the signs which he did.”).
Against this background I would suggest that miracles are happening all the time in the contemporary church. Perhaps not the more typical miracles of New Testament days such as healing the sick but if a miracle is an act of God performed through one of his own then every answered prayer is a miracle, every intervention of God into the human sphere at our request. Recently a friend involved in campus ministry told me of a number of freshmen who opened their hearts to Christ and were granted forgiveness and eternal life. Was that not a miracle? It was beyond human competence and required the supernatural. Wherever God is at work in this world miracles are happening on a continuing basis. And we can be part of that
The various encounters discussed in today’s blog are all found in a single section of the gospel of John (1:35-51).
On the day after Jesus was baptized, John the Baptist saw him walking by and announced, "There is the Lamb of God!" John's followers went to Jesus and asked where he was staying, to which Jesus responded, "Come along and you will see." One of the major qualities we see in Jesus is his openness and availability. Not only did the men go with him but they spent the rest of the day enjoying his companionship. Jesus was very open and approachable, one with whom others enjoyed spending time, a genuinely hospitable man.
One of the men in this group was Andrew. The first thing he did was to find his brother, Simon, and tell him that they had found the Messiah. The two of them went immediately to see Jesus and when they arrived, Jesus gave Simon the name Cephas, which means "Rock." The point is that Jesus saw Peter in terms of what he would become. We know from subsequent stories that Peter was given to quick responses that revealed considerable instability. But Jesus knew what Peter was capable of becoming and dealt with him in that positive way. Jesus was optimistic about change.
On the following day Jesus decided to go to Galilee so turning to Philip he queried, "Would you like to come along with me?” No reason to make the journey by oneself. It is clear that Jesus was very relational. He enjoyed being with his disciples not only to share what he had to teach but also to enjoy the simple pleasure of getting to know them.
When Nathaniel learned that Jesus was the man that Moses had written about and that he had come from the town of Nazareth, his response was, "Can anything good come from that place?” When Jesus saw this somewhat pessimistic Nathaniel approaching he said, "Here comes a true Israelite, a man in whom there is no decent." Nathaniel may have questioned if anything of worth could possibly come from the little town of Nazareth but Jesus saw in him the model of a true Israelite – one in whom there is no duplicity. Jesus was insightful. And as the story continues we hear Jesus telling the new convert that he would "see even greater things” than Jesus’ immediate recognition of Nathaniel’s basic character trait – that is, he would see “heaven standing wide open with the angels of God descending." In addition to insight, Jesus had a profound ability to encourage others.
In these five encounters we learn some important things about Jesus’ approach to life. His encounter with Andrew and his brother Peter shows how approachable and hospitable he was. Viewing Peter in terms of who he would become is both positive and helpful. His desire that Philip go with him to Galilee reveals how comfortable he was in the presence of others. And finally, from the relationship with Nathaniel we see how insightful and encouraging he was. For us to live like Christ is to mirror these same qualities in the world in which we find ourselves. To be like Jesus is to be approachable, positive, relational, insightful, and encouraging. Becoming like Christ is to allow him by his presence to change us into this kind of person.
After Jesus was baptized, he was led by the Spirit out into the desert where he began a lengthy period of fasting (Matthew 4:1-11). After forty days, in which he became absolutely famished, the devil showed up to suggest a way in which he could satisfy that hunger. Without hesitation Jesus responded saying, “Scripture says” and then explained that man needs more than bread to live. The devil’s second temptation was that Jesus would throw himself from the top of the temple and allow the angels to protect him. Once again Jesus said, “But Scripture also says” and explained that God should not be put on trial. Then the devil offered Jesus complete control of the kingdoms of this world if he would bow down and worship him. Jesus demanded that Satan leave because “the Scriptures say” that only God is to be worshipped. The obvious lesson for us is that God has spoken in scripture and that as we face the temptations of life we are to apply what God the father has already revealed in scripture to be his will.
One of the great contributions of the Navigators is their emphasis on memorization of scripture. Thousands of young people associated with the organization have gone through a program that leads to the mastery of essential truths in the Bible by memorization. What they stress is that when a temptation arises it should immediately be countered by a verse from scripture. On each of the three occasions Jesus responded to the devil’s insidious suggestions with an insight from scripture.
I find it interesting that God has not left us on our own to figure out how best to live the Christian life but has revealed his will for every situation. It is all written down. I know of no problem facing the believer that is without answer in the Bible. Cultures differ but principles are cross-cultural. For example we know that when Paul says that women are to remain quiet in church (1 Tim 2:12) he is not stating some sort of timeless practice but reflecting what would be best for a well ordered church in a first century culture in which women were neither educationally or socially equipped for leadership. What scripture teaches is the truth that lies behind any particular cultural expression of that principle. To know what the bible has to say about all the essential aspects of the Christian life is to be prepared with an answer for any trial we may face. If the church as a training organization for believers would take this responsibility seriously its members would increasingly reflect how Jesus dealt with trials.
The first story in the gospels where Jesus is seen taking action is his decision to remain in the temple to discuss theological issues with the rabbis while his family left for home (Luke 2:41-52). The family had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Now they were returning and late in the day his parents noted that Jesus was missing. They returned to Jerusalem to look for him. Three days later they found him in the temple in serious discussion with the religious leaders. Jesus had decided that being in “(his) Father’s house” asking and answering questions of the rabbis was more important than returning with the family. But now he went with his parents, returned to Nazareth, and “continued to live under their authority” (vs. 51). He “grew in wisdom and stature, gaining the approval of God and neighbors” (vs. 52).
You might ask at this point, “What is it that we could possibly learn about imitating Christ from this early incident?” After all, even as a child he was the incarnate Son of God, and we are miserable sinners at best. I think there are at least a couple of lessons in the story for us today. First, by remaining behind he is saying that the spiritual concerns of life are more important than all its secondary issues. I’m not suggesting that we should view Jesus as a super spiritual young man with an extraordinary longing to be a religious leader. There is nothing in the evidence that would suggest that. He was simply a young adult with a deep desire to know more about those issues that were central to life. To be like Jesus in this sense is to make the most of every occasion that offers the chance to learn something of spiritual importance.
A second observation is that this experience that, for the moment , placed him at the center of attention did not go to his head. It did not change his responsibility to “live under their [his parents] authority” (vs. 51). The normal reaction of youth would be to make the most of that privilege at the expense of responsibility. It could be argued that a boy whose insight into matters spiritual was that high should be free from normal childhood obligations. The mature Christian recognizes that being a child of God does not relieve us from the normal restrictions of life. It is true that we are citizens of another country (the Jerusalem above) but for the time being we live under the authority of the land we used to call home.
Jesus was a man of many moods. He is normally pictured in the gospels as patiently instructing his disciples or speaking to large crowds. I have to believe there were also times of good humor when around an evening fire he exchanged stories that brought a smile. At the same time, there was a somber side to his public ministry. Both Matthew and Luke report that moment when looking out over the city, he cried out, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I have longed to gather you in my arms as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. Look, there is your temple, forsaken by God!” (Matt. 23:37-38, Jesus In His Own Words)
In the heart of God there is a deep desire for the restoration of man. History took a tragic turn from what God had in mind leaving the heart with an empty void. When Jesus reflects on what it is that has replaced what might have been, his heart is heavy with sorry. So on this day his mood is controlled by the sad realization that man had taken the wrong road and was now suffering the consequences of the choice.
I ask, what is the role of sorrow in the life of today’s serious believer? I believe we can learn from Jesus’ experience that genuine sadness is the proper background for the coming joy of restoration. Sadness over the tragic results of sin is a proper part of the mindset of every mature Christian. In the Beatitudes, Jesus pronounces blessed “those who understand the sorrow of this world, for God himself will comfort and encourage them” (Matthew 5:4). Sadness and joy have a unique relationship. Each intensifies the other. Sadness is even deeper when one realizes the infinite delight of joy, and joy soars beyond expectations against the background of sadness. Each plays its rightful role in the life of the believer. The lostness of man apart from the saving process of grace brings an increased earnestness to the active believer and the joy of eternal friendship with the One who crafted us in his own image deepens the sadness we experience along the way. May we join Jesus as he looks out over our Jerusalem longing to gather the rebels back into the safety and provision of God.
During the final days of Jesus’ ministry here on earth opposition against him grew accordingly. Pharisees joined with their adversaries the Herodians to set a trap (pagideuo is a hunting term meaning “to snare or trap”) that would give them grounds to turn him over to the Roman overlords. So on one occasion they met him and, after flattering him with words about his integrity and willingness to speak his mind in any situation, they posed their cagey question about paying taxes to Caesar or not. A No answer would put him in trouble with the civil authorities and a Yes answer would cost him his popularity with the people.
At this point Jesus could have gone off on a long and complicated discussion of the role of personal religious choice in a complicated civil setting. Instead, he rather abruptly identified them for what they were, “hypocrites,” and asked for the coin required for the tax. “Whose image is this on the coin?” he asked and they said “Caesar’s.” And now comes his response: “Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him.” The authorities were taken aback at his answer, fell silent and slipped away.
That is how Jesus handled the situation. Rather than allowing his opposition to trap him into solving the dilemma with words, he took action and that put them on the defense. A masterful stroke. So now comes the question for today’s believer who wants to imitate Christ in his daily conduct. Is there anything here that is transferable to us today?
Several things come to mind. First, he clearly identified his opposition. They were “hypocrites,” feigning an interest in the question of whether the Jews should pay taxes imposed by the Romans while the purpose in the entire charade was to trap Jesus. The Greek hypokrites is a stage actor, pretending to be someone he is not. While it may not always be helpful to call opponents undesirable names, it is a good idea to know and name one’s rival. Second, to make his point Jesus didn’t rely solely on words. He simplified the issue by turning it into an interchange that actually involved their participation. Learning is more effective when it is objectified as much as possible. There on the coin was the carved image of the emperor. Seems obvious that the coin bearing his inscription should go to him. It belonged to him, and other things belonged to God. For us this suggests that we need to think through the issues and be able to make the most plausible argument to support them. And finally, he apparently did not boast about winning the argument. The authorities were set back with nothing to say and found a way to leave as quickly as possible. Jesus did not taunt them in their retreat.
Before there was New Testament (as a composite of apostolic letters), early believers were encouraged to watch how their leaders lived and imitate their faith (Heb 13:7). For example, Paul urged the believers at Corinth to “imitate” him (1 Corin 4:16). Throughout history believers have been challenged to reflect in the way they live what it means to be a child of God. What I have been doing in these blogs on Jesus is to watch how he acted in various life situations and suggest how that should work out in our 21st century world. I knew that before long I would arrive at that dramatic moment when Jesus entered the temple and saw how religious leaders had turned it into a commercial enterprise. It is one of the very few episodes that occur in all four gospels.
What met the eyes of Jesus when he went into the Court of the Gentiles was appalling; animals were being sold for sacrifice, money was being exchanged, God’s “house of prayer” had been turned into a “hideout for thieves.” So Jesus took some pieces of cord, twisted them into a whip and began to drive the animals out of the Court. He turned the tables of the money changes upside down scattering coins in every direction. “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market place!” he demanded. One thing we must accept and that is that he did it in a “Christ like” manner. I know, that is a strange picture, but Jesus was the Christ whose life we are called upon to imitate. I ask, how does this work out today? What are the “temples” we are to cleanse, the demands we are to make, the zeal for righteousness that stirs us to action?
The first thing to find out is what exactly was it was that he was opposing. It is clear that the religious leaders were profaning the house of God and using it as a source of revenue. They were secularizing the sacred. Do we see something like that going on today? At the risk of alienating some I would suggest that the “worship service” of many a contemporary church is for all purposes a secular musical concert employing Christian words. I see little difference between the musical score of the service and what was happening the night before at a local rock concert. Both are highly emotive, designed to create a certain sensation, and anything but worshipful in the traditional sense. Worship is an awareness of the presence of Almighty God, perfect in love, righteousness and power. I do not find this in what passes as sacred music today. We are all familiar with the role of music in supporting the scene in a movie. Light and happy music says one thing, a slow sensuous beat, something else. Each plays its distinct role. But the God I know, if he needs a musical setting, is great beyond words, infinitely pure and righteous, kind beyond description. How should he be represented musically?
Back to my point about application. When I enter the “temple” of church music do I take a whip and drive out the musicians, upset the communion table and demand that the organist play Bach only? Would that be Christ like? Why not? I am going to leave the answer open to you, yet suggest that it should not remain open for good. And should we agree on an answer to that “temple activity that may need cleansing,” what can be said about the host of other related areas
Jesus was nearing Jerusalem on his final journey and as he came up over a sudden rise the famous city stretched out before him. Luke writes that Jesus “broke into tears” (19:41) and adds that the Lord’s sorrow for the city was that those who lived there didn’t know what made for peace. It was a classic “if only this, then that” situation. Had they known the way of peace there would have been no destruction. But in the year 79 AD the Romans sacked the city and desecrated the holy temple. Jesus wept for the city because of what would happen in a few years but didn’t need to. He broke into tears moved by the realization that the coming fall of Jerusalem wasn’t necessary.
That which catches my attention is Jesus’ reaction to an avoidable tragedy. It is enough that the city would be destroyed but what made it worse was the fact that it didn’t need to happen. When we see human suffering that is unnecessary, how do we react? “Serves them right; they had it coming,” or “How sad because it didn’t have to happen?” Jesus wept not simply because of what in time would take place but because it was not inevitable.
So I ask, How can this perspective be integrated into the mindset of today’s Christian believer? If we would be more like Jesus one thing is that we would give increasing attention to the why of tragedy. While it is helpful to take part in restoration of the damage, a more important need is to discover why and make the change there. Getting to the root of the problem is a more efficient way to expend energy than in taking care of its damage.
In one of his beatitudes Jesus says, “Blessed are those who understand the sorrow of this world, for God himself will comfort and encourage them” (Matthew 5:4 from Jesus, In His Own Words.) To understand that all suffering and heartache of every sort in our world is the result of sin gives us the starting point for renewal. We will spend less time taking care of results and more on prevention. Wherever God is honored and his teaching is adopted the climate for a meaningful and happy life is increased. Looking out over our Jerusalem, may we join the Master and be moved to tears at the devastation that doesn’t need to happen. Then, of course, we redouble our efforts to discover the why and take the action necessary.