Have you ever wondered why you hold certain things to be true although they cannot be verified? It is one thing to believe that if you head south from San Francisco you will in time arrive in Los Angeles. That can be validated any number times by . . . . that’s right, by heading south from the Bay area. But in so many areas of life that kind of verification is impossible. So many of the more important things about life are not subject to scientific proof, e.g., there is a heaven and a hell, how will it all turn out, honesty is the best policy, love never fails, etc. Yet we believe them. Why?
Jesus had been sharing with his followers some truths about matters of a spiritual nature, specifically that if they would “eat his flesh and drink his blood they would have eternal life” (John 6:56). Many of his followers found such teaching offensive and turned their backs on him. But his disciples remained loyal because they had “come to believe” (vs. 69). Could they verify what they had “come to believe”? Well, not in the sense of proving it with scientific evidence, but does that make their belief less true? Does the validity of truth depend upon our ability to prove it in the laboratory?
In discussing the situation with his followers Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father makes it possible” (vs. 65). Provable? Well, at what level? It can’t be weighed, measured, or chemically determined but certainly that doesn’t make it false. Truths in the realm of the spirit are not subject to such methods of verification. So how can we know that unless God makes it possible a person cannot “come to” God?
It is at this point that faith enters the picture. Faith is not reckless confidence in what seems impossible but the quiet response of the heart to the overtures of God. Belief is less something believers do than their acquiescence to truth as it bids acceptance. We speak of “the ring of truth.” Jesus said that our personal relationship with Jesus would have been impossible apart from the empowerment of a loving God. So let’s celebrate truth as all that is consistent with the nature of God and thank him for his work within our hearts to accept it. God’s truth is not something we learn by our own diligence but that which we accept as a divine disclosure.
Jesus came to proclaim a new message. Whereas Old Testament Judaism, like all other religions of its day, involved a number of ceremonial rites, Jesus taught such remarkable ideas as “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). This would strike the Jewish mind as contrary to their religious tradition. Jesus taught that the welfare of those for whom such ceremonies had been devised was more important than the ceremony itself. When a woman caught in the act of adultery was brought to Jesus he didn’t join with her accusers but told her she could leave, however she was “not to continue in her sinful ways” (John 8:11). Christianity was a new era in redemptive history in which former religious rules and regulations no longer played a central role.
It is against this background that we consider a rather matter-of-fact remark by Jesus, “Sometime later I went up to Jerusalem to take part in one of the Jewish festivals” (John 5:1). But wait. He had come to establish a brand new alliance with mankind, but now seems to deny it by stepping back into the customs of yesterday. He was going up to Jerusalem to take part in a religious festival! That seems to be out of step with his healing of a crippled woman on a Sabbath? The synagogue leaders objected, noting that there were six days of the week for that sort of thing and the Sabbath is for worship not work. Jesus reminded the “hypocrites” (his title for them) that since they cared for their livestock on the Sabbath, should not this woman, bound by Satan for eighteen years, be set free even though it happened to be the Sabbath? (Luke 13:10-17).
I believe that Jesus decided to attend that particular festival simply because he wanted to. There was nothing essentially wrong with the ceremonies of Israel. After all, God established them. It is only when ceremony takes the place of what it is supposed to accomplish that it is wrong. Jesus could enjoy the beauty of ceremony as well as that which it represented in the new reality of God’s continuing presence in the hearts of believers.
Is there a lesson here for us? I believe so. Fortunate is the person who can embrace the fullness of spiritual reality all the way from ceremonial expression to personal experience.
Have you ever wondered how Jesus would go about teaching were he placed in our contemporary culture? At first the idea of a first century itinerant preacher in an Ivy League classroom boggles the mind. Yet at 12 he did go to the sacred halls of academia of his day where he engaged the religious leaders in serious discussion. Luke 2:47 reports that “all who heard me were astonished at my understanding and the skill with which I answered their questions.” I suspect that he could handle a Harvard or Yale exposure as well.
However Jesus’ teaching ministry was not with the intelligentsia of his day but with the common people, those who would leave their workbench and go out with the crowd to some deserted location where they could hear his words of instruction. To teach these people Jesus used parables, short allegorical stories that illustrated a religious or moral lesson. And that is exactly how we learn similar truth today. We come to understand what we don’t know as it is illustrated by something we do know. We tell a growing child that the world is like a big rubber ball, that is, it is round. Jesus taught the kingdom of God by comparing it to seed planted in various kinds of soil: the richer the soil the more bountiful the growth. He described his teaching method so simply in Mark 4:2, “I taught them spiritual truths using simple stories from everyday life.”
Most people tend to think that the great truths of life are necessarily complex. The scientific world operates in a world of extreme complexity. And it does, but that complexity is essentially connected with what we don’t as yet know or what we are in the process of learning, not with the outcome of the scientific activity. Gravity is very easy scientific axiom to understand in its practical application, but whether it is best described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity or by Newton’s law of universal gravitation is still a question.
The truths that Jesus taught were those that genuinely matter, not only for today but for eternity. I don’t mean at all to downgrade the advances that are being made in areas such as pharmacological research, medicine, robotics, etc., but I am reminded as a believing Christian that there is an eternity. Truths that deal with matters of the spirit are more significant than those limited to time. You might say that’s a pie-in-the-sky perspective and I would have to agree that so it seems, but for the believer it is accepted as true. To be consistent we must direct our life by our most basic assumptions and beliefs. So I am glad that Jesus taught “spiritual truths using simple stories from everyday life” — that way I can understand.
We all are aware that something is not quite right about life. A quick look at the global picture reveals manevolence of every kind all the way from a thoughtless word to the destruction of human life. Apparently it has always been that way. The book of Genesis tells us that the first naturally born male killed his brother; that’s how the human race began. I’m not trying to paint a gloomy picture but on one occasion Jesus recited a litany of those things that defile. The crowd was concerned that they not eat something that was ceremonially unclean so Jesus reminded them that people are defiled not by what goes in but by what comes out. By way of example he listed “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, and folly,” and added, “all of these things come from within and defile” (Mark 7:21-23).
The problem is human nature. Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God but with Adam’s decision to disobey, human nature was twisted in the wrong direction. History is a lengthy narrative that recounts the struggles of mankind due to this fatal event. The common characteristic at every point is mankind’s propensity to act contrary to the divine will. Granted there are constant illustrations of the image of God at work in human life but the underlying reason for sorrow and suffering is the dark side of human nature.
Once this Biblical perspective is understood and applied we begin to see why nations war, why people abuse power at every level, why we so quickly weigh every choice in terms of personal benefit, etc. Of course the dark side is not the only side. Christianity teaches that God entered his own creation in the person of his Son, became the necessary sacrifice for the waywardness of all, and invites us to receive, no strings attached, a new nature and an incredibly bright future that never ends.
So, what would I change about life, if I could? It would be what we are by nature. Unfortunately that cannot happen but interestingly enough the despair of reality makes the transforming presence of Christ all the more exciting. Talk about a redemptive story! And it turns out magnificently for all who are willing to accept the gift of Christ’s redeeming love.
One of the observations about the boy Jesus that I have always liked is Luke’s statement that “Jesus grew in both wisdom and stature, gaining the approval of God and all the people” (2:52). He had astounded the rabbis in Jerusalem with the depth of his understanding and the skill with which asked and answered questions (vs. 47). Now he was back home in Nazareth, a simple hillside town. For a twelve year old boy that remarkable three day event in the capitol city was sure a lot to brag about but Jesus continued his normal life, growing up physically, learning new things every day, pleasing God, and developing a good reputation with the towns-people.
My question was, “What’s it like to live like Jesus?” This incident gives us a good clue. I believe the first thing for us is to embrace the immediate setting in which God has placed us. We may feel that we were meant for better things. The dusty hills of our Nazareth seem not the best in which to share our gifts with the world. And that is exactly our natural response. But God has placed us exactly where we are at this specific time. Someone said, “To be satisfied with one’s lot is to acknowledge that God’s plan is better than ours.”
A second point is that Jesus grew. We understand how he would grow physically but what about growing in wisdom? Luke is not talking about growing in knowledge but in wisdom. There is a significant difference, wisdom being the wise application of knowledge to life. And that is perhaps the very reason why Jesus gained the approval of the towns-people. Nothing is quite so socially positive as mature individuals applying to life all that they have learned about what serves the common good.
The text also says that in addition to gaining the approval of the people he also gained God’s approval. This sounds at first as though earlier on he didn’t have it, but that would be word play. Every virtue can grow. To love more doesn’t imply a former lack of love. What Luke is saying is that as Jesus grew into manhood his life was pleasing to his Father all along the way. And that is how we are to live
Faith is not easy. It is easier to doubt than to believe, possibly because failure to believe often carries a penalty.
The story behind this observation is that of Jesus sending his disciples on across the lake while he went up the hillside to pray. (Told in Matt 14, Mark 6, and John 6). There was a storm brewing and Jesus undoubtedly knew that it would be severe but sent his disciples out anyway. Was he testing their faith? Just that very day he had fed 5,000. Certainly that would give them confidence in his ability to handle any storm that could rise.
The storm did commence and it was severe. Our text doesn’t tell us how the disciples reacted but given that several of them were professional fishermen you would think that they could handle whatever might come up. Jesus waited till daybreak to set out walking across the sea to where the disciples were still battling the waves in the middle of a rough sea. When they saw him, the text says, “They were terrified and shrieked for fear, ‘It’s a ghost!’” A bad storm is one thing but walking on water was something quite distinct. How quickly they had forgotten that only yesterday this same man had taken five little loaves of bread and two fish and multiplied them so that an enormous crowd could eat and be satisfied. They had been right there handing out the food.
After a comforting, “All is well” from Jesus, Peter made bold to ask if it were truly he would he ask him to approach across the water. And he did, but part way there, Peter noticed how unruly were the seas and immediately began to sink. Once again Jesus extended his help and drew Peter up out of the water.
Earlier on I noted that faith is not easy. When life depends on it we want stronger evidence. It is always possible that faith has been misplaced. Perhaps I have taken as true something that is not. But that is the nature of faith. We cannot reason ourselves into believing that which can be verified only by experience.
But note that denial is also an act of faith. Those issues that really matter lie beyond our ability to verify them by some material method, so we accept them or deny them and both responses, both belief and doubt, are acts of faith.
And where does saving faith come from? Scripture teaches that it is a gift of God, not a gift that operates mechanically but a gift that involves our acceptance. When Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” he was, whether he realized it or not, accepting as valid the faith he was being given. Apart from divine intervention he would have drowned. What makes faith “hard” is our natural tendency to reject it; it has nothing to do with the opportunity to believe — God has already taken care of that.
Almost every person is aware that the material world in which we live (and of which we are a part) is not the only world. This very awareness is part of that other world, a world without boundaries, one in which we are not limited in time or in space. “But,” you say, “That is merely our mind at work, our imagination.”
But wouldn’t that mean that the material is creating the non-material? That seems a bit difficult for me. If there are two realms then would it not be more reasonable for the non-material to be responsible for the material? After all, it’s the sphere you hold to be unlimited.
I wouldn’t suggest that something like that is what Jesus had in mind when he was talking with Nicodemus (the Jewish scholar) about spiritual birth, but it does open the door to consider a sphere of being that is not material. That Jesus could perform miraculous signs led Nicodemus to acknowledge that God was somehow involved. But the question of being born again in order to enter the kingdom of God left him confused.
So Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, a person cannot enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Physical birth results in a physical being; spiritual birth, in a spiritual being” (John 3:5-6 — all quotations from my Jesus, In His Own Words).
I know that the expression “to be born again” has been used in connection with everything from used car sales to a new plan for vacationing, but Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. He was distinguishing between two realities,