Unless You Remain in Me

“la vigna” by Francesco Sgroi CC 2.0

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vineyard keeper.  Every branch in Me that does not produce fruit He removes, and He prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, and I in you.  Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me.   “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing
-John 15:1-5

Let me tell you a story, about a married couple.  After many years of searching for true love, a lady found a man.  And that man had been searching for that very lady, for her whole life, and he finally found her.  At least it seemed like that to him.

When they found each other, that long wait no longer seemed like a long trial, because they were so happy to have found each other.  The man adored the woman and the woman was in a continual state of bliss.  Their wedding was a joyous occasion, as they say, and it really was.

The man wrote their vows, that the woman agreed to and they said these promises to one another, in a church, in front of their closest friends and their families, some who traveled from far away, to share the couple’s joy.

After their honeymoon, they settled into married life.  They both were not kids, but mature adults; and they both thought they knew how to be in a marriage.  After some time, they discovered that getting married and being married are two different things.

Being married takes a bit of work.  You can never take your husband or your wife, for granted.  The man and his wife found out that they needed to continuously hold onto each other and the covenant vows of loyalty that they once made with joy.

The married couple found out that they needed to continually recommit and decide again to be married, mostly in their hearts, but sometimes out loud.  The man thought it sounded silly to say, “will you marry me?”, to his bride, over and over again; but that is how his genuine love for her was.  And each time he said that, she said, “Yes”, as she did that first time.

What does that story have to do with this passage in John 15, where Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener”?  Jesus then talks about his father’s activities of cutting off or pruning branches.  He then makes this statement:

Remain in me, as I also remain in you.
No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.
Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches.
If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

The key word here is, ‘Remain’.  Other popular translations have the word as ‘Abide’.  It literally means, “hold onto each other in a living union”.  It is not like installing a pipe that you weld, screw, or glue in and then it remains.  It is like a marriage where the couple are in union, but that union has to be continually recommitted to, nurtured, and celebrated in intimacy for it to grow and be fruitful.

So the question becomes, “Are you in this kind of a living, dynamic union with Christ?”  As a branch can not bear fruit unless it is attached to the vine, so it is with Christ-followers.  We all want to be fruitful, and the only way to be fruitful is be in living, dynamic union with Christ.

For anyone who immediately thinks of grapes and wine, and therefore sees an allusion to Eucharistic language or symbolism here; the wine created (if created) in this vineyard setting, would come from the grapes that are the fruit in the disciple’s lives in union with Christ.  It is an interesting thought that there might be wine produced from the fruit in our lives, that we joyfully serve to one another.

Jesus initiates the life we have in him.  Our union with Christ is started by him and is kept by him:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16)

But, it is we who maintain our lives in him through love and obedience.  That is our part to play.  Our union is actively kept by our actions of love and obedience to his words:

If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:10-12)

Only in Christ can we live authentically.  In him we can bear fruit in service to God, in answered prayer, through obedience and his love.  In him, we become his friends and are untied with other believers in his love.

“Remain in me”, he says.  “How?”, we ask.  Through obedience and love.  You are not in union with Christ, if you love, but do not obey.  Nor is it possible to be united with Christ through obedience, without love.  We obey him because of and through his love, demonstrating our love for him, on a daily basis.

We joined or got joined to him, when we initially received salvation, and now, we keep joined or keep staying joined through obedience and love.  Our love and obedience, that keeps us in union with Christ, does not happen in a vacuum, but is an ‘echo’ or continuation of Jesus’ reciprocation of the Father’s love and calling upon him:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.(John 15:9-10)

We can not obey him unless we love him, and we can not love him unless we have received his love for us first.  Our obedience is to a person, who is love, so love empowers obedience.  Obedience is only genuine or authentic, when it is in Christ, in union with his love.

Today, we have people who are big on obedience or even big on church, and small on love (John 3:16 love), who are not in union with Christ.  They embrace ‘christian religion’ or ‘churchianity‘ rather than the ‘crazy love‘ of God.  They are not living in dynamic union with Christ.  So, their lives have no fruit.

There is another group of people who are all about love.  They are all about not being judgmental and being loving.  They are so loving that they don’t believe in the cross of Christ and his redeeming of repentant sinners.  Their love is self-centered love.  They take their love and project it on God, rather than bowing to God’s redemptive love in Christ that calls us to his cross and to taking up our own crosses.  So, they as well, have no fruit.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.

Jesus takes the vine metaphor, which usually refers to Israel (see Isaiah 5:1-7), and applies it to himself.  That is what we believe he meant by saying, “I am the true vine”.  He now adds that his disciples are the branches, and the Father is the person (husbandman or gardener) in charge of the vineyard.  The Father cuts off branches that are not in union with the vine and prunes those that are.  Those of us who have fruit trees or vines know that pruning the branches back will bring more fruit in the next season.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

The bearing of fruit is simply living the life of a Christian disciple.(Barrrett, p. 474)  If we are in Christ and Christ is in us, as we live out our lives, we will bear fruit.  Then the question becomes, for the Christian, why would you not daily and hourly choose union with Christ?  Do you imagine that we have a propensity to claim Christ, but continually wander from him, not abiding, remaining, or being in union with him?

Jesus says that there is an action involved in our volition, to choose to stay joined, to continually rejoin him.  The branches do not create the fruit.  The vine does.  Get it?  Our ‘job’, our ‘activity’, our faithfulness, is to stay in the vine, period.  He created the fruit.  He produces the produce.

If we try to live life without Jesus, not being in union with him, we will fail miserably.  Our failure will be an unfruitful life.  We might seek to ‘save the world’ in a hundred ways, but have no fruit from Jesus, because we have not been in union with him.  To be in union means to love and to obey, and then we become a part of his plan, already being implemented, to save the world.

When Jesus says that his father cuts off unfruitful branches that bear no fruit, he is not talking about losing your salvation, but unfruitfulness.  Branches are the shoots, sprouts, or canes of a vine, where you find the fruit.  We are accustomed to seeing these with all the grapes attached.  When the farmer sees these unfruitful branches on the vine, taking the vine’s life, but with no fruit, he cuts them off.

The Father cuts off and cuts out the parts of our lives that are not bearing fruit.  If you are a Christian, this will happen to you, and it is normal and good.

“Prunes” means cleans.  The original word here does not mean prune and was never used as prune elsewhere (Morris, p 594), but since the context implies ‘prunes’, many translations seem to have translated it, ‘prunes’.  The word actually literally means ‘cleans’.  And ‘cleans’ means ‘purify’ or ‘purges’.  I noticed that the King James has ‘purgeth’.

Have you been purged lately?  If that is not a word you use, then ‘cleansing’ is apt.  It is a good thing to be purged or cleansed.  It means you have borne fruit and God is helping you get ready to bear more.

People get cleansed.  Jesus’ words cleanse us (John 15:4).  The word here is the verb form of the adjective used in verse 4.  Vine-dressers prune, but Jesus literally said ‘clean’.  The Father takes the fruitful part of our life and purges, purifies, or cleanses it, so that it becomes more fruitful.

You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.

The ‘word’ that has cleansed us is the message of salvation, that he brings, and in himself is.(Barrett, p. 474)  Taking Jesus ‘all in’, into our lives, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”(John 6:53), is what he is after.  ‘All in’ is not an option, but the only way.  We are not cleansed by doing something, but by his words of life.

Jesus’ call to each one of us is, “Follow me”.  ‘Me’ means him.  He calls each one of us to himself.  Many are doing things, doing what they would call ministry, but rather than following, they take the lead, in their lives.  What about being in union with him, abiding, remaining, continually joining themselves to him?  Jesus says that we will not have his fruit if we don’t obey him and love one another.

Outside of union with him, nothing works.  As the body cannot function without the head attached, so also the Christian life cannot function without being continually joined to Christ.

Cleansing comes from Christ’s words and Christ’s actions.  His words are still active today, and his word’s meanings are revealed by his active word.(Barrett, p. 474)

The good news is that some of us are clean, like the guys Jesus originally spoke this to.  We are clean, in this moment, but there will be more life, another season, and we will likely need another round of purging.  Jesus is saying, in a sense, “You don’t need it right now, but purging or cleansing from the Father is normal, after you have been fruitful, so you can pretty much expect it.”  But, at this point in their relationships with Jesus, they have been cleansed by his words.

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

Only if we abide in him, will he abide in us.  It is a mutual relationship, that only works when there is mutuality.  “The Christian life is unthinkable except in union with Christ.”(Barrett, p. 474)  This union is not exactly like a vine and a branch.  That is a metaphor that would mean, “loyalty and fellowship that would continue as they obeyed his word”.(Kruse, p. 317)  The ‘remaining’ that is the union, is predicated on our obedience.

The branch in the vineyard has no choice, but to be remain in the vine.  But we, as metaphorical branches must choose to remain, through our obedience.  So, we can go too far with the metaphor, saying that we are in union with Christ and remaining in him, when we are not, because we don’t have the love nor the obedience.

The vine does not depend on the branch for life, but provides the branch with life, so that the branch may bear fruit.  Today, Christ remains, or joins us, as we join him, in the person of the Spirit.  Disciples remain in Christ by obeying his word and Christ dwells with his disciples through the Spirit, and this results in fruitfulness.

According to Kruse (p. 318), there are two common interpretations of what the fruit here is: 1. Righteous living, and 2. New converts.  Kruse suggests that the ‘fruit’ here is more than these, and refers to, “the entire life and ministry of those who follow Jesus’ teaching and experience his presence in their lives through the Spirit.”

Morris (p. 595) notes that in verse 4, it is an imperative, “(You must) remain in me, as I (must) also remain in you.”  If you ever have the attitude that Jesus does not need you and can just get it done without us, by his Spirit alone; this verse flies in the face of that notion.  He is saying, “To get it done, you need me and I need you”.

If we do not remain (abide, share constant contact) with him, then fruit will not come.  That means no good kingdom stuff.  The fruit of the kingdom is zilch when the Christians do not nurture their relationship to The Savior

If we don’t abide in him, through loyal, faithful obedience; he can not abide in us.  In the Bible, God is looking for that one person that will will be obedient and abide in him, that he can use (2 Chron. 16:9, Amos 9:8).  This is something astonishing about how God prefers to work.  He needs a person to partner with.

Our remaining in Christ is our part of an ongoing, mutual relationship; like two people that walk together.  It means continually recommitting to a decision we once made, in fidelity and loyalty.  The only way to stay in the relationship, is for it to be continually renewed.

The couple who found out that being married is a continual choice, a dynamic union, where each one expresses their love and recommits to that love they have for the other, is a picture of the believer’s relationship to Christ.  It does not work if we don’t work at it.  Jesus can not or will not remain in us, if we do not remain in him.

Imagine a wife who’s husband ignores her.  He does his own thing usually.  They might be married, but don’t have much of a marriage.

He might get dressed up to take her to dinner or get dressed down and demand sex once a week.  He gets real friendly and charming at these times.  But if you could hear what he’s saying, he mostly talks about himself, his problems and his questions about the future.

It could have been the other way around, in that vignette.  The woman could have been the selfish one.  But, it is a picture of a dysfunctional marriage.

The couple I talked about at the beginning gets it.  They get it that the relationship has to be nurtured.  It is a union, but unlike a pipe, it is a dynamic union.

It’s like holding hands with your loved one.  Sometimes you hold tight, sometimes loose.  But you hold that hand, especially when you go up or down steps where there is no railing.

I believe there must have been vineyards all over the place, when Jesus spoke these words about the vine, the branches, and the fruit.  They all knew about vines, branches, fruit, and the work of the vine dresser.  He told them that it will be just like those branches for them.

As a branch can not bear fruit if it is not attached to the vine, we also can not have God’s fruit in our lives if we do not stay attached to Jesus.  Staying connected to him is something we do, not just something we are.  We do it because of who we are and if we don’t do it, it is questionable who we are.

Staying connected to your wife or husband involves acts of love like listening and sharing your heart.  The dynamic union in marriage is also expressed through sacrificial love.  We make sacrifices and endure suffering for each other, because of our loyal, covenant love.

A grape vine without grapes is something that a gardener does not want and a life that claims Christ, but has no fruit is something we don’t want either.  Fruitfulness comes from being with and in the living Christ.  He is hear now, by His Spirit,

We are as close to Jesus as we choose to be.  We each actually modulate the relationship.  You can shut off all those distractions and he is there for you, twenty-four hours a day.

If you ignore him, he is unable to touch you and give you invigorating life.  He is waiting for you to open the door of fellowship.  If we do not intentionally connect with him, then we will have not fruit in our lives.  One by one, those unfruitful branches will be taken by Father, until we are left with a stump of a Christian life.

It does not have to be that way.  But if it is, we can always start over and have a new beginning, and sprouts will form into branches that will bear Christ’s fruit.

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TNICOTNT, The Gospel According to John, By Leon Morris

Unless I Wash You

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
   The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
   He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
   Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
   “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
   Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
   “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
   Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
   When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

-John 13:1-17 (NIV)

Have you been washed by Jesus?  And, have you been so personally ministered to by him, that you know you are clean, and you know you are his?  And, have you been humbled by his gracious intimate love towards you?  Jesus’ washing of the disciple’s feet gives us the example to follow of voluntary, humble, selfless service.

Washing peoples feet is something you did not do, unless they were your children or it was your wife or father.  People had servants who would do this work, and Jewish people would reserve this low work for Gentile servants.  It was the lowest act of service.  As an act of extreme devotion, followers might wash their master’s feet; never the other way around (Kruse, p. 280).

The washing of the disciple’s feet, by Jesus, occurs during the meal.  Jesus took off his outer garments, and began washing each man’s feet.  It must have put these men in stunned silence, until Peter could not hold back and had to say something, when his turn came.  You may be a person like Peter, who can’t help but speak up and say, “wait a minute”, or “this isn’t right”.  Peter literally said, “Do YOU wash MY feet?”(Barret, p 440).

Peter is in the very bad position of refusing a profound gift of love and service.  Imagine saying to Jesus, that you are happy to be in his church, to be part of his group, and that you would even die for his cause; but you don’t want him touching you, you don’t want him too close.  It is a strange kind of pride to refuse a great gift.

Jesus is stern when he says to Peter, that if he does not allow him this intimacy, if he does not receive this act of love and service, then he can not be a part of him.  Today, if someone has the attitude that they don’t need Christ’s washing, they are saying they don’t need Christ.  The whole reason he came was to cleanse us.  So, it becomes ironic if that person says they are a Christian.

To enter into fellowship with Christ we must be washed.  We cannot belong to him unless he has washed us.  And we must belong to him.

It sounds humble to say, “You don’t have to do that”, to Jesus; but it’s really pride.  Pride says, “I will wash myself”.  Proud people do all kinds of washing of themselves, but that is not what Jesus wants.  He wants to wash us.  Unless he touches you and cleans you, you are outside the kingdom.

Washing each others feet is not a sacrament or a ceremony, but a picture, a lesson, or an illustration of the command from Jesus for us to love one another in humble service.  It is also more than an ethic for, a test of, or a guide to humility.  We must wash one another’s feet, figuratively; after we have been cleansed by Christ, because this is his command that we love one another.

We learn here, that no one who has not been cleansed, can be in the fellowship of Christ.  Unless he cleanses you, you have no place in him.  There is no belonging without this cleansing, that comes through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross (1 Jn. 1:7).

The message or lesson in Jesus’ washing their feet is that we all need to receive the cleansing that Jesus brings to us through “his self-humiliation on the cross”(Kruse, p. 283). Before he washed their feet, they understood him to be their teacher and Lord. After his washing their feet, he wanted them to have a new understanding about the teacher and Lord that he is: a servant.

Jesus’ statement, “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him”, is that his followers, starting with the apostles, are to be servants, following in his footsteps of servant-hood.  “If their Master and their Sender does lowly actions, then they, the servants and the sent messengers, should not consider menial tasks beneath their dignity.  This saying (with variants) is found on four occasions (here, 15:20; Matt. 10:24; Luke 6:40; and cf. Luke 22:37).  It was evidently a saying that Jesus loved to repeat”(Morris, p. 552).

Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Jesus imparts knowledge by coming along side, showing and telling, until we know it.  But, it is not enough to know it.  We are only blessed if we do what we know.  This is one of the two beatitudes in John (the other is 20:29).

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Artwork above, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, by Ford Madox Brown

Bibliography:
The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, By C. K. Barrett

The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, By Colin G. Kruse

TNICOTNT, The Gospel According to John, By Leon Morris

Unless You Repent

Painting by Yoram Raanan; http://www.yoramraanan.com; http://www.facebook.com/RaananArt

Luke 13:1-5  Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Luke 15:1-7  All the tax collectors and sinners were approaching to listen to Him.  And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

So He told them this parable:  “What man among you, who has 100 sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the 99 in the open field and go after the lost one until he finds it?  When he has found it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders,  and coming home, he calls his friends and neighbors together, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my lost sheep!’  I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who don’t need repentance.”

A couple of questions for you:  Do you need to repent, and is repentance an event or a process?  I think repentance is a place we visit frequently.  Isaiah 30:15 says, “In repentance and rest is your salvation”, which to me, means a place we visit frequently.  But, Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”, which seems to mean that we don’t live in, ‘getting set free”, but in, ‘freedom’.

There are people out there who assume it is God’s will when people die in accidents or are killed tragically.  And there are people who don’t think they need to repent.  Jesus’ word is that we all need to repent.

Jesus would say the same thing today about any disaster, whether from nature or from a homicidal maniac, who takes lives.  He would say, “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”  Jesus sees us all as sinners.  We all, in the human race, are sinners; no matter what kind of collar we wear, or with whatever other measure you might use; we are all sinners.

We either were sinners and have repented, are repenting, and are repentant, or on the other hand, we still are sinners and need to repent.  Those are the two categories.  We can get vicariously involved with the question of tragic deaths, but the real question for each of us is, “Have you repented?”.

Repentance means ‘turn away’.

The context of Luke 12:1 to 13:9, is preparation for the coming judgement.(1)  Jesus does not comment on any link between these tragic deaths and sin, except to say to the living, “No, but unless you repent, you too will perish”.  Jesus says that these folks who died were no more sinful and no more guilty than the average person there.  I believe the same applies today.

The word ‘repentance’ is used by Jesus again, two chapters later.  He says that there is more joy in heaven, over the one sinner who repents, than over the ninety-nine righteous ones.  The point is that the ninety-nine think they are righteous and don’t think they need to repent.  They are out of touch with the fact that they are lost.

All of us are lost without the living Christ.

George Ladd wrote this in his book, A Theology of The NT, (p. 56):

Even Israel, the people of the covenant, are lost; Jesus came to seek and to save them (Mt. 10:6, 15:24; Lk. 19:10).  When Jesus said that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners (Mk. 2:17) or when he speaks of the righteous who have no need of repentance (Lk. 15:7), he does not mean to say that there are some who are actually righteous, who do not need repentance.  He is only reflecting the view of religious Jews who considered themselves righteous and did not heed his summons.

Ladd then quotes Kummel:(2)

It is His intention to tell His opponents who see themselves as righteous rather than sinful, that His call to salvation is directed precisely at those who are ready to listen to Him because they are aware of their sinfulness.  His opponents’ mistake lies in the fact that they exclude themselves from insight into their own sinfulness, whereas Jesus presupposes that all men, including these ‘righteous ones’, are sinful.

Heaven does not rejoice over smug self-righteousness.  Heaven rejoices over a sinner who repents.  Repent is an essential part of the message of Jesus, that is the gospel.  The gospel, the message of Jesus is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”(Mk. 1:15).

Kingdom of God means ‘rule of God’.  Because the rule of God has invaded earth, through Christ, we need to repent and believe.  The Kingdom of God, “is in reality the transcendent order beyond time and space that has broken into history in the mission of Jesus”(Ladd, pp. 58-9).

When we experience the in-breaking of God’s rule and reign, it is natural to repent, to turn away from sin.  But, repentance is a choice.  We are constantly tempted to distract ourselves from the “I-Thou” intimate relationship with God and all the other relationships that require authenticity.

The people in the story from Luke, wondered about the people who died.  They wondered about God’s relationship to those people.  They wondered, just like we wonder, about suffering and God.  Is God powerless to stop it?  Or does he choose to allow it?  Or does he cause it?

‘Why?’ is the wrong question.  The Bible does not explain the ‘Why?’ or the ‘Why me?’  The book of Job teaches that personal suffering is not always the result of personal sin.  The Hindu doctrine of karma, which says that one suffers because of their previous sin is completely false.

Suffering can be due to sin, our sin or another’s, because sin brings suffering; but all suffering is not due to our own sin.  Suffering can and does come from Satan and his organization.  Suffering also comes because we are human and feel pain, physical and emotional.

Suffering also happens because of the freedom of our environment.  People are free to sin against each other, through negligence or evil behaviors; and nature is also free, within the parameters set by God, so that we have floods, hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, and tsunamis that cause suffering and death, that is neither sent by God or brought on by our sins.

Conversely, God can strike people with suffering, like when he made Zechariah mute (Lk. 1:20).  Jesus told a man that he healed to, “Stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you”(Jn. 5:14).  Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they were eating and drinking in such a way as to be bringing judgement upon themselves; becoming weak, sick, and dead.(1 Cor. 11:30)

A cold, hard statistic is that over 99% of people end up dying and the Bible tells us that 100% of people need to repent.  When we look at other people’s tragedies and wonder about them and God, the real issue we are avoiding is ourselves and God.

Unless you repent, your fate will be worse.

Being in the place of, ‘not needing to repent’, is one of the worst places that a person can be, spiritually.  Looking down on others as ‘sinners’ is a foolish position, because we are all sinners and perhaps the worst sin is pride.  Pride was Satan’s sin that caused him to fall; and maybe that is his favorite sin to bring people into: arrogance, hubris, and narcissism.  The great sin, which is a great lie, is to think that you are better than others.

Many lost people know they are lost.  They might even say that they know it and are not ready to quit.  Jesus says to quit now, before it is too late.  Then there is another group of people, perhaps a much larger group, who do not know they are lost, but they are lost.

Imagine going somewhere and you are lost, but you do not know it.  The one who realizes they are lost, but does not want to be, will be looking for the right way and be willing to ask for help and get directions.  But the one who sneers at the lost ones who are being found, and says, “I’m good”,  “I’ve got this”, or “I’m covered”, and yet, they are deceived; blind and deaf to the fact that they are lost.  What hope is there for them?

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Footnotes
1. Word Biblical Commentary, 35b, Luke, John Nolland, p. 719
2. Man in the NT, W. G. Kummel, p. 18
3. A Theology of the New Testament, G. E. Ladd, pp. 55-9

The Painting above is by Yoram Raanan; http://www.yoramraanan.com; http://www.facebook.com/RaananArt

Unless You Forgive

Painting by Jonathan G. Keller  http://jonathangkeller.com/

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

-Matthew 18:21-35

Unless we forgive other Christians authentically, which means being forgiving, living in forgiveness (forgiven-ness), we will be tortured, like the man in Jesus’ parable.  This is hard to understand, because Our Heavenly Father is not a torturer.

Forgiving “from the heart” means, conversely, that there is inauthentic, false, or fraudulent, pseudo-forgiveness that is not real, not “from the heart”.  We can say, “I forgive you”, or pray or say, “I forgive”; yet not be forgiving from our hearts.  True, real, authentic, or “from the heart” forgiveness means that the relationship is reconciled from your end, with the optimistic grace of complete restoration, of being as it was before the sin, debt, or offence that needed forgiving.

This word from Jesus sounds like we will be tortured, if we do not truly forgive other Christians.  In the parable, the man is handed over to the torturers.  In these kinds of prisons, the guards or jailers were torturers.  The person was tortured, so that they or their family would come up with the money, or pay their debt.

What Jesus is saying, is that if we do not forgive authentically, we will be tortured.  How so?  In the parable, the man who was forgiven much did not forgive the one who owed him little.  God is not mad at such a man, and does not punish him for being this way.  That man punishes himself.

If we read the whole parable, we see that the man in question had a case of overconfidence, denial, pride, or hubris, in regards to his own debt.  This is revealed by the words, “Not able to pay”, “Ten thousand bags of gold”.  He had the audacity to tell the king he would pay it off, he begged, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back everything”.

The master knows that the man can’t pay it back, and we, the hearers of the parable, know he can’t pay it back.  But the man has deceived himself into thinking he can pay this impossible debt back.  What we have here, is a man who thinks his debt is smaller than it actually is, or has way overestimated his abilities to get or earn the money to pay his debt.

The master knows it is impossible and forgives the whole debt.  The master is forgiving and pragmatic.  He saw the impossibility of repayment and forgave it all.  No repayment plan.

It is astonishing to see how the forgiven man has not been transformed or regenerated by this amazing grace forgiveness.  He appears to have not valued the gift he was given and perhaps still believed that he could have payed the debt over time.  So, he still has a mindset of, “You owe me”, or “I owe you”, completely mercenary, without grace or mercy.  He is not living in forgiven-ness.

The person who does not forgive, but who says they are a Christian, is a person who lives with the torture of a legalism, outside of Christ, towards themselves and others, that is delusional.  The person who does not forgive does not see Jesus, and has not experienced Jesus; because if you have received his forgiveness, then you will live in forgiven-ness and be a forgiver to those you relate to in the family of God.  And, if you are not in Christ to begin with, then you will of course, not recognize the family of God.

When we become Christians, it is an event and a process.  We can receive total forgiveness from God and not understand the gravity of what has been done for us.  It has been done and when we receive it, we show that we have it by being forgivers and living in forgiven-ness.

I have received God’s gracious gift of forgiveness in Christ.  Jesus Christ’s life is in me, working itself through every aspect of my life.  I see through him and I live through him,  and I relate to others through him.

In Christ, I have no basis for unforgiveness or pseudo-forgiveness.  This parable tells us that you can either live in the freedom of Christ, where you have freely been forgiven and freely, from the heart, forgive your brothers and sisters; or you can choose delusion, where you don’t forgive others, because you have not incorporated or appropriated life God’s forgiveness, and you are living a tortured life.

I don’t think Jesus is saying that if you are unforgiving, that you lose your forgiveness, but he is saying that if you are unforgiving, it is a sign that you have not incorporated or appropriated God’s forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is offered freely to all.  When we refuse Christ’s life in our life, and do not forgive, we simply negate God’s forgiveness towards us.

In the parable, the master knows the debt is impossible for the man to pay, yet he puts the man back in prison and hands him over to the torturers, who’s job is to torture the man until he pays back his debt.  The parable, by Jesus, has hyperbole in it.

God knows that we can not ever pay our debt of sin.  But if we insist on not appropriating Christ’s forgiveness in our lives, then we sentence our selves to a life in the torture chamber of unforgiven-ness.

The forgiveness offered by God in Christ is judicial and transformational.  Everything changes and being forgiven means we continually forgive others, over and over and over, if need be.

“From the heart” forgiveness means not holding things against people, not withdrawing from people, and not being superior to people.  This kind of forgiveness is only possible in Christ.  When we forgive, it is as if the infraction had never happened.  I can attempt to bring it to mind, but it is a vague memory, because I have Christ and his forgiveness working within me.

Who has your heart?  If Jesus has your heart, then you can forgive from the heart.

My forgiveness, that Jesus commands, towards other believers, is by me and for me and on my end.  I can forgive you, not hold anything against you, and not withdraw from you.  I can be “At peace” towards you.  But you may not be reconciled to me for a variety of reasons, which are none of my business.

The person we forgive may be harmful and destructive, so relationship is impossible.  We can and must forgive them, but cannot have an edifying relationship with them, in Christ.  If we are forced to relate to them, we forgive, speak the truth in love, have mercy, are gracious, but we do not have to entrust our selves to them.

If someone is negligent with something you entrust to them, you forgive them, even from your heart, authentically.  Relationship is restored, you are not mad at them, and you don’t hold it against them, as in punishing them.  But, you can then be careful not to give that trust or responsibility back to them without proof that they are going to be more responsible.  People can be fully forgiven, on your end, but you don’t have to trust them or entrust your heart, your friendship, or your possessions to them.

“Unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart…”

Jesus is saying that we, as forgiven ones, can not live in unforgiveness, towards others.  Why?  Because it short-circuits our appropriation of forgiveness.  Not forgiving is self-righteous, human centered religion.

As I live in the awe of God’s work in Christ to forgive me, I continually realize that others who sin against me are also people who need Christ’s forgiveness, just like me, and I could be capable of doing whatever they did to me.  When that ‘light bulb’ comes on in my head, I realize how we are all on the human level and I can never claim superiority.  I must forgive them and keep living in the vine of Christ, in forgiven-ness.

If I am tempted to not forgive, I look to Christ.  I see myself in the light of his grace.  It is hard when someone we love, perhaps in a primary relationship or a very close brother or sister in Christ, hurts us.  It is a betrayal of our trust.  But, when that happens, I am in the good company of Christ.

I can and must forgive.  The other person is often still going to be hurtful and perhaps, harmful again.  They don’t get it, yet.  But, I will forgive and let the savior save, let the healer heal, let the deliverer deliver, and let the shepherd watch over all his lambs, and I follow him.

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The painting above is by Jonathan G. Keller

Unless You Turn and Become Like Children

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

-Matthew 18:1-14 (ESV)
Insignificant.  Are you willing to be insignificant for Jesus?  Dependent.  Are you willing to be completely dependent on Jesus?  Humble.  Are you willing to humble yourself for Jesus?  If not, your citizenship in the kingdom is not going to work.  You can’t enter it and play there without becoming like a child.
There is a difference between childlike and childish.(1)  We are supposed to give up childish things (1 Cor. 13:11), ways of acting and relating, and become men and women, become adults.  But men and women must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said that we must change and be like children.  A child had no status, was powerless, and was utterly dependent.  That is what Jesus is talking about.
The disciples looked over at the Roman kingdom and perhaps the ecclesiastical kingdom of the Temple and the priests and may have reflected about how they were going to be the bosses, to be the powerful, the famous, and the entitled ones in Jesus’ kingdom.  And Jesus said, “No, it’s not going to be like that”.  All disciples have no special status.  
All authority and any fame, is mediated through Christ.  We make disciples of Christ and exhort others to follow him, not us.  Everything we do, in the kingdom, is to make Christ great, to lift him up.

We might think that to be great is not about fame, fortune, or power; but about knowledge and piety.  Knowledge of the Bible, theology, and spiritual things is wrong headed, unless it is mediated through the living Christ, who calls us to a radical reorientation of becoming little people first.  Holiness, devoutness, and religious duty or zeal are worthless unless they come through Christ and his call.

Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  

Jesus contradicts our idea of success.

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.

We can only receive other genuine disciples it we are one ourselves.  There is a disconnect in fellowship when there are those who have not or are not becoming like children, who try to interact with the child-like ones.  Jesus is the mediator of our fellowship.  To be together with people, we have to humble ourselves.

The person who only looks up at people or down at people is a worldly person who is not living in Christ.  The kingdom is flat.  No hierarchy.  We receive something from someone or give something to someone through Christ, the head and the King.  To receive someone in Christ’s name, is to perceive Christ in them.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

In the kingdom, the focus is the king.  There is one king, one boss, one head.  We all can only enter and be citizens of the kingdom is we become like children.  We all get to play and we all have to play nice.

He calls us to this.  Then he calls us to see others as his children, as folks who are his children, whom he is one with.  How we treat others is how we treat him.  The context is the upside down kingdom and how disciples treat each other.

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

These words of Jesus are a stern warning about guarding against being a vehicle of temptation for others to sin.  Satan and his team traffic in using the low roads in our lives to tempt other people in the community of faith to sin.  Jesus warns of a severe punishment for those who let themselves be pathways of temptation for his children.

Folks who cause others to stumble or fall, because they have not dealt with their own sins, are called to account, by God, in this life, and will pay a heavy price.  Jesus’ word, is that if you have a problem with something, then cut it off.  Throw that away.  Completely stop it.  We have no choice but to take responsibility for our stuff.

Even though we are saved, have been born anew, and are on our way to heaven; when a pattern of temptation and sin emerge in our life and come to light, we need to act swiftly to repent and cut it off.  We might need to get some deep healing in our hearts, and, “get the garbage taken out”, that we may not have even been aware of previously, that is feeding the temptation to sin.  If we do not, we will become a stumbling block to others, especially the babes in Christ, and get ourselves in severe trouble in our lives, like having a rock necklace.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 

Again, this is a word from Jesus about how to play nice.  His original audience were the Apostles who would be the “boots on the ground”, when the expansion of the community of Jesus’ followers would explode, shortly. He both says, “You need to become like children”, and, “Do not despise my children”.  “The ‘little ones have already emerged in the previous verses as ordinary Christians, who in their vulnerability need the care of their fellow-disciples.”(France, p. 272-3)

Angels are real.  Every person has an angel, as Jesus attests to here.  When we see other people, we need to see them as Christ’s child, Christ in them, and someone who has a holy angel assigned to them.  This all should give us pause before we treat people badly.  Jesus and His Father care immensely for each one, especially for the ones in the greatest danger.

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

When Jesus asks a question, he is engaging his listeners.  He really cares what you think and wants what you think to be put forward, out onto the table of discussion.  We engage the learner when we ask questions and ask for comments and discussion.  We are accustomed to reading our Bibles in silence or passively listening to a teacher, but Jesus’ method, which is more effective, is to engage the disciple/learner, asking them to speak up.  When you learn it or get it, you speak it or do it and have been taught it, and have caught it.  And, he keeps asking us the questions until we get it in our hearts.

The point of the parable about the  one sheep that went astray, is that God’s heart, and our hearts congruently, are to be going after the one, while risking the safety of the ninety-nine.  Note also that the word is ‘astray’.  The one is not ‘lost’, but ‘astray’.

The one who goes astray needs the pastoral care of fellow disciples.  The word ‘pastor’, means ‘shepherd’.  In the modern church, we have called the senior leader, who preaches on Sundays, ‘the pastor’.  You might read this story with him in mind, and get the idea that, even though he is so busy leading the local church, whether it is a regular church of a hundred people, or a ‘mega’ church of a thousand, that he is reminded to look after that one who goes astray.

That application is partially right, but not what Jesus was saying and not the application we should take away from Matthew 18.  The application or ‘take away’ is that all Christians, all disciples are responsible for the care of fellow disciples.  This responsibility falls upon all of us.  It is the heart of the Father that Jesus imparts to all of us.  Our savior is The Good Shepherd (John 10), who imparts his heart of care for people, to all of us.

It is a common story that pastors today run from the one to the 99, figuratively.  They are not sinning, but are exhausted from the weight of their jobs.  An interesting note is that when churches take spiritual gifts tests, usually 20% or more of a congregation will come out of the test with the gift of pastor.(2)

Unless you turn and become like little children.

Children are completely dependent.  Are you completely dependent on God for everything?  Children are insignificant, in the world, but loved and cared for by their fathers, mothers, and extended families.  Have you found your significance in the love of God, and that love reverberated through God’s family?

Unless you turn and become like little children.  

Jesus calls us all to a reorientation of status.  In the kingdom, in the family of God, Jesus calls us all to a low status.  In the kingdom, Jesus calls us all to go down, not up, humbling ourselves.  We don’t go up in status, so that people look up to us and we look down to them, as we teach or minister to them.  We do the opposite.

In the kingdom, we all go down, becoming like children; before God, and to each other.  We are as children and we see each other as children, through the eyes of Father.  Welcome to the community of Jesus.

We are all little people in the kingdom.  Little people, with a big God.  There is never a great man of God.  It is always the great God of man.

And this is all antithetical to ecclesiastical hierarchies.  Remember that gifts are functions and roles.  The authority of Christ might come with the gift, but the gifted one is still called to become like a child, or they will not be able to function in the kingdom of God.

That is the context of this “Unless” word.  Jesus was speaking to the men who would be the foundation of the church and write some of the New Testament.  These guys, we would call “heavy weights”, had to be like children, or they would not make it; and neither will we.

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Bibliography:

W. D. Davies, Dale C. Allison, Jr.; Matthew 8-18, International Critical Commentary 

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

Footnotes:
1. Childishness, in a word, is selfish.  Childish people pout, are self-centered, and have a sense of entitlement.  Fussing, tantrums, and running away and folding the arms are childish reactions.  The passive-aggressive style is to cut people off and ignore them when the childish one is offended.  They want things done for them and want life handed or “spoon fed ” to them.  Childish ones always want to be entertained.  If they don’t get fed, entertained, or catered to, it’s not worth doing. 


One way of defining the positive of child-likeness in contrast to the negative of childishness is that child-likeness are the positive traits of children and childish are the negative.  I just gave some examples of childishness.  Child-likeness is innocence, a sense of wonder, trusting, friendliness, curiosity, impartiality, purity, willingness to try new things and even fail, and a forgiving disposition.


2. In our Christian culture, we have called the man who preaches, ‘pastor’, when he probably has the gift of exhortation or teaching, evangelist, or prophet.  The person with the gift of pastor has the Father’s heart for that one in a hundred person, ‘in spades’.

All disciples are called to pastoral care (shepherding other disciples), while 20% or more might be very good at or passionate about it.  

Unless The Lord Builds The House

By Helen Devenish, http://www.lovehobart.com/art.html

Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain…

Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, children, a reward. 
-Psalm 127:1a, 3

This psalm is a word of wisdom about God’s sovereignty and a warning against self-sufficiency.(1)  It is interesting that the word builders in verse 1 is a pun (2) on the word Sons (Children) in verse 3.  The house is a metaphor for family.  The parents are the builders and they build their children.

“Unless the Lord builds the house”, says that it simply is not going to turn out well, unless God is involved in your life.  There are only two paths in life; the Lord’s path, and the other path.  It is a deception to think there are a variety of paths.  As Jesus said, there’s the narrow way and the wide way (Matt. 7:13).

“Unless the Lord builds the house”, is a reminder that the “One thing” that is important, is to dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 27:4).  Our whole lives are about building with God and dwelling with God.

When we pass away from our earthly lives, we only take with us our relationship with the Lord and our relationships in the Lord.  A life that rejects the Lord is meaningless, while a life in the Lord is full of meaning.

When he was preparing his disciples for his death on the cross, Jesus declared, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places”, and, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:2, 23).  Jesus was not talking about heaven, but about believers, on earth, dwelling with or being indwelt by God.

We can rest assured that God builds families.  There are two kinds of building: the Lord’s and vain.  There are places in the New Testament where Jesus declares that he will build.  He will rebuild his temple, his body that is destroyed; and he will build his church.

The way of building with God is to let God lead, then follow.  It seems to me that the vain building is when we don’t follow God, as in God’s building action.  The fact that God builds gives me hope.

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The painting above is by Helen Devensih, found here.  

I previously wrote on Psalm 127: Building What God is Building Psalm 127

The Sovereignty of God:
A Non-Calvinist, Relational View of God’s Sovereignty; by Roger E. Olson

Ask an Open Theist (Greg Boyd)…Response (The 5th question: Stephen: How do you feel that open theism works in relation to the concept of the “Sovereignty” of God?
Footnotes:

1. Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 101-150. Leslie C. Allen, p.180
2.  College Press NIV Commentary, Psalms, S. Edward Tesh & Walter Zorn, p. 420

Unless Your Righteousness

For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

-Matthew 5:20
The righteousness of the Christian is imputed by God, in Christ.  His righteousness gives us the ability to be faithful, to be good, and to be abundantly more righteous than any religious people who haven’t been regenerated or born from above.  And Jesus is not saying that we will be more legalistic or observant of the laws than they are, but have his righteousness and life; obeying his commands, enabled by him.
Jesus does not make righteousness easier or make living a holy life obsolete, but makes it harder and says that his followers will be more righteous than the most religious, law-keeping people.  This word was shocking because the scribes and the Pharisees were seen as ‘paragons‘ of righteousness.

Who were the scribes and Pharisees?  The scribes were professional students and teachers of the law.  The Pharisees were members of a largely lay movement devoted to scrupulous observance of both the Old Testament Law and the still developing legal traditions (France, p. 116).

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said this about the danger of external righteousness:

There is a real and terrible possibility of our deluding and fooling ourselves.  The Pharisees and the scribes were denounced by the Lord as being hypocrites.  Yes; but they were unconscious hypocrites.  They did not realize it, they thought all was well.  You cannot read your Bible without being reminded of that terrible danger.  There is the possibility of our relying upon the wrong thing, of resting upon things that appertain to true worship rather than being in the position of true worship. And, let me remind you, tenderly, in passing, that it is something of which those of us who not only claim to be evangelical, but are proud to call ourselves such, may be very easily guilty. (Jones, p. 203)

What is the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees that we want to avoid, that ours must vastly excel over?  Their righteousness was external rather than internal.  

And He told them: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight.               -Luke 16:15

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence! Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so the outside of it may also become clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
-Matthew 23:23-7

Jesus’ warning about the Pharisees is that their righteousness was external, ceremonial, and deeds based.  They looked good, they did the ceremonies, and they tithed.  But inside, they were unregenerate.

The way Jesus works and the way God always has worked is to work inside out, changing hearts, which leads to changed lives.  What we say in our hearts is what God is looking at and wants to transform.  How is your self-talk?

Ceremonial righteousness is when you show up, but there has been no intimacy with God and no inner change.  The righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, that we are to surpass, was self-righteous.  Self-righteous folks are smug and glib (Lloyd-Jones, p. 206):

Smug: having or showing an excessive pride in oneself or one’s achievements.
“he was feeling smug after his win”
synonyms: self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, complacent, superior, pleased with oneself, conceited.

Glib: fluent and voluble, but insincere and shallow.
“she was careful not to let the answer sound too glib”
synonyms: slick, pat, fast-talking, smooth-talking; disingenuous, insincere, facileshallow, superficial, flippant; smooth, silver-tongued, urbane.

In marked contrast to the self-congratulatory, self-righteous, self-centered religionist; the kingdom person lives their life in the beatitudes.  Beatitude means “blessed”, “exalted happiness”, or “bliss”.  Jesus says that his disciples are blessed people:

  • Who are poor in spirit.
  • Who grieve or mourn.
  • Who are gentle, meek, or humbled.
  • Who hunger and thirst for justice or righteousness.
  • Who show mercy.
  • Who are pure in heart.
  • Who are peacemakers.
  • Who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

-Matthew 5:5-10

These are descriptions of Jesus’ righteousness in his disciples.  These are blessings to walk in that are the entry points for walking in the kingdom.  If these are not operating, you are not walking in his righteousness.

Martyn Llyod-Jones wrote this about the self-righteousness of the Pharisees (Lloyd-Jones, p. 207):

The trouble with the Pharisees is that they were interested in details rather than principles, they were interested in actions rather than motives, and that they were interested in doing rather than in being.  The remainder of The Sermon on the Mount is just an exposition of that.  Our Lord said to them in effect, ‘You are pleased with yourselves because you do not commit adultery; but if you even look with lust in your eyes, that is adultery.’  It is the principle, not the action only, that matters; it is what you think and desire, the state of your heart that is important.  You do not become a Christian by just refraining from some actions and doing others; the Christian is a man who is in a particular relationship to God and whose supreme desire is to know Him better and to love Him more truly.  This is not a part-time job, if I may so put it, it is not achieved by the religious observance of a part of Sunday; it demands all the time and attention we have.  Read the lives of the great men of God and you will find that this is the principle that always emerges.

Jesus’ statement that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the professionally religious ones, does not mean he is calling us to a salvation by works.  But, Jesus is not against obeying God’s laws.  He is against legalism.  The lifestyle of the citizen of God’s kingdom is “a deeper commitment to do the will of God” (France, p. 117).  To answer the charge that he came to destroy the law, he said, “no, I came to fulfill.”

“Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
-Matthew 5:17

Fulfill means here, according to France: “to complete and bring to its destined end, by giving the final revelation of God’s will to which the Old Testament pointed forward, and which now transcends it… Jesus is bringing that to which the Old Testament looked forward; his teaching will transcend the Old Testament revelation, but, far from abolishing it, is itself its intended culmination” (France, p. 113-4).
The fruit of the life infused with the grace of God, having been born anew, is a righteous life, inside out.  The grace of God comes upon the heart and flows out through a righteous life.

The new birth, brought about by the Father, in me; puts Christ in me and the Spirit of God in me, giving me the righteousness that surpasses any religiousness, good-deeds-doing, or Bible knowledge; exemplified in the scribes and Pharisees.  Selfishness, self-righteousness, and self-satisfaction are taken over by a love for God and others, lived out in intimacy as I walk and talk with Jesus.

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Bibliography- Studies In The Sermon On The Mount, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1959; Matthew, R.T. France, 1985; Matthew, Donald A. Hagner, 1993.

Unless A Man

In most solemn truth I tell you, answered Jesus, “that unless a man is born anew he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

In most solemn truth I tell you, replied Jesus, “that unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

-John 3:3, 5  (Weymouth NT)

The phrase, “Unless a man”, takes me to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, in John chapter three, where Jesus tells him, “You must be born again”, “Born from above”, or, “Born anew”.

This is how John 3 begins, reading the Weymouth translation, for consistency:

Now there was one of the Pharisees whose name was Nicodemus–a ruler among the Jews.
He came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God; for no one can do these miracles which you are doing, unless God is with him.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a Jewish ruler, and teacher.  After John introduces him, he says some interesting things.  The visit takes place at night, symbolizing the spiritual darkness that Nicodemus is unknowingly in.

Nicodemus uses the word ‘we’, when addressing Jesus.  In other words, he brings with him the opinion of a group of people like him, as if to say, “The committee has met and this is what we think about you”.

The ‘committee’ wants to affirm Jesus’ ministry.  It looks pretty good to them.  They assess that he is indeed an authentic teacher, and a special one, who God is especially with.  The miracles have even been given a thumbs up.  Nicodemus has come to tell Jesus this, and perhaps find out something more.

It is generous for Nicodemus to see Jesus this way, considering that people in his circles will later accuse Jesus of using demonic power to cast out demons (Matt. 9:34 &12:24), or plot to kill him (Jn. 11:53); but it falls very short of believing who he actually is.

Many people today admire Jesus as a great teacher, philosopher, prophet, or miracle worker.  But these all are not the gospel, or the core of who he is and what we need to do with him.

It is also interesting that in the previous chapter, we have Jesus making a ruckus in the temple, driving out the money changers and people who were ripping off worshipers.  Some Jewish people asked him, “Who do you think you are, doing this?”, and he enigmatically answered, “Tear down this house and I will rebuild it in three days!”  It was Passover in Jerusalem and he did a lot of miracles.

The contextual bridge from the account of Passover time in Jerusalem, to Nicodemus’ visit, is the statement at the end of John two, after we read that many became believers in him through watching the miracles he performed.  Then John writes this:

But for His part, Jesus did not trust Himself to them, because He knew them all, and did not need any one’s testimony concerning a man, for He of Himself knew what was in the man. -John 2:24-5 (WEY)

What this is saying is that basing your belief on seeing miracles is not enough.  Coming to the meeting and even believing in what happens there, including miracles, is not enough.  Becoming learned in Bible and theology, history and tradition, ecclesiology and government; being published or famous, being paid to teach, or having a following: none of these will save you or bring you into relationship with God and take you to heaven when you die.

“Unless a man is born anew he cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus with that backdrop, of Jesus having done many miracles and teaching publicly.  Maybe the visit was purely political?  Instead of being authentic and giving him praise or thanks for what he is doing or saying, he instead comes with the ‘message’ that Jesus has the approval of a select group represented by him.

Nicodemus seems to be getting at the rational question of, “Who are you?”  His words are almost flattering and are certainly polite.  Before he can ask the question or get to the point, Jesus cuts to the chase.  But, instead of saying, “I know what you are thinking.  You wonder who I am.  So, let me tell you…”, Jesus instead, cuts to the core problem with Nicodemus, which is spiritual and theological.  He says, “Unless a man is born anew, he can not see the Kingdom of God”.

It is astonishing, that a person can know the scriptures, and can know about what others have said and written about the scriptures, but, not know God.  Someone can believe in miracles from God, go to meetings seeking miracles, and not know God; not be regenerated, not be born of God.

In a sense, Nicodemus says, “We have seen the miracles and know that you are a teacher from God”.  But Jesus replies, “You do not see.  You do not see, believe, and enjoy the saving, regenerating, kingdom rule of God”.

Jesus says something that implies, “You have not entered the kingdom and can not see the kingdom, because, even with all you have, you have not been born anew unto or from God.”  Jesus is saying that it (our spiritual lives) is only about the Kingdom of God.  Seeing and entering in to that kingdom does not come through your five senses, but through your spirit, with God’s spirit.

Not understanding, baffled, and perhaps pushing back, Nicodemus says:

“How is it possible,” Nicodemus asked, “for a man to be born when he is old? Can he a second time enter his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus word, “from above”, “anew”, or “again”, are all fair translations for what Nicodemus heard him say.  We have all said, “I don’t know what you are talking about”, and that is what Nicodemus was experiencing.  So, Jesus amplifies what he just said, in repetition; stating that, “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God”.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is not an earthly thing, but a heavenly thing that takes place on earth.  Jesus says, in a sense, to him, “You are a teacher of God’s people and you do not see or get the spiritual dynamic of God working in peoples live’s?  Come on man, it is right in and throughout the scriptures.”

And, Jesus is not talking about baptism in water as the means through which this ‘born anew’ experience comes.  “Of water and the Spirit” is one action.  The picture in the OT that Jesus may have had in mind and Nicodemus may have been aware of is Ezekiel 36:25-27:

I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.  I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.

The water is not from the baptistery, but from God.  Also, my understanding is that in the Jewish mind, the water involved in making a baby would be semen and not amniotic fluid that spills out at birth.  The immersion of our spirit’s into The Spirit is the Christian’s birth rite. Baptism in or of The Spirit is the church’s and the Christian’s birthday gift, which some of us have have delayed opening up and being immersed in.

And God has always sought to transform people through encountering them.  Jesus is the climax of God acting.  Before Jesus was born, God was already seeking and calling men and women to have their hearts changed and walk with him.  They were supposed to “get” that by reading, hearing, and through studying the OT, but Nicodemus did not.  He had the “bonafides”, but did not get it.

I imagine that John decided to share this story to illustrate that you and I can study and be credentialed, be legitimated, be ordained, and even be given ecclesiastical power, but not get it; not be regenerated by God, not be born from above (born again or born anew).

What is being born again, born from above, or born anew?  What it is not, is that it is not what you know or do, but what God does and you receive.  God brings the ‘new birth’ or the ‘birth from above’ into your life, and you receive it.  Being born again is a life exchange where we receive the new life and let God have our old life.

The story of Nicodemus illustrates that we are not saved through good works.  It is all through God alone by grace.  Even for a man of knowledge, standing, and integrity there must be a radical transformation in order to enter into God’s economy.  Being born from above is to give up everything and radically rely on God, who conceives your new life and will grow that life into the likeness of his son.  This new life overtakes your old life, supersedes it, and Jesus becomes Lord of all of you.

The core of the gospel is Christ.  Jesus’ word is that you will not get it, see it, or experience it (it being The Kingdom of God and His Son, who is Christ), unless you are born anew – from above, by God.

And this is the rest of what Jesus said to Nicodemus:

Whatever has been born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever has been born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not be astonished at my telling you, `You must all be born anew.’
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So is it with every one who has been born of the Spirit.”
“How is all this possible?” asked Nicodemus.
“Are you,” replied Jesus, “`the Teacher of Israel,’ and yet do you not understand these things?
In most solemn truth I tell you that we speak what we know, and give testimony of that of which we were eye-witnesses, and yet you all reject our testimony.
If I have told you earthly things and none of you believe me, how will you believe me if I tell you of things in Heaven?
There is no one who has gone up to Heaven, but there is One who has come down from Heaven, namely the Son of Man whose home is in Heaven.
And just as Moses lifted high the serpent in the Desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, in order that every one who trusts in Him may have the Life of the Ages.”
-John 3:6-15 

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The artwork above is by Henry Ossawa Tanner, found here.
Bibliography: C.K. Barrett – The Gospel According to St. John, D.A. Carson – The Gospel According to John, Walter C. Kaiser Jr. – The Hard Sayings of The Bible (The Hard Sayings of Jesus), Kurt Aland – Synopsis of The Four Gospels.

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