Sep 25, 2016

Gems in the Gospel of John - Part 65

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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 65 - John 15:12

Love each other


In our last ‘Gem’ we looked at the pruning of the branches of the vine – that is us – if we do not bear as much ‘fruit’ as we should. The really big question is ‘what is the fruit?’ of which Jesus was speaking. The answer is quite surprising – it is ‘love’. That is what Jesus goes on to talk about in the immediately following passage. He says, “remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love,” and “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you”, and “I appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit —fruit that will last” and “This is my command: Love each other.”

Now ‘Love’ is a very tricky word! Very obviously ‘love’ in this passage and in the New Testament generally is not quite the same thing as ‘love’ as it is in everyday life. Famously, the Greeks had several words for ‘love’ where we have only one. A great many sermons have been preached on the different words for ‘love’ Jesus used in the discussion he had with Peter in the last chapter of this gospel but it is now widely thought that there is no real difference in the meaning between those words.

How then are we to understand the word ‘love’ and how are we to distinguish between everyday common ‘love’ and the sort we have here? (I exclude the use of the word in phrase like ‘I love my car’ or ‘I love the view from here’ keeping to the interpersonal use of the word.) My thinking on this goes like this:

There are 3 phases to a love between two people; there may be some overlap between them. The first phase is almost always emotional. It may be ‘love at first sight’ between 2 people or the love of a mother for her new-born baby. The second phase is hard to describe with a single word – we will make do with developmental. These are the days or months or years after the initial surge of love feeling in which the relationship develops as the two parts of it slowly get to know each other and grow together. Unfortunately much modern Western thinking discourages people from allowing this phase to develop, wrongly thinking that people can continue to live and love on the sole basis of the emotional phase. The third phase is one of action when on the basis of the thinking of the development stage the potential lovers: man and woman, two of a kind, parent and child grow steadily closer, working out who does what in supporting the relationship. This alone will lead to the true deep and lasting love that we all crave.

So in our human relationships to which we attach the label ‘love’ we have emotional, developmental and action phases. What happens when we try to describe Biblical love in these terms, as we must, knowing no others? Biblical love is about either the love of God for a human being or beings or the love of a human for God.

Consider the first of those – we know that God loves humans because he tells us so in John 3: 16, “ for God so loved the world” where the context clearly indicates he is talking about not only the totality of humans but the individual human so that the one who believes in Jesus is saved and the one who does not is condemned. But there is absolutely no equivalent to the first phase of the human love sequence. God even tells us he does not love for any emotional reason in Deuteronomy 7: 7, 8 where he says, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” There was nothing remotely like emotion involved. The love came first, purely out of the hidden purposes of Almighty God. From then on the other two phases, of development and action, are interwoven. God taught his ancient people through his actions. He, so to speak, developed himself step by step. It was never his fault that his people proved to be very slow and poor scholars.

Then we come to the second type of Biblical love in which we are to love God. That is tough to do and cannot start with the emotions. Some people: hermits, recluses, monks, spiritual guides; try to make it do so by their adoration of Jesus. Whether they are very successful very often is extremely doubtful. We, ordinary mortals, need to take the longer, harder but surer route, working steadily at the development of our understanding of Jesus and his work and then using that understanding to give us the potential for action on his behalf. Paul explained what he was doing when he said, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3: 7 – 11).

The two roads that we should be on, the human-to-human road of love and the human to God road of love are neither of then easy.

I can only end by saying I hope those thoughts may be helpful to someone. They are by no means absolute. Think about them, perhaps even argue them out with a friend or friends. These are in many ways the greatest challenges that face us in life. Paul says the results are of ‘surpassing worth’. Sure thing. Go to it.<

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Sep 24, 2016

Gems in the Gospel of John - Part 64

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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 64 - John 15:1

I AM the Vine



For the seventh and last time Jesus defines himself with an I AM ‘something’ statement, where this time the ‘something’ is a vine tree. In fact he does it twice, each time using the image of a vine tree to explain and develop an idea, as he has done on each occasion he has used this I AM construction.

On the first occasion he says ‘I am the true vine’ and goes on to use the image to explain his relationship with God the Father. The second time he says ‘I am the vine’ and uses the image to explain his relationship to his disciples and, of course, through them to us.

In a way it seems to be a bit in the wrong order. If we read 15: 5 first we have the scene set. We are the branches, forming part of the complete tree, which is not just Jesus but is Jesus and his people.

It is a many years since, for the first and only time, we walked through a vineyard and saw the vines. You may be much more familiar with what they look like. Forgive me, please, if I get some details a bit wrong! It was immediately obvious that it was not the trees who determined what shape they would be but the owner of the field. Each of them had clearly been heavily pruned to the exact shape that the owner required. They had all been carefully pruned so that they would each get a maximum exposure to the sun so that the grapes might be as good as possible. This is the picture that Jesus used. The owner is God the Father, using a very old image that, for instance, Isaiah used when he wrote his 5:1–7, saying in verse 7 that the LORD Almighty is the owner and the ancient people of Israel and Judah were the vines. In Isaiah’s vision the people were so bad that they had to be destroyed, completely. Jesus knows there is a future for all the new people of God if they walk well with the Lord so he only talks of them being pruned, so that they will develop in full view of the sun, or rather Son.

It seems to me a pity that the newer translations into English have changed from the old word ‘abide’ in favour of ‘remain’. A thing may remain. It is quite correct to say that a book remains on a shelf but we would never say that a book abides on the shelf. We reserve the word ‘abide’ for human beings. We may indeed remain in a house, but that only says that we are there. If however we ‘abide’ in the house that says much more - we live in the house; we are resident there. So it is an altogether more powerful word and surely more appropriate for saying something about our relationship to Jesus. What an amazing idea that is! We, you and I, are actually part of Jesus. How we should be careful about everything we do and say, and even think, if we are an integral part of the Lord of Creation.

Then in the second part of his use of the image he talks about the necessity that we should bear much fruit. (What exactly he meant by fruit we will consider in our next Gem, our next short study). Of all plants vines are one of the most difficult in which to identify which branch is which and which one goes where. They get intertwined and very closely knit together. It is easy to take a saw and prune most trees, but not a vine. This is an interesting and striking contract with the image that Paul uses later in his letters. He compares the Lord’s people to a human body. Every single part of a human body is clearly identified and Paul uses that to say that some of us will be hands, or eyes or ears - clearly distinguished parts of the body with very different functions (1 Corinthians 12: 15 - 18). Of course, Paul is not wrong in doing that. It suits his purpose which is to encourage the Christians to whom he is writing to develop the different gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to them, distributing the gifts widely and wisely. The purpose of Jesus is different and to be equally heeded. In terms of status we are all on a level. None of us is to consider himself or herself superior to any other believer because of the gifts they are to be given. There is a lovely saying: ‘the ground is level at the foot of the Cross’. We are all branches; all responsible to produce fruit, all equally liable to be pruned if we fail to do so.

Each of us has to show the Father’s glory by what we do and say and think. Brothers, sisters, let us be up and doing in the work of our great and gracious Lord and Father.

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Sep 23, 2016

Gems in the Gospel of John - Part 63

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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 63 - John 14:26b

Authority?


Authority is a dirty word in modern Western culture. Philosophers and other opinion formers seem to have convinced people that anybody claiming any sort of authority over them is only in it for their own good and are trying to establish an undesirable level of control over them and anybody else who falls within their grasp. Perhaps. But then those parts of the world which try to reject that sort of thinking are almost invariably corrupt and corruption stems from a rejection of lawful authority. So we have to conclude that mankind always needs authority, in the form of laws and lawful government, and always wants to reject it.

The disciples, and particularly the apostles had lived with matchless authority as they had walked and lived with Jesus as their Master and Teacher. We too, if we have set out to follow Jesus have accepted that his teaching will be the prime authority over us. The big question before those original disciples and now before us is: what did Jesus say about continuing authority after he left this earth? The answer is clear: the Holy Spirit would replace him. What is a great deal less clear is how that authority, coming from an invisible source, is to be conveyed to the people of God.

He said: “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” And, in the chapter 16, “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” Fine – but how were they to hear what he said?

Similarly we read about ‘walking in step with the Spirit’ but have the same problem. How do we walk in step with someone who is invisible?

Most of the answer is in this wonderful book – the Bible. John started his gospel by saying that Jesus is the Word. Teaching, in the sense in which Jesus taught, is always about words. It is not about drawing pretty pictures, or making things as primary school children will do. It is not about excitement or floods of emotion, as many people seem to think these days. It is not, dare I add, about the things we see and hear on our electronic devices these days. Knowing what we should do as Christian believers is about words, which is tough for those who cannot read and can only listen to those who can. I was amazed and shocked in Pakistan that when I asked a village pastor whether they taught their illiterate people to learn scripture by heart the answer was that they didn’t. They certainly should have done.

The function of the Spirit is to teach the things that Jesus had taught. But Jesus said more than that – he added an AND. He also said that “ and he, the Holy Spirit, will remind you of everything that I have said to you”. What he most probably meant is that we have to not only learn the things that he taught but interpret them, and apply, them to our very different cultures.

That is easy for me to write down and say but very difficult to put into practice. In our church we sing next to nothing but the latest songs and use a 5 year old translation of the Bible. A church 2 miles away boast that they only sing the Psalms, at least 1500 years old, and use a translation of the Bible made 400 years ago. Who is right? We fit into the modern culture; they stick to old, tried and well validated ways. Are we both right? There is material for a good argument there!

We do not read that Jesus taught people to speak in tongues or fall over when he spoke to them or many of the other things that have come into the modern church. Therefore those who teach such things may not be teaching from the Holy Spirit of God. Since it is clear from the epistles that such things were done in the early church and are now enshrined in our reliable scriptures they are not totally forbidden, but the main emphasis of our practice in the church should always be on the basic teachings of Jesus, our one and only Lord, Master and Teacher.

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Sep 22, 2016

Gems in the Gospel of John - Part 62

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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 62 - John 14:26

The Holy Spirit



God had a problem! ! ! Jesus was going to die within the week and after his resurrection would return to heaven to support his people. How, then, could the work that he had done so successfully on earth: teaching people how to relate to the Father God, helping them to deepen their spiritual lives, healing the ill, challenging the faithful and generally helping those who need help be carried on?

His solution was to widen the range of action of the Holy Spirit. In Old Testament days the Spirit’s activity had been mostly restricted to the leaders of the people; people like Moses, David and Isaiah though there had always been the hope that there would be a general outpouring. Joel had reported that the Lord said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (2: 28). Now the Lord was going to make that true. All the Lord’s people would be given the indwelling Holy Spirit whose role would be to replace Jesus in the life of those who had actually known him and to stand in for Jesus in every detail in the life of subsequent disciples. It is that replacement function that John emphasises in his account of what Jesus said. John’s emphasis is different from that of the other New Testament writers who are more concerned with the outward signs of the presence of the Spirit. Neither he nor they are wrong. The two aspects of the truth about the Holy Spirit and what he does in our lives are complementary. We need to always look for both of them.

John reports Jesus said, “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you”. That is the second time Jesus has mentioned the Holy Spirit in this discourse. The first time he called him the Spirit of Truth (14: 16, 17). He will refer to him as the Advocate twice more at 15: 26 and 16: 7. The word translated as Advocate in the NIV and the NRSV must be one of the most difficult words there is to find an English equivalent of the original Greek word which was ‘paraclete’. The previous NIV had ‘Counsellor’; the old King James version had ‘Comforter’; the Message paraphrase has ‘Friend’ and the Good News Bible, the American NASB and the English Standard Version all have ‘Helper’. Probably something like ‘called alongside to help and advise’ would cover all, or most, of the meanings but that is too much of a mouthful to be used as a translation. The most basic meaning is ‘Helper’ but that misses the idea of advisor, or any sort of legal role as the use of ‘Advocate’ and ‘Counsellor’ suggest, which is also present in the Greek word.

Which word should we use? Probably the best advice is – all of them. But even then one will miss the idea that is the most dominant in the sentences that contain the word. We have: ‘the Spirit of truth’; ‘will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.’; ‘Father—he will testify about me.’; ‘he will prove the world to be in the wrong … ‘ and then these are followed by the statement that when ‘he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.’ All of which refer in some way or another to knowledge and wisdom.

You are clearly looking for knowledge about Jesus and the Spirit. Why else would you be looking at this Partakers site? Good on you! Keep it up! We can never learn too much about our Saviour and the whole plan of salvation. Of course learning facts must not be the end of the matter. We must always seek to put them into practice. That is how we shall walk hand-in-hand with Jesus. He will be our teacher.

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Sep 21, 2016

Gems in the Gospel of John - Part 61

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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 61 - John 14:18
Not orphans


Jesus promises his disciples he will not leave then as orphans. He will come back again. The obvious question is ‘when’. It is not easy to see when he was referring to. Perhaps he was deliberately making this general statement so that we could fill in the details.

If so – here goes. The 4 letters RSVP are well known in the English speaking world although they come not from English but from French. They stand for “Repondais S’il Vous Plait” (I can’t get the accents on my keyboard) which means ‘Respond if you please’ or just ‘Please reply’. They often appear at the bottom of a formal invitation to events like a party or a wedding. It has been suggested that we can use these very familiar letters to remind us of the ways in which Jesus will return. R=Resurrection, S=Spirit, V=Visits and P=Parousia. Let’s take them one at a time.

R=Resurrection. Jesus was actually speaking to his disciples and this was, of course, before his death and resurrection so it was a very meaningful promise for them. We have to look back to it but it is a no less meaningful moment for us. Everything that we are and have in Jesus stems from that great event. Without it we would be, as Paul said, “most to be pitied”, by which I think he meant that we would have been expending a great deal of energy on something that was not true.

S=Spirit. In a very real sense Jesus came back at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem. After all Christ and the Spirit were both parts of the One True God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A huge dynamism descended on all those involved that day. They were no longer orphans. They now knew they were adopted members of a great family, which is now world-wide, the greatest and biggest in the world of which we are part. We can think of ourselves as walking in step with the Spirit, or walking in step with Jesus. Make your choice, or consider yourself involved with both, perhaps one in one hand and the other in the other. I leave you to work out which is which side!

V=Visits. Again and again Jesus visits us in the events of our lives. He is with us in our great joys and our deepest sorrows. He is with us in the smaller things of life. How aware of that in the day-by-day events of your life will depend on your personality and, perhaps, in how busy you are. In the days when I drove a tractor for a living I was very aware of his continuous presence with me because my mind was scarcely engaged with what I was doing. When I became a teacher with a room full of 14-year olds I was much less conscious of his presence even although I needed it more. But that didn’t matter – I might have lost touch with him from my end of the relationship but I knew, when I could afford to stop and think about it, that he was still strongly in touch with me so the relationship was as strong, or stronger, than ever. Exactly the same goes for you.

P=Parousia. Parousia is the Greek word meaning ‘arrival and presence’ which is commonly translated in the New Testament as ‘coming’, usually referring to the Second Coming of Jesus. So, for instance, the word behind 1 Thessalonians 4: 15 - 17 which talks about ‘the coming of the Lord’ is ‘parousia’ and the next verse goes on to talk about ‘the Lord will come down from heaven’ so there can be no possible doubt that this word is being used about the return of our Lord Jesus to this earth of ours. We call this the Second Coming.

How exactly it will all work out we shall never know until it happens. Some bold people, whose boldness outstrips their wisdom, will tell you exactly what is going to happen. They have our Lord’s schedule all worked out for him! But they do not all agree, and surely the Spirit does not disagree with himself so they do not have the Spirit teaching them. The only sure things about the Second Coming are that it will catch us all by surprise and confound all our prophecies – just as his first coming did – and exceed all our expectations for exciting wonder and worship.

This was our glorious Lord’s promise to his original disciples and therefore to us: RSVP. That originally meant ‘please reply’. Sure, Lord, we reply with praise and wonder. Living in the certainty of your Resurrection; rejoicing that we too have received your Spirit; full of thanksgiving for those times when we have been aware that you are Visiting us in a special way; looking forward with eager expectation to your Parousia, your Return. Even so ‘come, Lord Jesus.’

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Sep 20, 2016

Gems in the Gospel of John - Part 60

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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 60 - John 14:12
Greater works

Jesus goes on after his great statement that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life” to say that his disciples will do even greater things than he did, which is a quite astonishing thing to say. We have to ask - did he mean it in terms of quality or of quantity or what? It is easy to see that in most particulars we can indeed do more things that Jesus did because there are so many more of us. About quality we may well be much more doubtful.

What Jesus did he listed in Matt 11:5 as “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor”.

So far as the first four are concerned – yes, we can do more than Jesus did. Modern medicine has replaced miracle working in these cases. As a friend reported that the surgeon said to him as he was about to operate on a very serious wound “with my skill and the Lord’s help we will see what we can do”. We no longer expect that the miraculous will be necessary in most cases. On the comparatively rare occasions when it does occur we should be glad and rejoice.

There were a few hospitals in the ancient pre-Christian world but not many and not very effective either. They mostly made things as comfortable as possible for the dying. That was all that they could do. It was the Medieval Christian hospitals and the development of the realisation that it was possible to apply the ideas of scientific thinking to questions of health which started the developments which are so good today in the matters of health.

But Jesus did not stop there. The thing he claimed that is obviously questionable today is “raised from the dead”. To a very limited extent doctors may indeed resuscitate those who ought to have died but that is not quite the same thing. Claims are made in some parts of the present day church that people are raised from the dead. Perhaps. Those of us who live in the post-Enlightenment Western part of the world will always be very doubtful of such things. Your reaction to the very suggestion will depends on where you live and what your church culture is. What we must be careful about is not claiming that we have all truth in such matters. We must rejoice in what we can now do by the great advances of modern medicine. We must be careful not to reject any of the good things we now have. Let us rejoice in them.

The last of the things Jesus listed as the works that he did is the most interesting one: “the good news is proclaimed to the poor”. There has been a greater explosion of Good News round all the world in the last 50 years than there has ever been before. But this is not so much an explosion of human activity as that of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can touch people’s hearts and minds with the true work of the Lord God. No one else can control his work, his action, his force. That is why Jesus said the reason greater things would be done was “because I am going to the Father”. And although that is most obviously a spiritual work, more obviously than curing blindness or lameness, all those things that help a human being are ultimately a work of God. Which is why Jesus goes on to say that he will do whatever we ask in his name. The things we ask for have to be things that fit in to the personality and purposes of our Lord – not just any old thing that we would like (a pile of gold coins would be very welcome, Lord!)

It is our good fortune to live in days when the Kingdom of God is expanding at an unprecedented rate (except for those few unhappy parts of the world where vicious and horribly misguided people are trying to wipe out Christian faith with the bullet and the bomb – they will never succeed). We have indeed been given access to ‘greater things’ than it has ever been the good fortune of any previous generation to have. Let us rejoice and make the maximum use of these great gifts that are ours.

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