31st March 2004
This is the first talk in a new series, ``the words of Jesus in John's Gospel''.
We chose this topic because it's rock-solid Bible teaching. Left to our own devices, our tendency is to wander off into preaching about the individual topics that appeal most to us, so it's helpful to have a well-defined Bible framework that protects us from inadvertently emphasising a few favourite aspects of Christianity and ignoring the rest.
We know that the Bible is nourishing. We know that it feeds our spirits. We know that it builds us up. We know that ``All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness'' (2 Timothy 3:16). But as a church, we're not always as strong on the Bible as we'd like to be.
David writes that ``Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path'' (Psalm 119:105). When we neglect it, we will wander from the path that God has marked out for us; or, to use a different metaphor, we'll drift from our moorings. When we rely on our own ideas instead of on God's word, we are, as Paul puts it, ``tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming'' (Ephesians 4:14).
One of the reasons that the Bible is so good for us is that it is primarily about God; whereas, left to our own devices, our natural tendency is to concentrate on ourselves. What we read in the Bible will help us to keep our eyes fixed on him, not us. This is ``keeping God central'', which remains one of this church's key values -- and, I would argue, the one that's foundational to all the others, because a church that doesn't have God central isn't a church.
So with all this in mind, when we were discussing what to use for our next preaching series, we wanted to focus on the words of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. We decided to go through John's Gospel, looking at what Jesus says in each chapter.
This could be a long series! John's Gospel has 21 chapters, and I plan to look at a single chapter at a time. Plus we will surely have weeks where someone preaches on something else - especially as we're going to be having visiting speakers every month, and occasional videos. Still, I plan to keep going through to the end, and I'm convinced it will be good for me, whatever it does for anyone else!
We're starting this series in chapter one of John's Gospel, and for a very good reason: because it's the first chapter :-)
What I mean by this is that we want to work with the whole substance of what's actually in the Bible, rather than picking and choosing the particular things Jesus said that back up what we wanted to say anyway - a tendency that I'm particularly vulnerable to. We want to let God speak to us through the whole of his word, not use a ``Bible Lite'', like the Reader's Digest Abridged Version that leaves out all the difficult parts.
As I started to prepare this session, I thought to myself that Jesus' first words in John's Gospel must be significant. His first words in Mark are, ``The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!'' (Mark 1:15). In Luke, it's ``Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?'' (Luke 2:49).
I wonder what you're expecting in John? John's Gospel is full of profound theological pronouncements: ``Before Abraham was born, I am!'' (John 8:58); ``I am the way and the truth and the life'' (John 14:6); ``This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent'' (John 17:3). I expected that Jesus' first words in this book would be similarly dramatic, but in fact his first utterance is just four words: a very simple (but profound) question.
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ``Look, the Lamb of God!''
When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ``What do you want?''
They said, ``Rabbi'' (which means Teacher), ``where are you staying?''
``Come,'' he replied, ``and you will see.''
So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.— John 1:35-39
I am not going to talk about John's humility or about what it means that Jesus is ``the lamb of God'', interesting as those subjects are. I want to concentrate only on Jesus' words. And those words are the perhaps the key question in each of our lives:
We can tell that Jesus thought this was an important question, because we also see him ask it in two other places: in Luke 18:41 he asks it of a blind man who has cried out to him as he's passing by; and in Matthew 20:32 he asks two more blind men the same question.
Well. How about it? What do we want?
Here are some of the things I want:
What's wrong with this picture? The problem here is that I have Jesus himself buried somewhere in the middle: more important than some things, less important than others. What's happened is that he's become a part of my life rather than the focus of my life. And that's not something he ever offered to be. Jesus unapologetically demands nothing less than first place in our lives. This is why it's terribly misleading when well-meaning evangelists ask people to ``invite Jesus into your heart'', as though he's supposed to wedge in there alongside the football, beer and dinosaurs. That won't do at all.
What's why Jesus asks Andrew and his buddy what they want. He presumably knows that they've left John the Baptist, who they've been following for some time, to be with Jesus instead. But he's not satisfied with mere hangers-on. He wants disciples. He wants people whose hearts are turned unconditionally, unreservedly, towards him and him alone. People who, in answer to the question ``What do you want?'', simply reply ``You''.
That doesn't mean I have to suddenly stop caring about football and dinosaurs; but it does mean that these things, like everything else, absolutely must be completely subservient to my passion for Jesus. I don't necessarily say that that's how my life is now; but that's where I'm headed. ``Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal'' (Philippians 3:13-14).
In a passage that I have quoted before, J. C. Ryle's 1879 book Holiness spells the issue out with exemplary clarity:
He that thirsts and wants relief must come to Christ Himself. He must not be content with coming to His church and His ordinances, or to the assemblies of His people for prayer and praise. He must not stop short even at His holy table, or rest satisfied with privately opening his heart to His ordained ministers. Oh, no! He that is content with only drinking these waters ``shall thirst again'' (John 4:13). He must go higher, further, much further than this. He must have personal dealings with Christ Himself: all else in religion is worthless without Him. The King's palace, the attendant servants, the richly furnished house, the very banquet itself - all are nothing unless we speak with the King. His hand alone can take the burden off our backs and make us feel free. The hand of man may take the stone from the grave and show the dead; but none but Jesus can say to the dead, ``Come forth and live'' (John 11:41-43). We must deal directly with Christ.— J. C. Ryle, Holiness chapter 17: Thirst Relieved
How do we reach this state of simple, uncluttered hunger for Jesus? Not always in one simple step. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis uses the example of an alcoholic who has no particular interest in God, but who comes to him anyway in search of a solution to his problem. Lewis says (in words that I would quote verbatim if I hadn't lent both my copies to people who've never returned them) that God is merciful to us in a situation like that. He will answer the cry of someone who just wants to use him as means to an end. But he always does so with the goal of winning that person completely to himself. That's what God demands, and in the long term he will not be satisfied with anything less. Lewis says that you start out by coming to God asking for one small thing, and end up giving your whole life to him.
What do you want? The answer Jesus wanted from his disciples was, ``You''. And that's the answer he wants from us today.
(Jesus' next words in the same passage are in response to the question ``Where are you staying?''; he replies ``Come and you will see''. I am not going to make a long argument about how this shows that Jesus shared his life with people :-)
Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ``We have found the Messiah'' (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ``You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas'' (which, when translated, is Peter).— John 1:40-42
Simon means ``one who hears and obeys''. Both Cephas (Aramaic) and Peter (Greek) mean ``rock''. In this passage, Jesus recognises Peter's identity, and both changes and affirms it. He starts by recognising that Simon is one who hears and obeys - essential for anyone who wants to be a disciple. But having recognised that, he goes further, and redesignates Simon as Peter, one who others can build on. Later, he will say, ``You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church'' (Matthew 16:18)
What I get from this is that, with each of us, Jesus starts with who we are today. He didn't ignore Simon's old name: he acknowledged it, just as he acknowledges each one of us who comes to him. But neither was he satisfied to let Simon continue doing what he'd always done, being who he'd always been. Jesus had bigger and better plans for him, just as he has for us.
What I find encouraging about Peter's story is that God seems to use in him the same personality that he had when he started out. All through the New Testament, Peter is impulsive, which is often a negative characteristic; yet which other of the disciples could have responded as immediately and wholeheartedly as Peter did to the vision God gave him concerning the Gentiles' right to share in the gospel (Acts 10:9-23)? His very impulsiveness, transformed and sanctified, became what God used to achieve one of the key moments in the whole history of the church.
But it's not enough just to keep doing what we're already doing and hope God blesses it. It's impossible to really meet Jesus and not be changed. When Jesus met Simon, the new name he gave him signified that although Peter's personality was what it was before, his identity was brand new. His motivation was different from top to bottom. And so it is, or so it must be, for us all.
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ``Follow me.''— John 1:40-42
Here we have one of Jesus' starkest sayings. Just this: ``Follow me''. It's an unconditional command. It's not ``If you follow me, then I will do this, or give you that''. There is no negotiation involved, as though Jesus owed Philip anything - just a call that Philip is required to respond to, because it's right.
In other places, the urgency, unconditionality and utter lack of compromise of Jesus' call is spelled out more explicitly:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ``I will follow you wherever you go.''
Jesus replied, ``Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.''
He said to another man, ``Follow me.''
But the man replied, ``Lord, first let me go and bury my father.''
Jesus said to him, ``Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.''
Still another said, ``I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good bye to my family.''
Jesus replied, ``No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.''— Luke 9:57-62
What I understand from this is simply that Jesus is not willing that we should allow anything - home, family, job - to come between us and him. he wants us to understand the cost fully; and, having understood it, to decide that it's worth paying.
The words of Jesus, ``If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me'' (Luke 9:23) have been widely misunderstood. We're used to people with minor annoyances, like noisy neighbours, sighing and saying, ``Well, we all have our crosses to bear''; so we tend to interpret what Jesus said here as meaning that anyone who wants to follow him must be prepared to put up with annoyances. No. The people Jesus was talking to would have realised immediately exactly what he meant. Under Roman rule, the only person who would physically ``take up his cross'' was one under the sentence of death, who was carrying his cross to his own place of execution. In asking his disciples to take up their own metaphorical crosses, he was inviting them to consider themselves dead to the world, so that they could be fully alive to him. And that is what he asks us, too.
If all this sounds terribly harsh and wearying, it's certainly not supposed to! The point is that, however great the cost, Jesus is infinitely worth it! He is the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:46). He is the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44) It is Jesus who said ``Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest'' (Matthew 11:28). He said, ``Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst'' (John 4:14). He said, ``He who believes in me will live, even though he dies'' (John 11:25).
Jim Elliot - a missionary who was eventually killed by the cannibal tribe he was trying to reach - once expressed it this way: ``He is no fool, who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose''.
Jesus spends the first chapter of John's Gospel calling his disciples by saying three things:
And today he says the same three things to each of us.
How will we respond?
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/john-1.html