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revjohn

Revjohn

This blog will give Christian reflection on comment on both Bible passages and current affairs - in fact anything that takes the author's fancy! Also visit my website at:
www.christianreflection.org.uk

BORN FROM ABOVE

Bible Reflection Posted on Mon, August 29, 2016 23:30:09

Jesus said, “No-one can see the kingdom of God unless
he is born again.” But what doesit mean to be “born again”? When
I began my ministry, an unchurched person would have a clue what the phrase
means. Since then the phrase has appeared in a popular song (“Don’t you
know in you I’m born again?” The original reference was not to God or
Jesus), has become a sloppy nickname for the charismatic movement, operating as
a synonym for “happy clappy”, despite the fact that more traditional
evangelical groups arguably use the phrase more. And it can be used –
perversely – to describe any kind of religious fanatic (including Muslims,
Hindus, and even atheists!). It can even be used to describe people who have developed
new-found enthusiasms for fashion clothing, popular music, food, or books! But
none of this helps us to understand what the phrase means and how it came to be
coined. Just about all other uses of this phrase relate back to this passage
from John’s Gospel. So what does the phrase mean here?

To begin
with, we need to understand that we have got the phrase wrong from the start.
The phrase is properly translated “born from above”. The Greek word
can be used in both ways, but the meaning “from above”is more usual,
and there is another simpler word which could have been used if
“again” had been meant. Some scholars suggest Jesus was being
ambiguous and had both meanings in mind. It is not unusual for Jesus,
especially in John’s gospel, to be ambiguous, but en so the passage as a whole
makes it clear that the meaning “from above” is the lead idea, even
if the other meaning is meant to be understood as well. So what does it mean to
be “Born from Above”. 3 things:

1.
A
heavenly ancestor

Family history is enormously popular these days. The advent
of the internet and of ancestry.com
has made the whole process easier and made it practical for a greater range of
people. TV programmes such as BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”
attract huge audiences who are anxious to know just what skeletons or what
important personages lie in the family tree of familiar celebrities. Some have
vile criminals in their ancestry, while others have royalty. Imagine the boost
it could give to you confidence to know you were descended from a king! Some
participants in that show received just such news: others received news that
may have been less welcome. I suspect I would feature in the latter camp. My
sister-in-law has done our family history. A number of miners, a number of
sickle-makers, the odd one born the wrong side of the blanket, but nobody
remotely royal. An American Staton (there are lots of us over there!) compiled
a Book of Statons – in which I appeared at an old address – and he came up with
a coat of arms. But I have no idea where he got it from , or if I am authorised
to bear it!

But because
all of us who believe in Jesus are “born from above”, it means all of
us have the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in our heavenly family tree! This
means we are all royalty! We can all
hold our heads high! We are born into a new life, a new kind of existence, and
into a new family – the family of God. When people ask us where we come from,
we can say, “heaven”, and when they ask us who we are, we can say,
“a child of God”, which is far more important than our human family.
When Jesus was teaching, members of his human family came to drag him away
because they feared he was going mad. They told him, “Your mother and
bothers are outside”. Jesus replied, “Whoever does the will of my
father in heaven is my father, brother, sister, mother.” We are born from
above. We have a heavenly ancestor and a heavenly family.

2. A
heavenly sign

Jesus says, ” no-one can enter the kingdom of God
unless he is born of water and the spirit.” But what does it mean to be
baptised by water? It refers, of course, to baptism. Other possible emanings
have been suggested, but all of them appear a little contrived and artificial.
At the time the gospel was written anybody who entered upon a new life in
Christ was baptised. At the time of Nicodemus’ visit, Jesus himself and most of his early disciples
had been baptised by John. John tells us in the next chapter that Jesus, or at
least his disciples, were already baptising people in the Jordan. Jesus assumes
that anyone who would enter upon the new life he offers would also want to make
that public and concrete by undergoing baptism with water. We needn’t get into
arguments about what age baptismal candidates should be, or how much water
should be used and whether it should be done by sprinkling or immersion. The
fact that neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor any other NT writer gives us no
instructions on the point, and that Acts does not give us a clear account of a
baptism taking place, suggests that the actual form and practice was not of
primary importance to early Christians. The fact that most of the New Testament
writers mention baptism as the normal means of entry into Christian life and
that the give high status to it, shows that being baptised was very important
indeed. But exactly how it was done was of lesser significance. The questions
which have historically divided the church so much did not even occur to them.
The early church appeared to value doctrinal and moral principles very highly,
but matters of practice less so. Like most movements in their early stages of
growth, its organisation was a little messy, and we 21st century Christians
should resist the temptation to sort it out for them. But being born from above
was not just something God did to someone without their knowledge and
co-operation. The person entering upon new life in Christ needed to make a
response, to say, “I believe. Iwant to start a new life with Jesus”,
and to mark that commitment with baptism.

We have made all this complicated in the
centuries since. When some persecuted Christians anted to close the Church’s
doors to those who had given in under torture and wished to demand that they be
baptised again, the Church made it clear that baptism was once for all. To have
done anything else would have been to divide the church into numerous factions.
When infant baptism became the norm, people who had come to a personal faith in
later years then found that they could no longer mark their commitment with the
sign that God had ordained, because that sign had already been given. So we
have confirmation, renewal of vows, and other rites of commitment so people who
believe themselves to be starting a new life with Christ can make that
commitment public and concrete. And that, rather than the form of the act, is
what matters to God. So being “born from above” means entering a
heavenly family and gaining a heavenly ancestor,; it means making a
commitment by means of a public
ceremony; and it means entering upon life with a new power

3. A
heavenly power

Jesus says, ” no-one can enter the kingdom of God
unless he is born of water and the
spirit.
” A new baby spends most of its early years acquiring new
abilities and new powers. If we are entering upon a new life with Jesus, we
cannot manage on the power, strength, and resources we have in ourselves. We
need new power from God. He gives us that power through his Holy Spirit. The
Spirit comes to live and work in us,to take control of our lives and live
through us. And the Spirit will make us such different people that others will
look at us askance. They won’t know what to make of us, any more than they can
make sense of the vagaries of the wind. The Spirit will inspire us to do things
we never thought of before (and that no-one else imagined we would do either!),
and will give us the power to turn the world around upside down in Jesus’ name.
We will show people how it is possible to live life God’s way, loving him and
each other, and how it is not necessary to conform to the worlds ways of doing
things. God will use us to do great things and to bring many others to faith in
him

CONCLUSION

So let us approach Jesus, coming out of our darkness as
Nicodemus did to his glorious life. Let us believe in him and give our lives to
him, that he may give us that new life which will give us a new heavenly family
and a new heavenly power, marked by the heavenly sign of public commitment and
baptism.

AMEN.



Giving Testimony

Bible Reflection Posted on Sat, December 13, 2014 15:41:46

GIVING TESTIMONY John 1: 6-8, 19-28

In this passage we see John the Baptist giving testimony to Jesus. But what does it mean to give testimony? Most of us might think about giving testimony in court. And that is partly what is going on in this passage. But there is also another kind of testimony, usually called a testimonial, where one is seeking to convince someone else about the value or quality of a product or a person. That is also partly what John the Baptist is about in our reading. I want us to look at these two meanings of the word in turn

1. Giving testimony

The way John has written his gospel, Jesus is on trial throughout. In some of the prophetic writings there are trial scenes, in which either God puts his people on trial, or invites them to put him on trial to prove his innocence. Most famous is Micah 6.

Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord,

and you enduring foundations of the earth,

for the Lord has an indictment against his people,

and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?

How have I wearied you? Answer me!

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt

and redeemed you from the house of slavery,

and I sent before you Moses,

Aaron, and Miriam.

O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,

and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,

and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,

that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”

What Does the Lord Require?

“With what shall I come before the Lord,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

In John’s gospel, Jesus is implicitly ( when not explicitly) on trial on a charge of falsely claiming to be the Messiah. His defence, of course, is that the claim is true, but the argument is wide-ranging, and starts with John the Baptist. He himself is “put on trial”, in the sense that he is challenged by the Jewish authorities to say whether or not he is the Messiah. He states clearly that he is not, but then gives clear testimony to Jesus in vv. 27-8 (“I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”), even though Jesus has not yet apparently begun his public ministry. All the same, John the Baptist is called by John the gospel-writer as a witness to Jesus’ defence that he is truly the Messiah.

Is it possible we could be called to give testimony in Jesus’ defence today? There are many people in our society who would call his claims into question. There are people who would lay at his door all the wrongs that have been committed by his followers, and in addition some of those committed by others. Are we prepared to go onto the witness stand and speak in Jesus’ defence. There are many who must literally answer for their faith in court, and give testimony in Jesus’ defence at the risk of their own freedom and sometimes of there lives. Are we prepared to risk the criticism that we might encounter if we nail our colours to the mast in Jesus’ defence? Will we “risk the hostile stare, should our life attract or scare?” Are we prepared to give our testimony to Jesus?

2. Giving a testimonial

But there is another kind of testimony, usually called a testimonial. You can find these inside the front covers of books or in publicity for films or plays. Quotes from people telling you how good the book/play/film is in the hope that you will read/see it. Sometimes publishers or publicists will take a phrase out of context from a critical review to make it appear that the review was favourable. The same idea lies behind getting celebrities to endorse your product. The idea is that because the celebrity uses the product and values it, so should you. Of course, in the real world the celebrities are paid enormous amounts of money to say these things and one never knows whether they use the product or not. Unless they are sports personalities, in which case TV close-ups would soon establish any duplicity (for instance, if a sports personality contracted to Nike were to be pictured wearing an Adidas product) and the celebrity would end up massively out of pocket.

But John too is giving a testimonial to Jesus. And this time it is an honest one. Indeed, the gospel writer makes it plain this is the whole purpose of his life: to give Jesus a testimonial. This is also the purpose of John’s gospel (“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20: 30-31). John is not concerned merely to defend Jesus against unjust charges: his purpose is to bring people to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and to commit their lives to Him.

That is our task too. Not just to defend our Lord Jesus against unjust attacks, or even against marginalisation, but to proclaim his message, his power, and his glory, that others too may believe. We don’t need to be professional evangelists. All we need to do is share what Jesus means to us, and what he has done for us, by our words and by our lives with people around. God will give help of Holy Spirit to give us the words and the power we need.

CONCLUSION

Therefore let us faithfully follow in the steps of John the Baptist, giving testimony in Jesus’ defence when he is attacked by those around us or by others in our society, and by giving him our testimonial – testifying to what he means to us and what he has done in our lives, that others too may come to believe in Him, and that believing, they may have life in His Name, AMEN.



Jesus is Coming

Bible Reflection Posted on Tue, December 02, 2014 21:25:51

This was the picture on a birthday card sent me by one of my beloved brothers. He meant it as a joke, and it is very funny. But it can be looked at more than one way. The obvious reference is to the open-plan office where the employees are giving their work less than their full attention, when someone sees the boss coming and warns the others, “Boss coming. Look busy!” One suspects that there are some believers who believe if they can pull the wool over their minister’s eyes, they can pull the wool over God’s eyes too. Look out, padre coming! There are others who get fed up waiting for Jesus’s glorious return and let their standards or their commitment slip. Then when they get reminded of their own mortality, they try their best to “look busy”. Jesus in fact calls us, not to look busy, but to be busy. Busy doing the work he has given us to do: the work of testifying to Jesus by our words (telling others about him and inviting them to become Jesus’ friends), and by our lives – showing others what kind of a difference Jesus can make to rhe life of a human being by the way we live. When Jesus does return in glory, if we are not only looking busy but being busy with the work he has given us to do, he will welcome us into his glorious kingdom.. But that’s another message.



Wedding Joy

Bible Reflection Posted on Wed, December 18, 2013 18:46:34

 
Everybody likes a good wedding! Chance to dress up, eat and drink a little more than usual, have a good time and do some embarrassing dancing. Weddings in Jesus day were a bit like that, but they went on for three days! That meant ensuring you had enough wine in was a problem And you invited not only all the members of both families and a few friends, but everybody in the village! So running out of wine would mean your name was going to be mud for a long time with people you couldn’t get out of seeing every day So when they began to run out of wine at the wedding Jesus attended at Cana, the steward of the feast was a very worried man indeed. Mary, Jesus’ mother, noticed something was wrong. Women have a sense for that kind of thing. And she volunteered Jesus to do something about it – they’re good at that sort of thing, too!
 
So what does Jesus do? Firstly he gets a bit shirty with his mother. “It’s not the right time yet!” he says. She ignores that and says to the steward, “Do what he tells you” Jesus knows when he is beat and tells the servants to fill some massive stone jars that were meant for storing water for ritual hand-washing with water, and then to pour some off and bring it to the steward. They do this, and when the steward tastes it, it is the best wine he has ever tasted! His skin is saved.
 
But John, the gospel writer, says that Jesus showed his glory in this miracle. How exactly did he do that? Well, it would appear that the water in the jars stood for the purity that came from observing the Jewish Law, whereas the wine stood for the banquet the Messiah was to invite God’s people to when he brought in God’s rule. Jesus was providing more than the Law ever could. He giving people a foretaste of the Messiah’s banquet – the heavenly banquet in Christian terms. This is truly the best wine which has been kept until last!



COME AND SEE

Bible Reflection Posted on Tue, November 12, 2013 21:39:46

COME AND SEE

We have learned to be cynical these days. Somebody says to
us they can show us the politician who can get the country’s economy moving and
bring back the good times, we are likely to say “O yeah? Tell me another
one!” Or the preacher or church leader who can bring the nation back to
God and fill the churches again? In your dreams! Or somebody with a great
business idea which can provide lots of jobs for many years! Heard it all
before!

Andrew told Peter, “I’ve found the Messiah!” –
the one God promised to send to get his people out of trouble. And Andrew was
Peter’s brother! Well, how much notice do you take of what your brother tells
you? But Andrew said, “Come and see”. Peter did, and became one of
the foremost leaders of the early church. Philip tells Nathaniel he has found
the Messiah. But Nathaniel knew better than that. Whoever heard of a Messiah
who came from Nazareth? Philip says, “Come and see”. Nathaniel does,
and finds that Jesus could read his character just from seeing him sitting under
his fig tree. He too becomes a disciple.

Jesus claims to be able to make us all that we were meant
to be and to give us life that goes on after death seem just as impossible
today. The claim that he is God who has come down to live among us, is still
living in the hearts of his people, and will come back one day to bring justice
to all, seems nothing short of ludicrous. But Jesus says to us, as he said to
those early disciples, “Come and see”. If we do, he will draw us into
a friendship with God that will transform your life here and now, and which
will open the way to a much more glorious life after death.



Glory in a tent

Bible Reflection Posted on Tue, November 05, 2013 20:55:06

GLORY IN A TENT

Have you ever seen glory in a tent? What is your experience
of tents? Mine includes a week on Anglesey in a tent with another BB Officer
attempting to help run a camp while it poured with rain incessantly, and also a
week at Taize with young people of different European nations when the sun
shone. The latter experience was undoubtedly more enjoyable and taught me a
lot, but glory?

However, when John’s gospel tells us about how.God’s son
came to live among us, he says,”The Word became flesh and made his
dwelling (literally “lived in a tent”) among us. We have seen his
glory….”

What is this glory we have seen? This is what John has been
telling us in the bit before this. This “Word” is the one who was
there before creation and was God’s partner in bringing the world to be. He is
the light that shines in the darkness and evil of this world, and that darkness
cannot overcome it or snuff it out. That light shines on every person, and
gives to everyone who will receive him the right to be a child of God. This
person could be none other than God. But would you put up God in a tent?
Apparently, God quite likes the idea. Throughout the time the Israelites were
wandering in the wilderness and even after they had entered the land, he lived
in a tent – usually called the Tabernacle, but tabernaculum is just Latin for “tent” – and didn’t seem
that keen to move into a fixed building when David suggested the idea. Solomon
built a Temple, but Solomon doesn’t have as good a reputation as David for
being in tune with God’s wishes in Scripture.

Why should God like tents? Firstly, because they are
humble. If you walk into the British Foreign Office, or the Capitol in
Washington, or the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, you are meant to be awed
into silence by the grandeur of the architecture and the decoration. The
message is that you are in the presence of one of the world’s great powers and
you should be respectful. But the greatest power of all preferred his earthly
dwelling to be a tent – probably like a Bedouin tent. He is humble and
accessible to us in our need, and far from cowing us into submission, he wants
to be our friend.

Secondly, tents are portable. God and his glory is with us
wherever we go: he is not tied to sacred places. Wherever we go, whatever
trouble we may be in, we can talk to God, and he will listen and talk back to
us. And he will help us. We can never wander outside his sphere of influence,
because that sphere extends to every place.




The Divided Heart

Bible Reflection Posted on Mon, September 16, 2013 20:50:59

THE DIVIDED
HEART

An old pop song conatined the words:

“Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool.

Loving both of you is breaking all the rules”

Can’t say I’ve had the experience myself, but the divided
heart is something the Bible knows all about. The Psalmist says, “Give me
an undivided heart that I may fear your name”. I remember singing this
verse as part of a worship song back in the 1970’s, but then they used the King
james’ Version “unite my heart to fear thy name”. I wondered what on
earth it meant! The New International Version, quotd above, just about has it
right. One assumes the lady in the song (it was sung by a female singer) was
musing to herself, because I am sure neither of her lovers would have been
pleased to know they were sharing her affections! And neither does God want to
share our affections, either. On numerous occasions the Bible calls God a jealous God. To take
but one example, in the Book of Exodus it says: “Do not worship any other
god, for the LORD (the personal name of God stands here in the Hebrew text),
whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” When I was younger I used to hear
people explain this away as a mistranslation, that it should really have said
God was “zealous”. They were wrong. The Bible meant what it said, and
if they had realised what the Bible meant by “zealous” (people the
Bible describes as “zealous” would today be termed fanatical radical
fundamentalists), they might have been even less keen on that term.

But what does it mean to say God is jealous? It doesn’t
mean God is jealous of somebody’s iPhone, or their car, or their house.
Technically, that is not jealousy: it’s envy. And envy is classed as one fo the
seven deadly sins for a very good reason: it is a very common cause of both
murder and war. But God is jealous in the way one or other of the lovers in the
song might have been jealousHe doesn’t want to share our affections. That
doesn’t mean he doesn’t want us to love our partners, our families, or our
neighbours. He tells us to love these people. But he doesn’t want to share us
with another God. The Israelites of old lived in a culture where there were
numerous gods. You might have a special god for yourself and your family, but
you might worship other gods occasionally – perhaps if you went on a journey
into their territory to keep them onside This often happens today in India. In
India, there are many gods, and many people who are regarded as Christians and
live and work in Christian compound and areas attend church and worship the
Christian God while they are there, but if they go back home they worship the
pagan gods their family worships. This kind of thing happens in other parts of
the world too. We sophisticated Westerners are above all that kind of thing,
though. Except that we do yoga (a Hindu spiritual exercise) once or twice a
week, or get our Tarot cards read, or wear charm bracelets. In all these ways
we too are worshipping other gods. And then there are the “gods” of
wealth, success, reputation, career, security etc, etc. We too suffer from the
divided heart

We need to cry with the Psalmist, “give me and
undivided heart that I may fear your name”. But what is all this about
fearing? What has fear got to do with love? Perhaps more than we would like to
think . Perhaps many more of us would get into the position of the lady in the
pop song if we didn’t fear our loved one(s?) finding out. Maybe it is not the
threat of violence (though men do well to remember Shakespeare’s words
“hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”!), but the end of a relationship,
the breaking up of a family and the “collateral damage” of hurt
caused to children, grandparents, friends, and many other people along the
line. The rules are there for a purpose: everybody’s life is happier if they
are kept. And everybody is happier if we are all in a right relationship with
God. We need to love God with an undivided heart, not only because it will hurt
God if we don’t, but because it will hurt us – and many others. God give us all
an undivided heart, that we may fear his name.



Listen, O coastlands

Bible Reflection Posted on Wed, September 04, 2013 20:48:53

“Listen to
me, O coastlands!” (Isaiah 49: 1)

“O, I do like to be beside the seaside
O, I do like to be beside the sea!”

Well, I would say that because I’ve just come to live in
Scarborough judging by the numbers of people I have seen enjoying the towns beaches
(and clogging up its roads with traffic!), it would appear there are plenty of
people who agree with me. But my wife and I have owned our apartment in
Scarborough for 12 years, and we don’t just visit it in the summertime when the
place is thronged with tourists: we have also seen Scarborough in the winter
when the wind is blowing a gale and the tides are high. Then being by the
seaside is not such a pleasure. That is more the way ancient Israelites looked
at the seaside. It held no attraction for them. Look at a map today and it will
seem that Israel has a number of seaside places: Haifa, Natanya, Ashdod. But
during most of Ancient Israel’s history those places were the territory of the
Philistines. Before the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the only port Israel had
ever had was Ezion-geber, near Eilat on the Red Sea, which it controlled during
the reign of Solomon. The rest of the time, Israel was landlocked and its
people feared the sea. They used the sea as a metaphor for disaster (“All
your waves and your breakers have swept over me” Psalm 42: 7) or of the
forces of chaos which God confronts (“Therefore we will not fear, though
the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the seathough its
waters roar foam and the mountains quake
with their surging” Psalm 46: 2-3). There are even remnants in the Hebrew
Scriptures (Old Testament) of an old creation account which closely resembles
the one told in Assyria and Babylon, where God has to conquer a sea monster,
and creates the dry land out of its dead body (“Awake, awake! Clothe
yourself with strength. O arm of the Lord, awake, as in days gone by, as in
generations of old. Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that
monster through? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great
deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross
over?” Isaiah 51: 9-10) And if the sea represented the forces of chaos or
evil, it stood to reason that those who lived close to the sea had to be in
league with those forces. The fact that the people who did live near the coast
were either the Philistines who had been Israel’s number one enemies almost
from day one, and the Canaanites who lived around the cities of Tyre and Sidon
(the Greeks later called them “Phoenicians”) who were related to the
people that Israel had to conquer to get a foothold into the promised land,
didn’t help their reputation with the writers of the books that make up the
Bible. But here is God’s prophet (the same one that talked about God piercing
the sea-mosnter through) calling on the coastlands to listen to him! And what
is his message? Not a message of punishment or revenge. No, he is telling of
God’s servant who was called to bring Israel back to their God (Isaiah 49:5)
and saying that God has made this servant a light to the nations. The Hebrew
word for “nations” is also used in later Hebrew literature to mean
“Gentiles”
“Coastlands” is also used as code for “foreign
nations”. God was calling his people to bring al people of all nations to
come to him, something he achieved finally through His Son, who was acclaimed
by an elderly man at his birth as “a light to the nations”. Through
Him God brings all people of all nations to praise him and to enjoy a personal
relationship, and to join with him at last in the promised land of his heavenly
kingdom.