Friday 29 November 2013

Competition (John 3:22-30)

22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.) 25 An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

     John’s disciples were concerned about competition.
     “Rabbi, that man who was with you,” they said to John, “the one you testified about”  - they were talking about Jesus - “look,” they said, “he is baptising! And everyone is going to him.”
     Now obviously not everyone was leaving John’s team to join Jesus because verse 23 tells us: People were still coming to John to be baptised. Meaning: John’s ministry was growing in popularity. More and more people were coming to him...
     But still John’s disciples were concerned.

     After all, it’s one thing for Jesus to recruit followers up north in his hometown in Galilee. Why does he have to come down here to Judea? (... and steal our sheep?)
     Notice how they don’t even call Jesus by his name. Jesus is “that man” (verse 26) - “that guy” John was talking to the other day.
     Meaning: They saw Jesus as a copycat. Baptism was John’s signature move. Now, all of a sudden, Jesus is baptising people in the same river as John.
     Also, in verse 26, the disciples address John as Rabbi John (or Pastor John or Reverend Doctor John). This might have something to do with the incident back in Chapter 1 when two of John’s disciples leave him; they follow Jesus; and what do they call him? Rabbi.
     So it is obvious that John’s disciples were feeling defensive. In verse 25, they engage in a theological debate over the issue of ceremonial washing, no doubt, defending John’s actions in baptising Jews for the repentance of sins. (Baptism of Jews was controversial because it meant that even religious people needed to confess they were sinful before a holy God)

     And now, the same disciples are compelled to say something about Jesus. “Look,” they say to John. “Look at all the people going to him!”
     “Are you going to let him get away with this?” seems to be the implied question.

27 To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’

     John responds by clarifying his relationship with God and with Jesus.
     His ministry comes from God. Verse 27: “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.”
     His mission is to point to Jesus. Verse 28: “I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.”
     Back in Chapter 1 (verse 31), John says, “The reason I came baptising is with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
     God did not give John his ministry to make himself popular but to reveal who Jesus is.

29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.

     In church weddings today, the guests arrive and once everyone is seated the bride enters the hall. That’s the tradition. Everyone waits for the bride. The music starts playing (typically, “Here comes the bride”), the congregation stands up, and everyone looks to the back of the hall to admire the bride’s dress, the bride’s hair. Everyone waits for the bride.
     But at Jewish weddings, everyone waits for the groom. It’s the other way around. The guests are in the girl’s house. The guy turns up and then the wedding begins.
     In the meantime, while waiting for the groom to arrive, the best man’s job is not to try and steal the bride. It’s not to try and re-enact a scene from Runaway Bride. No, John says in verse 29, the bride belongs to the bridegroom.

     And when John says, “That joy is mine and it is now complete,” it’s an expression of relief. “Here comes the groom.”
     Being a best man can be stressful. It’s a big responsibility - holding on to the ring, giving the best man’s speech at dinner. Which is why the best man is often the best friend. He is someone you trust. If you ask grooms today how they chose their best man, some might even say, “He introduced us to one another.”

     Back in verse 26, the disciples were saying to John, “Look! Look at what Jesus is doing!” and here John says, “I’ve been looking forward to this day all of my life.”
     And he goes on to say...

30 He must become greater; I must become less.”

     That’s humbling. Here at the height of his career and at the peak of his ministry, John says, “There needs to be more of Jesus and less of me.”

     There will come a time when all glory, all praise and all honour will go to Jesus because he is the true king, the true Christ and the true saviour.
     And there is nothing sadder than a minister of the gospel who forgets this. Beware a servant of Christ who despises being treated as a servant.

     In the movie “The Return of the King,” we meet a man called Denethor, the Ruling Steward of Gondor. Denethor looks like a powerful king. He sits on a throne in a great white hall on top of a huge fortified city. But if you look closely at where Denethor is sitting, you soon realise that his throne is not a throne but a chair placed in front of a series of steps leading to a great white throne. And that is the throne of the king.
     Denethor is a Steward; a servant of the King. His job is to manage the kingdom on behalf of the King.
     But after many years, Denethor has grown tired waiting for the King. In a scene from the movie, Gandalf the White Wizard confronts Denethor, and says to him, “Authority is not given you to deny the return of the King... Steward!” to which Denethor replies, “Rule of Gondor is mine and no other!”
     It’s a parable: Beware the servant who despises being just a servant.

     John the Baptist says, “I must decrease.” What does faithful ministry in the gospel look like? Less of me, more of Jesus.
     In verse 24, there is a little note reminding us: This was before John was put in prison. Right now, if you looked at John, his ministry was growing. People were coming to him. But eventually, John would be put in prison and executed because of his ministry.
     The point is: John did not wait until then to say to his followers, “It’s all about Jesus.”

     How does this apply to us? John says in verse 29, “The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears his voice.”
     By the way, Jesus uses the same picture when talking about what it means to wait for his return in Matthew 25, in the parable of the bridesmaids waiting for the groom (as well as the parables of the talents, and the sheep and goats).
     That is: It’s not just for pastors who need to be humble when a new church opens down the road. John is teaching all of us what it means to wait for Jesus.

     One day the King will return. Will we rejoice when he hear his voice?

     And in the meantime, as we wait, are we pointing people to Christ?

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Pray the gospel (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)

Theme sentence: Paul responds to gospel opposition by praying for perseverance.
Aim sentence: Pray the gospel

     Paul begins with prayer and he ends with prayer. He begins by requesting prayer for himself for the work of the gospel. He ends by praying for his readers, the fruit of that same gospel.
     In doing so, Paul teaches us how the gospel shapes our prayers; how the gospel focuses our prayers on God’s mission and God’s love.

1. Paul asks for prayer (verses 1-2)

     Paul begins by asking for prayer in verse 1.

1 As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.

     Paul and his friends, Silas and Timothy, are on God’s mission preaching God’s word from city to city, and he wants his readers to pray for a right response to the gospel.
     We expect that right response to be faith and repentance (that’s what we’ve learned at TEAM). But Paul uses a different word.
     Paul says, “Pray that the message of the Lord … be honoured.” And that word “honour” literally means glory. It can even mean worship.
     And what Paul is saying is: Pray that this mission results in worship. Pray that this gospel results with praise.
     John Piper very famously writes, “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” That’s saying: The goal of mission is not simply to gain attention to the gospel but to display God’s glory in the gospel.

     In the same breath, at the end of verse 1, Paul adds, “just as it was with you.”
     I imagine Paul smiling to himself as he writes this. It’s his version of an emoticon - colon, bracket - smiley face :) He is saying, “What an encouragement you guys have been to my ministry.”
     He is thinking of their response to the gospel - their faith, their love, their perseverance, their worship; we’ve seen all this in Chapter 1 - and Paul says, “Pray that God would cause others to respond just the way you did.”

     Because verse 2 reminds us: Not everyone responds in this way.

2 And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has faith.

     Who are these wicked and evil people? Most likely, they are the same men who pursued Paul from city to city, stirring up riots in Philippi and Thessalonica and Berea and Corinth...
     But notice how Paul gives a reason for their hatred when he says “for not everyone has faith.”
     This is also a response to the gospel. A response he fully expects. It’s one of hatred and hostility towards the message as well as the messenger. And Paul expects this.
     “Not everyone’s going to respond to this gospel the way you did,” he says, “So please, pray for God’s mercy for those who hear this message but also for us who often have to speak this message into hostile situations.”
     Our first point: Paul asks for prayer - for God’s mission, God’s message and the right response to that message.

2. Paul is confident of God’s protection (verses 3-4)

     Our second point: Paul is confident of God’s protection.

3 But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.

     The thought of persecution triggers a switch in Paul’s mind - from talking about faithless men to thinking about a faithful God; from requesting prayer for himself to reassuring his readers: “God will strengthen you… he will protect you.”
     Yet once again, Paul’s confidence is rooted in the gospel.

4 We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command.

     How will God strengthen and protect these Christians - from persecution, from deception, from the evil one? By enabling them to continue on in obedience to his Word.
     This is in direct contrast to the faithless men in verse 2. Here, Paul puts his faith (the NIV has ‘confidence’, but the word is ‘faith’) in a faithful God (verse 3) who makes us faithful to his Word (verse 4).

     Notice the emphasis on doing the Word. “You are doing… you will continue to do… everything we command” echoing Jesus’ words in the Great Commission, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” -  or what Paul describes “the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1).
     “You began with the gospel,” Paul is saying, so now, “continue in obedience to this same gospel.”
     Paul is confident in God’s protection over his people.

3. Paul is focussed on Christ’s perseverance (verse 5)

     Finally: Paul is focussed on Christ’s perseverance.

5 May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.

     Elsewhere, Paul prays for the Lord of peace to grant them peace (2 Thess 3:16) for the Lord of eternal encouragement to encourage their hearts (2 Thessalonians 2:16) and for the Lord of glory to be glorified in his people (2 Thessalonians 1:12). So here in Chapter 3 verse 5, after Paul has been considering suffering Christians, he prays that their hearts might gaze upon a suffering Christ.

     “The Lord,” in verse 5, is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is praying to Jesus.
     All this while, Paul has been referring to Jesus as Lord. Look at verse 6, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you…”
     [The same expression occurs eight times in Chapter 1 (1:1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 12), six times in Chapter 2 (2:1, 2, 8, 13, 14, 16) and six times in Chapter 3 - always referring to Jesus Christ as Lord.]

     This is important because the message of the Lord (verse 1) and the faithfulness of the Lord (verse 3) comes together in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in verse 5. That is what he means by the “perseverance of Christ”. It’s the cross.
     So when Paul prays, “Direct their hearts to God’s love and Christ’s perseverance,” what he is saying is, “Help them see the cross - when they are suffering and when they are calling out to you for strength and protection - show them what it meant for Jesus to persevere on the cross.”

     Additionally, what I think Paul is doing here is: Praying they will pray. He is praying that they will pray.
     What Paul is doing is praying that Jesus would create a longing in their hearts such that that every fibre in their being yearns for God’s love - such that when they do suffer and when they do face opposition and when they do face rejection - their hearts will turn to Jesus and say, “I want to know you in the power of your resurrection and the fellowship of your suffering.”
     You see, earlier on Paul tells them how they should pray - for God’s mission. He tells them why they can pray - because of God’s faithfulness. But he ends by praying that they will pray - out of longing for God’s love and out of response to Christ’s salvation on the cross.
     Paul prays that they will pray.

     It’s saying that you can teach people how to pray but only God can make them pray. It’s saying that you can pray for Christians when they suffer, when they need healing, when they need God’s love; but above all, rather than just praying for them, let them know that they, too can pray to this same God. Pray that they will pray.
     We have said that the gospel leads to worship and that the gospel leads to faith. But here, Paul is saying that the gospel, rightly understood, leads to prayer. It creates a people longing to come to God because their hearts are drawn to him and their eyes are fixed on the cross.

     To recap, my theme sentence had to do with Paul’s response: Paul responds to gospel opposition by praying for perseverance.
     But my aim sentence has to do with our response - what do we do when we face challenges or opposition? Pray the gospel.
     Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9:38

     Pray the gospel

Sunday 17 November 2013

Born again (John 3:1-15)

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.
John 2:23-25

Jesus was popular. That’s what we see in these opening verses: Many people admiring him from afar. Crowds amazed by his miracles and even, verse 23 says, believing in his name as a result of these miracles. And yet, verse 24 reminds us, Jesus perceived his newfound popularity as a bad thing. “Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men”. Again, in verse 25: “He knew what was in a man.”

Jesus knew there was a difference between those who saw him as a celebrity and those who saw him as their Saviour. There is a difference between his fans and his followers. And it is possible for our admiration of Jesus to keep us from putting our faith in Jesus.

We see this under three headings from today’s passage: (1) Being impressed by Jesus; (2) Being surprised by Jesus; and finally (3) Believing in Jesus. Three different reactions; three different responses to Jesus; only one is genuine. Only one leads to eternal life.

Impressed by Jesus

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
John 3:1-2

We meet a guy who is a fan of Jesus, a man called Nicodemus; who respectfully addresses him as Rabbi; who says he’s seen the miracles and who concludes that Jesus must therefore be a man from God. Verse 2: “For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

But notice how Nicodemus is first introduced to us in verse 1: A man of the Pharisees and a member of the Jewish ruling council. It is saying that Nicodemus was pretty famous himself. He was a high-ranking bishop in the church. Even Jesus recognises him (in verse 10) as “Israel’s teacher”. This was a formal academic title, something like Professor of Divinity here at Cambridge.

So for Nicodemus, a theologian, a leader, probably someone older and more experienced in ministry than Jesus, to come knocking at Jesus’ door in the middle of the night, expressing friendship and admiration, you would think that Jesus would be enthusiastic about his support and say something like, “Come on in, Professor Nick. What took you so long to come to your senses?”

Instead, what Jesus says to him is, “You don’t have a clue you are talking about.” Verse 3:

In reply, Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
            John 3:3

“It’s not the miracles, Nicodemus. It’s something called the new birth that qualifies you to talk about the kingdom of God.” Jesus says to him.

Nicodemus answers like a true academic. Verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old?... Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb!” For Nicodemus, born again means being born all over again. Or he thinks it’s a theological debate on the human condition - the need to be reborn, as it were. Either way, Nicodemus says, “It’s impossible! It can’t be done!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus says in verse 5, “no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Here, Jesus clarifies an important point. Born again does not mean turning over a new leaf like when you make a new year’s resolution to give up chocolates. It’s not a second chance at fixing the problems in your life. It’s more radical than that. Born again (or the phrase can mean born from above) means being transformed by God’s Spirit. “The Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (verse 6)

Today, a born-again Christian is akin to a committed Christian; someone who is serious about religion. Newspapers use “born-again Christian” to describe celebrities like Jeremy Lin or George Bush - not in a positive sense - but as a way of saying, “These guys take their faith way too seriously.”

But Jesus is not saying to Nicodemus, “You have to be more serious about your faith.” Quite the opposite, Jesus is saying to him, “You’re not in the Kingdom,” or to put it even more bluntly, “You’re not a Christian.” Why? Because Jesus says, “You must be born again.” It’s not an optional extra. You must be born again.

Now that’s brutal. Many people would call that offensive - to open the door, to welcome a visitor into your church who is enthusiastic about joining your bible study - and to say to that person, “I don’t think you’re a Christian.” But that’s what Jesus does to Nicodemus. Why? Because Nicodemus sincerely and yet mistakenly thinks that he is.

Aside from being honest with Nicodemus, I want you to see that Jesus is being loving. He is telling him the truth. “It’s not about how smart you are or how sincere you. Being a Christian is not something you do. It is something only God can do for you by his Spirit.”

What about you? I remember years ago when I was beginning to look into the Christian faith, a good Christian friend who was loving enough to ask me, “Are you a Christian yet?” I think he asked me this for six months! To be honest, it was OK in the beginning, because it challenged me to think seriously, “Do I really believe the evidence about Jesus in the bible?” But towards the end of the six months, when I had already become a Christian, to hear my friend say to me, “Are you a Christian yet?” was frankly quite annoying! “Why are you still asking me this?” As I look back to those days, I thank God for my friend who was loving enough to ask me that eternally important question because fewer and fewer have been willing to do so since then. It is a loving question. It shows a concern for the big things. We casually ask ourselves non-essential questions like Lei Sek Fan Meh? (Have you eaten?) Are we concerned about one another enough to ask the big questions? Questions like: What has God been speaking to you in his word today? What does mission look like in your life? Have you been born again through the cross-work of Jesus Christ?

When was the last time someone asked you - right here in the Chinese Church - “Are you a believer?” “Are you a Christian?” I have yet to meet someone new who is offended by that question in all the years I’ve asked that of visitors here at the Chinese Church. And yet I suspect that some of us old-timers might be offended if we were asked the same question: Are you a Christian? “Of course, I am. Don’t you know how long I’ve been here?”

Friends, I’m not saying that we should go around questioning one another’s faith and knocking the assurance of our brothers and sisters here in the Chinese Church, don’t get me wrong. What I am saying is that it’s unloving to assume someone’s a Christian when they’re not; and moreover, to leave them thinking that they are simply because they’ve been coming here for so many years. You know, a sign of true revival in the church is not simply when lots of non-Christians come to faith but when lots of people within the church realise they, too, need to repent and trust in Jesus.

In case you have forgotten, all of us - all of us - start out being outside the kingdom of God. All of us need to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. All I am saying is: Has this happened in your life? For some of us, it is a wonderful opportunity to reply, “Yes,” and testify to the goodness and grace of God and to encourage those around us with the love of Christ. But for some of us, we might honestly have to say, “I’m not quite sure.” That too, is an opportunity to come to the bible and listen to how we can be sure of our salvation in Christ alone through grace alone.

Which brings us to our second point: You should not be surprised by Jesus.

Surprised by Jesus

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
John 3:7-8

Jesus says, “Nicodemus, you should not be surprised.” The reason he says that Nicodemus should not be surprised - or rather, not too surprised - about what Jesus is saying about the new birth is because none of this was new. Everything Jesus said is covered in the Old Testament.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and you do not understand these things?”
John 3:9-10

Now when Nicodemus says, “How can this be?” what he means is “How can this take place?” Or, “How will God do this thing?” That is, Nicodemus isn’t as clueless about the new birth as we might think. He gets what Jesus is saying about the need for radical transformation. No, his question is: How will God do this?

Now, it’s Jesus’ turn to be surprised with Nicodemus: How can say that and call yourself Israel’s Teacher? Jesus was not at all impressed with Nicodemus. Here was a guy who wrote books about the bible but hasn’t a clue about what the bible was saying.

Sure, Nicodemus could go into deep discussions about the Kingdom of God. And yet for all his advanced learning, this professor of theology had lost touch with the basics. “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it pleases.” The word for wind, which in Greek is pneuma (where we get the word for pneumatic tires) is the same word for spirit. Wind or air or Spirit are all interchangeable words in the bible, both in Hebrew and Greek. And here Jesus uses the illustration of the wind to describe the work of the Holy Spirit. Verse 8: “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Meaning, you can’t control the Spirit any more than you can control the weather. But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel its effects.

Studying theology is not a bad thing. Those who do PhDs in theology can be of great service to the church and a great encouragement to believers. But if what Jesus is saying is true, then those of us in the business of applying our minds into the things of God must be careful to humble ourselves before the word of God. The amazing thing is Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in such a way that a six-year old could understand. That’s something, isn’t it? Try explaining the Holy Spirit to a classroom of six-year-olds. The Cambridge Professor turns up with his powerpoint slides and uses technical jargon. Jesus gives each six-year-old kid a kite. “What does it mean to be born by the Spirit? It’s like holding out a kite in the park on a really windy day.”

It’s obvious. That’s the point Jesus is making. When God transforms the life a new Christian, you will look at that person and go, “Only God could have done this.” But for Nicodemus, there is something more, especially in that rebuke about him being Israel’s Teacher. Jesus is hinting that Nicodemus that this illustration comes from the bible itself.

The specific Old Testament reference Jesus has in mind comes from the book of Ezekiel.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Ezekiel 26:25-27

The water and the Spirit which Jesus talks about in verse 5 describes the one act of cleansing and renewal. God takes out your sin and puts in his Spirit. It’s a surgical operation. Being a Christian is like having a heart transplant with the Holy Spirit as the chief surgeon. The point is, these words were written four hundred years ago by the prophet Ezekiel and they would have been familiar words to Nicodemus. Someone like Nicodemus would have memorised these words. He might even have preached these words, “God is going to perform major heart surgery on your lives. Isn’t that amazing?”

Yet when Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can this happen?” he is saying, “I don’t believe this can happen.” That’s scary. To know the gospel well enough to be to tell others the gospel and yet to never have responded to the gospel. It’s saying you can have a PhD and not be a Christian. You can pastor a successful church and not be a Christian. That’s scary.

“I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
John 3:11-12

Earlier on Nicodemus says, “We know you are a teacher come from God; we have seen the miracles God has done through you.” Here Jesus turns the tables of Nicodemus, “We speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen but still … you do not believe”. “How then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.

Nothing Jesus has said so far was new for Nicodemus. I wonder if that is true for some of us here today. You keep hearing the gospel. You keep coming to Christian gatherings. But you have never actually humbled yourself before God and said, “I’m a sinner. I need forgiveness.”

The difference between a fan of Christ and a follower of Christ is not degree. It’s not that a Christian is more committed, more experienced, more learned. No, the difference is the Christian is someone who has been born again. God radically changed him from being an enemy of God to being a child of God. God has taken out their heart of stone and he replaces it with a heart of flesh.

“Do not be surprised,” Jesus says. Nothing here new. Meaning, look out for this in your bibles. Pray to God: Show me my sin and show me my Saviour. Nothing Jesus has said is new nor surprising if the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things - We are sinful; God promises to be merciful.

But finally, what Jesus says next would have been new for Nicodemus. He says that the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross.

Believing in Jesus

No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
John 3:13-15

This incident about Moses lifting up the snake in the desert comes from the book of Numbers, Chapter 21 (verse 4 onwards - page 111). The Israelites are attacked by snakes in the desert as part of God’s judgement on their rebellion.They were grumbling against God about the food, saying that God saved them from Egypt only to let them die of starvation. As a result, God judges them by sending venomous snakes into the camps.

Eventually, they come to Moses in repentance and God tells Moses to do a rather strange thing: He tells Moses to make a bronze snake and to put it up on a pole. “Anyone who is bitten can look at it,” God says, “and live.” It’s a strange solution to a serious problem. Numbers 21:9 says, “Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.”

Borrowing an illustration from D.A. Carson: Imagine two Jewish men - named Andy and Yao - in the Israelite camp that day, both of them bitten by venomous snakes and both of them about to die.

Andy rushes into Yao’s tent and says to him, “Hey, I’ve heard that God is going to heal us!”

“How?” replies Yao, nursing the bite on his leg.

“God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. And he says that if we go and look at it, we won’t die of these horrible snake bites.”

“Seriously?” says Yao. “I don’t know, man. These bites look pretty serious.”

“Come on, this is God we’re talking about. After all, what have we got to lose?” says Andy.

“I guess so,” says Yao rather hesitantly but decides to follow his friend’s advice, nonetheless.

Which of these two men was healed? The answer: Both of them were healed. God promised that anyone who looked at the snake would live. Anyone. It didn’t depend on their sincerity. Both these men were exercising faith when they looked at the snake, meaning, they were trusting in God’s promise to heal. The snake on a pole was a representation of their sin - hence the bronze snake - but it was at the same time, God’s solution for their sin. Anyone who looked at the snake on the pole - confident or doubtful, eagerly or otherwise - lived because God said that they would live.

Now look at what Jesus says in verse 14, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Believing in Jesus means looking to the cross, there seeing our sin and there beholding our Saviour. That’s the new birth. We are not meant to look at Jesus and be impressed by him. Still less, to be surprised by God’s solution to our sin. We are meant to look at Jesus and be healed. Jesus takes our sin and he gives us his righteousness. He takes our death and he gives us life. He puts his Spirit in us and gives us new birth.

It is an simple as that. To come to Jesus. To trust in his death for my sin on the cross. And to receive eternal life as a result of his sacrifice.

Amazing love oh what sacrifice
The Son of God given for me
My debt He pays and my death He dies

That I might live, that I might live.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Temple (John 2:13-22) - MP3 recording

Preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 3 November 2013.

Download MP3 View transcript

Saturday 2 November 2013

Temple (John 2:13-22)

A friend from Hong Kong once told me that going to the temple was like going to the shops. You offered something to get something in return. So, you offered joss-sticks, prayer or money so that the temple gods would bless your exams, your health or your marriage. In other words, worship at the temple was a business transaction.

Today, Jesus turns up at the temple and what he sees is a shopping complex. In verse 14:  “In the temple courts, he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves.” And in verse 16, Jesus says, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” The ESV has “house of trade”. What he sees there makes him angry. So angy that he overturns the tables of the money changers and he clears the animals from the temple area.

The passage looks like a warning against commercialism; against the buying and selling of God in the church; against the accumulation of wealth by church leaders. But the reason Jesus came was not simply to cleanse the temple but to replace it. By the end of the passage we learn that Jesus is the true temple and that the place to go in order to meet with God is not Jerusalem but Jesus.

We see three things from today’s passage: (1) Jesus goes to the temple; (2) Jesus clears the temple; and (3) Jesus replaces the temple.

1. Jesus goes to the temple

The first point is so obvious, we tend to skip it: Jesus went to temple, that is, he observed the religious practices of the Jews. Look at it how begins in verse 13.

When it was almost time for the Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
John 2:13

The Passover was a celebration of the Exodus: when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. If you remember, God used Moses to perform the Ten Plagues - the blood, the frogs, the hail, the darkness and so on - and the last or Tenth Plague was the death of the firstborn son. God says to Moses in Exodus Chapter 12:

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn - both men and animals - and I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”
Exodus 12:12-13

God says that he will pass over them, that is, he will not judge them; he will not kill their firstborn son. The people of God were commanded to have a meal by sacrificing a lamb and putting its blood on the top of the door to their homes. When God sees the blood, he says in verse 12, he will “pass over” them.

My first point is this: Jesus observed the Passover. This religious celebration that was held once a year, that had been going on for over a thousand years was something that Jesus observed. In fact, like the rest of the Jews, Jesus went to the temple to celebrate the Passover. He followed the traditions of the Jews and he observed the Sabbath. Jesus was the kind of guy who went to temple.

Not as an end in itself, we will see that in a moment. For many, going to temple might a cultural thing like putting up the Christmas tree every year. But for Jesus, the Exodus was real. God was real: The events described in the bible of how God passed over his people - not killing their firstborn because he saw the blood of the sacrifice - actually happened. And Jesus would use the Passover and the temple to point to something else that was real - God’s judgement over our sins and God’s sacrifice for our salvation.

It is important to see this first point because Christmas is round the corner. It’s something that comes once a year; whether you like it or not, it’s just there. Some people make a big deal of it, others can’t wait for it to be over and done with. It is important to understand that Christians celebrate Christmas not because it’s a nice tradition. You don’t have to put up a tree. You could very well stay in and watch Doctor Who; that’s OK. But it is one thing to be fed up with Christmas because it’s commercial nonsense, it is quite another to celebrate it simply out of tradition (because you simply must cook a turkey) - and Jesus did neither of those things. Jesus spoke about Moses like he was a real guy. When he fed the five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, he talked about the manna in the desert like it really happened, because it did.

And the very last meal Jesus had with his friends at the end of John’s gospel, before he was killed, was the Passover meal. He broke the bread and said, “This is my body.” He poured into the cup and said, “This is my blood.” We did that a few moments ago at communion, didn't we? I hope it wasn’t out of tradition - “Every time we meet in combined service, we must have communion.” I hope that’s not the reason. I hope we did that was because Jesus really died on the cross and Jesus will return one day - and he told us to remember those two realities - his crucifixion and his return - by celebrating this communion meal together. "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he returns." (1 Corinthians 11:26)

And I hope what we are doing here in church today isn’t verse 14...

2. Jesus clears the temple

In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
John 2:14-16

Jesus clears the temple - of the money-changers, the sheep and the cattle - because, he says in verse 16, they had turned his Father’s house into a place of business. Jesus takes the temple really seriously, as verse 17 says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Stepping back for moment, I want us to see how natural it was to the temple to evolve into this marketplace. We think, “This will never happen here in the Chinese Church,” and I hope not. But I want us to see how natural it is for church leaders to use the church as a means for business, all the while thinking they are doing it in God’s name.

The animals that are described there in verse 14 - the cattle, sheep and doves - were for sacrifice. Most of you knew that already, I’m sure. They weren’t there for buying as pets or for cooking your dinner - it wasn’t that kind of market. The cows, sheep and birds were something you had to offer to God as part of your worship. And actually, the fact that these animals were there at the temple meant it saved you the trouble of bringing your own cow or sheep all the way from home to the temple. You could just buy one at the temple. And actually, you couldn’t just bring your own goat or cow or cat or dog to sacrifice at the altar. The bible had strict instructions on the kind of animal you could use - how it needed to be absolutely without spot or blemish. These animals on display in the temple had been inspected and pre-approved by the temple.

Secondly, the money-changers: Why were they there? Again, we need to remember that the Passover was the biggest festival in the whole year and the people who came were from all parts of the country - Jesus, included, who in verse 12 had travelled from Capernaum, which was up north in Galilee. Everyone turned up with their own currency - some with Francs, Dollars, Yuan, Pounds - and it would be a hassle having to go to a money-changer on the high-street to convert your money to stick into the offering bag. Because that was another rule they had at the temple: it had to be in a special type of currency. Why were the money-changers there? They were providing a service to the worshippers at the temple.

You see, there is nothing here about fleecing the crowd. There is not a hint about church leaders sponging of their congregations to buy huge mansions. Actually, all that was happening was the temple was providing a service to the people of God in the house of God to aid the worship of God. Jesus saw that and got mad. He says they have turned the temple into something it was not meant to be: a marketplace. They had mechanised the whole process of worship: Queue here to give your offering. Go to this counter to collect your sacrifice. Worship God. They had turned the temple into an Argos store.

And what Jesus did in clearing out the temple - of the sheep and cattle and money-changers - and not simply to clear our shady business practices in the church; it was to clear out church as a form of business. He looks at what the temple had become: a machine. Just a bunch of people turning up in God’s name to a task and get it over and done with. And Jesus hates that.

You see, we might turn up at Chinese Church today thinking we’re OK because we don’t allow any pets in church (It’s kind of sad that the church cat died a few weeks ago!) or that we don’t talk about money, at least not in an overt and obvious way. So we think this is not us; we’re OK. But in our bible reading: Is it just another thing to get done and out of the way? In our prayers: Is it just something we do because it’s expected of us in church? We get anyone to preach the bible because it’s just a formality - anyone will do as long as he says the right words and finishes on time? That too, is a form of business. Not the kind that’s focussed on making money, that’s not what I mean, but a business in the sense of smooth operations. Making the church run efficiently.

Jesus calls the temple his Father’s house. Not just God’s house, notice that in verse 16, but “My Father’s house.” That means he looks at us gathered here today and Jesus is not looking for the best dressed Christian in the room. He isn’t looking to award prizes for “Best Prayer” or “Most biblical sermon”. He is revealing God as his Father; he is looking for those who are God’s children.

The amazing thing is: in order for that to happen, Jesus not only clears the temple, he tells us the temple has to be destroyed. That’s our last point: Jesus replaces the temple.

3. Jesus replaces the temple

Look at verse 18:

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

Jesus says, “Destroy this temple.” That’s radical. We know in a couple of verses, that Jesus was talking about his body, but they didn’t know that. What they heard was, “Demolish the whole thing. Tear it down.” I think if we said that of St Columba’s, a lot of people would be rightfully upset, in the same way that threatening the destruction of any religious building here in Cambridge - a mosque, a church, a synagogue - would be rightfully called a hate crime or an act of terrorism.

But notice how they respond in verse 20. They don’t react in anger, do they? They are not saying to Jesus, “Hey, this is God’s temple. Who do you think you are?” What they say is, “Do you know how long it took for us to build this huge complex? How much money needed to be raised? How many people worked on the building project?” For them, the temple was a thing. A project. A huge accomplishment in honour of God.

Jesus says, “Tear it down,” but adds, “and I will raise it again in three days.” The real temple is Jesus. It’s not a building where you go to meet with God. It’s not even this church building. There is nothing more holy about the “sanctuary” - as the main hall is called - than, say, Andi’s room in college where we have bible study each week. That’s because the temple is not a place but a person. Jesus is the true temple of God. We approach God in worship not by coming to a place but by coming to Jesus.

The temple in the Old Testament had two functions. It was the place to meet with God. It was the place you went to worship God. These were the two main pictures of the temple: as God’s house - where he lived and his presence dwelt; and as a place of worship - where sacrifices were offered up. There was only one temple, one place to worship God in Jerusalem, because there was only one God.

In answering the temple officials, Jesus shows us how he fulfills both these functions of the temple in himself. Firstly, in terms of God’s presence. Look back to John Chapter 1, and verse 14. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” You could rightly translate that, “The Word became flesh and templed among us.” The word for dwelling is the Old Testament word, “tabernacle”, or Tent of Meeting, a synonym for the temple. It is saying, that instead of us approaching God, God approached us. He reveals himself to us. He makes his presence known to us.

Secondly, in terms of God’s sacrifice or worship. Jesus says, “You destroy this temple and I’ll raise it up,” he is talking about what it means for his to go to the cross. Jesus is equating himself with the sacrifice in the temple. He is saying, “Offer me up.” The book of Hebrews says "...It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4). The real sacrifice is not an animal. It's Jesus.

In both cases, God comes to us and God is the one who provides the sacrifice, not us. The temple leaders saw the temple as something they build for God; the sacrifices as something they offered up to God. But Jesus has come as God’s grace to us - he makes his dwelling among us and he gives his life as an offering for us. In both cases, God takes the initiative not us.

That means if you are here today in church, you are not doing a favour for God. It’s wonderful to have you with us. And yes, there are opportunities to serve God and one another here in church. But the first thing that needs to happen is for God to serve you. For Jesus to take your sin and die on the cross for you; and for God to put his Spirit in you. The question is: Has that happened?

Look at verse 21:

After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:21-22

The turning point for these disciples was the cross. It was only after Jesus died and was raised on the third day, that they went, “So, that’s what he meant!” But it is more than that. Verse 21 is saying it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that enabled them to believe the bible. It was the combination of Jesus’ death and the understanding of why he had to die on the cross that brought them to faith. In other words, it was understanding that Jesus was the true temple.

Practically, this plays out in two ways. If you claim that something else is the temple, you don’t understand the cross. If you call this building a temple, if you pour all your energies into building another temple - then what you are saying is: there is another way to approach God aside from the cross. The book of Hebrews warns us, in Hebrews 13:10, “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.” That’s serious. Some people are disqualified from Jesus because they refuse to see him as the only temple and the only sacrifice acceptable to God, but instead want to make Christianity out to be what they can do for God. Hebrews says, “They have no right to eat,” from this altar.

But secondly, it means that if we do understand Jesus as the true temple and the true sacrifice - and by the way, the true Passover - it liberates us completely to serve God. Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship.” That’s temple language - sacrifice, holy and pleasing, worship. It is taking the picture of what is happening in the temple and applying it to everyday Christian lives. Because Jesus has offered up the once-for-all acceptable sacrifice of his own body on the cross and because we are completely made clean and acceptable through his sacrifice, not ours - that means we are free to worship God knowing that we will be accepted - not just in the big stuff in church (preaching, leading songs, praying in public) but in the daily living for Jesus kind of way. It means, to put it more clearly, you don’t come here on a Sunday to worship. You come to be reminded about Jesus and you leave to worship. Did you get that? You come here as God’s people to gather around God’s word about God’s Son, so that, you can leave to worship God 24-7, confident that his one act of worship on the cross makes your worship everyday acceptable and pleasing to God.

Today we have seen three things. Firstly, Jesus went to the temple. He saw the Old Testament regulations of worship and the Passover and the temple offerings as good. Not as an end in themselves, but purposeful in revealing God’s plan for salvation; purposeful in pointing to him. Secondly, Jesus cleanses the temple. He hates man-made religion. He exposes our attempts at turning worship into a business transaction - just to get it over and done with - as opposed to recognising God’s presence and holiness and character in his provision of worship. Sin is exchanging God's glory for our own - and it's possible to do that even with the temple, even with ministry, even here in the Chinese Church. Finally, Jesus replaces the temple. There is only one way to God - that’s Jesus. There is only one sacrifice acceptable to God - that’s Jesus.

The book of Revelation describes heaven in these terms, "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb." You don't go to a place, you go to a person - to know God, to serve God and to be with God. And that person is Jesus.