Finding faith in the bible

I always get a thrill of joy when I read John 1:9-13, particularly verses 12 & 13.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, the gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. [John 1:9–13, ESV]

To be given the right to become a child of God, born anew by the choice and approval of God!

Perhaps the thrill I find in this passage is the result of having been on both sides of the belief fence described here. Growing up I was agnostic, verging on atheistic in my attitudes towards Christianity in particular. Yet, when I did encounter Christian faith up close I found I envied my friends who could believe in God and Jesus. Even in my unbelief I saw the comfort that could come from having wholehearted faith in God, but I simply did not have even a hint of such faith.

It was about three years later that I crossed from being someone who didn’t know Jesus to believing in him and being given the right to become a child of God. And the faith which got me to that place was also a gift from God, coming through reading the gospel of John before I believed.

As I read John’s gospel I had an increasing sense that what I was reading was true. Jesus as portrayed in this gospel was alive and real, interacting with ordinary folks like me, quite different to how I had imagined God to be. The more I read the more convinced I became that what I was reading could be true. And if it was true, then I was in big trouble!

God let me stew on that for half a week before I was invited to church by a friend and somehow found myself praying to Jesus, asking him to forgive my sin and redeem my soul.

What stands out to me now almost thirty years later is that God birthed faith in me through my reading the Bible despite me barely understanding what I was reading.  Now I seek to rekindle the fire of my faith, remembering the way God started me on this path confirms that I should I seek Him again in His Word.

Jesus is offensive

Sometimes Jesus himself, is offensive to people and they will turn away. Understanding the truth, some will refuse to follow Christ.

Often ‘the church’ can say and do really stupid, even horrible, things in the name of Jesus. Individual Christians do the same. Whether by word or behaviour individuals and churches can put others off Christianity. This is a bad thing.

Yet Jesus himself offended people, he appears to have even done so on purpose:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (John 6:60-66 ESV)

In the discourse of John 6:25-58, Jesus had spoken words of truth to a large crowd of people. What he said offended them, not because it was hard to understand but because what they did understand was offensive. Jesus fully knew it would offend them and he would lose followers but spoke the truth to them anyway. He had no problem with a huge crowd turning away from following him, leaving only twelve disciples.

We must always speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but there will be some occasions when the words of Jesus, in fact Jesus himself, is offensive to people and they will turn away. This is heartbreaking, I don’t care how much of, or what kind of, a sinner anyone is the last thing I want is for them to be eternally excluded from fellowship with God. Yet even comprehending the truth – understanding the meaning of the words – some will refuse to follow Christ.

Theology lets us down on the topic of predestination, but Jesus makes it clear enough that unless God enables it to happen, nobody can come to Jesus. So in those awful times when somebody is offended by Christ and cannot see his beauty the most useful thing I can do is pray. I can pray fervently, desperately, that God will grant for that person to see the glory of God in Christ Jesus.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16 ESV)


Image: iStockphoto

John the Baptist gets high

Imagine spending thirty years of your life intensely focussed on what you are convinced is your entire purpose for being. The enormity of the task sometimes causes you to quiver and seriously doubt yourself, can you really pull it off? What if, in the crucial moment, you fail to perform what is expected of you? If this job is not done properly history will hate you for it!
It is the preparation which costs so much; constant vigilance, total discipline and self control, being unable to participate in most of the entertainments your peers enjoy. Every day – preparing and waiting – Oh the seemingly endless waiting.

Finally, after years of study and setting yourself aside for the task you know you are ready and the time is right to begin. With faltering voice at first you start speaking out, attempting to convince others of the message you have been given. Surprisingly the people respond. They see your sincerity, look past your idiosyncrasies and understand the message.

Well, the common people that is. The educated and wealthy start mocking and debating. They cannot see why your teaching is applicable to them, especially given their inherited position.

Yet, despite this opposition even your reputation grows until crowds are gathering to listen and act. People are taking it seriously, asking sensible questions about how to change injustice. Things are happening!

However, with the success your anxiety mounts. Things are surely going to come to a head soon but you still haven’t done the most important thing. What if you’ve missed it? What if dealing with so many people coming to listen and be changed has blinded you to the most important part of the task?

With such doubts in your mind every night you rehearse your message. Your tone is getting more strident and uncompromising. The ‘debates’ with the authorities are getting less like debates and becoming more like tirades against them. Someone is going to get real upset before too much longer!

Then it happens, after yet another heated exchange with the scribes. Looking up, the man walking towards you matches what others have described but more importantly you recognize in him an air of uncompromising sincerity. Now, after so many public speeches your words tumble out awkwardly and you hear yourself wondering out loud whether what you’d been planning to do is actually the right thing.

He smiles and reassures. Yes, your concerns are valid but stick to the plan. So it is done.

Then…

Well, words cannot describe it. Nothing you had imagined came near the actual event. But it happened, just as you had been told. Good thing the water was fairly shallow or you’d have nearly drowned! Not only the dove, but the voice also! The sign! YOU HAD JUST BAPTIZED THE SON OF GOD!

I am speculating here, but it is my guess that John the baptist – a young 30-year-old man – found it difficult to focus on his work for the rest of that day and probably was buzzing too much to sleep very well that night! The purpose God had given him in life had now been achieved!

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29–34 ESV)


Image of man jumping: iStock]

An oddly vivid memory

On a grey and wet Wednesday in August I found the direction I needed in my search for some meaning in life. The book had a yellow cover and after an hour of reading my entire worldview was being turned on it’s head.


My late contribution to 5 minute Friday. The word this week is vivid.
The task: Write for 5 minutes – no editing, no over thinking, no backtracking.

The dullness

Most days of my life pass with little recollection, my memories of those days are dull. However, there is a day – a Wednesday in August 1988 – which is vividly etched in my memory. It was a wet, grey August and I was not particularly happy. I’d been in this city for a year. My search for meaning in life was going round in circles and the ache to have purpose grew stronger.

My ignorance

A friend of mine was a fiery new Pentecostal Christian. I liked her despite her attempts to convert me. In my arrogance I thought I knew better than her misplaced trust in Jesus and a God who did not exist. Or so I thought…

At one point in my arguing with her she mentioned that if I was ever to read the Bible I should start with the Gospel of John. For some now unrecalled reason I decided to do this.

A vibrant new beginning

I found a Bible in the public library – a Good News Bible with a bright yellow cover – and began reading John’s Gospel.

By the time I reached chapter 7 I was puzzled why the Jews could not see that Jesus is God. By chapter 21 the command from Jesus, “Follow me” was vividly targeted at me (John 21:19). I knew that life had changed for me. All I had been painting on the canvas of my life was now irrelevant, God was giving me eternal life. The dull background was about to be painted in vivid new colours.


Image of paint cans: wragg (iStock)

Full of grace and truth

Apart from Jesus we do not have adequate ways to comprehend what either grace or truth really is.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Grace and truth, these two words almost sum up what Christianity is about. And Jesus Christ sums up what the Bible is about (Matthew 5:17).

When John says the Jesus is full of grace and truth he is not simply telling us that there is a lot of these attributes in him. Jesus is grace and truth, he epitomizes them, we don’t use the words ‘grace’ and ‘truth’ as a way to define Jesus, he gives meaning to these words. Apart from Jesus we do not have adequate ways to comprehend what either grace or truth really is. Keeping in mind that Jesus is God, consider these words from Leon Morris:

Truth is characteristic of God, and it is only as we know Got that we can know truth. But we may know truth, for God has revealed it.
The Gospel According to John (Leon Morris,1995)
, p259.

God has revealed truth in creation (Romans 1:20), in the law given to Moses (Romans 7:7) and through the prophets, but God’s ultimate revelation of truth is Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21):

“So truth is not the teaching about God transmitted by Jesus, but is God’s very reality revealing itself — occurring! — in Jesus.” Truth understood in this way has a special connection with the cross. As the Gospel comes to it’s climax Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). No answer is given in words, but the Passion narrative gives the answer in deeds.
The Gospel According to John (Leon Morris,1995)
,p260. (The sub-quotation is from Bultmann.)

As the revelation of truth in Jesus occurs at the cross, so too is this a revelation of grace. Apart from the cross of Christ we have only a shallow understanding of grace. As Ephesians 1:4-7 shows, God’s grace has been active since before the creation of the world and without this innate attribute of God we would live in continual fear (if we lived at all!).

Praise God that in Jesus we are assured not only of truth but also of grace.

The Word became flesh

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. (1 John 4:2)

If you find your mind filling with protestations, rationalizations and evidences against the belief that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, then be aware that these do not come from God and are attempting to deceive you. Even the very academic apostle Paul considered the incarnation of Christ to be a mystery, something true, but beyond our ability to understand (1 Timothy 3:16).

It is a common experience for us to ‘suspend disbelief‘ in order to enjoy a story, novel or a movie without constantly nitpicking over minor inconsistencies with reality as we know it. I invite you to do this regarding the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is not faith, it is simply approaching the gospel with a willingness to at least hear the whole story before deciding whether to believe it or not.

While our minds may seek an explanation of how God could become a baby, born of a virgin, the New Testament writers simply state that he did and emphasize instead their amazement at what this means. Perhaps the best example of this is Philippians 2:5-11 in which Paul walks us through the significance of what Jesus did in his incarnation, with no explanation of the mechanics of how exactly it all worked. And so we come to John’s blunt statement:

The Word became flesh and dwelt amoung us (John 1:14)

It happened. Give John the consideration you would give your favourite author and read what he has to say. Maybe God will speak. Also remember that those disbelieving thoughts might be lies!

The hidden light

Pondering the curious situation in which Jesus, who is the “light of the world”, needs John the Baptist to go ahead of Him as a witness to the light.

Is it not strange that the one who is the light of the world, who dwells in unapproachable light, would need a witness to confirm who he is? Surely the light of men would shine so brightly as to be unmistakable?

John 1:5-12 begins by proclaiming the triumph of Jesus over darkness. But don’t jump to victory too quickly — where does the light shine? That’s right, the light shines in the darkness. When it is dark people don’t see very well and so God sent a witness to alert folks that the light was coming. He (the light) came to his own, but his own did not receive him. They either didn’t recognize who he was, or didn’t want him even if they did recognize him.

Here is tragedy, those who do not receive Jesus forfeit an astonishing gift — to become children of God. What is required is so simple:

to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
(John 1:12)

To all who believe in Jesus, he gives the right to become children of God. What is given is astonishing, and who it is given to is astonishing.

This blessing from God is given to those who are in darkness yet believe because a witness was sent from God to testify about the light. If the witness had not been sent (by God) then none would have believed and been given the right to inherit God’s kingdom. This is grace.


Photo of solar eclipse: Luc Viatour

The source of eternal life

The opening verses of John’s gospel are clearly alluding to the account of creation in Genesis 1. Compare John 1:1-5 with Genesis 1:1-4. As I have already commented, we see that in the beginning was Jesus who is God, he created, and there was darkness. In  Genesis 1:3 God creates light, in John 1:4 we are told that the life which is in Jesus is light.

This light which John refers to must be more than the light of Genesis 1:3 because Jesus is God, he is not created and John is saying that the light he is talking about is in Jesus in that it is of the life that is in Jesus — life that is uncreated. It follows therefore, that the light of Jesus is likewise uncreated, in other words, eternal.

Jesus refers to himself as being the light of the world (John 8:12). The life of Jesus is the light of men, and we also know from 1 John 5:11 that God has given us eternal life, which is in Jesus. It is consistent with John’s use of language to think of the ‘light of men’ as being the eternal life we receive from Jesus. In fact reading the entire prologue of John’s gospel (John 1:1-18) makes this quite clear.

Overflowing, extravagant, glorious Life

Okarito beach

Our experiences as individuals make us sensitive to different aspects of who Jesus Christ is. For me, with fifteen years of working in biochemistry labs behind me, the statement, “In him was life” (John 1:4) hits me with an explosion of glory and wonder. I have painstakingly pulled apart cells and molecules searching out the mechanisms which sustain life, but life itself remains elusive.

In him was life

Jesus is not only a means or channel of life, it is in him, life does not exist apart from Christ. Life is in the Word and therefore there is life in his creation (John 5:26).

This was imprinted on my memory one day when I stood on Okarito beach in Westland National Park where, from the sea behind me, the stones under my feet, the seaweed on the beach, the grassy dunes, the scrub beyond and then the lush, vibrant rainforest cloaking every hill and mountain right up to the snow came a grand testimony to God’s love of life and living things. It is in Him that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), we should be very glad the life that is in the Word is indestructible (Hebrews 7:16) because the life inherent in Jesus Christ is our hope.

Jesus Christ is our creator

All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. John 1:3

You will notice about the apostle John that he often uses quite circular language, making a statement and then restating the same idea with a different nuance. I rather like his style of writing (it really annoys others) because what it often achieves is to differentiate what he is saying from what he is not saying.

In the verse I’m considering here he is making it clear that the Word (Jesus) is the means by which all that exists has been created, but he is not himself created. The Word was in the beginning, he is God, he is not himself a created being (John 1:1-3).

So our perception of Jesus must include knowing him as Creator of all things. To bring it even  closer, he created you, and me. It is through Jesus Christ that you exist — to use a circular argument myself, it is impossible for Jesus not to exist because you exist and all things that exist only do so through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6). Our continued existence reassures us that Jesus is God. (I know that argument won’t wash with an atheist because it requires trusting that the Bible is the revealed word of God.)

Not only were all things created by Jesus, they were all created for him (Colossians 1:16). In Johannine style, all that is made was made for him. This also takes some getting you head around, all that exists (or has existed) was made for Jesus, even Hitler, even Satan. (Chew on that, but please don’t choke on it — don’t destroy your trust in the goodness of God ( Mark 10:18) for the sake of an intellectual idea.)

Finally, Jesus created all and he will inherit all things  (Hebrews 1:2). In this we also know that all things are his to do with as he wills, he has been appointed Judge (Acts 17:31) and he judges in justice and truth (Revelation 16:7). The positive and glorious aspect of Jesus inheriting all things is that he inherits the Church, all the saints, as his bride — this indeed is a profound mystery!  (Ephesians 1:18, 5:32).