27 August 2021 [The Manse, Lonmore]
Greetings in Jesus’ name – reading through the gospels, it’s been comforting to see how often, after or before and in between specific encounters, Matthew or Luke (etc) include a short paragraph (a verse or two) telling how he met with crowds of sick folk: physical ailments, demon-possessed, and all. And what’s especially encouraging is that we know none of their names or stories, but they received Jesus’ attention – perhaps especially by reason of their ‘littleness’. We’re not famous – but nor are we forgotten, by him.
Talking about unknown people from Jesus’ ministry, in my previous letter I wrote about Lazarus, who appears with his sisters – Mary and Martha – in John’s gospel, chapter 11. It’s funny how well known his (Lazarus’) name is now, with his sisters’ names. It’s only lately dawned on me how rarely he’s referred to otherwise, and how little we know about him – enough, of course, as his story makes an important contribution to our understanding of Jesus. But it’s a useful reminder that the story is less about him than it is about Jesus; our stories – famous or not – are far better when they are about the Lord, not ‘me’.
I also suggested that I should “talk about Jesus introducing the idea of sleep rather than death” this time. Using sleep here was the first time with the sense of death, John explaining (the many years after, when he wrote the gospel) that (v13): Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. Paul takes and uses this sense just a few times, but that’s it:
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed (1 Cor 15.51)
For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thess 4.14)
So it’s not a common or big concept in the New Testament – even less so in the Old – but finding Jesus using it as though it should be understood shows that it’s his way of thinking, also explaining why Paul has taken it on. And we should too. Of course, that rests on confidence in ‘a new day dawning’! Martha is one who testified of her confidence for her brother – that indicates her own confidence too (v24): I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Although Jesus must have initially meant (v23), Your brother will rise again, as in, today. But this became an opportunity for one of the great moments for his self-testimony (25-26):
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
And that’s what was being ‘lived out’ right there and then: The one who believes in me will live, even though they die. It was about more than just Lazarus: whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Later, Paul wrote (1 Thess 4.13):
we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope (& v14 as above).
His reasons for writing that probably came from some folk’s expectations that Jesus was to return much sooner than he has; and thinking their dear ones had therefore ‘missed out’. But ever since, it’s so valuable to give us the uniquely Christian kind of hope: a certainty about what we can’t yet see with our physical eyes – we know it will be, resting firmly on Jesus’ word (see also Heb 11.1).
This is a confidence to be lived out in our lifetimes too. Is it for everyone? Well, it can be, but that depends on the regard you and I have for Jesus here and now. He made it plain to Martha that the sleep he had in mind belongs (only) to whoever believes in him, which is more than just believing information about him: it’s to throw all of my present life on him, into his hands. And that really is worth it – even beginning at knowing that the death we see will be as sleep – until a perfect new day.
Having just come off a week of holiday with our family gathered, this weekend I send this letter and our next Newsletter will be a little after the immediate opening of September. In the meantime, while quite a few of you are bearing pains and difficulties, I trust you will keep well – especially in spirit.
Commending you to his care, and for his glory,
20 August 2021 [The Manse, Lonmore]
With my previous letter only getting out to you the middle of last week, I’ve delayed until now, not wanting to overdo things for you. But let me assure you I’m happy to hear from you if I can help in some way – I’m sure I might do better at keeping in touch, but even so, it’s more than likely I’ll not know what you might need unless you let me know. I’ve been struck again, on a number of recent occasions, how easy it is to misunderstand someone else, or to be misunderstood ourselves; and therefore how important it is to be patient with one another.
I’m sure I’ve said it before: we will be more than likely to have very little idea what someone else may be coping with in their life, all the while we may be busy complaining about them in some way. That comes to mind while reading on in the gospel of John (into chap 11 this time). There are so many cases where even Jesus was left coping with his disciples, the Jewish teachers, and others, who completely missed his meaning; or even misread his actions and spirit, ignoring what he was coping with – remember he was a man like us (see Heb 4.15): For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses… Now in chapter 11, as Jesus spoke with his disciples, there seem to be several statements which he makes, that leave his followers pretty confused.
But he was making important points that it’s worth our while investigating a little, to hear them properly: as for any conversation, there’s not much to be gained unless we do understand each other – which may mean much more than just our words! Now, if Jesus’ disciples got muddled (they did), we can too, so I’ll comment on the more puzzling remarks he makes in the first part of this story of his friend Lazarus’ death (John 11.1-16).
Responding that this sickness will not end in death (v4), if it stands alone with the later fact that Lazarus did ‘die’, discounts Jesus’ knowledge (of the future). He then adds that his friend is suffering (he had likely already ‘died’ if you calculate the days) so that God’s Son may be glorified through it may seem almost callous. But the fact is, it did not end in death: Lazarus was raised and lived! (v44). And through that work, Jesus was glorified; not just in immediate responses, but because this was on his arrival in the south in the lead-up to his last Passover, and his death and resurrection: the ultimate work for which he was and is glorified. I think Lazarus was amazed to have ‘contributed’ to the glory of God’s Son – we still know his name for it today! Leon Morris wrote, “God’s glory does not consist in sparing the faithful life’s difficulties”.
Then came the discussion about going back to Judea (vv7-10): as I suggest, Jesus clearly knew well what awaited him there. His disciples were also keenly aware, warning him (v8), then resigning themselves – to his danger, but also that they may well share in it too (v16)! Yet, with his exact purpose being that approaching threat, and his time having come at last, this was what he really must fit into his ‘fading day’ – to take his analogy of the hours of daylight (v9).
That’s what that part is about. He had something given to him to do, and he’d been given just the right number of days to achieve them – those days were close to running out. As he puts it, that presents us with a universal principle really: we will make our way through life most surely by living by light, meaning that we ought not to waste the ‘light’ we have. The second part of this (v10) really says the light is not in him: he means us to be thinking in terms of spiritual light – recognizing what the things in life are that really matter, and devoting ourselves to them – as he did. Time is short.
I think I should talk about Jesus introducing the idea of sleep rather than death, maybe next time. But space has gone, except to urge everyone to make sure that we also walk by day; by the light of the gospel and Spirit of Jesus, who does everything well.
Commending you to his care, and for his glory,
6 August 2021 [The Manse, Lonmore]
It feels like a long time since I last wrote, and I’m realising the new school year is almost on us, so time must be flying by! They say that happens when you’re having fun, and it tends to follow when there’s a lot to fit into each day too. The passage of time seems a key concern for Jesus in his time among us, as recording in the gospels – so I’m heading there with not much further ado, just now.
Going back to the gospel of John, we had got as far as part-way through chapter 10, so I’ll take up again as Jesus walked in Solomon’s Colonnade in the temple in Jerusalem at the winter Feast of Dedication. That’s not one of the feasts which the Lord had stipulated through Moses: it marks a rededication of the temple in 165BC, after the local king (Antiochus Epiphanes) had profaned it – he stopped the temple sacrifices and set up an altar to the Greek god Zeus. The leaders of the Jews at the time may be said to have brought it on themselves, but he was more widely regarded as mad too. So, from that winter dedication came the festival often known now as ‘Hanukkah’.
No doubt it was a sharp reminder to the Jews of the outside (and often oppressive) regimes they had lived through across the centuries, and their hopes for the promised Messiah to come and liberate them for evermore. Seeing Jesus there, who had been marked out as a possible candidate for the role, provokes a fresh challenge; a demand that he must explain himself – again! Which he does! Although, again, not in ways that they find acceptable.
Those folk have already shown that they think Jesus has been evasive: If you are the Christ, tell us plainly (10.24). In answer, Jesus dwells on the evasiveness of men (people / humanity) – “there are none so blind as those who will not see”, we say. What are the grounds for accepting or rejecting anyone’s claims about themselves? News websites these days will offer ‘fact-check’ pages, and most folk might assume, if the claims are compared with more established information sources and match up, then we regard them (the claims) to be true. Truth matters. Some of those claims may be tested against actions as much as verbal claims, and Jesus even encouraged these people to take that route: The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me (v25).
But if the people still won’t accept him, what else is to be done? There’s no way he’s about to twist or shift to suit their wishes – nor should we, in situations we meet in life, when the truth is at issue.
Even in my own lifetime, there have been a number of books which have recorded lengthy studies by skeptics who started out disbelieving Jesus’ claims and works (Frank Morison, Lee Strobel, etc.). But these people have been compelled to accept that he could not be faulted; that his actions really do back-up his claims; and so on.
His first hearers have been followed by millions since, wilfully opting to refuse the evidence right in front of them – or, as often, refusing to look at the evidence at all, because of at least a sneaking suspicion they will have to admit Jesus’ impeccable truth, if they were to give it ‘half a chance’. What I find amazing, already at that feast, is how patient Jesus was with them; and, again, ever since – with us too! And I find strong hints to his sense of urgency about calling us to believe in him: to believe him, and to believe in him – to put our whole trust in him. That asks us to answer: is my trust in him truly complete – yet?
He kept going with these people (and therefore me and you too!) because it’s the one life-question that really does matter: what do you think of Jesus? Every one of these discussions Jesus had – in increasing danger to his life – was because he urgently longs for us to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to receive him, so that we can have life: everlasting and in all fullness, bound to him.
With his longing that you do too, and that you grow in his Spirit.