Suggestions to Consider

Here are some suggestions to consider including in your Regula Vitae. Please don’t try to include them all– choose some. And add your own, which will probably be much better than someone else’s! These are intended to start you thinking.

Simplicity and Generosity

  • Keep a diary of my discretionary purchases and reflect on them
  • Make a habit of giving things away

Silence and Solitude

  • At least four times a year, plan a half-day alone
  • Speak less. Listen more.

Community

  • Host people for a meal once a month
  • Build intentional friendships with…

Resting Well

Fasting and Lament

  • Fast at least one meal once a month
  • Observe the anniversary of a personal tragedy this year

Celebration

  • Thank God more often
  • Celebrate people’s milestones

Patience and Submission

  • Walk more. Drive less.
  • Meet with a mentor at least once every two months

Meditation and Prayer

Authentic Worship

  • Commit to a church community and join them for regular worship services
  • Regularly ask myself what “living authentically before God” might look like. See Micah 6:8.

The Discipline of Service

  • Sign up to volunteer regularly
  • Put others before myself in all things

Living the Story

  • Read scripture at least 5 days a week
  • Read two Christian biographies this year

Taken from Appendix One, The Tortoise and The Hare, by Andrew Shamy, Sam Bloore and Roshan Allpress

An example Regula Vitae

Chris Webb from the Renovare Movement shares his own Regula Vitae. It seems pretty daunting at first but remember he’s be at this kind of thing for years. As you can see, he has committed himself to a range of activities and attitudes for the year– some regular, some occasional. But notice also that there are only twelve things, each with a certain simplicity. Chris himself says of them, “I would be the first to admit, it is not exactly earth-shaking. This handful of simple, straightforward commitments is not about to change the world. But it did change my world.”

A Personal Rule of Life

  • Pray the daily morning and evening prayers from the Anglican Common Book of Prayer (editor’s note: Dickson did not make me write this!)
  • Make a retreat once every year
  • Fast until the evening meal one day every week
  • Practice an ‘examination of conscience‘ one a week
  • Worship together with the church every Sunday, whenever possible
  • Participate in the Franciscan Community, including spiritual direction (mentoring).
  • Practice Simplicity: give generously and travel light
  • Practice Hospitality: open my home to all
  • Read Scripture daily
  • Study at least one other Christian book each month
  • Participate in the celebration of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) on Sundays and holy days, whenever possible
  • Seek to serve and honour God in my daily life and work.

The importance and purpose of habits

Last week I referred us to The Common Rule, by Justin Whitmel Earley (thanks to Yeesum for the recommendation!). The following excerpts (in italics) might be helpful for you to consider as you start to form up your own Regula Vitae.

Our lives are formed and governed by a myriad of habits and rituals– daily, weekly, annual– which lie unexamined beneath the surface of our lives. It’s just how we are: some habits are good and some are bad. “… the most alarming part of this is not our bad habits, which we tend to know about. It’s our collective assimilation, which is invisible to us. We have a common problem. By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we’ve assimilated to a hidden rule of life: the American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life.” (insert your own thoughts about what might constitute a contemporary Australian life!)

And so we would do well to intentionally craft our own Rule of Life.

“What’s a rule of life?” I now know that a “rule of life” is a term for a pattern of communal habits for formation. The most well-known rules of life were originally developed by church fathers and ancient monastics, such as St. Augustine or St. Benedict. But for thousands of years, spiritual communities have been using the frame of the rule of life as a mechanism of communal formation. Despite our understanding of the word “rule,” a “rule of life” is much less about obeying rules than it is about finding communal purpose. For example, while both St. Augustine’s and St. Benedict’s rule have all kinds of tiny habits that we might either consider too inane to matter or too strict to be appropriate, we should notice that both of them had the same goal in mind: love. Both were obsessed with taking the small patterns of life and organizing them towards the big goal of life: to love God and neighbour. St. Augustine’s rule began with this sentence: “Before all things, most dear brothers, we must love God and after Him our neighbor; for these are the principal commands which have been given to us.” St. Benedict’s rule opens declaring that it means to establish “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome,” but goes on to describe walking in God’s commandments as being in the “ineffable sweetness of love.” Both saw habits as the gears by which to direct life toward the purpose of love. In fact, the word rule is used because it comes from the Latin word regula, a word associated with a bar or trellis, the woodwork on which a plant grows. The idea is that we (like plants) are always growing and changing. But when there is no order, growth can take something that was supposed to produce fruit and turn it into a twisted vine of decay.

… Let us see that habits shape the heart. Let us stop fearing that limits are a threat to our freedom. Let us see that the right limitations are the way to the good life. Let us build a trellis for love to grow on. Let us craft a common rule of life for our time, one that will unite our heads and our habits, growing us into the lovers of God and neighbor we were created to be.

Anthony and the Angel

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of stories from early Christian Egypt, tells a fascinating tale about structure and rhythms. Anthony of Egypt was a young man who went to live in the harsh desert regions east of the Nile with one simple yet daring goal in mind: to strip away every distraction this world had to offer so he could seek God with his whole heart. Anthony pursued life with God at a level of intensity most of us find difficult to imagine—a pursuit which led to incredible spiritual experiences: visions of Christ, battles with evil spirits, and divine revelations.

Anthony, though, became deeply discouraged, uncertain that all his efforts were really achieving anything. He was still deeply conscious of his sins, still (at times) felt far from God. He turned his anxiety into prayer: “Lord, I want to be made whole by your grace, but this discouragement will not leave me alone. What can I do? How can I be made whole?”

As he finished praying he opened the door of his cell and caught sight of an angel sitting outside patiently weaving reed baskets. After a while the angel set aside his work, stood up, and stretched out his hands to pray. Then when he had finished, he sat down and began weaving again. As Anthony watched from his doorway, the angel turned to him, smiled, and said, “Anthony, just do this—and then you will be made whole.”

To Anthony, the point was immediately clear. The angel did not bring another astounding experience, another revelation or vision. Instead, he modeled a rhythm of living. Work and pray. Work and pray. Just do this and do it this way, quietly and faithfully—and you will find the wholeness of life you seek.

Extracted from We Live By Rhythms, by Chris Webb.

Welcome

Join us on a journey of following Jesus together. This blog is intended as a resource to help us all grow, to try new things, to read the bible in an organised way; all with the aim of being transformed more in the likeness of Jesus. There are opportunities for us to share our insights and experiences (its public so be thoughtful about what you share) as we read the broad sweep of the biblical narrative in a year and as we engage in some spiritual disciplines. Interested? Why not jump to the Introduction to find out more.

Welcome

Join us on a journey of following Jesus together. This blog is intended as a resource to help us all grow, to try new things, to read the bible in an organised way; all with the aim of being transformed more in the likeness of Jesus. There are opportunities for us to share our insights and experiences (its public so be thoughtful about what you share) as we read the broad sweep of the biblical narrative in a year and as we engage in some spiritual disciplines. Interested? Why not jump to the Introduction to find out more.

Spiritual Disciplines

January

Socrates declared at least 400 years before Christ, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Although it’s unlikely he was setting out to make a theological statement, there is plenty of biblical evidence to suggest that he was on to something. It may not be said in exactly those terms, but many of the psalms, proverbs, letters and examples in Scripture extol the benefits of self-evaluation. Why then do we do so little of it? 

We are all creatures of habit. We prefer to live with some level of routine than with absolute chaos. We follow patterns; we build structure; we create shorter-term rituals and longer-term traditions. We live by rhythms. 

Unfortunately, however, we seldom make a habit of examining our habits. Our schedules, our routines and our habits are for the most part passively acquired. We work “X” number of hours because our job (or our debt!) demands that we do. We commute for as long as is required to make those work hours happen. We gather in groups as our beliefs and pastimes require. We catch up with friends and family when we want to, remember to, or have to—depending on the enjoyment we derive from their company. In the time left over we squeeze in our shopping, our eating, our banking, our cleaning, our mowing, our sleeping, etc. With all of this going on, it is not surprising that most of our decisions are reactive rather than proactive. It’s not that we avoid decisions, we just make most of them on the fly. They lack intentionality. The resulting problem is that, for many of us, how we live our day-to-day lives has little connection to what we think life is actually all about. As John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy” warned us: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” 

This month, at the start of a new year, we want to encourage you to pause and ask: “What sort of life do I want to be living?” and therefore, “What do I want the rhythms and habits of my life to look like?” Chances are that you haven’t considered these sorts of questions for a while, if ever. Chances are, also, that your answers will look quite different from your current trajectory of activity. 

We are not talking here about hyped-up goal setting. The corporate world is awash with such motivational material and we think its usefulness here is limited. Perhaps we should have realised that focusing on Key Performance Indicators might produce a generation of Christians obsessed with performance. Appropriate goal-setting can be very helpful and there are moments in this book when we will recommend it. But it can also encourage an overemphasis on achievement and end results. We are more interested here in how well we know and imitate Christ along the way—and how well our actual day-to-day practices fit with this vision of what life is about.. 

Chris Webb from Renovare—an organisation that works to help Christians live more intentional lives—suggests our daily practices not only reflect our vision of life, they can change it. “We make some choices because of who we are, but others because of who we wish to become.” This is a crucial insight behind this calendar—how we live shapes who we are

“Human Becomings” is probably quite a helpful way to think of ourselves—for we are all in the process of becoming. The crucial question is What or Like whom are we becoming? Our hope is that the simple suggestions and discussions to come will assist you in building some intentionality and faithfulness into your own rhythms of life. 

Happy New Year!—Here’s to examined lives that are worth living! 

Isaiah 1:21-31. The City

21 See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!
She once was full of justice;
righteousness used to dwell in her—
but now murderers!
22 Your silver has become dross,
your choice wine is diluted with water.
23 Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves;
they all love bribes and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow’s case does not come before them.

24 Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty,
the Mighty One of Israel, declares:
“Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes
and avenge myself on my enemies.
25 I will turn my hand against you;
I will thoroughly purge away your dross
and remove all your impurities.
26 I will restore your leaders as in days of old,
your rulers as at the beginning.
Afterward you will be called
the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.”
27 Zion will be delivered with justice,
her penitent ones with righteousness.
28 But rebels and sinners will both be broken,
and those who forsake the LORD will perish.
29 “You will be ashamed because of the sacred oaks
in which you have delighted;
you will be disgraced because of the gardens
that you have chosen.
30 You will be like an oak with fading leaves,
like a garden without water.
31 The mighty man will become tinder and his work a spark;
both will burn together, with no one to quench the fire.” 

A city is its people. There are buildings and infrastructure, spaces and services– the physical environment. But the city is the collective identity of her inhabitants, displaying the collective will, values, culture and priorities of the people. That’s why Kiwis say, “The only problem with Australia is the Australians.”

And so Isaiah’s condemnation of Jerusalem is really all about her people. They have rejected righteousness, their pride turgid with sin. Corruption and oppression taint the leadership. They are culpable but the people have allowed them to continue (we get the leaders we tolerate and deserve).

And so God will act decisively (v24). He will avenge himself on his enemies– those people of the city who have defied his ways. The leadership of the city will be purged and God will provide the kind of leadership like Jerusalem enjoyed at the beginning: like King David, like Nathan the Prophet. Already in the book of Isaiah, the new future that God promises centres on a new leadership. Someone will come to Jerusalem who will once again rule in righteousness. All who oppose him will be brought low.

In the New Testament, the New Jerusalem is the Church. We are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Learning from Isaiah, as the people of God, we are responsible to uphold our leadership in prayer, to honour them, to follow them, and to appoint those properly qualified under God to lead us. We want them to serve with excellence. We back them. We encourage them. And we are to hold them accountable if they should deviate from God’s ways.

Father, I pray for the leadership of our churches. Please raise up such godly people, well qualified and equipped, that we are guided and nurtured in righteousness and holiness. Amen.

Isaiah 1:10-20. Leadership fail

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts? 
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. 
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The people are guilty but who is responsible? The word is addressed to ‘the rulers of Sodom’ as well as ‘the people of Gomorah’. Sodom and Gomorah were the cites in Abraham’s day that had become a by-word for sin and debauchery of every kind. Their transgressions had so outraged God that he acted in judgment immediately, raining down fire and brimstone and wiping out all the people. But now God is calling his own people ‘Sodom’ and ‘Gomorah’. Something has gone badly wrong.

So who are these leaders that have so failed their people? Possibly the four kings listed in Isaiah 1:1, but verses 11-15 also insist that the religious leaders share  the responsibility for Judah’s and Israel’s failure. Their religious activities– rather than impressing God– are detestable to him. They are disgusting in his eyes; a joke. When the priests and religious leaders spread out their hands to pray, God blocks his ears and turns away. Why? Because those very hands are covered in blood.

There is no point trying to impress God, or ‘buy him off’, or placate him, with sacrifices, acts of worship, religious zeal or pious talk; there is no point when sin stains our souls, when justice is ignored, when wrong-doing oppresses the fatherless and the widow (v16-17).

This condemnation throws the Christian onto the horns of a dilemma. Does God mean that he won’t forgive me until I improve my life? Do I have to become ‘good enough’ for God to take away my sins? No more church until I stop lying, lusting and law-breaking… After all, verse 16 calls me to ‘wash and make myself clean’. Certainly, I must own personal culpability for my sin. I own up to it before God. Further, the call to repent requires a personal act of the will. I do choose to participate in God’s process of forgiveness and restoration. I respond to his invitation to, “Come now, let us settle the matter” (v18).

God promises that though our sins are like scarlet– brazen, public, red, gauche and shameful– he will make them like snow. Not just ‘white’ but blazingly white. Pure snow in bright sunshine is so dazzling that we wear protective sunglasses or goggles so that the reflection doesn’t harm our eyes. In the same way, God’s desire is that his righteousness and glory would shine through his purified people. He wants to remove our sin so that his true nature is revealed by his image bearers to a marvelling creation. God wants to forgive us because he loves us, but also because in this way his greater glory is revealed.

Continuing our meditation on verse 18, we notice that the tense is future. God promises that we will be white as snow. Though crimson, we will be like washed pure wool. The prophecy looks forward to the day when Jesus Christ will shed his blood, will take responsibility for our sin, and will bring forgiveness and reconciliation. We can look back on that event at Calvary. And we also look forward to its final consummation, at his Return, when we truly will reflect God’s majesty to all of creation. Bring it on.

For this reason, the New Testament holds religious leaders to a higher standard than their flocks. It matters not whether we are Small Group Leaders, Sunday School teachers or Archbishops. The Christian leader must embody the character of Jesus Christ with authenticity and transparency. Who is worthy of such a calling? No one. Except that God himself qualifies us by his gracious work of forgiveness, transformation and commissioning (2 Cor 5:18-21; 1 Thess 2:3-6).

Dear Lord and Father, please forgive all my sins. Turn scarlet to snow, the blood of your Son into purity for sinners such as me. By your grace at work in me, grant than your righteousness and goodness would shine through me for the benefit of others and glory of your name. Amen.

Isaiah 1:2-9. Guitly

2  Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
For the LORD has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me. 
3 The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.” 
4 Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the LORD;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel 
and turned their backs on him. 
5 Why should you be beaten anymore?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.
6 From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with olive oil.
7 Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you,
laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
8 Daughter Zion is left
like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber field,
like a city under siege. 
9 Unless the LORD Almighty 
had left us some survivors,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.

We enter the courtroom where God calls heaven and earth as witnesses against his people. God’s indictment of Israel is aimed at persuading them to turn back to him. He has acted as a good Father towards his people, raising and feeding them. But they have spurned his love, rejected his protection and rebelled against him.

As readers we are meant to say, “Unbelievable! Outrageous! How could they do this to God?” Even domesticated animals know not to bite the hand that feeds them. Donkeys and Oxen know that their master keeps and protects them– they know what’s good for them. But God’s own people, his own children, have refused him.

Then we notice a distinction between God’s children in verse 3. It is ‘Israel’ that is particularly in focus here. Israel, the northern kingdom that would not embrace Rehoboam and David’s lineage, who preferred lower taxes and self-determination under Jeroboam (1 Kings 12); Israel is called ‘the sinful nation’ and ‘a brood of vipers’ (v3-5). Already they have refused to turn back to God as a result of all that their nation has suffered. The warnings have been given. Israel is sore and bruised, their country is desolate and their cities in flames. But they will not turn back to God.

Only ‘Daughter Zion’ remains among the carnage– Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. As the last recognisable remnant of God’s kingdom– sticking out like a shed in paddock, alone like windmill in an empty desert– the temple hill of Zion in Jerusalem remains. But the people of Jerusalem have no cause for complacency. Zion remains, but only as a few ‘survivors’. Survivors are those whom have endured or escaped something terrible. Judgment has been visited on Jerusalem too, it’s just that some there have come through it. “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom…”, utterly destroyed and completely abandoned. God’s heritage remains, but only by his grace.

So why has God’s Christian church endured? Why are we any better than Israel or Judah? From an earthly perspective, the story of God’s people continues to be soaked with shame, scandals and sin. My local church, full of people whom I love, is part of this narrative. We are blind to our own errors, insensitive to our faults wrapped in a culture that has rejected God. God’s heritage remains only by his grace. It is God’s patient kindness that affords us the opportunity of repentance and reformation and renewal.

Isaiah 1 is described as a present state of affairs. In this overture to the full declaration of the book, the theme of impending judgment is introduced. Israel and Judah are in dire circumstances. But it is not too late. Even as King Hezekiah found out, God may yet delay his judgment. Condemnation may yet be overtaken by grace (1 Kings 19:14 – 20:6). Isaiah calls for true repentance from sin: honest, gritty, heartfelt and earnest. As God’s people in the present day, we do well to heed his call. And all the more, because we know what happened when Isaiah’s words were ignored. And doubly so, because we know the extent of God’s grace in Christ.

Gracious God, my sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what my lips tremble to name, what my heart can no longer bear, and what has become for me a consuming fire of judgment. Set me free from a past that cannot be changed; open to me a future in which I am changed; and grant me grace to grow more and more in your likeness. Amen.

Isaiah 1:1. Headline

Is. 1:1    The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. 

This is the headline which opens up the first unit of the book of Isaiah (chapters 1-5). The whole unit serves as a kind of preface, or perhaps even an overture. As such, it introduces the key themes of the book.

The vision that Isaiah sees relates to Judah and Jerusalem. The ‘vision’ is a perception of the truth granted by divine revelation. And this truth anchors the book geographically and theologically. Jerusalem is the capital city, the seat of government and the home of the king. But its greatest significance lies in the temple. The temple was God’s ‘dwelling place’ on earth– even though he is not contained by it or limited to it. If a person wanted to address God, or to hear from God, or to engage with him in worship; the Jerusalem temple was the place. So if the vision ‘concerns Jerusalem’ then God has something to say about his people, their worship, and their leadership, represented by the four named Kings– Uzziah (aka Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. The narrative of 2 Kings 15-20 provides a general history of the four generations of rulers, and as such, is the history into which Isaiah speaks God’s message.

The premise of Isaiah is therefore that God speaks. He speaks universally, for all time; but also specifically and directly– even to these four named kings. And so at the outset, I am challenged about my readiness to be addressed by God. For, if God speaks, this will certainly require change on my behalf. I will need to submit my will, my ways, and my thoughts to his. God’s word calls for my obedience.

Why does ‘obedience’ to God’s word sound like a bad thing, a drudgery, a burden? Obedience to anything or anyone less-than-God is just that, but not God. Instead, God’s word is light and life. It is to my great benefit that I hear his voice (or read his words) because he reveals that which I cannot know, which I cannot deduce, which I could only speculate about. God speaks, and it is a great blessing to be able to hear him and obey him.

Dear God and Father, please incline my head and my heart to hear you well. And by the work of your Holy Spirit, grant that I would delight to obey all that you show me, even from this book of Isaiah. Amen.

Isaiah’s message

For the Christian reader, the message of Isaiah is generally received as a message of hope and promise. We assume we are unlikely to be invaded by Assyrians or Babylonians and so Isaiah’s message of imminent judgment and doom is usually skipped over. However, the Christian would be well served to recognise that God’s greatest judgment is yet to come, and that we will not be immune from his searching evaluation.

Taking our cue from the New Testament writers, however, the Christian is confident that Jesus Christ is indeed the fulfilment of the forward-looking promises in Isaiah. Isaiah’s message contains promises about God’s Messiah that enrich our understanding of Jesus: his mission, his character and his own self-understanding. This Messiah figure seems to come in three guises, in three major units of the book, set in contrast against the three prominent kings of Judah.

In the context of the failed Davidic kings– arrogant and cursed Uzziah (aka Azariah), apostate Ahaz and gullible Hezekiah– Isaiah spoke about a glorious king yet to come (Isa 1-39). In the aftermath of Hezekiah’s great sin of unbelief and the judgment of exile on a sinful people, Isaiah foresaw the sin-bearing Servant of the Lord (Isa 40-55). Seeing the post-exilic people still in subjection and without any king at all, Isaiah promised the coming Conqueror, exacting vengeance and bringing salvation (Isa 56-66).

An initial appreciation of these three messianic figures is found in each of four passages from each of the three units of Isaiah.

Isaiah 1-39

The Glorious King
(not the failed Uzziah, Ahaz and Hezekiah)

Isaiah 9:1-7; 11:1-16; 32:1-8; 33:17-24

Isaiah 40-55

The Servant of the Lord
(redeeming the exiles)

Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

Isaiah 56-66

The Conqueror-Deliverer
(rescuing the returnees)

Isaiah 59:20-21; 61:1-3; 61:10-62:7; 63:1-6

And so the message of Isaiah is summed up as, something like, “Although God’s people have failed at every point, because of his grace, God will send both judgment and a suffering Saviour King who will deliver his people.”

Isaiah: historical background

The book of Isaiah is ground in a particular history, with nations and kings, wars and alliances, heroes and villains, about which we know much through reliable historical sources. The book of Isaiah only makes sense in its historical setting. Our understanding of Jesus will be enriched, not diminished, the more we see Isaiah’s message in its original context.

Israel and Judah in Isaiah’s time

Isaiah’s ministry is centred in Jerusalem, which is the capital of Judah. The nation united under Kings David and Solomon has splintered into two kingdoms, with Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Deep distrust between the two leads to sporadic ‘civil wars’.

Judah is a ‘small fish’ surrounded by big foes, notably Assyria to the north-east, Egypt to the south, and the rising power of Babylon to the far east. Closer to home, smaller but very present threats exist in the form of Aram, Ammon, Phlistia and Edom. Wars, strategic alliances and international politics among these nations are woven into the fabric of the book of Isaiah. Faithfulness to God in the face of these threats is one of Isaiah’s key themes.

Isaiah’s formal commissioning for ministry began at the death of King Uzziah (740 BC). Although 2 Chronicles 26:6-15 paints Uzziah (aka Azariah) as one of the ‘good kings’ of Judah, his reign ended in shame. He had reigned for 52 prosperous and secure years. Uzziah died in dishonour because he had arrogantly taken it upon himself  to enter into the temple to burn incense where only priests should go  (2 Kings 15:5; 2 Chr 26:16-21). He was instantly afflicted with leprosy and had to live out his days in isolation; spiritually ‘unclean’ and estranged. His son Jotham had to take charge of the palace and governed in his place. This was a picture of the failure of leadership– another of Isaiah’s key themes.

Isaiah’s ministry during the reigns of two further kings of Judah, King Ahaz (736-716 BC) and King Hezekiah (725-687 BC) anchors the book, up until Jerusalem’s exiles are carried off to Babylon in 598 BC (Isa 39:5-7, compare with Isa 40:2). The span of these dates (at very least, 142 years!) indicates that the book of Isaiah is actually composed by more than one singular author. The best understanding is that Isaiah’s ministry and writings were carried on past the time of his death by a ‘school of prophets and disciples’ (see Isa 8:16) who remained true to Isaiah’s original calling and practice.

Ultimately, the divine authority of Isaiah as Scripture is marked by the work of the Holy Spirit and not by the composition of its human authorship. When the New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, refer to the prophecies of Isaiah, accepting their canonical authority, they refer to the entire book as simply “Isaiah” and accept of all it as divinely inspired (eg Mt 3:2; 4:13-15; 15:7-8; Mk 1:2;Lk 4:16-18; Acts 28:25) . And so if that’s good enough for Jesus, that’s good enough for me.

Isaiah’s Message

For the Christian reader, the message of Isaiah is generally received as a message of hope and promise. We assume we are unlikely to be invaded by Assyrians or Babylonians and so Isaiah’s message of imminent judgment and doom is usually skipped over. However, the Christian would be well served to recognise that God’s greatest judgment is yet to come, and that we will not be immune from his searching evaluation.

Taking our cue from the New Testament writers, however, the Christian is confident that Jesus Christ is indeed the fulfilment of the forward-looking promises in Isaiah. Isaiah’s message contains promises about God’s Messiah that enrich our understanding of Jesus: his mission, his character and his own self-understanding. This Messiah figure seems to come in three guises, in three major units of the book, set in contrast against the three prominent kings of Judah.

In the context of the failed Davidic kings– arrogant and cursed Uzziah (aka Azariah), apostate Ahaz and gullible Hezekiah– Isaiah spoke about a glorious king yet to come (Isa 1-39). In the aftermath of Hezekiah’s great sin of unbelief and the judgment of exile on a sinful people, Isaiah foresaw the sin-bearing Servant of the Lord (Isa 40-55). Seeing the post-exilic people still in subjection and without any king at all, Isaiah promised the coming Conqueror, exacting vengeance and bringing salvation (Isa 56-66).

An initial appreciation of these three messianic figures is found in each of four passages from each of the three units of Isaiah.

Isaiah 1-39

The Glorious King
(not the failed Uzziah, Ahaz and Hezekiah)

Isaiah 9:1-7; 11:1-16; 32:1-8; 33:17-24

Isaiah 40-55

The Servant of the Lord
(redeeming the exiles)

Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

Isaiah 56-66

The Conqueror-Deliverer
(rescuing the returnees)

Isaiah 59:20-21; 61:1-3; 61:10-62:7; 63:1-6

And so the message of Isaiah is summed up as, something like, “Although God’s people have failed at every point, because of his grace, God will send both judgment and a suffering Saviour King who will deliver his people.”

Isaiah – a Christian devotional commentary

The book of Isaiah belongs to Yahweh– the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. It was initially written for the kings and the people of Judah and Israel leading up to, and during, the Babylonian exile (598 – 538 BC). It is a Jewish book long before it is a Christian book. But the book of Isaiah shapes the Christian’s understanding of their Messiah as much as any other in the Old Testament. The New Testament quotes Isaiah more than all the other prophets together, and do so in a way that declares Jesus Christ ultimately and supremely fulfils the promises made to God’s people in Isaiah.

The series of devotional notes that follow are intended to launch Christians into their own engagement with God through the book of Isaiah. They are not intended to be deeply academic, nor are they fixed and final. Instead they are the fruit of my own prayerful reflections on the text throughout 2019. Because of my Christian presuppositions, and my interest in the depth given by Isaiah to the person, character and ministry of Jesus Christ; this commentary will focus on the ‘forward-looking’ sections of Isaiah which anticipate a greater King-Servant-Saviour who far outstrips any of the characters inhabiting the near history of the author and his people.

Finally, the thoughts that follow are intended to stimulate your following of Jesus Christ, as his disciple. The life of a disciple involves growth and transformation, so that in the end, we have become like our Lord. I am concerned for this process, and the reading of the Bible as foundational to this life of discipleship.

John 21:20-25. John

21:20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 

22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. 

Comparing ourselves to other Christians is never a good idea. “What about him?… what about the disciple who has been closest to you, the one in whom you confided, the one called ‘the beloved’?” Peter does not get a straight answer. Instead, he is to direct his attention to Jesus alone (σύ μοι ἀκολούθει) and not concern himself with whatever blessings God confers on John. So discipleship is not about comparisons or ‘fair’ treatment. It is firstly about loyalty to Jesus. Yes, we walk the pathway of discipleship with others– and we are to love them as Jesus would– but ultimately our allegiance is to Jesus alone.

I am challenged to consider my own discipleship. I want to be following Jesus alone– not competing or comparing myself with others. I am a Christian because Jesus has called me to follow him, regardless of what happens to me or to others. This conclusion to John’s gospel calls me to a life of discipleship, irrespective of whether that results in a comfortable life or a difficult life.

Secondarily, this closing section to John’s gospel also serves to answer the popular myth that John would not die before Jesus returned in glory to rule (v23). Of course, it was nothing more than a myth; but the need for such a clarification implies that, at the time of publication, John had indeed died. The editors of this gospel use this final postscript to dispel that false expectation and, at the same time, ensure that  John’s testimony is not discredited.

Implied in verse 23, but now confirmed in v24-25, the gospel’s editors (“we”) now make their presence known. They have taken John’s testimony and ‘published’ it this final form of a gospel.Who are these editors? They are likely a group of ‘teacher/elders’ at Ephesus, the location of John’s later ministry. No doubt their work was superintended by God to ensure that this gospel expressed the inspired word of God, for all people, for all time.

Dear God, I thank you for John’s gospel; that by it you have revealed and continue to reveal yourself to all kinds of people. Thank you for this self-disclosure that allows me to know you truly. Please change me to be more like Jesus as I continue to be nourished by your word. Amen.

John 21:15-19. Peter

John 21:15    When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16    Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17    The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

The attention given to Peter by the fishing narrative now sharpens as Jesus and Peter go for a walk along the beach together after breakfast. This is a one-on-one conversation directed towards reconciliation, commissioning and discipleship.

The threefold challenge to Peter looks as if it were designed to parallel his threefold denial, despite his proclaimed loyalty (Mt 26:31-33). 

There are subtle differences in the wording of Jesus’ three questions.  There is great debate over the nuances that agape and philo bring to our understanding of the word ‘love’. Linguists tell us that agape love is characteristic of God’s selfless love while philo love has more of a ‘brotherly affection’ aspect to it. But we should be wary of this over-simplification. Imagine the frustration of the Eskimo trying to explain to us the nuances of their many different words for ‘snow’. In the end, the non-Eskimo should at least understand that it is snowing and cold outside. Similarly, we should be wary of placing too greater weight on the subtleties of Jesus’ word choice. 

However, given that there must be some distinction between agape and philo love, Jesus’ three questions to Peter seem to successively lower the bar. The first question asks Peter to compare his love to the other disciples: it his love really greater than theirs? Peter replies that he loves Jesus with brotherly love (philo).

Jesus’ second question only asks Peter if his love has the qualities of agape. Peter replies again that he loves Jesus with philo. 

Jesus’ third question seems to grant Peter his concession. Does Peter love (philo) him as a brother? Yes, replies Peter. He loves him as a brother.

Giving too much attention the nuances of love in v15-17 takes away from the obvious intent of this conversation. It’s really about discipleship. Jesus’ point is that Peter’s love for him is to impel him to tend his flock. Three times Jesus calls Peter to feed and tend to his lambs. In the same way, my love for Jesus (whatever its qualities and characteristics) moves me to tend Jesus’ flock. The role of ‘assistant junior shepherd’ carries with it great honour, not because of the quality of the sheep but because of the status of their owner. Love for Jesus expresses itself in care for his flock.

For Peter this role will ultimately cost him his life. That is the intent of Jesus’ words in v18-19. To ‘stretch out your hands’ and ‘be led where you do not want to go’ refers to Peter’s own crucifixion, some 30 years hence, under Emperor Nero. Tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down, at his request, so that he would not have the likeness of Jesus. On a hill outside Rome, Bramante’s Tempietto marks the place of this gruesome death.

But even knowing that he will die a martyr’s death, Peter is not to focus on this. Instead, his focus is to be on following Jesus. Even in his absence, Peter is to be Jesus’ disciple: “Follow me!” Jesus last call to Peter is the same as his first (cf Jn 21:22): be my disciple. Imitate me and do as I show you. Ultimately, this is the force of John’s entire gospel. The testimony to Jesus as Lord and Christ over 20 chapters is now all drawn together for the believer: as Peter, so should the reader give themselves, without reserve, to following Jesus.

Lord Jesus, please grant me such grace that I should be your ‘assistant junior shepherd’ serving your flock. Whatever and wherever this flock may be, they are yours. And this gives the job inestimable worth. Thank you so much for such a privilege. Now please also grant me your Spirit’s enabling for the job so I don’t mess it up. Amen.

 

John 21:1-14. Fishing

John 21:1 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.  It happened this way:  2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus ), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.  3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus.

5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” 

“No,” they answered. 

6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.  8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. 

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

The purpose statement at the end of the previous chapter would have been a fitting conclusion to John’s gospel, but chapter 21 provides an epilogue with three interactions: the fishing expedition, Peter’s commissioning, and John’s future. The effect of the epilogue is to show that the narrative of Jesus’ rule and the growth of his kingdom continues, now with the apostles taking centre stage.

It seems that after Jesus’ resurrection the disciples stayed in Jerusalem for 8 days, allowing for two Sunday resurrection appearances in the locked room. Following the instruction of Jesus (cf Mt 26:32, 28:6-10) they then went north to Galilee for this third appearance (v14), and ultimately his ascension. 

The narrative of the fishing expedition is unusual in a number of ways, and yet entirely consistent with the gospel accounts of Jesus. The reason for the fishing expedition is not given: perhaps the disciples were hungry, or unsure what to do while waiting for Jesus, or just glad to be back ‘at home’ by the lake. Peter invites the others to come along to fish. The list of names catches our attention— only the Galilee locals are named and only 8 are in the boat. Thomas is promoted in the order, probably reflecting his increased stature after the events of Jn 20:26-28. Further, the apparently diminished recognition of John and James as merely “the sons of Zebedee” seems curious. Their names would usually be grouped with Peter’s as part of the ‘inner circle’. 

The miraculous catch of fish echoes that of Luke 5:5-7. While the pattern is similar, significant ‘fishing details’ suggest different occasions— the number of fish and boats would seem important to fisherman retelling the story. Although both pericopes focus on Peter, and both conclude with a form of ‘commissioning’, Peter’s actions and response to Jesus are notable points of differentiation.

So what is the point of this part of the narrative? It seems so ordinary. Some guys go fishing. They meet Jesus on the beach. They share breakfast. It seems that the very ‘ordinariness’ of these post-resurrection events tell us something important. Jesus is familiar. He is physical such that he shares breakfast and goes for a walk along the beach. He participates in conversations, not merely barking out commands as he hurriedly departs this earth. The resurrected Jesus engages with his disciples around real events and in common ways, thereby surpassing ‘proof of life’ meetings in Jerusalem and moving forward into the next phase of ministry through his apostles. John’s epilogue draws the reader onwards: Jesus’ mission continues in daily life, with ordinary people. With me.

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that you are resurrected and ascended, and yet your work continues. Thank you that you journey with your people in such familiar ways as they carry on your mission. Please keep me aware of your daily presence with me, in the person of your Spirit and in the doing of your will. Amen.

John 20:30-31. Signs with purpose

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe  that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John now steps forward to draw his resurrection narrative to a close and make explicit the nature of his gospel. He has selectively organised his gospel around a series of ‘signs’, evident especially in chapters 2-12. Such ‘signs’ included turning water into wine, healings, feeding large crowds and even raising Lazarus. In that portion of the book John employed a particular pattern: Jesus performs some miraculous sign, which sparks a controversy or conflict of some kind, leading to further explanation and revelation as to Jesus’ identity and mission. The later section of John’s gospel, chapters 13-20, focussed on Jesus’ greatest and most compelling sign— his death and resurrection. This was told in much greater depth and detail as the climax of the book.

Now John wants his reader to know that his singular purpose in narrating these signs was to commend belief in Jesus. This belief has particular content; namely, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. These two terms would seem to be synonyms to contemporary Jewish readers. The Messiah was widely understood to be the greater son of David, a divinely anointed King of Israel who would rule over a time of national renewal without end (for example, see 2 Sam 7:11-14 etc). Similarly, the ‘Son of God’ was a royal term, referring to God’s anointed, who would be exalted to a universal reign over all the nations (for example, see Psalm 2). John’s attribution of these names to Jesus, and others like them (see John 1:40-51), not only drew on the depths of Old Testament imagery, but also added richer and new significance to them.

John’s account of Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ is one such term which was extended in its significance. Jesus is revealed as uniquely the Son of God, with a relationship to the Father extending to his personal divinity (eg John 1:1-2, 18; 10:30 etc). Jesus is also singularly God’s Son in his likeness to his Father, in his nature, his authority, and in the works he does.

Embracing this belief about Jesus has powerful effect. The one who believes has ‘life’ in his name. The life to which John refers is undoubtedly ‘the life of the Age’ — usually translated as ‘eternal life’. This has been a theme throughout (John 1:4; 3:15-16, 35-36; 4:13-14 etc). It is life lived in the new kingdom, in relationship with God, under the rule of his Messiah, without ending, and of an order revealed in the resurrection of Jesus himself. It is a life not deserved or merited, given only ‘in the name’ and on account of Jesus.

Dear God. Once again I am overwhelmed by your grace towards me. Thank you for granting me to believe in your Son, the Messiah, that I may share his life of the new age. Please enrich this faith in me that I might live increasingly in the present as I will for eternity. Amen.

John 20:24-29. Believing Thomas

John 20:24    Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” 

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I confess that Thomas is one of Jesus’ disciples whom I admire most. John’s gospel portrays him as a hard-headed, practical and honest man. When Jesus had said that he was committed to going up to Jerusalem, into the angry heart of Jewish opposition, Thomas grasps what’s going on and says to the rest of the disciples, “Let’s go too, so that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16).

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to his Father to prepare a place for them, concluding by saying, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas replied, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5-6). It’s as if he’s saying, “Just give it to us straight and clear.” He is a realist; a practical, ‘don’t beat around the bush’ kind of guy. And that’s why he’s a good man to see interacting with the resurrected Jesus.

The first thing that Thomas does when he hears about the resurrection of Jesus is take the position of a fair-minded skeptic. He effectively says, “If you want me to believe this, you’re going to have to give me good grounds for belief.” Mary and some women, others of the Twelve and the community of Jesus’ followers, are reporting that they have seen Jesus himself. Thomas wants to verify that these experiences are not dreams or hallucinations. Further, he wants to verify it actually is the very same Jesus who was brutally executed on the cross, and that it is physically him— resurrected in bodily humanity. So he declares his threshold for evidence: he must see the nail marks in his hands and feel the spear wound in his side (v25).

I am grateful for Thomas. If a man has come back from the dead, I want it verified. There must be reasonable grounds for belief; hard evidence. He already had secondary evidence— the testimony of several others of the Jesus community, whom he knew and trusted. But he wanted primary evidence.

So when Jesus again enters the locked room where Jesus’ disciples are meeting, he offers himself to Thomas as evidence of the first order. And he pairs this with a call to set aside doubt and believe.

When Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God!” (v28) we hear his conclusion— although we’re not told whether he did poke his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side or the scars in his hands. Instead we learn that he had the courage to move from skepticism to belief. He changed from Doubting Thomas to Believing Thomas. 

And Thomas’ belief is a fully Christian belief. He already believed a lot of other things (good things) about Jesus. A good man? Yes. A worker of miracles? Yes. A prophet and a teacher? Sure. But now Thomas moves to a genuinely Christian belief: “You are my Lord and my God.” He now affirms and declares that Jesus is fully divine, and therefore possessing all authority. Even Satan knows that Jesus is divine but he opposes his rule. Contrastingly, Thomas’ fully Christian belief embraces Jesus as both God and Lord– the Ruler with complete personal authority in his life.

Have you ever wondered what happened to Thomas? The New Testament records that Thomas remained active with the other apostles for the early part of the book of Acts, but after that there is no mention of him. What did he do next? Some documents of the early church tell us that Thomas left Jerusalem for the East, likely traveling as far as India. There is good evidence that, all along the western coast of India, he continued to testify to Jesus and established there a small but robust Christian church. But opposition arose, and eventually Thomas was martyred for his faith*.

So Thomas is the apostle for the contemporary evidentialist. He becomes fully convinced of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, makes the first fully Christian confession of Jesus’ Lordship and Divinity, and then gives his life to declaring this truth to the ends of the earth.

My Lord and my God, please enrich my faith and grant me courage so that– well convinced of your gospel– I might declare this truth to the ends of the earth (or wherever you might direct me to go!). Amen.

 

*(C.L. Blomberg, “Thomas”, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Ed. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) Vol IV, 842; J.L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol 1 (San Francisco: Harper, 1984) 29-30.)

John 20:19-23. Peace and mission

John 20:19    On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

John’s narrative moves from fear to peace. Fear led Peter to denial. Fear moved the crowd to call for crucifixion. Despite their fears, two disciples risked asking Pilate for permission to bury Jesus’ body. Mary feared Jesus’ body had been moved or stolen. Jesus’ disciples were in a locked room for fear of the authorities. But now Jesus stands among his followers with a greeting of ‘Peace.’ Confusion is replaced by comfort and joy. Although the greeting of peace is in the common form, on the lips of Jesus after his resurrection it takes on heightened significance. He gives his peace; not as the world gives (cf Jn 14:27). This is shalom, the restoration of God’s goodness and the defeat of chaos and death.

Jesus here not only demonstrates his victory over death, showing his hands and side to prove that it really is him, he also commissions his disciples. Just as the Father sent the Son, now the Son sends his disciples: we are “co-missioned”, doing God’s work together with him (cf Jn 17:18).

Jesus breathing on his disciples and saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ seems to me to be a proleptic action— a symbolic dramatisation of what will happen at Pentecost (about 7 weeks hence). No visible signs immediately follow; no speaking in tongues, no works of power. The Spirit has not yet come because Jesus has not yet ascended to his Father. Instead, Jesus acts prophetically to indicate the means by which the mission will proceed.

The giving of the Spirit in verse 22 must be connected with verse 23. The giving of the Spirit gives authority to the disciples to do as Jesus has been doing, for he has been exercising the authority of the Father to forgive sins (much to the chagrin of the Pharisees!). The verbs in v23 are in the passive which further implies that it is God who is acting through his people. The apostles– for now they have been formally commissioned by Jesus in Jn 20:21 — exercise this ministry now too. The implication of these words is that the ‘sending’ was in some way to fulfil the commission which Jesus had received from the Father.

This ministry of ‘forgiving sins’ is best understood as being exercised through the preaching of the gospel, although it is not immediately apparent here. Those who do not respond to the preaching of the gospel are left in their sins. The sins that the are forgiven are forgiven on the basis of the gospel.

Dear God, knowing your peace, please empower me to do what you want in this world. May you forgive many people their sins as they hear the gospel, even through me. Amen.

John 20:11-18. Surprise

John 20:11  Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Peter and John have left the tomb because there’s nothing more to see. It’s empty. Perhaps someone in town knows something. Maybe not. But they will be safer indoors, away from the Jewish religious leaders and Roman soldiers who conspired to kill Jesus. So the cemetery is deserted, except for Mary Magdalene. She is so distraught that she can only cry.

When Mary looks again into the tomb now she sees two angels. Their message (angels always seem to have a message) is simply to ask Mary why she is crying. They serve no other function in the narrative, other than to distract Mary while Jesus approaches. Again Mary is asked why she is crying. Again she expresses her conviction that Jesus’ body has been moved or stolen— resurrection has not entered her mind.

But then she recognises Jesus (v16). His presence proves that his body has not been stolen. Further, Mary’s embrace proves that he is bodily present: he is not a ghost or a vision. He can be grabbed, touched and embraced. Resurrection is, by definition, physical rebirth to a new order of life.

Why would Jesus say to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father“? Clearly she was holding him. Was it something to do with the nature of his ‘freshly minted’ resurrected body? No evidence for this is given. More likely it was because Jesus had many urgent things to do before his ascension to his Father. There are bigger things in play here than affection: there is a mission at hand. Mary is given a message to relay to the disciples. Jesus has an appointment with two on the Emmaus Road, and who knows what else: action before ascension.

Just as Mary Magdalene is among the first to discover Jesus’ tomb is empty, so she is also the first to see him resurrected. We don’t know why she is afforded such significant privileges but, it seems, that’s just how it happened. Nothing about Jesus’ resurrection conforms to human expectations or to the ways we might prefer events to unfold. Instead, Jesus’ lordship is simply exercised and displayed. He is alive!

Lord, please help me to receive your resurrection as it is, rather than on my terms. Grant me faith to believe it, to trust you because of it, and to live in light of it. Amen

John 20:1-10. The scene of the crime

John 20:1    Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

How do you respond to the shock of an unprecedented event? There is nothing to prepare you, no guidelines or patterns of appropriate behaviour to fall back on. The discovery of the empty tomb is one such event. As with the cross, John’s account relies upon an accumulation of detail to convey the whole narrative.

The first detail we learn is that it is Mary Magdalene who first makes the discovery. This Mary was one of a group of women who supported Jesus and his band of disciples. She is the woman from whom Jesus exorcised seven demons (cf Luke 8:2) in her home town of Magdala, a middle class fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She must be the source of several of the details recorded here by John, although since she was a woman, a Jewish court would not have accepted her testimony.

If one wanted to concoct a new religion based around the resurrection of its leader from the dead, a much more credible eye-witness would have been preferred. But in the wisdom of God, Mary was indeed the first to discover the empty tomb. Because the resurrection is anchored in the historical world of real events, John simply records what actually happened.

John is also an early eye-witness. Mary discovers the body of Jesus is missing. She runs to tell Peter and John— what else does one do?— perhaps because they are viewed as the communal leaders. Her assumption is not resurrection but theft. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” John outruns Peter to the tomb, looks inside but does not enter— apparently insignificant details, but all contributing to the immediacy of the account. This was a ‘crime scene’ investigation, carefully documented.

Peter goes straight into the tomb. The facts are assessed: the tomb is indeed empty, the grave clothes are left behind (presumably with their aromatic spices) and the head cloth folded up separately. If this is the work of grave-robbers, why completely unwrap the corpse? Grave robbers are mercenaries— surely the body of a crucified man is worthless. If thieves wanted simply to identify the body as Jesus’, this task was would only require a partial unwrapping. This, too, makes no sense. There are no signs of a rushed job, of dragging the body outside, of stealth or malfeasance. Instead, Jesus is simply ‘not there.’ Matthew’s gospel includes the account of the guards placed outside the tomb, preventing any external tampering. Whatever happened, it must be an ‘inside job’.

John is first to conclude Jesus has risen. He records that this was the moment, the turning point, for his belief that Jesus was resurrected to life. He had not considered the implications of this, or its expectation embedded in Scripture. He simply believed. Further evidence would be required.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you are indeed the resurrected one. Please grant me such faith as to believe and such insight as to understand all the implications of this world-shaping historical event. Amen

John 19:38-42. Dead and Buried

John 19:38    Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.  42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Out of the dark shadows of death step two men— Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. They were most probably members of the Sanhedrin and, as such, were able to use their rank to gain access to the governor. They asked to be given the body of Jesus for burial. Normally those condemned for sedition would have been cast into a common grave, but since Pilate granted the request this may suggest that he did not really accept the sedition charge.

Can one be a ‘secret disciple’ of Jesus? Joseph of Arimathea is identified as such— ‘for fear of the Jewish Leaders’. With increasing venom throughout John’s gospel, the Jewish leadership sought to persecute anyone who indicated their support for Jesus. His followers were to be ‘put out of the synagogue’ (Jn 9:22; 12:42-43; 16:1-3), which amounted to ex-communication. From a religious perspective, this meant that they were cut off from the proper worship of God, and with that, the hope of salvation. From a social perspective, this meant becoming an outcast and so treated as a foreigner. Ultimately, the Jewish Leadership were using their power coercively to prevent their people receiving their Messiah. And for some this seemed to work. But now two more men step forward to demonstrate their allegiance to Jesus, by asking to give him an honourable burial.

Nicodemus had previously visited Jesus ‘at night’ (John 3:1-15). This clandestine interview is now shown to have borne fruit— he does believe. Along with Joseph, he has decided that the time has come to declare his allegiance to Jesus, who at this stage appears only to be a ‘crucified prophet’. His status as Messiah and Lord is entirely hidden by his gruesome execution. Any hope of a triumphant resurrection seems far away.

Nicodemus’ burial arrangements are not insignificant— 34kg of expensive spices are to be wrapped in with the corpse within a funerary shroud. As the decay of death proceeds, the odour will be masked (to some extent). And yet, already there is the hint of a new life. The Spirit seems to have given Nicodemus ‘birth from above’ and so he willingly seeks to honour Jesus, even in his death.

Is is possible to be a ‘secret disciple’ of Jesus? It seems the answer is, “Yes, but not for long.” Joseph and Nicodemus show us that ultimately the recognition of Jesus as Lord means that we must step outside of the world’s ways. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Christians will be identified as different because we are fundamentally different— we have been ‘born from above’ (Jn 3:3-8). 

Lord Jesus, you said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Grant me such courage that I might publicly declare that you are Lord, such grace that my manner of life might declare the same, and such perseverance to keep doing so until your Return. Amen.

John 19:31-37. Verified

John 19:31    Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.  32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.  36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,”  37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” 

All the details recorded in this gospel are the work of an eye-witness. The other apostles had all fled but John was present at the cross to the bitter end (Jn 19:26). And now his testimony is verified: Jesus is demonstrated to be dead through the grizzly work of the soldiers. The reported flow of blood and water from Jesus’ side as the soldier spears him is offered as proof of death. 

The veracity of this evidence is often debated. Some claim that if Jesus was already dead and his heart had stopped beating, there would be no blood pressure and therefore no flow of blood. However, this does not account for the action of gravity nor the likely build up of pressure in the chest cavity— either from the build up of fluid in the pericardium resulting from hypovolemic shock during his flogging or from Jesus’ lungs filling with fluid during suffocation on the cross. Likely John was also referring to the well known separation of blood and serum after death. Regardless of medical science, in the gospel the observation serves to verify three things: the soldiers concluded Jesus had been dead for some time, it explains why Jesus’ legs were not broken, and why John concluded Jesus was ‘very dead’.

John reflects on two Old Testament prophecies in connection with these details. The first (v36), that none of Jesus’ bones were broken, seems to recall Psalm 34:20 which is set as a reflection on David’s escape from Abimelek (1 Sam 21:1-13). Somewhat confusingly, the Psalm tells of David’s deliverance and protection by God— which seems not to be Jesus’ experience at all. Perhaps the ‘no broken bones’ is instead a reference to the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12)— Jesus’ experience is shown to be the fulfilment of the Passover Lamb: sacrificed for salvation, but no bones are broken.

The second Old Testament reference, “They will look on the one they have pierced,” quotes Zech 12:10-12. In Zechariah, surrounded by fierce armies and outnumbered with no chance of survival, God moves Israel to grieve and mourn their sin. They do so as they look upon “me, the one whom they have pierced”. On that day of mourning, God wins deliverance for his people, even as they mourn like the renowned weeping of a town on the plains of Meggido. John is saying that, on the cross, even as Jesus is mourned by his disciples, God is wins a great victory. 

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that, against all expectation and appearances, your death on the cross has won the greatest victory of all. Thank for John’s testimony and courage, along with the women, who stayed with you to the end. Amen.

John 19:28-30. Done

John 19:28    Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 

Throughout John’s gospel Jesus has been focussed on doing God’s will and completing his mission (eg Jn 4:34; 17:4). Jesus has been sent for a purpose and now it is complete— finished. Yes, substitutionary atonement is won at this point of death but Jesus is focussed on completing everything written in the scriptures. 

Jesus’ thirst is not a random detail included in the text for no reason. Certainly it reminds us of Jesus’ humanity and the drawn out suffering of crucifixion. But John says that Jesus’ thirst is significant because it points to the fulfilment of Scripture. Our attention is drawn to Psalm 69:21, “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.” This is not a simplistic ‘proof-text’ but rather John is telling us that Jesus fulfils all that Psalm 69 was about. Jesus is the true David, the Representative Head of Israel, whose zeal for God and his righteousness ‘consumes him’ like a sacrifice (cf Jn 2:17). And yet, even in the midst of apparent abandonment and failure, God is the one who vindicates his beloved. Ultimately, God delivers the needy and all see his salvation (Ps 69:29-36).

And so, just prior to his death, Jesus declares that all is ‘done’. Salvation is won. The simplicity of this truth brings profound assurance to the Christian believer. Personal efforts, successes and godliness do not contribute to or embellish our salvation. Instead, we look back upon Jesus’ work completed on the cross and know that salvation is not so much a matter of ‘what I do’ but of ‘what he has done’. It is finished.

Lord Jesus, your self-giving sacrifice is complete. You have done it once, completely, and sufficiently for all. Please let this truth utterly transform my conscience, my will and my motivations so that grace determines all that I do. Amen.