I am the true vine

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“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” (John 15:1 ) 

In the curious tradition of ancient iconography, Jesus appears perched in a most unlikely-looking vine whilst his disciples, looking even less comfortable, hover birdlike in the slender branches. Such is the difficulty of making a visual representation of a metaphor.

And yet it expresses a most important point. The point is this : Who was listening, exactly, when Jesus spoke these familiar words? The answer, of course, is the group of disciples. Or rather, all the disciples less one. Judas had already left and the wheels of Jesus’ betrayal had already been set in motion.

And Jesus had known he would. As he had washed their feet before the meal (in John 13), he had said “Not all of you are clean.” It must have broken his heart to look up into the face of one who had so utterly misunderstood him and was even now coldly turning away…

So what the icon does is remind us of the precise context of Jesus’ words. He himself is the vine; and the faithful disicples are the branches that bear fruit; but the fruitless branches are the Judas-branches. And the fruitless are the faithless ones, who have cut themselves off from the source of life and fruit-bearing.

And yet, you’ve probably noticed that there are twelve figures grouped around Jesus in the icon, and not eleven. Is that just a matter of symmetry? Hardly. In these icons every tiny detail is loaded with significance. Does it then refer to Acts 1 and the replacement of Judas among the Twelve? But why is replacement necessary at all? What is the significance of the number twelve? Why not five, or eight, or ten? The answer is because there are twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus said that at the renewal of all things, when he sits on his glorious throne, his twelve disciples will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:27–8), as others had done in the Old Testament (Ex 18:13–26).

If you were a first-century Jew and heard for the first time that Jesus was the true vine and his people were the branches (John 15:1, 5), you would have mixed emotions.

On one hand, you would be quite familiar with the idea of comparing people to vines and vineyards. Grapevines were a familiar sight in Palestine. Your Bible, the Old Testament, frequently refers to Israel as being a vine that God planted. You may have recited Psalm 80 in your morning prayers. In verses 8-9 the Psalmist says to God, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.” You would know how God brought Israel out of Egypt and planted it in the promised land.

You would have read the words of the Hebrew prophets who likened Israel to a vine or vineyard. You would recall the words of Hosea who said that “Israel was a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit” (10:1). Hosea meant that Israel increased in prosperity. But he went on to say that Israel’s prosperity unfortunately led to increased idolatry: “The more his fruit increased the more altars he built.

You may have chanted these words of Isaiah: ” …my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill …He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (5:1-2). No doubt, you were haunted time and again with the words of God spoken to his people through Jeremiah: “I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?” (2:21). That would have reminded you of Ezekiel’s chilling words spoken against Judah: “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (15:6).

You as a first-century Jew would be very familiar with the symbolic meaning of vine and vineyard. In fact, the idea was so prevalent in the first century that in one of his parables Jesus expressly made use of the vineyard motif as symbolism for Israel (Mark 12:1-12). Jesus concluded the parable by saying that the owner will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. In response to the parable, the religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus because “they realized that he had told this parable against them.” The symbolism of the vine was not lost on them.

However, just because you would be familiar with biblical references to vine and vineyard, that would not necessarily make it easy for you to understand how Jesus could be the true vine. For one thing, vine in the Old Testament always represented the whole people of Israel rather than a single individual. How could something that symbolized the whole people of Israel be a symbol of Jesus as an individual?

Secondly, whenever the Old Testament prophets, as well as the parable of Jesus mentioned above, made reference to vine or vineyard, they always had in mind the imminent judgment that God would bring upon his disobedient people. In other words, the idea of vine would not bring positive images to your mind. You would be reminded of vine twigs that are good for nothing but as firewood.

For this reason, the Gospel of John refers to Jesus not simply as the vine but more specifically as the true vine. The implication is that in contrast to Israel, which became unfaithful and incurred the judgment of God, Jesus remains faithful and thus fulfills Israel’s calling to be the vine of God.

It is noteworthy that the contrast is between Israel and Jesus, not between Israel and the Church. The Church is not the true vine; Jesus is. Furthermore, Jesus is not the trunk or the root; he is the vine. He is the true vine who fulfilled the destiny to which Israel was called. The Church can be a part of that destiny only as branches in the vine. The Church cannot fulfill Israel’s destiny without Christ. Apart from Christ the Church is nothing but dead twigs.

But with Christ, all things are possible.

 

This is partly drawn from Jirair S. Tashjian’s The Symbolism of Vine in Scripture.

 

 

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I am the Way…

 

 

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“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ “ (John 14:6)

Anyone who makes of this a clarion-call to the exclusive rights of Christianity among competing claims hasn’t read the chapter from which it is taken. And if you make of it a high platform from which to sneer down at other religions then all you’ve done is to make Christianity into a religion itself.

And thus, by doing so, you have debased the very thing you wished to honour.

For Jesus had no interest in creating another religion. His aims were much bigger than that. He was not talking about religion at all, but about life, death and God.

And the Way in life, through death and to God.

In John 14:1–6, Jesus informs His disciples that He must go away and prepare a place for them through His death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus assures His men that they know where He is going. But Thomas objects, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”

And so Jesus answers, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

According to the vagaries of the Semitic languages, this piling up of nouns was not to make three different points, but rather to make one point and use subsequent nouns adjectivally. Thus, the point Jesus was making was: “I am the true, living way.”

Jesus is not only saying He’s the way to heaven, He’s also saying He’s the only way, that you can’t get there any other way, because they all fall short. You can’t get there by being good. You can’t get there by being religious. You can’t get there by being sincere. You can’t get there by birthright, ceremony or knowledge or pedigree. There’s no other way than through Him. In John 14:6, Jesus doesn’t merely point the way, He is the Way. Jesus does not just teach us truth, He is the Truth. He does not represent one avenue to life, He is the Life. This is an exclusive claim that cannot be compromised. He is the true, living way.

In a word, the human quest for God ends in Jesus Christ.

Do other New Testament writers back this statement in the Gospel of J0hn?  In Acts 4:12, Peter, the one who denied Jesus just a short while before, tells the Jewish leaders: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Peter uses phraseology like “no one” and “no other name.” Clearly, Peter believes that Jesus Christ is the only way to God.

In 1 Tim 2:5–6, Paul wrote, “For there is one God, and one mediator [i.e., bridge] also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom [i.e., the exchange price] for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” Paul claimed that the only way humanity can have a relationship with God is through Jesus.

Finally, in Matt 7:13–14, Jesus declared, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Before it became known as Christianity, we who follow Jesus were known as “Followers of the Way,” (Acts 9:2; 11:26). It’s a profound designation, possibly based on the very text under discussion, and carries two opposite perspectives creating one mighty truth.

The first perspective is “journey.” If the word”Way” conveys anything, it conveys the idea of journeying, travelling, or pilgrimage. It picks up the image of the two weary travellers on the Emmaus road (Luke 24) who simply don’t understand all the ins and outs of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, until an unknown traveller joins them… What a picture of the confusion of life!

The second perspective suggested by the word “Way” is “destination.” For Jesus declared Himself to be the way, the true, living way. Therefore, wherever Jesus is, is an arrival point. He is the “name… given” (Acts 4:12); He is the “mediator” (1 Tim 2:5-6); He is the “narrow way” (Matt 7:13-14). And in John 17:3, the writer expresses this truth in the present tense: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

And both of these perspectives have to be held together. The first saves us from arrogance and the second from doubt. The first reminds us that whilst it is not true that “all roads lead to God,” it is certainly true that God travels all roads. For He is Emmanuel, God with us. And we journey with Him.

The second perspective grants us that assurance of being in God’s presence.“The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16). But it is not the perspective of journey, but of destination.

If we are where God is, then we have arrived. We are home.

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I am the Resurrection…

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Vincent Van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt), 1890

Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die…” (John 11:25)

This is the fifth of the seven mysterious  “I am” sayings of Jesus.

But what’s the story?

Lazarus was dead. Earlier, Jesus had heard that His good friend was sick, but instead of going to visit him,  Jesus, rather oddly, “stayed where he was for two more days” (John 11:6). He explained to His puzzled disciples that the sickness was “for God’s glory, that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (v. 4). And then Lazarus died.

Only then did Jesus begin a journey Lazarus’s home in Bethany. When Jesus informed His disciples that Lazarus was dead, He said, cryptically, that His friend was “asleep, but I am going there to wake him up” (John 11:11).

En route, Lazarus’s sister Martha went out to meet Jesus. “If you had been here,” she said, “my brother would not have died.” She declared her faith in Jesus’ power to heal. Jesus replied by assuring Martha that her brother would rise again. Martha responded again in faith: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” And that’s the build-up to this statement. Jesus replies: “I am the resurrection and the life,” and He follows it with a call to faith: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:21-24).

So what does the statement mean?

First, when Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” He was claiming to be the source of both. There is no resurrection apart from Christ, and there is no eternal life apart from Christ.

Second, Jesus was also making a statement concerning who He was. He does more than give life; He is life, and therefore death has no ultimate power over Him.

And third, the statement, by implication, says something about us. Jesus confers this spiritual life on those who believe in Him, so that they share His triumph over death (1 John 5:11-12). Those who believe in Jesus Christ will experience resurrection because, having the life Jesus gives, it is impossible for death to defeat them. 1 Corinthians 15:53-57 reads thus:

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Do you see how Martha’s faith is being stretched in the narrative?

She begins by wishing that Jesus had arrived earlier so He could have healed her brother. That’s level one.

And when Jesus spoke of resurrection, Martha assumed He was speaking of “the resurrection at the last day.” In both statements, Martha reveals that she considered Time an insurmountable obstacle. In effect, Martha was saying, “It’s too late to help Lazarus (the time is past), so now we must wait (allow more time).”

Jesus shows that neither Death nor time is an obstacle to Him. Outside the tomb, “Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ The dead man came out” (John 11:43). It’s one thing to claim to be the resurrection and the life, but Jesus proved it by raising Lazarus, who was four days dead.

Truly, with Christ, death is but “sleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Death has no dominion over Him who is Life itself, nor does death have dominion over those who are in Him (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Because He lives, we live. Because He is Life, we have life eternally.

This I AM statement makes three vital points:

  • Martha believed that the resurrection is an event; Jesus showed her (and us) that the resurrection is a Person.
  • Martha’s knowledge of eternal life was an abstract idea; Jesus proved that knowledge of eternal life is a personal relationship.
  • Martha thought victory over death was a future expectation; Jesus corrects her, showing that victory is a present reality.

After presenting Himself as the resurrection and the life, Jesus asks Martha an all-important question: “Do you believe this?” (John 11:26). May Martha’s answer be ours as well: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who was to come into the world” (verse 27).

I think that God wants to stretch our faith too. Do you see the trajectory of faith-growth? Faith for healing must develop into total trust in the Healer Himself, and an undertanding of who He is and precisely what that entails for us.

And in a word, Jesus claims everything!

And His actions substantiate the word spoken.

 

(This clip is edited from gotquestions.org )

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A shoot out of the stump…

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“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him –
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord –
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.” 
(Isaiah 11)

Our church celebrates three Christmases, of course. You didn’t know? The first (25th December) is fairly well known (in our culture, that is, the date isn’t mentioned in our Bibles at all!). The third is when Jesus comes again, and no one knows when that will be. We are told to wait, watch and witness (and that’s it).

The middle one is when you ask Jesus to come into your heart. And He does!

Each one is dramatic and life changing. Nothing ever stays the same when God moves in.

But when we celebrate Christmas, all three tend to come together. What is it that we’re looking forward to? Is it Christmas when we celebrate the coming of Christ at Bethlehem? Or is it the future coming of the Lord, the Return of the King?

Are we looking forward to the first coming of Christ in incarnation, the birth of the king, or to his second coming in glory, for judgment, when the kingdom of God will come in its fullness and all God’s creation will be redeemed?

The point is that Bethlehem was a beginning of a story that still has a great deal of future. The Jesus who was born at Bethlehem is not just a figure of the past, but also the Jesus who comes into our lives and will one day soon come to resume control.

The kingdom he inaugurated in his ministry and his resurrection is not yet manifested in all creation and cannot be while evil still ravages the world. To believe in the Jesus who was born at Bethlehem, the Messiah who brings God’s kingdom into the world, must also be to hope for his coming in the future and to live under His lordship in the present.

This helps us to understand Isaiah better, I think. For Isaiah, the future seems to be telescoped. He sees God’s purpose of sending his Messiah and establishing his kingdom, all together, just as we might see  the outline of a range of mountains on the horizon without seeing the distance between them.

So which does Isaiah speak of ? The answer is all of them -all at once. That is to say, Christmas is a story that has not yet finished! A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse. and a branch shall grow out of his roots. We know that Isaiah is talking about a king, for Jesse was the father of king David. Remember when Samuel visits Jesse to anoint the future king? He sees all of Jesse’s sons except David, the youngest, the shepherd boy. He was so insignificant no one had even thought to fetch him along with the others. But he was God’s chosen king, the man “after God’s own heart.” David -even with his faults-was a picture of the ideal king and no successor had lived up to that promise. So what Isaiah sees is the great tree of Jesse – the royal house of David – cut down to a mere stump, cut down by God’s judgment. The royal line of the kings of Israel would come to an end.

Stumped.

But a shoot grows out of the stump. Not a branch from the tree, but a root from the stump when one might well have thought that the tree was dead.

The ideal king who is coming, the new David, will be seemingly insignificant, of humble origins, an unexpected king, someone without the prestige and privilege that rulers so often abuse. And when the Gospel of Luke gives us the genealogy of Jesus, we find his descent from David traced, not through Solomon and the line of the kings of Israel, but from David’s son Nathan and through a long list of descendants of Nathan who are not even mentioned in the OT. Jesus, born at Bethlehem, which was where David’s family originated but was not where Solomon or any of the kings of Israel were born – this Jesus is God’s Messiah, raised unexpectedly from humble origins.

The real importance of all this lies in what Isaiah says about the task of this new David.

His task is to rule righteously, providing especially justice for the poor. Kings born in royal palaces all too easily favour the rich and the powerful, the social elite they identify with, and neglect the interests of ordinary people. But because David came from humble origins himself, he was both a man of the people and a man after God’s own heart. It would be good to remember that too about Jesus when we read the Christmas stories this Christmas. Jesus was like neither Herod nor Caesar. He was a different sort of king, a king after God’s own heart, and that difference began with his birth in humble circumstances to a family of no status in society.

Instead of worldly power, the coming king is endowed with the Spirit of God: ‘the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.

So what are the characteristics of his reign? We could sum it up in two phrases: justice for the poor and peace with wild nature. It’s been called “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

“The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting-place will be glorious.”  (Isaiah 11:1-10)

Isn’t that an interesting and curious picture? It’s not speaking simply of peaceful relationships between animals, but about peace between, on the one hand, humans and their domestic animals, and on the other, wild animals: the wolf with the lamb the leopard with the kid the bear with the cow the poisonous snake with the little child.

The little child is there as the most vulnerable of humans, and the one at most risk from those he leads.

Here’s Edward Hick’s picture, which is discussed here.

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For Isaiah, God was speaking an urgent word into his own present. The word was justice (or “righteousness”) in terms of how we treat the poor and how we treat nature. In general terms, they remain surely the most urgent issues of our time. Do we see justice for the poor or harmony with nature as we look around our world?

Despite all our advances, the problems now are much, much greater than they were in Isaiah’s day. We still await this righteous and peaceable kingdom of God’s Messiah. So did his first coming make no difference? Was nothing changed by Christmas and Easter? Notice the last two verses of our passage: ”

“They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him; and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

The knowledge of the LORD is key: justice and peace flow from it. Jesus, the root of Jesse, already stands as a signal to rally the nations and bring them to the knowledge of his God. And for those who have eyes to see, wherever justice and peace break out there is the kingdom already to be seen. Not some kind of incremental progress as the world gets gradually better – no sign of that, and we were never promised it. But foretastes of what is to come.

Justice for the poor and peace with nature are possible because they are God’s own purpose for his world. And we are part of what God is doing. Right now.

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The Good Shepherd

 

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‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)

The verse says that Christ is the good Shepherd, and knows His sheep. It also claims that He knows the Father. But what’s the connection?

I guess it’s in the sense of reciprocal affection. Love responds in kind.

There is a reciprocal affection between the Shepherd and the sheep. There is a reciprocal affection between the Father and the Son; and the one is the parallel of the other. The affection between the Shepherd and His flock can be compared, in its intimacy, with nothing but the affection between Eternal Father and the Son. As the Father knows the Son, so does the Shepherd know the sheep: as the Son knows the Father, so do the sheep know their Shepherd.

What does it mean, in this sense, for Jesus to be our “shepherd”?

It’s perhaps a somewhat unfamiliar metaphor these days.The shepherds have long left Shepherds Bush, but go to the sheep fairs at Roscommon and each farmer will tell you the numbers and the stock value; he knows the market in which each was purchased, and the price at which it can be disposed of. There is before him so much stock convertible into so much cash.

But in ancient Palestine, there was  a union of attachment and tenderness between shepherd and sheep, and there was a personal involvement in keeping the sheep safe. David  in defense of his father’s flock, slew a lion and a bear: and Jacob reminds Laban how he watched Laban’s sheep “in the heat and drought…” The point is simple: You love those for whom you risk, and they love you;

And more, in the west the flock is driven, but in the east it was led. the shepherd goes before and the sheep follow him in a collaborative network of sympathy. “The shepherd knows his sheep, and is known of them.”

So the people to whom Christ said these words felt all this and more. They understood what a lonely shepherd must feel towards the helpless things which were the companions of his daily life, for whose safety he stands in jeopardy every hour, and whose value is measurable to him not by price, but by his own risk.

And thinking along these lines, we reach some notion of the love which Jesus meant to represent, that tenderness that God feels for us, even though we are infinitely lower in nature. He knows the name of each and the trials of each, and thinks for each with a separate concern.

And the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Nothing less will do. For He is the good shepherd. The word here is kalos whcih means good not in the sense of benevolent, but in the sense of genuine. His love is the real thing.

So Jesus distinguishes his self-identity as shepherd from thieves and hirelings (whose conern is what they can get out of the sheep). And many such nominal shepherds had the people of Israel in time gone by: hireling priest, false prophets, corrupt kings: “All that ever came before Me were thieves and robbers.” Hirelings are shepherds, of course, but not good shepherds, of the REAL kind.

Remember: they are tested by danger. “He that is a hireling, and not the good shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees.” The cause of the sheep is not his cause.

I AM the reverse of this. I AM the REAL shepherd’s heart, because I make the cause of the sheep his cause.

Do you hear it? The cause of man was the cause of Christ! He did no hireling’s work. The only pay He got was hatred, a crown of thorns, and the cross. “He saved others, Himself He can not save.” No, of course not; he that will save others can not save Himself.

And He proves this role is His by his knowledge of the sheep; by their knowledge of him and by what he does for them : “I know My sheep-am known of mine-I lay down My life for the sheep.”

I know my sheep, as the Father knows Me. In other words, as unerringly as His Father read His heart, so unerringly did He read the heart of man and recognize His own.

How? It’s too easy –and not fully the point- to see “Because he was God.” Notice he says that the sheep know Him as truly as He the sheep. He knew men on the same principle on which we know men-the same on which we know Him. The only difference is in degree: He knows with infinitely more precision than we, but the knowledge is the same in kind.

So what does he mean? How does he know us?  We truly know each other when we love… He truly knows us because his love was total.

It was said of Jesus that He knew what was in people, so he didn’t trust himself to them. “Jesus, perceiving they were going to try to make him king by force, withdrew…” He knew Nathanael; He read the heart of the rich young ruler;  He figured out Zaccheus, Judas, the thief upon the cross, … He read through the Pharisees, and His whole being shuddered with the recoil of utter and irreconcilable aversion. And God has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.  And the judgement comes, grimly: “I never knew you, depart from me all ye that work iniquity.”

He know us too well!

And His sheep know him, too. Like dogs standing by their master, or babies turning to their mothers voice, “Eternity is set in the heart of man” and we reach for what is good. We know what we’re doing! We have a gut instinct for God.

 

And He finally proved that he was the shepherd by what he did: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” A martyr? No. He died FOR the sheep. If the shepherd had not sacrificed himself, then the sheep would have been the sacrifice.

He took our place. Completely.

 

Picture by Andrw Garvey-Williams: “Ecce Homo” TeenStreet 2013.

 

 

 

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“I am the Gate…”

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“Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (John 10:7)

This is the third of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements (for the others, see John 6:35; 8:12; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; and 15:1, 5). This means that the Lord’s message is Himself. Christianity is not primarily a list of rules or rituals; Christianity is Christ Himself.

Nothing less.

And a great deal more. He is both the Introduction page,and the contents too. Jesus is the book of life itself.

And so He uses the solemn “truly, truly” to alert us that what follows is important (John 10:7): “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.”  And there’s something really vital here:  There’s an insistence on exclusivity that must be taken seriously.

The scene was a common sheepfold in the village where the different shepherds would bring their sheep each night. There was a hired doorkeeper to guard the entrance. But now, the scene probably has shifted to the country, where the shepherd would take his sheep for summer pasture. The shepherd would build a protective enclosure for the sheep so that they could go in for protection and go out to feed. The shepherd himself would lay across the opening to the shelter at night. Thus Jesus could be both the shepherd and the door. Any intruders had to get by him to get to the sheep. As the door, He let in the true sheep, but He excluded predators or thieves that would harm the sheep.

About a century ago, George Adam Smith wrote of meeting a shepherd in Palestine who showed him the fold where the sheep were led at night. It consisted of four walls with a way in. Smith asked, “That is where you go at night?” “Yes,” the shepherd said, “and when the sheep are in there they are perfectly safe.” “But there is no door,” said Smith. “I am the door,” the shepherd replied. He was not a Christian man, but rather an Arab shepherd. But he was using the same language that Jesus used. He explained further, “When the light has gone, and all the sheep are inside, I lie in that open space, and no sheep ever goes out but across my body, and no wolf comes in unless he crosses my body; I am the door.”

Jesus is the door of the sheep. J. C. Ryle pointed out that no apostle or prophet could make such a claim. Only Jesus the Messiah could legitimately claim, “I am the door.”

It’s almost the same thing that He later claims (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Jesus was claiming to be the exclusive, only way to God. Just as there was only one door into the ark and only one door into the Tabernacle, so Jesus is the door to salvation and God’s presence. The apostle Paul put it (Eph. 2:18), “For through Him we both [Jewish and Gentile believers] have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

These days it’s more acceptable  to say “Jesus is a door to God.” Int his sense all religions lead to God. There are many doors.” And when you draw the line that Jesus seemed to draw and insist, “No, He is the only door,” you get labelled as intolerant and bigoted. So how are we to think about this? C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity  wrote:

“There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”

This is partly helpful, but would seem to come somewhat short of the declaration of Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

So what about those who have never heard of Christ? Apart from this point being a stimulus to world evangelism, what of those who just never get a chance to hear? The main passage in the Bible that talks about this is Romans 1:18–23:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

This indicates that all people “know God,” even if they have never heard the Bible. “What can be known about God is plain to them” (1:19). “Although they knew God… ” (1:21). The way they know God is by the way God has made the world and their own consciences (1:19–20).

So though we can’t really say “All roads lead to God,” we can insist that God travels all roads, and that all those who seek Him will find Him. We can also say that all roads may lead to Christ, and Christ  is the “true, living way.” (John 14:6)

And we are truly safe in Him, and able “to go in and out and find pasture.” Ultimately, this is not an exclusive country club refusing entrance to non-members, but family, home, security, and peace.

 

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The Bread of Life

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“Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

This is part of what was described as a “hard saying”. Many simply couldn’t get it. They left, shaking their heads. Clearly, something decisive and big was at hand. Twice Jesus used the solemn phrase “Truly, truly, I say to you…” And then says, “I am…”

First, it’s a declaration about who Jesus is.

The passage is so utterly confident, and self-focused, and it denies the popular common misconception of Jesus as [merely] a great teacher. There’s a famous passage by C.S.Lewis which puts this unforgettably:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

So what did He intend?  There is no doubt that the use of “I am” is intended to recall the self-declaration of God at the burning bush (Exodus 3) that “I am who I am.” And in the giving of “manna,” in the promise of supply. and in the self-description of being “the true bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus was claiming divine status. No wonder it was so hard for them to follow.

Second,  it was a declaration about the scale of our need.

The world is hungry for God, hungry for real life. The gift of physical food was not a temporary stop-gap but a metaphor for this deeper need. He offered himself.nothing more. It was all we needed to hear. We need “the bread of life” to satisfy the world’s hunger.

The thought recalls a profound phrase by Fred Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We the body of Christ are blessed, broken and given for the life of the world. And the world is starving.

I live in Ireland in an area that was once ravaged by famine so severe that our contemporary culture still bears its scars. It was called An Gorta Mor – “the great hunger.” No one was left untouched. It devastated the economy, halved the population and crippled the country’s psyche. Nothing could be the same again.

And that’s precisely how Isaiah described his own society: “Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upwards, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look towards the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom.” (Isaiah 8)

This is the scale of our need. We are caught in a famine so severe that we can barely stir ourselves to get free. We see only distress and darkness.

And in that context, Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Third, the offer is just too good to be true!

I was reading 2 Kings 7:1-11, this morning. Samaria was besieged by the Syrian army, and inside the city terrible things were happening (see 2 Kings 6:24-31). The people were facing starvation, disease and death. Outside the city were four lepers, also starving. If they remained outside they would die; if they went to the Syrian camp they would probably be killed. What should they do? They decided to go to the Syrian camp. As they drew near they were amazed to find “not a man was there” (verse 5) –- but they found plenty of food, clothes, silver and gold… so they satisfied their hunger to the full (verse 8)! Then, they remembered the thousands who were dying inside the city while they had so much. Then they said to each other, “What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.”

This is a day of good news! Go and tell! It’s (almost) too good to be true!

And who is this for? It’s for the whoever! “Whoever comes … whoever believes…”  Who is the whoever?  As Rick Godwin put it: “Matthew’s genealogy includes the outcast, scandalous and foreigner. The family Jesus comes from anticipates the family he has come for! ” Anyone who is able to acknowledge their own “hunger” may eat.

Come, all who are thirsty
says Jesus, our Lord,
come, all who are weak,
taste the living water
that I shall give.
Dip your hands in the stream,
refresh body and soul,
drink from it,
depend on it,
for this water
will never run dry.
Come, all who are thirsty
says Jesus, our Lord.

 

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