Does God Always Heal?

Does God Always Heal?

John 4:46-54

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: Jesus always heals—physically, spiritually, or eternally

A friend in our congregation recently sent me an interesting e-mail. It seems that he was watching a particular news commentator on television one night, and heard the reporter try to make his point by saying, “There’s the passage that says, ‘God helps those who help themselves.'” Right after, the station went to a commercial break.

My friend and his wife were just starting to comment on how often that non-biblical reference is attributed to God’s word when one of our church’s televisions spots came on the screen. In this particular TV spot I begin by saying, “My favorite verse in the Bible used to be, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ Until I discovered it’s not in the Bible.” Then I proceed to explain that God helps those who cannot help themselves, by his grace. It’s been said that coincidence is when God prefers to remain anonymous.

Sometimes God manifests his presence and power in small, unseen ways. But sometimes we need him to help us with dramatic, life-transforming power. In this study, a pagan Roman official will help us answer a vital question: Does God always heal? When you need him most, will he be there? Will he heal you? Will he answer your prayer for someone you love? Does God always heal?

Remember what Jesus has done

Our story begins: “Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death” (John 2:46-47).

This “certain royal official” was a most unlikely candidate for a miracle from a Jewish rabbi. The Jews hated Gentiles, considering them pagan idolaters. They commonly said that God made Gentiles so there would be firewood in hell. They would not allow their nurses to help Gentile women in childbirth, for this would only bring another Gentile into the world. Every Jewish male began every morning with the same prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.”

And this man was not just any Gentile. He was a “certain royal official,” part of the cursed, despised Roman occupation. He was most probably a court officer for King Herod (his Greek title, basilikos, was used by the Jewish historian Josephus to refer to Herodian troops. Though it can have other functions, an army official is its most likely definition here; cf. Brown 190). It was his job to protect Herod from the masses who despised his rule, and to enforce that rule among the Jews. Israel was oppressed by Rome, and he was one of the chief oppressors.

By now the Jewish nation has suffered under the boot of Rome for generations. They are an occupied territory. They must pay Rome exorbitant taxes, and bow to Caesar’s rule. They have lost the right to govern themselves, and have no hope of independence in the future. John’s readers knew that 40 or so years after the events recorded in his Gospel, Rome would destroy the Jewish temple forever and scatter the people across the world. Thanks to Rome, Israel would cease to exist as a nation. And this man’s army would ensure their destruction.

I spent a summer doing mission work in East Malaysia, a Muslim nation. One cannot work for the government unless he is Muslim. The government severely restricts the Christian church there. If a believer shares his faith with a Muslim, he can be arrested and sent to prison. Christians find it hard to advance in work or education. Many lose their homes for their faith, and some, their lives. If a government official were to come to such an oppressed believer for help, he would be in somewhat the position of this Roman who stood before the rabbi, surrounded by an incredulous crowd of hostile Jews.

Why would this man believe that Jesus would even hear his request, much less honor it?

The clues begin early in our story. Because not a single word in holy Scripture is wasted, we must ask why John states that it was in Cana that Jesus “had turned the water into wine.” We will remember our Lord’s first miracle, recorded only two chapters earlier. I think it is likely that the writer includes this episode not to remind us but to connect this miracle to the official who needs such a miracle in his own life. Perhaps he had heard of Jesus’ power in that tiny town, his assistance given to simple peasants. If Jesus would help them, perhaps he would help him as well.

The official “heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea” (v. 47). What had Jesus been doing down south? Cleansing the temple in Jerusalem (John 2:12ff), evangelizing a member of the Sanhedrin (3:1ff), receiving the testimony of John the Baptist as to his divinity (3:22ff), and ministering to a Samaritan woman and her entire town (4:1ff). John 4:45 adds further, “When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there.” These two chapters of John’s Gospel occupied eighteen months of our Lord’s life (Hobbs, Study Guide 24).

So our Roman official has heard much to encourage him about Jesus. He would help peasants—perhaps he will help a nobleman. He would “heal” the temple—maybe he will heal his son. He would speak with a Sanhedrin member—perhaps he will speak with a Roman official. He would minister to a Samaritan—maybe he will minister to a Gentile in need. And he was right.

Do you need God to heal you or someone you love? To heal physically, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually? Are you wondering if he will? First, remember what Jesus has already done for you. Think about the ways he has already proven his love for you. His Son left heaven’s glory to be born in a peasant’s feedtrough, just for you. He endured crucifixion, a form of execution so horrific it is outlawed all over the world today, just for you. He has forgiven every failure you have ever confessed to him, and will continue to do so. He knows every sin you’ve ever committed, and what’s more, he sees every sin you will ever commit in the future. But he loves you anyway. He likes you. He finds joy in you even as you read these words.

He told his prophet, “The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” (Is 30:18). Think of all the ways he has already blessed you. Does your family love you? So many are trapped in loveless, abusive homes. Has he provided for your material needs through physical abilities and vocational opportunities? So many are trapped in endless poverty. Has he given you the privilege of life in America’s freedom? Who of us earned the right to be born in this country and not in Iraq or North Korea?

Has God showed you his miraculous power in your past? We each have experienced help we did not earn and could not explain. I remember well a Wednesday night prayer meeting in our first pastorate. One of our elderly members came into our Fellowship Hall, her face white as a sheet. She told us that her doctor had called just that hour with the test results: she had pancreatic cancer and only months to live. We prayed earnestly and passionately. The next week she was back, in glorious health. The cancer was gone, and the doctor had no explanation. But we did.

My dentist in our Midland church was in open-heart surgery, and his heart would not start beating again. The doctor came out to tell the family that he was dying. We began to pray. A few moments later the doctor returned to tell us that his heart had started again, on its own, and that he had never seen such a thing in all his years of medical practice. Later, the mayor of Midland suffered a debilitating heart attack. The surgeons operated, but discovered that half of the heart was hard and dead. There was nothing the surgeons could do. But then, while we were praying outside, that dead tissue came back to life and started to beat. The surgeons said they had never seen such a thing.

I know drug addicts who were miraculous healed of their habit, Satanists who were powerfully converted, prisoners who are now preachers. I remember a couple brought to one of our worship services in Atlanta by friends. They were planning to file for divorce the next day. But in a Sunday school class that morning, God healed their marriage. One of our church members here in Dallas came to our country as a Muslim missionary to convert Americans to Islam, and is now a Christian missionary to Muslims. When he came to Christ, his father back home issued a warrant for his arrest should he ever return. He recently went home anyway, and led his father to Christ.

Think about all the ways God has shown his miraculous power to you and those you know. Remember what he has done. Think back to times when he turned your water into his wine, when he met your needs and those of people you love. Remember what Jesus has done, and you’ll be encouraged to believe that he will do it again.

Bring him your pain

Since beginning my work on this commentary, the official in our story has become one of my favorite models for biblical faith. He teaches us much about the kind of trust which Jesus can honor with his miraculous power.

First, we trust Jesus despite every obstacle. The Roman official “went” to Jesus (v. 47). John’s readers knew what we do not: this man walked nearly a marathon to bring his need to our Lord. He was stationed in Capernaum, a significant fishing town on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Cana was at least twenty miles to the west. The Sea of Galilee is 700 feet below sea level; Cana was situated atop the Galilean hills (“Galilee” is from the Hebrew word galal, “to roll” [Hobbs, Invitation 39]). But neither distance nor height deterred this father. He teaches us to bring Jesus our pain, however hard the journey may be, however difficult such faith is for us.

Second, we trust Jesus in humility. The official “begged him to come and heal his son” (v. 47). He did not order Jesus to do so, though his rank and office would have afforded him such authority. Social standing and status would not deter this father. It is an amazing scene: an official of the Roman Empire pleading with a Jewish village carpenter for his help. If a high-ranking Army officer stationed in Afghanistan were to walk 20 miles to seek help from an Afghan peasant, we’d be no less astonished. He teaches us to bring Jesus our need, in honest humility.

Third, we trust Jesus personally. The official came himself, not sending a servant in his place. This is the way we each must come to Jesus: “The rich and the poor, the high and the low, must come personally as humble supplicants, and must be willing to bear all the reproach that may be cast on them for thus coming to him” (Barnes 223). The Roman teaches us to get on our own knees before Jesus.

Fourth, we trust Jesus unconditionally. The official begged him to “come and heal his son.” Undoubtedly he had already tried the best physicians Rome could offer, without success. Now he has faith to believe that this itinerant carpenter, this unordained rabbi could do what other men could not. He didn’t ask Jesus to “try to heal his son,” but simply to heal him. He believed that he could. And he was right. He teaches us to ask in absolute, unwavering faith.

James commends such certainty: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (Ja 1:5-8).

Fifth, we trust Jesus with our best faith. The official did not know Jesus’ divine power as we do. He wanted Jesus to “come” to heal his son, as a physician would. He had no idea that our omnipotent Lord could heal across time and distance, with just a word. Another Roman official did have such faith, and said to Jesus, “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). And Jesus commended him: “I have not found anyone in Israel with such faith” (v. 10), and healed his servant in that very hour (v. 13).

Jesus would have welcomed such faith in this Roman, but he did not require it. He meets us at the point of our belief, when we give to him the best faith we have. The official in our miracle did not know what we do, but Jesus honored his request nonetheless. You may think your faith too small to receive a miracle from God, but if it is the best you have, it is all he requires. One of my favorite prayers in the Bible is the request of the father whose son was possessed by a demon. Jesus said to him, “Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23), and he replied, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v. 24). And Jesus did. He receives such faith as we have, by grace.

Last, we trust Jesus with persistent faith. “Begged” is in the continuous tense in the Greek, showing that the man repeated his insistent requests (Tenney 60). Jesus taught us to “ask and keep on asking, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7, my literal translation). The Roman teaches us to heed Jesus’ instruction.

Now our Lord gave an odd response to such remarkable faith: “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe” (v. 48). At first glance, it appears that Jesus rebuked this man’s great trust in him. But the first glance is often wrong, especially in reading the word of God.

“You” is found twice in Jesus’ sentence, and is the key to its meaning. This is the second person plural, addressed to the entire crowd gathered before Jesus. His words were not spoken directly to the nobleman, but to the audience which was listening to his request. Jesus knew that most people were consumers, interested in him to the degree that he could help them. And he was right.

Tragically, he still is. For countless churches theology is therapy, the congregation a club. Members join the club that offers the services they want, and pay only for what they receive. The deacons are a board of directors, elected to ensure that the members’ needs are met. The pastor is a kind of “head pro,” with a staff hired to serve the membership. A few years ago a troubling survey was conducted. Thousands of churches and their pastors were asked the purpose of the church. 90% of the pastors said the purpose of the church is to fulfill the Great Commission; 10% said it is to meet members’ needs. 89% of the members said that the purpose of the church is to meet their needs; 11% said it is to fulfill the Great Commission.

So Jesus was both testing this nobleman’s faith and revealing that of his contemporaries. The official passed the test and more: “Sir, come down before my child dies” (49). “Sir” is a title of immense respect, unheard of on the lips of a Roman officer speaking to a Jewish peasant. His prayer was again a request, not an order. It was another statement of humble, personal, unconditional, persistent faith, the plea of a breaking heart. Not a demand that Jesus prove his ability, for this man already believed in his power.

So should we. When we bring Jesus our pain, we position ourselves to receive the grace he already wants to give. How many of our needs go unmet because we will not give them to our Master with the faith of this pagan? When last did you give your problem to Jesus as he did?

Trust his word

The Roman teaches us to remember what Jesus has done for us in the past, and ask him to do it again today. Now we learn a last, vital lesson from our Gentile teacher today: trust the word you hear from God. Immediately, without reservation or hesitation. Put feet to your faith. Stake everything on his word and will. Trust the word of God.

Jesus’ reply to the nobleman’s commendable faith was an absolute shock to his troubled mind: “You may go. Your son will live” (v. 50a). “Live” is a Semitic term which means both recovery from illness and return to life from death (Rienecker 228). That’s the good news. But the bad news is that Jesus would not go with the official to make it so for his dying son. He would not come to him in his hour of greatest need. No reputable physician in human history has ever claimed to heal a person he has never seen of an illness he has not diagnosed. This boy lay near death, 20 miles away, his illness unknown but terminal. And now a peasant carpenter claimed to have healed him with only his words.

Imagine yourself calling your doctor for help with a gravely ill child. The physician refuses to see your child, or to go to him. He will not prescribe medicine, run tests, or consult with other medical professionals. He doesn’t even inquire as to the precise nature of the illness. He simply says, “Your son will live.” Over the telephone, from an office 20 miles away. How would you respond?

Our pagan official “took Jesus at his word and departed” (v. 50b). His response and faith were instantaneous (Robertson 76). He started on his way, acting on his faith. Note that he did not stay with Jesus until receiving word that the promised cure had been effective—he simply left to go home to his healed son (Bruce 734).

With this result: “while he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, ‘The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour'” (John 2:51-52). The servants whom the official refused to send to Jesus in his place now entered the event. They have come to find their master, for his journey was no longer necessary: “his boy was living,” literally, “he lives.” He is healed, and well.

These servants had never met Jesus, and had no knowledge of his actions. They had no idea when Jesus had spoken his healing word. And so their testimony was objective and substantively compelling. It provided independent verification of this miracle, much as the servants in our first miracle did for Jesus’ work there.

They didn’t know the full import of their report, but their master did: “Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live'” (v. 53a). The “seventh hour” would be either 1 p.m. (Jewish time) or 7 p.m. (Roman). Given that the nobleman met his servants the day after speaking with Jesus (v. 52, “The fever left him yesterday”), it is likely that Roman time was employed here. The father had begun the long trek home after hearing Jesus’ words, camped along the way, and now met his servants the next morning.

When he received their report, “he and all his household believed” (v. 53b). This was the best news a father could ever hear, and it turned him to his own Father. He “believed,” with trusting, saving faith. Before he had believed in Jesus as a healer; now he made him his Master and Lord. Before he had trusted Jesus for his son’s physical life; now he trusted him for his own eternal life.

Such faith was radical, revolutionary, and sacrificial. At the very least a Roman follower of this itinerant Jewish rabbi could expect no further advancement in his political career. At worst, assuming his refusal to worship Caesar as his lord, his career and even his life could be in jeopardy. And he knew all this at the beginning of his faith commitment.

But he made his decision anyway. And he led his family to do the same: “all his household believed.” This pagan oppressor of the Jewish people became the first person in the New Testament to lead his whole family to Christ. Later Lydia would win her family in Philippi to Jesus (Acts 16:15), as would the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:33, 34) and Crispus, the synagogue ruler in Corinth (Acts 18:8). But this Roman soldier was the first. May fathers and mothers across our church and country follow his example today.

It is plausible that the Roman official did even more in the service of our Lord than we are told here. Luke tells us of a certain “Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household” (Luke 8:3). This Joanna was among “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” (v. 2), and were “helping to support them out of their own means” (v. 3). If this nobleman was the Cuza identified by Luke, then we can infer that his faith led his wife to faith as well. And that the One who healed his son also healed his wife, and led her to sacrificial discipleship.

Another possible identification of our nobleman is found in Acts 13:1: “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manean (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Paul.” If Manean was the official of our story, we can trace his evolution of faith from the army of Herod to leadership in the church of Jesus.

Both possibilities are speculative, of course. We cannot know for certain the name of the Roman official in our story. But God does. And that’s all that matters.

Our pagan official teaches us today to remember all Jesus the ways Jesus has met our needs in the past, and trust him to meet them again today. He then shows us that we must trust in the word he gives us, with immediate and total faith. Such faith led the nobleman to the physical salvation of his son and the spiritual salvation of his entire family. Jesus healed a single body so he could heal many souls. He waits for another who will bring him similar faith, and receive a similar miracle.

Will Jesus always heal us?

So, does God always heal? Will he always do for us what he did for this father?

John concludes our text: “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee” (John 2:54). Not the second miracle Jesus did in total, for while our Lord was in Jerusalem for Passover “many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name” (John 2:23). Our miracle was the second performed by Jesus in the region of Cana (Hovey 128), and was the last “sign” John numbered in this way (Carson 239). But not the last miracle Jesus would do.

In coming weeks we will watch Jesus cure a paralytic, feed a multitude, walk on water, heal a blind man, raise the dead, and appear in his own resurrected glory. Most of us have experienced his miraculous power in our lives today. But does he always act in this way? Does he always heal our bodies, whenever we ask?

No. Jesus healed 40 people we can identify in the gospels, out of the thousands who were sick and dying. All of his disciples but one were executed for their faith, and he didn’t heal their bodies. Paul, the greatest theologian and missionary of all time, prayed three times that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed, but Jesus didn’t do what he asked (2 Corinthians 11:7-9). He doesn’t always heal our bodies. And even those he heals will die, unless he returns to earth first. Lazarus died again. The nobleman’s son died later. So will we.

Sometimes Jesus heals us physically. But sometimes he works an even greater miracle—he heals us spiritually. He gives us the strength and spirit and courage to bear up under life’s sufferings. Sometimes he removes the pain, and sometimes he does the even greater work of giving us the strength to endure it. Either is a miracle of the Lord.

David Ring knows the truth of this principle. David has cerebral palsy and a severe speech impediment. God could have healed him long ago, but then David would have nothing of the ministry which is his through his physical challenges. His shirts are held together by Velcro; his speech is rough; his body is twisted. But his faith and courage will move any person who hears him.

David once said in a sermon, “They said I would never ride a bike, but I did. They said I would never get married, but I did; I have five kids to prove it. They said I would never preach, last year I preached 265 times. I have cerebral palsy, but I preach. What’s your problem?”

I am convinced that much of what happens in the world today is not the result of God’s intentional will. We know that God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but every one to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), but not all do. Some use their free will to refuse God’s will in their lives. The consequences they experience are not the result of God’s will but their own. In the world as God intended it there would be no cancer, AIDS, or heart attacks, no drunk drivers, accidents, or disease. My father died of heart disease through no fault of his own. You may have lost a parent, spouse, or child to such innocent death, or even the tragedy of someone’s misused freedom.

In such times, God’s greater miracle is to enable us to withstand such horrific pain and loss. He can heal our bodies, and what’s more, he can heal our souls. Which do you need him to do for you today?

Let’s close with an example of our text in life today. Jim Cymbala is the renowned pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, one of the most anointed leaders in the American church today. Ten years ago he told the story of his daughter’s healing in answer to prayer: “Up until age 16, my oldest daughter was a model child. But then she got away from the Lord and involved with a godless young man. She eventually moved out of our house and later became pregnant.

“We went through a dark tunnel for two and a half years…in February, we were in our Tuesday night prayer meeting (the choir and the church leadership now knew about Chrissy, but we didn’t spread the news any further in the church). I had not talked to my daughter since November.

“An usher passed a note to me from a young woman in the church whom I felt was a spiritual person. ‘Pastor Cymbala, I feel deeply impressed that we are to stop the meeting and pray for your daughter.’ Lord, is this really you? I prayed within myself. I don’t want to make myself the focus. At that moment Chrissy was at a friend’s home somewhere in Brooklyn with her baby.

“I interrupted the meeting and had everyone stand. ‘My daughter thinks up is down, white is black, and black is white,’ I said. ‘Someone has sent me a note saying she feels impressed that we are to pray for her, and I take this as being from the Lord.’ Then some of the leaders of the church joined me, and the church began to pray. The room soon felt like the labor room in a hospital. The people called out to God with incredible intensity.

“When I got home later that night, I said to my wife (who wasn’t at the prayer meeting), ‘It’s over.’ ‘What’s over?’ Carol said. ‘It’s over with Chrissy,’ I replied. ‘You had to be there tonight. I just know that when we went to the throne of grace, something happened in the heavenly places.

“Thirty-six hours later, I was standing in the bathroom shaving. My wife burst into the room. ‘Chrissy’s here,’ she said. ‘You better go downstairs.’…I wiped off the shaving cream. I went to the kitchen, and there was my daughter, 19 years old, on her knees weeping. She grabbed my leg and said, ‘Daddy, I’ve sinned against God. I’ve sinned against you. I’ve sinned against myself. Daddy, who was praying on Tuesday night?’

“‘What do you mean? What happened?’ I said. ‘I was sleeping,’ she said. ‘God woke me up in the middle of the night, and he showed me I was heading toward this pit, this chasm, and Daddy, I got so afraid. I saw myself for what I am. But then God showed me he hadn’t given up on me.’

“I looked at my daughter and saw the face of the daughter we raised. Not the hardened face of the last few years. So Chrissy and our granddaughter moved back into our home. That was three years ago. Today she’s directing the music program at a Bible school and was married this past year to a man from our church.”

Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms his child. Will you ask God to calm your storm and your soul today?

Expect The Best From God

Expect the Best From God

John 5:1-18

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: Jesus always gives us what we ask, or something better

Dr. David Fite is a former missionary to Cuba and was a colleague of mine when I served on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. Dr. Fite and his father-in-law were both imprisoned in Cuba for preaching the gospel. They were often put in solitary confinement or made to stand at attention all day. Dr. Fite’s father-in-law, advanced in years, often fell when standing in the hot Cuban sun. The guards would then hit him.

One day was especially hot. Dr. Fite and his father-in-law stood at attention all through the day; the elderly man never flinched, but stood with amazing strength. That night, David asked him how he had done so. His answer: “David, I’m surprised at you. You forgot that my birthday is today! Southern Baptists all over the world were praying for our missionaries. God’s grace was my strength!”

The New Testament specifically describes thirty-five such miracles of the Lord Jesus. They fall into four categories. Nine times Jesus changed the natural world, such as turning the water into wine (John 2:1-11), calming the storm (Matthew 8:23-27) and feeding the multitude (Mathew 14:13-21). Six of his recorded miracles were exorcisms (cf. Mark 1:21-28; Matthew 12:22; Luke 8:26-39). Three times he raised the dead (Matthew 9:18-26; Luke 7:11-15; John 11:1-44). But the majority of his recorded miracles were devoted to the suffering. Seventeen times he healed. Our Lord was indeed the Great Physician.

We will study another such miracle in this study. But this one comes with a twist: here Jesus initiates the action. The man doesn’t ask him for help; Jesus offers it. Just as he offers it to you today. Let’s learn how to hear his invitation to hope.

Listen to his voice

Our story begins: “Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews” (John 5:1). “Some time later” translates a vague phrase by which John supplemented the accounts given in the Synoptic Gospels (Robertson 78).

Here is what John assumes we have already read from the other Gospels: between last week’s miracle and today’s text, Jesus preached in Nazareth and was rejected by the people (Luke 4:16-30); he made Capernaum his residence and called Andrew and Peter, James and John to permanent discipleship (Matthew 4:18-22); he healed a demoniac in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-28) and Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-17); he preached throughout Galilee, healing many including a leper (Mark 1:35-45); he healed a paralytic in Capernaum (Mark 2:1-12); he called Matthew, and attended a feast in his house (Mark 2:13-17); and he gave instructions with regard to fasting (Mark 2:16-20) (Hovey 128).

Now John supplements the Synoptics with his own material, giving us a miracle story found nowhere else in Scripture. (Herschel Hobbs, who wrote his dissertation on the subject, believed that John added such unique stories as part of his intentional strategy to give the Church the full story of Jesus’ life and work; Invitation 42).

So Jesus has been busy. Now he “went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews.” He had to go “up,” because Jerusalem sits atop a plateau whose sides must be scaled by pilgrims coming to the Holy City. He came for a “feast of the Jews,” but which one? The options are Purim in March, Passover in April, Pentecost in May, Tabernacles in October, and Dedication in December. This episode likely occurred during the springtime, as the lame were lying outside in the weather and Jesus referred to the time of harvest earlier (John 4:35). Thus Purim and Passover are the best guesses (Bruce 735); Lenski settles on Passover (358-60), and Hobbs agrees (Study Guide 27).

If this feast was Passover, Jesus attended it out of religious obligation. Every Jew within 15 miles of Jerusalem was legally required to attend Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Barclay 177). Our Lord knew the controversy which awaited him, but he came anyway. The healing of a paralyzed man was worth all the trouble it cost him.

Verse 2 continues the narrative: “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.” John used the present tense, “there is in Jerusalem,” even though he wrote these words long after the Roman destruction of the city in AD 70 (Robertson 78). He wanted us to experience the reality of this miracle as if it occurred in our time, for it still can.

The Sheep Gate was one of the entrances through the walls of the city of Jerusalem. It had been rebuilt by Eliashib the High Priest and his fellow priests during the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 3:1), more 400 years earlier. It was likely the entrance through which sheep and lambs were brought from the neighboring fields to the Temple for sacrifice. Through this gate the Lamb of God came to heal a crippled man, as one day he would die for the spiritual healing of our crippled world.

Here lay a “pool” (this word is found only here in the New Testament; Robertson 78). It was surrounded by “five covered colonnades.” These colonnades were covered porches called stoa where people gathered (the “Stoics” are named for the fact that they began by meeting on porches like these). The pool in question was trapezoidal in form, 165-220 feet wide by 315 feet long, divided by a central partition. There were colonnades on four sides of this partition, and one on it. Stairways in the corners permitted descent into the pools (Brown 207).

The Crusaders built a church over this pool, with a crypt framed like the five porches and an opening in the floor which descended to the water (Bruce 736). This structure is known as the Church of St. Anne; its remains stand today on the northwest corner of Jerusalem near the gate by the sheep market (Tenney 62). I’ve seen it, as do all tourists in the city. The pool was called Bethesda in Aramaic, a term meaning “House of Mercy” (Robertson 78). Jesus fulfilled its name this day.

Beside this pool “a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” (John 5:3). This was likely not a winter scene, given their exposure to the weather (Brown 207). They were “paralyzed,” withered, atrophied (Rienecker 279). Why were they there?

Verse 7 supplies the answer: “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.” There is a subterranean spring beneath the pool which bubbles up occasionally, stirring its waters (Barclay 178). The popular belief was that the first person who entered the water after it was stirred would be healed (Robertson 80).

And so later copies of the Greek New Testament supplied this explanation, continuing verse 3: “and they waited for the moving of the waters.” Then a fourth verse: “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had.” The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain these words, so that they “must, beyond question, be omitted from the text” (Hovey 130). Greek scholar A. T. Robertson explains that these words were added to make clearer the statement of verse 7 (Robertson 79). They appeared in the manuscripts used by the translators of the King James Version, which is why these words were included in that version. But no translation of the Bible includes them in its text today.

Now we meet the suffering man Jesus came to heal: “One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years” (John 5:5). Medieval commentators tried to link this man’s 38 years of illness to the Jews’ 38 years in the wilderness, a suggestion Bruce labels “an imbecility” (736). But the length of his incapacity proves the fact that it was medically incurable. Jesus did not provide him a medical solution but a miraculous healing.

So, “When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). Unlike the healing of the nobleman’s son, this miracle was initiated by Jesus himself. The crippled man could not come to Jesus physically, and did not know to ask Jesus to come to him. So Jesus met him at the point of his great need.

But first he asked what seems to us a strange question: “Do you want to get well?” What crippled person wouldn’t want to be healed? Christopher Reeve is spending his life and fortune seeking a cure for his paralysis. Millions of others in his circumstances join him in pursuit of health. However, Jesus “learned that he had been in this condition for a long time.” This man has spent his adult life and perhaps longer in this condition. He may have become accustomed to living on the donations of others. He may not want to return to the responsibility of an earned income and work to perform. Jesus will only work in our lives with our permission. He always limits himself to our free will.

Where do you need his healing, helping touch today? Jesus knows your pain. In fact, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Jesus is calling to us in our suffering, for he shares it with us. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us (Psalm 23:4). He promised that he would never leave or forsake us (Matthew 28:20). He hurts as we hurt, and calls to us in the pain of our lives.

But some of us feel that we are beyond his help, that our sins have exempted us from his grace. The world would have said the same of this invalid. In Jesus’ day, popular theology taught that physical illness was proof of spiritual judgment. A person with a physical birth defect, as may have been the case with this man, was under the justice and judgment of God (cf. the disciples’ question of Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2). And those who experienced suffering for other reasons were judged to be sinners as well.

No self-respecting rabbi would have stopped for this man, but Jesus did. Perhaps you think no one cares about you or your pain today. If we knew your secrets we would reject you; if the world knew your problems it would turn on you. But not Jesus. He initiated this miracle, as he will yours. He went to this man, as he will come to you. He stands ready to meet us where we need him most.

But we must listen. The Psalmist invites us to “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We must set aside our own furious activity, the crush of the calendar and the press of the day’s demands, and listen to his voice.

One of the most life-transforming essays I have ever read is Mike Yaconelli’s Lost and Found: My Soul. This well-known Christian columnist tells of a time years ago when he retreated to be alone with God, with this result:

“It only took a few hours of silence before I began to hear my soul speaking. It only took being alone for a short period of time for me to discover that I wasn’t alone. God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear Him. But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, ‘Michael, I am here. I have been calling you. I have been loving you, but you haven’t been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear Me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard Me.”

Yaconelli then testifies: “I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me.” As he waits for us.

To feel the touch of Jesus, first listen to his voice.

Trust his heart

The invalid replied to Jesus’ question, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” He wanted to be well, but needed help, and sought it from our Lord.

Notice how little he asked of Jesus. He believed that he would be healed if he could be the first one into the pool after the spring stirred its waters. And so he wanted the Son of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, simply to carry him a few feet into the water. Jesus stood ready to heal his body, and the man instead asked him to help him get wet.

Are we so different? Do you want Jesus to help you with words, or to speak himself by his Spirit working through you? Is it your goal to lead others to a life-transforming encounter with God? Do you come to worship to hear a “good sermon” and music service, or to meet the Lord of the universe? Am I writing these words to give you my wisdom or God’s? To explain the text or lead you to the One who inspired it and wants to repeat its miraculous power in our lives today?

We might object that the crippled man didn’t know who Jesus really was. True, and this ignorance is his defense. But we have no such argument. When we give our need to Jesus, we must trust his heart and expect his best. For that is what he waits to give to us.

Our Lord said to the invalid, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (Jn 5:8). He called the man to do something he had not done for 38 years. He did not carry the man to the water—he healed him so he could walk there himself. He did not offer him a temporary cure or help for the symptoms of his disease—he worked a miracle which would banish this disease from his life forever. He told him to pick up his “mat,” the light pallet on which he had begged for so long.

And he told the invalid to “walk.” He has not moved the muscles of his legs for 38 years. Even if a physician were to cure the cause of his paralysis, perhaps a rupture in the spine or nerves, his muscles would be so atrophied that years of physical rehabilitation would be required by him. But not by Jesus. He did for the man far more than the man asked of him.

Now the divine-human partnership emerges again. Jesus healed the man, but the invalid had to get up with the power given him by God. Jesus restored his body, but told him to carry his own mat. Jesus cured his limbs, but required the man to use them himself. And when he did, “At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked” (Jn 5:9a). The word translated “at once” is found only three times in John, while it is common in Matthew and Mark. John used it here to give even greater emphasis and urgency to the moment (Morris 303).

When we trust our problem into Jesus’ hands, we must always expect the best from him. He will always do as we ask, or something better. We often misunderstand his ways or timing, and feel that he will not hear or help us. But he is giving us what is best for us, whether we know it at the moment or not.

I was using a razor blade to scrape paint from a window one Saturday morning when one of our small boys happened by. Attracted by the shiny “toy” in my hand, he wanted to play with it and was not happy that I wouldn’t give him what he asked. But of course no amount of begging or anger would have persuaded me to give him what he wanted.

When we stand with our Father in glory, we’ll see how many times he met our needs and answered our prayers with what we asked. And how often he gave us even more.

Where do you need his touch? Listen to his voice, and then trust his best. As the song says, when you can’t see his hand, trust his heart.

Seek spiritual health

Now the crisis appears: “The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat” (John 5:9b-10). Four things were central to the Jews: the temple, the law, their traditions, and the Sabbath. Other religions had the first three; only Judaism had the Sabbath. And so it was especially important for their faith and culture (Hobbs, Study Guide 28).

The Law was clear: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work” (Exodus 23.12). So, “When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over” (Nehemiah 13.19). The prophet quoted God: “This is what the Lord says: Be careful not to carry a load on the Sabbath day or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem. Do not bring a load out of your houses or do any work on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers” (Jeremiah 17.21-22).

Some of the Sabbath regulations were astounding. A man could borrow jars of wine or oil, provided that he did not ask that they be lent, because this would imply a transaction, and the transaction might involve writing. If a man put out a lamp so that someone sick could sleep, he is not culpable, but if he did so to spare the oil or wick, he violated the law. A man could not put vinegar on his tooth to alleviate toothache, but could put it on his food (cited in Morris 305).

The Jews identified 39 different kinds of labor which were prohibited by the Sabbath. Carrying a mat was among them. A man could be carried on a pallet, but he could not carry one himself (Howard 542; Hovey 132). When a man broke the Sabbath in this or other ways, stoning was his usual punishment (Exodus 31:14; 35:2; Numbers 15:36; Leviticus 24:16).

Jewish leaders spoke to “the man who had been healed”—the Greek tense stressed the permanence of his cure (Rienecker 229). But they had no interest in his life-transforming miracle. Their only concern was for the law he was breaking in experiencing it. No matter that he was not walking for the first time in 38 years—he must stop, or discard his pallet. He must not continue with the simple mat rolled up under his arm, under pain of execution.

Unfortunately, the man’s physical healing had not become spiritual: “But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk'” (John 2:11). He quickly shifted blame from himself to the One who had healed him. The authorities then asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” (John 5:12). “This fellow” translates a contemptuous figure of speech (Robertson 81), delivered by the Jewish officials with obvious scorn. But “the man who was healed had no idea who it was” (John 5:13a). He had not returned to the One who transformed his life even to ask his name, reminding us of the nine lepers who were similarly ungrateful (Luke 17:17).

And neither the former invalid nor the authorities could locate Jesus, for he “had slipped away into the crowd that was there” (v. 13b). He did this on three other occasions in John’s Gospel (8:59, 10:39, 12:36), each time to avoid a confrontation with the authorities until it was time for his death (Tenney 63).

But our Lord did not persist long in such avoidance: “Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you'” (v. 14). Jesus was not satisfied with healing this man’s body—now he returned for his soul (Bruce 738). He “found” him, a Greek word which indicates a significant search (Hobbs, Study Guide 29). The man was in the temple, just south-southwest of the pool of Bethesda (Brown 208), a dangerous place for Jesus to be at this moment.

Jesus found him anyway, even knowing that the man would betray him to the authorities. He went this far for a man who didn’t even know his name. And for all of us who do.

And he told him, “no longer go on sinning” (Robertson 82). While some connect this phrase to the man’s former physical infirmity (cf. Robertson 82), I find nothing in the text to suggest such a relationship. Jesus did not mention sin in the man’s life when he healed him earlier, and mentioned it here only because the man was in fact sinning by betraying Jesus to the authorities. If he did not repent of his ingratitude and betrayal of the Lord, “something worse may happen” to him. Before this moment he sinned in ignorance; now he has met the Lord and would be sinning intentionally. The justice of God would follow, in his life and especially at the final judgment (Carson 246).

Nonetheless, “The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well” (v. 15). He did so to clear himself and escape a possible stoning (Robertson 82). He willingly betrayed Jesus, transferring his guilt to his benefactor. He would have Jesus die in his place. As our Savior did.

We will watch Jesus deal with the authorities. But first let’s pause to consider the fact that Jesus would risk his own life to offer health to the soul of a single sinner. Jesus’ physical miracles were always performed for spiritual reasons. They taught his disciples to trust more fully in him (our first miracle), or led unbelievers to join him in faith. Jesus’ ultimate interest was not the body which perishes but the soul which lives forever.

So it is with his work in our lives. Jesus wants to meet our physical needs, but ultimately for the sake of our spiritual health. You can give him your temporal problems, but also your spiritual burdens. He is as ready to forgive your sins and wash away your guilt as he is to remove your pain and ease your suffering. Both are miracles only Jesus can perform.

There is no sin he cannot forgive, no sinner he cannot transform. No person is beyond the reach of his grace. He is still looking for souls to heal, seeking those who will confess their sins and give to him their shame. How long has it been since you gave him yours?

Join God at work

The invalid’s transference worked: “because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him” (v. 16). The religious authorities were aligned against Jesus from the first: after he cleansed the temple of their moneychangers “the Jews demanded of him, ‘What miraculous signs can you show us to prove your authority to do these things?'” (John 2:18). They were suspicious of his popularity: “The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:1). Now they have cause for an “open breach” (Robertson 82).

This was not an isolated act in Jesus’ ministry, but part of an ongoing pattern. “Doing these things” is the imperfect active, showing a repetitive pattern (Robertson 82). Later Jesus would heal a blind man’s eyes on the Sabbath (John 9:14), with resulting criticism from the Pharisees: “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath” (v. 16). Such conflict later spread to Galilee, where Jesus allowed his disciples to pick and eat grain on the Sabbath, then healed a man’s withered hand on another Sabbath” (Luke 6:1-11). With this result: the authorities “were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus” (v. 11).

Why would the Son of God have refused to obey the Sabbath instituted by his Father? The answer is that he did. He kept always the Sabbath as it was intended. But he refused to recognize the man-made laws and traditions which purported to protect the Sabbath but actually enslaved those who would observe it. On this point Jesus was blunt: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Here Jesus gave a similar answer: “he said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working'” (John 5:17). “Said” in this tense indicates a legal defense, a formal reply to their legal charge. He called God “My Father,” claiming a personal relationship which put him on a par with God. His work on the Sabbath would thus be justified, since God works on the Sabbath (Robertson 83).

A significant theology could be built from the material found in this single verse. God is personal, a “Father.” He can be known personally, “my Father.” He “works,” not the deists’ passive creator but an active participant in his creation. He works today, so that these miracles we are studying in Scripture are still possible in our lives. Jesus is God in the flesh, God “working” on earth in and through our lives. When we join his work, we join hands with the Lord of the universe.

The authorities understood exactly what the Nazarene carpenter was claiming: “For this reason, the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). And not for the last time. For the next two years the authorities would seek ways to have Jesus killed (cf. John 7:1, 19; 8:37, 40; 10:33; 19:7; Robertson 83).

They had opportunity to join their work with that of the Lord on earth, but they refused. Convinced that they understood the ways of God better than Jesus, and that their institutions and authority were essential to his plans, they could not see the Lord in their midst until it was too late. Because human nature does not change, we must beware the same self-sufficiency in our own souls.

Henry Blackaby is right: The key to Christian joy and significance lies in finding where God is at work and joining him there. What is God blessing in your service? In our church? Where do you see his Spirit at work? Will you rejoice in his blessings and join your hands to his? Will you focus your attention on his clear call on your life, and set everything else to the side? Good is always the enemy of great. If Satan cannot defeat us, he will seek to distract us. The Jewish authorities were distracted by their religious traditions and rituals. What is Satan using today to keep you from focusing on your best service to our Lord?

Oswald Chambers’ life motto is worthy of adoption by us all: “My utmost for his highest.” Join your utmost commitment and service to God’s highest work in your life and church. Join God at work. Other paralytics are waiting for his touch, through you.

When we pray, God gives us what we ask or something better. Where do you need his touch? Where is a paralytic lying on a mat in your life? Get alone and still with the Father, so that you can hear him call to you by grace. Trust his heart, believing that he will give you what you are praying for unless he can give you even greater blessing. Seek spiritual health, not just temporal happiness. And join God at work, adding your hands to his, touching the spiritual, emotional, and physical paralytics who lie at your side. Believe that he can use you for great Kingdom work, and he will.

Charles Spurgeon was arguably the greatest preacher Baptists have ever known, and one of our most evangelistic. A young pastor once asked Spurgeon why more people didn’t respond to his preaching. Spurgeon replied, “You don’t expect people to come to Christ every time you preach, do you?” The young preacher assured him that he didn’t. Spurgeon said, “That’s why they don’t.”

Faith In A Time Of War

Faith in a Time of War

John 20:1-9

Dr. Jim Denison

Last Monday evening, President Bush told the world that diplomatic efforts in Iraq had ended, giving Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave or face military conflict. That period has ended, and the conflict has begun.

This morning we face a confusing mixture of feelings and fears. We hope for quick victory in this conflict, and fear loss of life. We hope for protection against terrorist reprisals, and fear further attacks. We hope for our friends and family engaged directly in this conflict, and fear for their lives and futures. We need faith in a time of war.

This week I’ve asked God for a word to give to you. I believe I have that word, for my heart and ours. John has been my guide to faith. Now he stands ready to guide us all.

Meet our guide

You may remember that John, the “beloved disciple” of Jesus Christ, grew up in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. His brother was John, his father Zebedee. Theirs was a thriving fishing business in partnership with Simon and his brother Andrew.

John and Andrew were followers of John the Baptist, until the day he identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, the “Lamb of God” (John 1.36). John was Jesus’ cousin. Now he immediately became his first disciple. Jesus called John and James, Andrew and Simon to leave their fishing business to follow him. And they did.

But now the movement John was the first to join is over. The cause to which he has dedicated his life has failed. The One he had believed would be the Messiah, God’s ruler on earth, the General who would overthrow the cursed Romans and reign over Israel, is dead. Their army is dissolved, in retreat and chaos and failure. Their lives have no purpose, no direction, no destiny, no hope.

And his own life is in peril.

John is known to the High Priest, and was seen standing in the house of Caiaphas during Jesus’ trial there.

He was the only disciple at the cross, clearly visible to the authorities.

He cannot flee easily, for he has charge of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

He was Jesus’ best friend; verse 2 calls him the disciple “whom Jesus loved.” He is Jesus’ cousin, his relative, the most visible and famous follower in his band. If the Roman and Jewish authorities decide to destroy Jesus’ movement as they destroyed him, John knows the one they’ll come after first.

If Jeb Bush were to visit in Baghdad today, he’d be in no less danger than John the beloved disciple in Jerusalem.

Join him at the empty tomb

Now it is Sunday morning. John, Mary, and Jesus’ band of followers have passed the Sabbath of Friday night and Saturday in mourning.

Early this morning, some of the women return to Jesus’ tomb to finish burying his body. But they find that “the stone had been removed from the entrance” (v. 1)—the Greek states that it had been removed from the groove in which it had rested, and thrown to the side.

We know what happened: the burial stone was but a pebble compared with the Rock of Ages inside. We know that the God of the universe tossed it aside so much as trash as he raised his Son to life. We know this, but Mary doesn’t.

F. B. Meyer describes Mary’s mind well: she came with aromatic spices that her money had bought and her hands prepared; she did not know that his garments were already smelling of aloes and grace, of the perfume of heaven with which his Father had dressed him. She thought she came to a victim who had fallen beneath the knife of his foes as a lamb led to slaughter; she was not aware that he was a Priest who had entered the Most Holy Place willingly for her. She came for the vanquished, but failed to understand that he was the victor over the principalities and powers of hell, that the keys of Hades and the grave now hung on his belt, with the serpent bruised beneath his feet. She thought she had come to put the final touch on his life and death, and had no conception that on that morning a career had been inaugurated which was endless, unassailable, destined to change the course of human history forever.

She doesn’t know. We find her running back to Peter and John, telling them that his body is gone: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2).

So John and Peter run to the tomb.

It’s interesting that the only two times in the New Testament we find someone actually “running” are here and in Matthew 28:8, where the women ran to bring the disciples the news of his resurrection. They ran in joy, these men in bitter anger. Not only is their beloved leader dead, but now his grave has been desecrated. How would you feel to learn that someone had robbed the grave of the one you love?

John arrives first, and looks in. He sees the linen strips which Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had used to wrap the body. Then Peter arrives, and the two enter the tomb.

What they discover is astounding. The robes are lying empty on the burial slab. Not unwrapped, but collapsed on themselves as though the body which had been inside has simply vanished. The cloth which had been wrapped around Jesus’ head like a turban is also folded on itself, not unwrapped. The head inside has disappeared (John 20:7).

This was a physical impossibility. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had previously coated the burial clothes with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39) to preserve the body as best they could. Myrrh binds fabric to the flesh of the corpse as surely as glue. The only way to get the burial clothes off the body would have been to rip them off, tearing them to shreds. Not only was it impossible for someone to remove the clothes without unwrapping them, it was even more impossible for them to be in one piece. But here they are, wrapped around themselves and intact.

When Jesus’ best friend sees these burial robes, instinctively he knows the truth: this body has come back to life! He “saw and believed” (v. 8). In that moment John could have refuted every explanation for the empty tomb given by skeptics across 20 centuries.

He knew the body has not merely revived, the so-called “swoon theory.” John had been there. He watched Jesus die on that horrible cross—the nails, the spear, the blood, the lifeless body. He heard the medical examiner pronounce the body dead.

He knew they are not at the wrong tomb. Joseph knew his own tomb, and the women had watched him bury Jesus.

He knew the authorities have not stolen the body. They posted guards to protect the body from theft, not to steal it themselves. And they would have taken the body as it was, not leaving the grave clothes behind.

He knew that robbers have not stolen the body. They could not have overpowered the Roman military guard placed at the tomb. They would not have left the burial clothes, the only thing in the tomb of material value.

And he knew that Jesus’ followers have not taken the body. There was no way the women or disciples could have overpowered the Roman guards posted there, or would have wanted to. They had not expected the body to be risen. Mary’s explanation for the open grave had been that someone had stolen the body (v. 3). John admits (v. 9) that they had not yet understood from Scripture that the Christ had to rise from the dead. They had no idea that Jesus would rise, and no ability to steal his body to give the appearance that he had.

There is only one explanation: Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.

Embrace his faith

John “saw and believed.” With astounding results in his life and ministry, despite the fears he faced on this day, the perils which stood before him, the threats against his future and his life. No one watching the perplexed fisherman, in peril for his life, standing beside the tomb of his fallen hero, could have guessed what would become of him.

He would write more of the New Testament than any other disciple. He would meet this risen Christ again, 40 years later on the prison island of Patmos, the Alcatraz of the ancient world. Like this day, it was a Sunday morning when he received the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

On that prison island John would found a church among his fellow prisoners and prison guards, a church which still meets in the cave where John received his Revelation, now 20 centuries ago. My first trip to Patmos was a Sunday morning. Our group entered the cave, and found John’s church at worship.

Then he would return to Ephesus where he would continue his pastoral ministry until the Lord took him home. His grave is still on display there.

At the end of his life and work, when he was too elderly to stand and preach, he would sit in a chair. Church leaders would carry him to the front of the congregation. He would lift his finger toward the heavens and say, “Little children, love one another.”

He planted trees he’ll never sit under. His was a life and legacy which shall endure until the world ends and time is no more.

Who would have guessed it? No person on the first Easter Sunday faced a future more filled with fear and uncertainty than this man. Now, in the face of perilous times and an uncertain future, the risen Lord stands ready to do for us what he did for him. He stands ready to heal our hearts, to redeem our troubled times, to guide and direct our steps, to calm our fears.

Isaac was in a land war with his neighbors when the Lord said to him, “Fear not, for I am with you” (Genesis 26:24).

A widow was facing famine and starvation when the Lord said through his prophet, “Fear not” (1 Kings 17:13).

Elisha’s servant was terrified by the enemy armies surrounding them when the prophet said, “Fear not. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16).

Israel was enslaved in Babylon, ancient Iraq, when the Lord said, “Fear not, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen and help you” (Isaiah 41:10).

Later he said to these enslaved captives, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:2).

Jesus said to frightened disciples sent forth on their first mission, “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So fear not” (Matthew 10:30-31).

The risen Lord said to this frightened disciple on Patmos, “Fear not. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).


So, what is your greatest fear this morning? Ask the risen Christ to do for you what he did for John. Ask him to place his hand of power, hope, and help on your worried heart, to raise you from knees of fear to feet of faith. Ask him to transform your circumstances as he made a prison island into a lighthouse for all of history. Ask him to give you faith in a time of war. And he will.

We will close this morning in prayer. We will pray for our president and leaders, our military, our friends and our enemies. We will pray for our own hearts and souls. We will seek faith in the midst of war. And we will find it.

Come to the empty tomb and the risen Christ, right now.

Fight Fear With Faith

Fight Fear With Faith

John 6:5-21

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: true faith in Jesus will defeat every fear we face

Bill and Vonette Bright were hard at work on the UCLA campus, seeking to win students to faith in Christ. But results were mediocre, and their supporters feared for the future of this ministry. Then, in 1951, a 24-hour prayer chain for UCLA was started in Los Angeles churches. The day was divided into 96 15-minute periods, with people praying around the clock for the students on the campus.

Following the inauguration of this prayer movement, in the first evangelistic meeting at a particular sorority house, over half the women present indicated they wanted to know Jesus Christ personally. Evangelistic meetings followed with various fraternities, sororities and athletic teams, with similar responses. Hundreds of students came to saving faith in the Lord Jesus, including the most outstanding student leaders on the campus. And Campus Crusade for Christ was born.

Are you afraid for your future? Are your results mediocre? Are your dreams stagnant? Is your purpose dim? Are your finances low? Is your health poor? You may be faced with overwhelming problems, but it’s always too soon to give up. If Jesus can use a small boy’s lunch to feed 5,000 families, then walk on a stormy sea to rescue terrified fishermen, he can help you today. But we must do what the Brights did—we must go to Jesus in faith. Not to earn his power, but to receive it.

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered, and there was nobody there.” Let’s learn how to answer the fear knocking at your door today.

Refuse to be discouraged (vs. 5-7)

As this week’s miracle begins, we find Jesus on the “far shore” of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1) at “a town called Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10). This town was situated on the northeastern tip of the Sea of Galilee, near the fords of the Jordan (Barclay 201). It was known as Bethsaida Julius, to distinguish it from Bethsaida of Galilee to the west.

Skeptics have claimed a contradiction between Luke 9.10, which places this miracle at Bethsaida, and Mark 6.45, which records that after this miracle “Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida.” But Mark’s account refers to the western Bethsaida of Galilee, not the Bethsaida Julius which was the location of our story; cf. Robertson 96, Bruce 746, Barclay 201.

It was springtime, with the Passover near (John 6.4). A considerable time has elapsed since the close of John 5, from a month (if the “feast” of John 5.1 was Purim) to more likely a year (if the “feast” was the previous Passover). Jesus has been extremely busy in his public ministry, and has come under much attack from the authorities (cf. 7.1, “Jesus went around Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life”).

And so our Lord wanted time alone with his disciples for teaching and rest. However, the crowds did not cooperate: “a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick” (v. 2). So he withdrew to this remote location. But they could follow him around the shore of the Sea, so that “Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him” (v. 5).

They were 5,000 men in number (v. 10), not including their families (Matthew 14.21: “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”). Philip’s estimate of the money required to feed them (v. 7) would indicate that as many as 10,000 were present in total (Bruce 747).

With their arrival, the only miracle (except the Resurrection) to be recorded in all four Gospels began. Jesus spent the day with this persistent crowd, “teaching them many things” (Mark 6.34). More specifically, he “welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing” (Luke 9.11).

Now the hour was late, the location remote. The crowd has been with Jesus all day, with no food or supplies. Jesus’ disciples urged him to send them away to find their own food (Matthew 14.15, Mark 6.35-36, Luke 9.12). But he was unwilling to feed spiritual hunger while ignoring the physical. And he saw in the need of the multitude a spiritual opportunity for one particular disciple.

So Jesus said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (v. 5). Did he ask Philip for help because he was from Bethsaida? No, for Andrew and Peter were from this town as well (John 1.44). Did he need his help? No: “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do” (v.6). He knew already how to meet this need. But Philip did not.

Here was an opportunity for faith. A chance to believe that the One who had turned water to wine could feed this crowd as well. An opportunity to trust the Healer of the nobleman’s son and the Bethesda paralytic. Philip could have asked Jesus what he wanted done; he could have found the resources at hand and delivered them to his Master; at the very least he could have prayed.

Instead, he gave up: “Philip answered him, ‘Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!'” (v. 7). In the Greek, 200 denarii. A denarius was a Roman coin worth 18 cents (Rienecker 231), the usual pay for a day’s labor (Robertson 98); 200 would be payment for eight months of work. Even then, the people of the crowd would have only “a bite” (a detail only John supplies).

If Philip had been the only follower of Jesus present, the story would likely have ended here, with the words of a discouraged disciple. Disheartened by a need greater than he could meet, frustrated by a request he could not possibly honor, Philip responded with fear rather than faith. He was not the last.

The devil was holding a garage sale. All his tools were displayed, with prices attached: greed, bitterness, lust, gluttony, and the rest. Off to the side was an unmarked tool, worn more than any other, its price the highest of any tool. A visitor asked the purpose of this device, and the devil replied, “That’s discouragement. It’s worth more than any other tool I own because it works on nearly every human, and no one knows it is mine.”

You may feel that the Lord, or the crowd, wants more than you can give. You don’t have enough time, or energy, or money, or strength to meet your needs. But Jesus does. Heed Winston Churchill’s most famous speech: “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never. Never. Never. Never.” Refuse to be discouraged. Fight fear with faith.

Bring Jesus all you have (vs. 8-13)

If Philip stands for discouragement, Andrew stands for faith. Already he had brought his brother Simon to Jesus (John 1.40-42). Now he continues his “invitational evangelism” ministry by finding and bringing to Jesus a small boy—and his even smaller lunch (v. 8).

Andrew had more faith than Philip, but not by much: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (v. 9). “Boy” translates the Greek for a very small or young “lad” (Rienecker 231). His mother had made him a lunch which contained “barley,” an inferior kind of bread (Robertson 98) much despised by the cultured (cf. Ezekiel 13.19). His barley was in “loaves,” not the bread loaves we use but round, flat sheets of bread. A fried tortilla is probably the closest our food comes to the boy’s, though I have eaten “flatbread” like his in Israel.

With his flatbread were “two fishes,” small, sardine-like fish caught by the thousands out of the Sea of Galilee. They were salted and used as a kind of topping for the bread; Morris calls them a “tidbit” (344). It was not much, but it was all the boy had. And he gave it—all of it—to Jesus.

So we find in Andrew the faith to bring the boy to Jesus, and in the boy the faith to give all he has. Now we find the disciples acting in faith as well: “Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down'” (v. 10a). The disciples were to arrange the gigantic crowd for a meal to come, “in groups of hundreds and fifties” (Mark 6.40). Jesus had them so arranged so that the stronger would not prevent the weaker from receiving the food he would give (Bruce 748). But he asked his disciples to do the work.

Here we find the divine-human partnership on display again. The One who could feed this crowd with a small boy’s tiny lunch could certainly have organized the ones he would feed. But the disciples could do this. And so he asked them to step out by faith, so he could respond in power. They were to ask a hungry crowd of some 10,000 to organize for a lunch which did not exist. They were to face the questions and skepticism of an unruly mass of people. They were to step out in faith, trusting that Jesus would follow.

And the crowd had to exhibit similar faith. They were to “sit down,” “fall back” or “lie down” in the Greek. This was the position for a feast, reclining at table. Jesus would give them more than they could hold in their hands. This would not be a “fast food” meal, but a feast. And somehow they believed it would be so: “There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them” (v. 10b).

Andrew could refuse to bring the boy he found, or take him to Jesus. The boy could hold back his lunch, or give it. The disciples could dismiss the crowd, or organize them. The crowd could refuse in skepticism, or recline in faith. If any had not responded with obedience, Jesus could not have performed his miracle.

But all did. With this result: “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish” (v. 11). He “gave thanks,” the usual Jewish practice before eating a meal (cf. Deuteronomy 8.10: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you”).

The Synoptics say that Jesus “blessed” the food (Matthew 14.19, Mark 6.41, Luke 9.16). (Here we find the Christian custom of “returning thanks.” We do not “say the blessing”—we ask for it from God.) Jesus spoke the traditional words of a Jewish mealtime prayer: “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, who causes to come forth bread from the earth” (cf. Barclay 203). We are to respond in kind for every blessing from God: “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5.20).

Once he gave thanks, Jesus then “distributed to those who were seated” through his disciples. When was the food actually multiplied? For the sake of efficient distribution, probably as it was given out. And so Jesus’ faith had to become that of his disciples, as they continued his miracle by distributing it to the crowd. Imagine their delight and surprise as the tiny lunch continued to grow until those who were seated had “as much as they wanted” (v. 11). The Greek is the imperfect active tense—they were continually fed until they wanted no more, until “they had all had enough to eat” (v. 12a).

Note that Jesus did not give them the delicacies they might have wanted, but the food they needed. The barley and fish spread were still what they were, but they were enough to fill every person. In fact, Jesus gave the crowd far more food than it was accustomed to receiving, as the typical first-century peasant seldom had enough food to eat all he wanted. Jesus always meets our needs according to his riches in glory (Philippians 4.19). Not always our wants, but always our needs.

And the miracle was not finished: “he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten” (vs. 12-13). The “pieces that are left over” were the peah, food left behind for those who had served the meal (Robertson 99, Barclay 203), something like a waiter’s tip today.

These “pieces” were not fragments left from the crowd’s meal, but the pieces of bread and fish broken by Jesus and distributed (Robertson 99). Jesus insisted that “nothing be wasted” of God’s supply. To this day the Jews possess a deep reverence for bread as the gift of God. When traveling in Israel, my tour groups are always warned not to toss bread to the birds on the ground or the fish in the Sea of Galilee, for this would be a sacrilege.

So the disciples “gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten” (v. 13). Their “baskets” were “stout wicker baskets,” not the soft and frail ones used earlier for the feeding of the 4,000 (Mark 8.8; Robertson 100). All four Gospels record these baskets as kophinoi (we get “coffin” from this word). These would be the baskets carried by itinerants as they traveled a great distance on foot. We would use backpacks for the same purpose today.

And the tiny lunch with which Jesus began became enough to feed his disciples as well, with more in abundance. The “baskets” they used were large enough that Paul could escape from Damascus in one (Acts 9.25; Hovey 149). And they were “filled” with food, much more than a man could consume in one meal. Jesus met their needs with his abundance. He always does.

Where do you need such provision in your life today? To receive his best, give him yours. Bring Jesus all you have. Surrender your abilities and ambitions, your talents and gifts, your time and resources. Make him Lord of your days and goals, plans and dreams. “Offer your body as a living sacrifice” to God (Romans 12.1). As every part of the lamb was laid on the altar, give every dimension of your life to Jesus as your Master.

Refuse to divide your life into the “sacred” and the “secular.” Step out of the compartments which separate Sunday from Monday, religion from “real life,” faith from practice. Give Jesus all you have. It may not seem like much, but if it is your best, God will do his best with it.

So bring others to Jesus, as Andrew brought the boy. Bring your resources and talents, as the boy brought his lunch. Follow Jesus’ leading in your life by faith, as did the disciples and even the crowd. Recline at your table when there is nothing to eat. For a feast is coming.

Trust the grace you cannot earn (vs. 14-15)

If you saw a person do such a miracle, how would you feel about him? Here was the crowd’s response: “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world'” (John 6.14). Why this reaction?

The Jews were taught to pray daily that the Messiah would come soon, even that day. Jewish girls learned to pray each night that they might be the mother of the Messiah. The people expected a political leader who would overthrow the hated Romans and reestablish the nation of Israel to her place of prominence in the Kingdom of God. Now here was one who could do miracles no man had ever accomplished before. Perhaps he would be the king and ruler they longed to see. John the Baptist had asked Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11.3). Now the crowds begin to believe that they have the answer.

They thought of the coming Messiah as “the Prophet.” Moses had promised the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18.15). Peter quoted this prophesy as fulfilled by Jesus (Acts 3.22), as did Stephen (Acts 7.37). The Jews came to identify this coming Prophet with the Messiah, as when they asked John the Baptist, “Are you the Prophet?” (John 1.21). They now believe this Prophet-Messiah to be in their midst; “the people are on the tiptoe of expectation and believe that Jesus is the political Messiah of Pharisaic hope” (Robertson 100).

To their minds, such a Messiah must be the king of Israel. He must destroy the Roman throne and replace it with his own. And the people must join in his revolt. But our Lord knew what they were about: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (v. 15). They “intended to come”—the leaders have probably already started their movement (Robertson 100). They plan to “seize him” (the literal Greek), a violent word of force (Rienecker 232).

They would force him to the throne in place of the hated Romans. They thought they had such power over the One who had just performed a mighty miracle in their midst. They believed they could control the God who turns water into wine, heals sickness and paralysis and hunger, the One who would soon walk on stormy waters and later raise the dead.

The Lord was blunt: “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2.6). This King needs no help in ascending to his throne.

So we smile at the futility of their agenda. But then we realize it can be ours as well. Have you ever given to God in the unstated, perhaps unconscious belief that your service to him obligated his to you? If we teach a class, or sing in the choir, or lead a committee, or give financially, or write curriculum or preach sermons, perhaps God will bless us in return. If we have enough faith in God, perhaps our trust can earn his help. We don’t think out loud in these ways, but who has not considered them in his or her heart?

Noted pastor and preacher R. A. Torrey writes a chapter in his classic The Power of Prayer under the title, “Praying in the Name of Jesus Christ.” Here he relates this story: “In Melbourne, Australia, as I went on the platform one day at the business men’s meeting, a note was put in my hands. This note read:

‘Dear Dr. Torrey:

‘I am in great perplexity. I have been praying for a long time for something that I am confident is according to God’s will, but I do not get it. I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church for thirty years, and have tried to be a consistent one all the time. I have been Superintendent of the Sunday school for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years; and yet God does not answer my prayer and I cannot understand it. Can you explain it to me?'”

Dr. Torrey relates his answer: “I took the note with me on to the platform and read it and said, ‘It is perfectly easy to explain. This man thinks that because he has been a consistent church member for thirty years, a faithful Sunday school superintendent for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years, that God is under obligation to answer his prayer. He is really praying in his own name, and God will not hear our prayers when we approach Him in that way. We must, if we would have God answer our prayers, give up any thought that we have any claims upon God. Not one of us deserves anything from God. If we got what we deserved, every last one of us would spend eternity in hell. But Jesus Christ has great claims on God, and we should go to God in our prayers not on the ground of any goodness in ourselves, but on the ground of Jesus Christ’s claims.'”

Jesus would not surrender his agenda to theirs: he “withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (v. 15b) to pray (Mark 6.46; cf. Matthew 14.23). “Again” refers back to v. 3, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples” (Hovey 150). The crowds kept our Lord from his intended time of solitude with his Father, but only temporarily. He met their need, and then his own. He returned to the Lord of grace, to seek his grace for his own heart and soul.

What fear is knocking at your heart’s door today? Do not answer it with your own abilities, or finances, or status. Or with your Sunday school service, or religious activities, or spiritual commitments. Go to the God of grace. Ask him to help you, not because you have earned his support but because he wants to give it. Not out of your merit, but in your need. Appeal not to his justice but to his love. When you do, you will fight fear with faith. And faith will win.

Call to the one calling you (vs. 16-21)

Fear came knocking one last time on this remarkable day. “When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum” (vs. 16-17a). Jesus had sent them to Bethsaida of Galilee (Mark 6.45), but they set sail for Capernaum instead. Perhaps his disciples disobeyed him, but more likely, they intended to land at Capernaum and walk the distance to Bethsaida (Bruce 750).

“By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them” (v. 17b). The literal Greek paints a more graphic picture: “darkness now had come and not yet had come to them Jesus.” We sense the foreboding as it builds. It was night, and the disciples were alone in their boat on the open water. Night time is always more dangerous on the Sea of Galilee. A natural wind tunnel northwest of the Sea amplifies storms and winds as they sweep from west to east, so that sudden storms are frequent on the water. When night comes, the air cools and falls even more rapidly through this canyon to the Sea, 600 feet below sea level (Tenney 73). Fishermen would not go to sea at night unless the need was great, for the risk was equally large.

Now their worst fears were realized: “A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough” (v. 18). “Grew rough” translates “were roused,” meaning to become awakened or aroused thoroughly. Matthew adds that their boat was “tortured” by the waves (Matthew 14.24, literal translation).

The disciples had no choice but to continue trying to make land. They “had rowed three or three and a half miles” (v. 19a), halfway across the Sea (Rienecker 232). It was the fourth watch of the night, between three and six in the morning (Matthew 14.25), and they have been hard at work all night. They were in the middle of the water, fighting a deadly storm with failing strength. Then things appeared to get much worse: “they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified” (v. 19b).

Why? They thought Jesus was an apparition, a ghost (Mark 6.49, Matthew 14.26). First-century superstitious sailors believed that when they were about to drown, the ghosts of sailors who had already died on that part of the water would appear. The disciples were weary and discouraged, but now they became frightened for their very lives. How often have you seen a person walking on water to you? How would you feel if you were literally in their boat?

His words to their fear are his words to yours: “It is I; don’t be afraid” (v. 20). “It is I” translate the literal words, “I am.” This is God’s name for himself (Exodus 3.14), a name so holy that no Jew would dare speak it. The scribes who copied Scripture placed the vowels for a different name (Adonai) below the consonants for this name (YHWH), to remind their readers that they were not to pronounce this most sacred of all words. But here a Galilean peasant carpenter not only spoke this name, he spoke it of himself.

As well he should: “[God] alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9.8). Only the One who created these seas could walk on them. Now he commands, “Don’t be afraid,” literally “stop fearing.” In his presence, all fear must flee.

And so, “they were willing to take him into the boat” (v. 21a). Terrified, exhausted sailors welcomed their Master into their midst. With this result: “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading” (v. 21b). When Jesus boarded their boat they had been miles from shore (Mark 6.47), but the instant he joined them, he brought them safely home. As he will us, one day.

In the darkness, as their fear mounted, the disciples could not see Jesus, but he could see them. Darkness hid him from them, but not them from him. As he drew near, their fear kept them from recognizing him. But he walked across a storming sea to stand with his frightened followers. As he walks the distance from heaven to earth, from eternity to time, to stand beside us today.

When fear knocks, how does faith answer? By refusing to be discouraged, no matter how overwhelming the need appears to be. By giving Jesus our lives and best gifts, and trusting him to use them in meeting our need however he will. By depending on his grace, not our merit. And by calling out to the One who is already calling to us. When fear knocks and this faith answers, faith wins. Every time.

Years ago, a friend gave me a page copied out of a devotional book he had been reading. I don’t know the name of the book, but have kept the story with gratitude. It appeared in the Congressional Record and tells of a 19-year-old G.I. who was awarded a medal for bringing in a large group of Japanese prisoners, single-handed, during World War II. Here is his account:

“I want someone to know that I don’t deserve that medal. It happened this way. I was captured by the Japanese, with five of my pals. We were marched through the jungle with bayonets at our backs. I had to see my comrades one by one killed and mutilated. I said the 23rd Psalm. I said the Lord’s Prayer. Die I must, but I determined not to let my captors see my fear. Trembling from head to foot, marching in mud up to my ankles, with a bayonet sticking in my back, I began to whistle the way I used to when I was a small boy, and had to go through a dark street. So I whistled, ‘We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing; He chastens and hastens His will to make known; the wicked oppressing cease then from distressing; sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own.’

“Suddenly I became aware that someone had joined me in my whistling—it was my Japanese captor! He, too, was whistling the hymn. Soon I felt his gun fall back into place. He walked beside me then, and suddenly I jumped when, in perfect English, he said to me, ‘I never cease to wonder at the magnificence of Christian hymns.’ And a few minutes talk revealed that the Japanese soldier had learned English in a mission school to which I had contributed in my Sunday school days. The Japanese boy spoke of war and how the Japanese Christians hated it. We both agreed on the power of Christianity, and what would happen if people really dared to live it; and then we began to talk of our families and our homes. Finally, at the suggestion of the Japanese, we knelt in the mud and prayed for suffering humanity around the world, and for ‘His peace that passeth understanding’ among all men on earth.

“When we arose, he asked me if I could take him back as a prisoner to the American headquarters. He said that it was the only way that he could live up to his Christianity, and thus help Japan to become a Christian nation; and on the way back he found in various foxholes other Japanese Christians, and they too joined me. I shall never forget the hope and joy that came into their eyes as my friend unfolded to them, one by one, how we found each other, and why and where they were being taken. All the way back we talked of the Christian religion. When we neared camp, by mutual agreement they put on poker-faces and somber looks, and I, gun in hand, marched them into camp. So you see I don’t deserve a medal for the most wonderful experience of my life.”

What tune are you whistling today?

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

Dr. Jim Denison

Matthew 25:1-13

Thesis: To live fully in the Kingdom of God,

we must be ready for the King to return today

In the Middle Ages, people had no concept of time as we experience and measure it. Mechanical clocks were not available to the vast majority of people. Most did not know what year it was, or even what century they lived in. If only we were so lucky.

Campbell’s Soup has discovered that people will not use microwave meals if they take longer than six minutes to prepare. McDonald’s reports that their typical customer spends seven minutes eating one of their meals.

We are busy people. No wonder: every day in America,

•the Smithsonian adds 2,500 items to its collections

•we purchase 45,000 new cars and trucks, and wreck 87,000

•20,000 people write a letter to the president

•dogs bite 11,000 citizens, including 20 mail carriers

•we eat 75 acres of pizza, 53 million hot dogs, 167 million eggs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 3,000 tons of candy. We then jog 17 million miles in an effort to burn it all off.

Time is our most precious commodity. Winston Churchill spoke for us all: “Curse ruthless time! Curse our mortality! How cruelly short is the allotted span for all we must cram into it! We are all worms.”

Our concluding study of Jesus’ parables will help us deal with time, the greatest pressure we face. The central truth of our Lord’s story is simple: to live fully in the Kingdom of God, we must be ready for the King to return today. As we will see, such a lifestyle is the best way to redeem the time we have, to achieve significance with each day and hour, to use time for eternity. If we live prepared for Jesus to return each day, we’ll live in the will and blessing of God. And one day, we’ll be right.

Meet the players in the drama

Jesus is seated at the Mount of Olives with his disciples. This is the last afternoon of his public ministry (Broadus 498). His disciples have asked him, “What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” (Matthew 24.3). Matthew records Jesus’ answers to that question with the narrative and stories of chapters 24-25. And so the parable of this week deals with the future and its impact on the present.

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25.1). “At that time” points us to the previous parable, the story of the servants and their returning master (Matthew 24.45-51). That story ends with this warning: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 50-51).

Now Jesus finds another way to emphasize the urgency of preparing for the Kingdom to come. Here the kingdom “will be like” virgins with lamps. This is the future tense (unlike the parable of last week) because it deals with future events (cf. Hagner 728). The kingdom is not like the virgins themselves, but like their situation in Jesus’ story.

The virgins are ten in number. A. T. Robertson, the eminent Greek scholar, sees “no special point” in this fact (196). But most commentators disagree. Broadus quotes Lightfoot: the Jews “delighted mightily in the number ten” (499). The frequency of the number in Jewish tradition and literature is interesting: there are Ten Commandments, ten talents (Matthew 25.28), ten pieces of silver (Luke 15.8), ten servants, ten points, and ten cities (Luke 19.13-17), an instrument of ten strings (Psalm 33.2), at least ten families needed to establish a synagogue, and ten persons for a funeral procession (Lenski 963; cf. Josephus, War 6.9.3). At the very least, their number signifies a complete assembly. The problem some will face this night is not due to any lack of friends within their group.

They are virgins “who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (v. 1). The “lamps” here were not the tiny clay vessels mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 5.15, the so-called “Herodian” lamps. Rather, they were torches with a wooden staff and some sort of dish or container on top. In this container was placed a piece of rope or cloth dipped in oil (Bruce 299; Broadus 499). The same word, lampas, is found in John 18.2, “They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons”; and Revelation 8.10, “The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky.”

The text states that the torch-bearing attendants “went out to meet the bridegroom” (v. 1). And so the virgins are part of a wedding, one of the greatest festivities in an ancient Palestinian village. The bride, groom, and guests were excused from most religious responsibilities. Scholars forsook the study of the Torah to attend. This was a great and holy festival (Johnson 555).

The event in our parable represents the third stage of matrimony in ancient Israel. First the couple was engaged (usually when the bride was very young), then they were “betrothed” for a year (during which they were considered to be married legally but lived in separate homes). Finally came the “marriage,” when the couple was given to each other (cf. Rienecker 73).

Following the marriage ceremony itself came a feast which lasted seven days (cf. Judges 14.12; Genesis 29.27, “Finish this daughter’s bridal week . . .”); it was shortened to three days if she was a widow. At the end of this week, the bridegroom came for his bride, conducting her from her father’s home to his own. This final marriage procession always occurred in the evening. Friends accompanied the bridegroom, and others stayed with the bride until her groom came for her, then processed with her to her new home (Barnes 264).

These streets were utterly dark at night. Every person walking them was expected to carry a torch, and those in the marriage procession were especially required to do so. Their torches lit the way for the new couple, and joined in their celebration.

And so these ten virgins have gathered at the home of the bride, torches in hand, waiting to “meet the bridegroom” when he comes for his new wife. Who might he be?

In the Old Testament, the bridegroom clearly represents the Lord: “your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54.5); “As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62.5); “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert, through a land now sown” (Jeremiah 2.2).

But the Lord Jesus turned this metaphor to himself. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus why his own followers did not fast he replied, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (Matthew 9.15). And so Jesus means the bridegroom in the present story to represent himself (cf. France 350).

John the Baptist understood this connection: “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” Then speaking of Jesus he said, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3.29-30). Paul saw Christ as the divine bridegroom as well. Writing to the Corinthian believers: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Corinthians 11.2).

The bridegroom is Christ. Who is the unnamed bride in the story, attended by the ten virgins? Paul has already pointed us to the answer in likening the church to the bride of Christ, the “one husband.” John saw the “wedding” of Christ and his church: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21.2). Verse 10 describes her as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”

So the bridegroom is Christ; his bride is the church. Who, then, are these virgins? They do not represent the church, despite attempts over the centuries to make them so. As we will see, some are not admitted to the feast which represents eternity with God in heaven (vs. 10-12). But anyone who is the child of God is his forever (cf. John 3.16, 2 Corinthians 5.17).

The virgins must not be spiritualized. They are illustrations within Jesus’ story, placed there as a warning to us. But a warning of what?

Keep your torch lit

Five of the virgins in our story were “foolish” (from the Greek word moros, or “moron”) and five were “wise.” There was no third category in the story, as there is no third category in our lives regarding the parable’s main lesson.

What makes five foolish and five wise? Not their appearance. All ten have come to the same marriage; all are now in the same house, awaiting the same bridegroom and the processional which they will join. All are wearing clothing appropriate to the occasion. All have come with torches.

Here is the issue, the “hinge” of the parable: “The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps” (vs. 3-4). A torch soaked with oil would only burn for 15 minutes or so (France 351). So the wise attendants brought “jars,” flasks made of leather, metal or clay which contained oil for resoaking the cloth on the torches (Carson 513; Beare 482; Robertson 196). The foolish attendants did not. We’re not told why, because no reason could justify their failure.

“The bridegroom was a long time in coming” (v. 5a). This was not at all unusual in the historical context of the story. He might be preparing his home for his new wife, or he might be paying the bills for the marriage feast. And so the attendants “all became drowsy and fell asleep “(v. 5b). The Greek is picturesque: they “dropped off to sleep” and then “went on sleeping” (Robertson 196), illustrating the two stages of sleep (Bruce 300). (Robertson’s comment is unkind but true: “Many a preacher has seen this happen while he is preaching” [196].)

So the bridegroom, the Christ, has been delayed. Those awaiting his return are asleep. In the same way, followers of Jesus will “sleep” until his return: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15.20; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4.14, Acts 7.59-60, 1 Thessalonians 5.6).

But finally the groom arrives: “At midnight the cry rang out, ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'” (v. 6). This “cry” is sudden, loud, jarring (Robertson 196; Broadus 500)). The watchman has seen the bridegroom on his way, coming for his bride. Jesus has already warned his disciples that his return would be swift when it occurs (Matthew 24.27, 37-41). So the one who sees the bridegroom coming calls the attendants to “Come out to meet him!” The phrase suggested a party going out to meet someone or forming his escort (Keener, IVPNTC 357; cf. Robertson 197).

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps” (v. 7). They “trimmed” their lamps by tailoring the cloth, soaking it with fresh oil, and lighting it (Broadus 500; Robertson 197; Rienecker 73). Now the crisis comes: “The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out'” (v. 8). Their torches had enough oil on the cloth to light them, but not enough to sustain the flame.

This is inexcusable—bringing their lamps was the whole reason they came to the bride’s home. Their one purpose was to light the procession for the bridegroom and his new wife, to form the parade which would usher them to their new lives. Without burning torches they would not be distinguished from strangers who have no right to be admitted to the feast. And they would dishonor the bridegroom and his bride (Broadus 500).

So they ask for oil from the five who were wise enough to bring it. These five prove further their wisdom: “No, there may not be enough for both us and you” (v. 9a). This reply in Greek does not actually employ a direct negative, and could better be translated, “We are afraid that there is no possibility of there being enough for us both” (Robertson 197; cf. Plummer 345). And they are right. No attendant would bring more oil than she would need for the procession.

So the wise advise the foolish: “Go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves” (v. 9b). In a little village celebrating a wedding, everyone would be awake. Shops would be open. Oil would be available. And it would appear that the foolish attendants succeeded in buying what they needed, for they later appeared at the door of the bridegroom (v. 11; cf. Hagner 729; Johnson 557).

But it is too late: “while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut” (v. 10). The bridegroom arrived suddenly, as he will: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15.51-52). Jesus’ return will be swift: “as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24.27; cf. 37-41).

The attendants who were waiting with the bride and prepared for his coming joined his processional. Their lighted lamps led the way. The entourage went to the groom’s home for the wedding banquet. “And the door was shut”; the Greek order is emphatic, “shut was the door” (Lenski 969). The door to a Palestinian home was usually in the middle of one side of the house, leading by a passage under the second story to the inner court. All the other rooms opened to this court. And so when the outer door was shut, the entire home was cut off to the outside world (Broadus 500).

Jesus has the authority to close this door one day: “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Revelation 3.7, quoting Isaiah 22.22). Now the promise made earlier by Jesus is no longer open: “knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7.7). This is the opposite of Revelation 3.20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” If we do not open the door to him, one day he must close it to us.

Finally the other attendants arrive: “Sir! Sir! Open the door for us!” (v. 11). But the groom must reply, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you” (v. 12). They have missed the most critical element of the Jewish wedding, the moment in which the bride was brought into the groom’s home under the wedding canopy (Keener, BBCNT 117). There can be no excuse for such an insult. Surely no part of the bride’s processional would commit such an outrage. By their actions they have disqualified themselves from the honored place which had been theirs. And so the groom does not know them. And they cannot enter his home.

Here is the moral of the story: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” Whenever we meet “therefore” in the Scriptures we must ask what it is “there for.” Here the connection is obvious: we must ever be ready for the Christ to return for his bride, the Church. We must be watching every moment of every day. “Keep watch” is a command, not a suggestion.

He may return this hour, or this moment. Jesus may return before you finish reading this commentary, or before you teach the lesson it supports this week. Repeatedly the word of God warns us that it is so: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24.36); “No man knows when his hour will come” (Ecclesiastes 9.12); “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Matthew 13.33; cf. Luke 12.35-40).

If Jesus visited our tiny planet once, he can visit it again. The last recorded words of our Lord say it is so, “Yes, I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22.20). And John can answer, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Can you?

Serve the King now

Jesus’ compelling story makes crystal clear the fact that you and I must serve Jesus today. No one can predict the day or hour when the King will return to his Kingdom. And so no one can afford to wait a moment to prepare for his arrival.

I remember the furor caused by Edgar Whisenant’s bestseller, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Thousands gathered in Korean churches on October 28, 1992 to await the return of Christ as predicted by Lee Chang-rim, founder of the Mission for the Coming Days church. Many followers sold their homes, abandoned their families, and turned over their assets to his church. Harold Camping predicted that Christ would return between September 15 and 27, 1994. Lester Sumrall wrote in his book I Predict 2000 A.D. that Jesus would return in that year to reign from Jerusalem from 1,000 years. So far, every prediction made in the course of Christian history has been wrong.

I like the bumper sticker which says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” That’s good advice. Be ready now. Michael Green: “‘Too late’ is a terrible verdict. The job has been lost; it is too late now to say you will try harder. The divorce has come through; it is too late now to make amends. The examination starts today; it is too late now to prepare for it. And those terrible words are never more awesome than when applied to the parousia. Make sure you don’t miss the party! That is what Jesus means. Readiness is the key” (Green 261).

William Barclay is right: “There is no knell so laden with regret as the sound of the words too late” (321). He quotes Tennyson’s poem to make his point:

Late, late so late! and dark the night and chill!

Late, late so late! but we can enter still.

Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.

No light had we; for that we do repent;

And learning this, the bridegroom will relent.

Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.

No light: so late! and dark and chill the night!

O let us in, that we may find the light!

Too late, too late: ye cannot enter now.

Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?

O let us in, tho’ late, to kiss his feet!

No, no, too late! ye cannot enter now (in Barclay 321).

A sundial was once inscribed with the cryptic message, “It is later than you think.” The sundial at Johns Hopkins University reads,

The only hour upon thy hands

Is the hour upon which the shadow stands.

Austrian composer Franz Schubert was working on his “Unfinished Symphony” when he died suddenly at the age of 31. Frank Grasso, conductor of the Tampa, Florida Synphonette Orchestra, suddenly died as he was directing the last number of a concert. It was Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” We’re all playing in that orchestra. Be ready for the concert to end today.

How? By serving the Lord Jesus now. This we must do for ourselves. No one else can make us ready for Jesus to return. No one else can serve him in our place. As the foolish virgins discovered they could not borrow oil, so we cannot borrow a relationship with God. Others cannot give it to us. They can urge us to obtain this “oil” ourselves, but they cannot give their to us (cf. Plummer 345; Barclay 320-1; Green 261).

Make certain that you have trusted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord, that you have confessed your sins to him and trusted him with your life and eternity. Then use this present moment, this present hour, to fulfill his will for your life. And you will have all the time you need to accomplish that will.

I like the poster which says, “There are always enough hours in the days we give to God.” Paul Tournier was right: “God has given each of us enough time to do what God wants us to do.” Oswald Chambers’s approach to the future was simple, and profound: ‘Trust God and do the next thing.”

This moment is all there is. Leonardo da Vinci observed, “In rivers, the water you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes: so it is with time present.” In the words of theologian Paul Tillich, “Now is the moment when eternity touches time.”

To redeem the time, to use this most precious commodity well, give every hour to Jesus. Make him your King as you serve in his Kingdom. And when he returns, the glorious riches of that Kingdom will be yours. Whatever obedience costs you today will be more than rewarded tomorrow.

C. S. Lewis was profoundly right: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'” Which kind are you?

The United Nations And The United States

The United Nations and the United States

Matthew 6:19-24

Dr. Jim Denison

Why is the United Nations at odds with the United States?

We were instrumental in founding the UN. The term “United Nations” was first coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The organization was created under American leadership, and is headquartered in New York City.

Other permanent members of the UN Security Council include Britain, France, the Russian Federation, and China, each of whom we aided during World War II at the cost of over 400,000 American lives.

Yet most members of the UN have continued to criticize the American position on disarming Iraq. Why?

It’s over purpose.

Europe is committed to socialism, America to capitalism. But there’s more.

Europe affirms secularism passionately, while America is the most religious democracy on earth. Europeans in the main reject moral absolutes and judgments, and find President Bush’s description of an “axis of evil” to be contemptible.

Europe is committed to a collective identity through the UN. Two nationalism-based World Wars have caused Europeans to conclude that national identities lead to war. America believes as strongly in our distinct national identity as Europe does in its collective existence.

And Europe is committed to pacifism, another result of the World Wars fought on its soil. America believes that confrontation is sometimes tragically necessary.

World events are being dictated by purposes. They always are.

What is true of nations is true of their people. Today we will watch as two life purposes go to war with each other. And we will choose our side. Choose well.

You will keep only what you give to God (19-20)

One-fifth of the Sermon on the Mount deals directly with money. This week’s lesson begins, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (v. 19). In the Greek, “do not treasure for yourselves treasure on earth.” Rather, “treasure for yourselves treasure in heaven.”

Here’s the conflict: treasure on earth vs. treasure in heaven. As you decide which side to choose, consider two facts. First: you will keep only what you give to God.

Jesus deals directly with the three great sources of wealth in his world: garment, grain, and gold.

Clothing styles didn’t change in the ancient world, so people kept their garments as an investment. But moths do what styles did not. You find your treasure in your garments, but they’re soon gone. And they still are today. How many clothes do you still wear from five years ago?

The ancients built giant granaries and thought they were wealthy when they were full. But “rust” destroys—the Greek word means “that which eats,” referring to mice, worms, and rats. You find your treasure in your grain, but it’s soon gone. It’s still true today: it takes a year to build a house, and a week to destroy it; a car is demolished in a moment. Possessions are soon gone.

And the world has always valued its gold. Most didn’t have banks, so they buried their gold in the ground near the wall of their house. But their walls were thin, made of mud bricks and adobe. Thieves could easily “break in and steal.” And no insurance companies existed to help. You find your treasure in your gold, but it’s soon gone. Stock market investors know it’s still true.

Only in heaven are our possessions safe: “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (v. 20). Our treasure is safe only with its Creator.

If money on earth could last, the Egyptian pyramids would have kept it. But within a generation, thieves broke into the most elaborate safes ever constructed.

Jacob Hammer was wealthy from birth because of a large inheritance. His investors stored his money in salt domes along the Caspian Sea. But a freak typhoon swept it all away, and Jacob went from tycoon to pauper in one afternoon.

The Titanic carried John Jacob Astor, George B. Widener, John B. Thayer, and Benjamin Guggenheim to their deaths. Their wealth could not buy another moment of life.

Alexander the Great left instructions that he was to be buried with his hands outside his casket, to show the world that its conqueror’s hands were empty. The Spanish have a proverb: a burial shroud has no pockets. A mortician puts nothing into the pockets of those he buries. There are never U-Hauls attached to hearses.

A man gave several thousand dollars to help build a church. Then came the 1929 Great Depression, and he lost everything. A friend said to him, “If you had the money you gave to start that church, you would have had enough to set yourself up in business again.” He replied, “I would have lost that money in the crash as well. As it is, it is the only money I saved. It is now in the bank of heaven yielding interest which will accumulate until eternity. Hundreds have come to Christ through the church it helped build.”

Why give God your tithe, offering, and benevolence? Because he can do more with it than we can. We will lose all we own. He will keep all we give. That’s a fact.

We cannot serve both God and money (21-24)

Here’s the other fact: you and I cannot serve both God and money. We must choose which will be our master, for one always is. And that one will shape our life purpose and mold our soul.

How we use our money reveals our true values: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21). But money also creates our values. How we spend our money shows and shapes who we are.

We will live either for the Creator or his creation. We will define success either by pleasing him or pleasing the world; accumulating reward in heaven or possessions on earth; acclaim in eternity or popularity today. We cannot have both.

But some try, as Jesus makes clear. He calls the eye the “lamp of the body.” He says it must be “good,” translating the word for “single.” If your eye gives your body a single image, you are “full of light”—you can see where you’re going.

But if your eye is “bad,” meaning diseased or unhealthy, it gives your body blurred or double vision. Then you are “full of darkness”—you cannot see where you’re going.

You can only have one life purpose. To live for two is to have spiritual double vision, a blurred soul. It cannot be done.

Jesus is blunt: “No man can serve two masters.” “Serve” translates “slave.” You are owned by one or the other. Either God or Money. You must choose. You cannot serve them both.

There is an Oriental saying: “No man can carry two melons in his hand.”

Plato was right: “To prize wealth, and at the same time acquire wisdom, is impossible; for a man necessarily disregards the one or the other.”

Do you cheat your competition for earthly wealth, or honor them for heavenly reward? Do you lie and gain the account, or tell the truth and gain heaven’s blessing? Do I exaggerate in this sermon to impress you, or speak only the truth to impress God? Every day, in every way, we must decide.

Peter Marshall said the measure of life is not its duration but its donation. Do you agree?

Billy Graham said, “Our lives should resemble a channel, not a reservoir. A reservoir stores up water. A channel is constantly flowing. God wants us to be a channel of blessing to others. When we are, it is we who receive the greatest blessing of all.”


Benjamin Disraeli: “The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” What is yours? The Creator or his creation? Treasure on earth or in heaven? Will you trust God with your tithe, your offerings, your benevolence, your resources? Or will you not?

William Cowper: “The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.” The Lord’s Table shows us God’s. He gave his best, his only Son, to purchase our eternal life, our soul’s salvation. Now he asks us to trust him with the money he has entrusted to our care. He finances his Kingdom on earth through the faithful sacrifice of his people. And he blesses such sacrifice with an even greater reward. But we must trust him. We must trust the One who loved us enough to die for us.

H & R Block recently offered walk-in customers a chance to win a $1 million drawing. Glen and Gloria Sims of Sewell, New Jersey, won the drawing. But they refused to believe it when a Block representative called them with the good news. After several more contacts by both mail and phone, the Simses still thought it was all just a scam, and hung up the phone or trashed the mail notices.

Some weeks later, the company called one more time to let the Simses know the deadline for accepting their million-dollar prize was nearing and that the story about their refusal to accept the prize would appear soon on NBC’s “Today” show. At that point, Glen Sims decided to investigate. A few days later he appeared on “Today” to tell America that he and his wife had finally claimed their million dollars.

The greatest gift in all the universe awaits those who will choose the Creation over his creation. The decision is yours.

To Open Blind Eyes, First Open Yours

To Open Blind Eyes, First Open Yours

John 9:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: Jesus heals us as he healed this man,

and now calls us to join him in his ministry of compassion

The following report to a state industrial commission was filed by a worker who was injured in the act of repairing a chimney:

“Respected Sir:

“When I got to the building, I found that the hurricane had knocked some bricks off the top. So I rigged up a beam with a pulley at the top of the building and hoisted up a couple of barrels full of bricks. When I had fixed the building, there were a lot of bricks left over.

“I hoisted the barrel back up again and secured the line at the bottom, and then went and filled the barrel with extra bricks. Then I went to the bottom and cast off the line.

“Unfortunately, the barrel of bricks was heavier than I was, and before I knew what was happening, the barrel started down, jerking me off the ground. I decided to hang on, and halfway up, I met the barrel coming down and received a severe blow on the shoulder. I then continued to the top, banging my head against the beam and getting my finger jammed in the pulley. When the barrel hit the ground, it burst its bottom, allowing the bricks to spill out. I was heavier than the empty barrel, so I started up again at high speed. Halfway down, I met the barrel coming up, and received severe injuries to my shins. When I hit the ground, I landed on the bricks, getting several painful cuts from the sharp edges.

“At this point I must have lost my presence of mind, because I let go of the line. The barrel then came down giving me another heavy blow on the head and putting me in the hospital.”

We’ve all been on that brickpile, and we’ll all return there again. Are you there today? This week’s miracle will help you find the Great Physician and his hope. Do you know people on brickpiles of pain, despair, or loneliness? The miracle before us will help you help them. Our suffering can be great, but our Savior is greater, as this week’s study will prove.

See the need (v. 1)

Our story occurred on a Sabbath (John 9.14). Jesus has returned to Judea, where he has been teaching in the temple courts (John 8.2). The annual Feast of Tabernacles has just occurred in mid-October (Tenney 100). Jesus may have met the man in our story as he sat begging by the Temple, or at the Pool of Siloam (since its waters were used for the Feast of Tabernacle rituals just completed). Wherever our story began, it started with Jesus. He noticed a man who could not see him: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth” (John 9.1).

Jesus had not begun the day intending to heal this man. He was “passing along,” walking through the day before him. So much of his ministry was done by “walking around,” helping the people he chanced to meet, seeing their pain and offering his hope.

So it was that he “saw” this man. The Greek word translated “saw” here means to fix the gaze, to look earnestly (Hovey 201). Jesus gave him more than a passing glance—he paid attention to his predicament.

When he saw the man, he saw his need: he was “blind from birth.” Simple observation could not have told him this. How would anyone know when the man’s blindness had begun? It’s possible that the man told him (Lenski 675), or that his reputation preceded him (cf. v. 8). But the syntax suggests to me that the instant Jesus saw the man he knew that his blindness was congenital. If he could heal this man’s blindness, he could determine its source.

This insight gave the Great Physician enough information for a diagnosis: his illness has persisted for many years, caused by a physical abnormality which could not be treated by first-century medicine. There was no medical option for this man. He needed not a physician, but a miracle.

What Jesus knew of this man, he knows today of you: “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious concerning me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand” (Psalm 139.15-18, NIV footnote). The Physician who saw this man and his need sees yours. The blind man could not see Jesus, as we cannot see him today. But the one who cannot see is visible to the One who can.

He sees you and your problems today: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6.8). Our prayers do not inform God of our needs; rather, they yield them to the only One who can solve them.

Now Jesus calls us to see others as he sees us. This week’s miracle is the only account in the gospels of Jesus healing a person with a congenital physical problem (Robertson 160, Barclay 37). But we find another such account early in Christian history: “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts” (Acts 3.1-2). Here is a man who had begged for 40 years beside the Temple (Acts 4.22). For their entire lives, Peter and John have seen him there and passed him by. But not today.

Today, filled with the Holy Spirit who came upon them at Pentecost, “Peter looked straight at him, as did John” (v. 4). “Looked straight at” translates a Greek word which means to stare with intent purpose. It is the same word used of the disciples as they stared at Jesus during his Ascension (Acts 1.10: “they were looking intently up into the sky”). It is the same word used of Stephen as he stared into heaven during his martyrdom (Acts 7.55: “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God”). These men are now controlled by the Spirit of Jesus. They see what he saw.

We can tell how close we are to Jesus by the degree to which we love those he loves. The first “fruit of the Spirit,” the first result of the Spirit at work in our lives, is love (Galatians 5.22). The first commandment is that we love God, and the second is that we fulfill the first by loving our neighbor (Matthew 22.37, 39). When was the last time you stepped out of your routine to see someone as Jesus does?

Be practical (vs. 2-3)

The disciples followed their Master’s gaze, but for a very different reason. He saw a man in personal pain; they saw a theological question. He stopped to heal this man; they stopped to use him as an example for their theological discussion: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2).

Before we listen to Jesus’ answer, first let’s explore their question, lest we ask it ourselves. The rabbis taught that suffering is the result of sin: “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity” (Rabbi Ammi, in Shab. 55a, cited in Morris 478). First-century Judaism assumed that suffering was proof of divine wrath, and prosperity proof of his pleasure and reward. Such logic is not confined to ancient Judaism—every world religion holds an aspect of its claim.

Hindus believe in the law of karma, the idea that our present suffering is punishment for wrongs we committed in a previous lifetime. According to Gautama Buddha’s “First Sermon at Benares,” all suffering is due to wrong desire. Newspaper accounts following the Columbia tragedy quoted al-Qaeda sympathizers as attributing the disaster to America’s sins against Allah.

In Christian theology, the disciples’ question has been most fully formulated by St. Augustine. His “theodicy” (an account of evil in the light of God’s goodness and power) attributes suffering to the misuse of our free will. God created us to worship him; worship requires freedom; when we misuse this freedom, the consequences are not God’s fault but ours.

Often Augustine is right. I’ve seen marriages end because of adultery; I’ve buried alcoholics who died of cirrhosis of the liver; I’ve known drug users who contracted AIDS; I’ve watched students who didn’t study fail the test and then blame God or me. I know of suffering in my life which has come from my sins. You do too.

The disciples didn’t doubt that the man’s congenital blindness was the result of sin. They only want to know who to blame: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2). It’s hard to understand how they could believe that a man’s blindness at birth could be his own fault, but many people did. The authorities would later say to this man, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” (John 9.34). Some Jews thought that a person could sin while still in the mother’s womb (cf. Psalm 51.5, “Surely I was sinful at birth”). Some knew the Greek idea that the soul preexisted the body (Barclay 38), and tied it to Jeremiah 1.5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” and Psalm 58.3, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (cf. Beasley-Murray 155). So the disciples certainly believed this man’s blindness could be his own fault.

If not his, it must be his parents’. The Jews remembered God’s warning, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of their fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20.5-6). So the disciples were curious, not compassionate. They assumed that this man deserves his fate, and had no interest in helping him avoid it. They rushed to judgment, with no idea that the ones they judged were really themselves.

Jesus cleared up their confusion: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9.3). Some suffering is the result of sin, but such was not the case here. Much of the world’s grief and pain is not the result of anyone’s sin or failure. Remember Job’s plight; think of the Columbia astronauts and their noble quest; remember Jesus’ innocent crucifixion. To attribute all suffering to sin often increases the suffering of the innocent.

Helen Spinks was one of the most godly people I’ve ever known. She suffered with cancer all the years I knew her in Midland, and eventually died of the disease. We were talking one day shortly before the end, and I asked her the hardest part of her ordeal. She looked at me through pain-wracked eyes and told me about all the people who had told her that if she would just repent of her sins she would be healed. She wasn’t bitter about them, but I was.

In this case, the man’s inherited blindness was no one’s fault. He had certainly not sinned, and neither had his parents’ sin caused his handicap. Rather, “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Now it seems that we have traded one theological dilemma for another. We are comfortable with Jesus’ claim that the man’s blindness was not caused by sin. But how do we feel about the assertion that it was caused by God, to display his glory?

There can be no doubt that the Lord of the universe must permit all that happens, or he is not God. But Jesus’ answer seems to indicate that he caused this man’s blindness, through no fault of the man or his family. Fortunately, the NIV translation is not the only option. The word translated “so that” can also be rendered “with the result that” (Bruce 782, Morris 477, cf. Brown 371). As a result, his answer can be translated, “this happened with the result that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

Herschel Hobbs suggests yet another possibility. The punctuation marks in the Greek text were placed there by editors; the originals had no punctuation except the question mark. So Hobbs rearranges the punctuation of the verse to read, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents. But that the works of God should be made manifest in him, we must work the works of him that sent me . . .” (Hobbs, Invitation 58).

I do not understand Jesus’ statement to teach that God created this man’s blindness. He permitted it, as a consequence of the natural, fallen world in which we live. When mankind fell, all of creation was affected by the fall (cf. Romans 8.22). Blindness, birth defects, cancer, and other diseases are often the result of our fallen world, not our fallen actions. So it was here.

But the Lord would redeem this suffering for his glory and the man’s good: “the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Jesus came to do the “work of God” (cf. Matthew 12.28, Mark 2.7). The healing to come is a miracle to us, but it is merely the “work” of God, his normal activity and ability (cf. Morris 479).

Jesus turned the disciples’ speculative question into practical truth. He did not tell them why the man was blind, but what God intended to do about his blindness. He did not explain the source of the pain, but its solution. In the hardest places of life, his answer is what we need.

Are you hurting along with the blind man? Are you or others asking why? Sometimes knowing the cause is important to the cure, especially if your suffering is the result of sin which must now be confessed to be cleansed (1 John 1.8-9). But often our speculative questions cannot give practical help. Knowing why the Columbia tragedy occurred will prevent future disasters, but it will not bring the Columbia astronauts back.

So we should focus on the practical. Now that we are in this place of suffering, what are we to do? How will God help us? How would he use us to help someone else? Jesus redeemed this man’s blindness by displaying his own miraculous glory, and then by leading the man to spiritual sight as well (v. 38: “the man said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him”). He will redeem our pain for his glory and our good. And he will use us to do the same for those we can help.

On the brick piles of suffering, we don’t often need to know why the bricks are there. Just how to remove them from our lives.

Become Jesus’ hands (vs. 4-7)

Now you and I join our story: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me” (John 9.4a). Note two words: “we must.” All of Jesus’ followers must “do the work of him who sent” our Lord. We are engaged in the same ministry which brought him to our planet. We are now the presence of Christ on earth, his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5.20). How do we become Jesus’ hands?

With urgency: “Night is coming, when no man can work” (v. 4b). The King James renders this phrase, “Night cometh,” the origin of the Park Cities Baptist Church (Dallas, TX) clock tower inscription. Night was coming for Jesus: “I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the one who sent me” (John 7.33). It is coming for us as well. None of us is promised tomorrow. We have only today to join Jesus at work.

When the night comes, “no man can work” (cf. John 11.9-10, 12.35-36). One day will be the last day. One hour will be the last hour. The “night cometh,” and all work is done. Love your Lord by loving your neighbor, with urgency.

In his power: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (v. 5). The New Testament repeatedly testifies that Jesus is the spiritual light of a world darkened by sin: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1.4-5); “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (John 1.9); “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (John 8.12). His ministry fulfilled the prophet’s prediction, through whom God said, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49.6).

He is the light—we are his reflection: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6). Jesus called us: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5.14). We are to reflect his light as the moon does the sun’s rays.

We cannot heal blind eyes, of course. But Jesus can. And so we share his power, his love, his hope. Peter said to the man crippled from birth, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3.6). We pray for the one in pain. We share God’s word with the one who needs hope. We bring God’s love to the one in despair. We become Jesus’ hands, in his power.

At the level of need: “Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes” (v. 6). We know why a first-century physician would do such a strange thing. Ancients like Pliny, the Roman scientist, believed that spit would cure snakes’ poison, epilepsy, lichens and leprosy, and neck pains (Barclay 42). Saliva was highly esteemed as an ancient cure for illness (Rienecker 240).

But we wouldn’t expect a Jewish rabbi to attempt this cure. The rabbis warned against using spittle for medicine because of its frequent connection with medical practices (Beasley-Murray 155). Also, making mud with the spit and then applying that mud to the eyes were both acts forbidden on the Sabbath (Rienecker 240, Robertson 162, Morris 480, Barclay 44-5). Later the authorities would raise this very objection: “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath'” (v. 16).

So two questions arise. Why would Jesus accommodate himself to a belief he knew to be more superstition than medicine? He healed other blind eyes without using spit and mud, showing that the miracle was not in the dirt but the One who first created it (cf. Mark 10.46-52; Matthew 9.27-31; 12.22; 15.30; 21.14). And why would he be willing to flaunt rabbinic conventions to use spit-made mud here?

Our text does not say, but I can think of no reason except that the blind man needed this accommodation. He knew Jesus’ action to be accepted medical practice. To our knowledge, he had no previous information regarding Jesus’ healing powers. Had the Divine Physician not acted as a human doctor, it is likely that his patient would not have accepted his cure.

The application to us is simple: meet need on its level. It’s hard to talk to a hungry man about his soul before we feed his body. There is little point in explaining fully Augustine’s free-will theodicy to a man dying of cancer. Win the trust of the person you are called to help. Develop relationship—establish common ground—earn confidence. Is someone in your class hurting today? Meet them where they hurt. Learn their pain. Join their grief. Connect with their suffering, before you try to bring it to the Savior.

Jewish theology taught that touching a “sinner” like this man implicated the person in his sin. But Jesus touched the man’s eyes, all the same. So must we.

Call to faith: “‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (v. 7). Now Jesus asked the man to trust him. Washing in the pool of Siloam was not part of any accepted medical practice. And it required sacrifice on the part of a blind man.

The pool of Siloam was one of the great landmarks in ancient Jerusalem. The reservoir is 53 feet long, 18 feet across, and 19 feet deep, with columns built into the side walls (Hovey 204). It is a pool with a marvelous history.

When King Hezekiah was at war with Assyria, seven centuries before Christ, he became concerned about the city’s water supply. The spring of Gihon, situated in the Kidron Valley below Jerusalem, was and is a constant source of water. But the spring was completely exposed, and could only be reached by climbing down the 33 steps carved into the side of the mountain on which Jerusalem had been built. During war, this water source could easily be compromised (Barclay 42-3).

Hezekiah had the spring of Gihon channeled into the city, by building the tunnel which created the pool of Siloam. This “tunnel of Hezekiah” was chiseled for 1748 feet through solid rock. It was rediscovered in 1880, with Hezekiah’s inscription recounting its completion: “The boring through is completed. Now is the story of the boring through. While the workmen were still lifting pick to pick, each towards his neighbor, and while three cubits remained to be cut through, each heard the voice of the other who called his neighbor, since there was a crevice in the rock on the right side. And on the day of the boring through the stonecutters struck, each to meet his fellow, pick to pick; and there flowed the waters to the pool for a thousand and two hundred cubits, and a hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the stonecutters” (Barclay 43).

The pool took its name from this historic event: it was called the Hebrew word for “sent,” since waters were “sent” into it through the tunnel Hezekiah had constructed. My last time in Jerusalem, I walked, stooped over, the length of the tunnel to the pool, to find children swimming in it.

Jesus sent the blind man to one of the most famous pools in Jewish history. But we’re not sure the distance this trip required. If Jesus’ encounter with the man took place outside the Temple (which was likely, as beggars usually congregated there), then the man had to walk to the southern end of the city, a considerable distance and hardship for a blind person. But since the waters of the pool were used during the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles which had just ended, it is possible that Jesus and the blind man were both in its vicinity (cf. NIB 653).

Whatever the distance, Jesus’ patient walked it: “The man went and washed, and came home seeing” (v. 7). Here we see the divine-human partnership at work again. Jesus would heal the man’s eyes, but he would have to wash them first. He did what he could, and Jesus did what he could not.

Similar faith was required of Naaman the leper. Remember his reluctance to obey the prophet Elisha’s prescription to wash in the Jordan river. Finally he did, “and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy” (2 Kings 5.14). And so the man “washed” his eyes—the word means that he bathed his eyes, not merely splashing or washing them (Robertson 163).

With this result: he “came home seeing.” In the same way, the man crippled from birth got up at Peter’s word and with his help, and “instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk” (Acts 3.7-8). God requires our faith, not to earn his power but to receive it.

Jesus’ physical healing soon became spiritual. The authorities, with no compassion for the man’s healing, were concerned only that his miracle occurred on the Sabbath. So they wanted to know how he received his sight at the hands of a “sinner” who would break their Sabbath rules. His reply is my favorite witness in Scripture: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (v. 25). He paid for his faith with expulsion from the synagogue and faith community (v. 34), condemnation which isolated him from his family, friends, and intended future.

But not from Jesus: “Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?'” (v. 35). Just as our Lord initiated the man’s physical healing, so he took the initiative for his spiritual salvation. And the man who had been healed in body was healed in soul (v. 38).

Now you and I are enlisted in Jesus’ continuing work as his spiritual physicians. We are to do for those we know what Jesus did for us. Jesus came to us with urgent compassion. He met our need with his power, and led us to faith. Now we are to do the same for those we can help. Believing all the while that the One who healed blind eyes and blind hearts will use us as his hands today.

Do for others what Jesus did for this blind man. See their need. Be practical in helping meet it. Become Jesus’ hands with urgency, bringing God’s power to their need, calling them to faith in him. Believe that God will use you. And he will.

John Patton was a missionary in the South Pacific in the early 1800’s. After working for a year, not a single person had come to Christ. People attended his Bible studies and nodded approvingly, but would not respond to his invitation to faith. He began to considering a move to another mission field, and prayed that the Lord would give him just one convert. If one man came to Christ, he reasoned, he could move on while knowing that the work would continue there.

For eight years he worked and prayed for that one convert. Then one morning, Patton awoke to see the entire population of the island, 1200 people, assembled near his home. The chief said, “We are all ready to receive Christ.” Patton was stunned. He learned that tribal culture required that no one receive Christ until all were ready. He spent three days baptizing the 1200 converts. He had prayed for one to be saved, but God saved them all.

To open blind eyes, there is only one requirement: we must first open ours.

What’s Your Problem?

What’s Your Problem?

John 2:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We should give our needs to Jesus as Mary did—

in simple faith and obedience

In the summer of 1994 the Associated Press reported a robbery which ended in a very unusual way. In Conway, Arkansas, Cindy Hartman was awakened by the telephone. As she started to answer it, she was stopped by a burglar. The burglar tore the phone cord from the wall and told her to get in the closet.

Cindy dropped to her knees to pray. She then turned to the robber and asked if she could pray for him. She told him that God loved him and so did she. She told the man that she forgave him for what he was doing.

How did this hardened criminal react? He fell to his knees beside her in prayer, and asked her forgiveness. He told the other burglar with him that they could not steal from a Christian family, so they unloaded everything they had taken He borrowed a shirt from Cindy and removed his fingerprints. He then removed the bullets from his gun and gave it to Cindy. Not that she wanted it—she had all the protection she needed.

Webster defines a “miracle” as “an event or action that apparently contradicts known scientific laws and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes, especially to an act of God.” Cindy Hartman would agree. How can we receive such help in our lives?

We begin a study of the miracles of Jesus as found in the Gospel of John. Our purpose will not be a theoretical investigation of the miraculous, but a practical study of ways people like us experienced the miraculous power of God in their daily lives. We all need the help Cindy Hartman found. Perhaps, for you or someone in your class, the burglar is in your house right now.

Where do you need the miraculous power of God in your life today? Keep that problem or burden in mind as we study together. It may be that at the end of our story, it will include you.

Invite Jesus to your home

The first miracle performed by the Son of God began in a most inauspicious place: “On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee” (John 2:1). Cana was a village so insignificant that its location has not been determined with absolute certainty. Most archaeologists identify it as Kefr Kenna, 3.5 miles from Nazareth, though other locations are also possible (Robertson 33). It is mentioned twice more in John’s Gospel: Jesus performed a second miracle there (4:46, the event we’ll study next); and the disciple Nathaniel is identified as being from this tiny village (21:2). Cana of Galilee is found nowhere else in the word of God. If Jesus would begin his ministry there, he will continue it where you live today.

Our story unfolds on a Wednesday afternoon, the fourth day of the Jewish week, at a wedding. This was the day for the marriage of virgins, as prescribed in the Jewish law (Morris 178; Brown 98; Robertson 33).

When we trace the events of the week leading to the wedding, we learn that Jesus has been busy. He called James and John to be his first followers on the previous Sabbath (our Saturday) in John 1:39. Andrew and Simon joined him the following day (John 1:40-42). On Monday he called Philip and Nathaniel to discipleship, and “decided to leave for Galilee” (John 1:43). His fledgling group traveled on Tuesday, arriving late that evening or Wednesday morning (cf. Brown 98). This chronology will become important to our story momentarily.

Jesus’ group has come to a wedding, “one of the supreme occasions” of common life in ancient Palestine (Barclay 97). The marriage ceremony was celebrated late Wednesday evening, following an all-day feast. Then the couple was led to their new home under the light of flaming torches, with a canopy held over their heads. For a week they wore crowns, dressed in bridal robes, and were treated and even addressed as a king and queen. In lives filled with poverty and hard work, this was a joyous celebration for the entire village (Barclay 96-7).

Why did Jesus come? Later in our study we will explore the wonderful spiritual lessons found in the fact that Jesus chose to begin his public ministry at such a party. For now, let’s focus on the practical: “Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding” (John 2:1b-2). Our Lord came because he was invited.

So, why was he invited? We have no knowledge of any previous relationship between Jesus and this village. Cana was likely close to Nazareth, so Jesus could simply have known the wedding party or their friends and thus been included in their party. But Mary was already at the wedding, acting in a somewhat official capacity, when her Son arrived. As we will observe in a moment, she felt responsibility for the fact that the wedding wine had run out, had the authority to order the servants to obey Jesus’ instructions, and assumed that he would give them. Not a typical role for a typical guest.

So twenty centuries of commentators have speculated as to Mary’s purpose at this wedding, and have connected Jesus’ invitation to her role there. Her husband Joseph is not mentioned in the story, and was apparently already dead. And so it is possible that Mary was serving the wedding in some professional capacity, as a means to self-support; we might call her the “caterer” today. But it is much more likely that she was a relative of someone in the wedding party (David Brown 1085; Barnes 191).

The text gives us nothing beyond this possibility. But legend proceeds where biblical exposition will not go. Some ancient traditions suggested that Simon the Zealot, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, was the bridegroom in question, and even that he was the son of Mary’s sister. Others made the bridegroom none other than John himself, the author of this Gospel, and claimed that he was the son of Mary’s sister (cf. Barclay 96). No one can, or should, say.

All we need to know is that Jesus chose to attend a wedding with his mother. Perhaps this is the very reason he chose to leave for Galilee (John 1:43). He could have begun his public ministry in any way he chose. If you possessed his miraculous, divine powers, how would you first tell the world? Would you raise a Lazarus from his grave? Would you feed a multitude of 5,000 with a small boy’s lunch? Would you walk on the sea? Would you open blind eyes? Would you reveal your powers to Herod in Caesarea or Caesar in Rome? Jesus began in an obscure, rural village, by blessing a peasant wedding.

One commentator notes: “His work awaited him, a work full of intense strife, hazard, and pain; yet in a mind occupied with these things the marriage joy of a country couple finds a fit home” (Bruce 706). Barclay adds: “When John told this story he was remembering what life with Jesus was like; and he said, ‘Wherever Jesus went and whenever he came into life it was like water turning into wine'” (105). Jesus cared about the simple problems of simple people. He thrilled to fill their lives with his joy. He still does.

Call to mind that place where you need the touch of God for your life, your work, your family, your marriage today. Then make this simple decision: invite Jesus into your home. Ask him to join you at that place of need. He is waiting to come. In fact, he’s already standing at the door (Revelation 3.20).

Ask Jesus for help

Hospitality in the Middle and Far East was and is a sacred duty. When serving as a missionary in East Malaysia I was often privileged to be welcomed into the simplest of village huts. The mother would always set food before me. It might be goat’s milk or bean curd, but it was her best and I was obligated to eat it. (Fish eyes were the greatest test of faith I encountered.) No one in the Palestine of Jesus’ day would think of inviting a guest to their home without providing them a meal. And if the wine or food ran out, such would be a social catastrophe.

Nowhere was such hospitality more mandatory than at one’s wedding. The entire village was there. Families saved for years to provide for the occasion. To run out of wine would be a nightmare beyond contemplation. It simply wasn’t done. Such a failure could not be tolerated. If you invited friends and family to Christmas dinner but ran out of food to feed them, you would be embarrassed. If you were a bride or groom in Jesus’ day and ran out of wine, you would be humiliated for the rest of your life.

But this is precisely the catastrophe that occurred: during the feast preceding the marriage ceremony, “the wine was gone” (John 2:3a). Who failed? What could have gone wrong? We find a clue: “Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine'” (John 2:3b). Given that she was perhaps related to the wedding party, we understand her concern. But why would she involve Jesus? The more proper and expected action would have been to alert the groom’s family, or to ask others living in Cana for help (Lenski 187). Why go to her Son?

It is of course possible that she was simply calling on his divine powers. She had witnessed the statements made about her Son when he was a newborn infant (Luke 2:25-38), and had “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). But Jesus has performed no miracle to this point in his recorded life. And he had no obligation to work one here.

That is, unless the shortage of wine was somewhat his fault. Remember that Jesus left Judea for Galilee only four days earlier, with six new disciples as part of his procession. Mary and her Son had likely been invited much earlier. While verse 2 specifies that his disciples had been invited as well, it is possible that the wedding planners did not know that six adults would be joining him. If so, their presence could explain the shortage of wine. And make the pending social tragedy in a way his concern as well as hers (cf. Robertson 34, Bruce 703).

We have no way of knowing whether or not the shortage of wine was related to the presence of Jesus’ six disciples at the wedding. But we do know that he cared about the problem these peasants faced. As he does yours and mine. He was extremely clear on this subject: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:31-34).

Mary somehow knew that her Son would help. And so she asked, with the simplest prayer in all the Bible: “They have no more wine.” She quietly and simply put this problem into Jesus’ hands. As we should: “”We all have a tendency to use prayer to dictate to God. Our part is to lay the need before him, and then trust him to respond as he wills” (Milne 63). Mary’s recorded words in Scripture are few; these guide us as we use our own to speak to her Son (cf. Carson 173). We can give him our every need, with the assurance that he wants to hear and help.

But Jesus’ response didn’t seem to agree: “‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My time has not yet come'” (John 2:4). His words seem harsh until we step behind the English into the Greek used by John, and then the light comes on.

“Woman” is the literal translation of Jesus’ Greek word. Most translations carry it just this way; the NIV tries to soften it by adding “Dear,” a word not found in the original text. But such an attempt is well founded. For Jesus’ word was a great title of respect and courtesy. Augustus used it to address Cleopatra (Bruce 703), and Odysseus used it for Penelope, his much-loved wife (Barclay 98). Jesus made it his typical way of addressing women (Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 20:13). His title for her conveyed his respect.

As did his reply. “Why do you involve me?” was a Jewish figure of speech (Brown 99) and meant here something like, “We are looking at this problem in different ways” or “we stand on different grounds” (cf. Bruce 703). It can be rendered so positively as to say, “The problem is taken care of” (Rienecker 222).

This phrase makes even more sense when combined with what follows: “My time has not yet come.” Jesus’ “time” refers here to the hour for public manifestation of his Messiahship (Robertson 35). Later it will relate to his death and resurrection (John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17:1). In this setting Jesus means something like, “The time has not yet come for me to show the world my power, but I will solve this problem another way.” Barclay catches the meaning best: “Don’t worry; you don’t quite understand what is going on; leave things to me, and I will settle them in my own way” (98). And he would.

Answering questions about the Christian faith and word of God is one of my favorite things to do in ministry. Over the years, Sunday school classes and other groups have often invited me to such sessions. A staff member once termed these events “stump the chump,” and now the title is official. At such gatherings, I am often asked the question: why doesn’t God still work miracles today? We read of remarkable events in the Bible, but not in the newspaper. Why don’t we see his power at work more in our lives?

James has the answer: “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you do ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3). When did you last ask Jesus to change your “water” into “wine” for his glory? When did you last trust him as fully as Mary did in our story? She didn’t tell her Son what to do or how to do it—she simply stated her problem and trusted him to solve it. And he did.

Jesus always gives us what we ask, or something better. He meets our need, in his own time and way. His answers may not come when we want them, or in the way we expect them. But our Father promises to meet all our needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).

Here’s the simple condition: we must ask. Define that place where you need the help of God most. Are you waiting on God, or is he waiting on you?

Then do as he says

Mary is the overlooked hero of this story. It is appropriate that she is called “Jesus’ mother” (v. 1) or “his mother” (v. 5) and never by her given name, for such was the way people in Jesus’ world spoke of a mother with reverent respect. To refer to her as the mother of God’s Son reminded the reader of her crucial role in world history and human salvation. Thus John never uses her name in his Gospel (Morris 177, Brown 98).

We have seen already her vital role in her Son’s first miracle. Mary was apparently the first to recognize the problem at hand, or at least the first to do something about it. She came to the right Person, in the right way. Now she responded to her prayer with the right action: “His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Mary had authority to order the servants, but none to order her Son. And she knew it.

So should we. Hers is exactly the right kind of faith: do whatever Jesus says. For he will always give us something to do. Our Lord has created a kind of divine-human partnership with his creation. As we work, he works. Our partnership began at the beginning: God created the Garden of Eden, but expected man to till and work it. If our Creator made the fields, he could certainly have made them produce. But he did what only he could do, and called mankind to do what we could do.

See this partnership at the parting of the Red Sea: Moses raised his rod, and God raised the waters. Find it at the crossing of the Jordan River: the priests stepped into the raging flood, and God stopped its flow. Watch it with the feeding of 5,000: a boy gave his lunch, and Jesus made lunch for them all. At the raising of Lazarus: the servants removed the stone, and Jesus removed the chains of death. Then he instructed Mary and Martha to unwrap the corpse he had returned to life.

When we act in faith first, our Father responds in power. Our faith does not earn his power—it positions us to receive what God already wants to give. But no one can put a gift into a clenched fist, not even the Almighty Lord of the universe. We must trust him enough to be willing to receive the grace he wants to give. Such faith does not earn but receive the miracle of God.

So it is here: Jesus will turn their water to wine, but they must fill the jars first. “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons” (John 2:6). “Ceremonial washing” was vitally important to the Jews of Jesus’ day (see 2 Kings 3:11; Mark 7:3; John 13:4-10; John 3:25). It was the physical means by which they ensured that they were spiritually clean while living in this fallen world.

Before eating or entering into religious activity, they would wash their hands as carefully as any surgeon today: the hand was held upright, the water poured over it so that it ran down to the wrist. Then the hand was pointed down and water poured so that it ran from the wrist to the fingertips. Each hand was washed in this way, then each palm cleansed by rubbing it with the fist of the other hand (Barclay 98-9). No Jew would think of eating without this ritual; thus the water-pots at the wedding feast.

The pots themselves were made of stone, which was used because it could not contract “uncleanness” (Rienecker 222). The Law specified that if an unclean animal died and fell into a clay pot, the pot must be broken (Leviticus 11:29-39). But stone jars were considered immune from such possibility (Brown 100, citing Mishnah Betsah 2.3). Such water-pots are still used in Israel today, and are a common sight to tourists.

The water-pots each held two or three “measures,” an amount approximating nine gallons (Howard 492; Josephus, Antiq. 8.2.9). Each pot thus contained about 20 gallons. By transforming this much water, Jesus created 2,000 four-ounce glasses of wine (Tenney 42). Using the customary dilution of two parts wine with three parts water (Barclay 97), Jesus provided enough wine to last the entire wedding week.

How did he do it? “Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet’. They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine” (John 2:7-9a). When they worked, he worked. They did what they could do, and he did what only he could do.

To experience the touch and power of God, first we invite him to join us at the place of our need. Next, we give that need to him in simple faith. Now we listen for his instructions. He will guide us into the next step we are to take. He will lead us as we study his word, worship him, pray to him, and experience daily life. He will show us what we are to do, so that he can then do what only he can do.

His instructions may make no sense to us at the time. Providing wine for a wedding feast by filling ceremonial pots with water would not have been logical for anyone watching these servants or their Master. Faith is required to experience the power of God. Will you trust your greatest need to Jesus, and allow him to ask anything of you in obedience? Until we come to that place, we may not see his power. When we do, we will.

Expect the best

The servants took their water made into wine to the “master of the banquet,” the superintendent whose duty it was to arrange the tables and food (Rienecker 222); we might call him the head waiter (Barclay 99). His official title was “triclinarch,” so named from the “triclina,” couches for three persons each which were placed around low tables for the guests to use (Lenski 195-6). This position is found only here in all the New Testament (Morris 183), but it is crucial to the miracle.

This wine taster “did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, ‘Everyone brings out the choice wine first and the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now'” (John 2:9b-10). And both men were astonished.

Now we are in position to assemble the facts which prove our story a miracle:

Jesus used ordinary pots of water which were in clear view of all. He or his disciples could not have exchanged the water for wine before this miracle, as would have been possible if the pots were in a closed and hidden room.

The pots were large and six in number, so that they could not have been brought to the wedding by the disciples without the notice of the crowd.

The pots were filled to the brim with water, so that no wine could have been added later.

Jesus never touched the water turned into wine, but only the servants.

The servants took this water directly to the master of the feast, not to an intermediary who could have switched it for wine.

The master of the feast, the resident expert on wine, pronounced it excellent.

Neither he nor the groom were drunk, and thus would know the quality of the wine.

Jesus did what his mother asked, and even more. She would have been happy with enough wine of normal quality to continue the wedding feast. He gave the wedding party enough wine for the entire week, and of excellent quality as well. When we give our need to Jesus, we must expect him to give us his very best, always.

What is that place of need in your life today? Know that God knows your hurt, and is working to help. Do as he asks, then expect him to do what only he can. According to his purpose, in his time, and for his glory, he will.

A side note

I cannot conclude these notes without stating that Jesus’ miracle should not be construed as condoning alcohol abuse or alcoholism. In his day water, wine, and a kind of beer were the only beverages available. Wine, with its fermentation, was typically the healthiest drink. It was commonly diluted, as we have seen, so that alcoholism occurred very seldom. And drunkenness was strongly condemned by the culture of the day: “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). The Bible warned: “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper” (Proverbs 23:31-32).

Alcohol abuse in the first century could not lead to drug abuse, or to the death of innocents. Drunk driving was of course impossible. Alcoholism was far less common, and much less disastrous for society at large. Teenage drinking was not allowed. And so Jesus’ creation of wine is in no way parallel to the alcohol industry or alcohol use in our day.

Believe in the power of God

Here is how John summarized Jesus’ first miracle: “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11). We have witnessed “the inaugural event of Jesus’ ministry” (O’Day 536).

This was a “sign,” an act or miracle “designed to lead to belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God” (Rienecker 222). Each time John shows us such a “sign,” he also describes the spiritual results it produced (cf. 2:18, 2:23, 3:2, 6:2, 7:31-32, 12:37-38). This statement summarizes: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).

Here his first “sign” helped his disciples “put their faith in him.” He came to Cana of Galilee “to bring about conversion: water to wine, sinners to saints” (Tenney 43). With this result: “This particular miracle signifies that there is a transforming power associated with Jesus. He changes the water of Judaism into the wine of Christianity, the water of Christlessness into the wine of the richness and the fullness of eternal life in Christ, the water of the law into the wine of the gospel” (Morris 176).

One day he will do the same miracle for us all, for “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son” (Matthew 22:1; cf. 25:1, Luke 12:36-37). The Old Testament consistently pictured the final kingdom of God as a banquet with abundant wine (Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12). (Interestingly, the non-biblical book of 2 Baruch, written almost at the same time as John’s Gospel, predicted that God’s final kingdom would produce such grape vines that each grape would make 120 gallons of water, the exact amount Jesus produced in our miracle; cf. Boring 249-50; Brown 105, quoting Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. v 33.3-4).

One day God will turn all water into spiritual joy: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. / I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21.1-2, emphasis added). On that day we will drink from that cup which is “the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20; cf. v. 17). On that day we will receive the Lord’s Supper from the Lord himself, as the bride of our Groom. And that day will be joy indeed.

Meanwhile, we can trust God to turn our water into the “wine” we need, whenever we need it. Jesus “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). What he did for the peasant wedding at Cana of Galilee, he waits to do for you and for me.

When next you have trouble believing that it is so, remember the words of St. Augustine: “I never have any difficulty believing in miracles, since I experienced the miracle of a change in my own heart.” If he could turn your sinful heart into his Spirit’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16) and save your soul from hell for heaven, what can’t he do?

Our Father created the entire universe. Imagine yourself on a rocket ship, preparing to travel across this spectrum of existence. Thanks to a remarkable technological breakthrough, you’ll travel at the speed of light, 186,282 miles per second. You blast off. One second later, the earth drops away to the size of a balloon. In two seconds you shoot past the moon. Eight and one-half minutes later, you pass the sun. Earth is a tiny speck, 93 million miles behind you.

Five hours later you leave our solar system. For four years you travel at the speed of light, until you reach Alpha Centauri, the star nearest to Earth. You continue for 100,000 years until you leave the Milky Way, our galaxy. How far must you travel at the speed of light to reach the edge of the universe we cannot see today with our telescopes? 4,500,000,000 years. And who knows what lies beyond?

Yet our God measures all this with the palm of his hand (Isaiah 40:12). Now, what’s your problem?

Why Does God Allow War?

Why Does God Allow War?

John 20:10-18

Dr. Jim Denison

Why does God allow war? I trust we understand that he does not cause it. Japanese bombers invading Pearl Harbor, or Hitler’s tanks invading Poland, or Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait or harboring weapons of mass destruction—these things cause war. It is a simple fact, regardless of our political views, that we would not be at war in Iraq today if Hussein had disarmed.

But why does God allow it? Our Creator has given us freedom of will, so we have the capacity to choose to love him and live by his word. And so he must allow us the capacity to choose to reject him and refuse his word. The consequences of such misused freedom are not God’s fault but ours.

But still, why does he allow such consequences? Here’s one reason: to use human crisis for spiritual purposes.

If a person escapes adolescence without faith in Christ, he typically does not turn to the Lord unless he needs him. Unless there’s a divorce, or illness, or job loss, or crisis. Unless there’s a war. During the Civil War, for instance, as many as 300,000 soldiers came to faith in Christ.

Already we’re hearing such stories from Iraq. Servicemen and women turning to faith in Jesus, sharing their faith in Jesus, standing for Jesus. In the contemporary service I showed the picture of Pfc. David Kurns, one of eight members of the 3rd Infantry Division who were baptized north of Kuwait City on March 12. They made a hole in the desert, filled it with bottled water, and used it to tell the world they trust in Jesus.

How can we redeem this crisis, this suffering, this tragedy for spiritual and eternal good? As we meet Mary Magdalene, the first to tell the world about Jesus’ resurrection, we must ask: how can we do for Jesus what Mary did for him?

We’re unqualified

So, we have today a message about personal ministry and evangelism. But we aren’t all pleased with the topic.We know the need is great: 100,000 living within three miles of our church who are not in any worship service this morning.

And we know people personally who need Jesus. Think of someone you know who is spiritually lost. Why have you not told that person about Jesus? I bet I know some of the reasons. I face them myself. So did Mary.

First: you’re unqualified. You don’t have the education, the training, the ability, the calling.

You wouldn’t see a heart attack victim in a hospital and think you could perform heart surgery unless you were qualified; you wouldn’t hear that a friend has cancer and administer radiation unless you were trained.

It’s the same with souls as bodies, isn’t it? Spiritual surgery is for spiritual surgeons. They might ask a question you can’t answer, or you might not do this properly. Best to leave evangelism and ministry to the professionals.

Well, meet one such “professional,” the first evangelist for the risen Christ. Here are her qualifications:

She’s a woman, of course. And women had no social status whatever. A female was the possession of her father until she became the possession of her husband. Making things worse, she was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, so she’s a Galilean. A backwoods country bumpkin in the eyes of sophisticated society. She fails socially. But things get worse.

Mary sees the same miracle as John: the grave clothes intact and folded. But she doesn’t “see and believe.” She misses the point. She has no formal education or biblical background, and so she doesn’t put the scriptures together. She fails intellectually. But things get worse still.

Luke’s Gospel gives us the only reference to Mary from Magdala before Jesus’ crucifixion when it describes her as one “from whom seven demons had come out” (Luke 8:2). A demoniac when Jesus met her.

Imagine this: a person of inferior social rank and status, with no theological training or educational background, and a former demoniac at that—the first person given responsibility for Easter. No one could be less qualified.

Unless, that is, it’s Simon Peter, the leader of the apostles who slept through Jesus’ Garden temptations, denied him three times to servants, and fled from the cross. Or perhaps Saul of Tarsus, the enraged Pharisee who murdered Christians.

Or perhaps Augustine, the immoral adulterer; or Martin Luther, the confused and troubled monk; or John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, the English outlaws who started the church called Baptist; or William Carey, the shoe cobbler shouted down by the ministerial alliance to whom he appealed for missions support; or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German prisoner of war “silenced” by the Gestapo.

No one is less qualified than Mary, unless it’s me, a convert to Christ out of a bus ministry in Houston. Or you.

We’re unmotivated

Sometimes we’re afraid to tell the world about the risen Christ, because we don’t feel qualified. And sometimes we’re just not motivated. We don’t want to pay the price.

We’re afraid of failing, or of being rejected. We’re afraid of offending the person with whom we share our faith.

Or we’re not convinced that this is really necessary. After all, our friends believe in God. They live moral lives. A loving Father wouldn’t send his children to hell—that’s just a tactic to scare people into the church. It doesn’t really matter what they believe, so long as they’re sincere. Actor Adrien Brody said it well at the Oscars: whether you believe in God or Allah, may he watch over you.

Or we’re not convinced that Christianity is really true. It’s true for us but it may not be for everyone. After all, there are lots of unanswered questions about this faith. What about contradictions in the Bible? What about science and faith issues? And what about evil and suffering—why would an all-good, all-powerful allow such evil as 9-11? Why would he allow my father’s heart disease, or your child’s cancer?

Good questions, all. Problems for anyone who is thinking of sharing Christ with someone they know. But let’s watch Mary Magdalene.

She is weeping at the empty tomb, because her Master is dead and now his body is stolen. The angels see her tears, as does the risen Lord. When she hears him call her name, she knows instantly who he is.

She clings to his crucified feet, so that he must say to her, “Do not hold on to me.” He has not yet returned to the Father—they have more time together. Instead, “Go to my brothers and tell them….” (v. 17). And she did.

When Mary encountered her living Lord, really met Jesus, heard his voice and saw his face and felt his touch, every objection melted away. Every roadblock, every hindrance is gone: “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!'” (v. 18a).

She knows she cannot fail. No matter what they will say to her, no matter how they will reject or ridicule her, she’s no longer afraid. Success is obedience.

She knows they really need to know. If Jesus is truly resurrected, he’s different from Mohammad, or Buddha, or Confucius. He is the only Lord and God. Jesus is alive, and the world must know.

And she knows that Christianity is really true. There are intellectual, rational, speculative questions of logic, to be sure. Christianity is a relationship, and no relationship can be understood, much less proven, on rational grounds. Prove that your wife or husband loves you. Prove that your friends are really your friends. It’s not that seeing is believing—believing is seeing. She has seen Jesus, and her intellectual issues take second place to her personal experience.

Mary has met the risen Christ for herself, and knows Easter to be real. John Updike captures the moment:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,

the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable,

a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

She did. And she found the risen, living Lord Jesus. So can we.

Here’s the bottom line: when we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must love our neighbor as ourselves. When we’re in love, we must tell the news. When we’re engaged, or married, or have a child, everyone we know hears the story. We can’t help it.

Tillie Burgin is the founder of Mission Arlington and one of my heroes in the faith. This retired missionary to Korea began a ministry some 20 years ago to reach Arlington by meeting its needs with Jesus’ love. More than 3,000 worship every Sunday in hundreds of apartment churches and have their needs met through medical clinics, furniture and benevolence centers, and dozens of ministries. Tillie works from 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day. Her son once asked her why. Tears filled her eyes as she said simply, “I just love him so much.”

We’re unprepared

We’re not qualified, but God makes us so. If we love Jesus, we will want to tell others about him. But what do we say? Don’t we feel unprepared for ministry and evangelism?

Jesus says to Mary: “Go instead to my brothers.” Go—don’t wait for them to find you. Go to “my brothers”—this is the first time Jesus calls them that. They failed and abandoned him, but he still loves them as brothers. Tell them that Jesus loves them.

Tell them that the Father loves them as well: his Father is their Father, his God their God. Tell them about his grace and mercy, his unconditional love. Tell them.

And she did. And after she gave them the word of the Lord, the Lord of the word appeared (vs. 19ff.). He validated all she said with his own presence and power. From Mary Magdalene to this small band of disciples the news of Easter has gone to every land, bringing billions of souls to Christ. And every one of us can trace our spiritual life back to her.


Now, who will trace theirs to you? The “Impact” card we are using during this Easter season gives each of us opportunity to do for someone else what someone did for us. To be Mary, as someone was Mary to us. They receive eternal life with God in his paradise. And we experience the joy, satisfaction, significance and fulfillment which God can only give to those who will share such love with another.

We have the best news there is. Better than peace in Iraq, glorious as that would be; better than a cure for Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, needed as that is; better than a solution to AIDS and cancer and heart disease, crime and violence and war, vital as they are. We have the cure for death itself. We have the security of eternal life to offer, if only we will.

Said the poet:

Now is the shining fabric of our day

Torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.

Never again the tight, enclosing sky,

The blue bowl or the star-illumined tent.

We are laid open to infinity,

For Easter love has burst His tomb and ours.

Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire—

Not flesh, not sky, not stars, not even sin.

Now glory waits so He can enter in.

Now does the dance begin.